July 22, 2019, 09:59:41 pm


Change is coming. HOPE CHANGE UNITY

Super Mario Bros. 8: Advent of the Armageddon (Chapter 20: The Awakening)

Started by shadowmarioguy, June 11, 2010, 03:10:13 pm

Previous topic - Next topic

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.


Chapter 13: Counterstrike

Looking Forward

Now that they were sufficiently hidden from the Lord Shade clones, Princess Peach, Luigi, Luke, the Master, Lorne, and Donkey Kong stopped to mourn their fallen allies.  They had taken shelter by escaping into the sewers via a warp pipe near Bowser's Castle.  The rumbling that could be heard overhead only moments ago finally ceased.  The battle was over.

Peach's face was buried in her hands, and the floor was soaked with her tears.  "They're all gone..."

"First it was Jinx and Mark.  Now Waluigi, Bowser, and the entire Koopa Troop have fallen," the Master observed grimly.  "The six of us, along with any other civilians that managed to escape to safety, are the only remaining survivors."

Luigi wept the tears from his cheeks and stood up.  "We don't have any more time to waste.  Unless we think of something soon, Crimson's going to find us.  These sewers will keep us safe for the time being, but hiding won't help us defeat Crimson."

"Before we can do anything, we'll need supplies," Lorne informed them.  "In addition to food and water, we'll also need recovery items such as Mushrooms in case we are injured in battle.  We can't afford to have any more casualties."

"There's an item shop in Toad Town," Luke recalled half-heartedly.  "But Toad Town is probably overrun with Shade clones, considering how close it is to Mushroom Castle."

Luigi's face lit up.  "That's true, but there's a pipe in Toad Town that's connected to these sewers.  If we quickly dart into the shop and then back down here, we could probably avoid detection.  I know all of the passageways down here by heart, so I can lead the way."

Donkey Kong sighed.  "We don't have much else to work with, so why not?"

Meanwhile, a chilling wind blew across the Mushroom Kingdom.  Hundreds of Shade clones stoically marched across the land, bringing nothing but death to all who crossed them.  One such victim laid on his back, his chest covered in dry blood.  His body was cold and numb, and the life seemed to be drained from his body.  However, a faint pulse still surged within him.  As his eyelids slowly fluttered open, the survivor could see nothing but the gloomy, gray sky.  The temperature was dropping, and soon, winter would arrive.  Unable to move, he simply sighed as his eyelids slowly closed once again.

"Here we are," Luigi announced proudly.  "This pipe should lead us straight to Toad Town.  Let's test it out to make sure it still works."  He eagerly dove into the pipe, causing the classic warp pipe sound to echo through the sewers.  A few seconds later, however, the pipe spat him back out and onto the floor.  "It rejected me..."

"Crimson...  He probably disabled the pipe," Lorne stated, angered by his former leader's brilliance.  "We can't underestimate him."

"It was actually one of Crimson's soldiers," a voice echoed from nearby.  Moments later, a group of six Toads emerged from the shadows nearby.  "After hearing Crimson's broadcast, most of the kingdom's citizens rushed into the nearest warp pipe in an attempt to take refuge in the sewers.  During our escape, a Shade clone began to pursue us.  Just as we got away, the clone fired at us and destroyed the other end of the pipe.  We managed to flee, but this pipe has been rendered useless."

"So most of you survived?" Peach inquired gleefully.  "Thank goodness!"

"Yes, we've set up a semblance of a village down here," one of the Toads replied.  "It's nothing special, but at least we're safe."

"For now," the Master grumbled cynically.

"In that case, all we have to do is use another pipe.  If anyone wants to go look for some supplies, I can lead them to the pipe that's connected to my house," Luigi offered.

"I'll go," Donkey Kong volunteered.  "I was originally one of the Four Comrades.  I should be able to enter Toad Town without raising suspicion.  Meanwhile, the rest of you should follow these Toads to their makeshift village.  Feel free to take a break, but don't get too comfortable.  We have to make our move quickly, or Crimson will find us."

Luigi nodded.  "Let's go."

Luigi and DK said their temporary goodbyes and departed from the group.  Donkey Kong groaned, feeling overwhelmed by the vastness of the maze-like sewers.  Despite DK's confusion, Luigi expertly led them through without turning back once.  His experience as a plumber had clearly paid off.

"So, Donkey Kong, you worked under Crimson for a short time.  What do you think about our chances of surviving this catastrophe?" Luigi inquired as they jogged through the labyrinth of pipes.

"Frankly, I never really saw Crimson in action," DK replied.  "But I know that he must be tough to be able to control such powerful underlings.  Unless Mario has something up his sleeve, our chances of victory are slim.  However, there is one thing that I'm certain of.  As long as Lord Shade clones continue to be produced, we won't even get close to Crimson.  Smithy was one of the Four Comrades, so I know that he's the one responsible for manufacturing the clones.  He has likely set up some sort of factory within Mushroom Castle.  It is inside this factory that you must find a way to stop the production of the clones and destroy Smithy."

Suddenly, Luigi and DK stopped in front of a tall, green pipe.  "Here it is," Luigi declared.  "Thanks for all the information.  Are you sure you want to go alone?"

Donkey Kong nodded.  "If Crimson or one of the clones saw you with me, it would only arouse suspicion.  As long as I am alone, they will think that I am still on their side.  You need to focus on informing your allies about Smithy's factory.  From there, you'll have to coordinate a plan to invade Mushroom Castle and defeat Crimson once and for all."

Luigi waved goodbye.  "Good luck."

"Likewise."  The ape vanished into the pipe, prepared to journey to Toad Town in search of recovery items for the kingdom's few remaining heroes.

"I see...  You've managed to set up your own little village down here, haven't you?" Peach inquired cheerfully.  "I'm glad that there are so many survivors."

"After all the times Bowser has invaded, we've gotten used to cowering into the sewers," a Toad explained.

"There's quite a few of you," the Master observed, referring to the crowd of Toads, Koopas, and Goombas that surrounded them.  "You should all be safe for now.  However, we won't be able to hide down here forever."

"Crimson is probably looking for us as we speak," Lorne informed them.  "You can't escape from him so easily.  He'll attack us eventually, so we might as well be the first ones to strike.  The only question is, how do we approach this situation?  He has hundreds of Lord Shade clones at his disposal, and our numbers are beginning to dwindle."

"I've got it covered," Luigi announced with a grin as he emerged from a nearby pipe.  "Donkey Kong gave me some useful tips before he left.  Smithy is the one in charge of creating the Shade clones, and he has set up a factory somewhere inside of Mushroom Castle.  If we want to get to Crimson, we'll need to shut the factory down first.  From there, we might even be able to eliminate the currently active clones."

"It makes sense, I suppose," Lorne mused.  "Controlling an army of Lord Shades does sound a bit risky.  Smithy likely has a deactivation switch just in case the clones decide to revolt."

"If that is the case, we must locate this factory at once," the Master urged them.  "The longer we wait, the more clones we'll have to deal with on the way there.  If I'm not mistaken, there should be a pipe that leads directly to the basement of Mushroom Castle."

Peach nodded.  "It's protected with a security password, though, so I'll have to come along."

Luke's eyes lit up.  "We still might have a chance!  With Uncle Luigi, Lorne, the Master, and me, we shouldn't have any trouble defeating Smithy."

"Actually, I have no intentions of engaging in a fight with Smithy," Lorne refused.  "I'd like to have a discussion with Crimson.  I'm sure he'll allow it, considering I used to work for him.  If I speak persuasively enough, perhaps Crimson will leave this kingdom alone.  It's worth a try."

The Master nodded.  "That's not a bad idea.  It would be ideal if we could end this battle in a civilized, peaceful manner.  If you have strong ties with Crimson, you just might be able to save this kingdom from peril."

"Alright, then, it's settled.  We're going to Mushroom Castle!" Luigi declared excitedly.  "I'll lead the way to the pipe."

Invaded Mushroom Castle

"Alright, we're finally here," Luigi sighed as he leapt out from a pink pipe in the basement of Mushroom Castle.  "Why are the villains that attack this kingdom always too lazy to build their own castle?"

"Crimson has no interest in owning a castle.  He likely chose this location because it is a landmark that is easy for potential challengers to find.  He doesn't want to confuse the person that he is searching for.  Another possibility is that he is intrigued by the arena that was built in Mario's honor," Lorne explained.  "He's looking for the strongest heroes this kingdom has to offer, and he wants to meet with them as quickly as possible.  Notice how the castle's décor hasn't changed to match Crimson's personal taste.  This is because such details are negligible when compared to Crimson's search for a worthy adversary."

"Well, hopefully we can satisfy his hunger for a challenge," the Master muttered.  "Anyway, this place seems to be empty.  We should memorize this location and return here if we encounter any trouble.  After all, there's a pipe if we want to hide in the sewers, and the area appears to be free from the surveillance of Shade clones.  It's perfect."

"Now that we're inside, Peach should go back underground," Luigi suggested.  "... Uh... Peach?"

The other four turned to see Peach lying against the wall, her face as white as a ghost.  "I'm feeling a bit... queasy..."

"Maybe I should take her back to that underground village," Luigi volunteered.  "She doesn't look so good."  He put his hand against her forehead.  "She has a fever.  What could be wrong with her?"

"It was probably her exposure to the sewer air," the Master deduced.  "Her highness isn't used to living under such murky conditions.  Luigi, you should see if there is a doctor among the survivors that we met with before."

Luigi clicked his tongue.  "No good.  The pipe seems to be sealed shut.  Crimson must have modified it so that it would close whenever someone entered, trapping any possible intruders inside.  If that's the case, I'll stay here and watch over Peach.  Meanwhile, Lorne will try to reason with Crimson, and the Master and Luke will take on Smithy."

Crimson's Theme

"Sir Crimson, the Koopa King's castle has been occupied by our troops," a Lord Shade clone explained, kneeling before his master.  "The majority of Bowser's minions were destroyed, but the only other death we can confirm is Waluigi's.  Bowser seems to have escaped, and Mario's other friends are nowhere to be found."

"Interesting...  The Shade clones have occupied nearly every town in the entire kingdom, and yet you still cannot find them.  They may be hiding underground, but I think it's even more likely that they are hiding right under our noses," Crimson hypothesized.  "I received a signal from the pipe in the castle's basement.  None of us know the password to activate the pipe from underground, so it must have been one of Mario's friends.  I bet they weren't expecting the pipe to close on them, and with such a massive number of Shade clones guarding the castle's interior, it won't be long before they're caught."

"Do you really think they've managed to infiltrate the castle, sir?"

"I hope so.  I'm beginning to grow impatient for my first challenger to arrive."  Crimson's voice was dripping with eagerness.  After so many years, it will finally begin.  My challenger will soon arrive, and I will finally discover the answers that I am searching for.

"Do you really think it was a good idea to split up the group?" Luke inquired as he jogged alongside the Master through the castle's interior.  "I mean, can the two of us beat Smithy on our own?"

"Lorne wants to speak with Crimson about ending this battle peacefully, and Luigi is responsible for guarding the princess.  We could wait for Lorne to return and for her highness to recover, but we'll only manage to waste precious time.  The longer we wait, the more time Smithy will have to manufacture Shade clones.  Also, Princess Peach and Luigi are safe in the castle's basement for now, but who knows how long it'll be before they are discovered.  And Lorne may never return at all, considering he'll be face to face with the man behind this kingdom's suffering.  All we can do is be strong, and hope that everything will work out.  We can't afford to falter now, during this kingdom's darkest hour."

"I know, but it's hard to concentrate without knowing how everyone else is doing.  I'm worried about my brother, too.  I want to believe that he's still alive, but how can I be sure...?"

"Mark is a strong young man," the Master replied with certainty.  "I don't think that his determination would allow him to die just yet."

The two of them stopped in front of a colossal set of steel double doors.  From behind these doors, both of them could hear various assortments of mechanical beeps and whirrs.  Luke looked at his master, who nodded in approval.  The young plumber gulped before grabbing hold of the left door.  The Master pressed his palms against the right one, and the two of them pushed open the doors that led inside of Smithy's factory.

"This is it," Luke gasped in amazement.  He gawked at the array of flashing lights that were located above a long conveyor belt.  This belt carried clumps of metal from the far side of the room, passing under various mechanical devices that shaped them along the way.  When these clumps of metal finally reached the other end of the conveyor belt, they appeared identical to the Shade clones that Luke and the Master had seen previously.

"We need to find a way to shut this place down," the Master muttered.  "But how?  There must be some sort of deactivation switch.  It'll take some time to find it, so we had better start looking."

"Uhh...  Are you sure that the clones that are being manufactured won't try to stop us?" Luke inquired nervously.

"It appears that the clones in this room do not yet have consciousness.  The conveyor belt appears to be taking them to another part of the factory," the Master obsvered.

"Very perceptive," a voice chuckled from behind them.  "I heard a rumor that the pipe in the castle's basement had been used by outsiders, but I never thought the intruders would be an old man and a child.  How... disappointing."

Smithy Battle

"You...  You're the one that killed Wario, aren't you?!" Luke recalled angrily.  "I've got a bone to pick with you."

"We can't allow ourselves to be distracted.  We have to find a way to deactivate the Lord Shade clones," the Master instructed his pupil.  "Understand?"

Instead of responding, Luke sprinted directly at Smithy.  Without hesitation, he hurled a green Fireball at the sinister robot, causing him to be enveloped in smoke.  When the dust settled, Smithy appeared completely unscathed.  "You think those puny attacks can put a dent in my body?"  Smithy paused and scanned his surroundings.  "Wait... where'd he go?"

"As a matter of fact, I do," Luke retorted as he descended from out of seemingly nowhere.  His fist glowing with the power of a charged Fireball, Luke landed a right hook directly across Smithy's face.  "How'd that feel?"

"Not bad," Smithy commended him as he rubbed the dent in his face.  "But that was just a lucky hit."  He swung his hammer downward at his nearby opponent, but Luke was able to dive out of the way just in time.  Luke swiftly rolled around to Smithy's backside and lunged at him with another punch.  However, Smithy whirled around and blocked the plumber's fist with his hammer.  Smithy then jerked his hammer forward, knocking Luke off balance and sending him staggering backwards.  The sinister cyborg raised his hammer above his head and hurled it downward at his prey.

Luke narrowly avoided the attack, but was unable to defend against Smithy's next thrust.  He yelped in agony as the hammer struck his body in midair, knocking him onto the floor with a thud.  He slowly rose to his feet, his body quaking in anguish.  Smithy lunged at him once again, preparing to end his life with one final swing of his hammer.  Time seemed to move in slow motion as the hammer's collision with the floor caused the entire room to shake.  Smithy grinned wickedly, lifting his hammer from the ground to admire his handiwork.  His eyes widened.

"Looking for someone?" the Master taunted, standing atop Smithy's hammer with Luke kneeling beside him.

Smithy howled in frustration as he pointed his free hand at the duo.  Holes opened up at the ends of his fingertips, and he began to unleash a barrage of bullets at the Master and Luke.  The two of them separated, circling around Smithy from opposite directions.  Smithy focused his bullets on the Master, who skillfully weaved back and forth in order to dodge them.  At the same time, Luke managed to get close to Smithy.  He leapt into the air to deal a blow to the robot's face, but Smithy quickly turned his attention to Luke and swung his hammer at him.  Luke nimbly performed a midair back flip, successfully dodging Smithy's attack.  Meanwhile, the Master managed to catch Smithy off guard and dealt devastating combo of punches and kicks.  He ended the assault with a fierce right hook to Smithy's jaw, knocking him onto the floor.

"Those pistols embedded in your fingertips allow you to attack from long distances, and that hammer can be used when your enemy gets too close," the Master observed.  "However, since it takes two hands to wield that heavy hammer, you cannot use both of your weapons at once.  In other words, you aren't suited for fighting more than one opponent at a time.  You can't keep up."

"Yes, you two are quite troublesome when you work together," Smithy agreed as he rose to his feet.  "As I am now, I will not be able to fend you off.  I'll just have to show you my true form."

Smithy's Second Form

"True form?" Luke parroted in fear.  "What do you mean?"

"Heh...  This is only the beginning.  Few people have witnessed this transformation.  And your father is one of them," Smithy chuckled as he began to smash his hammer against his own head, slowly sculpting it into a new form.  In seconds, his white facial hair vanished entirely, and his face became wider and block-like.

"What's so special about this form?" the Master inquired.  "You've lost your beard and changed the shape of your head."

"Watch, and you'll see," Smithy assured him.  Once again, he began to sculpt his own head with his hammer.  This time, his head gradually changed into the shape of a tank.  "I can alter my abilities by sculpting my head into different shapes.  Want to know what this form lets me do?"  Instead of waiting for a response, he aimed the turret attached to his head at his two opponents and fired, causing the entire room to quake.

When the smoke finally cleared, Luke and the Master were lying against the far wall, their bodies covered in ash.  They struggled to their feet, breathing heavily.  "He can turn his head into a tank?" Luke inquired in disbelief.  "How do we fight against someone like that?"

"There's more where that came from," Smithy boasted as he began to sculpt his head once again.  This time, it transformed into a treasure chest with a question mark on it.  "Remember those Lord Shade clones you hate so much?  In this form, I can create similar clones in mere seconds."  He smashed his hammer against the ground, and in a puff of smoke, three Lord Shade clones materialized before them.

"I think we're screwed," Luke said with a gulp.

"These clones might be a problem, but I don't think that they're as strong as the ones we encountered before.  Why would Smithy bother to manufacture them in a factory if he could create them in this form?  Creating clones must consume his energy, so we won't have to worry about him creating an infinite amount of Shades," the Master deduced.  "I'll fend off the clones while trying to search for a deactivation switch.  Meanwhile, you'll have to take on Smithy.  He isn't invincible."

"Why do I get the feeling that you're using this as an excuse to train me?" Luke grumbled as the Master charged at the trio of clones.

"You've seen two of my powers so far.  You'll love this next one," Smithy informed Luke sarcastically.  After remodeling his head once again, his face was covered by a silver cloak as two hands extended from the sides of his head.  The crackling of thunder could be heard above, and lightning bolts soon began to fire from the ceiling.  Luke frantically ducked, dove, and leapt past dozens of bolts, but Smithy soon decided to interfere.  As the plumber struggled to dodge Smithy's lightning bolts, the war machine swung his hammer at him.  Luke barely managed to leap to the side, but as a result, he was struck by a thunder bolt in midair.

"Dad... Mark... where are you...?" Luke muttered as his body began to grow numb.

"Luke!" the Master screamed, attempting to break free from the Shade clones' grasp.  They had him outnumbered, and all of the might in his body would not be enough to overpower them.  He could only watch helplessly as Smithy prepared to end his pupil's life.  He closed his eyes, grimacing as the room was shaken by Smithy's hammer.  He slowly opened his eyes and gasped.

"Did you miss me?" Mark inquired, standing beside his younger brother at the opposite end of the room.


Been having some problems with my laptop that has a barely expired warranty.  In about an hour, though, they'll be a new chapter and a link in the first post leading to a place where you can read or download previous parts of the series.


Chapter 14: Lorne's Mutiny

Smithy's Second Form

"Mark... you're alive...?" Luke inquired as his brother lifted him onto his feet.  "Where were you...?"

"I'll explain everything later," Mark replied.  "For now, we've got a job to do.  Help the Master find the deactivation switch while I deal with this freak."

Luke nodded.  "Don't do anything reckless, okay?"  With that, he sprinted over to his master to help free him from the trio of Lord Shade clones.  "Now that Mark's here, we can focus on finding a way to get rid of these clones."

