February 17, 2019, 12:10:46 PM


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

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

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[glow=red,2,300]Chapter 14: Fallen Angel[/glow]

In a matter of seconds, the Colosseum had been overtaken by chaos and turmoil.  King Zagan sat silently on his throne, pensively observing the series of battles that had unfolded before him.  The first was a conflict between old comrades as Ares and Venus stared each other down.  A short distance from there, Ace and the Wario Brothers had encountered Jack, the Zeta Grimnex.  On the opposite end of the Colosseum, Luigi and Gaea were at a stalemate, as were the two warriors taking part in the main attraction: Mario and Ipos.

"What is it that has driven you to such lengths?  Why have you come all the way here, despite knowing that the princess has lost the will to live on?" Ipos inquired, his stoic demeanor barely keeping his irritation in check.  "She no longer loves you.  The rings that you exchanged belong to me now, and the vows that you made are null and void!"

"Because you've forced this change upon her," Mario answered firmly.  "You did this to her, and I'll risk everything to bring her back to the way she was before.  I haven't forgotten about our first encounter.  She was in tears, Ipos.  I could see the look of pained desperation in her eyes.  She wanted to be saved, but not at the cost of my life.  She sacrificed herself in an attempt to protect me, and she pushed me away in order to discourage me from coming after her.  We can't even begin to comprehend the kind of pain she must have felt.  You put her through hell.  What more of a reason do I need to put my own life on the line?"

"Mario...  I...  I just wish I could remember..." Peach whispered, closing her eyes in a futile attempt to recall her past.

Mario vs. Ipos

Ipos cracked his knuckles and locked eyes with Mario.  "One hit.  In all of our encounters thus far, you've only managed to land a single decent hit."

"Thanks for the reminder!" Mario snapped, initiating the duel by sprinting toward his foe at an unusually fast pace.

"He's gotten quicker," Ipos noted, throwing a punch at the oncoming plumber.  However, by the time the Grimnex's fist reached its intended target, Mario was nowhere to be found.  Ipos whirled around just in time to be struck by a flaming right hook.  He toppled backward, nearly falling to the ground, until he regained his footing by performing a backward handspring.  He wept a thin stream of blood from his lip.  "Hmm...  You're different."

"You can't hold back this time, Ipos," Mario chuckled.  "I've changed.  Don't think for a second that you can beat me with your bare fists."

Ipos drew the long dagger sheathed at his waist and pointed the tip at Mario.  "Very well.  This time, I'll treat you as a true adversary."

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Mario responded with wry grin.  The Mushroom Hero cupped his hands together and molded a Fireball into the shape of a sword.  This time, Ipos made the first move, approaching Mario from above with a downward slash of his sword.  The plumber blocked the Grimnex's blade with his own, but gasped as a second dagger materialized in Ipos' free hand.  Remembering their previous encounter all too well, Mario leapt backward and narrowly avoided the tip of his opponent's sword.  "Heh, I forgot all about your ability to clone your sword."

"You'd do well to remember it from this point on," Ipos warned him coldly as he pursued him with his dual blades held high.  Mario parried Ipos' first sword with his Fireball blade, but the impact was enough to douse the flames that comprised the Mushroom Hero's only weapon.  The Grimnex instantaneously continued his assault with a swing of his second dagger, which Mario deflected with a carefully executed left punch before lunging at his foe with a Thunderball-augmented right hook.  About to be struck for the second time, Ipos swiftly batted Mario's fist away with the hilt of his dagger and performed a roundhouse kick that sent him tumbling onto his back.

"He's good," Mario whispered, rolling to the side as Ipos stabbed one of his swords into the floor.  He clambered onto his feet and nimbly dodged each of the Grimnex's vicious sword swings.

"You may have gotten faster, but your blade is still just as feeble," Ipos informed him with a chilling frown.  "This time, even if you attempt to defend yourself with one of those delicate Fireball swords, I'll simply slice right through it."  His two daggers merged into one, and he charged at the plumber with the blade gripped in both hands.

"I figured that I'd have to come up with something new," Mario chuckled, his palms glowing with every color of the rainbow.  He cupped his hands together, and the light emitting from his hands began to form into the shape of a sword.  Now only a few feet away from his target, Ipos brought his blade crashing down at full force.  Even amidst all the multitude of battles occurring within the Colosseum, a metal clang could be heard by all.

"What is this?" Ipos demanded, his arms trembling as he tried to overpower Mario's new blade.

"My Tri-Elemental Blade," Mario declared with pride.  "It combines my Fireball, Iceball, and Thunderball techniques into a single weapon.  I start by creating a blade out of ice, and then I melt the outside of the sword with fire.  With a thin layer of water surrounding it, I can power up the blade even further by adding some thunder.  See, ice by itself isn't a good conductor of electricity, but water is perfect for the job."

"Ingenious," Ipos whispered, ending the struggle between the two swords by leaping backward.  "The ice serves as a solid, sturdy structure that cannot be easily broken.  And combined with fire, you can create water which, when mixed with electricity, can be quite deadly."

"That's right," Mario nodded.  "With this blade, I can finally stand toe-to-toe with you."

Tainted Soul

"We'll see about that," Ipos retorted, lunging at his opponent with the tip of his sword.  Countless metallic clangs reverberated throughout the Colosseum as the two warriors engaged in a deadly swordfight.  They sliced and parried each other with pinpoint accuracy, and sparks flew in all directions with neither of them letting up for even a second.  After several minutes, Ipos managed to slip past Mario's defenses and graze his waistline.  The Mushroom Hero swiftly retreated backward several steps, but was pursued by Ipos, whose attacks had suddenly grown several times more aggressive.  Now on the defensive, Mario clutched his wound with his free hand as he struggled to keep up with the Grimnex's relentless sword strikes.

Such speed...  I can't even counterattack, Mario thought, gradually being pushed back by Ipos' violent assault.  At last, he felt his back hit the wall.  Before Ipos could take advantage of his cornered prey, the Mushroom Hero charged forward and clashed swords with him.  Gripping his Tri-Elemental Blade with both hands, Mario's arms trembled as he put all of his effort into overcoming Ipos' dagger.  Ipos, holding his weapon with only one hand, effortlessly pushed back with enough resistance to prevent Mario from gaining any ground.

"Your new sword is impressive.  However, a weapon is useless unless the one who wields it possesses power," Ipos lectured him.  "Your efforts are in vain.  In truth, I pity you and your foolish friends.  We are among the highest echelon of Grimnexes, beings that once competed against Zeus for the Terranean throne.  You are nothing."

Mario angrily stared into Ipos' cold, condescending eyes. Gritting his teeth together, he opposed Ipos with all of his might, eventually managing to push the Grimnex back a few steps.  At last, the Mushroom Hero broke the stalemate with a fierce swing of his sword.  He rushed forward and dealt a subsequent slash, narrowly slicing Ipos' right cheek.  "You keep looking down on me, expecting me to break...  I hate to tell you this, but I'm not gonna give in.  You can play as many mind games as you want.  They're not gonna work."

"You may say that now, but rest assured... the worst is yet to come," Ipos admonished.

Meanwhile, from atop a balcony on the fourth floor of the Colosseum, Luigi, Peach, and Gaea were watching the duel intently.  "Get him, Bro!" Luigi cheered before cupping his hands over his mouth seconds later.  Oops...  I'd better not attract too much attention...  If anyone comes to lend Gaea a hand, I'm screwed...

"I must say, this Mario is quite the formidable opponent," Gaea admitted, stroking his chin.  "I feel sorry for Ipos.  Fighting him must be such a pain."

"What do you mean?" Luigi inquired.  "Are you saying that Ipos is gonna lose?"

"Heh, no way," Gaea chuckled, dismissing the idea as if it were a joke.  "But I know all too well the type of person that Mario is.  In fact, you're the same way.  Both of you possess the kind of tenacity that even Ipos has trouble conquering.  Even after your brother realizes that he is entirely outclassed, he'll continue fighting until the very end.  That's why I sympathize with Ipos...  No matter how much stronger he may be, this fight isn't ending anytime soon."

"So what next, Ipos?  Are we gonna resume that swordfight of ours?" Mario inquired with a grin.

Ipos did not respond.  Instead, his body began to vibrate uncontrollably as an exact replica of himself emerged from his front side.  Three more clones stepped outside of Ipos' body, resulting in grand total of five Grimnexes for Mario to face.  "Why the look of surprise?  Did you think that my sword was the only thing that I could multiply?"

Sweat trickling down his face, Mario could only stagger backward in shock.  "There's no way..."

One of the Ipos clones turned and began to approach the nearby staircase.  "It seems that your brother has interrupted the Phoenix Salvation.  Please excuse me while I ensure that the execution proceeds smoothly."

"Not until this fight is over," Mario growled, attempting to pursue him.  However, four Ipos clones stood firmly in his path.  "I see...  That's real cute.  Now get outta my way."

"Perhaps you did not hear him," the four Ipos duplicates chanted in unison.  "By the order of King Zagan, Princess Peach must be executed.  Your brother will also meet the same fate as punishment for his intervention."

Struggle to Protect

Mario glanced upward and saw that Ipos had already reached the second floor.  With a cry of desperation, he formed an Ultra Fireball in his left hand and hurled it at the Ipos doppelgangers.  The Mushroom Hero dashed around the inferno and toward the stairway, but a blade emerged from the fire to block his path.  The flames expanded and surrounded Mario, turning from red to jet black as they did so.  "What happened...?"

"You may possess Elemental Energy, but demons possess Iniquity.  With enough Iniquity, we were able to overpower your flames and make them our own.  The transition in color from red to black signifies this change," Ipos explained, though Mario could not see past the black flames that had nearly engulfed him.  "You've been blinded by the darkness of our Iniquity.  This is where your struggle ends, unless you plan to fight off all four of us while enclosed by our inferno."

"You just read my mind," Mario retorted, squinting his eyes in a futile attempt to see past the black fire that concealed the Ipos clones' presence.  His Tri-Elemental Blade still grasped firmly in his right hand, the plumber desperately fought off Ipos' sword slashes, which were coming at him from every conceivable angle.  "Damn, these flames are turning out to be a real pain.  Sorry, but they've gotta go."  With an Ultra Iceball wrapped tightly in his left hand, Mario summoned a frigid gust of wind in order to douse the flames of Iniquity.

"Use your head, Mario," Ipos sighed.  "These flames won't vanish unless your Elemental Energy can overpower our Iniquity."

"Hmm...  Now there's an idea," Mario whispered, smirking as he stroked his chin.  "If Elemental Energy alone isn't enough, why don't I just add some Iniquity?  I hope my demon ancestor won't mind if I borrow some."  He created a second Iceball- only this time, instead of possessing its normal bluish tint, the Iceball was black.  In a furious torrent of wind, the dark flames faded away, leaving behind nothing but ash and smoke.  Mario glanced back and forth, searching for his four opponents.  They were nowhere to be found.

"For a moment, I forgot all about your demon ancestry," Ipos admitted as he and his three clones descended from high above.  They quickly ganged up on Mario, with two duplicates restraining his arms and a third gripping him in a full nelson.  The Mushroom Hero thrashed wildly about in an attempt to break free, but the Ipos doppelgangers did not budge an inch.

I'm running out of time, Mario thought, glaring at the Ipos replica that was ascending the staircase toward Peach and Luigi.  He had already passed the third floor and was halfway up the next staircase.

"I understand that you fear for the princesses' safety, but that is no longer any of your concern," the original Ipos stated icily as he pointed his blade at Mario.  "With my copies restraining you, there's no chance of escape."

"Get outta there, Bro," Luigi mumbled, unaware of the approaching danger.

"Gaea, I had no idea that you were here.  It seems that you're slacking off, as usual," Ipos' clone sighed as he finally reached the fourth floor of the Colosseum.  "Stand aside."

"I did promise these two that the princess could live until the conclusion of your battle with Mario," Gaea confessed with a shrug.  "But I really don't feel like getting into an argument with you, especially for the sake of this traitor."

"Mario is about to die, anyway.  There's no reason to see how the fight ends if you already know the outcome."

At the bottom floor of the Colosseum, Ipos was only a few steps away from ending the Mushroom Hero's life.  With a forward thrust of his blade, the Grimnex lunged at Mario with every intention of killing him.  Adrenaline rushing through his body, the plumber jerked his head backward and struck the bridge of an Ipos doppelganger's nose.  He then wrapped each of his palms around the heads of two adjacent clones and smashed them into each other.  Now free to evade the real Ipos' sword, Mario dove out of the way with only a fraction of a second to spare.  Instead of piercing Mario's chest, Ipos found his dagger wedged inside of the duplicate that had stood behind him.

Mario climbed onto his feet and exhaled a deep sigh of relief.  "That was a close one..."

"Yet again, you've managed to cheat death," Ipos observed calmly as his mortally wounded copy faded away.  "No matter.  We have all the time in the world.  I'll slowly wear you down, until your bag of tricks is finally empty."  From Ipos and his two remaining clones, three more copies stepped forward.  "The six of us still stand in your way, and my seventh duplicate is preparing to kill the princess.  In just a few moments, the reason that you continue to fight me will cease to exist."


"Hey Ipos, do these look familiar to you?" Mario inquired, holding out his hand to the Grimnex.  Resting gently on his palm were two golden rings- the rings that Mario and Peach had exchanged at their wedding.  "You were treating them so carelessly.  I couldn't resist snatching them from your pocket."  His face grew stern as he slipped one of them onto his ring finger.  "These rings aren't meant to be held by anyone but the princess and me.  Someone like you has no right to lay a finger on them!"

"How could he have stolen them from me?" Ipos wondered aloud, rifling through his pockets.  "Those rings lost their meaning long ago.  I can't believe you actually took the time to steal them back."  He and his six clones created duplicates of their swords and sprinted at the Mushroom Hero.  "Regardless, you cannot hope to parry twelve blades at once with that single elemental dagger of yours."

"Watch me!" Mario shot back, grasping his Tri-Elemental Blade with both hands.  With his sword held high above his head, the plumber charged directly at the oncoming Grimnexes.  As if augmented by his sheer determination, the Tri-Elemental Blade extended to nearly three times its original size.  Without even bothering to defend himself, Mario relentlessly slashed at every duplicate that came his way.

"Such recklessness," Ipos gasped.  He has no concern for his own safety.  Never have I seen someone charge into an outnumbered battle with such carelessness, and yet... it's actually working...

"Maybe I am outnumbered, and maybe you can clone your swords and your own body... but none of that matters!  You can create as many doppelgangers as you want; I'll cut down every last one of em!" Mario cried as he sliced one of the Ipos copy's blades in two.

I see...  His sword is forged from Elemental Energy, which means its size is entirely dependent on how much energy he feeds it.  For it to be this large... he must be pouring in everything he's got...  But what drives him to fight so recklessly?  Surely he cannot care for the princess' life this much...?

Mario cut through the final Ipos clone, leaving only the original and the one that was with Luigi and Peach.  "I may not be able to clone myself or my swords, but one mad off plumber is more than enough to deal with someone like you!"  His Tri-Elemental Blade grew a few shades darker as he added his demon ancestor's Iniquity into the mixture.  With his fully powered up sword, Mario sprang forward and clashed blades with Ipos once again.  The two struggled for a few moments, but ultimately the Mushroom Hero's dagger cut through the Grimnex's weapon and slashed diagonally across his chest.  Blood spurted out from his gash, and Ipos fell to his knees.

Breathing heavily, Mario turned his attention to the balcony on which Peach, Luigi, and Gaea were standing.  To his great relief, the Ipos clone that was prepared to sacrifice the princess had faded away.  However, this accomplishment had come at a high price.  The plumber's entire body was covered in gashes and scrapes due to the frenzied manner in which he assaulted Ipos and his doppelgangers.  In addition, nearly all of his Elemental Energy had been wasted on powering up his Tri-Elemental Blade.

"What'd I tell you?" Gaea grumbled with a helpless shrug.  "Ugh...  I was hoping it wouldn't come to this, but I guess Ipos has no other choice..."

"Heheheh...  Mario, I've missed watching you battle against impossible odds," King Zagan whispered to himself.  I just knew that you wouldn't let me down.  After all, the Phoenix Salvation's success depends almost entirely on the outcome of this fight.  Of course, neither of you have any way of knowing that.

"One Grimnex down... four more to go..." Mario mumbled, wearily approaching the staircase that had been previously blocked by Ipos.

"Where are you running off to, Mushroom Hero?"

Black Heart II

Mario froze.  Slowly turning around, he gasped as his eyes met with Ipos' icy, condescending stare.  "This is the end, Mario.  I'll admit, you've put up more of a fight than any human I've faced in the past.  Your skills have undoubtedly improved, but this is where my praise ends.  Surrender in the name of the Phoenix, and your death will be swift and painless."

"You're telling me to just give up, after I've come all this way?" Mario inquired, dumbfounded by Ipos' proposal.  "Your clones may be a pain to deal with, but they're nothing that I can't handle...  If this is your idea of a bluff, then I'm very disappointed..."

"You do not understand.  Unless you stand down here and now, I'll be forced to use my Final Smash.  Right now, I'm essentially giving you two choices.  You can either die with grace and honor, or in a ruthless bloodbath after which your corpse will be mutilated beyond recognition."

Mario shook his head in frustration.  "Is this some kind of joke?  Go ahead and use your Final Smash.  I'm not gonna complain."

Ipos sighed in disapproval.  "Mario, your arrogance will be the death of you.  Haven't you heard of my title as 'he who slaughtered a thousand angels'?  My Final Smash is what earned me this name, along with the reputation of being the most ruthless and powerful of all the Grimnexes.  I did not want to bring about such suffering to anyone, not even you, Mario.  I tried to warn you.  But now, it is too late."

A gentle breeze began to blow through the Colosseum.  The vibrant gradient of pink, purple, and red had ceased to shine through the hundreds of windows that bordered the stadium.  The sky had been veiled by black storm clouds, shrouding the Colosseum in darkness.  Along with the looming rainclouds, a sudden feeling of dread began to stir throughout the amphitheater.

"Mario, just tell Ipos that you've surrendered!" Gaea called in sudden desperation.  "We may be enemies, but please... hear me out!  If you allow Ipos to go through with this, it'll be the end...  I don't ever want to see such a bloodbath ever again..."

Mario did not respond, although this was entirely due to his mortification at Ipos' transformation.  Ipos' face had grown pale, and the sclerae of his eyes were now a blood red color.  His body began to glow with a jet black aura as two angelic wings extended from his back.  A golden harp materialized in his right hand, and a ray of light pierced through the overhead rainclouds and shone down upon him.

Despite the immense heat being generated by the Grimnexes' Iniquity, a frigid wind chilled the Colosseum as Ipos set his sights on the battle worn Mario.  The Delta Grimnex's melancholy, angelic appearance sent chills down the plumber's spine.  What is this feeling... in the pit of my stomach...?  Why can't I bear to even look at him...?

Elsewhere, on the fourth floor of the amphitheater, each battle had come to an instant halt.  The Grimnexes could do nothing but gaze at Ipos in admiration.  "Ipos...  You've finally revealed your true self," King Zagan whispered.  "Poor Mario.  If only he had known that Ipos is even more lethal than I am..."

"I can't believe that human managed to push Ipos so far," Venus grumbled.  "Regardless, if Ipos is using his Final Smash, he won't be a problem for much longer."

Ares gulped.  Mario...  Up until now, I've never even seen Ipos' Final Smash...  If I had known that he was capable of such a dreadful transformation... I never would have sent you to fight him alone...  Please forgive me, my friend...

"You'd better say goodbye to your brother," Gaea informed Luigi with a yawn.  "You should take one last look at him while you're at it.  Ipos wasn't kidding about the whole mutilation thing.  Once this is over, Mario won't just be dead.  He'll be maimed beyond identification."

The two warriors' eyes met, and Mario was overwhelmed with a sudden feeling of despair.  "Mario, your death is at hand.  With this transformation, I have become the Angel of Death."


[glow=blue,2,300]Chapter 15: Black Skeleton[/glow]

Struggle to Protect

"That frightened look of yours...  Do you regret urging me to reveal my Final Smash?  Do you still wish to continue, even after witnessing my transformation?" Ipos inquired, his icy glare sending shivers down Mario's spine.

Mario swallowed hard and took a fighting stance.  "I'm tired of hearing you talk...  Why don't you show me what your Final Smash can do?"

Ipos sighed.  "Your arrogance knows no boundaries.  Allow me to show you the power that once massacred a thousand angels."  As if wielding a bow and arrow, he held his harp in front of him and pulled his sword back against one of its many strings.

"You've gotta be joking," Mario grumbled as Ipos launched his blade at him like an arrow.  The Mushroom Hero quickly dove to the side, receiving only a minor cut along his cheek.  If he had moved even a millisecond later, he would have been decapitated.  Trembling as he saw the dagger pierce the wall behind him, Mario turned his attention to Ipos and gasped.

"This is where my blade multiplication technique truly becomes useful.  Using my harp as a bow and my swords as ammunition, I could fire at you for hours."

"In that case, I hope you get bored easily," Mario groaned as Ipos created a blade for each of his harp strings.  With the grace and precision of an angel, the Grimnex hurled a dozen swords at his opponent.  The Mushroom Hero evaded them by leaping high into the air, but in doing so he made a critical mistake.  He had forgotten about Ipos' wings.  The moment Mario reached the peak of his jump, Ipos took flight and appeared beside his foe in the blink of an eye.

"Disappointing," Ipos murmured, swatting the plumber downward with an elbow to the chest.  Without pausing for even a moment, he then fired twelve swords at the descending Mario.  The Mushroom Hero quickly regained his momentum by executing several midair back-flips and landing on his feet.  He noticed the oncoming blades and waved an Iceball above his head, creating a wall of ice to shield him. 

"That won't work."  Mario looked to his left and saw Ipos standing beside him with a dagger grasped in his left hand.  Time seemed to move in slow motion as the plumber instinctively raised his right arm, narrowly saving his own life by blocking Ipos' swing with his Demon Exoskeleton.  Mario tumbled onto his back several feet from the position he had just occupied.  The blades that Ipos had fired from above only seconds ago shattered his ice barrier with ease.  If he had stayed beneath his ice shield, he would have been a dead man.

The Mushroom Hero rolled up his right sleeve and saw that part of his Demon Exoskeleton had been shattered by Ipos' sword strike.  Before he could react, the exoskeleton began to regenerate, expanding even further to cover everything from his hand to his shoulder.  No...  That's the last thing I need...  Please, stay out of this...

"Did you see what my blades did to your pathetic ice shield?  Your elemental techniques are useless."

"We'll see about that," Mario retorted as he began to form an Ultra Fireball in his right palm.  Ipos simply fired one of his blades at the Fireball, dousing it as it rushed past the plumber's hand.

"There's no need to test out each of your abilities.  Rest assured, they are all useless," Ipos declared coldly.  "Now that I've finished introducing you to my Final Smash, we can end this meaningless duel."

"Meaningless...?" Mario whispered, suddenly trembling with fury.  He clenched his fists and lunged at the Grimnex with a newly formed Tri-Elemental Blade.  To his shock, Ipos effortlessly caught the sword in his hand and crushed it.  He then delivered a deadly uppercut to Mario's jaw, sending him soaring upward onto the second floor and through a stone pillar.  A small section of the third floor caved in, burying the plumber in rubble.

Tainted Soul

Ipos slowly rose to the second floor, the fluttering of his wings audible by all in the silent Colosseum.  He landed and approached the wreckage with quiet, melancholy footsteps.  "Stay down, if you know what's good for you."

As if only to defy Ipos' stoic command, the Mushroom Hero emerged from beneath a large chunk of debris.  His face was covered in bloody scrapes, and his clothes were rugged and torn.  With great effort, Mario rose to his feet and prepared to engage Ipos yet again.  "I already told you...  Nothing you say can deter me from my goals..."

"In that case, I'll tell you the truth about my rank.  I may be the Delta Grimnex, but if the Grimnexes were ranked on strength alone, I would be the Beta Grimnex without question.  You see, although he is undeniably strong when compared to lower ranking Grimnexes, King Zagan does not hold his position because of how powerful he is.  He has a certain...'quality' that makes us obey him.  Venus, his second command, was promoted because he holds special feelings for her.  The Alpha Grimnex disappeared centuries ago.  That puts me at the top of the Grimnexes in terms of power."

"I'm relieved..." Mario laughed weakly.  "I was a little embarrassed that I was having so much trouble against someone who wasn't even the toughest Grimnex...  Now that I know the truth, I feel a little better...  All I have to do is beat you, and then the strongest Grimnex will be out of the way..."

"You think this is noble?  Because all I see is a foolish man too stubborn to realize his own defeat," Ipos hissed, beginning to grow irritated by Mario's persistence.  "What are you accomplishing by standing up just to take another beating?  Why not resign from this futile battle and accept a quick, painless death?"

"Because I made a vow to Peach.  I swore that I would love and cherish her, through joy and sorrow, sickness and health, and whatever challenges we may face.  Do you see this ring, Ipos?"  Mario held his hand in front of the Grimnex, recalling the words that the princess spoke as she placed it on his finger.

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

"This ring represents the promise that I made to her on our wedding day!" Mario cried, angrily charging at Ipos.

"You darned fool!" Ipos screamed, knocking him onto the floor with a brutal right hook.  "To what extent do you plan to adhere to this vow?!  Will you run to your death in the name of some oath you made to a woman who can't even remember your own name?!  How is it that this woman is so special to you?  How can this woman, who has sat perched on that balcony for the entirety of this struggle without so much as batting an eyelash, possibly mean so much to you?!  Damn you!"  His frustration overcoming his calm, cool demeanor, Ipos mercilessly stomped on the grounded Mario's chest, sending him through the floor with a violent crash.  He then dropped through the hole that he created, picked up Mario's lifeless body, and hurled him through another column, causing debris to rain down.  He lifted the plumber by the throat and began brutally pounding him with bone-breaking punches and kicks.  When he finally grew tired of this, Ipos dropped Mario onto the floor and stabbed his blade through his arm with a vicious shriek.

"Do you still think it's worth it?!" the Grimnex cried as he tore his weapon from the Mushroom Hero's flesh.  Mario could do nothing but howl in agony as he was subjected to this ruthless beating.  "Your vows mean nothing when faced with the cruel reality of your defeat!  The Princess Peach that you knew died long before this execution began.  Why can't you understand that?"

"You're still trying... to figure me out... with logic and reason...?" Mario chuckled softly, coughing up a mouthful of blood.  "Heh... and you're calling me a fool...?"  The Mushroom Hero clenched his fists and prepared to rise once more.

"Insolent human!" Ipos growled, placing his palm on Mario's chest.  In the blink of an eye, he sent a shockwave through the plumber's body that launched him into the wall at the opposite end of the Colosseum.  "Your idealistic determination is no match for scientific fact.  Now, this is your final warning.  Accept death gracefully or suffer the consequences."

His body battered and beaten, Mario struggled to his feet.  He merely smirked at the blatant impossibility of his victory.  "Maybe you didn't hear me...  I'm gonna beat you, Ipos.  And then I'm gonna leave the Nightmare Vault with Peach safely at my side..."

For Ipos, this was the final straw.  His cold, sapphire eyes gleamed with sheer hatred as his angelic wings gently carried him upward.  Everyone, demon or human, gazed up at Ipos, who had nearly been engulfed by the cloudy black sky.  There was a sudden roar of thunder, and the Grimnex pointed his golden harp at the Mushroom Hero.  And before Mario's awestricken eyes, Ipos began to multiply.

Mario's breathing had become heavy, and his eyes were now trembling with fear.  He attempted to speak, but only incoherent grunts of pure terror came out.  He could do nothing but stare in wide-eyed horror at the increasing number of Grimnexes that filled the sky.  There was a flash of lightning, and twelve golden harps glistened above the Colosseum.

"One dozen bows... A limitless quantity of arrows...  You do the math.  The only remaining outcome for you... is death," Ipos and his clones declared, his stern voice echoing throughout the amphitheater.  "Farewell."  With yet another crackle of thunder, the twelve angels unleashed a rainstorm of swords upon the tattered Mushroom Hero.

Time seemed to move in slow motion as Mario gawked helplessly at the flurry of blades heading his way.  He stood on the bottom floor of the Colosseum, a vast, level arena with nothing to hide behind.  Frantically scanning the area, he spotted the nearest form of shelter: a pile of debris that was half a football field's distance away from him.  His eyes narrowed.  He formed a Tri-Elemental Blade in his right hand.  With a howl of determination, he took off, sprinting frantically toward his only means of salvation.

The spectators gasped in unison as they witnessed this gut-wrenching race against time.  Despite all that he had been through up to this point, Mario still had a chance to survive Ipos' ultimate attack.  As expected by most, the daggers won the race.  The rainstorm of 'arrows' had finally reached the ground.  Now caught up in a frenzy of falling swords, Mario fiercely weaved, ducked, and dove past countless blades, even going so far as to parry any nearby daggers with his Tri-Elemental Blade.  His movements were erratic and unpredictable, and though he hadn't looked back even once, he was still untouched.  It was as if he was dodging rain.  Unwilling to accept defeat, Ipos and his doppelgangers added more blades to the mix.

"Unbelievable..." Gaea breathed, shaking his head in utter disbelief.  "This is... this is some sort of miracle...  To what lengths will this man go to rescue the princess?"

"Mario..." Peach whispered, her dark, emotionless eyes watching the plumber intently.  "That ring..."  She looked at her hand and then back at Mario.  "What is this feeling...?"

"I don't know how he's doing it, but he just might make it," Zagan observed in astonishment.

Closer and closer, Mario's desperation grew...  He had already passed the halfway mark and was now nearly two thirds of the way there.  Two thirds, three fourths, four fifths...  The otherwise useless pile of debris was practically within his grasp.  Just a few more steps...  Only a few feet away, Mario dove forward. 

Blood splattered onto the floor.

Black Heart II

There he was, lying defeated on the floor in a pool of blood mere feet away from shelter.  Six blades were wedged in his flesh: two in his back and one in each of his limbs.  His body trembled in anguish as he struggled with all of his might to stand once more.  Most horrifyingly of all, he could feel a cold, creeping sensation rise up his neck and onto his chin.  The feeling began to spread upward until Mario saw something black in the corner of his eye.  He immediately understood what was happening.  His Demon Exoskeleton now covered nearly his entire body.  All that remained unfinished was the skull.

Engulfed in a ray of light from above, Ipos descended as his duplicates faded away.  "You put forth more effort than any of my previous foes, but in the end, it was for naught.  You would have been far better off if you had chosen to die with honor."  He approached Mario's body with calm, gradual footsteps.

"Don't talk... as if I'm dead..." Mario grumbled, summoning all of his strength just to speak.  "I'm disappointed, Ipos...  You fired all those blades at me... but this is all you could manage...?  You really should... work on your aim..."  Quivering from head to toe, the Mushroom Hero slowly lifted himself onto his feet and pointed his Tri-Elemental Blade at the Grimnex.  "It's those eyes...  As long as you keep staring at me with those condescending eyes...I'll keep staring back in defiance..."

Ipos noticed the Demon Exoskeleton through the rips in Mario's clothing.  "I see...  That cursed exoskeleton is what has kept you alive.  I was wondering how you were still able to use your arm after our first encounter.  Come to think of it...  I made a promise of my own, didn't I?"

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

In the blink of an eye, Ipos snatched the plumber by the throat.  A light drizzle began to fall upon the Colosseum as the Grimnex fluttered upward, holding Mario above him like a trophy.  As soon as he was sure that everyone on the fourth floor had a decent view, he mercilessly pressed his blade against the Mushroom Hero's right shoulder.  In mere seconds, the Demon Exoskeleton had already begun to crack.

"What's wrong, Ipos...?  You seem a little ticked off..." Mario chuckled weakly, half of his face now covered in a black skeleton.

Each of Mario's comrades cringed as Ipos' sword finally struck flesh, resulting in several screams of agony.  The rainfall grew steadily heavier, and blood began to pour from the deep gash in the plumber's arm.  His bloodcurdling cries of misery echoed throughout the Colosseum, as did the sickening reverberation of Ipos' dagger slicing through his flesh.  In one swift, horrifying motion, the Grimnex fulfilled his promise.  Mario fell silent.  Ipos released his grip.  The one-armed plumber descended lifelessly through the rain before hitting the stone floor with an empty thud.  This time, he did not rise.

"Dead," Ipos whispered bitterly.  "The Mushroom Hero is no more."

Mario's allies were dumbfounded.  They gawked at Ipos with an expression of pure shock and terror.  The Mushroom Hero is no more.  These were words that not one of them had expected to hear.  They could not fight.  They could not cry.  They could not even move.  They were paralyzed by their own disbelief.  All but one.

Attempting Revenge

The melancholy silence was broken as a chilling battle cry erupted from the top floor of the Colosseum.  Ipos whirled around just in time to see dozens of green Fireballs heading in his direction.  From the edge of the balcony near Princess Peach and Gaea, a furious Luigi was hurling a nonstop barrage of flames at the Grimnex.  Ipos quickly vanished behind a thick cloud of smoke and ash, unable to retaliate as he was bombarded with Fireballs.

"Luigi!  Calm down!" Gaea demanded, his voice barely audible due to the deafening explosions resulting from the plumber's frenzied assault.  Not surprisingly, his orders fell upon deaf ears.  "This is gonna get messy...  I'd prefer to sit this one out."  With that, Gaea began to back away, taking shelter behind a nearby column.

Out from the smoke, a flurry of swords began to counteract Luigi's Fireballs.  Ipos had begun to fight back.  The exchange of blades and flames continued for less than a minute before Ipos himself soared through the center of the fray.  Luigi immediately ceased fire and clenched his fists in preparation for hand-to-hand combat.  He planted his foot on the very end of the balcony and launched himself through the air toward Ipos.  The plumber extended his right foot, attempting to kick his enemy, but the Delta Grimnex caught him by the leg and tossed him downward.  As Luigi descended, Ipos followed up with a round of twelve 'arrows'.

"I'm assuming you plan to avenge your brother.  How pathetic," Ipos sighed.

Luigi cupped his hands together and shot a Fireball at the wall, propelling him in the opposite direction and allowing him to evade Ipos' blades.  He then performed a wall-kick that boosted him upward in Ipos' direction, and as he closed the gap between him and his opponent, his right fist began to glow with a green aura.

That aura...  Isn't that Gaea's technique...? Ipos wondered, unable to react in time to dodge the plumber's new ability.  Augmented with the power of his rage, Luigi struck the Delta Grimnex in the face with a punch in which his aura had been concentrated.  Unfortunately for Luigi, Ipos was quick to recover and grabbed hold of him.  Now clutching him by the throat, Ipos swung the plumber around before tossing him into a column near Gaea and Princess Peach.

"Damn it, he knows," Gaea cursed as Luigi plowed through the pillar, burying himself in debris.  "I'll bet Ipos isn't too happy about me accidentally training one of the intruders..."

"No, I most certainly am not," Ipos agreed, emerging from the shadows behind Gaea.  "Assisting the enemy is an act of treachery.  As soon as the Mushroom Hero's younger sibling is dealt with, you and the princess are next."  He aimed his harp at the pile of rubble under which Luigi was buried.

In a burst of green flames, Luigi broke free from the wreckage and charged at Ipos.  But by the time he had taken his first few steps, Ipos had already launched a sword at him.  The blade pierced his right arm and pinned him to the nearby stone wall.  The green plumber screamed in pain as he attempted to pull the dagger from his bleeding arm, but Ipos had no intentions of allowing him to escape.  He pulled a sword back on one of his harp strings and aimed it at his helpless prey's throat.

"This is the end, plumber," Ipos declared icily.

"Ipos...  Wait..." Peach whispered, her entire body trembling in confusion.  "I...  I don't understand why... but...  I don't want to see him die..."

"What was that...?" Ipos inquired, slowly turning around to face the princess.  "Princess Peach, why are you looking at me with that human expression?  Do you honestly expect me to spare his life?  Nonsense."  He released his grip on his blade, sending it directly at Luigi's throat.  A scream echoed throughout the Colosseum, and the floor was stained with blood.

"You...?  What...?" Ipos gasped, unable to comprehend what had just happened.  His blade was wedged not in Luigi's neck, but in the chest of a battered, beaten figure.  His clothes were tattered and full of rips, and his body and face were almost entirely covered by a black skeleton.  Only the top left corner of his face remained exposed.  He was breathing heavily, and his right arm had been cut off at the shoulder.  By some miracle- or curse- Mario lived on.

"Bro...?" Luigi whispered, his eyes wide with shock.

Mario tore the blade from his chest and hurled himself at Ipos, wildly slashing at the Grimnex without even attempting to defend himself.  The two warriors clashed blades once again; only this time, Ipos was on the defensive.  Mario did not let up for even a second, and without an opening, Ipos was unable to back off and attack with his harp from a distance.  In fact, the demonic plumber's attacks were so savage and unpredictable that the Grimnex couldn't even risk a counterattack.

It doesn't make any sense...  How can he still be alive...? Ipos wondered, staggering backward as he struggled to parry his opponent's sword strikes.  Fed up with Mario's resistance, the Delta Grimnex went on the offensive.  Both warriors fueled by rage and passion, the swordfight grew to an entirely new level of intensity.  Sparks lit up the dank, rainy Colosseum, and the numerous metal clangs of their swords served as a background melody for their duel.

"L- Luigi...?  That man, Mario..." Peach whispered hoarsely.  "I...  Why is he so stubborn...?  Why does he keep challenging Ipos, even when the outcome is obvious?  And when he nearly died... why did you attack Ipos...?"

Luigi removed the blade that had previously pinned him to the wall.  "Heh, you remembered our names.  It looks like you're finally starting to remember," he said with a weak smile.  "Good.  Just keep watching them fight.  Do you want to know why Mario came here?  Do you want to know the reason he went against all odds, disobeying a direct order from Zeus, and teamed up with someone like Bowser?  He's endured all of these hardships... fought so many Grimnexes... and dealt with more internal conflict than you could imagine... all for you, Peach.  He said that he would rescue you, and that's what he's gonna do."

"For me... but why...?"

Only Human

"Because he loves you...  He believes in you, despite your claims of becoming a demon.  He has faith that your former self is still somewhere, buried deep down inside of you.  That's why he won't give up on you, even when you tell him to quit."

Princess Peach shook her head emphatically.  "But... But Ipos said... this is my true identity...  My former lifestyle was nothing but a lie!"

"Did Ipos tell you that Mario is also a demon?" Luigi pried, growing more desperate by the minute.

Peach's eyes widened with shock.  "No...  He can't be..."  She squinted at the two warriors still engaged in a fierce swordfight.  "I can't believe I didn't see it...  That skeleton... that black aura...  He's part demon, part human... just like-"

"Just like you," Luigi finished.  "But there's a key difference between the two of you.  When Mario learned of his demon origins, he stayed the same.  He didn't turn on his friends, let alone forget about them altogether.  Even during Crimson's invasion, when the entire Mushroom Kingdom was in turmoil, Mario returned to protect us despite his demon heritage.  Human or not, he's still the Mushroom Hero.  And in the same right, you're still the Mushroom Kingdom's princess."

With a deadly sword strike, Ipos sent Mario's dagger clanging to the floor.  The Grimnex lunged forward and pinned his foe to the wall with his elbow.  The plumber retaliated by forging a Tri-Elemental Blade, it's rainbow color now replaced with shades of gray as a result of his Iniquity overpowering his Elemental Energy.  The skull of the Demon Exoskeleton continued to gradually expand, nearly covering his entire face.

"Look at him.  Even now, his demon half is winning the struggle for control over his body.  Yet he's continuing to resist the demonic power welling up inside of him, just so he can battle against Ipos and rescue you.  But I can tell that even he has begun to lose hope...  Ipos may very well be the most powerful creature in this dimension or the next.  And the person that he's gone through all of this hell for... doesn't even have a shred of faith in him.  How do you think he must feel, putting his life at risk for someone who won't even cheer him on?"

Peach's ordinarily sapphire eyes began to regain their color as teardrops dripped down her cheeks.  "I... I remember..."

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

"I do."

After suffering another crushing blow at the hands of the Delta Grimnex, Mario tumbled onto his back in defeat.  As Ipos raised his blade to deliver the final blow, the skull on Mario's face finished materializing.  The Mushroom Hero had vanished, leaving behind only a black skeleton.  The Demon Exoskeleton was complete.  "Ah...  I've returned at last," Mario chuckled, now under his demon ancestor's control.

The fully demonized Mario leapt onto his feet and sprinted toward Ipos, but his awakening was short-lived.  A tearful, heartfelt cry reverberated through the otherwise silent Colosseum.  "MARIO!" 

The Mushroom Hero, now a walking black skeleton, slowly turned around to see Princess Peach kneeling atop a balcony on the fourth floor, tears streaming from her worried sapphire eyes.  "Please, Mario...  Don't leave me..."


[glow=blue,2,300]Chapter 16: Angelic Blessing[/glow]

The black skeleton paused, Princess Peach's plight still ringing in his ears.  He slowly turned his back on Ipos and gazed upward at his beloved.  Her cheeks were damp with tears, and the color had returned to her eyes.  Through her concern for Mario's safety, Peach had returned to her former self.  "Please, Mario...  Don't make the same mistake that I did...  Don't allow yourself to be swallowed by the darkness of your demon side....  Please...  Don't forget about me the same way I once forgot about you...  Take a look at the ring on your finger, and remember the vows that we exchanged..."


A single teardrop ran down the dark skull that veiled the demonized plumber's face.  Memories of his loved ones flooded his mind, and his Demon Exoskeleton began to crack.  The Mushroom Hero raised his fist and delivered a powerful blow to his own face, smashing the black skull that covered it to pieces.  He took a deep breath and locked eyes with Ipos.  "Heh...  Did you think that I'd need to use my demon ancestor's power to beat you?"

"What is this...?  He...  He's discarding the Demon Exoskeleton just as an animal sheds its skin!" Ipos gasped.  "How can that be possible?  How can the will of a mere human overpower that of a demon?"

"Sorry to disappoint you, Ipos... but I've already relied on my demon half on far too many occasions.  This isn't gonna be one of them," Mario declared, a splendiferous blue aura radiating from his body.  In a single flash of light, the Demon Exoskeleton shattered.  He formed one last Tri-Elemental Blade and rushed at Ipos with a cry of determination.

"Bro...  He's actually doing it," Luigi muttered, his mouth wide with astonishment as the final round of the swordfight between Mario and Ipos commenced.

"That light emanating from his body...  I've seen it before," Peach whispered to Luigi, her right hand held against her heart.  "When Crimson finished you off...  Mario rose to his feet and began to glow with that same exact aura.  We later found out that his intense feelings of sorrow and grief allowed him to instinctively borrow his father's 25% of the Hero's Power.  Could that be what's happening now, despite the immense distance between them?"

Luigi smiled.  "The way you brought him back to his senses...  It reminds me of something the Master once told me.  Mario is a true hero...  If someone begs him for help, no matter how soft or frail their plea may be, he has no choice but to stand once more.  He stood up for you against Crimson, and now he's done the same against Ipos.  He can't ignore you, Peach.  That's why you of all people have to believe in him."

"Your wounds... How can you continue to fight after all the damage you've sustained?" Ipos inquired, staggering backward under the pressure of Mario's relentless slashes.

"I don't feel a thing!" Mario retorted, his attacks growing more aggressive by the minute.  "You can slice and stab me all you want, Ipos; I'm not leaving here unless Peach is at my side.  I'll cut down anyone that stands in my way, even if I have to fight every last Grimnex here!"

"Nonsense!  This is Princess Peach's home!" Ipos insisted, lunging at Mario with one final slash.

"Over my dead body!" Mario howled, pressing his Tri-Elemental Blade against Ipos' dagger.  "Even now, you're still looking down upon me with those cold, condescending eyes...  You've mocked me, you've ridiculed me...  Each time we've met in battle, you've done nothing but talk down to me in an attempt to crush my spirit... But I've got news for you, Ipos...  I'm not giving up, not even if you clone yourself a thousand times!"  His body shimmering with willpower, Mario cut through Ipos' dagger and sliced diagonally across his chest.  Ipos let out a cry of agony and frustration as blood spurted from his fatal wound.  The Grimnex fell to his knees, as did the Mushroom Hero.


Ipos' golden harp and shattered blade clattered to the floor.  The Grimnex coughed up a mouthful of blood.  "Heh...  I never thought it would turn out this way...  You really do care for that woman, don't you...?"

"What could you possibly understand?" Mario snapped, breathing heavily.  "You're just a heartless demon.  You don't know anything about us..."

"Is that what you think...?  I may not be a human...  And though I may appear to be a callous old demon... I understand the emotion of sorrow just as well as any other human..." Ipos whispered bitterly.  "Mario... please listen to what I have to say... so that you may understand why I acted the way I did...  Listen to the story... of the Grimnex who slaughtered a thousand angels...

"I was once a Terranean Angel... one of the four kings who competed for the throne of Terranea.  Years prior to this, a man named Kronos ruled with his son, Zeus.  However, when Zeus sensed the evil in his father's heart, he rebelled, beginning a bloody war between 'good' and 'evil'.  Those who were 'good' became known as Olympians, led by Zeus.  Those who were 'evil' were labeled as demons, led by Kronos.  It was during this war that the Grimnexes were created to assist the demons.  But Kronos gravely underestimated the power of his own henchmen, and in time, Gaea and I became powerful enough to compete with Kronos and Zeus for control over all of Terranea.  And thus, the four of us became known as the Terranean Angels..."  Ipos paused as Peach and Luigi came rushing to Mario's side.

"Ah, good...  Peach will want to hear this next part..." Ipos chuckled softly.  "While I was still a Terranea Angel, I committed what was considered among the demons as the most despicable act of treason possible.  You see, I fell in love with an Olympian...  Her name was Athena...  The two of us were inseparable, and for the first time, I was truly happy.  That woman... gave birth to the ancestor of both Princess Peach... and Pauline..."

Mario gasped.  "No...  You mean...  Peach and Pauline are... related...?"

Ipos nodded slowly.  "Yes...  But that's not where the story ends...  My subordinates would not accept an Olympian queen, and their hatred led to the brutal murder of the love of my life.  I was devastated.  Were these creatures truly so shallow that they could not accept our love...?  I was blinded by rage, and in my fury I went on a rampage, ruthlessly slaughtering a thousand of my own brethren before finally regaining my senses.  From that tragic day forward, I became cold and heartless, relinquishing my throne as a Terranean angel and isolating myself under the rule of Kronos.  When the demons finally lost the war and were sealed in the Nightmare Vault, Kronos, Gaea, and I united under the common goal of revenge.  Of course, Kronos, also known as the Phoenix, did not survive.  Knowing that he was the key to overthrowing Zeus, the Grimnexes and demons plotted to resurrect Kronos in a ceremony known as the Phoenix Salvation...

"However, I had lost all interest in revenge...  My life became empty...  I ceased to enjoy life, silently obeying my superiors while searching for the only remaining link to Athena... our offspring.  Centuries passed, and at last, I finally discovered my ancestral daughters: Princess Peach and Pauline.  For a time, I was content.  But my heart suffered another grave injury when one of my daughters was murdered in cold blood.  And the one responsible... was you, Mario..."

Mario hung his head.  "Pauline...  I still haven't forgotten about what happened...  My demon side took control for only a moment...  When I regained control, she lay dead in my arms..."

"Yes...  And after that day, I developed a deep, burning hatred for you...  But still, I continued to watch Princess Peach from the shadows.  That is, until you arrived in the Mushroom Kingdom, and nearly made her your bride...  I pleaded with King Zagan to send me to retrieve her.  After all, her demon blood would make her a perfect sacrifice for the Phoenix Salvation.  But I never actually planned to allow her to be executed...  I just wanted to keep her safe from you... So that she would not meet the same fate as Pauline..."

Sorrowful Goodbye

"I tried so hard to take her away from you...  I was too blinded by hatred to see the truth...  When you fought so desperately to save her, I was baffled...  Why would a man who was cruel enough to slaughter his first fiancé risk his life to save his second...?"  Teardrops formed in the corners of Ipos' eyes.  "As you battled on, I finally began to understand...  After witnessing your demon transformation, it finally hit me...  You never meant to kill Pauline...  Once again, we demons were at fault..."

Mario began to sob at the tragic nature of the Grimnex's tale.  "Ipos, please...  That's enough...  You'll die if you don't stop-"

"Mario... listen carefully...  After I killed you...  I planned to personally bring the execution to a halt...  But you've proven yourself worthy...    Please, Mario...  You must forge on where I have failed...  Rescue Princess Peach...  I give you my blessings, and pray that you live a full, happy life with my daughter..."  With every ounce of strength he had, Ipos placed his palm on Mario's right shoulder.  "This... is all that I can offer you as a wedding gift..."  A bright red light began to transfer from the Grimnex's hand to the plumber's shoulder, causing his Demon Exoskeleton to extend outward in the shape of an arm.  "Do not shatter the skeleton that I just created...  In time, it will fade away on its own... and beneath it... will be a brand new arm..."  His face now damp with tears, Ipos collapsed into a pool of blood.  He smiled softly as his eyes began to close.  "My only wish... is that you can both find it in your hearts... to forgive your foolish old father..."

"Ipos... thank you..." Mario replied softly, rising to his feet as Peach cried at her ancestral father's side.  "For years, I've tried to shoulder the guilt of Pauline's death by myself...  I rarely considered how her death may have impacted others, and for that, I apologize."  He, Luigi, and Princess Peach took a moment of silence to mourn the noble Grimnex's passing.

"Poor Ipos...  I know he was a Grimnex, but... is it wrong for us to feel compassion toward him?" Luigi wondered aloud, wiping his cheeks with his sleeve.

Mario shook his head.  "No, not at all.  Demon, Grimnex, or human...  In the end, we're a lot more alike than you might think.  After all, Peach and I are both part demon.  I suspect that if we took the time to get to know each and every Grimnex... we'd find that many of them would have their own story to tell..."


"Pardon me for interrupting, but I'm afraid that I cannot allow you to leave," Gaea's voice echoed from the nearby staircase.  "I really hate to do this, but I have orders to escort Princess Peach back to King Zagan.  And judging by your group's condition, it seems that you have no choice but to comply."  His eyes shifted from the battle-worn Mario to Luigi, who had a severe gash on his right arm but was otherwise relatively unscathed.  Trembling in fear behind them was Princess Peach.

"Didn't you hear what I said before...?  I'll fend off every last Grimnex until Peach is safe," Mario admonished between clenched teeth.

"I may be one rank below Ipos, but in your fatigued state, you probably wouldn't notice much of a difference.  I'm really not too keen on kicking a guy when he's down, but I'd rather not be executed by Zagan for betrayal," Gaea informed them with a sigh.

Mario rushed forward at the Grimnex, but was slowed down severely by his wounds.  With little effort, Gaea dealt a crushing blow to the Mushroom Hero's chest, knocking him onto his back.  Mario frantically attempted to rise once more, but he was far too drained from his struggle with Ipos.  With a defeated sigh, the Mushroom Hero collapsed from exhaustion.

"Bro!" Luigi cried as he dashed to his brother's aid.  "Are you gonna be alright?  Your wounds..."

"The princess..." Mario whispered, pointing wearily at Peach.  Luigi had been too concerned with his brother's well being to notice that Gaea had managed to nab Princess Peach behind his back.  "Protect her...  I'll catch up..."  With a faint smirk, the plumber closed his eyes and drifted into unconsciousness.

Luigi turned to face Gaea.  "Let her go, Gaea.  Please, I don't want to fight you..."

"Enough," Gaea replied bitterly.  "Our business is done.  My mission is simply to return the princess to King Zagan."  With the flailing princess tucked beneath shoulder, the Grimnex turned and sprinted up the stairway.

"Gaea!  We're not finished yet!" Luigi called after him, hot on the Grimnex's tail.

Atop the Colosseum, King Zagan's eyes glimmered red with an eerie malevolence as he reflected upon the clash between Ipos and Mario.  This is most unexpected...  I certainly anticipated Mario's victory, but... to think that he actually found the willpower to overcome my influence...  His Demon Exoskeleton was supposed to stabilize and serve as a foundation for the Phoenix Salvation.  This changes things...  His omniscient gaze shifted to the ongoing battles taking place nearby.

Ace, Wario, and Waluigi stood with their backs to the wall, each of them staring down Ace's brother, Jack.  "What's wrong?  Are the three of you really that afraid of a single blind man?" Jack sneered as he adjusted his top hat.  "C'mon, you've got me outnumbered.  What more could you possibly want?"

"Cocky jerk," Wario grumbled, quivering with rage.

"Don't let his trash talk get to you," Ace warned the irate Wario.  "He may be blind, but he's my brother.  That makes him a member of the Zepar tribe, and who knows what kind of strange powers he's developed while working with the Grimnexes.  For one, he seems to be able to paralyze people without even touching them.  Nothing good can come from blindly rushing at him."

"Blindly?  Was that some sort of pun?" Jack inquired, his voice dripping with bitterness.  "I'm not amused.  You shouldn't make fun of your own brother, especially since you were the one who stole my light."

"Ugh, we don't need to listen to this," Waluigi sighed, pointing his index finger at the Grimnex.  "You told us not to rush at him blindly, but you never said it would do any harm to attack from a distance."  Before Ace could stop him, the thief fired a concentrated beam of purple flames through his finger.

"Hmm, that's no ordinary Fireball," Jack noted, cocking his head to the side as Waluigi's Fireball zoomed past him.  "Interesting...  Your unusually thin body structure allows you to concentrate your Elemental Energy into thinner, more powerful blasts.  That's quite an impressive Final Smash."

"I thought he was supposed to be blind," Waluigi mumbled.

Jack grinned.  "Yes, you're wondering how I not only dodged your attack, but discovered all that there was to know about it in mere seconds.  I'll give you a hint.  I used the same tactic to hear what you just said, despite the fact that you were talking under your breath.  Have you figured it out yet?  Well, let's just say that my body has compensated greatly for my loss of vision.  In exchange for losing my eyesight, I obtained otherworldly hearing.  Evading your attack was simple.  I listened for the whistling sound created by the wind resistance to your Fireball.  I also deduced your body structure by listening to your footsteps and the sound of the air moving against you.  I could even hear the flow of Elemental Energy within your Fireball.  In many ways, I can see the world even clearer than all three of you combined.  Even now, Waluigi is completely unaware of the fact that I have total control over his body."

Waluigi attempted to move, but found that he could not.  "But when did you-?"

"The instant after you shot that Fireball at me, I was already in control.  You were too focused on your attack to even notice."  With a few hand signs, Jack commanded Waluigi to point his index finger at his comrades.  "Now, let's put that Final Smash of yours to use."

"Ace, Wario, I can't stop myself!" Waluigi cried, his fingertip emanating a purple glow.

Ace and Wario leapt out of the way just in time to avoid the massive explosion created by Waluigi's pointblank Final Smash.  However, as they were in midair, Jack extended his opened palms in their direction.  By the time they had landed, he had already gained total dominance over their actions.

"And just like that, the three of you are in my grasp," Jack chuckled wickedly.

I've gotta figure out how he does that.  Until then, none of us stand a chance, Ace thought.

Jack glared at Ace with an evil smirk.  "What's wrong, brother?  I can tell by your increased heart rate that you're feeling nervous and even a bit frightened.  I'm glad.  Because you're going to suffer, Ace...  Everything that you stand for... everything that holds proof of your existence...  I'm going to annihilate every last bit of it...  And I'll start by forcing you all to watch helplessly as Princess Peach, the woman you came all this way to rescue, is executed."

"King Zagan, I have returned with the princess," Gaea informed him as he gently laid Peach at his feet.  "You may proceed with the ceremony."

None of this is right...  Mario was supposed to be here in his fully demonized form.  I can't execute the princess, not yet... Zagan thought, maintaining his calm and cool demeanor.  "Very well.  But it seems that you have been followed."

"Hey Gaea!  You're forgetting something!" Luigi called, gasping for air as he reached the top of the staircase.  "We still have some unfinished business!"

"Gaea, take care of this ruffian," Zagan commanded.  "I will personally ensure that Princess Peach remains here."

"Ugh...  Fine..." Gaea groaned lazily.  "I was hoping that I'd be dismissed for the day...  Oh well, I guess I gotta take responsibility for my own mistakes..."

"Gaea, please listen..." Luigi pleaded.  "We may be on opposing sides, but...  I still consider you my friend.  Do we really have to resort to fighting?"

"You lied to me by claiming to be one of us," Gaea replied, sternly shaking his head.  "After that, how can you expect me to trust anything that you say?  As far as I'm concerned, every word that you've spoken to me has been part of some dishonorable ploy to stab me in the back."

Luigi sighed.  "That's too bad...  But if you insist on standing in my way, I have no other options.  I guess I'll just have to demonstrate all of the skills that you've taught me."  He charged directly at the Grimnex, his fist emitting a dark green glow.  Luigi lunged at his former mentor and tossed a punch that was augmented by the power of his aura, but Gaea simply swatted the blow to the side with his left hand and retaliated with his right.  As the Grimnex's fist collided with his chin, the plumber instantly understood that his training had been inadequate.

Gaea threw back his head and laughed.  "Only a few days of training and you're already challenging your master?  Such arrogance.  You may have picked up the basics rather quickly, but the difference in our experience is obvious."

"Heh... you're right..." Luigi chuckled softly as he struggled to his feet.  He wept the blood from his lip and grinned.  "There's no denying it...  You're better than me...  But that doesn't mean I have to rely solely on the techniques that you taught me..."  He cupped his hands together as a colossal green Fireball began to swirl in his palms, and with a cry of defiance, he hurled the inferno at Gaea.

Broken Vows

Meanwhile, a short distance away from the site of Luigi's desperate struggle, Ares and Venus locked horns.  "Venus, why did you become a part of this?  Why did you become a Grimnex?" Ares inquired, fiercely swinging his axe at the female Grimnex.

"I wished to serve the Phoenix," Venus answered, calmly parrying her former comrade's axe with her dagger, "and to forget about the past."

"Serve the Phoenix?  Don't give me that!" Ares cried.  "You're starting to sound like Princess Peach!  Someone with your background wouldn't simply decide to follow the Phoenix.  You were once an ordinary demon, living in a small village that was a part of the Demon Resistance.  Why the sudden change?  Why betray your family and friends to become a part of the Phoenix's army?"

"Because I felt like it," Venus declared firmly.  "I was willing to leave everything behind to become a Grimnex."

"You expect me to believe that?  Tell me the truth.  You were brainwashed by the Grimnexes, just as Princess Peach was!  To this day, you can do nothing but blindly follow the Beta Grimnex's orders in some futile effort to erase the past from your memory.  But you'll soon find that it's not as easy to forget as you may think."

"Enough.  You were never this obnoxious," Venus hissed.  "What happened to your bloodlust?  There was a time when you would drool at the chance to face me in combat.  Now it's almost as if you regret fighting me.  Did Mario bring about this change?  Is this what has become of Peach as well?  If that is what it means to return to my former self, then I'd rather die."

"Mario opened my eyes!  He's demonstrated that anyone, even a ruthless demon like me, can change.  When I first met him, I thought he was crazy too.  I couldn't understand how he expected to save Peach, who had all but forgotten about him.  His determination peaked my interest, and after personally enduring the blunt of his resolve, I now understand what that man is capable of.  You're the Gamma Grimnex... and I'm the Iota.  I knew from the very beginning that trying to overpower you would be pointless.  But I thought that maybe... you could change."

"Your shallow sentiments cannot even put a crack in the hollow shell that lies where my heart once was," Venus replied bitterly.  "My loyalty belongs to the Phoenix.  Traitors such as yourself cannot be allowed to live."  In the blink of an eye, she sliced through Ares' axe and stabbed the Grimnex in the heart.

"Venus... please..." Ares gasped, coughing up a mouthful of blood as he fell to his knees.  "S...a.... don't allow... the t...edy of... yo...r chi...ho...d... to r...n... y...r l...ve...f...r...G....ve..."  Tears began to drip down his cheeks, and he collapsed into a pool of blood.  The Iota Grimnex was no more.

"Excellent work, Venus," Zagan commended her.  "That only leaves the Mushroom Hero's brother..."

"My lord, pardon my insolence, but why have you not yet executed the princess?" Venus inquired, humbly bowing before her king.  "With all due respect, we wouldn't have to worry about her being kidnapped again if she was dead..."

It seems that even Venus has begun to question my hesitation.  I cannot delay the princess' execution any longer, or my own henchmen will begin to grow suspicious, Zagan thought.  "Yes, of course."

His body battered and bruised, Luigi frantically took note of the bleak situation.  No...  Ares is dead...  And it doesn't look like Ace or the Wario Brothers can move...  I'm on my own...  But I can't even handle Gaea in a one-on-one fight...  How am I supposed to take on Venus, Jack, Gaea, and King Zagan all by myself?  I want to help, but... do I even stand a chance...?


[glow=blue,2,300]Chapter 17: The King's Revelations[/glow]


His heart racing, Luigi frantically scanned his surroundings in search of a solution to his dilemma.  Lying dead in a pool of blood at Venus' feet was Ares, and only a short distance away, Jack had restrained Ace, Wario, and Waluigi with his unorthodox abilities.  Her eyes glued to King Zagan's blade, Princess Peach trembled at the center of a circle in which the mark of the devil had been inscribed.  Luigi took a step toward the princess, but Gaea stood firmly in his path.  He was on his own.

"Princess Peach, it is time for you to fulfill your duty as a loyal follower of the Phoenix," King Zagan informed her.  "The circle engraved beneath you serves as the only remaining link to the Phoenix's sealed spirit.  The mixture of your demon and human heritage is what makes you a suitable vessel for our lord's resurrection."

"I no longer have any interest in being the Phoenix's puppet!" Peach exclaimed as the Beta Grimnex seized her arm.  She struggled to break free, but to no avail.  "Release me!"

"I find it rather impressive... that Mario was able to change you in such a short period of time," Zagan muttered, unsheathing his blade.  He slowly raised his dagger to the princess's throat, taking every possible opportunity to delay her execution.  We're still missing the final key to the Phoenix Salvation, but... unless I kill her now, my comrades will grow suspicious...

As the hesitant Grimnex prepared to end Peach's life, the Colosseum was lit with a burst of red as a colossal Fireball soared through the air and struck Zagan in the back.  His blade clattered to the floor, and Princess Peach took this opportunity to make her escape.  "What was that?  I could've sworn someone just said my name."