"I had a feeling he was still alive," the Master whispered in astonishment.  "Everyone in the Mario family seems to share a single distinctive trait: the ability to stay alive even after enduring injuries that would kill most ordinary humans.  Even after all of the times this kingdom has faced peril, you're all still standing..."

Meanwhile, Mark began to slowly approach his father's former adversary.  The two of them were locked in a standoff.  "So, why'd you lose the beard?" Mark commented, his voice dripping with sarcasm.  "Before you looked like Santa Claus.  Now you just look like a toaster."

"You know, your father said something very similar when he fought against this form," Smithy recalled.  "Mario's family really is filled with arrogant fools."

"But my dad still defeated you, didn't he?" Mark inquired with a wry grin.

Enraged, Smithy broke the stalemate and began to sculpt his head into the shape of a tank.  He hurriedly fired a blast at the location Mark had just stood in, but soon realized that the young plumber was no longer there.  "He's fast..."  He scanned the room for his opponent, but the smoke that had formed as a result of Smithy's misfire made it difficult to see.

I've gotta wait for him to switch to the right head, Mark thought.  It's probably the only way for me to take him down in a one-on-one fight.

Smithy, growing impatient, fired a blast in a random direction, hoping to hit Mark.  The shot missed and only caused his vision to be obscured by even more smoke.  "Perhaps this isn't the proper head for me to use..."  He modified his head once again, covering his face with a silver cloak that had two hands protruding from it.  "I'll just shower the entire room with lightning!"  The room quivered as every inch of the area within Smithy's range was pelted by dozens of thunder bolts.  The smoke finally cleared, and Mark was nowhere to be found.

"Foolish child!" Smithy cackled with glee.  "That didn't take long at all."  After briefly celebrating his apparent victory, Smithy's head morphed back into its standard form.  "Now, where are those other two?"

Mark breathed a sigh of relief, having hid behind a conveyor belt far beyond Smithy's reach.  This is my chance.  He leapt out from his hiding place and dashed at the sinister robot from behind.  His right fist glowing blue with the Element of Ice, Mark lunged at Smithy and delivered a chilling punch.  "Correct me if I'm wrong, but it looks like you just lost to another member of the Mario family."

"What are you talking about?" Smithy snickered, only a few parts of his body covered in ice.  "Did you think that you could just freeze me?"

"Take a look at your hammer."

Smithy complied, and gasped as he realized that his hammer had been frozen in a prism of solid ice.  "You... You never meant to freeze me!"

Mark grinned.  "I watched part of your fight with my little brother before I intervened, and I noticed how difficult it would be to battle someone so unpredictable.  There was no way of knowing how many different forms you had or how far you could push your abilities.  That's when it hit me.  You were only able to transform because of that hammer, and now that it's frozen in a block of solid ice, you're stuck in that form.  All I had to do was wait until you changed into a form that wasn't a threat to me, like this one."

"But where did you get this ability?  Mario was never able to wield ice against me!" Smithy roared in confusion.

"We've all been through some changes over the years," Mark explained with a grin. "While he was preparing to battle Lord Shade, my father obtained the Iceball and Thunderball abilities.  My Final Smash allows me to borrow some of his moves, and although I haven't quite mastered them all, this little trick was enough to beat you."  His fist began to emit electrical sparks as he planned to finish the job.

Smithy aimed his free hand at his approaching foe.  "Don't come any closer!  I've still got these pistols embedded in my fingertips!"

"Oh, did I forget to mention that I froze them shut?" Mark inquired sardonically.  "Face it; you've lost.  Plus, the hammer is frozen to your hand, making it nearly impossible for you to move with all of that extra weight.  And in this form, you don't have any flame-based attacks to melt the ice with."

"Damn... you..." Smithy grumbled as Mark laid his palm on the robot's forehead.  "Mario... Curse you... and your family..."

"I'm not as soft as my father," Mark informed him as he unleashed a powerful Thunderball from his palm, brutally shocking Smithy.  "Sorry, but I can't afford to let you live."

His body beginning to fall apart, Smithy could only mutter a few last words.  "Crimson will... finish the job...  Everyone... that Mario holds dear... will be eradicated..."  At last, the robot's body exploded into hundreds of mechanical pieces.  This time, he was gone for good.

"He would've been pretty tough if I didn't limit his abilities like that," Mark muttered to himself.  "He was just one of Crimson's lackeys.  I wonder if we even stand a chance against Crimson..."

Calm Heart

"How'd it go?" the Master inquired as he and Luke emerged from around the corner.

Mark gestured at the pile of rubble that was once Smithy.  "Not bad.  Did you find a way to shut the clones down?"

Luke nodded.  "Those Shade clones nearly had us, but we found the deactivation switch at the last moment.  Not only did it prevent more clones from being produced, but it also destroyed the majority of the clones that already existed, including the ones we were fighting."

"The computer told us that ninety six percent of the clones had been successfully deactivated.  I suppose a few of them were too far away for the main computer to have an effect on them," the Master pondered.  "Regardless, defeating a dozen or so Shade clones will be much easier than fighting against hundreds of them.  When Mario returns, we'll be able to make short work of them."

"That's not the problem, though," Mark said with a frown.  "Smithy is gone, Donkey Kong has returned to our side, and the Lord Shade clones have almost been entirely eradicated.  That only leaves Crimson and Enzo."

"When I saw Lorne fight him, Enzo didn't seem to be too powerful.  I'm sure he won't be too much trouble," Luke recalled.  "At this point, our only major threat is Crimson."

"By the way, how did you manage to survive?" the Master inquired.  "I could have sworn that one of the Lord Shade clones told us that you were dead."

"Yeah, one of 'em almost managed to kill me.  I was completely worn out after my fight with Jinx, so I didn't stand a chance.  The Shade clone stabbed me in the chest and left me to die.  I struggled to stay alive for as long as I could, but after it began to grow dark and cold outside, I knew that my life would soon be over.  That's when Donkey Kong found me on his way back from Toad Town.  He explained everything that had happened while I was away, and how he had ventured into Toad Town to gather some supplies.  Unfortunately, he had only managed to find two Max Mushrooms.  After feeding me one, he told me that he would return to the jungle.  He had witnessed the power of Crimson and his underlings firsthand, and decided that it would be best for him to stay out of this battle.  He told me to hold on to his last Max Mushroom before saying goodbye.  After that, I followed his instructions and ventured after you."

"At least Donkey Kong was able to come through for us.  It's unfortunate that all we have left is a single Max Mushroom," the Master sighed.  "Well, we won't accomplish anything by standing around.  If you boys want to turn back, now's the time to speak up.  I have a bad feeling about Luigi and the princess, so I'll be going back to check on them.  If you two want to come with me..."

Mark shook his head.  "My father entrusted me with his duty as the Mushroom Hero.  There's no way I could back down now."

Luke nodded in agreement.  "And he told me to always watch my older brother's back.  We're gonna fight Crimson as a team, just like Dad and Uncle Luigi would."

"I understand.  Good luck to the both of you."  The Master turned and jogged in the opposite direction.  As he dashed down the silent corridor, a pair of eyes watched him intently.

"Is he the one responsible for all of this commotion?  No...  There must be more than one of them.  I'll just let him lead me to his comrades."  Enzo grinned.  "Soon, I will finally be able to eliminate Mario's few remaining loved ones.  And once he returns to his beloved kingdom, he will find that everyone he has ever cared for has been reduced to nothing but dust."

Cursed Memory

"Retreat?  Lorne, I thought you knew me better than that," Crimson muttered in disappointment.  "I've waited nearly three decades to find a suitable opponent for the Armageddon.  First you betrayed me, and now you expect me to leave this kingdom peacefully for the sake of your new friends?"

Lorne nodded firmly.  "Forgive me, Sir Crimson.  You've had such a large impact on my life...  You're the reason why I've become so strong...  You helped me escape from a life of slavery, but...  Mario has helped me realize that I didn't want to become an assassin.  I never wanted to murder others for my own selfish gains.  I've found that the only time I can ever really justify killing someone... is when it's to ensure my own survival."

"Fighting to survive, huh?" Crimson parroted.  "You say that you're walking your own path, but what have you found so far?  Let me guess: a life of emptiness and mediocrity, right?  Killing others merely for the sake of survival...  It's primitive, Lorne.  You're no different than a peasant, dying on the roadside.  You only live to survive; your life has no luxuries.  Think back to when you worked under me.  You had money, freedom, and power, but you threw it all away."

"I had luxuries, but I was unhappy," Lorne replied simply.

"Happiness.  That's why you abandoned me?  Well then, can you honestly tell me that you've found happiness here in this kingdom?  You look just as unhappy as when you were an assassin.  In fact, you seem even more depressed.  Do you know why?  Now you carry the burden of guilt.  You're torn between two people that have drastically impacted your life: Mario... and me.  And no matter what side you may choose, that guilt will still remain within you."  He drew his sword.  "That's why... I'm going to end your life, Lorne.  That way, you won't have to feel guilty any longer."

The Invincible Crimson

"I had a feeling it would come to this," Lorne muttered as he drew his own blade.  "I've got no choice.  I can't show any mercy, even to you, Crimson."

A smile spread across Crimson's face as he placed his right palm on his veil.  "I expected nothing less.  Hmm...  I think fifty percent will be more than enough."  His palm began to emit a purple glow, and Crimson's veil became slightly transparent.  "There we go...  I've unsealed fifty percent of the darkness dwelling within me."  A terrible feeling of bloodlust began to fill the air as a crimson aura swirled around the villain's body.

Lorne gritted his teeth.  I've never actually seen Crimson fight before.  I had better be careful.  His thought process was interrupted as he lost sight of his former master.  He glanced upward and dove to the right, noticing Crimson lunging at him from above at the last second.  He felt a gust of wind rush past him as Crimson's blade sunk into the spot that he had just stood in.  Not wasting any time, Crimson yanked his sword from the floor and began to duel with his ex-underling.

"Not bad," Crimson commended him as he parried one of Lorne's sword swings.  "I always knew that you were skilled, but I never suspected that you had this degree of talent."

Sparks flew into the air, and metal clangs echoed throughout the empty corridor.  Lorne knocked one of his foe's slashes to the side and lunged forward.  Calm and cool, Crimson swiftly elbowed Lorne in the face, abruptly bringing his attack to a halt.  Crimson pursued with a vertical slash, but his former minion quickly dodged it with a back flip.  Lorne regained his balance and rushed forward.  The two blades clashed once again.  It was a stalemate.

"I've been pretty generous so far," Crimson chuckled arrogantly.  "I've only been attacking you with my sword.  Now it's time for me to try a little harder."

As the two warriors' swords were still pressed together, Crimson brought his free hand forward and unleashed a blast of electricity from his palm.  Lorne howled in agony as he soared backward, dropping his blade in midair and eventually colliding with a stone wall.  As Lorne slowly lifted himself off of the ground, he realized that his blade was on the far side of the room.  Standing between him and his weapon was a bloodthirsty Crimson.  He attempted to stand up, but soon discovered that he was stuck in a kneeling position with one of his palms pressed against the floor.  "Why... can't I move?"

"That blast I struck you with has a temporary paralyzing effect.  Don't worry; it'll wear off in about thirty seconds," Crimson explained smugly.  "After that, you'll be free to move.  That is, if you're still alive!"  He raised his dagger above his head and began to sprint toward his former underling.  Lorne remained helpless on his hands and knees, unable to escape from Crimson's next attack.  Just as Crimson's blade was only inches away from Lorne's throat, he stopped dead in his tracks.  Droplets of blood stained the floor.  In the corner of his eye, Crimson spotted a colossal icicle that extended from the wall and into his chest.

Lorne, having regained his mobility, fled to the opposite side of the room and regained possession of his sword.  "You were too careless, Crimson."

"Ingenious," Crimson gasped, tracing a path of ice from the icicle in the wall to the spot that Lorne had just stood in.  "I forgot that you could manipulate ice.  Now that winter is beginning, it must have been easy for you to transmit ice from your palm to the floor.  From there, it traveled up along the wall and formed into a stalagmite, nearly impaling me as I prepared to finish you off."

A chilling wind blew through the room as chunks of ice began to swirl around Lorne's blade.  "It's been six years since I took orders from you.  Since then, you've likely forgotten most of my moves.  Allow me to refresh your memory.  This is the Blizzard Dagger!"  The cool breeze that filled the room began to surround Lorne's sword, creating a miniature snowstorm.  The stoic warrior swung his frosty blade forward, sending an icy shockwave in Crimson's direction.  Next, he sprinted directly at Crimson, preparing to end the battle with a one-two combo.

Crimson gripped his sword tightly as Lorne and his snowy shockwave drew closer.  A wave of ice quickly rushed past his body, freezing him in a thin sheet of ice.  Lorne followed closely behind, prepared to finish off his immobilized foe.  However, just as he was about to deal the final blow, he realized that the battle had already ended.  Blood seeped out from several gashes on his chest, and the warrior fell to his knees.

"Well done, Lorne," Crimson congratulated him as the ice surrounding his body shattered.  "That was the first time in a while that I was able to derive some enjoyment from a fight.  You've managed to increase my expectations for my challenger when the Armageddon arrives."

"When did you... cut me...?" Lorne inquired as he coughed up a mouthful of blood.

"Right after you launched that blizzard attack at me.  I managed to land quite a few slashes on your chest before the ice froze me.  By the time I was immobilized, you were far too injured to deal the final blow," Crimson explained.  "Although, I will admit that I had to reach deeper into my power.  In order to gain the speed I needed to slash you before your attack immobilized me, I needed to use seventy percent of my strength."

"You... keep using... the word 'percent'...  What do... you mean?  Percentage of... what?"

"You don't need to concern yourself with such trivial details," Crimson replied.  "I'll make you a deal: If you can survive until Mario arrives, I'll tell you everything.  In the meantime, you will remain here at all times.  I will not raise my sword against you as long as you do not make any attempts to escape."

Lorne nodded slowly as he collapsed onto the floor.  "But... what do you want... with Mario...?"

"What about my father?" Mark inquired as he and Luke stepped into the room.

Luke gasped.  "Lorne!  What happened to you?!"

Mark glared at Crimson, his body emanating with anger and hatred.  "Why did you do this to him?  He just wanted to talk."

"We're not gonna let you get away with this," Luke added angrily.  "We've already taken care of Smithy and his clones.  You're next."

"Stay back..." Lorne warned them.  "You two... aren't ready for him..."

Mark and Luke stepped forward, ignoring their ally's advice.  Crimson grinned.  Yes...  Two more loved ones for Mario to grieve for.  This is perfect...

"How is the princess?" the Master inquired as he entered the cramped cubicle in which a pipe leading to the sewers was positioned.  Leaning against this pipe was Peach, whose face was sickly and pale.  Luigi stood firmly beside her, prepared to defend her from anyone who might enter their hideaway.

"Not too bad," Luigi replied with uncertainty.  "Whatever she's got, it doesn't seem life-threatening.  But she does look like she's in pain."

"We need to get her to a doctor, and fast," the Master urged him.  "Now that the boys and I have defeated the majority of the Shade clones, the entrance to the castle should be left unguarded.  Now's our chance to bring the princess to safety."

"Boys?" Luigi parroted.  "I thought you and Luke were alone."

The Master grinned.   "Mark arrived to aid us against Smithy.  It turns out that he managed to survive, with a little help from Donkey Kong.  I told the boys to come back here with me, but they insisted on fighting against Crimson.  They'll need our help."

"In that case, you should take Peach somewhere safe.  Any doctors that would normally be in Toad Town are probably down in the sewers.  For now, you should find her a comfy place to recover," Luigi instructed him.  "For now, I'll help the boys with Crimson.  If you feel confident that Peach will be safe on her own, you can come back to help us after you bring her to shelter."

"You're forgetting about someone," a wicked voice echoed from the entrance.  A cruel smirk spread across Enzo's face.  "Did you really think that you could escape?  The traitor and the two brats are up against Crimson, so you might as well consider them dead.  And now that I've finally found the last few stragglers, this little rebellion of yours is over.  Without anyone to oppose him, Crimson will take control of this kingdom for all of eternity."

The Master sighed.  He stepped forward, not surprised in the least by Enzo's appearance.  "What a foolish child.  Do you not understand that Crimson is manipulating you and your desires?  Crimson has no interest in ruling over this kingdom.  He has some sort of personal affair to settle.  He's merely using you as a pawn to further his own goals.  Your desire for vengeance means nothing to him."

"Crimson told me that you'd say something like that," Enzo remarked with a grin.  "I won't fall for your mind games."

"Very well.  I'll have to show you how feeble you are," the Master informed him with an impassive yawn.

"Will he... be okay...?" Peach inquired softly, her voice barely audible.

Luigi nodded.  "Trust me.  He knows what he's doing."

"Will your death result from my blade, or a heart attack?" Enzo taunted as he drew his sword.  Without giving the Master a chance to reply, he lunged at the elder Toad and thrust his sword forward.  Enzo blinked and scanned his surroundings.  "Where'd he go...?"  He glanced upward and saw the Master standing nimbly on the tip of his sword.  "Damn you..."  He sent his fist upward toward his opponent, but the Master was too quick.  His attack missed yet again, and Enzo was left wide open.  The Master capitalized on this opportunity and dealt a crushing blow to his chest.

"Now do you understand?" the Master asked, shaking his head in disappointment.  "Your eyes are too slow.  You need to be able to spot your opponent before he attacks you."

Enzo slowly rose to his feet, clutching his wound as he chuckled to himself.  "I'll admit that I've never been much of a fighter.  When I swore vengeance against Mario, I soon realized that I'd never be able to beat him in a fair fight.  I knew that it would take more than physical strength to take him down, so I developed a different kind of tactic."  His eyes began to glow red as he gazed at his opponent.  "You are the master of Toad Town's dojo... and one of the most accomplished martial artists in the kingdom...  However, along with all of the wisdom you've obtained over the years, you've also been forced to shoulder quite a bit of guilt..."

The Master's eyes widened.  "What are you... talking about?"

"Don't try to hide your feelings," Enzo sneered.  "Your gruff exterior hides your true feelings from everyone else, but not me.  I can see everything: your regret for allowing your students to be killed, your fear that Crimson will annihilate everything in his path...  I can even see that you partially blame Mario for not being here to protect everyone."

The Master shook his head.  "No...  It isn't true..."  He began to clutch his head.  "Stop it..."

"This is my ability," Enzo declared wickedly.  "I can see into a person's mind and amplify any feelings of guilt or regret, no matter how deep they may be buried.  All I have to do is wait until your remorse overtakes you, rendering you helpless."


Chapter 15: The Breaking Point

The Invincible Crimson

"What's the matter?  I haven't even started trying yet," Crimson chuckled.

Breathing heavily, the teenage Mario brothers stood side-by-side as Crimson approached them.  "He's good..." Luke whispered.  "Do you still think we can beat him by ourselves?"

"I'm not sure," Mark replied with uncertainty.  "If you want, you can try to escape while I distract him."

Luke shook his head.  "If you've decided to fight Crimson, it's my duty to support you."

"Get... out of here..." Lorne urged them.  "He'll... kill you..."

Determined to fill their father's shoes, Mark and Luke sprinted at Crimson with their fists clenched.  Crimson placed his palm on his veil.  "Let's see...  I've been taking it easy on you so far.  It's time for me to step up my game a bit," he declared.  "I'll use fifty percent of the darkness inside of me."

Mark was the first to attack, lunging at Crimson with a right hook that was augmented by the power of a Fireball.  Crimson caught the attack in his palm and yawned.  He tossed the teenager into the air and prepared to deal with his other opponent.  Luke nimbly dove through Crimson's legs, sprang to his feet, and leapt at his foe from behind.  He reached under Crimson's shoulders and brought his own arms up, effectively restraining Crimson's arms.  "Get him, Bro!"