"Ah, Mario.  You're right on schedule," Zagan chuckled as the smoke from Mario's Fireball cleared.  "I didn't think you'd be so quick to recover from your bout with Ipos."

"It turns out that a little nap was all I really needed.  I'm not at my peak, but Ipos told me all about your rank.  He was the toughest of the Grimnexes, so if I beat him, I think I can manage against you," Mario replied with a grin.

"Mario!" Peach shrieked, Venus now standing before her with her sword drawn.

"Stand down, Venus," Zagan commanded.  He turned to Gaea and Jack.  "You too."

Gaea dropped his fists, and Jack lifted his supernatural restraints from Ace and the Wario Brothers.   Venus stepped aside, glaring at her king as Peach dashed to her friends' side.  "With all due respect, why are we letting the princess go?"

King Zagan grinned from beneath his veil as he and Mario gradually approached each other.  "At this point, any encounter with those inferior fools is pointless.  The only battle that can truly settle this matter is one between Mario and me.  Instead of adding to the confusion, simply sit back and enjoy the show.  This way, the Mushroom Hero will not have to worry about his beloved's safety.  We can fight without any restraints."

"Sounds good," Mario affirmed.  He turned to his allies.  "The same goes for you guys.  Stay out of this.  I know you'll probably want to jump in to help me at some point, but this is something I have to do alone.  Besides, if you interfere, there's not a doubt in my mind that Venus, Gaea, and Jack would do the same, and who knows what would happen in all the confusion.  Please don't jeopardize the princess' safety."

Ace nodded.  "You have my word."

"Show him who's boss, Bro!" Luigi cheered.

Mario vs. Zagan

They're falling right into my hands...  And to think that only minutes ago, I was worried my plan would fail, Zagan thought with a grin.

Not one to wait for his opponent to make the first move, Mario charged at Zagan with his fists clenched.  He threw a punch at the Grimnex's face, but to his surprise, Zagan evaded it with ease.  After ducking beneath a retaliatory sword slash, the plumber quickly switched to the defensive.  He staggered backward, constantly veering from side to side as he dodged his foe's relentless swipes, but no matter how thoroughly as he searched, he could not find an opening to counterattack.

I didn't expect him to be so agile...  That armor he's wearing looks pretty heavy, Mario thought.  But that's not all...  His skill with a blade is impeccable.  I shouldn't be able to dodge all these slashes... yet somehow, my body knows how to react...  It's as if I've encountered his fighting style before...

His eyes following each and every motion that Zagan's sword made, Mario formed a Tri-Elemental Blade and prepared to go on the offensive.  The Mushroom Hero parried his rival's dagger with an upward slash before lunging forward at him, but he quickly found the Beta Grimnex's defensive skills to be superior.  Each time they clashed blades, sparks soared into the air and lit the dank Colosseum.  For a time, they matched each other blow for blow, but Mario could not keep up with Zagan's unparalleled swordsmanship for long.  The demon knocked Mario's blade out of his hand, but the plumber quickly responded by thrusting his right arm, which was now comprised entirely of his Demon Exoskeleton, forward.  He swept Zagan's weapon to the side and followed up with a Fireball-augmented left hook that sent the Grimnex teetering backwards.

"Heh, your punches still hurt more than any demon I've ever fought," Zagan chuckled as he regained his balance.  A deep crack now ran down the center of his veil, no doubt as a result of Mario's attack.  "You have no idea how long I've waited for this day... the day that we could finally settle the score between the two of us."

"What are you talking about...?" Mario inquired, suddenly stricken with fear.  "That veil... Who the hell are you?"

"Can't you tell?  Perhaps I should remove my armor and veil."  King Zagan began to strip away his armor, revealing a sleeveless grey shirt and baggy black pants.  He was about Mario's height, and without his armor, he appeared to be rather thin.  He placed his hand on his mask, the only remaining object that concealed his identity, and slowly slid it off of his face.

As more of Zagan's features became distinguishable, Mario gasped in wide-eyed disbelief.  His face grew pale.  He could never forget his former comrade's fair skin, dark brown eyes, and spiky black hair.  "You... You're... dead...  How could you...?"

From the sidelines, each of Mario's friends was equally shocked.  "I suspected he might still be alive... But I thought I was just being overly analytical..." Ace whispered.

"Ah, Mario, how many years has it been?"


"You...  You're Glaive...?" Mario stammered, dumbfounded by Zagan's true identity.  "That's... impossible...  You died... six years ago..."

"Such naivety...  As long as I continue to be one of the Phoenix's chosen vessels, I cannot die any sooner than you can," Glaive informed him coldly.  "You see...  We both play a vital role in the Phoenix Salvation."

Mario's face turned ghastly white.  "What are you saying...?"

"You mean to tell me that you never once realized the truth... that you know nothing of you truly are?  In that case, I'll tell you.  Mario, you and I share a common demon ancestor.  And he isn't just any ordinary demon.  The demonic spirit that dwells within the darkest depths of our souls is that of the Phoenix.  And your precious princess over there is the perfect vessel in which the fragments of Kronos' spirit may be reunited."

Mario fell to his knees.  "You're... lying..."

"Not at all," Glaive assured him.  "Destiny brought the three of us to this very spot atop the Grimnex Palace.  You contain the Phoenix Spirit, I contain the Phoenix Consciousness, and Princess Peach possesses the Phoenix Link that will unite the former two.  My association with you... was purely for the sake of someday resurrecting my lord."

"All of those times we fought alongside each other...  That all meant nothing to you?!" Mario thundered, trembling with rage.

"Don't give Glaive all the credit," a voice echoed from within Glaive's body.  The sound came from his lips, but it was clearly not Glaive's voice.  "At this point, his body is almost entirely under my control.  Even before Glaive met you, I've served as a perpetual voice in the back of his head, constantly giving him orders so that my dreams of revenge could someday become a reality.  This entire time, Glaive was merely a puppet."

"Don't listen to this jerk!  He's just messing with your head!" Wario exclaimed from a safe distance.  "The Glaive that we knew would never betray us!"

"No...  His voice...  It's the same..." Mario clutched his head, remembering the demonic voice that echoed in the back of his head.  "I've heard that exact same voice...  It keeps on reaching out to me... attempting to coax me into relinquishing control of my body..."

A wicked, uncharacteristic smile spread across Glaive's face.  "You believe me...  I can see it in your eyes...  As much as you may want me to take back what I said, to tell you that this is all a joke...  it's real, Mario.  And this is only the beginning.  Not only am I your enemy...  I am the one who singlehandedly planned each and every one of your battles up until now."  His grin widened.  "And I'm not just talking about your struggles with the Grimnexes.  Lord Shade, Crimson...  One way or another, I was somehow involved in nearly every tragedy you've faced since the day you were born.  I know you've heard my story before, but allow me to start from the beginning.  What you are about to hear is the absolute truth, the full extent of my planning.  I will recall these events not through the eyes of Glaive, but through my own eyes as Kronos, the demon king:

"As a child, Glaive was a part of the Demon Resistance.  Although he was too young to fight, he nursed a deep hatred not for the Phoenix, but for the perpetual war waged between the Phoenix and the Resistance.  His frustration with this war eventually led him to make a vow to his closest childhood friend and only true love, Sara.  He swore that he would bring this war to an end, no matter what the cost may be.  That one promise would eventually prove to be his downfall.  It wasn't long before his village was attacked by Phoenix soldiers, and before his very eyes, Sara was cut down.  Not one soldier from the Demon Resistance arrived to help them.  This was what drove Glaive away from the Resistance.  Fed up and armed with nothing but a sword sheathed at his waist, he set out to avenge his beloved's death.

"His rage augmented his strength, allowing him to reach levels of swordsmanship that would otherwise take decades to obtain.  Slowly but surely, he began to singlehandedly cut down the Phoenix's army.  If only he knew that he had been slaughtering mere pawns.  Even now, in the grand scheme of things, the Grimnexes are all that really matter.  Glaive would soon learn this the hard way, as he came face to face with the Beta Grimnex at the time, Botis.  Botis was a cold, callous Grimnex who had rightfully earned his rank through his own cutthroat methods.  Their duel was over in seconds.  As Glaive lay dying before Botis, he saw something that he never should have seen.  In actuality, the Phoenix soldiers had previously brought back Sara's body, and the cruel Botis managed to revive her and transform her into a stoic, emotionless Grimnex.  Hearing the altered Sara pronounce him to be dead was too much.  Something snapped inside of Glaive, and his wrath was what awakened me from my slumber.

"With some assistance from me, Glaive summoned the strength to stand once more.  Though he was still no match for Botis, he managed to impress the Grimnex.  In a twisted act of mercy, Botis tossed Glaive into the outskirts of the Nightmare Vault.  As he abandoned the young demon, Botis made a most peculiar promise.  He said that if Glaive should ever return to his palace, he would grant him a position in the Phoenix's army.  With that being said, he walked away, leaving the injured Glaive all alone miles away from civilization.  No one expected to hear from him again.  But with the help of his hatred and a little support from me, it wasn't long before Glaive could stand once again.  In time, he came to a decision.  Sara, the one most important to him, had been stripped of her humanity.  Attempting to rescue her would be pointless.  The only way he could avenge Sara was by fulfilling the oath he had made: to end the war that had devastated his life and taken his best friend away from him.

"Four years passed, and Glaive's skills improved drastically.  Little did he know, I was also growing closer to him.  Now fully conscious and able to see the world through his eyes, I finally occupied a permanent place in his mind.  It was then that I began to formulate my plan for revenge.  However, not even I could anticipate the fortunate events that would soon transpire.  As Glaive returned to find his village in ruins, he learned that Lord Shade had visited the Nightmare Vault in an attempt to recruit soldiers for his own army.  Because the Grimnexes were too powerful to be controlled, Shade sought lower class demons instead.  When he bumped into Glaive and offered to lift the curse on the Nightmare Vault in exchange for Glaive's assistance, I knew that Shade was lying.  But Glaive was just too desperate to fulfill his promise to Sara.  He agreed to leave the Nightmare Vault with Lord Shade, but only after he settled some unfinished business.  He returned to Botis' palace, met with the Beta Grimnex himself, and reminded him of his promise.  Before Botis could respond, Glaive informed him that he was leaving the Nightmare Vault.  He swore that when he returned, he would cut down Botis and take his position as the Beta Grimnex.  But for the time being, he was obligated to stand at Shade's side in his struggle for universal conquest.  I couldn't complain.  After all, I finally had the opportunity to search for the remaining fragments of my spirit.

"For the next few years, Glaive served as Shade's second in command.  It wasn't until after Dante- your own uncle- joined Shade's military that Glaive began to entertain thoughts of betrayal.  Dante's second personality, Crimson, possessed an insatiable hunger for more power, and this desire was what eventually led to his treachery.  Crimson quickly gathered a number of Shade's toughest soldiers, including Glaive, and vanished.  Now under the leadership of Crimson, Glaive understood that Shade had never intended to lift the curse on his homeland.  Enraged by the tyrant's deception, Glaive vowed that he would claim vengeance against Shade.

"Though his current goal was vengeance, Glaive inevitably spent a great deal of time assisting Crimson in furthering his own plans.  Though he accomplished little while working under Crimson, I learned a nifty tidbit of information from his original personality, Dante.  By witnessing an otherwise meaningless conversation between Glaive and Dante, I heard all about the family members that Dante had left behind.  That was how I found out about your father, Anthony, which eventually led to my discovery of you.  Despite the fact that my existence was merely as a separate consciousness lurking within the depths of Glaive's mind, I was still able to use my godlike omniscience to instantly pinpoint the locations of both you and Lord Shade.  To my absolute delight, the two of you were on a crash course set to collide in the Mushroom Kingdom.  Using my influence over Glaive, I had him inform Crimson that Shade was now in the Mushroom Kingdom.  As you already know, Crimson had decided at this point that he could only find what he was searching for by locating the man who would overthrow Shade.  He decided to send Glaive to the Mushroom Kingdom as a spy, all the while believing that he was manipulating Glaive's hatred for Lord Shade to his own advantage.  Even now, he still fails to realize that he was an equally pathetic pawn in my grand scheme.

"Shortly thereafter, you met Glaive for this first time.  He feigned alliance with you, hoping that one of two things would happen.  Either you would defeat Shade and turn out to be the man Crimson was searching for, or at the very least, Glaive could have his revenge by slaughtering Shade with his own hands.  It was also the first time that I saw you, even if it was through someone else's eyes.  From that moment on, I watched your every battle, and once you finally succeeded at thwarting Lord Shade, I was certain of the role that you would play in my resurrection.

"As expected, Crimson eventually sent more of his men to the Mushroom Kingdom after not receiving a status report from Glaive in several months.  To my surprise, however, Glaive actually began to consider you and your comrades as friends, and as your friendship grew, my influence weakened.  I feared that he would someday banish me from his mind, but luckily, an ominous force began to stir within you.  Just as I had awakened within Glaive, my soul began to eat away at you from the inside.  Because you both possessed fragments of my power, my influence was actually strengthened as the two of you grew closer.  During the final battle with one of Crimson's toughest minions, Velno, my level of control began to peak.  Though Glaive fiercely resisted, I insisted that he cut his ties with Mario.  After much internal strife, Glaive and I eventually reached a compromise. 

"To maintain his friendship with you, he faked an honorable death at the hands of Velno.  I also ensured that his final request would be for you to return to the Nightmare Vault to end the civil war in his place, but this was of course merely a ploy to involve you in demon affairs.  After Velno's defeat, I simply resurrected Glaive the same way I've salvaged you from the brink of death countless times before.  Now thought to be dead and almost entirely under my control, Glaive was free to return through the Nexus to the Nightmare Vault.  Once there, he bided his time for six years before finally fulfilling his promise to Botis.  Under my orders, Glaive assassinated the Beta Grimnex and took over his position.  It was simple to win over the other Grimnexes' trust.  All he had to do was prove to them that I was his ancestor and that my consciousness lived on inside of him.  That is how Glaive, who chose the title of King Zagan, came to become the leader of the Grimnexes.  And this entire time, you thought he had chosen to selflessly die for the sake of you and your friends."

"Why...?  Why go to all the trouble of becoming the Beta Grimnex?!" Mario exploded, his body trembling with a combination of shock and rage.  "If you were truly controlling Glaive, then why did you wait until now to carry out your plans?!  If you wanted to, I'm sure you could have easily had Glaive capture the princess and me when we first met."

Mastermind II

"Good question.  It would have been much less troublesome for the both of us if my resurrection was as simple as you make it seem.  In truth, although you possessed a fragment of my soul, you weren't ready yet.  Your demon side had not been given enough time to develop.  Just because you possess a fragment of my soul doesn't mean you can be used in the Phoenix Salvation.  Unless you allow your demon half to mature, you're entirely useless.  With that being said, you've changed a lot since your first encounter with Ipos in the Mushroom Kingdom."

Mario gasped.  "No...  You mean..."

Glaive nodded.  "I can see that you're beginning to put the pieces together.  Remember how I told you that everything you've done up until now was partially my doing?  Now you understand my motive.  I involved you in Glaive's quest for revenge against Lord Shade so that you could learn to wield the 75% of the Hero's Power that you inherited.  I purposely drew Crimson's attention to the Mushroom Kingdom, ultimately leading to a confrontation with his most powerful underling, Velno.  It was during this struggle that I gained complete control over your body for the very first time.  After Velno's defeat and Glaive's 'death', you honored his final request by venturing into the Nightmare Vault, where you began to learn about your demon origins.  In your duel with Crimson, you learned how to borrow the final 25% of the Hero's Power from your father.  All of this, and you still weren't ready.  I needed to provide you with one final challenge, a trial that would be difficult enough to prepare your demon side for my resurrection.  That's when it hit me.  Princess Peach.  Not only would she be the perfect vessel for the Phoenix Salvation, but she would also serve as bait to lure you into a confrontation with the Grimnexes.  Based on Glaive's experiences with you, I deduced that your love for her would be enough to motivate you to challenge even the toughest of the Grimnexes.  And it seems that I was right.  You came all this way with the mindset that you've been doing the impossible, that you've defied all odds with your sheer determination alone.  Not only was I counting on you to get this far, you couldn't have done it without me.

"The only reason you survived those near-death encounters was because it was my will that you remained alive.  Without you, none of this would be possible.  And now, after your battles with Cerberus, Leviathan, Crocell, Ares, and Ipos, you're finally ready.  However, in order for the ceremony to begin, your blood must finally be spilled.  Be warned, now that your survival is no longer important to me, your Demon Exoskeleton won't be nearly as protective as it was before."

"I see... And I walked right into your trap," Mario whispered, his face pale.  I was warned countless times to stay away from the Nightmare Vault...  If only I had listened...

"I understand how you must feel, but this really isn't the time to have regrets," Glaive informed him smugly.  "Please, we should be enjoying ourselves.  Now we can finally settle the score between us."

"My rematch is with Glaive, not you," Mario growled.  "Stop using his body as a puppet, Kronos."

"You really don't have time to be picky," the possessed Glaive replied.  "It won't be long now until the reformation of Terranea begins."

"Terranea?" Mario parroted in confusion.  "But Terranea was divided into separate dimensions generations ago!  How would that even be possible?"

"The answer to your question... lies within the Nexus.  As you know, Terranea was first split after the conclusion of the war between my brethren and the Olympians.  A piece of the kingdom was broken off and became an entirely separate dimension known as the Nightmare Vault, a place where all demons would be confined for eternity.  Centuries later, after the uprising of Lord Shade, Terranea was broken apart yet again.  Only this time, it was divided into three even pieces: the Overthere, the Underwhere, and the universe in which you were born.  Towering above each of these realms is the only remaining fragment of Terranea that has been left unchanged: Mt. Olympus.  It is from this mountain that Zeus oversees all with his omniscient gaze.  These dimensions all share one thing in common: they are forever bound by the Nexus.  Because each of these realms once formed Terranea, they are perpetually attracted to each other like magnets.  The Nexus' purpose is not only to serve as a bridge between dimensions, but also to act as a stronger magnet that will keep these realms separate from each other.  Therefore, if one destroys a gateway to a realm from within the Nexus, there will be nothing to prevent it from sliding back into its proper place as a province of Terranea.  Once all of the gateways from within the Nexus are eliminated, Terranea will be reborn!"

"But why?  Why bother to rebuild Terranea if your only goal is vengeance?"

"Because to simply crush this pathetic world as it is now would be meaningless.  I will restore my kingdom to its former glory, to the way it was before we demons were sealed away.  It will almost be as if we are going back in time.  We will return to the day that the Olympians won the Terranean War; only this time, the Olympians will be the ones to suffer.  Those who do not meet their brutal demise at my hands will know the horrors of the Nightmare Vault and the atrocities that my brethren have endured for centuries.  And thanks to the Grimnexes that I sent to the Nexus, all of this will soon be possible."

Mario stifled a giggle.  "I'm afraid it won't be as simple as you make it sound."

"What do you mean?"

A wry grin spread across the plumber's face.  "I thought you knew me better, but then again, Glaive isn't even in control of his own body at the moment.  It just isn't my style to sit around and listen to my enemy monologue while my friends are out risking their lives.  But since your little speech was so riveting, I thought a few of my comrades would like to listen in.  And Grambi may or may not have been one of them, if you catch my drift."

"You...  You've been transmitting this entire conversation to your allies?" Glaive inquired, beginning to grow irritated.

"Yeah, now even Grambi knows about your plans.  And it won't be long before Zeus finds out.  Not only that, but we also received a little tip from Ares, so a few of my friends will be waiting at the Nexus to stop your underlings.  You may have minions that will listen to your every command, but I've got something different.  Each of these men that have ventured into battle with me is my trustworthy companion."


[glow=blue,2,300]Chapter 18: Nexus Brawls[/glow]

As the duel between Mario and Glaive took a shocking turn, an entirely new battle was about to unfold.  There existed five realms of reality: the Overthere, the Underwhere, the Universe, the Nightmare Vault, and Mt. Olympus.  At the center of these dimensions stood the Nexus, a structure which not only held them together, but also served as a bridge between them.  It is within this dimension- at the very center of all creation- that the war for the Nexus began.

"When are they coming?" Luke whispered, anxiously pacing back and forth down the circular hallway.  The walls and ceilings were painted black, with a worn red carpet lining the center of the corridor.  The inner wall of the circular hall was lined with torches, while the outer wall was barren with the exception of five tall doors.  "Ares said they'd be here today...  Maybe we should regroup with Slade and Lorne to see if they've encountered any Grimnexes..."

As if to assure Luke of the accuracy of Ares' prediction, a sudden impact shook the entire Nexus.  The quaking soon subsided, and the nearest gateway creaked open.  Standing in the opposite end of the doorway were three Grimnexes.  The demon at the vanguard of the trio stepped forward and scanned his surroundings, immediately taking note of Mark, Luke, and Bowser.  He wore a tattered blue robe and blood-red pants that matched the color of his tall, spiky hair.  Upon further inspection, Mark silently observed several similarities between the facial features of this Grimnex and Slade.

"Just as King Zagan feared...  Some of Mario's friends are here to stop us.  Hmm...  The overweight turtle appears to be Bowser, the one who defeated the Upsilon Grimnex.  Vulcan, seeing as how Bowser barely managed to succeed against Argyle, a Grimnex who was two ranks below you, I assume that you can handle these three alone.  Once you've taken care of them, destroy the gateway to the Underwhere.  Apollo and I will handle the remaining gates."

"Ugh, why do I always get stuck with the small fries?" Vulcan groaned.  "Whatever you say, Lucifer.  You can try to conceal my talent by matching me up with weaker foes, but King Zagan is bound to notice my talent sooner or later.  It won't be long before I outrank both you and Apollo."

"Keep telling yourself that," Lucifer mumbled to himself as he and Apollo vanished into the darkness of the dimly lit corridor.

"Lucifer... What an arrogant jerk," Bowser grumbled, his arms crossed.

"There was something... familiar about him," Luke whispered.

"Aren't you forgetting about someone?" the remaining Grimnex snapped impatiently.  "Those other two are of no concern to you at the moment, turtle boy."  Vulcan, the Sigma Grimnex, was by far the largest of the three.  His size and body structure were nearly identical to Bowser's.  In fact, his back was shielded by a thick, silver shell, and his face resembled that of a turtle's.  His skin was a light turquoise color that grew a few shades darker near his face, forearms, tail, and feet.

"Turtle boy?" Bowser parroted with an amused grin.  "And what are you supposed to be, a Koopa Troop dropout?"


"Don't mistake me for one of your inferior kind," Vulcan hissed, his body suddenly surrounded with an aura of fire.  After inhaling a deep breath, the Grimnex exhaled a burst of flames in the three heroes' direction.  Mark and Luke swiftly dove to the floor, but the Koopa King, a bit slower to react, clumsily weaved to the side and narrowly avoided a severe burn.

"These flames...  They're even hotter than mine," Bowser whispered in disbelief, his left cheek tingling as the flames rushed past him.

"It doesn't matter how hot your fire breath is, just as long as you can still burn him," Mark stated as he and his brother rose to their feet.  "Luke and I are gonna charge him.  Cover us, okay?"

"We are?" Luke gulped as Mark took off at full speed toward the Grimnex.  He shrugged helplessly and dashed after him.

Big mistake, Vulcan thought, grinning as the young brothers sprinted at him.  Mark lunged forward at the demon with a flaming right hook, but his target made no attempt to defend himself.  As his fist struck Vulcan's chest, the flames that had previously engulfed Mark's hand dissipated.  Before the Mushroom Hero's son could get another shot in, Vulcan batted him away with a flaming uppercut, sending him crashing into the approaching Luke.  Both brothers tumbled onto the ground, and a column of flames zoomed above their heads toward the Grimnex.  Once again, Vulcan made no effort to dodge the oncoming attack.  Bowser's fire breath collided with the Grimnex, but not even a single burn could be detected on his flesh.

"He... he's completely resistant to our flames..." Mark muttered, clutching his scalded chest as he stood on his feet.

"I am a master of the element of fire," Vulcan declared with pride.  "You'll have to generate much more heat if you want to burn me."

Mark sighed.  "Fire won't work, and it doesn't help that he's built like a brick wall.  My punch didn't even faze him."

As they delved deeper into the Nexus, Lucifer and Apollo soon spotted two silhouettes at the far end of the corridor.  "Just as I thought.  It seems that our enemies have split into three groups.  This way, they can guard each of the three essential gates.  King Zagan wishes to reunite Terranea, but he also wants to punish those who opposed him by sealing them within the Nightmare Vault in the same way that we were confined many years ago.  For this to happen, the gateways to the Nightmare Vault and Mt. Olympus must remain intact.  The other three gates, which lead to the Overthere, the Underwhere, and the Universe, must be eliminated.  Once this happens, these three dimensions will merge with Mt. Olympus and restore Terranea to its former state.  From that point on, the Nexus will serve only as a bridge between Terranea and the Nightmare Vault," Lucifer explained.

"That's why there's no point in guarding the gateways to either the Nightmare Vault or Mt. Olympus," Slade affirmed with a nod.  "Lorne and I can take care of ourselves, but we decided to lump those three together because of their lack of skill."  He and Lorne drew their blades and began to approach the two Grimnexes.

"But that means the both of you have to fight alone," Lucifer snickered.  "Are you sure that it was wise to waste three of your comrades on the lowly Sigma Grimnex, the weakest member of our group?"

"They'd only get in the way," Slade hissed, squinting into the dark at Lucifer.  He recognized his foe in an instant.  "You...  I was told that I could find you here, but I didn't think it would be so simple."

"Ah, you must be my older brother," Lucifer sneered.  "You're the one that ran away.  Too bad.  You missed out on quite a bit.  This new body...  This power...  I owe it all to our loving parents."

Slade stepped forward, his body trembling with silent rage.  "Lorne, you can deal with the other Grimnex.  I won't let anyone get in the way of this fight."

"I understand," Lorne nodded, turning to face the silent Apollo.  "There's no need for me to involve myself in your personal affairs."

"I appreciate that," Slade thanked him as he and his brother gradually inched closer to each other.

"Slade...  Before you succumb to your hateful urges, tell me, why did you turn your back on us?  Why did you run away?  You could have become something great...  All of the powers of a Grimnex would have been yours.  But instead, you chose the life of a meagerly human."

"Our parents may have treated you like gold, but to them I was nothing but trash.  They viewed me as a mere tool to further their own twisted experiments.  When an opportunity presented itself, I ran away.  It's as simple as that.  I assume that they learned from their mistakes and raised you with love and respect, so that you would not be tempted to follow in my footsteps."

"Do I detect a hint of jealousy in your tone?" Lucifer inquired with a cruel smirk.  "You're the one who decided to run away, not me.  You've already killed our parents.  You have no one left to blame but yourself."

Vengeful Showdown

In the blink of an eye, Slade's dagger sang through the air and pierced Lucifer's chest.  Blood trickled down Slade's sword, changing the blade to a crimson color, and he glared hatefully into his younger brother's widened eyes.  "Shut up.  Shut the hell up.  This family's existence is nothing but a curse.  I'm doing the world a favor by ridding it of scumbags like you and our parents."

Lucifer's eyes narrowed, and his astonished frown quickly changed to a wicked grin.  "You missed..."

It was Slade's turn to be shocked.  "What...?"

"Well, you certainly pierced my flesh, but that alone will not enable you to cut down this body," Lucifer informed him with an arrogant smirk.  "Our dear parents were kind enough to merge me with the body of the fallen Eta Grimnex, granting me a state of being comparable to immortality.  You see, I possess a unique talent.  I can rearrange my entire body structure.  From the locations of my organs to the length of my fingernails, nearly anything is possible.  When you stabbed me with your blade, I simply relocated my vital organs."

"I see...  So these are the powers that you stole from the Eta Grimnex..." Slade murmured, tearing his sword from his younger brother's chest before retreating backward a few steps.

"Don't give the late Eta Grimnex all the credit.  The brilliant scientific minds of our parents are also to blame.  Of course, despite my superiority to the Eta Grimnex, I had no choice but to accept the rank of an Obsolete Grimnex.  Because of our parents' treacherous actions, I was instantly labeled as the Heta Grimnex.  It's a terrible shame, too.  I could have easily been ranked among the top five Grimnexes."

"I'll admit, that ability of yours would probably earn you a comfortable position high up on the Grimnex food chain.  But if your only defense is to move your organs around, I'll simply have to keep stabbing you until I get lucky and hit something," Slade declared before charging at his brother yet again.  He raised his dagger above his head and slashed downward at Lucifer, but the fingers on the Grimnex's left hand expanded outward, wrapping themselves around his blade like tiny ropes.  Lucifer then reeled his brother in and delivered a right hook that knocked him onto his back.

"You're dreaming if you think I'd be willing to sit still and wait for you to be fortunate enough to predict where one of my vital organs will move," Lucifer cackled as he raised his right arm above his head.  His arm began to deform, eventually taking the shape of a dagger.  "Every part of my body can be used as a weapon.  You can't even begin to imagine the possibilities!"

As Slade wept the blood from his chin, he looked upward to see Lucifer's dagger towering above him, only moments away from plunging downward and spilling his blood.

Further down the torch-lit corridor, Lorne and Apollo drew their swords and took a fighting stance.  As they stared each other down, Lorne got his first good look at his opponent.  Although much older, Apollo had the innocent, unwrinkled face of a young man in his twenties.  His hair was a spiky mop of silvery gray, his bangs partially hiding his piercing emerald eyes.  He was about Lorne's height and wore a royal purple vest and sea green sweatpants.

"I can see that you're a man of few words," Lorne remarked with a smirk.

"Words serve little purpose.  But if you insist, I'll formally introduce myself.  I am Apollo, the Theta Grimnex."

"Then that makes you the strongest of the three, right?"

Apollo shook his head.  "I am undoubtedly superior to Vulcan, the Sigma Grimnex.  However, despite being an Obsolete Grimnex, Lucifer's abilities far surpass my own.  He possesses the body of the Eta Grimnex, not to mention whatever other outlandish skills he was granted by his parents."

"I see...  I guess I should be relieved," Lorne chuckled.

Apollo sighed.  "As I said before: words serve little purpose."  His movements too quick to be registered as anything other than a blur, the Grimnex lunged forward and clashed swords with Lorne.  Sparks lit the dank corridor, and the two swordsmen each pressed their blades together in an attempt to overpower the other.

He's no amateur, Lorne thought, his arms quivering as he struggled against his opponent's might.  I didn't even see that first attack coming.  I barely managed to block his sword in time...  Even now, I can't read him.  He isn't giving off any emotions at all...

With an upward thrust of his sword, Apollo won the struggle and sent Lorne teetering backward.  The Grimnex lunged forward with another slash, and Lorne weaved to the side in a last-ditch effort to dodge it.  The blade narrowly skimmed his waist, resulting in a minor cut.  Lorne swiftly regained his footing and batted Apollo's sword to the side before thrusting his own blade forward at the Grimnex's throat.  The cold, stoic Apollo caught the dagger between the thumb and forefinger of his free hand.  He then delivered a fierce upward blow to Lorne's chin with the hilt of his sword, and as his foe soared through the air, Apollo leapt after him and brought the full force of his blade crashing down upon the defenseless Lorne.

Lorne let out a cry of agony as he crashed onto the stone floor.  His body was covered in blood, and a deep gash ran diagonally across his torso.

"I cannot believe that your comrades trusted you with such an important duty.  Did they honestly expect someone as pathetic as you to guard one of the Nexus' gateways?  Who was foolish enough to entrust you with such a crucial task?"

Lorne closed his eyes as he recalled the final words that he and Mario exchanged before his departure.

"Thank you again for all the advice you've given me.  I will do my best to keep your children safe."

"That means a lot to me.  I'm leaving them in your hands."

A wave of adrenaline rushed through Lorne's body, and he slowly began to rise to his feet.  "Mario... was his name, in case you were wondering...  He entrusted me not only with the task of guarding the Nexus, but also with the lives of his children... And I've got news for you, Apollo...  I'm not about to let him down."

Vulcan Battle

After taking a deep breath, Vulcan exhaled several bursts of flames.  Mark and Luke took cover behind the colossal Bowser, who firmly stood his ground.  "Gwahaha, don't worry.  In the heat of battle, I've had dozens of puny cowards just like you tremble in fear behind my hulking frame."

"Whatever," Mark grumbled.  "I guess that means you don't mind being burnt to a crisp?"

Bowser gulped as Vulcan's scorching flames grew closer and closer.  "True, the inferno would probably burn right through my shell.  And though I could use my lightning fast reflexes to simply dodge his flames, I'd be leaving you two unprotected."

"In other words, he's too fat to evade them," Luke whispered, causing both him and his brother to giggle.

"Well, I guess I could try... that..." Bowser mused, hesitantly opening his jaw.  "I haven't tried it since I singlehandedly defeated Fawful, but it's worth a shot..."  His mouth now wide open, the Koopa King began to inhale a deep breath of air until a miniature whirlwind leading into his mouth formed.  As the Grimnex's flames approached him, the force of Bowser's inward breath pulled them into his mouth and down his throat.

"He... ate them?!" Luke exclaimed in confusion.

"You've surprise even me, turtle..." Vulcan hissed, taken aback by Bowser's peculiar ability.

"It must be because he ate a Vacuum Mushroom all those years ago," Mark speculated.  "Dad told me about it once...  It gives Bowser the ability to inhale things as if his mouth is a vacuum."

"I'm not a turtle...  I'm a Koopa!" Bowser roared before exhaling a colossal sphere of fire that combined his own flames with the ones that he had previously swallowed.

"What's that...?  How did he...?" Vulcan stammered before diving out of the way, causing the entire floor to shake.  The inferno grazed his left shoulder, leaving behind multiple severe burns.  His scaly skin still smoldering, the Grimnex stood up and glared angrily at his opponents.  "He actually burned me...  But no one's flames are hot enough to do that..."

"Gwahahaha!  Sorry pal, but it looks like mine are!" Bowser chuckled.

"We'll see about that," Vulcan hissed, his body quivering with rage.  He exhaled another wave of flames before making a mad dash toward the Koopa King.

Bowser grinned and inhaled the flames yet again, only this time, he used too much force.  Not only did he inhale each of the Grimnex's flaming projectiles, but Mark and Luke as well!  Furthermore, he had been so focused on Vulcan's flames that he was ill prepared to defend himself when the hulking Grimnex finally reached him.  With a violent shriek, Vulcan struck the Koopa King in the face with a flaming uppercut, but Bowser quickly snapped back to his senses and retaliated with a vicious headbutt.  After staggering backward for a moment, the two behemoths lunged at each other once again and locked hands.  As they grappled with each other, it soon became apparent that Vulcan was the dominant force.

Meanwhile, deep within the Koopa King's interior, the downsized Mark and Luke wandered aimlessly.  "Ugh.  I can't believe that oaf swallowed us," Mark groaned, grumpily plodding along the reddish brown pathway that led through Bowser's body.  Moments later, they stopped.  On either side of them was a solid wall colored various shades of violet, and in front of them was a teal cannon aimed at a bulging red and orange structure.  They had reached a dead end.

"What is that?" Luke inquired fearfully.  "Maybe we should turn back..."

"No, I remember hearing about this in a story Dad told me...  If we activate that cannon, we might be able to help Bowser," Mark explained.

"I guess it's worth a shot."

Power Boost

As Bowser struggled against the might of the Sigma Grimnex, he felt a sudden burst of energy in his arms.  Renewed by this sudden surge of power, the Koopa King thrust his arms forward, and Vulcan toppled onto his back with a helpless shriek.  Bowser stared at his palms in utter astonishment, unable to comprehend this newfound strength.  "What just happened...?"

"Hey, I think it worked!" echoed a voice from within Bowser's body.

"So if we bounce those red and green spheres back at that wall of muscle, Bowser gets stronger?  Sounds simple enough.  Let's try it again."

Bowser's eyes widened as yet another rush of energy erupted from within his arms.  "It must be those two brats...  After all, Mario and Luigi did the same exact thing when I swallowed them all of those years ago..."

"Once again, you've taken me by surprise..." Vulcan hissed through clenched teeth.  "But don't let it get to your head..."  Shaking with uncontrollable fury, the turtle-like Grimnex retreated into his shell.  Only seconds later, the shell began to spin, and as its rotational speed increased, flames began to emit from the shell's five holes.  "So, what do you plan to do now?  You're too heavy to dodge me, and if you try to fend me off, you'll be scorched to death by my flames!"

"He has a point... and those flames would probably melt right through my shell," Bowser pondered.  "Gah, since when do I think so much?  Go ahead and attack!  Gwahahaha!  I can handle anything you throw at me!  Did you already forget that I'm the Koopa King, and you're just some useless minion?"

"Humans, Koopas...  You Olympians are all the same... too blind and arrogant for your own good.  Your existence is irrefutable proof as to why your race deserves extinction!" Vulcan howled, now engulfed in flames as he launched himself at his opponent.  "I hate people like you.  You keep on reminding me of your status as a king... as if that somehow makes you better than me."

Bowser stood his ground and clenched his fists.  "Heh, you talk way too much."  As the flaming shell zoomed toward him like a meteor, the Koopa King pulled his right fist backward, gathering all of his might into a single punch.  He remained motionless until Vulcan was only a few yards away, and then he took a deep inward breath, inhaling the majority of the flames that were being emitted from the Grimnex's shell.  His shell no longer surrounded by fire, there was nothing to prevent Bowser from thrusting his fist forward and sending Vulcan careening into the Nexus' solid stone inner wall.  Vulcan's collision with the wall shook the entire Nexus, and several cracks were visible on his shell as he dizzily poked his head outside.

"Wait, you forgot about these!" Bowser cackled, exhaling the flames that had sucked up only moments ago.  Dazed from his opponent's crushing blow, Vulcan could do nothing to prevent himself from being scorched by his own inferno.  He howled in anguish, frantically rolling back and forth in an attempt to douse the flames, but by the time they had been extinguished, his body was already covered in a multitude of severe burns. 

His body still smoldering, Vulcan looked up at the Koopa King with cold, vengeful eyes.  "Enough of this...  You've shamed me for the final time..."  His body began to burn with an aura of flames; only this time, they were a light blue color.  "This humiliation will not go unnoticed...  For your crimes, you will be scorched by the unrivaled fury of my Final Smash."


[glow=blue,2,300]Chapter 19: Father and Son[/glow]

Cackling maniacally, Vulcan's size began to drastically increase as his entire body was covered in a layer of blue flames.  Bowser gazed upward helplessly at his opponent, who now towered above him like a skyscraper.  "Now do you understand how puny you really are?" Vulcan boomed, causing the entire Nexus to shake.  "You're nothing but talk!"  He angrily dealt a flaming right hook to the Koopa King, who toppled onto his back with little resistance.

Every inch of his body aching, Bowser struggled to his feet.  "Not only is he freaking huge, but he's surrounded himself in flames...  I'm not sure what else I can do..."

Broken Vows

After receiving another furious blow, Bowser soared upward before crashing into the wall and tumbling onto the floor.  "Is that all?  Pathetic.  Do you honestly expect me to believe that you're regarded as a king back in the world of light?  For the Olympians' sake, I hope that was just a bluff."

The world around him suddenly growing dark, Bowser recalled his final conversation with Mario.

"Bowser, don't lose that burning passion of yours.  Once I rescue Peach, I'll be sure to tell her how much you helped me."

"That is, if you actually manage to save her.  In the end, I'll probably be forced to defend the Nexus all by myself.  Then, once I hear about your defeat at the hands of the top five Grimnexes, I'll have to come all the way back here to singlehandedly rescue the princess."

Remembering Mario's words, the Koopa King felt a sudden surge of energy rush through his body.  He gradually pulled himself onto his feet yet again and grinned at his opponent.  "I've got a question for you, Vulcan...  Why are you so eager to prove your superiority?  This entire time, you've been challenging my authority as a king...  Why is that?  Is it because you're jealous?"

A sad smile spread across Vulcan's face.  "You couldn't even begin to understand...  All my life, everything has been about ranks and hierarchies.  A Grimnex must constantly stress over his rank...  How close am I to surpassing the Grimnex above me?  Will the Grimnex below me soon take my place?  These fears and uncertainties plague the minds of every Grimnex.  In the lonely abyss that is the Nightmare Vault, our ranks are all we have left.  We struggle to prove our worth to our superiors, silently chasing the dream of someday becoming king.  That is why I detest those who are born into power.  They don't work a single day in their entire life, and yet they are so easily given what countless others spend their entire lives working to achieve.

"Many years ago, I used to have a brother.  He served as the Tau Grimnex.  In other words, he was ranked immediately below me.  He was a gifted one, my brother.  Although he started out near the bottom of the food chain, he advanced three or four ranks within his first year.  And just like that, he was right below me.  With a little more experience, he would inevitably surpass me.  If I left things as they were, he may have eventually become tough enough to rival one of the top ten Grimnexes.  But being the sickeningly envious soul that I am, I couldn't bear to sit idly by and watch my younger brother take away what I believed to be rightfully mine.  So out of jealousy and hatred, I conspired to have him executed.  By giving a false report to the Beta Grimnex of his betrayal, my brother was silently disposed of.  And thus my rank- and my pride- were safe."

"Heh... That was low.  And coming from someone like me, that means a lot," Bowser chuckled softly.  "How do you expect to become king... just by eliminating those who are weaker than you...?"

"What do you know?!" Vulcan roared, striking Bowser in the face with a vicious slash.  "You were born as a king!  You never had to work for your position!  You couldn't possibly understand how I feel!"

"Maybe not..." Bowser whispered, lying on the ground in agony.  "But I do know how it feels... to constantly live in someone's shadow... to have a rival who thwarts you at every turn...  And no matter how hard I've worked, I still can't overthrow him...  That same man... is the reason why I'm fighting here..."

"Is that so?  Well, it seems that you've failed yet again," Vulcan declared bitterly, bringing his colossal foot down upon the helpless Koopa King.  "...Pathetic.  I thought that the Olympians would put more effort into defending these gates, but I suppose I overestimated them."  He turned his attention to the tall gateway that led to the Underwhere.  With a single downward swipe of his right arm, the double doors that led to the Underwhere crumbled to the floor.  And just like that, only two of the critical gates remained.  "What a waste of time.  I shouldn't have even needed to use my Final Smash against him.  Ah well, I suppose I should see how Lucifer and Apollo are doing."

Giant Battle

"Not yet... I'm not finished with you..."

The Nexus suddenly grew dark as Vulcan was enveloped in a colossal shadow.  He whirled around to see Bowser, whose size had multiplied to even greater heights than his own.  "How... How did you...?"

"So what do you think activating Bowser's adrenaline did?" Mark inquired, still inside of Bowser's body with his younger brother.

Luke shrugged.  "I don't know, but it's suddenly much roomier in here."

"Ah, much better!" the mammoth Koopa King chuckled.  "You may have already smashed the gate to the Underwhere, but that's not gonna prevent me from getting a little payback.  Or are you too afraid to take on someone bigger than you?"

"So you can increase your size as well..." Vulcan grumbled.  "I wasn't counting on this...  But how do you plan to attack me if I'm covered in flames?"

"Eh, a few burns never hurt anyone," Bowser replied with a shrug of his enormous shoulders.  He pulled his fists back in preparation for a retaliatory beating.  "I'd say that this is gonna hurt me more than it'll hurt you, but I doubt that'll be the case."  With a furious howl, the Koopa King unleashed a devastating combo of punches upon his fiery foe.  "And here's a tip: if you want your rank to increase, try fighting someone who ranks above you!" His fists scalding from the layer of flames that shielded Vulcan, Bowser struck him with one final hook that caused the entire Nexus to quiver.

Cursed Memories

Elsewhere in the Nexus, Lorne and Apollo's fight had been brought to a standstill by the sudden quaking.  "That rumbling...  Aren't you worried about your comrades?  The Sigma Grimnex can't be doing too well, especially considering he's up against Bowser and Mario's two sons."

"Even if those tremors were a signal of his death, it would make no difference to me.  Vulcan is responsible for destroying the Underwhere gateway.  If he can't carry out such a trivial assignment, he deserves to die."

"But he's your ally...  Don't you care at all about what happens to him?" Lorne inquired, puzzled by Apollo's lack of concern.

"As long as he fulfilled his duty, I could care less.  Friendships, alliances...  What could possibly be more pointless?  A warrior must learn to depend on himself, to rid himself of all meaningless attachments...  The weak exist solely for the purpose of nourishing the strong."

Listening to all of this with widened eyes, Lorne was instantly reminded of the past.  "It's unmistakable...  You're the same... the same way I used to be..."

Apollo's eyes narrowed.  "What was that?"  He lunged forward and clashed blades with Lorne.

"Before I met Mario, I used to be just like you," Lorne answered firmly, sparks flying as he struggled against the Grimnex's dagger with his own.  "I let my path be chosen for me.  I was enslaved at a young age and taught to be a ruthless, coldblooded assassin.  I threw all of my emotions away, or rather, I merely froze them away within the depths of my soul.  And it wasn't until Mario thawed them out and taught me to forge my own path that I became what I am today!"

"But if Crimson isn't right... then who is...?"

"That's something you need to find out for yourself.  I don't expect you to join up with me now that I've defeated you.  You don't even have to stop believing in Crimson.  When two different beliefs meet, a conflict will often follow.  Velno believes that it is his job to release the demons of the Nightmare Vault into this realm, and I believe that it's my obligation to stop him."

"But why...?  Why do you go to such lengths to help other people...?"

"I've come to believe that it's my life's purpose to protect this kingdom from all who wish harm upon it.  And that's exactly what I strive to do, each and every day.  When someone gets in the way of that, and I can't reason with him, I have no choice but to resort to violence.  No matter how ugly things may get, I do my best to move forward.  That's my philosophy."

"I only wish that Mario was here to fight you in my place," Lorne sighed.  "I'm sure he could save you, the very same way he saved me.  But I can't rely on him to do everything.  Right now, he's fighting even harder than I am, against tougher, higher ranking Grimnexes...  He's counting on me, and I refuse to betray his trust."

"You shouldn't have allowed this 'Mario' to change you so easily," Apollo remarked coldly.  "I may have had some respect for you if you stood before me as the man you once were.  You said that you used to be just like me, but you were wrong.  I'd never allow myself to be influenced by a human."

Grimnex Battle

"What a shame," Lorne chuckled glumly, stepping backward as Apollo broke their stalemate with an aggressive swing of his dagger.  When the Grimnex pursued him, Lorne swiftly retreated backward before placing his free palm on the floor.  To Apollo's surprise, several razor-sharp icicles suddenly protruded from the floor and blocked his path.  If he had taken one step further, he would have been impaled.

"You can control ice?  An interesting ability..."

"I guess you could say it matches my personality.  Or at least it used to, anyway," Lorne replied dryly.

Resuming his pursuit of Lorne, Apollo darted to the left and circled around the row of stalagmites.  As he closed the distance between himself and his opponent, numerous additional icicles rose from the floor in an attempt to cut him off.  However, the agile Grimnex weaved past each of the deadly obstacles without receiving so much as a scratch.  Now only a short distance away from his target, he raised his blade above his head, but Lorne had other plans.  Apollo stopped dead in his tracks.  His feet had been frozen to the floor.

"You let yourself get too comfortable.  I can do much more than create a few stalagmites," Lorne declared, removing his palm from the floor and gripping his weapon with both hands.  The ice began to climb up Apollo's legs, waist, and torso until the Grimnex was frozen from the neck down.  His foe now seemingly helpless, Lorne prepared to deliver the final blow.

"You should take your own advice," Apollo replied stoically as a dozen blue tentacles extended from his head.  One wrapped itself around Lorne's sword, while the others attached to the various ice structures that had been created by his opponent, including the thick layer of ice that now covered Apollo.  The tentacles began to glow, and before Lorne's astonished eyes, any ice that had been touched by them melted within seconds.

Lorne quickly snapped back to his senses and yanked his weapon free from one of the tentacles, but Apollo, no longer restrained by ice, lunged forward with a powerful downward slash of his blade.  Lorne attempted to parry Apollo's sword with his own, but the force of the Grimnex's dagger shattered his blade to pieces before plunging into his flesh.  Blood splashed onto the floor.  Lorne fell to his knees in defeat.

"I'd offer you some sort of explanation, but you're far too injured to continue.  As a token of respect for the man you once were, I'll put you out of your misery," Apollo muttered solemnly.

Not again... Lorne thought, his body growing numb as the blood rushed from his body.  First, I died at the hands of my own father... and after receiving a second chance... I've somehow managed to let my final opportunity to confront my father slip right through my fingers...  All because of this one Grimnex...  His eyes fluttered shut as he cursed his own failure.

A sharp metal clang caused him to jump, and his eyes snapped back open.  He gasped.  A wave of shock and relief rushed over him.  Standing between him and his assailant was a man who stood six feet tall and wore a blue coat with streaks of gold on its collar.  His jet black hair was slicked back, and a cloak with shades of black and violet draped down his back.  In his hands he held a crimson blade, which he had used to parry the Grimnex's attack.

"Father..." Lorne whispered, his eyes wide with disbelief.  "I don't understand..."

"State your name," Apollo demanded, flawlessly maintaining his stoic demeanor.

"Dante," the man replied firmly.  He turned to his wounded son and spoke softly.  "Don't move, Lorne.  I'll take over from here."

"But why...?  And where did you come from...?  I have so many questions..." Lorne stammered, unsure at how to react at his father's sudden appearance.  However, as he began to take in this sudden turn of events, his hostility toward Dante grew.

"After my defeat at Mario's hands, Crimson, my alternate personality, was banished from my conscience.  I've wandered the Mushroom Kingdom for the past few months, searching for some method of atonement for the crimes I committed while under Crimson's influence.  And while I was convinced that I could not use my second personality as an excuse for my sins, Mario found it in his heart to forgive me, even after all of the lives that I took.  I slaughtered his own brother before his very eyes, and yet he spared my life and offered me the opportunity to redeem myself.  I-"

"But why did you come here?!" Lorne exploded, tears forming in the corners of his eyes.  "You may have his forgiveness, but you'll never earn mine!  You don't really think that this makes up for what you've done to me, do you?  When I was only an infant, you enlisted me in Lord Shade's military, and then while disguised as Crimson, you took me under your wing and used me as a pawn!  And as if that still weren't enough...  You were willing to slaughter me... your own son...  I don't have shred of forgiveness left to offer you!"

Dante hung his head, his face heavily wrinkled from many years of pent up guilt.  "I understand.  I would never expect you to forgive me.  Still, I will continue to atone for my crimes in whatever way I see fit, even if you continue to loathe me.  When I learned of the current situation, I spoke with Mario's friends at the Nexus Access Point.  They reluctantly opened the Nexus for me, and you were the first person that I saw...  I will defend the Nexus, whether you want me to or not.  Not only do I owe my life to you, but also to Mario... to the people of the Mushroom Kingdom... as well as to any other land that met its destruction at my hands.  The Universe deserves peace...  After all that Mario has been through against Lord Shade and me, I refuse to allow the demons to win without a fight."

"If you insist on fighting me, then get on with it," Apollo sighed.  "You're wasting time.  Words can accomplish nothing."

Dante rushed forward and engaged Apollo in a fast-paced swordfight.  "You're wrong.  Words can be even more powerful than actions.  They can change who a person is.  Without them, neither I nor my son would be who we are today."  A smirk spread across his face.  "It's ironic, when you think about it.  Would you believe that the words that changed me... and the words that changed my son... both came from the same man's mouth?"

"This Mario must be quite influential," Apollo observed, skillfully parrying each of Dante's slashes before countering with a pinpoint strike of his own.  "It relieves me to know that he'll be dealt with shortly."

"I wouldn't be too sure about that," Dante chuckled as he ducked beneath one of the Grimnex's sword swings and lunged forward with his blade, slicing Apollo across his midsection.  "Mario has the strangest tendency to surprise those that bet against him.  He'll deal with your king soon enough, and then this war will be over."

"Interesting...  Not only do you run your mouth even more than your son... but your skill with a blade is far superior.  That is quite a feat, especially considering your age."

"You're easily impressed," Dante snickered.  "You should've fought me a few months ago.  Back then, this would have been a cinch."

While it's true that my father is far stronger than me...  He hasn't really done much to show it...  This should have ended in seconds.  At his peak, he can be just as deadly as Mario when he uses 100% of the Hero's Power.  This Grimnex couldn't possibly be giving him so much trouble...   Lorne's eyes widened.  Of course...  It was Crimson, his warlike personality, that enabled him to wield 100% of his power.  Since Crimson has been banished from his mind, my father cannot use all of the Hero's Power!

Tainted Soul

Lorne watched intently as Dante and Apollo continued to cross swords.  Growing steadily more fatigued, Dante began to inch backwards under the force of his opponent's relentless blows. Now that Crimson's gone, he's lost most of his power...  Even so, he's putting his life on the line to fight on the behalf of the Mushroom Kingdom... for Mario... and for me...

The Grimnex lunged forward with a swing of his blade and sent Dante's sword clattering to the floor.  He continued his assault with another slash, but Dante grabbed the hilt of the blade, stopping it only inches away from his throat.  Turning his foe's blade so that it pointed downward, he overpowered Apollo and stabbed the sword into the ground.  Dante then struck him with a right hook to the face, causing the Grimnex to lose his grip on his weapon.  As Apollo regained his balance, Dante tore his foe's blade from the ground before rolling to the side and scooping up his own.  With both swords in his grasp, he rushed forward at breakneck speed and slashed the Grimnex, creating an x-shaped gash on his chest.

Apollo coughed up a mouthful of blood and took a knee.  "Your skill with one blade... was impressive enough...  But with two... heh... I couldn't even defend myself..."  He grinned faintly as his body began to emanate a bright blue aura.  "However...  I've been holding out on a few tricks of my own..."  To Dante and Lorne's horror, his body began to grow thin and lanky, somewhat reminding them of Waluigi.  His young, humanlike face soon morphed into that of a squid's, and his limbs transformed into long tentacles with sharp blades at their tips.  All semblance of the Apollo that they had come to know vanished, except for his cold, emerald eyes.  His fair complexion had been replaced by bluish, scaly skin, further adding to his squid-like appearance.

"What... what have you done to yourself...?" Dante inquired, horrified by his foe's metamorphosis.

"This is my Final Smash...  And while I could explain it to you, it'd be much quicker to give you a demonstration," Apollo replied icily.  In the blink of an eye, he extended one of his tentacles toward Dante, piercing his right arm with the blade at its tip.  Dante cried out in sheer agony as an electric shock ran through his entire arm.  However, this was only the beginning.  He grabbed the tentacle with his other hand in a desperate attempt to remove it from his arm, but it was too late.  In a flash of light, Dante's entire right arm disintegrated into tiny blue particles.

Dante's sword clattered to the floor.  He fell to his knees, his eyes wide with terror.  The pain was too great to scream.  He remained silent, his mouth agape and his body trembling.

"Father..." Lorne whispered, wincing at the sight of Dante's misery.  He then attempted to remind himself that he was supposed to hate his father, but gasped as Dante slowly rose to his feet for another round.

"Painful, isn't it?" Apollo sneered, the wounds on his chest beginning to fade.  "These tentacles can drain the life from your body, ultimately causing you to evaporate into nothingness.  On the other hand, the energy gathered by my tentacles nourishes my wounds and increases my stamina.  As you can see, the gashes on my chest have already started to heal."

"Heh, that's a neat trick..." Dante chuckled wryly, clutching his right shoulder.

"Now do you understand the fruitlessness of fighting for the Mushroom Hero's cause?  You were both better off before you met him," Apollo declared bitterly.  "Had the circumstances been different, I could almost see us as... comrades.  Instead of dying miserably at my feet, why don't you do your son a favor... and put him out of his misery?  Return to your stoic, coldhearted self and become the true warrior that you once were.  If you can do that, I may just spare your life out of respect."

"You're asking me to kill my own son in exchange for sparing my life?  Not a chance," Dante replied defiantly.

"Why not?  You've already killed him once before...  Very well, in that case, perhaps I should end his life for you!" Apollo exclaimed, extending another one of his tentacles towards the defenseless Lorne.  The Grimnex's blade struck flesh, and blood splattered at Lorne's feet.

"Why...?" Lorne whispered, his eyes wide with shock.

Sorrowful Goodbye

Standing firmly in front of him was Dante, who had dove in front of him and been stabbed by the Grimnex's bladed tentacle.  Clutching his fatal wound, he fell to his knees as the life began to drain from his body.  Teardrops formed in the corners of his eyes, and his lips curled into a remorseful smile.  "Lorne...  I understand if you still cannot bring yourself to forgive me... but as long as you know... that I truly am sorry... I can finally be at peace..."

"Answer me!" Lorne exclaimed, his cheeks damp with tears.  "Why did you throw away your life... just to save me?"

"It was instinctive...  I did it without a second thought...  I know... that rescuing a single life... can never make up for all of the pain that I've caused...  But if there was ever a way for me to die... I'm glad that it was to save you, my son..."  Dante's eyes fluttered shut, and his head fell softly to the floor as tears trickled down his pale, wrinkled cheeks.

Lorne stared in wide-eyed silence at his father, who now lay dead at his feet.  His corpse continued to shrivel as the heartless Apollo sought to consume every last drop of his energy.

"Mario, I haven't forgotten about what you did for me.  My father...  You showed him mercy even after all of the crimes he committed...  Tell me, is it wrong for me to want to see him again...?"

"Not at all.  Your father isn't as evil as you may think.  When I fought him, I could see that part of him felt remorse for his crimes.  It might be hard, but just give him a chance."

"Stop..." Lorne whispered, his torso still covered in bloody gashes.  "Enough...  Leave his body alone..."

"That would be a waste," Apollo replied coldly.  "I'm afraid that I'll have to continue to drain his energy until his body evaporates into nothingness.  I don't see what the big deal is.  It's not as if he needs it anymore."


His body still numb from blood loss, Lorne reached for his father's blade, which had clattered to the floor earlier on.  With a bloodcurdling shriek, he struggled onto his feet and sliced off the tip of Apollo's tentacle, preventing him from further siphoning any remaining nutrients from Dante's corpse.  Breathing heavily and trembling in agony, Lorne glared at Apollo with determined, sapphire eyes.

"Your defiance is misplaced.  Dante is dead," Apollo informed him icily.  "There's no sense in defending him."  He launched another one of his tentacles at Dante's corpse, but Lorne stood firmly in its path.  The bladed tip pierced his already severely wounded chest.  Lorne didn't even flinch.

"Dead or alive, I won't let you lay a hand on my father..." he growled, clutching the tentacle with his left hand before sending a wave of ice into the tentacle and toward his opponent.  The tentacle now frozen, Lorne ripped it from his torso and dashed toward the Grimnex with his father's blade wrapped tightly in his grip.  With an infuriated cry, he lunged forward and pierced the center of the x-shaped gash on Apollo's chest, causing him to howl in anguish.

"Hah, this wound won't be enough to kill me..." Apollo chuckled as three of his tentacles sunk their blades into Lorne's flesh.  "Once I've feasted upon some of your body's nutrients, my injuries will be healed in no time..."

Gritting his teeth and ignoring the pain brought about by Apollo's final defense, Lorne pressed his father's dagger deeper into the Grimnex's chest.  "If you want to freeze your soul and become a coldhearted bastard with no respect for the dead, then maybe I can help you out!"

"Wait... what are you doing...?" Apollo gasped, a cold sensation suddenly erupting from within his chest.  "Your ice... I forgot all about-"

With one final cry, Lorne channeled all of the ice he could muster through his blade and into the Grimnex's body, freezing him from the inside out.  Now frozen in a solid block of ice, Apollo remained silent.  Lorne tore the frozen tentacles from his body and wearily collapsed into a pool of blood.  A cool breeze rushed past the two fallen warriors.  The battle was over.


[glow=blue,2,300]Chapter 20: An Avenger's Fate[/glow]

Cursed Grimnex

As Lucifer's blade-shaped arm loomed eerily above his older brother's head, Slade's eyes were glued to his own sword, which was still wrapped in the Grimnex's other hand.  Calm and cool, Slade removed the bandages from his right arm with a single tug and elicited a wall of Nightmare Haze between them.  He then unwrapped the bandages on his opposite arm, and with a complex series of gestures, he summoned a cloud of Nightmare Haze in the shape of a hand.  Lucifer's dagger collided with the wall of haze, resulting in a metal clang, while the hand-shaped cluster of haze wrapped itself around Slade's sword and tore it from the Grimnex's grasp.  The avenger retreated backwards several steps and called his Nightmare Haze back.  The wall of haze quickly disintegrated, and the synthetic hand delivered the blade to its master.

"That is quite an intriguing talent you possess," Lucifer chuckled, referring to Slade's Nightmare Haze.  "That mist...  It's toxic, is it not?  Are you sure that it's wise to store such a lethal substance in your body?"

"You should be more worried about it entering yours," Slade replied dryly as he waved his arms toward his younger brother.  A column of Nightmare Haze erupted from his palms and surrounded the Grimnex.  Before Lucifer could even consider escaping, the lethal mist had already begun to penetrate every pore on his body.  "That's better.  Let's see how complacent you are now that the haze has entered your body."

Beads of sweat dripping down his face, Lucifer's breathing quickly grew heavy as he fell to his knees.  He began to tremble violently and thrash wildly about, the poisonous haze now spreading throughout his entire body.

Slade turned around as the color began to fade from his brother's skin.  "It only gets worse from here.  Eventually you'll die there, frightened and alone.  Farewell."  He began to walk in the opposite direction, but was halted by a wicked cackle.  Slade turned around to see Lucifer rising to his feet in a fit of laughter.  His eyes widened with shock.

"I never thought you'd fall for that routine," Lucifer sneered, completely unharmed by his older brother's Nightmare Haze.  "

"H- How...?"

Lucifer grinned.  "I suppose you have your reputation to blame.  You made quite a name for yourself by controlling the Nightmare Haze.  It wasn't long before you were known far and wide as Nightmare.  Even so, I knew it was you.  And I thought to myself, 'If he can be immune to the Nightmare Haze's effects, than why can't I?  I am his brother, after all.'  I never thought that I would actually use such a skill against you someday.  I merely thought that if there was one warrior out there who could wield the Nightmare Haze as a weapon, why couldn't there be more?  I refused to be defeated in such a disgraceful manner, and in less than a year, I developed immunity to the haze.  You're going to have to come up with something else if you intend to kill me."