Mark, still soaring in midair, nodded and performed a few back-flips to regain his momentum.  Now in full control of his descent, he extended his right foot toward his target.  In response to this, Crimson reached back and grabbed Luke's throat.  Chuckling lightly to himself, he tore Luke off of his back and tossed him over his head toward Mark.  Unable to change their courses, the two brothers collided in midair and collapsed onto the ground with two simultaneous thuds.

The younger Mario Brothers rubbed their sore heads as they rose to their feet.  As soon as they brought their attention to Crimson, they saw several bolts of electricity heading straight for them.  They dove in opposite directions, but the lightning bolts changed their paths and struck the brothers with full force.  Mark's eyes fluttered open only a few seconds later, and he saw Crimson towering above him.

"Luke... get out of here..." Mark muttered as Crimson grabbed him by the throat.  He raised the young plumber with one hand and drew his dagger with the other.

"It's been fun, but I'm afraid I cannot allow you to live to see your father's return," Crimson snickered.  As he brought his blade toward Mark's throat, he felt a sharp pain in his back.  His sword clattered to the floor.  Crimson whirled around to see Luke standing firmly with Lorne's blade in his grip.

"You..." Crimson hissed, releasing Mark from his grip.  "Fine.  I'll get rid of you first."

"I told you... to leave..." Mark groaned as he tumbled onto the carpeted floor.  "Luke... run away..."


Luke raised his comrade's dagger, prepared to defend himself.  Crimson merely grinned and wrapped his hand around the blade, causing it to shatter instantly.  Luke staggered backward in fear.  Crimson drew closer.  In a quick flash of light, the villain drew his sword and landed several slashes across the young boy's chest.  Blood trickled from Luke's wounds, and he collapsed onto the floor.  With a sigh of satisfaction, Crimson pointed his dagger downward and stabbed through Luke's back.  The young plumber cried out in agony, sending chills down his brother's spine.  Blood flowed from the boy's body and stained the carpeted floor.

"That's one down...  Now, how long will you survive, Mark?"  He turned to his next target, ready to spill his blood.  Instead, he was met by a colossal blaze of fire.

Mark unleashed a cry of agony as he pointed his open palms at Crimson, unleashing yet another series of Fireballs.  After bombarding Crimson, he sprinted to his brother's side.  He scooped Luke up in both arms and began to rush down the nearest corridor.  He finally understood the depths of Crimson's power.  They were outclassed.  Now, as he sprinted away from Crimson and defied everything that his father had ever taught him, only one thought pervaded his mind: escape.  His heart began to beat faster, and sweat trickled his face as he desperately searched for a place to hide.  As he turned the next corner, all of his hope faded away.

"It looks like you've let your father down once again," Crimson informed him in an almost melancholy tone.  His attitude suddenly seemed to change.  Instead of enjoying his battle, he was acting as if he was being forced against his will to end Mark's life.  A drop of blue visible in his normally red eyes, Crimson thrust his blade forward and pierced the young plumber's flesh.  Coughing up a mouthful of blood, Mark dropped his brother and collapsed onto the floor.

After silently admiring the fallen brothers, Crimson turned and walked away, his head hung low.

Several moments passed, and seconds seemed to last for hours.  Luke's eyes slowly opened, even as blood continued to drip from his wounds.  Sharp pains erupted throughout his entire body as he struggled into a sitting position.  "Not... yet..."  He crawled over to his fallen brother, wincing in pain along the way.  At last, he began to rifle through Mark's pockets, eventually removing the single Max Mushroom that Donkey Kong had managed to find.  "Here... it is..."  He collapsed onto the floor, the mushroom still wrapped tightly in his grip.  "Dad told me... to always... look out for you...  So take this... and live... please, Bro..."  Not even bothering to break off a piece for himself, he opened his unconscious brother's mouth and fed him the Max Mushroom.  A sad grin spread across his face, and tears began to stream down his cheeks.  His final duty fulfilled, Luke collapsed onto the floor as his world began to grow dark.

The Master fell to his knees, finally succumbing to the guilt within him.  "This guilt...  I can't... overcome it..."

"The more you know, the darker your soul becomes," Enzo sneered.  "Wisdom may come with age, but as you learn more about our world, you soon discover how disgusting we humans really are.  That's why my abilities work best on the elderly."  He turned to Luigi.  "However, you seem to have some pent up tension as well.  You aren't nearly as old as the Master, but your depression is nearly as severe as his.  You feel as though you're a failure, and that you cannot accomplish anything without your brother at your side.  Isn't that right?"

"No... that's not..." Luigi groaned, clutching his head.  His body suddenly began to tremble as a sudden feeling of rage swept over him.  "You...  You have no right to talk about the darker feelings inside of us.  You're the one who spent half his life plotting against a man he didn't even get to know!  You're nothing but a hypocrite!"

His hatred for Mario welling up inside of him, Enzo exploded with resentment.  "You're only saying that because Mario is your brother!  You all love to believe that Mario is some kind of perfect role model, but I know what he really is: a cold-blooded murderer!"  With a loathsome shriek, he lunged at Luigi with his blade.

Although he was fueled by anger, Luigi was still under the influence of Enzo's guilt-amplifying ability.  This created a blend between anger and despair, which had a severe impact on Luigi's mobility.  He groggily staggered back and forth, barely dodging Enzo's slashes.  Whenever he dazedly attempted to counterattack, Enzo would merely dodge him and continue his assault.  At last, Luigi slipped up and was barely nipped by Enzo's dagger.  Luigi fell to his knees, his sorrow overcoming his resentment.

"You fought well, considering the immense sadness you must have been feeling," Enzo commended him.  "Too bad.  The Master and his pupil have been paralyzed by their own anguish, and the princess is too ill to defend herself.  This is the end."

"I guess Enzo was right..." Luigi whispered, teardrops forming in the corners of his eyes.  "Without Bro at my side, I really am a failure..."

Mushroom Hero

"Don't say that about yourself, Bro.  You held Crimson off for long enough.  I'll take over from here," Mario declared as he slowly entered the room.  His clothes were ragged and torn, and many wounds were visible on his face and through the rips in his clothing.  His eyes had changed slightly; they almost appeared fragile and confused.  However, despite his tattered appearance, Mario's words were more than enough to assure them that everything would be alright.

Peach gasped.  "Mario... is that... really you...?"

Mario kneeled beside her.  "Sorry for making you worry.  I told you that I'd be back someday, and here I am."  The two of them embraced, and Mario turned his attention to the Master.  "Thanks for looking out for Luigi and the boys.  I knew they'd be in good hands..."  At last, he began to approach his brother.  He held his hand out to him, and Luigi gladly took it.  "And Bro...  Sorry for leaving you to handle this alone..."

"You've arrived a little earlier than expected," Enzo stated irritably.  "Of course, it still won't hinder Crimson's plan."

"So, who's this?" Mario inquired.  "One of Crimson's new lackeys?"

"Something like that," Luigi replied with a grin.  "Oh, and he's vowed to bring about the systematic destruction of everyone you know.  Apparently he was engaged to Pauline before you rescued her from Donkey Kong.  Now he wants revenge because you murdered her."

Mario turned to Enzo, who was trembling with hatred.  "That doesn't sound right.  I've never seen this guy in my life.  Besides, Pauline would have told me if she left someone else to be with me.  Pauline didn't keep secrets."  He clenched his fists.  "So, what's your name?"

"Enzo," his foe replied.  "The reason you know nothing about me is because 'Pauline' cut all ties to me after she met you.  She even went so far as to change her own name.  I was satisfied as long as she was happy with you, but then... you murdered her and got away with it...  Now all of these fools worship you as a pure-hearted hero.  It sickens me."

"Enzo...  If what you say is true, then I'm sorry.  However, there are a few things I want to make clear.  First, whether you believe me or not, Pauline's death was an accident.  There are some things about me... that not even I understand.  And second, I've never been a 'pure-hearted hero'.  I started off as an arrogant jerk who rescued this kingdom time and time again for the glory and fame.  As time passed and my fate unfolded before me, I grew to understand my true purpose: to defend this kingdom.  Although I may not be perfect, and though I may be related to a demon, it is my duty to stop Crimson's plot.  Even if you rightfully deserve revenge, I can't let you terrorize this kingdom."

"You're just a bunch of talk," Enzo spat with disgust.  "You can cover up your true nature as much as you want, but you can't fool me."  He raised his sword and sprinted toward Mario, something he had dreamed of doing for over a decade. 

Nimbly dodging his opponent's slashes despite his injuries, Mario's thoughts were elsewhere.  There were so many things he wanted to know.  Were his other loved ones alright?  Were these the only survivors?  Had Lorne turned against Crimson, or reunited with him?  What had happened so far in the war between Crimson and the Mushroom Kingdom?  The only thing that stood between him and these answers was Enzo.

He's still just as skilled as I remember, Luigi thought as he watched his brother snag the upper hand against Enzo.  But Enzo has yet to use his strange abilities on Bro.  If Enzo were to tell him about all of the casualties we've faced so far, how would he react?  Ace said that Mario was near the breaking point.  How long will it be before he finally snaps?

Tainted Soul

At last, Mario landed a right hook on Enzo's chest, knocking him flat on his back.  Enzo's dagger clattered to the floor, and he began to chuckle weakly.  As he rose to his feet, his laughter increased.  Seeing Mario standing before him, determined to protect his kingdom once again, filled Enzo with delight.  He knew that the words he was about to utter would shatter Mario's hope and cast him away into an abyss of despair.

"Enzo, can't you just accept defeat?" Mario inquired hopefully.  "This has gone on long enough.  Can't you try to understand that Pauline's death wasn't as simple as you've been told?  I don't want to hurt you, especially considering the lies that Crimson has uttered to all of his past minions.  You're being controlled, just as Slade and Lorne were."

Enzo smiled wickedly at his opponent.  "So, do you think you've returned just in time to save the day?  You're probably thinking that this will be just like your battle against Lord Shade.  Each time your friends found themselves in danger, you arrived just in time to prevent any casualties.  And if there did happen to be one or two deaths, you would just use the Star Rod to give them another chance at life.  Do you think this will be the same?  Do you really believe everything is alright?"  His grin widened as he felt Mario's greatest fears beginning to stir.  "The Star Rod is gone.  All casualties will be permanent."

"What are you... getting at...?" Mario inquired, his body beginning to tremble.

"I'm curious about this feeling of guilt emanating from your body, Mario.  Are you perhaps a little troubled by the fact that your trip to the Nightmare Vault was merely a ruse planned by Botis?  I bet you'd feel pretty bad if something happened to your friends while you were away."  Enzo's eyes were gleaming with an insane, twisted joy.  At last, the words that he had been burning to utter could finally escape his lips.  "You thought you could get away with slaughtering 'Pauline', but your sins have finally caught up with you.  The punishment for your crimes has finally been fulfilled.  The Wario Brothers... and your two sons... are dead."

Time seemed to stop as Enzo's cruel words echoed through the silent halls of the castle.  All at once, Mario's world shattered to pieces.  He dropped his fists.  His will to fight quickly drained away.  Mario fell to his knees, his face pale with despair.  He did not cry.  His misery was at a level far beyond anything he had ever shed tears over.  No reaction could do his deceased friends justice.  Instead, he fell to his knees as his worst fears became a reality.  He had abandoned his kingdom six years ago, and now he was too late to save it.

"No...  How can you be so sure that the boys are dead?" the Master asked, his body trembling with fear.  "And Lorne...  He's still hanging on..."

Enzo smirked from ear to ear.  "Want proof?"  He pulled a metallic cube the size of a baseball from his pocket and tossed it on the ground beside Mario.  After a few seconds, the box quadrupled in size.  On each face of the enlarged cube, live video footage of different areas of the Mushroom Kingdom could be seen.  One side displayed Jinx's and the Master's students' graves, while two other sides showed the dead bodies of Wario and Waluigi.  A fourth face displayed Mark and Luke lying face-down in a pool of blood, and the fifth side showed Crimson's throne room, where Lorne was lying unconscious and Crimson was waiting patiently for his next challenger.  "Oh, and did I neglect to mention that Jinx and the Master's other students died as well?" Enzo cackled, overjoyed at Mario's reaction to the grim news.  "You were too late!  We targeted each of your loved ones and took away their lives one by one!  And this entire time, the helpless citizens of your kingdom were blaming all of this destruction on you!"

Mario slowly lifted his head up and gave Enzo a cold, lifeless stare.  He rose to his feet.  "Go."

"What?" Enzo inquired, holding his hand to his ear.  "So you've finally spoken?  I was worried that you had gone insane."

"Go," Mario repeated, his voice low and hoarse.  "Leave, and don't ever come back."  His body was trembling, though whether it was out of sadness or rage, Enzo could not tell.

"You're in no position to give me orders," Enzo snickered.  "In the condition that you're in, you can't even lay a hand on me."

In the blink of an eye, Mario raised his palm and unleashed a fierce blaze upon his foe.  Enzo shrieked in agony as his body was scorched by Mario's brutal attack.  He staggered back and forth, his body lit ablaze with the flames of Mario's resentment.  "Go," Mario repeated.  "Get out of my face."

"...You'll regret this!" Enzo howled as he turned to leave.  "I'll retreat for now, but I'm going to return with Crimson!  And when I do, I'll be sure to watch as he effortlessly ends your pitiful existence."  The fire shrouding his body quickly died out, and Enzo vanished into the darkness without once looking back.


Luigi breathed a sigh of relief.  "He's gone...  You showed him, right Bro?"  He forced a chuckle, waiting for a positive response from Mario.  "...Bro?"  He slowly turned around, suddenly fearful of his brother's emotional state.  He gasped.

The color had drained from Mario's face.  His lifeless eyes looked straight ahead with a blank stare.  "What... what kind of hero am I?  I abandoned my kingdom... to fight for a bunch of demons...  Six years passed... and I accomplished nothing...  And now that I've returned... they're all gone..."

The Master rose to his feet and put his hands on Mario's shoulders.  "You can't put all of the blame on yourself, Mario.  If anyone is responsible for this, it's Crimson!"

However, the Master's words of wisdom fell upon deaf ears.  "What meaning... does my title as the Mushroom Hero hold...?  I vowed to protect this kingdom...  I swore to Pauline that I'd protect those who were close to me...  But now... after finding out about my demon heritage... after leaving all of my friends to die... after instilling hatred in Enzo's heart...  how can I call myself a hero...?"

Luigi stepped forward and grabbed his brother by the collar.  "This isn't like you at all!  We can grieve for everyone later!  Right now, you've got to focus on eliminating Crimson!  Our family and friends may have been killed, but we can at least avenge their deaths!  Can't the Mushroom Hero do at least that much?"

"Destroy... Crimson...?" Mario murmured dreamily.  These words stirred memories within him, memories from the Nightmare Vault:

Botis stormed into the room, breathing heavily.  "Mario, what has happened to you?  Are you really going to spend all of this time wallowing in your own despair?  I've searched far and wide for you, but you just keep on wandering off!"

"I can't fight for you... not now..." Mario muttered, his voice low and hoarse.  "All of these innocent lives...  Were they lost for nothing?"

"Well?" Luigi inquired impatiently, still holding his brother by the collar.  "What's wrong with you?!  You've always been able to handle these kinds of things!  Stand up, and we can fight against Crimson together!"

"Luigi, let him be.  He's been through a lot," the Master stated glumly.  "We need to wait until he's ready."

"But if Bro was in my shoes, he'd be doing the same thing!" Luigi thundered, angrily shaking his brother.  "He'd tell me to stop whining and help him fight Crimson!"

"No..." Mario refused hoarsely.  "I've had enough...  Hasn't there been enough senseless fighting...?"  Luigi's eyes widened with fury as he dealt a furious right hook to his brother's face.  Mario made no effort to block it and tumbled onto the ground, lifelessly staring at the ceiling.

Fallen Hero

"Wait a minute," the Master interrupted, pointing at the video cube that Enzo had left behind.  "In Crimson's throne room...  Is that... Mark?  He's fighting with Crimson!  But how did he survive?  ...Perhaps it was the Max Mushroom that Donkey Kong gave him?"  Mario sat up and turned to view his son's battle. 

"See?" Luigi inquired angrily.  "Some of your loved ones are still alive!  Look at Mark, fighting with everything he has.  You mean to tell me that you won't even help him?  He's going to die, Bro!  One of your sons already has!  Come with me, and we'll work as a team.  We can take down Crimson once and for all!"

Mario slowly shook his head.  "I won't...  I refuse to fight...  I'm tired of these... senseless battles...  Haven't enough people died...?  I have no right to call myself... the Mushroom Hero...  That title belongs to... Mark..."

Luigi grabbed his brother's head and forcefully twisted it until Mario was staring straight at his son's battle with Crimson on Enzo's cube.  "Take a good look, Bro!  That's your son!  Even now, he's still fighting with everything he has...  And do you know why?  It isn't because he thinks he's the new Mushroom Hero.  He hasn't been fighting to replace you, and he doesn't think that he'll be the one to stop Crimson!  Right now, Mark isn't trying to be a hero.  He isn't thinking about the countless lives that are depending on him.  Do you know what he's thinking about right now, as his life is dwindling?  He's picturing the moment of your return!  He's waiting for you to rescue him at the last second, for you to tell him that you're proud, and for you to assure him that everything will be alright!"

Mario did not respond.

Unable to control his fury any longer, Luigi stood up and began to walk away.  "Fine.  You can sit there as long as you like.  While you're busy whining, I'll be trying to help save my nephew's life.  While I'm at it, maybe I'll tell him how much of a coward his father is."

No response.

Luigi turned around.  "I don't know what happened to that determined look you always used to have in your eyes.  Now all I can see in them is fear.  Those six years in the Nightmare Vault changed you.  Maybe you're right.  You aren't the Mushroom Hero.  You're just a demon."  Tears forming in the corners of his eyes, he stormed out of the room.


Chapter 16: Decision

Tainted Soul

"Mario...  Won't you fight alongside your brother?" the Master pleaded.  "Please...  Don't you want revenge for all of the lives Crimson has taken?"

"Revenge...?" Mario parroted lifelessly.  He shook his head.  Revenge was not what he was searching for.  Revenge would not bring his friends and family back to life.  Revenge did not motivate him to stand once more.

"Back for more, eh?" Crimson inquired as Mark rushed at him once again.  The young plumber unleashed a furious array of punches and kicks, all of which Crimson effortlessly blocked.  "I don't know how you managed to survive, but it won't really matter in a couple of minutes."

Tears flowed down Mark's cheeks as he desperately attempted to strike his opponent.  Images of Luke's death crowded his mind:

Mark groggily rubbed his eyes and sat up.  "I'm... alive...?"  He glanced over at his brother, who was laying face-down on the blood-stained floor.  After recognizing the taste of a mushroom on his lips, he gasped.  "Luke...  No...  He fed me the Max Mushroom that Donkey Kong found..."  Frantically, he rolled his brother onto his back and checked for a pulse.  Luke's body was cold and lifeless.  Teardrops formed in the corners of Mark's eyes.  "Why...  Why didn't you keep it for yourself?"  Against all logic, Mark turned and began to march toward Crimson's throne room.  His thoughts of escape were quickly replaced by a thirst for revenge.  He would avenge his brother's death, or die trying.

No longer able to control his resentment, Mark formed two Fireballs, one in each of his palms.  With a shriek of pure detestation, he slammed the Fireballs into the ground in front of him, causing smoke to rise from the ground and obscure Crimson's view.  Crimson grinned and gazed upward.  "You can't hide from me, Mark!"

Sure enough, Mark was attacking his foe from above.  Crimson caught Mark's foot in midair and tossed him onto the floor.  As he struggled to get up, Crimson placed his foot on Mark's back.  "You just don't get it.  Do you know why all of your friends are dying?  It isn't because of their affiliation with Mario; that was just to make the Four Comrades believe that they were important.  The real reason is because they're weak.  I've judged each warrior that has stood before me, and none of them have met my expectations.  And until someone does, I will never be satisfied."

"That's... it...?" Mark inquired, struggling to push himself up.  "This is all because... we don't meet your standards...?"

Crimson nodded.  "I'm searching for one person in particular.  Anyone else is just trash."  He unsheathed his blade.  "No matter how many times you come back to face me, the result will be the same.  Though you may hold a grudge against me for killing your brother, your hatred still won't be enough to bring you up to my level.  However, you don't have to worry about living through a second defeat.  This time, I'll make sure that you do not survive."

"Crimson..." Luigi hissed angrily as he entered the room.  "If Mark doesn't live up to your standards, maybe I will."

"Ah, Luigi.  I was wondering when you'd show your face.  Welcome," Crimson greeted him.  "The brother of the Mushroom Hero...  Maybe you can offer more of a challenge than your nephew did."  He held out his hand.

"You think I'd shake your hand after all that you've done?" Luigi inquired, angrily swatting Crimson's hand away.  "This isn't a joke.  I'm not here to exchange pleasantries.  Who do you think you are?  You think you can slay people just because you find them to be unworthy?"

"Why not?  Society does it all the time," Crimson replied.  "If someone doesn't act in accordance with the laws set by society, he is punished.  That's all I'm doing."  He placed his palm on his veil and began to summon his strength.  "You know, we have a lot more in common than you think, Luigi."

Enraged, Luigi raised his fists and charged toward Crimson.  "Shut up!  I'm nothing like you!"

"You won't be saying that after I've told you the truth.  It's only a matter of time.  Mario should be here any minute now," Crimson chuckled.  "Until then, I'll have to settle for the two of you."

Mario continued to dreamily watch the battle between Mark, Luigi, and Crimson.  Seeing the blood drip from his son's wounds did not motivate him to fight.  It only added to his despair.  The Master continued to beg him to fight Crimson, but his plight fell upon deaf ears.  Mario had already vowed to never stand in the name of violence again.

"We're doomed..." the Master sighed, burying his face in his hands.  "Luigi has surpassed me, and Mark is nearly at my level.  If they can't stop Crimson, and Mario refuses to fight... there won't be anyone left..."


Suddenly, Mario felt a gentle tug on his overalls.  He sluggishly turned to see Peach laying beside him, her hand clutching his shirt.  Her face was pale and sickly, and her eyes were barely open.  "Mario... please... Protect them...  Save Luigi... and your son...  Don't let them... die..."

Suddenly, color began to return to Mario's eyes.  "Protect...?"

"I can't fight for you... not now..." Mario muttered, his voice low and hoarse.  "All of these innocent lives...  Were they lost for nothing?"

Botis smiled gently.  "Ah, I understand what has happened.  Even the finest of warriors have gone through this phase.  You are unsure if you're fighting for a worthy cause.  This problem only takes a few months for most demons to get through, but not in your case.  You've spent your days in the Mushroom Kingdom as a protector, saving innocent lives and being known as a hero.  Now you're a destroyer, a soldier with the sole task of obliterating the Phoenix.  Until you come to terms with this change, you will not be able to fight at your maximum."

Mario's eyes widened.  These past six years...  I've changed...  Fighting in the Nightmare Vault...  During my battles against the Phoenix... The entire time, I was concerned with only one thing: destroying the demons and Grimnexes.  That's all Botis ever told me to do.  He said that I was used to being a protector, and that I slumped into a deep depression because I was now only fighting to destroy the Phoenix.

"Mario... please... help them..."  Peach repeated, her frail voice barely audible.

The reason that I couldn't bear to fight Crimson...  It was because I was tired of fighting simply to destroy something...  I lost sight of my true purpose, to protect the Mushroom Kingdom.  But who would have thought that Botis would be the one to help me find the answer to my despair?  He helped me understand my depression.  I am a protector, not a destroyer.  The entire time I was in the Nightmare Vault, I was fighting to eliminate the Phoenix instead of to protect the Demon Resistance.

Mario's body began to shine with a blue aura, and the Mushroom Hero slowly rose to his feet.  He stood up, not to fight against Crimson, but to protect his remaining friends from Crimson.

The Master gasped.  "Mario... are you...?"

Mario shook his head.  "I'm not going there to fight Crimson; I'm going there to help defend the Mushroom Kingdom."

"Thank... you..." Peach murmured before finally slipping into unconsciousness.

Mario began to walk away.  "There's no reason to thank me."  He turned to the Master.  "Now that I'm feeling better, you should get Peach to safety.  She should be fine as long she knows that I'm okay."

"But Mario...  Do you think that you can handle Crimson?" the Master inquired doubtfully.

"I'll do what I have to; nothing more," Mario answered without turning back.  He silently ascended the stairs that led toward Crimson's throne room, his blue aura illuminating the dark stairway.

"Incredible..." the Master gasped in astonishment.  "He truly is a hero.  Luigi commanded him to fight alongside him against Crimson, but no matter how loud he shouted, his plea could not reach Mario.  However, when her highness begged Mario to protect his friends, despite how soft and frail her voice was, he responded to her request."

Once again, Luigi and Mark rose from the floor after a serious beating.  Breathing heavily, they stood firmly before the wicked Crimson, who was approaching them at a menacingly slow pace.  "I've dragged this out long enough.  Mario should be here any minute.  One of you has to die by the time he gets here."  He drew his sword, his eyes gleaming red with bloodlust.  "So, which of you will it be?"

Mark staggered forward.  Though it took all of his might just to stand, the young plumber was grinning.  Fighting with his life on the line made him feel important, as though he was finally giving his father a reason to be proud.

"No, Mark!  You're too young!" Luigi protested.  "You shouldn't be risking your life!  If anyone's going to die, it'll be me."

There was a long pause, and the two plumbers began to laugh.  Despite the many lives that were lost, they realized that they had still managed to benefit from the war with Crimson.  Mark finally began to feel as though he could protect the kingdom in his father's absence, and Luigi had begun to overcome his ordinarily cowardly nature.  In a way, they almost seemed satisfied with death.

Crimson sighed impatiently.  "Fine.  I'll choose myself."

As their superior foe rushed toward them, eager to end the battle, Luigi and Mark snapped back to reality.  Mario was on the way, and even if it was for only a moment, they simply had to see him again.  Accepting the fact that one of them would have to die, Luigi and Mark embraced their fate and sprinted toward their approaching foe.  Crimson's blade glided through the air and struck its target with pinpoint accuracy.  Blood stained the floor.  Another life had been taken.

Mark coughed up a mouthful of blood and collapsed onto the floor, clutching the gash on his chest.  Despite his mortal wound, Mark was determined to survive for just a bit longer.  He refused to die until he could see his father one last time.  However, as time passed by, Mark's eyes began to close.  His vision grew black.  He could wait no longer.

Calm Heart

Just then, the room was lit by a bright blue aura.  Footsteps could be heard near the entrance to the throne room.  Mario had arrived.

"Bro... no... Mario...  You're finally here..." Luigi whispered in disbelief.

The instant Mario's name escaped from Luigi's lips, everyone in the room felt a slight rejuvenation.  The unconscious Lorne awoke from his slumber, as did Enzo.  Luigi excitedly rose to his feet, eager to see his brother in action.  Even Mark felt a slight boost in vitality, though his wounds were still terminal.  The young plumber managed to open his eyes, allowing him to see his father for the first time in six years.


Mario kneeled beside his dying son.  "Mark...  You fought with everything you had...  You truly proved yourself to be worthy of my title.    There may have been some casualties, but the survivors are alive because of you.  Without you, Crimson would have taken the life of every person in this kingdom.  Thanks to you, there is a kingdom left for me to save."

There was so much that Mark wanted to say, but his condition hindered his words.  However, there was no need for him to speak.  As Mario spoke softly to his dying son, he understood in an instant how much his words of gratitude meant to Mark.

"Father... I..."  Tears began to stream down Mark's cheeks as his eyes slowly shut.

"Mario Junior, you've made me proud.  I'm sure Grandpa Grambi will have a comfy place for you in the Overthere."

Luigi held back his tears.  What happened to him?  How did he become so emotionally strong in such a short amount of time?  The way he reacted to Mark's death...  He understands that Mark was satisfied with his demise and that he would not want grief to hinder his father's performance against Crimson.


Several minutes passed, and Mario finally stood up.  He turned toward Crimson.  Calm and cool, the Mushroom Hero strode up to the one responsible for the death of many of his friends and family members.  He stopped only a few feet away from Crimson.  At last, the two of them were standing face-to-face.

He'd better be careful, Luigi thought with a gulp.  In the condition he's in, Bro wouldn't stand a chance against Crimson.  I hope he has something planned, because if he makes even one wrong move, Crimson will annihilate us all.  What Bro does next will decide the fate of the entire Mushroom Kingdom.

"So, have you finally finished mourning your friends' deaths?" Crimson sneered, eagerly awaiting Mario's reaction.

Mario nodded, his facial expression still stern and focused.

"I see...  You've gotten over your depression.  Good.  You know, I've waited a long time for your return.  I've spent the last few decades of my life waiting to meet a certain someone, and I've long suspected this person to be you.  Now that we're finally standing toe-to-toe, would you care to prove my suspicions?"

Mario grinned.  "Sure."

Lorne frowned.  Mario...  You fool!  You're playing right into his trap!  If you fight him now, you will die!  And if that happens, we're all doomed...

"Not right now, though," Mario continued with a sarcastic grin.  "You see, I've been feeling kinda tired.  All of these consecutive fights have really drained my stamina.  You wouldn't mind giving me a little break, would you?"  He waited for Crimson to object.  He received neither a positive response nor a negative one.  His grin widened, and Mario waved his index finger in front of Crimson's face.  "One week.  Give me seven days to rest up and prepare for our battle."

"And what makes you think I'd agree to that?"

"It's simple.  From what I've heard, you're looking for someone who can challenge your might.  If you fought me now, there's no doubt in my mind that you'd crush me.  However, if that happened, you'd never truly know if I was the one you were searching for.  The only way you can be sure is if you fight me while I'm at my best.  While I may not be much of a challenge to you now, if I have some time to regain my strength, maybe I'll be able to prove myself worthy."

Crimson remained silent for several moments.  At last, he gave Mario a thumbs up.  "Alright, you win.  I will relinquish all of my power and return this kingdom to its rightful rulers.  For one week, this kingdom's survivors can continue their daily lives of peace and mediocrity.  However, after seven days have passed, we will meet in a stadium that was built in this very castle.  You are not aware of this, but the arena was built in your honor.  It seems fitting that you should die there."

"How ironic," Mario chuckled.  "You're on."

Crimson began to tremble with eagerness.  "I'll announce the duel to this kingdom's civilians so they can come to watch our fight.  I must admit that I'm feeling quite enthusiastic about our upcoming match."

"But before you do anything else, I want to know something.  Who are you?" Mario inquired.  "I think we deserve to know that much."

"Mario..."  Lorne murmured as he crawled toward the Mushroom Hero.

"So, you really did survive," Crimson snickered, referring to his former minion.  "Lorne...  I promised that I'd tell you everything if you managed to live long enough for Mario to arrive.  And since Enzo's here, I'll let him be a part of the story too.  Listen closely, because I'm sure you don't have much time left to live."

Cursed Memory

"It all began a few decades ago, when Lord Shade first attacked Brooklyn.  The Mario Brothers were mere infants back then, and their loving father managed to send them away to the Mushroom Kingdom in order to be safe from Shade.  However, Anthony, the father of those two boys, had a brother named Dante.  That's me."

Mario gasped.  "You mean... you're my uncle... and Lorne's father...?"

Crimson nodded.  "Yes, it's quite the family reunion.  My real name is Dante, and I fought side-by-side with Anthony against Lord Shade many years ago.  We gave it everything we had, and yet we were still no match for the merciless lord's might.  That day, when Anthony lost his life against Lord Shade, I finally began to understand the power of darkness.  Up until that point, I had worked alongside my brother as a police officer.  I thought that justice would always prevail; that is, until Shade introduced me to a different philosophy.  As soon as I understood the power of the Shadow Shrowds, I begged Lord Shade to be a part of his military.

"Needless to say, I got the job.  I even took the liberty of donating my own son, Lorne, to Lord Shade's cause.  Many years passed, and while Lorne endured a life of slavery, I kept my identity a secret from him.  To this day, I'm still not sure why I decided to create an alias, but whatever the reason may have been, I began to refer to myself as Crimson.  As the Shadow Shrowds grew increasingly more powerful, our missions became more dangerous.  It was during these missions that I began to stand out to Shade as an extremely brutal and cutthroat warrior.  That was when I began to understand the legacy of the Hero Bloodline.

"As you know, the eldest child of a Hero inherits his title.  In other words, you, Mario, inherited your title as the Mushroom Hero from your father.  You also inherited 75% of the Hero's Power, 25% of which your father kept for himself in order to put up a fight against Lord Shade.  However, your father had a second son, Luigi.  In the event that an heir to the Hero Bloodline has more than one offspring, the firstborn will inherit the title of Hero.  While the Hero's younger siblings may not be considered heirs to the Hero Bloodline, they will still possess the equal potential of power that the firstborn does.  To put it in simpler terms, both Mario Brothers have the potential to wield 75% of the Hero's Power because that was the amount that your father passed down.

"Despite this fact, there are a few key differences between the power of a Hero and his younger brother.  While a Hero's power is purified at birth, his sibling has the ability to choose between good and evil.  If the younger sibling of a Hero happens to choose darkness over light, the effects could be deadly.  That's why Velno was so interested in Luigi's power.  As the younger brother of the Mushroom Hero, his body was a magnet for negative energy.  If I remember correctly, Velno cultivated this dark energy and used it against Mario's friends.

"Another difference between a Hero and his younger sibling's power is that the younger sibling can never add to or take away from his maximum potential.  It remains the same from the day he is born.  On the other hand, the Hero can end up losing power by passing it on to the next heir.  For example, if Mario decided to pass on 50% of the Hero's Power to the next heir, he would only keep 25% for himself.  However, Luigi would still have all 75%.

"Why am I telling you all of this?  Well, think about it.  Your great grandfather passed down 100% of the Hero's Power to Anthony and me.  Your father gave you 75% of it, leaving 25% of it for himself.  Regardless, I've still retained all 100% of the Hero's Power.  Lord Shade explained all of this to me, stating that if I could somehow learn to control all of my power, I could become far stronger than him.  Unfortunately, I soon learned that controlling the Hero's Power was far more difficult for the younger sibling of a Hero.  Knowing all about my immense potential and yet still unable to reach it, I quickly grew impatient.  One day, my eagerness forced me to take extreme measures.

"As we navigated through the depths of the Universe on Lord Shade's starship, Shade warned the pilots to keep their distance from a nearby planet.  This planet contained the Fountain of Lust.  Drinking from this fountain is said to bring out your innermost evil and grant you untold quantities of power, but the immense evil will consume you and drive you insane.  Even Lord Shade himself feared it, and instead sought after the Oracles of Power in this kingdom.  I didn't care.  I was young and foolish.  Without hesitation, I drank from the fountain and awoke all 100% of the Hero's Power within me.  At the very same time, I had managed to corrupt the heroic power of my noble ancestors.

"Far stronger than Lord Shade or any of his men, I decided to abandon the Shadow Shrowds.  I gathered a group of soldiers who didn't want to work for Shade anymore, many of which were the warriors that you would face during the Velno crisis.  I even persuaded Glaive to leave Lord Shade's side, though he left my gang shortly after. Now free from Shade's tyrannical rule, I set off into the deep reaches of space, hoping to find a new purpose for my existence.  Unfortunately, I quickly found that there was little enjoyment in challenging those that are weaker than you.  I almost immediately longed for someone who could put up a fight against me.  My search began.

"The rest of my story isn't too interesting, but I might as well give Enzo some closure before he dies.  The truth is, your fiancé never abandoned you; you abandoned her.  You see, Enzo, I returned to Brooklyn after obtaining my new powers because I thought that the best chance I had at finding a worthy opponent would be to search for any surviving family members.  I gave Velno orders to search for any of my relatives, and that's when he found Mario.  Though Anthony had sent him and his brother to the Mushroom Kingdom as babies, the Yoshi tribe brought them back to Brooklyn to protect them from Bowser's uprising.  Anyway, in order to test Mario's strength, I asked Velno to locate the human who would be best suited for fighting against him.  Do you know who he found?  It was you, Enzo. 

"In order to set up a clash between the two of you, Velno bribed Donkey Kong into kidnapping a woman that looked almost exactly like your fiancé.  When you witnessed Pauline's abduction, you immediately assumed that she was your girlfriend.  When you heard Mario call her Pauline, you simply thought that your fiancé had changed her name to escape from you.  When you decided that you were satisfied as long as your 'fiancé' was happy, I needed to find a new way to test Mario.  Eventually, I simply decided to send Velno after him.  That's how Pauline ended up dying, and then you know the rest.  Enzo began to plot his revenge, not realizing that his real fiancé was still alive and well.  Thinking that Enzo had purposely left her, she eventually decided to move on and find another man."

"In the end, I decided to put my search on hold," Crimson concluded.  "Once I heard news of Lord Shade's defeat, I knew that my opponent was somewhere in this kingdom.  And I believe that this challenger just might be you, Mario."

Unbearable Suffering

Lorne's body was quivering with sadness as he coughed up a mouthful of blood.  His cheeks were damp with tears, and although he knew that his life was coming to a close, he felt somewhat satisfied.  At last, he knew the truth.  "So... the two answers I was looking for... were one in the same...  My father is alive... and he's... Crimson..."

Mario kneeled beside him.  "Lorne...  Save your strength...  You can still make it..."

"No...  Somehow... I knew... that I'd die... when Crimson decided to attack... this kingdom...  He dealt the final blow... a while ago...  Now that I... know the truth... I have nothing left to live for...  I can finally... rest in peace..."

"Don't say that, Lorne!  You can live through this!  You-" He was cut off as Lorne's eyelids shut, and the young warrior's life finally faded away.  "Lorne...  It must have been hard to learn that your father was responsible for all of this.  I know it's hard for me to believe that my own uncle could be so cruel."

Crimson turned to Enzo, whose eyes were widened with shock.  His face had grown pale, and his eyes were bloodshot.  "I'm afraid you've outlived your usefulness."

"Don't," Mario admonished bitterly.  "Look at him.  You've already ruined this man's life."

"This man died many years ago," Crimson spat as he violently pierced his blade through Enzo's skull.  "He was a true fool."

Mario, trembling with rage, struggled to prevent himself from charging at Crimson.  He knew that he was in no condition to fight.  Instead, he held his hand out to his wounded brother.  As he helped Luigi rise to his feet, Mario glared angrily at Crimson.  "Crimson... no...  Dante... All of these years, you've manipulated countless people's lives for your own selfish purposes...  I can't even count the number of decent men that have suffered because of you.  Slade, Hunter, Lorne, Enzo, Donkey Kong, and even Glaive...  In fact, you were partly responsible for Pauline's death as well..."

Crimson smirked.  "They have only themselves to blame.  They were too foolish to understand that they were being used as pawns.  As for the death of Pauline, you were the one who killed her.  Don't try to blame me for your mistake."