"True," Slade agreed with a shrug.  "Let me know if this is any better."  With a flourish of his arms, the Nightmare Haze quickly exited the Grimnex's body and engulfed him in a blood-red fog.  "Poisonous or not, it's still haze.  I wonder how well you can see inside of that fog."  His sword drawn, Slade sprinted directly into the haze.

"Fool...  Inside of this haze, you can't see any better than I can!"

Vengeful Showdown

"Actually, the Nightmare Haze can serve as my eyes and ears.  I know exactly where you are," Slade declared, emerging from out of seemingly nowhere and sinking his dagger into Lucifer's chest.

As his older brother's blade was stained with his blood, Lucifer's astonished frown quickly curled into a devilish smirk.  "You may be able to see my body... but you still can't find my vital organs."  The fingers on his right hand spiraled into five razor-sharp blades, which he then stabbed into his elder brother's torso.  "It's such a shame!  On the rare occasion that you can actually hit me, you fail miserably at striking even one of my vitals!"

"Then I'll just have to try again," Slade replied as his body evaporated into a red mist and merged with the Nightmare Haze that surrounded them.  Lucifer gazed upward in awe as the real Slade descended from several feet above, his dagger held high above his head.  With a vicious downward slash, the avenger sliced the Grimnex in two.  Blood spilled onto the floor, and Slade stoically sheathed his blade.  "Hmph.  What did you expect?  You were surrounded by my Nightmare Haze.  It was a simple task to create an exact replica of myself out of the haze to use as a decoy."  He looked upon the Grimnex's dismantled body with disgust.  "Rest in peace... you son of a ninny..."

Just as these words escaped his lips, a long, snake-like blade extended from the shadows and pierced his chest.  Slade coughed up a mouthful of blood, and wicked, maniacal laughter assaulted his eardrums.  Looking upward, his jaw dropped as he spotted his brother standing unharmed atop the gateway to the Overthere.  His right arm had morphed into a dagger and extended several feet, allowing him to attack from a distance the moment Slade had dropped his guard.  "But... how did you...?"  Now on his hands and knees, the weakened avenger slowly turned his head toward the Lucifer that he had sliced in two.  As the Nightmare Haze faded away, he spotted a long, thin structure that ran across the floor like a wire.  He traced this object with his eyes back to the area where he had slashed Lucifer. To his surprise, the Grimnex was nowhere to be found, and a bloody hand with a gash running down its center had taken his place.  He then traced the other end of the wire-like structure back to Lucifer and immediately realized what had happened.

"That was rather entertaining," Lucifer snickered.  "The way each of us planned several steps ahead, setting traps for each other...  I'm impressed.  Unfortunately for you, it seems as though I planned one step ahead.  In the end, the Nightmare Haze was your undoing.  Although it was meant to obscure my vision and give you an opportunity to strike me, I was never in any danger to begin with.  Using my otherworldly talents, I morphed my left hand into an exact replica of myself and stretched my arm out to be several times longer.  I then slipped unnoticed out of the haze while my clone stayed behind to endure whatever attack you had in store for me.  If it weren't for the Nightmare Haze, you surely would have noticed my arm running along the floor like an extension cord, leading you to the real me.  You made it all too easy, Slade."

"So what I really cut... was your hand...  Heh...  You're nothing... but a freak... a lab experiment gone insanely wrong..." Slade spat, blood still dripping from his wounds.

"Now now, let's not resort to name-calling," Lucifer chuckled, wrapping his already extended left arm around Slade as if it were a boa constrictor squeezing the life from its prey.  He then withdrew his blade and reeled Slade in by shortening the length of his arm.  His older brother now dangling lifelessly before him, Lucifer's sinister grin widened.  "Slade, I want you to reexamine your childish motives for seeking vengeance against me.  I haven't done anything to you.  Are you acting out of jealousy?  Do you envy me because our parents treated me with love and respect?  Or is this all just because you have nothing left to live for but vengeance?  You're all alone...  You have nothing left to do but spread your hatred.  Once you've taken me out, who will it be next?  Humans and demons... They really are the same.  The only difference is that humans attempt to hide their corruptness with things such as 'laws' and 'morals,' while demons embrace their wickedness.  Demon or human, living creatures will never run out of reasons to wage war against one another.  If you killed me, I'm sure it wouldn't be long before you found someone else to hold a vendetta against."

"Heh... That's not it at all..." Slade whispered with a faint smirk.  "I just don't want you... to follow in our parents footsteps...  I don't want... to see anyone else end up like me...  Our family... is a curse... that must be eradicated..."

"Is that all?" Lucifer inquired, throwing his head back with laughter.  "In that case, I have good news.  If you hate this family so much... If you believe that we truly are a curse...  Then I'll be happy to rid this world of your existence."  He released his grip on Slade, who tumbled lifelessly onto the floor.  "But before I finish you off...  I have a job to do."


"No... stop..." Slade pleaded, lying helplessly on the ground in a pool of blood.  "If you do that..."

"I can tell that the gate to the Underwhere has already been destroyed.  So if I eliminate this gateway, the good souls of the Overthere will be forced to coexist with the wicked residents of the Underwhere.  Now, doesn't that sound like fun?"  His right arm grew to several times its original size, and the wicked Grimnex began to pummel away at the gate.

"Get... away... from that..." Slade demanded as he extended his palms toward his brother and launched a cloud of Nightmare Haze at him.

"You know that won't work," Lucifer replied.  His left hand took the shape of a fan, and he blew the haze away with a single swing.  After flashing a cruel smirk, he continued to strike the Overthere gateway with his enlarged fist.

He's right...  I need something else...  Recalling his battle with Helios, Slade reached for his dagger.  His scabbard was empty.  Frantically scanning his surroundings, he located his blade, which rested on the floor several feet away from him.  That's it...  If I can just reach it in time...  Losing blood fast, he desperately crawled toward his sword.  Inch by inch, his only chance at salvation grew closer.  The nearby sound of the gateway crumbling to pieces served as a constant reminder of the situation's urgency.  His blade now finally within reach, Slade extended a quivering arm toward its hilt.  As his fingertips were only centimeters away from the blade's handle, an explosion shook the entire Nexus.  Slade whirled around and watched in horror as the gate to the Overthere collapsed into a pile of rubble and debris.  Gritting his teeth, he returned his attention to his sword, but as he reached for its hilt yet again, a blade pierced his outstretched hand.

"So close," Lucifer taunted, now towering over his fallen brother.  "But even if you had managed to retrieve your sword, what could you have possibly hoped to accomplish?"  He withdrew his blade-shaped arm from Slade's hand and held it menacingly above his head.  "Now, with one final strike, I'll rid the world from your hateful existence."

His vision growing blurry, Slade watched helplessly as his brother's blade dangled above him.  He summoned all of his might and pressed his right palm against the floor.  Unbeknownst to Lucifer, a trail of Nightmare Haze began to crawl along the floor and into Slade's dagger.  The Grimnex flashed a cruel smile as he pressed the tip of his sword to his older brother's throat, but his eyes widened after Slade's sword shattered into hundreds of tiny fragments.  These shards, each manipulated by Slade through the Nightmare Haze that had been channeled into them, formed a razor-sharp dome around the two of them.

"Now I understand... This was your plan all along..." Lucifer whispered in astonishment.  "But you were too late...  We're both surrounded.  If you unleash all of those sword fragments upon me, you'll be severely injured as well.  You might even die."

"I never intended to walk away from this battle alive..." Slade replied bitterly.  "As long as I take you with me... I'm content with dying..."  With a single gesture, he commanded the dome of shards to close in on them.  Although they were directed mostly at Lucifer, Slade was inevitably the victim of many severe cuts and gashes.  Blood splashed into the air as the blade fragments danced about, cutting Lucifer to ribbons as he howled in anguish.

Within a minute, the Grimnex's body had been mutilated beyond recognition.  The blade fragments reassembled into a single sword, which then clattered onto the floor beside its owner.  Battered and beaten, Slade stared at his brother's corpse with half shut, bloodshot eyes.  He heaved a deep sigh, and his head feel to the floor.  Content with his victory, he allowed his eyes to slowly flutter shut.

As he slipped away into unconsciousness, he did not notice the Grimnex's body begin to stir, nor did he hear the sinister laughter of his younger brother echoing throughout the silent corridor.

"Meh, what an idiot," Bowser spat, regarding the fallen Vulcan with disgust.  He sighed helplessly as his size returned to normal.  "I wonder how the others are doing.  Chances are, they've screwed everything up and are waiting for me to save them at the last minute."

"Your fight wasn't exactly a glaring success," Mark grumbled from within Bowser's body.  "You may have beaten Vulcan, but he still managed to destroy the gateway to the Underwhere.  And you never would have even won if we hadn't activated your adrenaline.  Now can you please let us out?"

"Erm... I don't know how..." Bowser admitted sheepishly.

"What?!  You mean we're stuck in here?!" Luke wailed, angrily flailing his arms.  "Let us out!"

"I would if I could!" Bowser snapped.  "I'll figure something out... eventually..."

Grimnex Theme

As Bowser quarreled with the plumbers, he was entirely oblivious to the ominous figure that lurked nearby.  Crawling along the floor with a bloody trail following closely behind, the severely injured Lucifer gradually made his way toward Vulcan's body.  A wicked smirk spread across his heavily wounded face.  Just a... little further...  There...  He placed his left palm on the Grimnex and liquefied before entering Vulcan's body via his numerous battle wounds.

"Heh...  You might want to keep those two brats inside of you for a bit longer..." Vulcan sneered, causing Bowser to whirl around in fright.

"You...  How are you still conscious?"

Vulcan let out an obnoxious cackle before his body morphed to resemble a fully-healed Lucifer.  "Scared you, didn't I?  Let me assure you, Vulcan is no more.  However, from your point of view, I can't exactly say that's a good thing.  You'd stand a better chance against a handful of Vulcans."

Bowser squinted at his foe, recognizing him from before.  "You...  You're that cocky jerk from earlier.  I've got a bone to pick with you..."  He rushed toward the Grimnex with his fists clenched, shaking the ground as he did so.  The Koopa King threw a right hook, but Lucifer weaved to the side and delivered a crushing blow to his opponent's chest.  Bowser fell to his knees, gasping for air.

"Back off.  I have no intentions of fighting you," Lucifer declared as he vanished into the shadows.

Still coughing and gasping, Bowser clutched his chest and roared in agony.  At last, he spit out the young brothers that had been imprisoned within him.  Breathing heavily, he collapsed onto the floor from exhaustion.

"We're free!" Luke exclaimed joyfully.  "Now we can go home!"

"Not... yet...  Listen to me..." Bowser pleaded, struggling to remain conscious.  "Their leader... is still alive...  Take him out... before he destroys the other gates..."

"Ah, I see that Apollo has failed miserably," Lucifer observed, glaring at the fully intact gate to the Mushroom Kingdom.  "If anyone was going to fail, I thought it would be Vulcan.  What a disappointment."  He observed Apollo's frozen corpse.  "Such a pathetic way to die..."  He turned to the two bodies that lay at his feet.  "Hmm...  I see that we miscounted the number of warriors on the opposing side.  Or perhaps he showed up late.  Regardless, these two don't look like they'll be a threat to our operation anymore.  He placed his palm on the frozen Apollo.  "Vulcan...  Your powers will come in handy sooner than expected."  His hand became engulfed in flames, and the ice surrounding the Theta Grimnex began to melt.  Once Apollo had been completely thawed, Lucifer liquefied and entered his body in the same manner he had with Vulcan.

"Apollo... the god of light... Vulcan... the god of heat...  You were always meant to be one.  Both of your powers will serve me well," Apollo chuckled just before his body took the shape of Lucifer.  He tossed the blade that Apollo had been previously impaled with onto the floor.  "One more gateway...  And then the mission will be complete."  He attempted to take a step toward the gate, but found that his feet had been frozen to the floor.  Twisting his body around, he saw a gravely battered Lorne with his palms pressed to the floor.

"Don't take... another step..." Lorne admonished through gritted teeth.  He scooped up his father's blade and charged at the Grimnex.

"It seems that you do not understand who you are dealing with...  I possess the powers of Vulcan and Apollo, in addition to my own...  I simply cannot die," Lucifer informed him, surrounding himself in an aura of flames.  The ice confining his feet melted, and he sent Lorne tumbling onto his back with a wave of inferno.

His body smoldering, Lorne collapsed helplessly onto his back.  "Damn..."

"You shouldn't overexert yourself.  Defeating the Theta Grimnex is no simple task.  And you were the only one among your teammates whose gate wasn't destroyed.  Unfortunately, that will no longer be the case in a few moments," Lucifer snickered.  He turned his attention to the gateway that led to the Mushroom Kingdom, but was subsequently shot in the back with a Fireball.  The Grimnex whirled around to see Mark and Luke standing defiantly before him.  "You two... You're still alive...?  When I didn't see you before, I assumed that you were dead."

"They're... the only ones left..." Lorne murmured.

"Well well, out of all the warriors on your team, I never thought that you two would be the last ones standing," Lucifer chuckled.  "Let's see what you can do."

Lucifer Battle

Fighting side by side, Mark and Luke charged simultaneously at the Heta Grimnex.  Abruptly stopping dead in his tracks, Luke formed a Fireball in his right hand and lobbed it above Lucifer's head.  As the flaming sphere whizzed past him, Mark leapt into the air and spiked the Fireball downward at their opponent.  He then extended his foot toward Lucifer, intending to strike him with a midair kick, but the Grimnex caught his foot and hurled him to the floor.

"Your Fireballs have no effect on me thanks to Vulcan's resistance to high temperatures," Lucifer informed them smugly.  Mark angrily rolled onto his feet and engaged the Grimnex in hand-to-hand combat.  As Lucifer caught each of the young plumber's punches in his palm, Luke silently approached from behind and hooked his arms under the Grimnex's shoulders.  His opponent's arms now restrained, Mark began to pummel his foe with a series of brutal punches and kicks.  With an infuriated howl, Lucifer set his own body ablaze with Vulcan's mighty flames, causing Mark and Luke to retreat.

"He has all of Vulcan's abilities!" Lorne warned them.  "You've already fought against him, so use your knowledge of his powers to your advantage..."

"Then the only way to burn him is to create something even hotter than the flames that he produces," Mark recalled.  He cupped his hands together and began to create an Ultra Fireball.  "Given enough time, I could probably create a Fireball hot enough to scorch him.  Would you mind holding him off for a bit?"

"I'll try," Luke replied with a nervous gulp.  But what can I do...?  If I hit him with punches or kicks, I'll just burn myself...  And Mark is already working on creating a Fireball hot enough to be effective against him...  What else does that leave me...?

"What's wrong?" Lucifer cackled, sending a column of flames towards the young plumber.  Luke dove to the side, narrowly dodging the inferno.  The impact of the blast sent him tumbling in the opposite direction, and when he looked up, he saw Lucifer towering above him.  Trembling in terror, he leapt to his feet and scuttled backward, but he soon ran into a wall.  He was cornered.  "It looks like you're trapped.  What do you plan to do?  I could melt the skin off of your bones with a single touch."

Father...  Why can't I be like you...? Luke wondered, shutting his eyes as he waited for his inevitable death.  Please... lend me your strength... and your courage...  Moments later, he felt a chilling sensation in his right hand.  His eyes snapped back open, and to his astonishment, an Iceball had formed in his palm.

"What is that...?" Lucifer inquired, his eyes suddenly wide with horror.

"You'll see!" Luke chuckled, hurling the Iceball at his foe.  Lucifer staggered backward, crying out in anguish as his flames died down.

"You...  Just for that... your death will be several times more painful than I originally planned," Lucifer declared, his eyes glimmering with hatred.  He extended his palm toward the frightened Luke, and a spiked tentacle launched itself at him.

"Luke!  Stay away from that!  It'll drain the life from you!" Lorne screamed.  However, it was too late.  The bladed tentacle had pierced the plumber's chest, and it had already begun to suck up the nutrients from Luke's body.  "No... I've got to... do something..."  As the horrified Lorne prepared to act, an Ultra Fireball soared from out of seemingly nowhere and struck Lucifer in the back.

"Thanks, Bro," Mark said with a weary sigh.  "That should do the trick..."

"I'm afraid not..." a frail voice whispered from the shadows.  "An attack like that... could never defeat that monster..."  His entire body covered in bruises and bloody gashes, Slade limped onto the battlefield.  "You may know what Apollo and Vulcan are capable of... but only I know how dreadful Lucifer can really be...  He's practically immortal..."

"I inherited it from our parents," Lucifer sneered, extending his blade-shaped arm toward the unsuspecting Mark, stabbing him in the lower torso.  The young plumber coughed up a mouthful of blood and fell to his knees.  Each of them severely wounded, Mark and Luke had been defeated.

An Avenger's Fate

"Lucifer... I won't let you hurt anyone else... I won't let you live on... to take the place of our parents..." Slade declared.  "Lorne... Mark... Luke...  Go meet up with Bowser... and get out of here..."

"No... we can't leave you behind..." Mark refused, clutching the gash on his chest.

"This is my fight...  I won't let anyone else interfere..." Slade insisted as he summoned a barrier of Nightmare Haze that separated him and his brother from his comrades.  "Live on... to fight alongside Mario..."

"Slade!" Mark cried, desperately banging against the wall of Nightmare Haze with his fists.  "You don't have to do this alone!"

"I guess you leave me no other choice," Slade sighed, sending a cloud of haze at Mark and the others.  After inhaling a single breath of the toxic mist, Mark, Luke, and Lorne blacked out.  "That wasn't enough... to kill you...  It'll only keep you unconscious... long enough for me to get the job done..."

"And just what job are you planning to finish?" Lucifer inquired.  "Look at yourself.  Can you even put up a fight in your condition?"

"You tell me," Slade spat, recklessly rushing at his brother with his dagger held high.  The ruthless Grimnex changed his arm into a dagger and pierced his older brother's heart without hesitation.  Slade, making no attempt to defend himself, continued his assault by stabbing his own dagger into Lucifer's chest.  "Heh... I know how... you survived that last attack...  You constantly kept your vital organs on the move... dodging each blade shard... as it attacked you...  But that won't happen this time..."

Lucifer gasped.

"I kept some... Nightmare Haze inside of you... during our last encounter...  Remember how... I said that the haze... can act as my eyes and ears...? It was what allowed me... to see you... even with my vision obstructed by the mist...  I thought about it... and if my haze is inside of your body... I should be able to see... exactly where your vital organs are..."  He channeled his Nightmare Haze into his blade, and the shards tore the Grimnex apart from the inside.  Only this time, they pinpointed the exact location of Lucifer's heart and brain and ripped them to shreds.

"You... You can't do this... to me...  I... I..."  With one final, bloodcurdling scream, Lucifer's eyes rolled back.  At last, the invincible Heta Grimnex had met his end.

"Now... this wretched family... can finally be put to rest..." Slade whispered, tears forming in the corners of his eyes.  "Heh... It looks like Mario was right..."

"Slade...  If you continue down the path of vengeance... you'll die."

"I know...  I've already accepted my fate.  Don't run away from yours."

"Goodbye, my friend."

"In the end... an avenger cannot escape death...  For my entire life... I've been alone...  And yet... you were the only one... who ever showed me compassion...  Mario... the rest is up to you...  Farewell, my friend..."  With nothing left to live for, Slade collapsed beside his brother into a pool of blood.  Although they had lived vastly different lives, the brothers had shared the same fate in the end.


May 23, 2011, 03:34:32 PM #22 Last Edit: May 23, 2011, 03:41:53 PM by shadowmarioguy
[glow=blue,2,300]Chapter 21: Rebirth[/glow]

Cursed Memory

Though the war for control of the Nexus had subsided for the time being, the battle between Mario and Glaive atop Grimnex Palace waged on.  For the past ten minutes, they had been enwrapped in a fierce swordfight, and although they were giving it their all, neither warrior had once landed a single blow on the other.  Just when it seemed that the duel would drag on for an eternity, Mario lunged forward with an upward slash that knocked his opponent's blade upward, leaving him wide open to a fatal blow.  However, instead of continuing his assault, the Mushroom Hero lowered his blade and stepped back.

"Mario... what is the meaning of this?" Glaive inquired with disgust.  "You do realize what's at stake, don't you?  Can you really afford to hold back?"

Mario's Tri Elemental Blade disintegrated into a burst of rainbow-colored light, and he stared his former comrade down with a defiant glare.  "Forgive me, but...  I refuse to continue."

"Is this some kind of joke?  What do you mean?"

"I agreed to a rematch with Glaive," Mario stated firmly, "but you're not him.  You...  You're nothing like the man I used to know.  You used to be filled with such pride...  You wanted nothing more than to rescue your homeland from destruction, to lift the curse that shrouded your people in darkness.  The Glaive that I knew would never allow himself to be controlled, especially not by someone like the Phoenix."

"What is he doing...?" Luigi whispered, staring at his brother in confusion.  "There's no way that Glaive will listen... is there?"

"Does it really make that big of a difference?" Glaive sighed.  "Whether you like it or not, I am Glaive.  People change.  On the outside, I'm still the same as I was six years ago."  He struck Mario in the face with a right hook.  The Mushroom Hero, making no attempt to defend himself, tumbled onto his back.

"It does make a difference, more than you could ever understand," Mario answered, rising defiantly to his feet.  "You make it sound so simple, but your entire persona has been altered.  You were never this weak six years ago."

"Care to elaborate?" Glaive cackled, slashing his sword at the Mushroom Hero.  Refusing to fight back, Mario staggered backwards as Glaive assaulted him with dozens of pinpoint slashes.  It wasn't long before his opponent landed a shallow slice across his right breast.  He then proceeded to strike Mario with the butt of his sword, sending the Mushroom Hero crashing to the floor again.  "You were saying?"

"Didn't you hear me...?  I said that you've grown weak... over these past six years," Mario chuckled as he struggled to his feet.  "Glaive, by blindly obeying your inner demon, you've been taking the easy way out.  I've been locked in an internal struggle for the past six years, and not once have I willingly submitted to the Phoenix's will.  You, on the other hand...  You've allowed yourself to be used as a mere puppet.  You're nothing but a slave to the Phoenix's goals.  Looking back on the man you once were, I feel nothing but pity toward you."

"Silence!" Glaive thundered, angrily slashing his dagger at the plumber's throat.

His eyes gleaming with passion, Mario caught his opponent's blade in his bare hand.  The two warriors locked eyes.  "Glaive, I know what you're trying to do.  You made a promise to a loved one, didn't you?  You swore to bring this war to an end, no matter what the cost may be.  Even now, you've allowed that single vow to take priority over your comrades, your friends, and your life.  You became so obsessed with ending this war that you were willing to obey the Phoenix and fight for a cause that you knew in your heart was wrong."

"Shut up...  You... You could never understand..." Glaive snapped, his tone beginning to soften as blood dripped from the Mushroom Hero's hand.

"That's where you're wrong, Glaive.  I do understand.  Not only have I suffered the nightmare of struggling to maintain control of your own body...  But I also know what it's like to see a loved one die before your very eyes.  That vow you made... to your significant other...  You may think that nothing is more important to her than the fulfillment of this oath, but you're wrong.  By forcing yourself along this path of self-destruction, by throwing everything else away...  You've only caused more suffering for the woman who means more to you than anything else in the whole world!  You've done nothing but wallow in your own regret since Sara's death, all the while trying to escape from the pain by allowing the Phoenix to take control and use you as his puppet!"

Glaive remained silent, his eyes widening as Mario's words began to sink in.

"You already know about the tragedy behind Pauline, my late fiancée...  Not a day went by in which I did not mourn her death.  I blamed myself for her demise, and I knew that she would never be able to rest in peace unless I learned more about what happened that dreadful night.  After the Velno incident, I was finally able to put her death behind me.  Now it's time for you to do the same.  As things stand now, Sara will never rest in peace.  You said that Botis turned her into a Grimnex all of those years ago...  To this very day, she is still trapped within the cold, heartless body of a Grimnex, and it's your duty to end her suffering."  His eyes shifted to Venus.  "Do you honestly think that all of this has made her happy?  She's trapped, Glaive.  Sara would never want to live on if it meant that she had to remain brainwashed inside of a killing machine's body, nor would she want you to end the war in the Nightmare Vault if it meant bringing about the world's destruction."

Teardrops forming in the corner's of his eyes, Glaive's sword clattered to the floor.  "I see... How long have you known Venus' secret...?"

"Ipos told me that she got her position because she was special to the Beta Grimnex.  Once you revealed your true identity, it didn't take long for me to put the pieces together," Mario answered softly.

Glaive fell to his hands and knees as the floor was stained with his tears.  The Colosseum remained absolutely silent for several minutes, until Glaive finally lifted his head.  Mario held out his hand, and his comrade gladly accepted it.

"Your eyes...  They're different..." Mario observed with relief.  "Heh, I was starting to get worried.  Welcome back."

"Mario...?  I... I feel different...  What happened...?"

"Hmm, this is probably the first time you've been in complete control of your body since your 'death' during our battle with Velno," Mario noted.  "Don't you remember anything?"

Glaive nodded slowly.  "Yeah...  Some memories are fuzzier than others, but I know what's been going on."  He bent down and picked up his sword.  "For example...  I remember that we were in the middle of something.  What do you say we finish what we started?  We may never have another chance."

"Is he crazy?!" Luigi shrieked.  "We don't have time for this!  Bro, don't listen to-"

"You're on," Mario agreed with a grin.  "I know that you've been anticipating an opportunity like this for a while.  Besides, I said before that I would only fight the Glaive that I knew six years ago.  Now that you're back to normal, I'd be a complete and utter hypocrite if I refused your challenge."

All or Nothing

"It's settled, then.  The next blow decides it?"

Mario nodded.  "Fair enough."

"They're really going through with this?!" Luigi gasped.  "What are they thinking?  I mean, Glaive was the Beta Grimnex, but...  What about Gaea, Venus, and Jack?  If those two end up killing each other..."

"Somehow, I'm not surprised," Ace remarked with a grin.  "Those two...  Now that Glaive has returned to normal, nothing will stop them from settling their rivalry once and for all.  I'm eager to see how this will end.  Both of them have improved tremendously over these past six years."

"Listen to yourself!" Luigi screamed.  "What's more important: their pride, or the fate of every realm in existence?"

"Neither of them will be satisfied until their duel has reached its conclusion."

Cupping his hands together, Mario summoned another Tri-Elemental Blade before sprinting toward his rival.  He swung his sword horizontally through the air, creating an electric current that was aimed directly at Glaive.  The demon responded by slashing his sword with enough force to generate a powerful gust of wind that countered his foe's wave of electricity.  Each warrior having negated his opponent's long-ranged attack, Mario and Glaive closed in on each other with their weapons raised.  They met at the exact center of the Colosseum and swung their blades with all of their might, resulting in a blinding flash of light.

As the light died down, Luigi eagerly gazed at the two rivals.  Both Mario and Glaive had dropped their weapons and taken a knee.  Their upper torsos were scarred with a nearly identical diagonal slash.  They were breathing heavily, and a slight grin could be detected on both of their faces.

"After all of these years... it seems as though our duel has ended in a draw..." Glaive chuckled softly.

"Heh...  I can live with that..." Mario sighed, gradually rising to his feet.  He turned to face the three remaining Grimnexes that had silently viewed their duel from afar.  "Now that that's taken care of... we still have work to do..."

"Mario!" Peach screamed, rushing to her husband's side.  The two embraced, and Mario dug the princess' wedding ring out of his overall pocket.

"Sorry, I never got a chance to return this to you," he apologized, slipping the golden ring onto Peach's finger.

"Mario...  Can we finally go home...?" Peach whispered, her cheeks damp with tears.  As the Mushroom Hero opened his mouth to answer, the entire Colosseum began to tremble.  Beneath Mario, Glaive, and Peach, the mark of the Phoenix that had been inscribed in the floor began to glow.  "This symbol...  This is what Zagan- I mean, Glaive- told me to stand on just before the Phoenix Salvation began!"

"Do you think the marking has something to do with all of this shaking?!" Mario exclaimed, raising his voice so that Peach could hear him over the earsplitting quakes that had erupted all throughout Grimnex Palace.

Phoenix Theme

"Oh no..." Glaive whispered.  He stared at the symbol etched into the floor.  It had been covered in Mario's blood, as well as his own.  As the shaking died down, the princess was suddenly surrounded in a column of purple light.  The sky grew dark, and a chilling breeze began to blow throughout the Colosseum.

"What's... what's happening to her...?" Mario wondered aloud, his eyes wide with terror.  "What's going on...?  This can't possibly be...?"

Glaive nodded grimly.  "It is.  Even I was led to believe that Princess Peach needed to be sacrificed before the ceremony could begin, but now it seems that there is more than one method of initiating the Phoenix Salvation."

"Peach!" Mario howled, reaching into the beam of darkness in a futile attempt to salvage her.  The moment his hand made contact with the ray of shadows, an overwhelming feeling of agony and sorrow reverberated throughout his body, causing him to stumble backward in sheer terror.

"What's happening?!" Luigi yelped, quivering in fright.

Noting the grim expression on Glaive's face, Ace realized immediately what was going on.  "There's no mistaking it.  Somehow, the battle between Mario and Glaive has triggered the Phoenix's resurrection...  And it seems that Kronos intends to use the princess' body as some sort of ...sacrifice."

"Targeting a defenseless woman first... what a coward," Wario grumbled, angrily clenching his fists.

Waluigi fell to his knees.  "So then... were all of our efforts for nothing...?  Isn't there any way we can stop this...?"

Ace shook his head solemnly as he observed the look of despair on Mario's face.  "We made a grave miscalculation...  We thought that the war was over... that once Glaive was no longer under the Phoenix's control, we could just leave whenever we wanted to...  Now we will all meet the demon king's wrath head on."

Violent shockwaves emitted from the princess' body as the column of darkness encasing her faded away.  After several flashes of red and purple light, the resurrection was complete.  Though most of Princess Peach's features remained the same, she had adopted a few of the Phoenix's characteristics.  Her skin was now a ghostly white color, and her innocent sapphire eyes had been replaced with soulless black voids.  Spanning from eye to chin, a single black line ran down each of her cheeks.  With black, electrical sparks radiating from his new body, Kronos took a deep breath and observed the world around him in silence.

"At last, I have been reborn," he murmured, sending chills down Mario's spine.

"That voice... it's the same one that I've been hearing inside my head..." Mario whispered in disbelief.  "So then... it really is you..."

Kronos turned his cold, penetrating stare toward the Mushroom Hero.  "Yes, only this time, I have been manifested into a physical form.  I hope you don't mind if I borrow this body for a while.  Ah, wait a minute... this woman is your wife, is she not?  If you want her back, go ahead and take her."  The Phoenix approached Mario with slow, menacing footsteps.  He then held his arms to the sky in mock defenselessness.  "Come now.  What are you waiting for?"

Petrified with fear, Mario's face grew pale as he gazed at his ancestor in utter helplessness.

Kronos burst into wicked laughter.  "Don't worry.  I have that effect on people."

"Kronos... how did you...?" Glaive inquired through gritted teeth.  "You told me that the princess had to be executed in order for the ceremony to commence."

"Yes, but upon reconsideration, I decided to settle for a live vessel," Kronos answered.  "A deceased vessel is ideal because it will last forever, but given the situation... I opted for a temporary, live one.  After all, I'll only need this body until I can get my old one back.  The princess' body should last until then."