The Mushroom Hero took a step toward Crimson, but Luigi restrained him.  As he and his brother began to walk away, Mario clenched his fists.  "I'll be coming back here later today...  When I return, I expect you to be gone.  And I don't want you to show your miserable face in this kingdom until after seven days have passed..."

Crimson could only tremble with anticipation.  "At last...  I've found my opponent, and the date of the Armageddon has been decided upon."  He gazed at the darkness of the hallway that the Mario Brothers had exited through.  "Now I must let fate decide which one of us deserves to live."


Chapter 17: Counting Down

Looking Forward

"Unbelievable..." the Master whispered in astonishment after listening to Mario's tale.  After declaring that he would be ready to face Crimson in seven days, all of the kingdom's citizens had been informed that it was safe for them to come out of hiding.  With the hospital now back in business, Mario, Luigi, and the Master had decided to pay the recovering Peach a visit.

Luigi frowned, his brother's story weighing heavily on his conscience. "We heard a lot of the details from Ace, but still...  Hearing about your perspective on the war in the Nightmare Vault really gives us some insight on how miserable you must have been for the past six years.  I...  I'm sorry I wasn't there to help..."

"Don't worry about it.  The Mushroom Kingdom needed you," Mario assured him.  "Besides, I went to the Nightmare Vault to learn more about myself.  We may be related, but that doesn't mean that you are also a demon.  From what I understand, a demon's soul remains dormant as it is passed from generation to generation, and it can only stay in one body.  As long as the soul remains inactive, it is harmless to the host body.  However, our demon ancestor's soul has awoken within me, and I'm not sure if I can suppress it forever.  On the bright side, as long as I don't have any more children, the demon's soul will vanish completely once I die."

"Is that why you transformed during our battle with Velno?" Luigi inquired.  "What if... what if it happens again...?"  The two brothers remained silent.  "Do you expect me to...?"

Mario nodded.  "I'll try my best to prevent it from happening, but if I ever go on a rampage again, you'll have to take my life."

"Anyway, shouldn't we focus on Crimson?" Peach asked, hastily attempting to change the subject.  "You'll beat him, won't you, Mario?"

"Of course," the Master chuckled, patting Mario on the back.  "Did you even have to ask?"

Peach frowned.  "I know, but...  Will seven days be enough for you to recover?  You've been through so many battles throughout these past six years..."

Mario stared at the floor for several moments.  At last, he looked up at the princess and smiled warmly.  "To be honest, I could have been ready to fight Crimson in less than a day.  This kingdom has been through some rough times, but if I searched hard enough, I'm sure I could have found a shop that had at least one Max Mushroom left.  The reason I asked for one week isn't because I needed time to heal.  You see, even if I fought him at full strength, Crimson would still probably mop the floor with me."

"What are you saying?!" the Master exploded.  "Are you implying that we're all doomed?!"

Mario grinned.  "Short-tempered, as always.  Let's not talk about the end of the world anymore, okay?"  He yawned and walked toward the window.  Pulling apart the curtains, the plumber allowed the hospital room to be filled with warm sunlight.  "Ah, it's such a beautiful day outside.  Days like these are rare, especially in December.  I think I'm gonna pay a visit to the Royal Graveyard.  After that, do you guys want to go for a picnic?"

"Sorry, but I have to decline.  I've got a dojo to run," the Master refused.  "Luigi won't be able to go either.  He has an intense training session to attend."

"What?  Aw..." Luigi groaned.

"And I'm still recovering..." Peach sighed.  "I feel fine, but they'd never let me leave the hospital this early."

"I'm sure the Master can make an exception, right?" Mario snickered, nudging the elderly Toad with his elbow.  "And if Peach feels better, I'm sure the hospital staff wouldn't mind letting you go if I asked politely."

"...Very well," the Master grumbled.  "Just this once.  But tomorrow's training session will be twice as difficult.  As for the princess, I strongly advise against-" He looked up and saw that Mario had already left.  He sighed.  "Mario sure is acting strange...  Why do you think he's being so cheerful?  He admitted without hesitation that he didn't stand a chance against Crimson."

"I don't get it either," Luigi agreed.  "What was the point of making us worry for the next seven days?  Why did he bother to give us a false sense of hope if he knows that we're all going to die in the end?"

"He didn't say that he was going to lose, though," the Master recalled.  "He said that he would lose if he fought Crimson at his full potential at this very moment.  Perhaps he intends to spend the next seven days training."

"Whatever his plan may be, I believe in him," Peach stated firmly.  "He'll come through for us.  He always does."

Later that same day, Mario, Luigi, and Princess Peach met in Flower Fields for a picnic.  Mario had not exaggerated when he had said it was a beautiful day.  The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and the flowers had not yet begun to suffer from the winter weather.  "Even in December, this place still has fairly warm weather.  This is the perfect place for a picnic," Mario explained happily.

Luigi and Peach agreed.  After hungrily feasting upon as many Shroom Steaks as they could squeeze down their throats, they each washed their meal down with a glass of Tasty Tonic.  Afterward, the Mario Brothers spent the rest of the day laying in the flowers and gazing at the clear blue sky.  Meanwhile, the princess had gone to pick flowers.

"This is so... relaxing..." Mario sighed, all of his troubles melting away.  "I haven't felt like this in years..."

Mushroom Hero

"Uh... Bro?" Luigi inquired hesitantly.  "I know that we're trying to relax and all, but... shouldn't we be worried about your upcoming duel with Crimson?  You said that you wouldn't stand a chance against him, even at full strength.  If that's the case, what are we going to do?  Is Crimson really going to have his way with the Mushroom Kingdom?"

"I'm not sure what's going to happen to us," Mario replied with uncertainty.  "Crimson has the ability to wield 100% of the Hero's Power, while I can only use 75%.  It's simple math.  He's stronger than me."  As he spoke, Mario did not show signs of anger or jealousy.

"How can you say that so calmly?!" Luigi exploded.  "First you were depressed, and now it seems like you aren't even worried about us!  You keep avoiding our questions about how you plan to defeat Crimson.  You haven't even spent any time training!  All you want to do is relax and enjoy your life..."

"Truthfully, I don't have any kind of secret plan.  I'm not sure how I'm supposed to defeat someone as powerful as Crimson.  But do you really expect me to say that to all of the people that are counting on me?  Take a look at Peach."  He pointed at the princess, who was happily trudging through the meadow with a bundle of flowers in her arms.  "Look at how happy she is.  I've spent six years away from this kingdom.  I missed all of you, and I know that you missed me.  That's the real reason why I asked Crimson for seven days.  I wanted to spend some time with my family and friends.  I want to live these next seven days without once having to worry about this kingdom's fate.  These are times of peace, and whether I defeat Crimson or not, they aren't going to last forever.  I want to treasure the time that we have left, just in case I am unable to protect the Mushroom Kingdom.  And once these seven days are over, I plan to walk right up to Crimson and give him my best shot.  Fate will decide whether I win or lose."

At last, Peach returned, her face beaming with joy.  The sun was beginning to fall, and the sky was a gradient of red, orange, and yellow.  "This has been such a relaxing day...  I'm glad I decided to sneak out of the hospital."

"Toadsworth is probably scouring every corner of Toad Town for you," Mario snickered.  "He never changes."

"In that case, we'd better get going," Peach sighed.  "I don't want to cause too much of a fuss."  She turned around and began to walk toward the exit.

"Wait a second," Mario called after her, beginning to rifle through his overall pocket.  "Before we go, I have something to ask you."

Peach slowly turned around to see Mario kneeling in front of her, his right arm extended.  In his right palm, he held a tiny blue jewelry box.  With his left hand, he pulled open the box and revealed a golden ring with a red 'M' engraved in it. 

"Princess Peach...  Will you marry me?"

Her sapphire eyes sparkling with joy, Peach lovingly wrapped her arms around the Mushroom Hero.  Tears of happiness running down her cheeks, she answered, "Of course I will."  As the two of them embraced with a stunning sunset in the background, Luigi couldn't help but shed a few tears as well.  He remembered his brother's intentions of taking everyone's mind off of Crimson, and he suddenly realized that Mario's proposal had done just that.

Just then, the romantic moment was spoiled as Toadsworth rushed onto the scene.  Hobbling as fast as an elderly Toad could, the steward immediately began to voice his disapproval.  "I say!  First you sneak out of the hospital with Crimson lurking about, and then you agree to marry someone without my consent!  This is not how a princess should behave!"

"But Mario has kept us safe for years!  We can trust him!" Peach protested as the three of them sprinted away from the enraged Toadsworth.  Mario and Luigi, laughing hysterically, ducked as the Toad's cane soared over their heads.

"Get back here!"

Still chucking to himself as they fled from Toadsworth, Luigi finally understood his brother's intentions.  If only these seven days could last forever.

Calm Heart

In this way, six days quickly passed by.  On the day before the duel that would decide the kingdom's fate, Mario disappeared.  The only person who knew anything about the Mushroom Hero's location was Luigi.  Whereas the previous six days had been gentle and peaceful, this particular day was frigid and dark.  The sky was covered with thick gray clouds, and a cold wind blew across the land. 

His breath clearly visible, Mario rubbed his hands together in order to generate warmth.  Only one day left.  Now that I've spent plenty of time with my friends and family, I know that I won't have any regrets later on.  He wandered aimlessly through Forever Forest, trying to convince himself that he was training for his battle with Crimson.  However, a single thought continued to haunt him from the back of his head: Crimson was far superior to him.

"Feeling a little down, son?" a familiar voice inquired.

Mario turned around and spotted Anthony, also known as Grambi, the king of the Overthere.  "What're you doing here, Dad?"

"I should be asking you the same question."

"You're responsible for all of Overthere.  Why did you abandon your duties to visit me?"

Anthony sighed.  "Mario, you know why I'm here.  Stop trying to avoid it.  I know that something's been haunting you.  You know that you and your remaining friends are all going to die.  You admitted to your friends that Crimson was stronger, and yet you acted as though this fact did not bother you.  I know better.  You've led your friends to believe that you still have a chance at beating him, but you are starting to realize that the chances of you triumphing over Crimson are nonexistent.  I would even say that you are somewhat afraid of him.  I can't blame you."  Teardrops formed in the corners of his eyes.  "Dante... he used to be so... different..."

"You used to know him... I mean, before he changed...  What was Uncle Dante like?"

Anthony gazed upward at the gray sky.  "There was never a man who was so dedicated to his cause...  As a child, he always looked up to me and followed in my footsteps.  Our father was ill, so I was mostly responsible for taking care of the family.  When I became a police officer, Dante practically worshipped me..."  He began to sob, and his cheeks became damp with tears.  "I was so proud... when he finally became a police officer and began to work alongside me.  He became obsessed with his job...  To him, justice was the most important thing in the world.  He believed that those who did good deeds would find happiness in life.  However, as time passed by, our father's condition grew worse.

"Over time, as we solved countless cases and brought dozens of men to justice, Dante began to grow cynical.  He once asked me, 'If we work every day to make the world a better place, why does the world give us only misfortune in return...?"  I couldn't answer him.  Soon after, when we convicted a poor man for robbing a store, the man begged us to let him go.  He told us that he had to feed his starving children.  It was our duty to bring him to justice.  Yet at the same time, Dante knew that if we had been in the man's position, we would have stolen as well.  It was then that Dante began to question the laws of society altogether.  He would constantly ask me if what we were doing was truly right, and I could never give him a concrete answer.

"When Brooklyn was attacked by Lord Shade, we were among the first to face him.  When Dante witnessed my death at the hands of Lord Shade, he was shown that the law does not always win.  Lord Shade showed him that a person can act out of greed and hatred and easily obtain what he desires.  Dante was introduced to the overwhelming power of darkness, and from that day on, he never turned back."

Mario hung his head.  "I see...  So Uncle Dante wasn't evil to begin with...  It was Lord Shade that changed him.  Have I ever told you that I hate that guy?  Even now, he's still getting back at me."

Anthony nodded.  "Yes, Lord Shade's rise to power sparked a lot of events that are still affecting us today.  However, not all of them are bad.  For example, after I was killed by Shade, I eventually became the king of the Overthere.  Because of that, I am still able to see you even though I am technically dead.  Also, if it weren't for Shade, you wouldn't have had a reason to become as strong as you are now.  Thanks to people like Shade and Crimson, you've had multiple chances to hone your skills for the war against the Grimnexes."

"I guess so..." Mario sighed.  There was a long silence.  "Anyway, there must be another reason why you came here.  I'm sure you wanted to do more than just talk about the past."

Anthony nodded solemnly.  "Indeed.  Back on the topic of your fight with Crimson... well... I know that I don't have to tell you that 100 is greater than 75."

"So what?  Did you just want to rub that in my face again?  I know that Crimson has more power than me, no thanks to you.  If you hadn't kept 25% of the Hero's Power for yourself, I might have a chance," Mario grumbled.

"In a way, you should consider yourself lucky.  You see, it was my ill father that helped me understand my powers.  He knew that he was dying, but before that happened, he wanted to summon as much of the Hero's Power from within me as he could.  It took me almost a month, but I managed to master 25% of it.  That's when Lord Shade attacked.  My father warned me that I would likely die against him, as there was no time for me to master any more of my power.  If I died with all 100% of the Hero's Power within me, I would not be able to pass it down to anyone, and all future generations would be doomed. 

"Usually, a Hero must pass his power down to an offspring by willingly transferring it to him before he is born.  At the time, both you and Luigi were already born, and there obviously wasn't enough time to have a third child.  My father knew a secret method of transmitting the Hero's Power to a live child, but there was one minor setback.  Using this method, a Hero could only transmit power that he had not yet mastered on his own.  In other words, since I had already mastered 25% of the Hero's Power, the most I could give you was 75%.  My father and I agreed that it would have to do.  So before I left to battle Shade, my father helped me seal 75% of the Hero's Power within you.  In order to protect future generations and keep the Hero Bloodline alive, I sent you to the Mushroom Kingdom and prayed that you would find a way to master your hidden strength on your own."

"Now I understand..." Mario muttered.  "So you had no choice but to give me 75%.  It was good enough to defeat Lord Shade, but against someone like Crimson-"


"I didn't finish speaking," Anthony intervened.  "I came here for one reason only: to tell you that there is still a way for you to obtain the 25% of the Hero's Power that rests within my body.  Are you interested?"

"Dumb question."

The king of the Overthere hung his head.  "I know that you aren't going to like this," Anthony sighed, his face suddenly filled with pain.  "There is only one way for you to inherit my fragment of the Hero's Power: You must take my life.  I cannot kill myself, nor can anyone else do the job.  In order for the transaction to be successful, my death must be by your hands alone."

A frigid wind rushed past them as snow began to fall.  "Oh...  I see..." the plumber muttered, his eyes hidden by the tip of his hat.  "If I want to gain the power to save my friends from Crimson, I have to kill my own father..."  He fell to his knees, tears running down his cheeks.  "...Why am I always forced to make these kinds of decisions...?"

"Think about it. I'm only a single man.  If you don't kill me, all of your friends will die.  Is my life really that important?"

The snowfall was growing heavier by the second.  Mario stood up and angrily grabbed his father by the collar.  "Don't act like this isn't a big deal!  You're already dead, Dad.  If I took away your life now, you wouldn't even exist anymore.  You're the king of the Overthere!  Your kingdom needs you!"

"It's either my kingdom or yours, son," Anthony replied somberly.  "I'll give you some time to think it over."  He wriggled himself free from his son's grasp, turned around, and vanished into the whiteness of the blizzard.

"No... come back..." Mario whimpered, reaching into the white abyss of snow for his father.  "You've done so much for me...  Without you, I wouldn't have survived Lord Shade's attack on Brooklyn...  I would have never been able to protect this kingdom without the powers that you gave me...  I would have never found the will to stand against Lord Shade time and time again...  You're one of the only people that I can talk freely with about my past...  You know more than anyone else about our bloodline..."  He furiously punched the snow-covered ground.   "I need you...  And now you're asking me to kill you just to get stronger...  How the hell could I agree to something like that?"

The sun shined upon a brand new day.  Seven days had finally passed.  It was the day of Mario and Crimson's duel, and the stadium that had been built in Mario's honor quickly became packed with anyone who cared even the slightest bit about their kingdom's fate.

Standing at the center of the arena was none other than Jolene.  "Welcome, everyone!  Who else would you expect to be the announcer for such a legendary match?  We've all been hanging on to the edges of our seats for seven long days, but the wait is over!  In this very stadium, Mario and Crimson will battle for the fate of this entire kingdom!  The stakes are high; if Mario cannot emerge victorious, Crimson will be allowed to have his way with the Mushroom Kingdom."

A pair of double doors swung open as Crimson entered from the left side of the stadium.  His face was stolid and unmoving.  Looking straight ahead, he marched onto the ring and remained silent.  Mario was nowhere to be found.

"Ah, our first contestant has arrived!  Any comments on the upcoming match?" Jolene inquired, waving her microphone in front of Crimson's face.

No response.

"Uh...  Well...  In that case, I'll just explain the rules of the fight while we wait for Mario to arrive.  Ahem...  There will be three rounds, each two minutes long.  Whoever wins two out of three rounds will be the victor.  Manslaughter results in disqualification, and if you give up or fall unconscious, you are out of the match.  We do not permit-" Jolene stopped as she heard the sound of a blade being unsheathed.  She glanced downward and saw Crimson's dagger only inches away from her throat.

"Shut up.  I will be the one to decide when this match is over," Crimson growled.  "I'll let you live this time, but if you ever try to restrict my battle with the Mushroom Hero again, you'll pay with your life."

Advent of the Armageddon

"Miss Jolene, we've just been informed that Mario has arrived!" one of the security guards informed her excitedly.

"Did you hear that?!" Jolene boomed into her microphone.  "At last, our hero has arrived!  It's time for the battle of the century to finally begin!"  The crowd remained silent.  All eyes were on the pair of double doors on the opposite side of Crimson.  They had all heard rumors of Mario's return, but few of them had actually seen him in person.

I heard that he spent the seventh day alone in Forever Forest, Crimson thought.  I wonder what he was doing...  It would have been the perfect time for my brother to offer him a chance to obtain the final 25% of the Hero's Power.  Mario knows that he cannot defeat me without that power...  Still, I'm quite curious...  Did he really kill his own father?

Mario took a deep breath.  This was it.  Light filled the stadium as the Mushroom Hero emerged from behind the double doors.  The audience began to fanatically cheer for their hero.  Crimson and Mario's eyes locked.  His eyes focused only on Crimson, Mario began to slowly approach the arena.  On the way, Luigi and Princess Peach stopped in front of him to wish him good luck.  "I'll be fine," he told them, still not breaking his stare with Crimson.

"I believe in you, Mario..." Peach whispered as Mario stepped onto the arena.

Crimson grinned with anticipation.  Those eyes...  He's changed somehow...  He's no longer the conflicted plumber that challenged me one week ago.  But what could have happened...?  Those aren't the eyes of a murderer...

"Thanks for waiting.  I'm finally ready to face you," Mario declared boldly.  "Whenever you're ready, Jolene."

Jolene gulped.  "Of course...  People of the Mushroom Kingdom...  Without further delay, we bring you the long-awaited bout between Mario and Crimson!"  She took a deep breath.  "Let the match... BEGIN!"


Chapter 18: Advent of the Armageddon

Advent of the Armageddon


Mario bawled his fists as he cautiously walked toward his opponent, careful to avoid leaving any possible openings for Crimson to attack.  "So, I take it you've heard the full story from my brother," Crimson stated, firmly standing his ground.  "That means he must have also told you how to obtain the final 25% of the Hero's Power.  Surely you would not be foolish enough to enter this arena without first acquiring that power."

Mario grinned.  "I didn't come here to talk.  I'll let my fists tell you about the decision I made."  He sprinted forward, catching Crimson off guard.  His uncle swung his sword at the approaching plumber, but Mario quickly leapt above it.  Crimson looked upward and grinned.  Descending helplessly in midair, his opponent had left himself wide open.  He swung his blade at Mario, but the dagger passed directly through its target.  It was an illusion.  Crimson looked down and noticed the real Mario, his fist glowing with the power of a charged Fireball.

"You shouldn't have dropped your guard so soon, Crimson," Mario chuckled as he lunged forward.  Crimson veered to the side, narrowly dodging the Mushroom Hero's flaming fist.  In retaliation, Crimson swung his blade at the exposed Mario, who avoided the slash by performing several backward handsprings.  They both stood on opposite ends of the arena.  Neither was short of breath.  It was a stalemate.

"Incredible!" Jolene explained in amazement.  "Even after that swift exchange of blows, neither of them appears to be injured!  If this is a sign of what's to come, I think we're about to witness one of the most legendary brawls in history!"

"He strikes without hesitation," the Master observed.  "I don't know what happened to him, but Mario seems pretty confident in himself."

"Finally," Crimson whispered, an eager smile spreading across his face.  "At last, the Armageddon can finally begin!"  He placed his palm on his mask, causing it to turn almost entirely transparent.  "I wasn't sure if you were the one...  But now that you've proven yourself somewhat worthy, I'll wield 75% of the Emerald Flame against you."

"Emerald Flame?" Luigi parroted.  "Oh yeah...  I keep forgetting that he's the brother of the former Hero... and my uncle..."

"Lucky me," Mario muttered, grinning wryly.  "You might as well save me the suspense and use all 100% of your power."

"In due time," Crimson replied.  "I can't use all of my strength on just anyone.  You'll need to prove yourself first.  But I do like your enthusiasm."

Mario vs. Crimson

"Why, thank you," Mario chuckled as he sprinted toward his foe, his fists clenched.  He threw a right hook at Crimson's face, but he leapt into the air to avoid it.  Mario glanced upward at him, prepared to strike at his airborne uncle.  Before he could do so, Crimson aimed his opened palms at the stadium floor and unleashed a barrage of green energy balls.  Mario dove, leapt, ducked, and weaved past several dozens of blasts, eventually getting struck by one of them.  He lost his balance, and before he could react, his body was bombarded with several more of the same green spheres.  The barrage ended as Crimson landed on the stadium floor, still untouched by any of the Mushroom Hero's attacks.  The impact of the blasts caused Mario to topple onto the floor, but he quickly rose to his feet.

"What's wrong?  Can't handle being attacked from multiple angles?" Crimson inquired, aiming his palms at the plumber.  Once again, he unleashed a flurry of green spheres upon his opponent.

"Not again," Mario groaned.  This time, however, he did not hold his ground.  He sprinted directly at the source of the projectiles: Crimson.  Charging the power of a Fireball into each of his fists, he batted away every energy ball to cross his path.  At last, he reached his target.  The plumber lunged forward with his flaming fists, but Crimson fended him off with a swift upward slash of his sword.  Mario dodged the swipe with a back-flip and tossed the Fireballs that were in his palms at Crimson, who slashed them to pieces in midair.  This caused the Fireballs to explode directly between Crimson and Mario, resulting in an explosion that obstructed their view.

"Do you have the guts to rush at me through this smoke?" Crimson taunted.

Mario took the bait, creating a Thunderball in one hand and an Iceball in the other before charging at his unseen enemy.  He felt a breeze rush toward him as Crimson's dagger cut through the air.  Thinking quickly, the Mushroom Hero caught the blade in one hand and used the Iceball that he had prepared earlier to freeze the dagger to his hand.  Using the blade to pull himself toward Crimson, Mario unleashed a deadly electrical punch upon his foe's face.

The crowd gasped.  "Did you see that?!  After a brilliant maneuver, Mario has struck Crimson in the face for the first time!" Jolene boomed.  "Is our hero about to turn the tables on this fight?"

"Pain..." Crimson muttered, almost in ecstasy.  "It's been so many years since I've felt that sensation..."

"Looks like we've got a potential masochist," Mario snickered as he took a fighting stance.  "Well, if you like being hit so much, I think I can help you out with that."

"Clever," Crimson retorted.  "I'm glad that you can keep up with me.  I'll try a bit harder this time."  With a bloodthirsty shriek, he drew his blade and sprinted at his target.  He stabbed at Mario, who quickly sidestepped the dagger.  Not giving his enemy any time to counterattack, Crimson followed up with a series of rapid slashes.  Mario warily dodged the sword, desperately searching for an opportunity to strike back.  He continued to stagger backward, narrowly avoiding his foe's quick but accurate slices.  Suddenly, his foot slipped into an empty space.  He had reached the edge of the arena.

"Watch out, Bro!" Luigi cried.

"Mario has been backed into a corner!  How will he escape?" Jolene inquired as the audience grew silent.

"Let's see you get away from this!" Crimson cackled, thrusting his blade forward.  Mario began to perform a backward handspring, his hands barely grasping the edge of stadium.  As Crimson prepared another slash, Mario, now in a handstand position, executed a cartwheel to the left.  He reached backward and released a Fireball, giving him enough time to flee to the arena's center.

The audience exploded with enthrallment.  This was truly the most exciting event that had occurred in the past six years.

"Where is he?" Mario wondered aloud, waiting for the smoke from his Fireball to die down.  That was careless...  If I had fallen out of the arena, I would have been completely vulnerable.


"Questioning yourself?" Crimson inquired from behind Mario.  "Now who's dropping his guard?"

Mario gasped.  In the corner of his eye, he spotted Crimson's blade pressed against the back of his neck.  Breathing heavily, Mario began to doubt himself.  How did I let him get behind me...?  He's only using 75% of his power, and yet I'm still having trouble keeping up...  After all of this, he barely has a scratch...

"Use the 25% of Hero's Power that you obtained from your father," Crimson demanded.  "I've had enough of your games.  I know that you can put up a better fight than this.  Use the strength that you killed your father to acquire, or I'll kill you where you stand."

"I can't," Mario replied, wary of the dagger pressed to his neck.  "I didn't...  I didn't kill my father..."

"So, have you finally made your decision?" Anthony asked solemnly.  "Very well then.  In order to maximize the chances of a successful transfer, try to make my death as quick as possible."

"I can't do it," Mario replied, hanging his head.  "If I killed my own father just for more power, I wouldn't be any different than Crimson.  I refuse to do it.  I'll find some other way to beat him."  He turned to leave.

"But Crimson will slaughter you!"

Mario did not turn to face his father.  "I'll think of something.  If it means murdering you in cold blood, I'd rather die against Crimson.  I may have vowed to protect my friends, but I could never show my face to them again if I had to stoop to such a low level."

"Is that truly your answer?"

Mario nodded.  "I won't walk the same path as Crimson.  I won't betray my beliefs."

"I see... So you do not possess 100% of the Hero's Power?" Crimson inquired.  "...You foolish man."  He sheathed his sword and dealt a crushing blow to the Mushroom Hero, causing him to topple onto the opposite side of the arena.  "You knew about my power, and yet you still decided to pass up a chance to obtain the strength necessary to defeat me?!  You fought for six years in the Nightmare Vault, gradually evolving from a protector to a destroyer!  Do you know why?  It was because fate was preparing you for your battle with me!  Over those six years, you were supposed to become a hardened warrior who wouldn't hesitate to kill when necessary!  All you had to do was slaughter a helpless old man, and the power to defeat me would have been yours!  Instead, you allowed your hardened exterior to shatter, leaving behind your soft, merciful nature.  Do you see what that brought you?  Strength is the only thing that truly matters in this world.  You've allowed things like friendship and mercy to distract you from your true purpose."

"I'm not like you," Mario replied bitterly as he rose to his feet.  "You threw everything away for power... but I'm not as weak as you!  I'll find the strength to beat you... without betraying my own beliefs..."  His body began to glow with a vivid blue aura.  "I won't take... the easy way out..."

"You... You are not the man I've been searching for," Crimson declared gloomily.  "Your beliefs are those of a weakling...  I'm disappointed in you, Mario...  I will end this fight with only the power that I have unleashed so far..."  Crimson pointed the tip of his blade at the Mushroom Hero.  In a flash of light, several bolts of lightning launched out of the dagger and toward Crimson's target.

Mario managed to weave past a few of the bolts, but it wasn't long before he was struck by one of the electrical projectiles.  A violent shock erupted through his body, and the plumber fell to his knees.  "Heh...  You're going back on your word, Crimson.  That didn't hurt as much as I thought it would.  You said that you were gonna kill me..."

"I'm about to," Crimson replied as he charged at the Mushroom Hero with his blade held high above his head.

Mario attempted to stand, but found that his entire body had been paralyzed by Crimson's lightning attack.  I can't move...  Is this really the end...?  Maybe he's right...  Maybe I should have taken that power from my father...  With each passing second, Crimson grew closer and closer to dealing the final blow.  I've got no choice...  Otherwise, he'll kill me...  I have to use it...

Tri-Elemental Form

A metal clang echoed throughout the silent stadium.  Crimson's blade had struck Mario's body, and yet it did not pierce his flesh.  The blade had stopped the moment it collided with Mario's body, which was now glowing with a rainbow aura.  Crimson gasped.  "What...  What is this...?"

"My Tri-Elemental Form," Mario answered as he slowly rose to his feet, his paralysis beginning to wear off.  "I should warn you.  You've come to know my softer side, but there's also a darker part of me.  Don't push me too far, or you'll regret it."

"Interesting..." Crimson muttered, stroking his chin.  "Perhaps there's still a chance... that you are the one I am looking for..."

In a rainbow-colored flash, Mario sprinted behind Crimson and landed a series of blows on his opponents back.  Crimson coughed up a mouthful of blood, staggering forward in agony as he realized that Mario wasn't fooling around.  He quickly whirled around and swiped his sword at Mario, who effortlessly ducked under it before striking Crimson several more times.  Mario's uncle could do nothing to defend himself as his blade clattered to the floor.

"Mario has transformed and turned the tables once again!  Is this it for the mighty Crimson?" Jolene inquired, the crowd gasping in awe at Mario's Tri-Elemental Form.

"He has the advantage...  for now..." the Master whispered.  "But he took a great risk when he decided to use that form...  Now the demon within him can resurface easily.  I hope Mario ends the battle before that happens."

Luigi gulped.  "Bro...  Why did you do it...?  The Tri-Elemental Form is too dangerous..."

Suddenly, Crimson's eyes flashed red with rage.  With a furious howl, he connected a mighty right hook with Mario's face, knocking the plumber onto his back.  "You've surprised me, Mario...  I had to tap into 85% of the Emerald Flame's power just to break free from your assault.  To beat you in your current condition, that's all the strength I should need."

Internal Struggle

"Foolish human...  You'll need to use every bit of strength you've got if you hope to overcome me..." Mario whispered as he rose to his feet.  His rainbow aura was quickly replaced with a dark red one.  His eyes gleamed with hatred.  The demon within Mario had returned.  "Now that I have resurfaced, your time is short."

"I see...  So the rumors are true..." Crimson gasped in astonishment.  "So, demon, can you put up a better fight than Mario?"

Just then, Mario began to clutch his forehead.  He fell to his knees, the pain of his internal struggle too great to bear.  "Get out... of my head..."

"What're you doing?  Can't you see that you need my help?  If you don't let me take over, that human is going to kill you!"

"I didn't ask for your help!" Mario snapped, wincing in agony.

"Of course you did.  What did you think would happen when you activated your Tri-Elemental Form?  You couldn't beat him with your own power, so you began to use mine.  Allow me to take control.  I know more about my own strength than you do.  Besides, I'm not as weak as you are.  What do you think I've been doing for the past six years?  I've been slowly regaining my strength... preparing for my return...  It won't be long before you end up back where you started six years ago."

Mario shook his head.  "No...  I'm not going to let you take control!"  He cupped his hands together, and his rainbow-colored aura returned.  "There's only one way to settle this..."

The audience stared in confused silence at Mario's inner conflict.  No one quite understood the force that had brought the Mushroom Hero to his knees- no one except for a few of Mario's friends and Crimson.  "Um...  It looks like Mario is suffering from a severe headache...  Can someone get him an aspirin?" Jolene inquired.

"No thanks..." Mario refused as he aimed his cupped hands at Crimson.  "Just tell everyone... to take cover..."

"Ladies and gentlemen...  It seems as if Mario is preparing to unleash something big..." Jolene warned them.

Crimson picked up his blade.  "Heh.  I know what you're trying to do.  It's not gonna work.  You're dreaming if you think I'll wait for you to finish preparing the Tri-Elemental Blast."  His dagger started to glow with a black aura as he sprinted toward the vulnerable Mushroom Hero.

As his uncle was only a few feet away from him, Mario unleashed three elemental beams from his hands.  One was empowered by fire, one by ice, and the other by thunder.  These three rays of light combined to form a single annihilator beam: the Tri-Elemental Blast.  Crimson was engulfed by this blast only moments after releasing a dark energy beam from his sword.  The resulting explosion caused the stadium to be lit with flashes of red, blue, yellow, and black.

"Mario!" the Master screamed, his vision obstructed by smoke.  "What was he thinking?  That blast could have killed them both!"

Mario coughed of a mouthful of dust.  He struggled to his feet and peered into the smoke.  After a few moments, he spotted Crimson's silhouette on the opposite side of the stadium.  He grinned.  "Good...  We're both still alive..."

"I think...  I can see them..." Jolene murmured, scanning the arena for signs of life.  As the smoke cleared, both Mario and Crimson were still standing.  "They're alive!  Both Mario and Crimson are still alive!  It looks like this match still has a long way to go!"  The crowd exploded with fanatical applause.

"You...  You never intended to kill me with that blast..."  Crimson asked with a grin.

Mario shook his head.  "I just needed to get rid of some of my demon ancestor's energy...  I'm sorry for the interruption...  He should stay quiet for a while..."


"Brilliant..." Crimson gasped.  "You knew that your energy was divided between your Elemental Energy and your demon's Iniquity.  In order to weaken the demon within you, you mixed almost all of his Iniquity into the Tri-Elemental Beam.  As a result, your demon has very little energy to feed on.  However, you also drained a lot of your Elemental Energy.  Are you sure you can still continue?"

Breathing heavily, Mario nodded.

Crimson grinned.  "I'm impressed.  You've successfully managed to peak my interest.  Since I began observing your battles, I've noticed something about you.  Despite your apparent limitations, whenever you are backed into a corner, you seem to find some way to overcome your opponent.  You even said it yourself.  If I push you too far, you'll make me regret it.  You may possess 75% of the Hero's Power, along with the strength of an ancient demon, but there's something else about you...  That's why...  It's time for me to show you the full extent of my power..."

Mario clenched his fists and wiped the sweat from his forehead.  "It's about time..."

"Ladies and gentlemen, it looks like this is it..." Jolene declared hesitantly.  "Mario is looking pretty fatigued... and Crimson is only beginning to show the true depths of his strength...  Can our hero find a way to overcome his invincible uncle?"

Crimson pressed his palm against his mask.  "It's been so long...  At last... I can finally use 100% of my Emerald Flame's power..."  His body swirling with a black aura, Crimson viciously tore the veil off of his face.  The audience shielded their eyes as Crimson's body was shrouded with a purple beam of light.

Mario took a fighting stance.  "All of this time... this is what I've been preparing for..."

As the light began to die down, Crimson's face became visible for the first time.  Mario expected his face to be hostile and bloodthirsty, but was surprised when he saw that it seemed heavy with sadness and regret.  Though his body glowed with a black aura, his normally red eyes were now blue.  "Finally..."

Crimson's Theme

Mario felt a sudden feeling of dread as he gazed into Crimson's piercing eyes.  "He looks... different..."

"So, Mario, are you impressed?" Crimson inquired solemnly.

"Who are you?!" Mario shot back, waving his fist at Crimson.  "Your eyes...  They're different from Crimson's!"

"How perceptive..." Crimson stated dryly.  "Forgive me for not informing you earlier.  You see, my personality is divided into two separate consciousnesses.  It all began long ago, when I began to understand the evils of men.  That was when my tension began to build.  However, the separation wasn't complete until I witnessed the death of my dear brother.  That was the birth of my second half, the merciless and bloodthirsty Crimson.  He's the one you've been fighting against this entire time.  It was an even split, until I drank from the Fountain of Lust and awakened the darkness sleeping within me.  I threw everything away and embraced my darker side in exchange for power.  This caused Crimson, my more violent and aggressive half, to gain dominance over my body.  However, there were a few occasions in which I was able to regain control, even if it was for only a moment.  This time, I plan to remain in control for the remainder of our fight."

"What should I call you, then?"

Crimson's unidentified second personality held out his hand.  "I'm Dante.  It's a pleasure to meet you."

"So, you're the real mastermind, huh?" Mario inquired, suddenly fearful of his new opponent.

Dante nodded.  "From the very beginning, I was the one who first dreamt of the Armageddon...  Crimson only wanted it so that he could fight against someone as strong as himself, but me...  My purposes are far more complex..."

Mario gulped.  This feeling...  There's something different about him...  This is the original Dante... the man who abandoned society and donated his own son to the Shadow Shrowds...  Crimson was emitting a constant desire for blood, but Dante...  He seems so much... darker...

Dante took a deep breath.  "It feels so good to finally have that mask off my face.  It was designed to restrain my power when there was no need for me to use it.  After all, if I constantly remained at 100%, the strain on my body would shorten my life...  Anyway, that's enough talk for now.  This is what we've both been waiting for.  Whenever you're ready, Mario..."


Chapter 19: Mario's Plight

The Invincible Crimson

"So, this is the Emerald Flame's full power?" Mario inquired, clenching his fists.  Though he was out of breath from his previous bout with Dante, he charged directly at him anyway.  Making the first move, the Mushroom Hero threw a flaming right hook at his uncle.  Just as Mario's fist was about to make contact with his chest, Dante's body vanished into thin air.  Mario felt a hand on his back and quickly whirled around.  In his open palm, Dante held a glowing green energy sphere.  With a wicked grin, he unleashed the blast and sent Mario soaring across the arena.

Performing several back-flips in midair, Mario quickly regained his momentum and nimbly landed on his feet.  He took a kneeling position for a few moments before finally rising to his feet.  "You were a bit slow getting up," Dante chuckled.  "I hope you aren't feeling tired yet.  We've still got a long way to go."

"I'm fine," Mario replied, grinning despite the obvious difference in their strength.  "Never been better."

"In that case, I'll have to try a little harder," Dante snickered as he aimed his open palm at the plumber once again.  In a flash of light, he released dozens of the very same blast he had struck Mario with before.

"Not this again," Mario groaned wearily.  Charging up a Thunderball in each hand, the Mushroom Hero sprinted through the barrage of oncoming energy spheres, occasionally batting one or two away with his electrified fists.  Once he was finally close enough, he leapt at Dante and directed a Thunderball-enhanced punch toward his uncle's face.

"You'll have to try harder than that," Dante lectured him as he caught each of his nephew's fists in his palms.  Still holding Mario's fists tightly in his grasp, he yanked the plumber downward and sent his knee directly into the Mushroom Hero's gut.  Crying out in agony, Mario tumbled backward onto the stadium floor once again.  This time, he did not stand.