"I see... and it was our blood that triggered your resurrection."

Kronos nodded.  "Your duel with Mario couldn't have ended more perfectly.  The blood of both my descendants spilled onto the symbol of the Phoenix, and then Princess Peach came rushing to your aid.  With all of the necessary conditions present, I was finally able to awaken from my slumber.  But alas, I don't have all day to stand around and answer your questions.  The Olympians will pay for all of the suffering they have caused me."  He raised his right palm, and in a flash of light, a purple vortex materialized in front of him.  "I really must be on my way.  Come to me, my remaining Grimnexes!"

"Sir!" Venus, Gaea, and Jack complied in unison.

"What about you, Glaive?" Kronos inquired with a cruel smirk.  "You're still the Beta Grimnex.  Abandon these pitiful weaklings and stand at my side.  Together, we can lift the curse on the Nightmare Vault and make the Olympians pay for what they did to us.  How about it?"

Glaive shook his head defiantly.  "Go to hell."

"I've already been there," Kronos replied with a wry grin.  "Suit yourself.  But you should really drop the tough guy act, Glaive.  You can't hide your fear.  I can see you trembling.  Even the famous Mushroom Hero has been crippled by fright," Kronos observed, turning his attention to Mario.  "Farewell, my ancestral son.  Like I said, I'll be borrowing your wife's body for a while.  If you change your mind and decide that you want to save her, you can find me in Terranea."  He took one last look around.  "Well, it seems that no one has the courage to try and stop me.  In that case, I must be off." 

With that, Kronos, Venus, Gaea, and Jack stepped into the portal that the Phoenix had previously opened.  "Farewell, Glaive..." Venus whispered as the vortex began to close.

"It seems as though my revenge will have to wait," Jack chuckled.  "But as long as we remain on opposing sides, a rematch is inevitable.  Until then, Ace, you can suffer in your own silent remorse."

"Luigi... you have disappointed me," Gaea declared solemnly.  "You had better pray that we never meet again."

"Mario... Glaive...  I never thought that my descendants would turn out to be such cowards," Kronos sneered.  The portal shut, leaving the Colosseum in absolute silence.  The heroes hung their heads in defeat.  Not one of them had stepped forward to challenge the Phoenix, not even Mario.

The Mushroom Hero smashed his fists against the stone floor.  "Damn it!  He was right in front of me, mocking me... and I just stood there, like a frightened child."

"You're being too hard on yourself.  I was just as afraid as you were," Luigi admitted.

"That doesn't surprise me," Glaive muttered.  "You haven't changed a bit."

"Whether Glaive will admit it or not, we were all hindered by fear," Ace assured him.  "Not only that, but out of all of us, your wounds are the most severe.  You fought against Ipos, the strongest out of all the Grimnexes, and then you challenged Glaive without giving your injuries a chance to heal.  It's a miracle that you're even alive.  You're in no condition to be-"

"Stop giving me excuses," Mario growled, angrily rising to his feet.  "It's just that...  When I reached through that column of darkness during Kronos' resurrection... his innermost feelings were as clear as day...  I could feel his sorrow, his passionate hatred, everything...  It was too much.  I still don't know the full story behind the Terranean War, but whatever the case may be...  There's something dark about Kronos... darker than anything I've ever felt before.  Ipos, Dante, Lord Shade...  They were nothing compared to him."

"So now what?  Do you plan to sit here and whine about how pathetic you are?" Glaive snapped.


"No...  I never thought it'd come to this, but there's only one course of action we have left.  We're going to Terranea.  Kronos isn't gonna be rid of us that easily," Mario declared.  "Are you guys in?"

"Best idea I've heard all day," Wario chuckled, nodding his head emphatically.

"Why not?  You guys need me too much," Waluigi agreed with a helpless shrug.

Ace grinned.  "Heh, do you even need to ask?  Jack and I have a score to settle, and besides, I promised that I'd fight alongside you until the day the Phoenix's empire crumbles."

Everyone turned to Luigi.  "Umm...  Well, the way I see it, I only have two choices.  I can either die fighting alongside you guys, or I can die alone when Kronos decides to send his demon army after me."  A wry smirk spread across his face.  "I think I'd prefer the former."

Mario's eyes shifted to Glaive.  "What about you?"

"Of course, but... are you sure that you want me to come along with you?" Glaive inquired, hanging his head in shame.

Mario nodded.  "Why wouldn't I?  You're one of the toughest guys I know, and more importantly, you're our friend."

"Friend...?" Glaive whispered in disbelief.  "Hah...  I never thought I'd hear you call me that again.  Well, if you want me on your team that badly, I guess I have no other choice.  Let's go."

"Wow, we've finally got our old demon-fighting team back together," Luigi observed with a grin.  "It reminds me of the good old days...  Bro, Glaive, Ace, and me...  We practically took on Velno's entire army."

"Yeah, with us four together again, plus Wario and Waluigi, we'll be just fine," Mario agreed.  "Now, we have to get to the Nexus as quickly as possible.  From there, we can get to the newly formed Terranea.  But before we do, I think it'd be best if we stopped to wrap up some of our wounds."

"We can stop by the palace's infirmary," Glaive suggested.  "It won't be the best treatment you've ever received, but it's better than nothing.  Your wounds are in especial need of bandaging, Mario.  I'm surprised you haven't already bled to death."

"Gee, thanks," Mario chuckled.

Phoenix Theme

"Pardon the interruption, but I'd like to take this time to greet the inhabitants of the world of light.  And that also includes you, my lovely group of intruders.  I just wanted to let you all know that you have basked in the sunlight for long enough.  Before long, Zeus' Olympian empire will crumble beneath my feet.  As you are no doubt aware, the fragments of Terranea have begun to reassemble.  Although a certain group of rebels have managed to get in the way of my plans, rest assured that Terranea will be whole once again, and once my kingdom has been restored, the Nightmare Vault will become the residence of all who oppose me.  You will all know the suffering and anguish we demons have endured for centuries.

"Until then, try to enjoy your remaining time in the sunlight.  Or, if you prefer, you may come to Terranea in a futile attempt to stop me.  I understand that there will inevitably be a select few who will try to resist my uprising.  By all means... come and face my demon army.  While the Mushroom Hero and his comrades have been waging war against the mighty Grimnexes, my demon army has been busy assembling at a designated area within the Nightmare Abyss.  I will now create a portal from which my soldiers can enter Terranea and stand at my side.  And with my army, my Grimnexes, and -before long- my original body, I will launch one final assault upon the Nexus.  I must congratulate the band of rebels that have defended the Nexus up to this point, but it is time to admit defeat.  Very shortly, even your precious Universe will become a part of my new empire."


[glow=blue,2,300]Chapter 22: The Demon Citadel[/glow]

Looking Forward

"I see...  So Dante and Slade are both...?" Mario inquired glumly upon hearing the bad news from Lorne.  After briefly bandaging their wounds, the Mushroom Hero and his comrades had traveled to the Nexus Access Point, where they were granted entry by the group that Mario had placed in charge of periodically opening the gate.  Once inside, they met up with Mark, Luke, Lorne, and Bowser, as well as the Toad that had unlocked the entrance.  Soon after, the Toad had reported back to the Mushroom Kingdom while Mario discussed the current situation with his allies.

"They're gone," Lorne assured him.  "I know it may sound strange, but... it seemed as though they were both satisfied with their deaths.  Slade had obtained his vengeance, and my father finally had the chance to apologize to me."

"I'm glad," Mario whispered.  "After he banished Crimson from his mind, I could tell that Dante felt an overwhelming amount of remorse for his crimes.  If he found a way to atone for his sins before his death, then I'm sure that he'll be able to rest in peace.  And Slade... he spent most of his life seeking revenge.  It relieves me to know that he managed to end his search before passing away."

"Wait, aren't they just going to end up in the Underwhere?" Luigi inquired.  "And if the Underwhere gateway has been destroyed, shouldn't they be somewhere in Terranea?"

"If only that were true," an elderly voice sighed from nearby.  The gateway to the Mushroom Kingdom opened, and Grambi stepped forward.  Behind him was the group that Mario had requested to watch over the Nexus Access Point in the Mushroom Kingdom.  "I'm afraid that Slade and Crimson perished after the gate to the Underwhere was destroyed.  By sending his minions to attack the Nexus, Kronos has merged the Underwhere and Overthere with Mt. Olympus, and in doing so, he has eliminated the afterlife in its entirety."

"I don't understand...  What will happen to Slade and Dante?  And what if we die...?" Ace asked, stroking his chin in confusion.

"Allow me to explain.  The cycle of reincarnation has maintained a balance in population between the 'living world' and the 'afterlife' for centuries. Previously, when a being in the Overthere or Underwhere died, he would be reincarnated into a living creature with no memories of his previous life.  At the same time, if an individual from the living world died, he would be brought to the Underwhere.  However, now that Kronos has taken his first steps toward reuniting Terranea, a person will be reincarnated the moment he or she dies.  The 'living world' and 'afterlife' are now one in the same."

"In other words, Dante and Slade have already been reborn as entirely new people," Glaive concluded.

Grambi nodded.  "Exactly.  If any of you die from here on out, your existence as you know it will be entirely erased."

"So what?  I only need one life to bash that demon king's skull in," Wario cackled, flexing his muscles.

"I'm afraid I cannot allow that," Grambi informed him sternly.  "None of you are permitted to enter Terranea.  Did you already forget that Mt. Olympus is the home of Zeus?  Terranea is a sacred land in which commoners may not tread.  And besides, it isn't your place to interfere in Zeus' affairs.  This is his problem, now.  You've already disobeyed his orders once by entering the Nightmare Abyss.  If you go against him again, the consequences will be severe."


"So be it," Mario stated firmly.  "If Zeus wants to execute me after this is all over, that's fine.  No one's gonna stop me from going to Terranea."

"Think rationally!  This is a job for the Olympian army, not a single man!" Grambi exclaimed angrily.

"You don't understand one bit, do you?  And you're supposed to be the king of the Overthere," Mario replied through gritted teeth.  "We are the Olympian army.  You said it yourself.  Grambi has lived alone atop Mt. Olympus for centuries, silently watching over the other realms in existence.  If this so-called "army" isn't on Mt. Olympus, or in the Mushroom Kingdom, where is it?  In the Nightmare Vault?  Terranea has been divided up into several different realms, including the one that we call home.  We are the descendants of the soldiers that fought under Zeus in the Terranean War."

Grambi's eyes widened.  "Mario..."

"I know what you're thinking.  I'm only the Mushroom Hero.  I should just worry about my own kingdom, right?  But if we stand by and do nothing, Kronos will unite the Mushroom Kingdom with Terranea.  And if that's the case, it'll become my job to protect not only the Mushroom Kingdom, but all of Terranea as well.  I'm begging you... Please, open the gateway to Terranea."

Grambi remained silent as Toadsworth came barreling forward.  "Master Mario, I demand to know where the princess is!"

Mario hung his head.  "I'm sorry... She's in Terranea."

Toadsworth turned to Grambi.  "Sir... You must permit Mario to enter Terranea this instant!"

"You'd better do what he says, or he'll nag you to death," Mario warned him with a sarcastic grin.

"Hmm...  If you really wanted to, you could simply take the Nexus Pass away from me with brute force.  However..." Grambi smiled sadly.  "You'll need to save your strength for Kronos.  Good luck, my son."

As the doorway leading to Terranea slowly opened, Mario, Luigi, Wario, Waluigi, Glaive, and Ace stepped forward.  "Thank you, Father."

"Mario, do you want us to come with you?" Bowser inquired.

"Nah, you should all stay here and defend the Nexus.  It won't be long before Kronos sends more of his troops to destroy the gate to the Mushroom Kingdom," Mario informed him.  "See you guys later!  And this time, we'll be sure to come back with Princess Peach!"  He paused as his two sons stepped forward from the crowd.  "Mark, Luke...  You both have made me so proud.  Do your best to keep our home safe, okay?"

The two brothers nodded in unison.

"Alright, let's go," Mario whispered with a firm nod.  Having said their final goodbyes, the Mushroom Hero and his five comrades stepped forward through the gateway to Terranea.

Phoenix Theme

"Ugh...  How much farther are we gonna walk?" Gaea groaned, trailing sluggishly behind his comrades.

"Quit complaining," Jack hissed.

"You haven't changed one bit," Kronos chuckled.  "Gaea, do you realize that out of my entire army, you are the only remaining one who was among the original 24 Grimnexes?  And yet these rookies seem even more disciplined than you are.  Sara hasn't uttered a single word since we left." 

Walking through an immaculate meadow of green, they finally stopped at a colossal, out-of-place field of soil.  "Here we are," Kronos declared.  "This is the site from which I will govern all of Terranea."  Peering into the horizon, he saw thousands of demon soldiers marching toward them.  "Ah, it seems that my underlings made it to Terranea safely.  Good."

"Pardon my stupidity, but what's so special about a field of dirt?" Gaea grumbled.

An evil smirk spread across the demon king's face.  "Thousands of years ago, at the Terranean War's conclusion, Zeus decided that he would confine the demons to the Nightmare Vault.  However, before this could occur, my faithful underlings returned my corpse to the Demon Citadel, my primary base of operations during the war.  They then buried the stronghold beneath the earth, where no one would ever find it.  By resurfacing the Demon Citadel, I can at last reclaim my body- and my throne."

He placed his right palm against the ground and began to glow with a violet light.  The light gradually moved from Kronos' body to the soil below him, ultimately resulting in a massive earthquake.  "Everyone, stand back," the Phoenix commanded, stepping off of the enormous patch of soil.  The rumbling grew more intense, and before everyone's astonished eyes, a palace began to rise from beneath the ground.  Though it had been buried for centuries, the Demon Citadel was a sight to behold, towering several stories high with its flawless marble design.  "...It feels so good to be home."  Kronos turned to the thousands of soldiers that now stood before him, eagerly awaiting his next order.  "Now, before I can secure my position as king, you must destroy the gateway to the Mushroom Kingdom from within the Nexus!  Cut down all who stand in your path!"

"So, this is Terranea..." Mario whispered as he and his allies emerged from a swirling purple portal.  "It's beautiful...  This doesn't look like anything I've ever seen in the Overthere or Underwhere.  We must be in the Mt. Olympus section of Terranea."

"I don't see a mountain anywhere," Wario mumbled skeptically.

"You oaf...  Remember that this land belongs to Zeus, which means that it most likely spans for thousands of miles.  We'd probably have to walk through these meadows for days to even catch a glimpse of Mt. Olympus along the horizon," Glaive explained gruffly.

"What about that?" Waluigi inquired, pointing toward a colossal tower that had just appeared in the distance.  A few miles in front of it was a mob of what appeared to be demon soldiers.

"Are those... Kronos' men?!" Luigi shrieked.  "There are way too many of them...  We'd be massacred before we got even close to Kronos..."

"Luigi's right.  We can't fend off an entire army," Ace agreed.  "But how are we supposed to bypass them?"


Before they could ponder this issue any further, Mark, Luke, Bowser, Lorne, and Grambi emerged from behind them and stood firmly in the distant soldiers' path.  In mere seconds, they were joined by hundreds of armored Toads, Goombas, Koopas, along with several other species native to the Mushroom Kingdom.

"Don't worry about them.  Their target is the Nexus," Mark informed them sternly.  "You six go on ahead.  We'll defend our kingdom, just like you asked us to."

"The Mushroom Kingdom Armed Forces have teamed up with my Koopa Troop.  Together, we'll be unstoppable!" Bowser cackled with pride.

"I also requested for Jaydes to send some of the Underwhere's finest warriors to aid us," Grambi added.  "And I have called for my army of Nimbis to lend us a hand.  With all of these forces combined, we'll have no problem standing up to the might of Kronos' demon army.  Mario, Luigi, Wario, Waluigi, Glaive, Ace...  I leave the rest to you."

Mario nodded.  "Of course.  Let's go!"  Without hesitation, the Mushroom Kingdom's defenders charged forward at the demon army.  Meanwhile, Mario's group veered to the left and curved around the demons, who were primarily concerned with the Nexus- and those that stood before it.

"Don't stop until you reach that fortress," Glaive commanded as they bypassed Kronos' soldiers.  "Whenever I look at it... there's this strange, sinking feeling in my gut...  With each passing second, Kronos is one step closer to his goal.  We can't afford to hesitate."

"Wait, stop!" Luigi shrieked, skidding to a halt.  Mario, the Wario Brothers, Ace, and Glaive stopped and whirled around, their irritated expressions showing that they demanded an explanation.  Only moments later, a bolt of lightning struck the area that they would have occupied.

"A coward's intuition never fails," Kronos chuckled as he appeared in a puff of purple smoke.

"Kronos!" Mario growled, angrily stepping forward with his fists clenched.

"Your instincts have been rather accurate as well, Glaive.  You were right to worry about the fortress that now towers above us," the Phoenix sneered, ignoring the Mushroom Hero.  "You see, nested within the Demon Citadel is my original body."

"Thanks for the info.  Hey guys, why don't you go ahead and destroy Kronos' body?  I'll catch up with you," Mario suggested.

"Feel free to pay my new fortress a visit.  However, you should know that Gaea, Venus, and Jack will be waiting for you inside.  And if Mario was planning on defeating me, he wouldn't need you to eradicate my original body in the first place.  In other words, even Mario understands that he will die if you attempt to execute this plan.  Isn't that right, my ancestral son?"

"I never- said that..." Mario hissed, struggling to hold back his rage.

"Why don't you just let me take my former body back?  That way, I can finally leave this fragile human vessel.  I can already feel her life energy beginning to dwindle.  If I don't reach the Demon Citadel soon, your wife's body may actually begin to disintegrate."

Ferocious Clash

For Mario, this was the final straw.  Between his humiliation at not challenging Kronos during their first encounter and the casual mentioning of the possibility of Peach's death, the Mushroom hero could no longer contain his anger.  He sprinted at his ancestor, both fists now ablaze with supercharged Fireballs, and assaulted him with a barrage of flaming punches.  With one arm behind his back, Kronos effortlessly caught each of the enraged hero's blows in the princess' gloved palm.

"I'm surprised that you were so willing to unleash such powerful attacks upon this body," Kronos sneered, his opponent struggling to land even a single hit.  "You should be thankful that I'm able to keep up, or you might seriously injure your own wife."

"You aren't Peach," Mario insisted, retreating several steps before cupping his hands together.  "And I know that she would rather die than be used as a tool to help you destroy millions of lives!"  To the amazement of Luigi, the Wario Brothers, Glaive, Ace, and even Kronos, Mario launched a fully-powered Ultra Fireball at his ancestor.  "I can't afford to hold back...  I can't be selfish.  This isn't just about Peach and me... it's about the people of the Terranea."

"Interesting...  You are far more spirited than I previously thought," Kronos observed as a violet portal opened in front of him and engulfed Mario's Fireball in its entirety.  A second portal appeared far off in the distance, from which the flaming projectile emerged and set the nearby field ablaze.

"What just happened...?" Mario wondered aloud, his breathing beginning to grow heavy as thunderclouds gathered overhead.

"He opened up a pair of portals and transported Mario's attack somewhere else..." Ace whispered in disbelief.  "It was almost instantaneous... I never thought that even the demon king would possess such an astounding ability."

"That's pretty cool..." Mario admitted with a sardonic grin.  "You've caught my interest... Would you mind demonstrating that trick of yours again?"  He aimed his right palm at the Phoenix and shot a normal-sized Fireball.

"You are only wasting Elemental Energy," Kronos sighed, creating yet another vortex in front of his body.  However, his eyes widened in surprise as the Mushroom Hero did something entirely unexpected: he fired a second shot!  The first Fireball entered the portal and was transported to an entirely different location, but instead of devouring the second one, the vortex closed, and Kronos hastily leapt to the side.  He glared at his ancestral son with contempt.  Brilliant... He deduced the technique's weakness after seeing it just once.

"As I suspected," Mario chuckled, forming a Thunderball in his right hand and a Fireball in his left.  Once again, he rushed at the Phoenix with his elementally charged fists- only this time, he hurled the Fireball at his ancestor before he could reach him.  As expected, a portal opened and inhaled the projectile.  But much to Mario's chagrin, a second vortex opened directly above it and sent the Fireball bounding back in the plumber's direction.  He ducked beneath the Fireball and prepared to toss his Thunderball, but the Phoenix seized his right arm before he could do so.

"I know what you were planning," Kronos whispered with a menacing smirk.  "You knew that my portals could only engulf one object before closing, leaving me exposed for split second.  However, I am more than capable of defending myself without the use of that petty trick."  He looked down at Mario's right arm, which was still wrapped in his icy grip.  "This feels like... a Demon Exoskeleton.  Ah, that's right.  Before he died, Ipos used the last of his power to heal your arm.  That Demon Exoskeleton is meant to serve as a prosthetic arm until the real one has been completely restored."

"Do not shatter the skeleton that I just created...  In time, it will fade away on its own... and beneath it... will be a brand new arm..."

Fearsome Enemy

The sun was now entirely blotted out by dark rainclouds, and a light drizzle began to fall.  Mario's eyes widened.  He's right...  But what does that mean for me...?

"Mario...  Even though I now exist within the same physical realm as you, you have not been freed from my internal influence," Kronos informed him grimly.  "You can never change the fact that my blood courses through your veins.  A piece of me will perpetually live on within you as an internal manifestation of your demon instincts.  And if you ever attempt to wield my demonic powers, I can still seize control.  Take your right arm for example.  Because it is covered in a Demon Exoskeleton, I have even more control over it than you do.  Go ahead.  Try to move it."

Kronos released the plumber's arm, which then fell limp at his side.  Mario attempted to raise it, but found that his entire arm had become numb.  "What did you... do to me...?"

"I simply told your arm not to move, and it obeyed," Kronos stated with a shrug.  "You've already lost an arm.  Which limb should I disable next?"  He pointed his index finger at the Mushroom Hero's leg and fired a ray of red light.  Mario cried out in agony as the beam severely bruised his left leg.  He glared defiantly at his ancestor and remained standing, despite the sharp pains that resulted from doing so.  "How noble... Your eyes are burning with passion.  I can see that you aren't going to stay down unless I deal a fatal blow."

As Kronos wrapped his left hand around Mario's throat, the Mushroom Hero's comrades prepared to spring into action.  "Glaive!  You've gotta help him!" Luigi pleaded.

Glaive nodded, silently grasping the hilt of his katana.

"Stay... back..." Mario demanded as Kronos lifted him from the ground.

"A wise order.  Had they assaulted me while my back was turned, I would have killed each and every one of them.  Even while being suffocated by your own wife, you still prioritize your friend's lives above your own.  If only Zeus and the Olympians had demonstrated such magnanimity," Kronos hissed bitterly.  "Mario, it's time for you to be put to rest.  How long did you think it would be before your body gave out?  After your battle with Ipos, a fight filled with hopelessness and depression, you faced off against Glaive in an emotional struggle to return him to his former self.  You've had almost no time to rest.  Your body has reached its limit.  With all of your physical and emotional wounds in addition to the burden of the Olympians' past sins, you can never hope to stand against me.  Even in this weakened state, I am still far superior."
In a splash of blood, Kronos impaled the Mushroom Hero with his right hand. "Farewell, old friend."  He tore his hand from the plumber's chest and released his grip on his throat, allowing his body to lifelessly fall to the ground.

"What horrid power..." Ace whispered.  "And he isn't even at full strength.  If he manages to return to his former body, there'll be no stopping him."

"Mario!" Luigi shrieked, rushing to his brother's aid.  He knelt beside his brother's lifeless body.  "Bro...  Get up... You've got to stand up..."

"Be quiet," Glaive ordered gruffly.  He stood at Mario's side, ready to draw his blade at any moment.  "Luigi...  Think about what Kronos said.  Mario is in no condition to fight.  It is because of people like you, who constantly plead him to continue fighting, that he is even in this state."

Luigi gasped.  "Bro... I... is that true...?"

"Kronos... tell me..." Mario mumbled, his voice barely audible.  He coughed up a mouthful of blood.  "You called me... old friend...  Why...?"

"You mean you don't know?  I suppose that isn't very surprising, considering the circumstances.  Few individuals know the full truth behind your origin...  Mario, you are the Mushroom Hero, a descendant from the Hero Bloodline.  You are also a demon.  Would you believe that your demon blood and your Hero blood originate from a single being?"

Mario's face grew pale.  "No... it couldn't be..."

"Yes.  Mario, you are a direct descendant of the Alpha Grimnex."


[glow=blue,2,300]Chapter 23: The Alpha Grimnex[/glow]

The Past

"You... You're lying!" Luigi snapped at the Phoenix, kneeling at his fatally wounded brother's side.  "There's no way that Bro could be a Grimnex..."

"Not just a Grimnex...  He's inherited the title of Alpha Grimnex," Kronos informed them with a wicked grin.  "Mario... as a reward for coming this far, I will tell you everything.  Now you can at least spend your last few moments learning the secrets of your origin.  Just try to stay alive until my story has concluded, or you'll never know the truth.

"Centuries ago, before Terranea had been split apart by hatred and warfare, the Olympians and demons lived together as the Titans, and I was their king.  Our way of life was very different from yours.  There were no rules, no laws to hold us back.  It was a grand time to be alive.  That is, until my son, Zeus, betrayed me.  He gathered up his own army, and before long, there were two distinct forces: the Olympians, and the demons.  And thus, the Terranean War began.  Do not confuse this with one of your juvenile human wars.  We were fighting to decide which force was meant to rule.  Good and evil...  Had the demons triumphed in this war, the very meanings of those two words would have been switched.

"The war raged on for years, with neither side gaining the upper hand.  That is, until the Olympians created the prototype for the ultimate warrior: Prototype Hero.  It was a radical development, and focused the fighting power of an entire army into a single being.  On the outside, he was no different from any other Olympian.  He had an unbelievably strong sense of justice, and with him at the Olympians' side, the outcome of the war was obvious.  Luckily, before he could be activated, Hero was captured by a group of demon spies working undercover on the enemy lines.  With Hero in my possession, I ordered my top scientists to reprogram him into a killing machine.  The resulting warrior was then cloned into 23 additional soldiers.  These 24 fighters were entitled Grimnexes, and they were each assigned a rank based on their power.  Hero, being the original and thus the strongest of them all, became known as the Alpha Grimnex.  With the Grimnexes under my control, the demons began to overpower the Olympians.

"As he worked closely at my side, Hero began to establish a close relationship with my sister, Rhea.  When Zeus and I had declared war, she had been torn over whom she should side with.  She ultimately chose to fight for the demons, but she felt great remorse for abandoning her own nephew.  Although he had been reprogrammed to fight for the demons, Hero was still instinctively kindhearted.  Rhea confided her sorrows in Hero day after day, until they gradually fell in love.  Hero's love for Rhea brought out his good nature even further, and they ultimately decided to form an alliance and side with the Olympians.  This alliance later became known as the Royal Guardians.  Although they fought for the Olympians, they did not reveal their true identities to Zeus, fearing that their past relationships with me would prevent him from trusting them fully.  As if this did not weaken me enough, Gaea decided to leave my army and create his own.  It wasn't long before Ipos followed in his footsteps.  Zeus, Ipos, Gaea, and myself...  That is how the four Terranean Angels came to be... 

"One day, during an invasion, Ipos encountered and fell in love with my granddaughter- and Zeus' daughter- Athena.  Athena explained to him how she lived in isolation because of her father's orders.  Above all else, Zeus feared that his daughter would meet another man and have a child with him.  You see, the more descendants I have, the greater the possibility of one of them being used to revive me.  Zeus was aware of this, and as such, he kept Athena in seclusion.  To make matters worse, Athena was an Olympian, and Ipos was a Grimnex.  Their love would never be accepted.  However, their love for each other overcame all logic, and the two of them had a child together, an Olympian-demon hybrid that contained my genes.  All was well, until Ipos visited Athena one day to find that she had been slaughtered by demons that refused to accept their love.  At least, that's what he was led to believe.  In truth, Zeus was behind his own daughter's death.  He had many reasons for doing so.  One was to prevent her from having any more children with Ipos.  But his primary motive for killing her is even more sickening.  Zeus blamed her death on the demons, causing Ipos to turn against his own kind and effectively limit their numbers.  Surely you have not forgotten about Ipos' rampage that earned him the title of 'he who slaughtered a thousand angels'?  It was all a cruel military strategy by Zeus.

"At this point, Zeus assumed that he was my only remaining relative.  Unfortunately, he foolishly forgot about two important people.  Unbeknownst to him, Athena had sent her and Ipos' son away before her execution.  Their son lived on and was eventually sealed within the Nightmare Vault.  He later married and had a child, and thus, Glaive's bloodline- as well as Princess Peach's- was born.  The second person that Zeus forgot about was his own aunt, Rhea.  This is to be expected, as Rhea never informed him of her true identity after founding the Royal Guardians.  At any rate, the demons had been severely weakened at this point in the war.  The Alpha Grimnex had returned to fight for the Olympians, Ipos had gone on a rampage, and Gaea was nowhere to be found.  Fighting alongside Zeus, Hero and Rhea were ultimately able to defeat me.  The demons were sealed away within the Nightmare Vault, and Zeus believed that the demon threat was finally over.

"Little did he know, I lived on within my sister, Rhea.  After the Terranean War, Hero and Rhea married and had a child together, a child that would become the descendant of both the Alpha Grimnex and the demon king.  This was the birth of the Hero Bloodline.  Unfortunately, before Rhea and Hero could celebrate this new era of peace, Zeus discovered their true identities.  The Royal Guardians that remained were exiled to the Nightmare Vault- all except for Hero, who was confined and ultimately sent to the Universe.  His punishment would be to protect the inhabitants of this realm from evil.  This sentence was to be inherited by all of Hero's descendants.  Although this task was viewed by Zeus as a punishment, Hero and his heirs came to view it as an honor.  Mario, you were born from this bloodline."

Mario coughed up a mouthful of blood, speechless at the entire revelation of his family history.

"You...  Do you expect us to believe all of that?  Calling Bro's duty as the Mushroom Hero a punishment from Zeus...  You think I'd forgive an insult like that?!" Luigi exploded, angrily rising to his feet.

"My, my...  I've never seen you act so brave," Kronos chuckled.  "Regardless, it really doesn't matter what I say to him.  He has entirely outlived his usefulness, both to me, and to Zeus.  Now that I have been resurrected, I could care less whether Mario lives or dies.  And Zeus views you as nothing more than a traitor, whose punishment is to protect the Mushroom Kingdom until the day you die.  Quite soon, the Mushroom Kingdom will be nothing more than a miniscule village within my grand empire.  If you really think about it, there's nothing left for you to live for."

"Kronos...  Do you honestly think we'll allow you to simply walk away like before...?" Glaive hissed.  "By heartlessly cutting Mario down and insulting his heritage, you've sealed your fate.  Not one of us could possibly back down after witnessing something so unforgiveable."

"I understand if you wish to seek vengeance for your comrade's demise.  However, I do not have time for such a meaningless squabble.  If you truly wish to avenge the Mushroom Hero, come to the Demon Citadel.  My Grimnex underlings and I will be waiting for you," Kronos declared.  "Until then... farewell."  There was another flash of lighting, and Kronos vanished as suddenly as he had appeared.

Mario's Plight

"He's gone..." Waluigi groaned.  "Now what are we supposed to do?"

"Mario is in no condition to fight, but we can't just leave him here," Ace observed glumly.  "We don't have a lot of time to think this over..."

"...Glaive..." Mario murmured, his voice raspy and hoarse.  "Please... bring me... to Swift..."

"Swift?" Glaive parroted.  "You mean... the Royal Guardian who attempted to train you four months ago?  How am I supposed to know where he is?"

"At... base... of Mt. Olympus..." the Mushroom Hero whispered, quickly losing consciousness.

"It doesn't look like we're gonna get much more information out of him right now," Glaive sighed, noting the plumber's condition.  "But I really don't have any other choice.  For now, I'll just have to trust in his judgment and head for the base of Mt. Olympus."  With some assistance from Luigi, he slung the Mushroom Hero over his right shoulder.  "After all, none of us have any reason to doubt him.  I just hope the four of you can hold out while we're gone."

"We'll be fine," Luigi affirmed.  "Kronos won't get away with this."

"Heh, you're feeling unusually brave," Glaive chuckled.  "Good.  You'll need to be if you want to stand a chance against the remaining Grimnexes."

Ace nodded.  "Stay safe."

"Hurry back, even though it'll probably all be over by the time you get there," Wario snickered.

"Wait, didn't you say that it could take days to reach Mt. Olympus from here?" Waluigi inquired.  "It'll all be over by then!"

"I have no idea how far away Mt. Olympus is, but since Mario and I will be traveling alone, I won't have to worry about whether or not anyone else can keep up.  I'm sure that Mario asked me to bring him because I am easily the fastest among us, especially without my armor on," Glaive responded.  "If all goes well, I should be there within a few hours."

Kronos' Theme

"I can't believe it...  To think that it would really be so simple..." Kronos whispered in awe as he reached the bottom of a marble spiral staircase, leading him into a dim, torch-lit tomb.  Unlike the posh, luxurious upper floors of the Demon Citadel, the crypt was decrepit and smelled of death.  Kronos approached a coffin in the center of the room, which was surrounded with torches.  The moment he laid his hand on the coffin, its stone lid slid open, and the nearby torches blew out before lighting up again with dark purple flames.  "At last...  Gaea, Venus...  Consider yourselves fortunate to witness the true rebirth of Terranea's king."

"Poor Jack...  I feel bad for putting him in charge of guarding the citadel's entrance, but I'd rather it be him than me..." Gaea muttered.

Kronos reached into the coffin, placing his palm upon his original body.  Princess Peach's body began to glow with a violet light, which then transferred through her hand to Kronos' corpse.  After several bright flashes, Princess Peach's features returned to normal as she fell to her knees and looked around with confused, sapphire eyes.  Moments later, Kronos rose from his sarcophagus.  The Phoenix had been born anew.

"My former strength has returned to me..." Kronos whispered, staring at his palms.  "At last...  I have returned."

"My lord... what shall we do with the princess?" Venus inquired, bowing before her renewed master.

Kronos turned his gaze to Princess Peach, and his eyes suddenly widened with shock.  "Rhea..."  He closed his eyes and shook his head, as if to rid himself from his cursed memories.  "Gaea...  Get rid of her.  She is no longer of any use to us."

"I will not," Gaea refused firmly.  "I'm not in the mood."

Kronos looked at the Epsilon Grimnex and then back at Peach.  "...Very well...  Gaea, I want you to defend the citadel's interior.  Venus, grab the princess and come with me.  She can be our special guest, for the time being."

What is so special about this woman? Venus wondered.  Kronos does not receive insubordination well.  Now that he has returned to his former body, I expected his reaction to Gaea's refusal to be far more... violent.  Yet he ignored Gaea's disobedience entirely, as if he was using it as an excuse to avoid Peach's death.  There's something about this princess...  Does he actually value her life?

Demon Citadel

"We're almost there," Ace announced, breathing heavily.  "Does everyone remember the plan?"

"Yeah, this might be a good time for us to separate," Luigi replied, slowing his pace to match that of the Wario Brothers while Ace sprinted ahead.  "For this to work, we're gonna have to join hands."

Wario rolled his eyes.  "Ugh... Do we have to...?"

As the front gates of the Demon Citadel came into view, Luigi forcibly grabbed the Wario Brothers' hands and activated his Final Smash, causing the three of them to become transparent.  "I need both of you to stay quiet.  You won't be seen as long as you are touching me, but if either of you make even a peep, our cover will be blown."

Meanwhile, Ace entered through the front gates, which had been left wide open.  His desperate sprint now slowing to a cautious walk, the former leader of Poker Face scanned his surroundings in an attempt to locate his enemy.  Standing in the palace's courtyard, he could not help but admire the glimmering green grass and flawlessly trimmed hedges.  At the center was an awe-inspiring marble fountain, and to the far north was a set of colossal double doors that led to the palace's interior.  The only obstacle that stood in his way was Jack.

"Jack!  I'm here to settle our dispute once and for all," Ace declared.  "This is what you wanted, isn't it?"  He felt a gentle breeze blow past him.  Alright... it looks like they've made it inside.  Now if they can just pass Jack undetected...

"Ace...  I'm relieved that you have finally come to terms with your fate.  But just one question... where are your other friends?" Jack inquired with a grin.

"They went to search for another entrance, but I insisted on facing you," Ace replied firmly.

Jack threw his head back and laughed.  "You don't have to lie to me, Ace.  I heard their heartbeats as they walked past me a few seconds ago.  What a shame.  I can tell that they were using some sort of special technique to try and sneak past me.  It almost worked, too.  Somehow, they managed to make themselves transparent so that the wind would pass right through them.  And they also somehow concealed the sounds of their footsteps.  But that technique could not mask their fear.  Their increased heart rates could never have escaped my unparalleled hearing."

"Damn, they couldn't even slip past a blind man," Ace cursed.

"You're lucky, Ace.  I did not join the Grimnexes to help Kronos reclaim his throne.  I did it so that I could oppose everything you stand for.  This battle is more important to me than anything else in the world.  I have no intentions of standing in your comrades' way," Jack explained.  "Besides, splitting your group apart will only lessen your chances of victory.  Against someone like Gaea or Venus, those three will be annihilated."

"Their opponents may be tough, but I still have faith in them," Ace retorted.

"I wonder how much faith they have in you," Jack sneered.  "You know as well as I do that you could never defeat me.  You've already nearly killed me once.  Can you even look at me without feeling remorse?  Are you truly ruthless enough to slaughter your younger brother a second time?"

Vengeful Showdown

"Watch me," Ace hissed as he hurled a handful of explosive cards at his brother.  Jack firmly stood his ground, waving his arms at the oncoming cards.  As if by some magic force, the cards stopped in midair, and with another sudden gesture, Jack sent them flying in all different directions.  The majority of the cards detonated after making contact with the ground, all except for a single ace, which began to emit a slight bluish glow.  Ace reached for another handful of cards.  I have to learn the secret behind that technique of his.  Until I do, engaging him up-close would be far too dangerous.

"You are already quite familiar with my abilities.  You should know better than to attack me with projectiles," Jack chuckled.

"Sorry, I don't know what came over me," Ace replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm.  He tossed another handful of cards at his brother.  Jack shrugged and performed the same gestures as before; only this time, he flung the explosives back toward Ace.  The former commander of Poker Face dove to the side but could not avoid getting caught in the explosion.  Just like before, one of the cards did not detonate.  It was an ace.  That's two.  Only two more.  He rose to his feet and attempted to draw another set of cards, but found that his right arm had been paralyzed.

"Gotcha," Jack snickered.  "You thought you were so clever.  By analyzing how I stopped your explosive cards and directed them away from me, you hoped to learn the secrets behind my technique.  But now it's too late.  I've already gained complete control over your right arm.  How long will it be before I control the rest of your limbs?"

Ace glared at his right arm, scanning for any foreign objects.  After tilting his head slightly, he found what he was looking for.  Under the right light, he had managed to detect a paper-thin string running from his right arm all the way back to Jack.  "So that's how you do it...  This string..."

"Precisely.  You probably couldn't detect them back in Grimnex Palace because it was so dark.  Now that we're in a brighter environment, you can just barely see them if you look from the right angle.  They're my puppet strings, and with them, I can manipulate anything I so choose.  And the best part is, they're my Chosen Conjuration.  I can create as many as I desire."

"I see...  That must be how you deflected my cards.  You attached a string to each individual card while they were still airborne and then flung them in all different directions," Ace concluded.

A wicked grin spread across Jack's face.  "Even with this knowledge, there's nothing you can do to stop me from turning you into a puppet."

"Heh, all a sensible person has to do is sever the cords with which he is being controlled," Ace stated, drawing a card with his left hand before crushing it.  A blue beam saber materialized in his hand, but as he prepared to slice the puppet string attached to him, his right arm grabbed his left wrist.

"Did you already forget that I can control your right arm?  You're fighting a war with your own body, now."  With another flourish, Jack attached a puppet string to Ace's left arm.  "And just like that, both of your arms are now useless.  Now, how should I punish you for your past cruelty?  Perhaps I'll start by forcing you to beat yourself to a pulp!"

"Damn... you..." Ace grumbled, unwillingly raising his fists before unleashing a series of ferocious blows upon his own torso and face.

"Does it hurt?  To be mercilessly assaulted by something you've trusted for your entire life?!" Jack screamed bitterly.  "Now maybe you can understand... how it felt to be massacred by my own older brother!"  He squinted at Ace.  "Wait... what are you chewing on?"

Suddenly, a blue barrier materialized in front of Ace, shielding him from his own punches.  "Jack... Don't you know anything about Chosen Conjurations?  I can generate these cards anywhere on or around me: even inside of my own mouth."

"You... And then you crushed the card by chewing it, activating a force field that would prevent you from harming yourself," Jack observed, his eyes bulging in shock.

"Just because I can't use my own arms doesn't mean that I can't wield my cards," Ace declared, sprinting toward his younger brother.  Jack attempted to attach puppet strings to his legs, but the barrier placed in front of him prevented the cords from reaching him.  When he was only a few feet away from Jack, Ace conjured a ring of explosive cards around them, resulting in a blast that severely injured them both.  Among these cards, a single ace did not detonate.

As the smoke from the explosion cleared, Jack and Ace rose to their feet.  "You're crazy...  To trap both of us in such a dangerous explosion..."  His frustrated frown curled into a menacing smirk.  "You studied under King...  You should know that the farther away from your body you summon a Chosen Conjuration, the more energy is consumed.  After that stunt, you must be feeling pretty fatigued.  Furthermore, your barrier was destroyed in the explosion.  Whether you realize it or not, puppet strings have now been attached to each of your legs."

Ace, breathing heavily from exhaustion, calmly thought his situation over.  He's right...  Damn, and I only needed one more ace...  I don't have enough strength to conjure any more cards...  The only way I could pull this off is if I drew one from my deck, but without the use of my arms or legs, that would be impossible...

"I could have you beat yourself to death," Jack stated, interrupting Ace's thoughts, "but it would be far more satisfying to kill you with my own hands.  Or better yet, I could cut you down with your own weapons."  He latched a string onto Ace's deck of cards before pulling it back to him.  He searched through the deck, shuffling the cards as he did so.  "Now you truly are powerless.  Even if you somehow broke free, you wouldn't have the strength to conjure anymore cards.  And if you managed to retrieve these cards, they would be entirely out of order!"  He chose a pair of cards and crushed them, causing dual beam sabers to materialize in his hands.

Things aren't looking too good for me...  But in the end... perhaps this is what I deserve... Ace thought, hanging his head in shame.

"Now... come here, Ace.  Walk right into your own demise," Jack commanded.

Ace, helplessly complying with Jack's demands, was overcome with sorrow and guilt.  I really am heartless...  As a member of the Assassination Force, killing the innocent was my job.  I even attempted to kill my own brother...  But somehow, he survived.  He lived on, feeling alone and betrayed... while I changed my ways, finding friends like Mario and Glaive along the way...  But now, I've come here in an attempt to assassinate my brother yet again...  I suppose it's fitting that I die by his hands...


Ace's eyes widened as Mario's voice echoed in the back of his mind.  As clear as day, he remembered the aftermath of the battle with Velno.

Slade drew his Nightmare Blade and held the point to his throat.  "What do I have left to live for...?  I've killed so many people... I don't deserve to live anymore..."

Mario grabbed the blade with his bare hands, causing blood to trickle down his palms.  "No... Slade, you cannot use suicide as a way to escape your crimes...  Instead, you have to stand up to the wrongdoings you have committed and find a way to atone for them...  That's why I decided to take on the responsibility of protecting this kingdom.  I feel that somewhere, up in the depths of the Overthere, Pauline smiles each time I manage to save this kingdom from distress."  He put a hand on Slade's shoulder.  "Now it's time for you to find a way to repent.  Otherwise, you'll never be able to lift the burden of your sins from your shoulders...  If you were to kill yourself right now, it wouldn't bring back all of the people that you murdered, nor would it make the world a better place.  The only thing you can do now is find a way to make up for your past crimes..."

Ace grinned.  Heh, Mario... Why is it that your words can reach anyone, no matter how insane or miserable they may be?  He now stood before Jack, bold and defiant.

"You miserable bastard...  Now you can understand the horror of being cut down by your own brother!" Jack cried, spilling Ace's blood onto the courtyard floor.  Even so, Ace refused to cry out in pain.


[glow=blue,2,300]Chapter 24: Brotherhood[/glow]

"I wonder how Ace is doing," Luigi sighed as he, Wario, and Waluigi reached the top of a tall, winding marble staircase.  "His younger brother gives me the creeps."

Waluigi shrugged.  "I don't understand why he didn't just sneak by Jack with the rest of us."

"He had a personal score to settle," Luigi explained.  "Besides, I get the feeling that Jack let us pass him."

"You know that you're pathetic when your Final Smash can't even fool a blind man," Wario chuckled.  "Is that why you made us visible again?"

"No, it's just that my Final Smash isn't the type of technique that can be used for prolonged periods of time.  It'll be a while before I can use it again, so we're probably gonna have to face any Grimnexes that we encounter head-on from here on out," Luigi informed them.  The three heroes stopped at a fork in their path.  "Umm...  I vote that we don't-"

"Let's split up!" Wario suggested eagerly.  "Luigi, you go that way!  We'll go this way!"

"Why do I have to be by myself?!" Luigi whined.

"Think of it this way: do you really want to be with this oaf?" Waluigi inquired.  "This loudmouth is itching for a fight...  If you stay with us, you'll be far more likely to get dragged into an unnecessary battle."

"True..." Luigi whispered, considering his options.  "In that case, I'll see you two at the top!"

"That was easy..." Waluigi muttered as he and Wario parted ways with the green plumber.  Splitting up probably wasn't the best idea...  But when Wario gets like this, it's best not to argue...

Calm Heart II

"This must be the place," Glaive whispered, breathing heavily as he approached a small log cabin at the base of a gargantuan mountain.  The area was enclosed in a forest of pine trees, and the hut was situated near a vast, shimmering lake in which the mountain's reflection could be seen.  Far off from the ongoing war, the peaceful sounds of nature were all that Glaive could hear.  Stepping up to the cabin's front door, he knocked three times and waited patiently for a response.

Several minutes passed, and the door finally creaked open.  Standing in the doorway was a tall, muscular man with short, shaggy brown hair and deep, sapphire eyes.  He wore a cerulean tunic and silver boots, and a katana was sheathed readily at his waist.  "What business do you have with me?"  The man spoke softly, but with absolute firmness and confidence.

"None," Glaive replied simply.  He tilted his head toward the plumber slung over his right shoulder.  "But I can't say the same for this man.  Is he a friend of yours?  Before he collapsed from his injuries, he asked me to take him to a man named Swift."

"That would be me," Swift responded.  "I don't know why that fool would bother to try and seek me out after abandoning my training program."

"He had his reasons," Glaive insisted firmly.  "Thanks in no part to me, this man has struggled through far too many battles.  If he doesn't receive proper treatment, he will die.  I don't know much about who you are or what your past relationship with Mario is, but he specifically requested me to bring him here.  I trust in his judgment, and therefore, I am putting my faith in you to see to it that he receives full treatment."

The two swordsmen locked eyes and stared each other down for what seemed like an eternity.  Finally, as if he had confirmed Glaive's trustworthiness, Swift held out his arms.  "Give him to me.  I will tend to his wounds."

Glaive turned around and began to walk away.  "Thank you.  When Mario awakens, tell him that his comrades have infiltrated the Demon Citadel.  He'll undoubtedly want to join us the moment he can stand, but...  Just understand that our chances of survival are nonexistent.  To be sure, even I am about to stare death in the face.  Kronos has been revived, and somehow... I can feel that his powers have been restored.  By the time Mario is ready for battle, we'll all most likely be dead.  In other words... Mario is our last hope.  When he arrives on the battlefield, he shouldn't expect us to be there."

Swift nodded.  "This man...  You really do trust him, don't you?"

"Even more than I trust myself," Glaive replied.  "Take care of him, alright?"

"Before you go, I want you to have this."  Swift tossed Glaive a sheathed blade.  "Take it as a gift from the man with whom you have entrusted your dear comrade's life."

Glaive strapped the sheath onto his back.  "Again, thank you.  And farewell."

"Farewell, brave warrior," Swift whispered as the speedy Glaive vanished into the nearby forest.


"Looking back, I'm not sure if it was such a good idea to leave Luigi on his own," Waluigi confessed as they jogged down a narrow corridor lined with glass windows through which the courtyard could be seen.

"Scared?" Wario inquired in mock sympathy.

"No, I-" Waluigi stopped midsentence after noticing that his brother was no longer running alongside him.  He whirled around to see Wario standing beside one of the nearby glass windows, silently gazing at the courtyard below them.  "What is it...?"  He jogged over to the window next to his brother to see what had captivated his attention.  Waluigi gasped.  The fight between Ace and Jack had taken a brutal turn.  "Ace...  He isn't even fighting back..."

Ace, entirely under Jack's control, could not move a single muscle as his merciless younger brother hacked away at him with his own weapons.

"It's pathetic..." Wario whispered at last, struggling to hold back a sniffle.  "I can't stomach all of this brotherly bickering.  First Slade and Lucifer... and now Ace and Jack...  For brothers to turn against each other and fight to the death... what has this war come to?"


Teardrops formed in the corners of Wario's eyes.  "Sure, most brothers argue all the time...  But they should never hate each other enough to want to kill one another.  When the two of us were children, we had no parents, no money... nothing.  Every day was a struggle for survival...  And if we hadn't been there for each other, neither of us would have survived."  He turned and began to walk back the way they came.  "This can't go on...  If there's one thing that I can't stand, it's watching two brothers stab each other in the back."

"Go...  Luigi and I will handle the rest," Waluigi vowed.  "Hurry.  Ace won't be able to last much longer."

Wario nodded.  "Give those Grimnexes a few good whacks for me."  And with that, the greedy plumber vanished at the other end of the corridor.

Wario...  You're not the brightest man out there.  And although you're always putting up a tough front and always acting superior to everyone else... you do hold certain values, as much as you may refuse to admit it.  You rarely speak with such emotion...  In fact, the only other time I can remember you doing so is during our battle with Poseidon.  Waluigi smiled sadly.  Despite your shortcomings, I know that you value brotherhood among all else.  And although we may sometimes regret it, neither of us can change the fact that we're brothers.  We're here for each other.  So when I'm standing face-to-face with Kronos, I expect you to be fighting right alongside me.

"You've been rather quiet, Ace.  Why is that?" Jack sneered, spilling his elder brother's blood onto the ground with another slash.  "Have you finally come to terms with your fate?"

Ace glared at his brother with bold, defiant eyes.

"Hmm... I'm not particularly fond of that look you're giving me.  Perhaps it's time for me to finish the job and slice your head clean off your shoulders."  Jack raised one of the beam sabers that he had created with Ace's cards and pressed the tip to his throat.  "Not so tough now, are you?"

Ace remained silent.

With a hateful shriek, Jack prepared to deliver the final blow.  However, before the blade could make contact with Ace's neck, a fierce right hook from behind sent the Grimnex crashing into a nearby wall.  Standing before the astonished Ace was Wario, his right fist encased in metal armor.

Grimnex Battle

"Wario... What are you doing here?"

"I was watching your fight from the second floor, and all I can say is... What the hell are you thinking?  Are you just gonna let yourself get torn to ribbons by your baby brother?!" Wario exclaimed in disgust.  "How could I not come back after witnessing such a one-sided beating?"

"In case you didn't notice... I can't move," Ace informed him gruffly.  "That's why I haven't been able to put up much of a fight."  He spotted his energy saber on the ground nearby.  "Wario, grab that blade...  Jack must've dropped it when you struck him from behind.  Use it to cut the puppet strings that are restraining my movements."

Wario hesitantly complied.  "Puppet strings, huh?  So that's how he was controlling us."

"Yeah, watch out...  Once he attaches a string to one of your limbs, it'll be under his control," Ace explained.  "Oh, and... can I have my sword?  Jack has my deck of cards, and I won't be able to conjure up a new one until I've had a chance to catch my breath.  It's the only weapon I've got."  Wario handed him the blade.

A thread extended from nearby and clung to Wario's leg.  "Too late..." Jack chuckled, grinning wickedly.

"Not quite," Ace replied, slicing the cord with his beam saber.  "With the two of us fighting side-by-side, you won't be able to immobilize us so easily."  He sprinted toward his brother, who extended his palms toward him in preparation for conjuring more puppet strings.  Before he could do so, Wario began hurling yellow Fireballs at the Grimnex.  Jack instantly went on the defensive, diving to the side to avoid being incinerated, but the smoke created by the resulting explosion obscured his vision.  At the same time, Ace had reached his brother, and without holding back, he dealt a violent slash to the Grimnex's chest.

Jack quickly retaliated by attaching a puppet string to each of his brother's limbs.  However, he did not see Wario rush into the fray.  His entire body covered in a metallic coating, the greedy plumber struck Jack with a bone-breaking kick, sending him tumbling onto the ground yet again.  Wario then grabbed each of the threads that held Ace captive and tore them from his body.

"Gwahaha!  You think you can control us with these fragile strings?" Wario cackled.

"Face it, Jack.  As long as Wario and I have each other's backs, you won't be able to stop us.  That gash on your chest is far too deep.  You won't be able to fend us off for much longer," Ace admonished.

"Take a look in the mirror," Jack grumbled, angrily rising to his feet.  "Before that overweight plumber arrived to help you, I landed several slashes across your upper torso.  It's a miracle that you can even stand.  And besides, it doesn't matter how injured I am.  If I can't capture you two separately, I'll simply have to seize the both of you simultaneously.  Conjuring eight puppet strings is no trouble for someone like me."  He began to glow with a black aura.  "However... I can no longer let you off with such an easy death...  Allow me to show you the Final Smash that I have spent years developing, all in preparation for this glorious day."

"What's... going on...?" Wario gasped.  "Is it just me... or is it getting darker?"  Jack's dark aura began to expand, eventually covering the entire courtyard.

Suddenly, Ace began to desperately wave his hand in front of his face.  He grew pale.  He saw nothing but black.  "Wario... Can you... see...?"

Tainted Soul

"What's the matter?  Having trouble seeing?" Jack snickered, throwing his head back with maniacal laughter.  "Welcome to my world... Now you can finally understand how it feels to have your light taken away.  But it doesn't end there.  My Final Smash allows me to temporarily regain my eyesight at the cost of my opponents'.  While you have been thrown into a world of darkness, I am about to step into the light for the first time in years!"  His eyes slowly fluttered open, and he marveled at his surroundings.  "This is too good to be true!  At last, my eyesight has returned to me!  And here, standing helplessly before me, is my wretched older brother.  It couldn't be more perfect!  Now, as I cut you down, you will understand the loneliness that I felt as a result of your actions!"

"You may have regained your eyesight, but you're still just as blind as before," Wario growled.  "If you can't even bring yourself to forgive your own brother... you're no better than he is.  You hate your sibling for attempting to kill you, and yet here you are, attempting to do the same to him...  You're just an immature crybaby who holds a sickening amount of jealousy toward his older brother."

"Wario..." Ace muttered, astounded by Wario's passionate words.

"Stay out of this!" Jack screamed, sending four threads at the plumber.

In a flash, Ace tackled Wario to the ground, causing the Grimnex's puppet strings to miss.  "We may be new to being blind, but you're also new to the world of light.  Now that you can see, you shouldn't forget about the advantages that blindness can offer a person.  Our bodies have compensated by drastically enhancing our hearing.  We aren't as vulnerable as you think."

"Yeah, I can still hear your annoying voice!" Wario thundered, rising to his feet before charging directly toward the source of Jack's voice.

"Wario, wait!" Ace called out into the abyss of darkness.

"You shouldn't be so cocky," Jack hissed, attaching cords to each of Wario's limbs before he could even reach his target.  "Your hearing may have been slightly augmented, but you're the only one intelligent enough to make use of this.  And as long as the both of you are blind, I only need to capture each of you once.  After all, it's impossible for you to free Wario when you can't even see him.  I've even attached a fifth puppet string to his head, so he won't be able to call out and let you know where he is.  His entire body has been paralyzed."

Ace frantically attempted to think up a plan.  Wario... Why'd you have to rush at him like that?  Now I'm all alone, and the only way I can damage him is with a slash of my blade.  But there's no way I can get close enough without him connecting puppet strings to my body...  His thought processes were interrupted as Jack hurled several puppet strings in his direction.  The former leader of Poker Face swiftly leapt to the side, but Jack was not finished yet.  He continued to conjure more puppet strings, knowing that Ace would not be able to dodge them forever.  His theory proved to be correct, as it wasn't long before each of the exhausted Ace's limbs were struck with one of Jack's threads.

"And just like that, both of you are helpless," Jack sneered.  "Now what will you do, Ace?  Killing you would be as simple as having you impale yourself with your own blade."

Damn...  What can I possibly do now...?  I can't see... I can't move...  Three of the four aces are in place, but Jack has my deck of cards...  I've probably recovered enough energy to conjure a few more, but summoning a card as powerful as an ace would be impossible until I'm back at full strength.  Somehow, I need to find a way to attack him, even in this paralyzed state...  Think, Ace...  His eyes widened.

"Goodbye, Ace.  Now you can experience the horror of being blinded and killed by your own brother."  His eyes narrowed.  "Wait... what are you-"


The courtyard was lit with a fierce explosion that originated from Ace's right arm, which had instantly caught fire.  Jack gasped.  "You crazy bastard...  You conjured an explosive card onto your own arm, setting it ablaze the moment it made contact with your skin...  And then, after you set your own arm on fire..."

"I knew that the fire would spread to the puppet string attached to my arm, freeing it from your control," Ace replied with a pained grin.  "If an arm is all that I need to sacrifice to beat you, then so be it."  Now able to freely control his right arm, he used his beam saber to slice the other threads connected to his body.  After smothering the flames on his arm, he grabbed the end of one of the severed strings and used it to pull Jack toward him.  "Your puppet strings...  They have a few flaws.  Weakness number one: They only work when they're connecting you to your opponent, and therefore, they'll always lead me straight to you- even when I can't see."

By this point, the flames had already reached Jack via his own cords.  Preoccupied with the inferno, the Grimnex was unable to defend himself as Ace used his own severed thread to yank him closer.  "Weakness number two: You may have taken away my sight, which prevents me from finding Wario, but even so, if I want to slice the puppet strings with which you are controlling him, all I need to do is cut them at the source- you."  Once he had pulled his brother close enough, Ace lunged forward and groped through the air for a few moments until he found the strings that were attached to Wario.  He sliced the cords, but as he turned his attention to attacking Jack, he found that his younger brother had regained his composure.  His mind racing, Ace circled around the Grimnex and hooked his arms underneath Jack's shoulders, restraining his arms.

"Wario!  Can you hear me?  We're over here!  I want you to hit Jack as hard as you can!" Ace exclaimed, grinning.  "And there's nothing you can do about it, 'Bro'...  If I had attacked you directly, you would've simply attached more puppet strings to my body.  So instead, I figured I'd restrain you so that Wario could get a clear shot without having to worry about your threads."

"Roger that!" Wario cackled, encasing his body in metallic armor.  With an animalistic roar, the plumber dashed toward the vulnerable Grimnex and put all of his might into a single, rib-shattering punch.  In too much agony to even scream, Jack merely fell to his knees, his eyes bulging and his mouth agape.  Ace reached down and retrieved his deck of cards from his younger brother's pocket.

"And by the way... Did you really think you could confuse me just by shuffling my deck?" Ace inquired, rifling through his cards in search of the final ace.  At last, he removed it from the deck and held it high above his head.  "Cards have served as my weapons for my entire life...  Just by watching you shuffle them, I was instantly able to memorize the new card arrangement.  Even without my sight, I know exactly where to find each card."  He dropped the ace onto the ground, and in seconds, the four aces began to emit a brilliant blue glow.

"Heh... that was your... strongest punch...?" Jack laughed weakly.  He slowly rose to his feet and extended his palms toward Ace, but before he could act, dozens of blue electrical sparks launched out of the four aces and struck the Grimnex, severely electrocuting him.

"At last, the four aces have been laid out...  The Tetra Ace Seal has been activated," Ace declared.  "And now that you can no longer move..."  He reached into his deck and drew two more cards: a Joker and a Jack.  Ace heaved a deep sigh, remembering the warning that King had given him about these cards.

Calm Heart

"It's been nearly four months... and while I admit that I've gotten stronger, I'll never be of any use to Mario like this.  Isn't there any way we can speed this up?"

"Ace, I understand your impatience, but Conjuration is not an art that can be rushed.  Doing so would result in...'unfavorable' consequences.  Your rate of progression is far above that of an ordinary member of the Zepar tribe.  You should be proud."

"Wait...  Do you mean that it's possible for me to speed my training along?  I'll accept whatever consequences there may be...  Please, tell me...  I have to be strong.  When Mario asks me to fight alongside him, I have to be ready."

"Very well... There is one method.  But it comes at a severe price...  If you were to compress your total remaining life energy into the span of these next few months, many advanced Conjurations would become available to you.  However, as a result, your life span will be drastically shortened.  By the time the war ends, you would wither away and die.  Ace, are you willing to sacrifice your life for the power to assist your friends?  Will you fight for peace even with the knowledge that you will not survive to enjoy it?"

"...I'll do it."

"I see...  Then for your next lesson, we'll try combining two higher-level cards.  Which two would you like to use?"

His entire body now emanating a blinding blue light, Ace held his Jack and Joker cards to the sky before crushing them in his palm.  The light radiating from the four aces and from Ace began to combine into the shape of a colossal blade.  The mammoth sword, about as long as Ace, Wario, and Jack combined, began to emit blue electrical sparks similar to those given off by the four aces, and with a gesture from Ace, it plunged into the immobile Jack's heart before bursting into several high-voltage shocks.

Jack thrashed wildly about, shrieking in anguish as he was stabbed and electrocuted simultaneously.  When the shocks finally died down, Jack stared up at his brother with bloodshot eyes.  "Ace..."

Ace hung his head.  "Jack...  I- I'm so sorry..."

Jack smiled sadly.  "Heh... you said... the same thing... all those years ago... as I was dying at your feet..."

"Now do you understand?" Wario inquired, struggling to hold back his tears.  "Brothers must always be able to forgive each other.  Despite what may have happened between you two in the past, Ace has proved himself on many occasions to be a decent guy.  He did his part by apologizing and attempting to repent for his misdeeds, so why couldn't you do yours and offer your forgiveness?  Isn't that the least you could do?"