"Mario has succumbed to yet another one of his uncle's deadly blows!" Jolene declared fearfully as the audience grimaced at their hero's injuries.  Mario's impending defeat had clearly impacted her.  At first, she had been excited for the match between Mario and Dante.  Now that she finally understood the grim truth, she couldn't bear to watch any longer.

"Sorry," Mario apologized as he struggled to his feet, breathing heavily.  "I was just trying to catch my breath..."  With a flash of his famous desperate grin, he took a fighting stance and prepared for another round.

"This is getting ugly.  How much longer is he gonna keep this up?" Luigi wondered aloud from the sidelines.

"Until his body gives out," the Master answered solemnly.  "Remember his battle with Lord Shade?  Mario won't quit, even in a situation like this."  He swallowed hard.  "It's only going to get more gruesome from here on out."

"What if we helped him?" Luigi asked, clenching his fists.  "I don't know much longer I can bear to watch..."

The Master shook his head.  "Absolutely not.  If we helped him now, our safety would become his first priority.  He'd lose his concentration, and if anything happened to us, he'd blame himself."

"But still...  Does that mean we're just going to sit around and watch him die?!" Luigi exploded.

All or Nothing

"Not necessarily..." the Master mumbled.  "Mario still has a trick up his sleeve...  He hasn't given up yet.  There's still a chance for him to pull through."

"Mario..." Peach whispered, her eyes gleaming with hope as the Mushroom Hero stood his ground against the approaching Dante.

Though he appeared to be calm and collected, Mario was frantically pondering his options.  His full power is even more terrifying than I could have ever imagined...  I've tried almost everything on him...  There's only one thing I haven't used yet, and though I probably don't have enough Elemental Energy left to wield it...  I have to try...  He began to charge a Fireball in his right palm.  This was his last chance.

"Good, good...  Show me your Final Smash!" Dante cackled as he raised his fists to defend against his foe's attack.  "To make things easier for you, I won't move from this spot.  How does that sound?"

"Fine by me!" Mario replied, grinning as he used the Element of Thunder to move at lightning-fast speeds.  As he was only a few feet away from Dante, he pulled his flaming right fist back, placing all of his hope on one final attack.  His fists are raised...  If I charge at him blindly, he'll be able to block it!  Just as he was about to unleash the Nova Strike, he lowered his body and lunged forward, striking Dante's unguarded chest with his left fist.  Dante, thrown off balance, was completely vulnerable.  With a cry of determination, Mario leapt at his foe and released his built up Fireball in the form of a punch.  The right hook displaced the air around the two warriors, sending dozens of tiny wind bullets with strength equal to the original punch directly at Dante.  Mario landed skillfully in front of his foe, who was caught up in a whirlwind of deadly blows.  Still not satisfied, Mario stood up and cupped his hands together, unleashing as many Thunderballs at his susceptible uncle as he could.

"What a maneuver!" Jolene gasped, awed at this sight of Dante's apparent defeat.  "That was one of the most spectacular beatings I've ever witnessed!  What a comeback!"

Exhausted, Mario fell to his knees.  That was all of the Elemental Energy I had left...  If that couldn't get rid of him, there won't be anything else left for me to try...

A thick cloud of smoke created from the explosion of Mario's Thunderballs obscured everyone's vision.  The stadium was silent.  Had Dante fallen unconscious from the severity of his injuries?  Had he been completely eradicated by the blast?  Was he still standing?  The answer to these questions would decide the fate of the entire kingdom.  The spectators all leaned forward in their seats, eager to find out if their hero had truly succeeded.  At last, the smoke finally cleared.  Mario was on his hands and knees, breathing heavily.  Dante was nowhere to be found.

Mario breathed a sigh of relief.  "Is he... really dead...?"  As he prepared to celebrate his victory, a blade pierced through his chest.  He looked up to see Dante towering above him.  Mario's uncle was still standing.  Moreover, he was relatively unscathed. 

"You thought that I was finished, didn't you?" Dante chuckled.  "That's what I wanted you to believe.  Though you caught me by surprise and managed to get past my defenses, I soon realized that your Nova Strike wasn't much of threat anyway.  Your attack had been weakened because of your fatigued condition, so I allowed myself to get hit by some of the 'wind bullets' that were created by your flaming punch.  After you hurled those Thunderballs at me, I slashed them to bits at the last second, creating an explosion that hid my presence with smoke.  While everyone assumed that I had been killed, I used my sword to deflect all of the remaining wind bullets created by your Nova Strike.  From there, I was able to hide myself in order to catch you off guard."

"Why... would you bother... to hide...?" Mario inquired as he coughed up a mouthful of blood.

Dante yanked his blade from the plumber's chest.  "I was hoping you'd ask.  You see, I could have just as easily deflected your attacks as soon as I realized how weak they were.  But the more viscous, cruel half of me wanted to torture you a bit.  In order to keep him satisfied, I allowed you to believe that you had won.  And just as you began to think that it was over, I appeared and crushed your pathetic hopes of victory.  In addition to keeping Crimson quiet, I also did it because I wanted to show you that I am superior to you in more than just strength.  You've disappointed me, Mario."

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry..." Mario apologized with a grin, his voice dripping with sarcasm.  He rose to his feet, clutching the wound on his chest.  "I think you've got it backwards... You've disappointed me...  Since this match began, you've been rambling on about how excited you were to fight me with 100% of the Emerald Flame's power...  And now that you've unleashed it, you still aren't taking me seriously...  You've been resorting to childish pranks just to keep the darker side of you quiet...  Maybe that's a side effect of using the Emerald Flame's full power.  Crimson must be getting pretty eager to take control..."

Champion of Destruction

"You arrogant fool!" Dante screamed, unleashing a gust of wind from his body that knocked the plumber onto his back.  "Do you honestly think that you could survive if I fought you seriously while in this state?!"

Mario grinned.  "Isn't it your goal to kill me in the first place?"

"Silence!" Dante hissed, a black aura engulfing his body.  "Just remember, you brought this upon yourself!"

Great...  Why'd I have to get him all worked up? Mario wondered as his foe's aura expanded across the entire stadium.

"Mario...  He can find a reason to smile even in the most desperate situations," the Master sighed.  "This time, his sarcasm may have just triggered this kingdom's destruction."

"Get out of here!" Mario called, pointing at Luigi and the Master.  "Dante's building up his Emerald Flame into one colossal explosion!"

"That doesn't sound good!" Jolene shrieked.  "Ladies and gentlemen, I strongly recommend that you all get as far away from this arena as you can until this situation blows over."  The audience burst into screams of mass hysteria as everyone crowded toward the exits.  In less than a minute, nearly all of the spectators had escaped.  "What about you?" Jolene called as she sprinted to the exit.

"I'll stay here," Mario answered firmly.  "Don't worry.  I'll be fine."

Jolene nodded.  Knowing that it would be pointless to argue, she joined everyone else in the evacuation of the stadium.

Mario turned to face Dante, whose aura was nearly covering the entire stadium.  "Why didn't you escape when you had the chance?" his uncle asked.

"If I left the area, I'd forfeit the match," Mario replied with a grin.  "Besides, you'd probably just follow me and endanger everyone else.  If I stay here, I'm the only person who'll be at risk."  He crossed his arms in front of his face.  "Besides, I don't intend to die."

"You're arrogance is going to get you killed," Dante sighed hopelessly before thrusting his arms in opposite directions.  The entire stadium shook, and Dante's black aura catalyzed a colossal explosion that demolished all surrounding areas within the castle.  The swirling vortex of blackness annihilated everything in its path and shrouded the castle in complete and utter darkness.  "I shouldn't have lost control like that...  That blast probably expanded far enough to destroy all of those innocent, fleeing spectators."

Mario coughed up a mouthful of dust as he emerged from underneath a pile of rubble.  He held his hand in front of his face and gasped.  Nothing but black.  He had gone blind.

Just as he started to panic, sunlight filled the room and began to cut through the darkness that had been created by Dante's aura.  Mario breathed a sigh of relief and realized that Dante's attack had drained the castle of all light.  Luckily, the blast had created a mammoth hole in the ceiling, allowing the sun to illuminate the ruined arena.  As the last of the shadows finally faded away, Mario was able to get a good look at the damage that had been caused by his uncle.  His jaw dropped in horror.

"It's gone...  It's almost completely gone..." he breathed, completely awestruck at what he saw. For about as far as a single football field, there was nothing left but dirt and rubble.  Past that, Mario could see that the surrounding areas within the castle had collapsed.  Standing at the center of this destruction was Dante, who appeared entirely unharmed.

"So, you're still alive?" Dante inquired, half-surprised.  "You were probably building up some of your Elemental Energy while you were taunting me before.  I bet you had just enough strength to shield yourself from the explosion.  But where will you go from here?  You've used up every last drop of your Elemental Energy."  He frowned.  "You're such a disappointment."

Cursed Memory

"Don't worry, Mario!  They're all okay!" a familiar voice called from nearby.  Grambi, Luigi, and Peach emerged from behind a wall of debris, followed by a massive crowd of Toads, Koopas, and Goombas.  "It looks like I arrived just in time.  When I came to watch your battle, I saw that Dante was creating a blast that had the potential to eradicate every innocent spectator in the stadium.  I quickly sprang into action and summoned a barrier to protect them from danger."

"Well thanks for giving me one," Mario grumbled with biting sarcasm.  "Anyway, I appreciate your help.  If you came to offer your powers to me, my decision hasn't changed."

"I didn't think so," the plumber's father sighed.

Mario turned to Dante.  His body began to glow with a fierce blue aura.  "Now, where were we?"  Breathing heavily, Mario sprinted toward his uncle with his fists raised.  With absolutely no hope of winning, the Mushroom Hero sprang into the air and unloaded a series of his strongest punches.  Each blow made direct contact with Dante, and yet none of them even made him flinch.  It was as if Mario was punching a brick wall.

"No good," Dante muttered in dissatisfaction.  With a simple punch, he effortlessly put Mario's assault to an end.  The plumber soared through the air and crashed into a wall of debris.  His body lifelessly bounced off and hit the ground hard.  "Mario...  You aren't fulfilling your duty as the hero of the Armageddon..."

"Armageddon?" Mario parroted weakly.  "What are you... talking about...?"

"The Armageddon is defined as the ultimate battle between good and evil.  It is an event that is meant to decide the dominant force in the world.  An Armageddon was held many generations ago, when Zeus and the Olympians defeated the Phoenix and sealed the demons and Grimnexes within the Nightmare Vault.  In that particular Armageddon, goodness dominated evil and became law.  Even now, after thousands of years, this same law is upheld; murder and theft are frowned upon.  At first, I was one of the ones who believed that goodness would always triumph over evil.  However, after I witnessed the death of my brother at the hands of Lord Shade, I learned the truth.  I knew immediately that the laws that had been set by Zeus were false, and that the only way to remedy this would be to hold a new Armageddon.

"Of course, I was certain that I was meant to be a part of this new Armageddon.  With 100% of the power that Zeus bestowed upon the Hero Bloodline, and my heart tainted with evil, it seemed fitting for me to play the role of the ultimate villain.  However, the problem resided in the fact that I could not find a worthy opponent.  After drinking from the Fountain of Lust and realizing my full potential, I soon understood that my strength was beyond even Lord Shade, the man that I had thought to be invincible.  Refusing to obey someone weaker than myself, I gathered a group of rebels and abandoned the Shadow Shrowds.  One of these rebels was Glaive.

"Now free from Shade's tyrannical grasp, I began the search for my opponent.  I remembered that Velno, a cyborg that I had hacked back when I first joined the Shadow Shrowds in Brooklyn, should still be alive.  I used him to locate you, and I had him test your powers by sending Donkey Kong and Enzo to fight you.  Even Velno himself was eventually forced to attack you, but you were barely able to fend him off.  Disappointed with your lack of growth, I decided to forget about Brooklyn for the time being.  I decided to track down Lord Shade to see if his military had acquired anyone strong enough to face me.

"If I had wanted to, I could have crushed Lord Shade and his entire army.  With the power I attained from the Fountain of Lust, it wouldn't have been any trouble at all.  But as I gave the matter some thought, I came up with an ingenious plan.  I remembered how Shade once told me about my bloodline.  I knew that there were members of the Hero Bloodline that were still alive, and that these survivors had the same kind of powers that I possessed.  I had also heard a rumor that the Hero Bloodline was destined to vanquish Lord Shade.  Putting these two bits of information together, I hypothesized that Shade would be the perfect bait to lure one of the members of the Hero Bloodline out of hiding.  If this Hero was truly related to me, he would have no trouble defeating Lord Shade.  Therefore, I decided that whoever killed Lord Shade would become my opponent for the Armageddon.

"I tracked Lord Shade's movements to the Mushroom Kingdom, and I decided to send Glaive as a spy to see if anyone had managed to defeat him.  Glaive held a personal grudge against Shade, so I felt that he would be perfect for the job.  While on his mission, he eventually met you.  As soon as he learned that you were the Mushroom Hero, he followed you around and pretended to be your ally.  He observed your battles, waiting for you to finally defeat Lord Shade.  Unfortunately, by the time you had succeeded, Glaive began to consider you his friend.  He didn't want to betray you, so he tried to cut all ties with me and start a new life in your kingdom.  Two years passed, and I finally lost my patience.  I sent a Metal Mario clone to investigate, and I quickly learned that you were the one who defeated Lord Shade.  At last, I had found a promising warrior.

"I was disappointed to learn that you only possessed 75% of the Hero's Power.  In order to help prepare you for this fight, I had Metal Mario and Velno attempt to open the gateway to the Nightmare Vault.  Thus, the Demonic Trials began.  Your battles against countless demons, your gradual understanding of the demon within you, and your final battle with Velno were all plotted by me.  Sadly, you were still not ready to face me.  In order to further your training, I commanded Glaive to lure you to the Nightmare Vault by trusting you with his dying wish.  He was reluctant at first, but he knew that he owed me because I had helped him escape from Lord Shade.  We eventually came to this agreement: If Glaive would ask you to enter the Nightmare Vault, I would allow him to die a noble death and preserve his friendship with you.  With your kingdom left completely vulnerable, I only had to wait until Smithy was finished designing the Lord Shade clones.  Once they were completed, I began to eliminate all of the people who were close to you.  This was to cause your anger to well up inside of you, therefore making you even stronger.  However, even after all that I've done to enhance your power, you still aren't able to match my power.

"I've waited countless years for this day.  I truly believed that you would be the one who could match my strength and help me settle the score between the forces of good and evil.  If I find out that everything I've done in preparation for this battle was just a waste, I'll make you pay..."


Summoning all of his strength, Mario was able to stand once more.  "So... in addition to telling me that you're responsible for all of the hell I've been through against Velno and the demons, you're also saying that Glaive was a traitor all along...?  That's ridiculous...  I saw the look in Glaive's eyes as he trusted me with his final wish...  He was shedding tears of genuine despair...  Who do you think you are...?  Insulting a warrior as brave and noble as Glaive..."  Though his strength had been completely drained, the Mushroom Hero angrily charged at his uncle yet again.

"Bro..." Luigi whispered, struggling to keep his eyes on his brother's beating.  His entire body was trembling with frustration.  At this point, Dante wasn't even trying.  The sound of Mario's ribs breaking echoed through the silent stadium as the hero collapsed onto the floor once again.  A few moments passed, and Mario was back on his feet.

"Stay down..." Peach murmured, her eyes wide with terror.  "Please... stop..."

Mario cried in pain once more as Dante dealt yet another crushing blow.  Before the plumber could even attempt to stand, Dante had placed the heel of his shoe on his back.  "You're pathetic...  It's insulting...The way you keep standing against me despite your weakness..."  With a vicious thrust of his foot, Dante began to crush his nephew.

No one, not even Jolene, could utter a single word as their hero screamed in pure anguish.  No one... except for Princess Peach.  "...Mario!  Please...Please stop fighting!  ...I can't bear to watch anymore!"

Dante turned to face the princess.  He slowly removed his shoe from Mario's chest.  "Hmm...  I don't know what irritates me more: that woman's constant whimpering, or that dirty look that your brother keeps giving me."  He began to approach them.  Suddenly, a wicked smile spread across his face.  "Ah, I forgot all about Luigi.  This battle has grown boring.  Perhaps I could find more entertainment in ending your brother's pathetic life."

Struggle to Protect

Just then, Dante's face was struck with a fierce right hook.  He staggered to the side for a moment before turning to face his enraged nephew.  The Mushroom Hero was shining with a blinding aura of blue, and his body was trembling with rage.  "If you even lay one hand on him...  I swear, I'll make you regret it..."

"Ooh, that's a scary look," Dante sneered.  His eyes were gleaming red with bloodlust.  "It seems that my decision to kill your brother has lit a spark of power within you.  Good.  The more you burn to protect him, the greater your shock will be when he's gone." He turned and continued to walk toward Luigi and Peach.

With a shriek of anger, Mario threw himself at Dante.  He soared through the air and pounced at his uncle, his fists augmented with the power of charged Fireballs.  He unleashed a furious series of punches, none of which aroused even the smallest reaction from Dante.  His eyes were glued to Luigi.  Nothing would stop him from ending the green plumber's life.

"I see that you've converted some of your body's physical energy into Elemental Energy," Dante observed nonchalantly.  "That's a risky move.  If you overdo it, you could die from the strain.  Allow me to prevent you from doing it a second time."  He whirled around and dealt a crushing blow to Mario's chest.  The plumber collapsed onto the ground, but didn't stay down for long.

Luigi's eyes widened as he watched his brother continue to stand in Dante's path.  Each time Mario got in his way, Dante would knock him down with full force.  However, no matter how many times Mario went down, he continued to stand once again.  Tears streamed down Luigi's cheeks as his body quivered with rage.  "No...  I can't stand by and watch this anymore..."  Tossing all of his fear and hesitation to the wind, Luigi sprinted into the fray.

"Luigi, come back!" Peach shrieked.

"You're falling right into his trap!" the Master howled.  "Fool!"

"Luigi knows that," Grambi observed glumly.  "He understands that he's about to die.  He's willing to throw away his life in order to help his brother...  He's doing the same thing that Mario did six years ago in the battle against Velno...  When Mario realized that he didn't stand a chance against Velno, he allowed himself to be killed in order to wake Luigi, Glaive, and Ace from their hypnosis.  Luckily, the demon within him was able to revive him.  However, if Luigi sacrifices himself... he'll be dead for good...  The Star Rod is gone, so we won't even be able to resurrect him..."

"It looks like your brother has finally gotten over his fear of death," Dante stated.  "I can't let you get in the way, so I'm gonna have to hit you a little harder this time."  He pulled his fist back before striking his nephew with a punch that was far more devastating than any blow he had dealt so far.  Mario's body flew across the ruined stadium before lifelessly landing with a thud.  It took him several seconds to get back on his feet, and even then, he was still rather far from the battle between his brother and Dante.  Fear and desperation welling up inside of him, the Mushroom Hero made a frantic sprint toward his uncle.

"I'll continue in Bro's place," Luigi declared, bravely standing in front of his cruel uncle.  He cupped his hands together and formed a massive green Fireball.  With a cry of determination, he sprinted toward Dante and unleashed a deadly Ultra Fireball.  The explosion caused a cloud of smoke to obscure everyone's vision.

"Luigi!" Mario wailed as he blindly dashed into the smoke.  Breathing heavily, he frantically scanned his surroundings for Dante and his brother.  Suddenly, he stopped dead in his tracks as blood splattered onto his overalls.  He gasped.  One the ground beside him was a pool of blood in the shape of a 'C'.  Staggering forward in despair as the smoke finally began to clear, he collapsed onto his knees beside his fallen brother.


Chapter 20: The Awakening

Fallen Hero

"Farewell, my nephew," Dante whispered as he withdrew his blade from Luigi's heart.  His red, bloodthirsty eyes had been replaced by his gloomy, sapphire ones.

"Bro..." Luigi murmured, blood dripping from his mouth.  "Was I... finally able... to make you proud...?  Did I... finally prove myself...?"

Tears formed in the Mushroom Hero's eyes and fell upon his dying brother.  "Luigi...  I've always been proud of you... and I've always known that deep down... you're just as brave as I am..."

Luigi uttered a frail laugh.  "Too bad... it wasn't enough...  After hearing Dante's speech... I realized that it would never be enough...  He's manipulated our lives... put us through hell... and as much as we fought... no matter how hard we tried... we still couldn't beat him...  It's just... too much...  None of us... ever stood a chance..."  A single teardrop trickled down his face and landed on Mario's glove.  "But at least... I was able to... return the favor... for what you did... against Velno..." 

Mario held his brother close to him.  "No...  Luigi, you're not gonna die...  You can make it through this...  Both of us can still..."

Luigi slowly shook his head.  "Sorry, Bro...  Sooner or later... we were all going to die anyway... Whether it was against Crimson... or the Grimnexes... we were doomed from the start..."  His eyelids gradually closed, until his head finally fell to the side.  Mario remained silent, holding his deceased brother in his arms.

Dante grinned wickedly.  "I suppose it was best for me to allow Crimson to do the job.  Gruesome deaths aren't really my style.  Though I suppose it doesn't really matter; his life meant nothing to me.  The only person that matters to me right now is you, Mario.  Have you finally decided to kill your father and realize your full potential?"

Agonizing Desperation

"Shut the hell up..." Mario hissed, slowly rising to his feet.  "You keep on talking down to us as if you're some kind of god...  Who do you think you are?  For the last six years- no, for decades- you've been using innocent people as mere pawns in some kind of twisted game.  What's the point of all of this?  I've spent the last decade of my life trying to figure out what I am...  At first I thought I was a hero, destined to save the Mushroom Kingdom...  Then I learned that I was the descendant of a demon, and my whole world began to change...  Now I'm not even sure what the hell I really am...  But there's one thing that I'm certain of... You're little game, the Armageddon...  I've been trying to play along with it for this entire match, but not anymore...  I'm not going to be a part of this...  I won't fight as some kind of legendary hero, or as an ancient demon...  None of that matters to me anymore... For the sake of all the lives you've ruined... I'm going to put an end to your game..."  A splendiferous blue light began to pour out from the Mushroom Hero's body.

"Something's not right..." Grambi muttered, his body trembling.  "I'm starting to feel... weaker...  My power's... beginning to fade..."  His eyes fell upon his son, whose body was glowing with an aura brighter than ever before.  He gasped.  "Mario... are you somehow... draining the Hero's Power from my body?"

"So you still refuse to take your father's life?" Dante inquired impatiently.  "You know, I won't hesitate to kill every person in this stadium to get what I'm after."  He pointed to a black cloud that was beginning to form above the stadium.  "See that?  I created it earlier when I unleashed that explosion with my aura.  Does it look familiar?  It's the Void, the thing that Count Bleck attempted to use to destroy all worlds.  As you know, Lord Shade was just as skilled at wielding the Dark Prognosticus as Count Bleck was.  I was easily able to pick up the spells just by overhearing Lord Shade rehearse them."

Mario's eyes narrowed.  "What's your point?"

"This Void won't end all worlds...  It's been compressed into the space of this castle.  Thus, the amount of time that it will take for the Void to expand will be drastically shortened.  Also, the damage will be less widespread, only eradicating everything within this castle.  In other words, you and your friends have less than ten minutes to live."

"Like I said, what's your point?" Mario repeated, his blue aura expanding across the ruined arena.  "It doesn't matter if you create a Void...  I'm not going to let you hurt anyone else in this stadium...  They're all going to live to see another day... even my father."

Grambi's eyes widened.  "What's going on...?  His despair allowed him to instinctively absorb the Hero's Power from my body...  And now he's using his aura to shield everyone else in the castle..."  He glanced at Dante, who appeared to be growing more impatient by the minute.  Wait a minute... Dante hasn't realized it yet, and neither has Mario...  Am I the only one who knows what has happened here?  Mario has found a way to obtain 100% of the Hero's Power without killing me!

"It looks like you still haven't learned anything," Dante muttered, turning to the crowd of spectators.  "You're still uttering the same garbage as before.  Your aura will keep your friends safe from the Void for the time being, but I can still kill them with my blade.  I said it before, and I'll say it again: Until you decide to kill your father and inherit his strength, I'll just have to continue to attack your friends.  Who will it be this time?  How about Peach..."

Tainted Soul

Just as Dante reached for his dagger, he felt a hand tightly grasp his wrist.  Dante's eyes widened.  Mario was standing firmly beside him.  "I already told you: I'm not going to let you hurt anyone else in this stadium."  His eyes were burning with despair as his blue aura swirled around him.

"Let go of me," Dante admonished, trying to wench his hand free from his nephew's grip.

"You know, I can usually learn to respect my enemies.  Lord Shade had a troubled childhood, and Velno was just an ordinary human before he became a part of some twisted experiment.  You weren't any different.  When I heard about how you were forced to witness the death of your own brother, I felt sorry for you.  I'll even admit that for a while, I was even a little jealous of you.  You obtained 100% of the Hero's Power with ease, while I was only able to acquire 75% through intense training.  It didn't seem fair.  The way you flaunted your power around... it seemed like something I wouldn't mind having...  With all of that power, I knew that I'd be able to take on the Grimnexes with ease..."

"So?  If you really want to be as powerful as I am, all you have to do is kill your father," Dante replied.

"That was before..." Mario continued.  "Now I see that we're completely different.  I realized that I wanted your power because I needed it to protect my friends, whereas you only use your strength to cause death and destruction.  That's why I decided that I wouldn't choose the same path as you.  I didn't want to take the easy way out, to throw away my father's life the same way you threw away your humanity.  I'm not that desperate.  Buried beneath all of that power you've acquired is a coward who fears death."

"I'm sorry, did I just hear you call me a coward?" Dante inquired, tearing his arm free from his nephew's grasp.  "Are you implying that you're somehow better than me?  That's interesting... allow me to test that theory!"  In a flash, he unsheathed his blade and lunged at Mario, who nimbly sidestepped the stab and connected a ferocious right hook with his opponent's face.  The spectators watched in amazement as Dante soared across the arena and tumbled onto the solid ground.

Mario turned to face the Master and gestured toward his deceased brother.

"I understand," the Master whispered, rushing over to Luigi's body while Dante was still down.  "He died a noble death...  We have to ensure that he receives a proper burial."  He gently placed the corpse over his shoulder and jogged back toward the sidelines.  "No matter what happens, this body has to make it out of the stadium in one piece."

Mario smiled and turned his attention toward Dante.  "What's wrong, Dante?  You still aren't taking me seriously.  I'm different from before."

"What are you talking about?" Dante spat angrily.

"Can't you tell?  I already told you that I wasn't going to play by your rules anymore.  Listen very carefully, because I'll only say this one more time: I'm going to win this match without killing my father.  I've found another way to obtain 100% of the Hero's Power.  Luigi may have been my brother, but he is also my father's son.  When he died, the grief that we felt created a family bond that allowed me to borrow my father's power."

"You expect me to believe that?" Dante sneered.  "You're bluffing.  That was just a lucky hit."

"I guess there's only one way to find out," Mario replied.  "Let's continue where we left off."

Mario vs. Crimson

"Fine with me," Dante shot back as he charged at his nephew, eager to prove himself.  He assaulted Mario with a horizontal slash, but the Mushroom Hero swiftly ducked beneath it and lunged forward with an uppercut.  Dante immediately leaned back, narrowly avoiding the attack, and retaliated with another slice of his dagger.  Mario, beginning to charge a Thunderball in his palm, caught the blade in his hand.  He released the Thunderball, causing electrical sparks to run through Dante's sword and shock his entire body.  With his opponent stunned by his Thunderball, Mario closed in with a series of flaming punches.

"Incredible..." the Master breathed.  "He's actually putting up a fight..."

"He's doing more than just that," Grambi added, equally amazed.  "As long as Mario can defeat him before the Void engulfs the castle, we just might survive."

Mario continued to pummel his uncle, his fists still engulfed in flames.  At last, Dante brought the assault to a stop with a fierce uppercut, sending the plumber soaring into the air.  As Mario attempted to regain his momentum, Dante raised his sword to the sky and unleashed a beam of electricity at his enemy.  Mario, helplessly descending in midair, could do nothing to dodge it.  Screaming in agony, Mario's body thrashed wildly about as he was severely shocked by the thunderbolt.  When he finally hit the ground, Dante dealt a gruesome roundhouse kick that sent him crashing into a wall of debris.

"Mario!" Peach shrieked.  "Please be okay!"

"This battle has gone farther than I thought it would..." Jolene said, speaking softly into her microphone.  "Mario, enraged by his brother's death, has found the strength to continue his duel with Crimson...  For the sake of everyone who has died in this war, please... Please put all of your faith in Mario..."  With that being said, Jolene tossed her microphone onto the floor.  "This isn't the type of match that needs commentary.  This is a battle for survival."

Just then, the ruined arena was lit with a flash of blue light.  Mario appeared from behind a wall of debris, his clothes rugged and torn.  After wiping the blood from his chin, he was ready to continue.  Without hesitation, the two warriors rushed at each other and resumed their match.

As he watched his son battle against his own brother, Grambi's eyes were wide with astonishment.  "Mario... Your strength has gone beyond anything I could have ever imagined...  Once a Hero has obtained 100% of the Hero's Power, his complete power is multiplied to a level far beyond that of when he only had a fragment."

"Is that the reason for this drastic increase in power?" the Master whispered.

"Not only that, but Mario gained this power without having to kill me...  He has held on to his purity, and that makes his 100% Hero's Power more complete.  Dante, a man who obtained his power through pure evil, and Mario, a man who obtained his power through pure righteousness, both holding nothing back as the castle falls apart around them... This truly is the greatest battle I have ever witnessed.  I've known that something like this would happen for quite some time, but there was nothing I could ever do to stop it.  Here and now, Dante's Armageddon will finally be settled."

Mario ducked past one of Dante's punches and delivered a kick to his uncle's face, knocking him onto his back.  Charging a Thunderball in each of his hands, the plumber slammed his electrified palms against the grounded Dante.  The crowd gasped in awe as bolts of electricity ran through Dante's body and caused him a great deal of pain.  Afterward, Mario leapt into the air and aimed his palms at Dante, who was still lying on the ground in agony.  His eyes filled with determination, Mario bombarded his uncle with a series of brutal Fireballs.  It was as if Dante was being pummeled by a meteor shower.

"Unbelievable..." Grambi muttered as Mario finally landed beside a colossal crater.

"You should leave while you still have the chance," Mario informed the spectators.  "He won't stay down for long.  My aura may able to prevent the Void from damaging your bodies, but that won't help you once the entire castle collapses."

"But Mario... what about you?" Peach inquired, tears forming in the corners of her eyes.

"Trust me; you don't want to stick around for this battle," Mario assured her.  "I'll catch up with you as soon as I finish my match with Dante."

"But you barely survived the last time you told us to leave!  What if you need our help?!"

"It's different this time.  The match isn't going to last much longer.  It won't be long before Dante starts to break down," Mario explained.  "I don't want you to be around to witness what's about to happen.  Understand?"

Peach nodded hesitantly.  "Mario...  You'd better come back alive..."

"I will," Mario affirmed confidently.

Under Peach's command, the remaining spectators flocked toward any exits that had not been blocked by debris.  Before leaving, the Master slung Luigi's body over his shoulder.  "Luigi... No matter what...  I'm going to make sure that you receive a hero's burial..."

Final Bout

With all of the spectators gone, Mario took a battle stance once again.  Dante staggered out of the mammoth crater, his hands clutching his forehead.  "You... how did you...?"

"Now do you believe me?" Mario asked impatiently.  "I told you before...  I've found a way to borrow my father's power, and I didn't even have to kill him...  I'm done playing by your rules..."  Suddenly, he noticed that Dante appeared to be suffering from an internal struggle.  "What's wrong?  Is Crimson trying to take over again?"

Dante looked up at him, his face pale and his eyes bloodshot.  "Mario... do you know what my true motives are...?  Crimson wanted to face someone who could challenge his power... but I... I wanted to see who would triumph in an all-out battle between good and evil...  However, it wasn't because I thought that I should replace Zeus...  It was because the very same struggle... was going on inside of me... between myself and Crimson...  The victor of this battle... will finally decide... which of my personalities will obtain complete control..."

The ruined arena began to shake as small chunks of debris rained upon the two warriors.  "I see..." Mario murmured, his eyes wide with shock.  "This entire time, you've been trying to make me think of you as a heartless villain...  You wanted me to view you as the ultimate embodiment of evil, as my opponent in the Armageddon...  In reality, the same battle between us is happening between you and Crimson.  You're using this match... to finally put an end to your internal strife..."

Dante smiled sadly.  "You finally understand...  When I abandoned society to become a member of Lord Shade's military, and when I awakened the darkness within me by drinking from the Fountain of Lust... there was always a part of me that felt guilty...  At the same time, I tried to ease my guilt by continuing to kill others.  This was the cause of Crimson's birth.  Deep down, I still believed that what I was doing was wrong.  However, Crimson was the opposite...  He was pure evil...  For over a decade, Crimson and I have been fighting in our own Armageddon..."

Mario began to charge a Fireball in his palm.  "In that case, let's finally put this Armageddon to rest... both of them..."

After a nod of approval, Dante's eyes were filled with malice.  Crimson had returned.  "It's my turn...  Dante represented the pure side of his soul.  He would have held back.  I'm not as soft as him.  If I can kill you, Dante will be vanquished forever, and this body will be mine."

"Are you sure you can beat me, as emotionally confused as you are?" Mario inquired as he prepared to rush at Crimson one final time.  "My demon isn't interfering because he doesn't have any strength left.  However, you and Dante are still fighting amongst each other.  Unless the two of you can cooperate with each other, you won't be able to stand up to this attack."

"Shut up!" Crimson snapped, his blade glowing with a black aura.  "I'm gonna kill you and eradicate Dante once and for all!"

Prepared for one last charge, the two warriors were finally ready to put their match to an end.  With a cry of determination, Mario sprinted toward his uncle, his fist burning with the flames of his resolve.  Crimson, his eyes glowing with a lust for blood, rushed forward at his oncoming opponent.  His blade held with two hands above his head, Crimson put all of his might into one final slash.  Without a drop of hesitation, Mario tossed his flaming fist forward.  The empty stadium was lit with an explosion of red and black.  The Void, now finished expanding, caused the castle to collapse inward in a blast of fire.  Their beliefs placed upon their final attacks, the battle between Mario and Crimson, and the struggle between Crimson and Dante, had finally been decided.  The Armageddon was over.

The crowd of Goombas, Koopas, and Toads gazed in awe at the burning castle.  At last, the Void finally began to shrink.  Mushroom Castle had been completely annihilated.  Mario was nowhere to be found.  Tears streaming down her cheeks, Princess Peach buried her face in her hands.  "He's gone..."

"I can't believe it..." the Master whispered sorrowfully.  "No... Mario always finds a way... he can't be..."

"No!" Peach screamed in despair.  "It's not fair!  Why did they all have to die?!  Mario... Luigi... Mark... Luke... and so many others..."

Grambi hung his head.  "Mario...  You and your friends fought with everything you had...  Thank goodness it's finally over..."  His eyes widened as he felt part of the Hero's Power surging within his body.  "Wait a minute...  This must be the 25% that Mario borrowed from me..."

Tears trickled down the Master's face.  His mouth curled into a smile as he pointed at the burning castle.  He couldn't hold back his joyful laughter.  Everyone cluttered around the elderly Toad to see what he was pointing at.  From within the blaze, a silhouette could be seen approaching them.  As the shadow grew closer, they could see that something was on the man's back.

His body battered and beaten, his clothes rugged and torn, his conscience weighing heavily with the deaths of his friends, Mario limped through the inferno with Dante slung over his shoulder.  All at once, Mario's friends and family burst into tears of happiness.  They crowded their hero and showered him with affection.  Mario gently laid Dante on the ground before falling to his knees.

The End of Crimson

Dante's eyes slowly fluttered open.  "Why... why did you... save me...?  You won...  Why would you bother... to spare my life...?"

Mario grinned wearily.  "It's because I'm stupid...  As much as I grow to hate someone... I always end up feeling sorry for him after I beat him...  Besides, if I let you die, all of this would have been a waste...  This Armageddon... at first, I thought that it didn't have a point...  I couldn't understand why you were senselessly killing all of my friends...  After I understood its true purpose, I couldn't help but feel that this wasn't all for nothing...  Even though so many people have died... You can finally live without ever being torn apart by an internal battle...  Crimson is gone for good..."

"But... I sacrificed so many lives to get this far..." Dante protested.  "When I killed your brother... I saw hatred in your eyes...  After all of this, how could you possibly forgive me...?"

"It's because... I understand what it's like to have another personality constantly battling against you for survival.  I know what it must have been like to live with Crimson for all of those years...  I have the soul of an ancient demon within my body...  I know how it feels to fear the darkness within...  I don't want anyone else to have to live with such a burden...  So after hearing the truth, despite how much I resented you for what you did to my friends and family... I finally understood that Crimson was my true enemy...  You were forced by Crimson to kill all of those people...  Because I know what it's like to be controlled by something else living inside of you... I was able to sympathize with you... and I can find it my heart to forgive you..."

Dante's cheeks soon became damp with tears.  "Mario... thank you...  Kinder words have never been spoken to me...  Because of you, I was able to drive Crimson out of my heart..."  He slowly rose to his feet.  "However... I cannot blame Crimson for all of the sins I have committed.  In truth, I wanted the Armageddon just as badly as he did.  As long as I could finally be free from my inner conflict, I didn't care who died in the process..."  He began to walk away.

"Where are you going?" Peach asked timidly.  "I'm not sure what happened, but... if Mario can forgive you, then so can I."

Dante hung his head.  "Regardless, I must pay my debt to society.  This body has taken countless lives.  Whether it was by my choice or not, this body must also pay for the sins it has committed.  I'm going to spend some time living a life of solitude...  Until I can lessen my guilt, there's no way I can return to my former life."


"Let him go," Mario insisted.  "He's lived with another personality for even longer than I have.  His emotional wounds are certainly deeper than mine are.  Give him some time to heal, and I'm sure he'll be back someday."

"I can't believe that it's all over..." Peach sighed.  "In the end, almost everyone died...  Jinx, two of the Master's students, the Wario Brothers, Mark and Luke, Lorne, and even Luigi...  They're all gone...  This kingdom sure will be lonely without them."

Mario placed a hand on her shoulder.  "It's out of our hands, now.  All we can do now is grieve for them and move on...  Besides, we won't be lonely for long...  Our wedding is only four months away.  Soon, we'll be getting ready to start our own family..."

As the two of them embraced, everyone around them began to cheer.  At last, the war with Crimson was over.  However, as Mario and Princess Peach held each other closely, the Mushroom Hero knew that this peace would not last.  As he gazed at the sunset, Mario remembered that his wedding wasn't the only event that would take place in four months.

Don't worry about Luigi and the others...  With the war against the Grimnexes coming in only a few months, I have a feeling we'll be seeing them sooner than you think.

The End

(Find out how the story ends in the series finale, Super Mario Bros. 9: The Phoenix Salvation)