"You know... you're a lot wiser than you look..." Jack chuckled, coughing up a mouthful of blood.  "Maybe... Maybe my obsession with revenge... is what truly led to my downfall...  Heh, it all makes sense now...  Ace wasn't the one who blinded me...  I was blinded... by my own hatred..."  The Grimnex fell silent.  As his vision slowly faded away, Wario and Ace's eyesight returned.  And when their light was finally restored, they saw Jack lying dead before them, a single teardrop running down his pale face.


[glow=blue,2,300]Chapter 25: Luigi's Resolve[/glow]

Jogging down a wide, parchment-colored corridor, Luigi spotted a spiral staircase leading upward.  He breathed a sigh of relief.  "Wow... By parting ways with the Wario Brothers, I actually managed to avoid getting dragged into a fight.  I hope they'll be alright without me."  As he approached the stairwell, however, he heard footsteps coming from an adjacent staircase leading to the floor below.  Luigi froze.  Somehow, these sluggish, plodding footsteps seemed familiar.

"Ugh...  Why do I have to guard the second floor?  Venus may be ranked higher, but I still hold seniority over her.  You'd think that the last remaining member of the original 24 Grimnexes would be treated with a little more respect," the muscular, middle-aged demon grumbled as he ascended the stairway.  His onyx, uncombed, shoulder-length hair and five o'clock shadow contributed largely to his unkempt appearance, as did his tattered black sweatpants and bloodstained, sleeveless white shirt.  When he reached the top, his eyes, which were never more than halfway open, widened ever so slightly.  "Luigi...  What are you doing here?"

Luigi gulped and took a step backward.  He glanced over his shoulder, but his comrades were nowhere to be found.  He was alone.  "I- I'm here to save Peach."

"Still obsessing over that princess?" Gaea sighed.  "I thought you were smarter than that."

"Gaea... why can't you understand that what Kronos is doing is wrong?" Luigi inquired.  "I can tell that you're different from the others...  You don't thirst for bloodshed and chaos like so many other demons do.  Please, just hear me out..."

"I've never been one to question things," Gaea responded with a helpless shrug.  "To me, thinking is just a waste of time and effort.  I was created by the Phoenix to fight against the Olympians.  And for all this time, that's exactly what I've been doing.  You can argue about good and evil all you want... I simply accept my place in the world."  His eyes narrowed.  "And besides... your words have already lost their credibility.  Now that I know you're an enemy, I have to kill you.  That's just the way things are."

"Just step aside, Gaea, and then-"

The Grimnex firmly shook his head.  "I really don't feel like fighting you right now.  But if I don't, Kronos will simply give me more work to do as punishment.  You aren't going to talk your way around this fight.  The only way for you to escape is to turn around and leave peacefully."

Fated Clash

"That's not gonna happen!" Luigi refused angrily.  He charged directly at his former mentor and threw several punches, all of which Gaea effortlessly blocked with a single hand.

"Luigi... I'm surprised that you would attack me head on despite knowing about my abilities," Gaea stated, grasping the plumber's right arm.  "My aura is my weapon...  The possibilities are endless.  I could channel it into your own arm, shattering your bones from the inside."  His grip on Luigi's arm tightened, and his palm began to emit a greenish glow.  "I told you that you'd regret fighting me...  You still have much to learn about the art of aura manipulation."

"I've learned plenty already," Luigi snapped, striking the Grimnex in the face with his free hand.  He wrenched his right arm free from Gaea's grip and leapt backwards, putting several feet between the two warriors.  "You of all people should know that I have a natural talent for this.  When you channeled your aura into my arm, all I had to do was focus my own aura into the same spot."

"So, you have learned something after all.  You defended against my aura with your own," Gaea observed, wiping the blood from his chin.  "I'm impressed, but you still have a long way to go.  You managed to get a single hit in, but you were unable to augment the blow with your aura because it was already concentrated into your other arm.  Your Elemental Energy could not move quickly enough.  That is because you lack the training and experience that I have spent decades acquiring."

"If you wanted me to hit you with my aura, all you had to do was ask," Luigi chuckled, his right fist beginning to burn brightly with a green flame.  He lunged forward at his opponent and struck at his face, but Gaea caught the blow in his left palm.  The Grimnex then focused his power into his right fist and dealt a devastating blow to his former pupil's gut, sending him soaring into a nearby wall.  Coughing up blood onto the marble floor, Luigi gradually rose to his feet.

"That was only at half strength...  And by the way that you're clutching your wounds, I can tell that you weren't able to move your aura from your fist to your stomach in time.  Once again, I have proven my point.  Your training is insufficient," Gaea lectured him.  "That was your last chance to strike me.  This time, I'm coming to you."

"Damn," Luigi cursed, taking a fighting stance as Gaea rushed toward him.  Fast as lightning, the Grimnex seized his left wrist.  He's gonna break my arm!  The plumber quickly focused his Elemental Energy into his left arm to counter Gaea's Iniquity.

"Who said that I was planning on doing anything to your arm?" Gaea sneered, delivering a fierce, aura-enhanced punch to Luigi's ribs.  Once again, his student toppled onto the floor in agony.  "You fell for it.  The moment I grabbed your wrist, you assumed that I'd try to channel my aura into your arm like before.  In response, you focused your own aura into your arm, while in reality, I had no intentions of harming it.  This left the rest of your body entirely vulnerable, allowing me to deal a critical blow."

"That was... a dirty trick..." Luigi muttered, struggling to his feet.

"It only seemed that way because of your inexperience," Gaea responded.  "You can hardly understand your own aura, let alone someone else's.  With my experience, I can see the exact flow of your aura and adjust accordingly."  He raised both of his palms.  "To make matters worse... you are only able to focus your aura into a single spot."  A green glow began to emanate from each of his fists.  "Let's make this a bit more interesting...  Tell me, if you could only keep one arm, which would you choose?"

"What?!" Luigi thundered, his eyes widening with fear.

"I'm going to channel my Iniquity into both of your arms, tearing each of them apart from the inside.  By focusing your Elemental Energy into one of them, you can shield it from damage.  However, your other arm will be lost...  You'd better decide which one you'd like to keep."

Luigi gulped.  He's not bluffing... and there's nothing else I can do.  Trying to run away would be pointless.  He's too fast... He bit his lip.  And besides, I can't afford to let Bro down...  This time, I have to pull my own weight.

"I hope that you've made your decision," Gaea declared, rushing at the green plumber.  In a flash, he grasped each of Luigi's wrists.  "Now, let's see which arm you decided to sacrifice."  Time seemed to move in slow motion as blood spurted out from each of Luigi's arms.  Even so, he firmly stood his ground and refused to scream.  Gaea's eyes bulged.  "...Neither of them?!"  The Grimnex looked down to see that Luigi's leg was now gleaming with green flames.  Before he could react, the plumber delivered a bone-breaking, aura-augmented kick to the defenseless Grimnex's jaw.  Howling in anguish, Gaea tumbled onto his back.  "You... You're insane!"

"Heh, you never even saw that one coming," Luigi chuckled weakly.  The blow he had landed had come at a severe price.  Both of his arms were now broken and covered in gashes, all as a result of Gaea's Iniquity.

Gaea's eyes were still wide with disbelief.  "Instead of saving one of your arms... You decided to sacrifice them both in exchange for the opportunity to strike me with your aura at a moment in which I was completely exposed.  That was a foolish act... but I must commend you for your resolve."  Blood still dripping from his chin, a weakened Gaea rose to his feet.  "However... It wasn't nearly enough to finish me.  And with your arms in that condition, you might as well give up."

Calm Heart

"Where are you taking me?" Peach inquired, struggling against Venus' firm grasp as they reached the top of yet another marble staircase.  A warm breeze rushed past them, and Peach gasped.

"Welcome, Princess Peach, to my throne," Kronos declared proudly.  "Perfect... Even after all this time, it has remained unchanged."  He thrust his arms into the air and marveled at his surroundings.  The three of them now stood outside on the roof of the citadel, several thousand feet above ground.  A dozen marble columns lined the floor's circumference, and a posh red carpet led from the stairway to a lavish throne of gold. 

Now standing in broad daylight, Peach was able to get her first good look at Kronos.  Standing at about six feet tall, the demon king was thin but by no means scrawny.  He had a mop of sea green hair, and his hazel eyes reflected a deep, unrivaled sorrow.  Over a plain blue undershirt, he wore an unzipped black trench coat with stripes of gold running along its flaps, and the ends of his wrinkled white pants were tucked into his black, ankle length boots.  With a deep, exaggerated sigh, the Phoenix yawned and stretched before taking a seat.  "Tell me, Princess...  How does my throne compare to yours?"

Peach did not respond.

"Lord Kronos asked you a question," Venus growled, tightening her grip on the princess' arm.

"Now, now," Kronos gently scolded the Grimnex.  "The princess is our special guest."

"Forgive me, my lord."

"Perhaps I'll let it slide if you fetch the princess a seat," Kronos replied with a hint of impatience.  After Venus left to fulfill his request, the demon king turned to Peach.  "Now, Rh-  excuse me- Princess Peach...  How do you like the view from up here?  If you look over there, you can even see my demons waging war against your own subjects.  Would you care to watch with me?"

"No.  Unlike you, I do not consider watching the deaths of my own people to be entertaining," she refused sharply.

There was a long silence, until Venus finally returned with a slightly less elegant chair than the one Kronos had seated himself in.  Gingerly placing it beside her king, she watched in disgust as Peach hesitantly sat down.  "Lord Kronos, I have bad news...  It seems that Jack has been defeated by the intruders."

"I see.  Well, some casualties are to be expected," Kronos answered with a helpless shrug.  "I suppose Gaea will have to take care of them."

"How can you treat your own men that way?!" Peach exploded.  "Don't you care at all about what happens to your soldiers?  One of your Grimnexes just died... and even as we speak, thousands of your demon comrades are down there fighting against the Olympians!  Doesn't that mean anything to you?  Are these people nothing more than mere pawns?"

Kronos began to stroke his chin, clearly deep in thought.  "Pawns... as in the game of chess?  That certainly brings back memories...  Rhea and I used to play chess for hours during the Terranean War.  It would keep us sharp and alert during the long, restless nights..."  There was another long pause.  Kronos closed his eyes and shook his head.  "Venus...  Bring us a chessboard."

"Should you ever find the need to meet with me again...  Seek me out at the base of Mt. Olympus."

The Mushroom Hero yawned and stretched as his eyes slowly fluttered open.  He sat up with great caution, expecting sharp pains to erupt throughout his body.  Instead, he found that his wounds had been almost entirely healed.  Still groggy from many hours of sleep, he scanned his surroundings and realized immediately where he was.

"Once again, you are in my debt," Swift grumbled, standing at the plumber's bedside.  "I was able to mend all of your injuries, with one exception.  Your right arm is still covered in a Demon Exoskeleton, and as such, I have no control over its healing process.  You'll just have to be patient."

"Of course...  Thank you."

"You should be equally grateful to your friend for bringing you here...  As usual, you're nothing but a burden to others," Swift mumbled.

"I see... So Glaive understood my request," Mario sighed with relief.

Swift nodded.  "Yes.  He brought you to my doorstep and entrusted me with your life.  You and your comrades must share a close bond for him to so readily trust in your judgment.  As of right now, they are waging war against Kronos and his remaining Grimnexes.  If you wish to assist them, you'd better be on your way."

"Not yet," Mario replied, shaking his head.  "As I am now, Kronos would probably mop the floor with me."

"What are you implying...?"

"You must have realized by now that recovering wasn't the only reason I came here...  Please, allow me to continue your training program," Mario pleaded.  "It's the only way-"

"Absolutely not," Swift refused, emphatically shaking his head.  "When I said that you could find me here if you ever needed to meet with me again, I didn't mean that you could come crawling back to complete your training.  It was your decision to abandon my program prior to its completion.  Now you must live with the consequences."

"Sorry, but I can't accept that.  The moment I faced off against Kronos, I realized that my inner demon and I are still far too out of sync.  To battle Kronos on the outside is one thing, but to struggle with him on the inside at the very same time is too much for me to handle.  The only person that can help me cope with this internal struggle is y-"

"Yourself," Swift interrupted.  "Four months ago, I attempted to train you to be one with your internal demon.  But when your friends came to the Nightmare Vault with news of Crimson's attack, you rushed back to your kingdom without completing your training.  As a result, you never learned to exist in harmony with the soul of your ancestor, and even though the Phoenix has been reborn, his blood and his instincts continue to live on inside of you.  I could push you in the right direction, but at this stage, the only person that can drive the demon from your heart is you."

"If you can provide me with some sort of guidance, no matter how small, I'll take it."

"Why should I?  Your friends are in danger.  How do I know that you won't abandon my training again to help them?"


"Because this time, I trust my friends to keep on fighting while I prepare for battle," Mario answered firmly.  "Luigi, Wario, Waluigi, Glaive, and Ace...  They'll be fine.  When I arrive, I just know that they'll all be there waiting for me."

"Your words...  Your confidence in your friends...  Everything about you reminds me of Hero..." Swift whispered.

"Hero...?" Mario parroted.  "Are you talking about... my ancestor, the Alpha Grimnex?"

"You mean... You are related to Hero?" Swift inquired, his eyes bulging in disbelief.  "How... How did I not see it?  You have the same eyes...  He would always look at me with those bold, determined eyes, and pledge to me that the conflict between the demons and the Olympians would someday come to an end.  Even when he had been captured by Zeus and accused of treason, he never lost faith...  After being sent to the Universe with the eternal punishment of enforcing Zeus' will, I am relieved to see that his spirit continues to burn brightly in the hearts of his descendants."

"Does that mean...?"

Swift nodded.  "Descendant of Hero...  May your training commence."

"...Give up...?" Luigi parroted, breathing heavily.  "Not this time...  This is my one and only chance... to fight a battle that my brother has entrusted me with..."  Both of his arms began to burn brightly with the flames of his resolve.  "Each and every time I've gotten into trouble, Bro has had to bail me out...  But this time, he's depending on me to fight on without him while he recovers!"  He clenched his fists and sprinted toward the Grimnex.

"Incredible...  He's learned to channel his Elemental Energy into both of his arms, and by manipulating his aura, he can actually control his broken arms as if he was a puppet," Gaea murmured in astonishment.  "Even if his body is in no condition to fight... his willpower continues to drive him forward..."

Casting all of his fears aside, Luigi began to recklessly throw punches and kicks at his former master.  Holding his ground, Gaea swatted aside each of his foe's attacks, and when he saw an opening, he lunged forward with a right hook of his own.  The blow struck Luigi in the chest, bringing his assault to an instant stop.  The plumber hung his head in defeat as his blood spilled onto the floor.

"What a waste...  It is regrettable to have to kill a man who could master the basics of aura manipulation in only four days," Gaea sighed.

At that moment, Luigi raised his head and drove forward, striking the Grimnex across the face with a brutal, flame-augmented right hook.


"Heh... you let your guard down again..." Luigi snickered, clutching his severely wounded chest.  "Your face is looking pretty bruised right now... If I were you, I'd take this a bit more seriously..."

"If you have to take a critical hit from me just to land a single blow, you aren't going to last much longer," Gaea retorted.

"Don't worry, I think I've found another way to hit you," Luigi declared, forming a Fireball in his palm.  "You see, even before you taught me about aura manipulation, I was still able to use my Elemental Energy as a projectile.  In all of your years of training and experience, have you ever tried something like this?"  He hurled the Fireball at Gaea, who firmly maintained his position.

"You poor, naïve child," Gaea sighed, aiming his opened palm at the approaching Fireball.  With a single, sweeping gesture of his arm, he sent the Fireball careening into a nearby wall.  "Though I'll admit I was not aware that you possessed this ability, it is nothing I haven't encountered before.  Using one's aura as a projectile is an advanced tactic, but it has a critical weakness.  The moment your Elemental Energy leaves your body, it is no longer under your influence.  If your opponent is also a skilled aura manipulator, he can effortlessly take control of the projectile with his own aura and send it in the opposite direction."  He grinned.  "Hmm... but I doubt that you're at that level yet."  He extended his palms toward the plumber and launched a green energy sphere at him.

Luigi frantically waved his arms at the oncoming blast, desperately attempting to take control of it and change its course.  However, just as Gaea had predicted, he was not yet adept enough for such a maneuver.  The sphere collided with his upper torso, exploding upon contact and knocking him onto his back.

"Luigi...  You really should accept your defeat.  It's going to be far more painful from here on out.  I'm beginning to feel less lethargic... and for you, that will only lead to suffering and misery."

"There's no doubt that you're superior to me in practically every respect..." Luigi admitted, his right fist gleaming brightly as he gradually rose to his feet and limped toward his foe.  "But there's still one category in which you could never top me... and that's motivation.  You have no drive to beat me.  You're just following orders.  Me, on the other hand...  I'm fighting for my brother's faith, and for Peach's life!"  He rushed forward and, with his supercharged fist, dealt an earthshaking blow to the floor, causing it to partially collapse.


"What are you doing?!" Gaea thundered as the two of them plummeted downward into a colossal crater.  Now surrounded by a circular wall of debris, neither of them could escape the other.  "You've just sealed your fate...  You'll never climb out of this crater alive."

"Actually, I was just restricting your movement," Luigi replied, forming a gigantic Ultra Fireball in his palms.  "You said that my Fireballs are useless against you the moment they leave my body...  At the same time, if I attack you at close range, I only end up taking a beating...  I've done some thinking, and I've finally found a way to attack you!"

"You aren't really going to...?  Hey, how much Elemental Energy are you channeling into that Fireball?!" Gaea shrieked, staggering backward in fear.

"I'd say... pretty much all of it," Luigi retorted, his Fireball growing large enough to cover almost the entire crater.  "You've got nowhere to run, Gaea...  My Fireballs can hurt you as long as I don't let go of them...  All I had to do was trap you in this crater and make a Fireball big enough to cover the entire area, so that I wouldn't even have to throw it in order to scorch you!"

"You Mario Brothers really are insane..." Gaea grumbled as the entire crater was lit with a burst of green flames.

"Hah... and I didn't even need Bro's help..." Luigi whispered triumphantly as he lifted himself over the edge of the gap he had created in the floor.  Breathing heavily, he turned around and gazed into the pit, which was now smoldering with green flames.  Although he had succeeded, the battle had come at a heavy price.  He had sustained heavy damage, and both of his arms were useless unless he manipulated them with his aura.

"Luigi... I'm disappointed in you," a menacing voice echoed from within the crater.  "The Epsilon Grimnex would never be defeated by such an attack.  I thought you knew better than that."  Out from the pit emerged Gaea, whose body was covered in ash and severe burns.  "I'll admit... that really hurt.  You've successfully irritated me.  Congratulations.  But now...  I won't be held back by my indolence any longer."


I haven't read the story at all but have you tried going to fanfiction.net to publish your stories?


Quote from: MooglePlayerChris on June 25, 2011, 07:32:53 PM
I haven't read the story at all but have you tried going to fanfiction.net to publish your stories?
I haven't actually, but maybe I'll try it out.


[glow=blue,2,300]Chapter 26: Hero's Wish[/glow]

"Mario, as the descendant of Hero, you just may have what it takes to bring this war to an end," Swift informed the Mushroom Hero.  The two now stood outside at the base of Mt. Olympus, enclosed in a forest of pine trees with a vast, shimmering lake nearby.  "Your father has passed the Nova Strike on to you, correct?"

Mario nodded.

"Good.  I want you to use it on me," Swift demanded.  "Do not hesitate.  I will be fine.  But you must make sure that you do not hold back.  If you do, I cannot train you properly."

"As you wish..." Mario muttered, forming an Ultra Fireball in his right fist.  With Swift firmly standing his ground, the Mushroom Hero charged at his opponent, his speed augmented by his thunder element.

"Hmm, let's see how well Anthony taught you," Swift mumbled, drawing his blade as Mario approached him.  When the plumber was within reach, the Royal Guardian slashed at his neck with his blade.  As expected, a shield of ice materialized just in time to block the attack, and Mario continued to charge forward.  He lunged at Swift and threw a Fireball-enhanced right hook at his face, but the Royal Guardian blocked it with the flat end of his sword.  The Mushroom Hero leapt backward and grinned.  The assault wasn't over yet.  The wind displaced by Mario's flaming punch caused thousands of wind bullets to head directly toward Swift.  However, with a fierce battle cry and countless lightning-fast slashes, the swordsman batted away each and every blast of wind that approached him.  He had escaped the Nova Strike entirely unscathed.

Mario's eyes bulged.  "Unbelievable..."

"And if I could do that, just imagine what Kronos would do," Swift sighed.  "But it's not your fault.  I didn't expect you to be able to hit me.  I was merely assessing your grasp of the technique.  You used all three elements in perfect sync: you used thunder to increase your speed, ice to defend yourself, and fire to enhance your power.  That is what the Nova Strike is all about.  Yours was almost as powerful as Hero's."

"You mean... Hero used the Nova Strike on you?" Mario inquired.

"Hah, of course!  I was the one who helped him develop the technique!" Swift chuckled.  "Back in the days of the Terranean War, we were comrades as well as sparring partners.  That's why I know more about the Nova Strike than anyone... even your father.  For example, did you know that the Nova Strike is an incomplete technique?"

Mario shook his head.  "Really...?  It seems pretty powerful as it is..."

"Yes, but when used for its intended purpose, it becomes several times more potent.  Unfortunately, the only man who fully understood the Nova Strike's intended use... was your ancestor, Hero.  This technique isn't as simple as you may think.  The Nova Strike is an attack that is empowered by the wielder's feelings."  He and Mario locked eyes.  "Mario... the task of completing this technique has fallen to you.  You must wield the Nova Strike's true form, something that not even Hero could accomplish in his lifetime."

"How...?  I mean, where do I even start?"


"If you wish to even attempt to understand the Nova Strike, you must first understand its creator: your ancestor.  Listen carefully, Mario.  I will tell you all that you need to know:

"Hero was a deeply conflicted man.  He was created to fight for the Olympians, but was captured and reprogrammed to serve the Phoenix.  Even so, his inherent kindheartedness could never be extinguished.  Each day, he listened as Rhea confided her feelings of sorrow and despair.  You see, Rhea cared about Kronos more than anything else in the world.  She would always talk about how he had been driven insane by his thirst for power and how she deeply regretted abandoning Zeus, her nephew, to join the Phoenix.  Ultimately, Hero vowed to her that he would save Kronos from his madness, and together, they left the Phoenix to anonymously join the Olympians as the Royal Guardians.  That was when we first met.

"As comrades, Hero and I fought many battles together.  The more I got to know him, the more skeptical I became.  To me, he seemed like a naïve, overly optimistic child.  I tried to warn him...  I always told him that he was far too ambitious.  Yet he would always respond to my skepticism by staring me down with his bold, sapphire eyes and insisting that he would someday put an end to the hatred between the Olympians and the demons.  And above all else, he swore that he would cure Kronos of his insanity.  But I knew better.  His childish aspirations were impossible to accomplish.  In the end, I was certain that he would only become a hindrance.  Zeus agreed.  Before the final confrontation with Kronos, Zeus and I collaborated in an attempt to attack the Phoenix without informing Hero of the assault.  We felt that if he were to fight alongside us, his vow to Rhea would take priority over the downfall of the Phoenix.  Together, Zeus, Rhea, the other Royal Guardians, and I fought with everything we had.  Despite our efforts, we were all tossed aside by the mighty Kronos. 

"Just as it seemed as though the Olympians would fall, Hero arrived on the scene and began to battle Kronos alone.  None of us had ever seen anything so incredible.  Somehow, Hero was actually holding his own.  But as we predicted, he continually tried to convince Kronos to change his ways, and as such, he refused to deliver the final blow.  As Hero pleaded with the Phoenix to return to his former self, Zeus approached the demon king from behind and ended his life with a single, vicious stab.

"Rhea was crushed by her brother's death, and Hero was devastated because he was unable to fulfill his promise.  Even so, he continued to move forward, aspiring to end the hatred that continued to pervade this new, 'peaceful' world.  But before long, Rhea and Hero's true identities were found out.  Fearing that Hero's hesitance to kill Kronos stemmed from his loyalty to the demons, Zeus imprisoned the Royal Guardians- myself included- in the Nightmare Vault.  Hero, however, was confined within Terranea and interrogated for several decades.  My sentence was comparatively lenient.  Although I was detained within the Nightmare Vault, I was permitted to return to Terranea once every ten years.  Hero was always the first person I would visit.  Even as the years passed by, his optimism never faded.

"After the Lord Shade incident, Terranea was split into the Overthere, the Underwhere, and the Universe.  When Shade escaped into the Universe, Zeus decided to send Hero, who had remained imprisoned up to that point, to deal with him.  And from that day forward, Hero's bloodline was sentenced to protect the Universe from people like Lord Shade for all of eternity.  But before he departed, Rhea and I paid him one final visit.  I warned Hero that his lifespan would be severely shortened once he entered the Universe.  But nothing ever kept that man down for long.  He simply smiled and requested that I train his successor if the Phoenix ever were to return.  Hero and Rhea then embraced for the final time, and she entrusted him with their newborn baby.  She hoped that this child would help keep Hero company in the new, lonely world in which he would spend the rest of his life.  And after that... he told me that he was entrusting his vows and aspirations to his descendants.  Even after departing with his only child wrapped in his arms, he never gave up on his dreams.  More than anything, he believed that his descendants would someday accomplish what he could not. 

"The Nova Strike was then passed down from generation to generation, along with the words 'only he who is one may truly wield this technique.'  Do these words sound familiar?"

Mario nodded.  "Yeah...  I think my father said something along those lines after he finished teaching me the Nova Strike."

"Good.  Now, Mario, it is up to you to discover the true meaning behind this statement, to understand the will of your ancestor, and to somehow end your internal struggle.  The single answer to these three conundrums will enable you to wield the complete Nova Strike and defeat the Phoenix."  Swift drew his blade.  "And if you cannot discover this answer within the next hour, you will die."

Calm Heart

"Checkmate, Princess," the Phoenix declared softly after sliding his rook across the board until it was parallel with Peach's king.  "Surely you aren't playing seriously?  You haven't won a single game."

"Pardon my incompetence," Peach replied dryly.

"There's no need to be a sore loser," Kronos chuckled, moving the pieces back to their original positions.  "The trick is to be willing to sacrifice the lesser pieces in exchange for the king's safety.  The pawns are mere fodder to keep the enemy distracted, while the more powerful pieces are used to mount an assault on the opposing king.  And in the midst of all this chaos, the two kings remain in the back, as far away from battle as possible.  Once the king is defeated, the game is over.  You see, chess is no different from war."

"How can you say that?  Do your demon comrades truly mean so little to you?!" Peach exploded.

"Is your strategy really all that different?  Near the entrance to the Nexus, our pawns are facing off.  It's an all-out war between my demons and a combination of the Mushroom Hero's citizens, some of the Underwhere's finest warriors, and Grambi's army of Nimbis.  In this battle, who lives or dies is irrelevant.  All that matters is victory.  Now, moving on to this citadel... the rooks and knights are at each other's throats.  The Mushroom Hero's allies are battling desperately against my Grimnexes in an attempt to reach me, the king.  If they can kill me, the Olympians win."

"You're wrong," Princess Peach hissed.  "Every life is equally important.  Each soldier is like a child to me."

"Stop this, Kronos.  How can you battle so ruthlessly against your very own son?!  And this war... It's taking its toll on our soldiers as well..."

"If their lives must be sacrificed in order to achieve victory, then so be it.  What are a few thousand lives among Terranea's entire population?  They're pawns, Rhea.  Let them throw away their lives for what they believe in."

"No...  Each and every soldier's life is precious to me.  I won't stand by and watch you send them all to their deaths!"

"I see..." Kronos murmured, rubbing his throbbing forehead.  "...Princess, how about another game?"

There was a long pause.  "If you are the demons' 'king', then what does that make me?  Am I the Olympians' 'king'?  Or do you expect me believe that I'm your queen?" Peach inquired at last.

"Ahaha, no," Kronos responded, laughing gently.  "You are neither a king nor a pawn."

Venus angrily clenched her fists.  I don't understand... Why does Lord Kronos value that princess' life to such a degree?  Why not kill her now, like all of the others who oppose us?  Her role as Kronos' vessel has ended... what other purpose could she possibly serve?  If anything, she seems to be distracting him.  She watched in disgust as Kronos and Peach began yet another round of chess.  If this goes on any longer...  I may have to take matters into my own hands.

Fearsome Enemy

Luigi staggered backward, his body trembling with fear as a severely scalded Gaea climbed out of the burning crater.  "H- How did you- survive?"

"I am the Epsilon Grimnex, Luigi.  In every warrior's career, there comes a time when cheap parlor tricks cease to be effective.  For you... this is that time," Gaea declared, smoke still emitting from his burning flesh.  "Though you should be proud for making it this far.  I am rarely forced to resort to unveiling my Final Smash."  The green flames that covered his skin began to expand, ultimately engulfing his entire body.  It was then that Luigi realized that these flames were not from his attack.  They were Gaea's aura.

"W- What are you doing?"

As the inferno died down, Luigi was horrified to see that all of Gaea's flesh had burned off, leaving nothing more than a skeleton.  And from within the two black eye sockets on his skull, Luigi spotted a menacing red glow.

"Are you impressed?" Gaea sneered, his bones rattling as he approached the revolted Luigi.  The walking skeleton was lit with an aura of green flames.  "You would be wise to flee.  Once I have entered this form, I cannot be harmed."

"We'll see about that..."  Gritting his teeth, Luigi channeled his aura into both of his arms and charged at the Grimnex.  His fists augmented by his Elemental Energy, the plumber dealt several blows to his opponent's chest.  Not once did Gaea attempt to defend himself.  Luigi gasped as the aura drained from his fists and entered Gaea's body, further empowering him.

"Not only is my solid bone structure invulnerable to physical attacks... but it can absorb the aura of my opponents and convert into Iniquity for my own personal usage," Gaea explained with a cruel smirk.  "Whether you use your Elemental Energy or just plain old punches and kicks... you cannot harm this body."

"What body...?" Luigi snapped defiantly as he fell to his knees from exhaustion.  "All I see... is a walking pile of bones..."

"You won't be so rebellious once I've used my Iniquity to snap your neck," Gaea replied, wrapping his cold, bony fingers around Luigi's throat.  Sighing regretfully, he lifted the plumber by his neck.  "It's a shame.  If the circumstances were different, I could picture us being... friends..."  Suddenly, his grip on Luigi's throat loosened, and the plumber fell lifelessly to the floor.


Lying face-down on the floor and gasping for air, Luigi turned his head to face the nearby doorway.  "Waluigi..."

Smoke emanating from his fingertips, Waluigi stood firmly at the other end of the corridor.  "I couldn't help but notice you were having some trouble."

"No thanks to your brother's brilliant plan to split up..." Luigi retorted wearily.  "Where is he, anyway?"

"He went back to lend Ace a hand," Waluigi replied.  "And it looks like I'm here to do the same for you.  What would you guys ever do without us?"

"Great.  Having to deal with one of you was bad enough," Gaea groaned, cracking his knuckles.  "But you'll probably regret shooting me in the back...  After all, projectile attacks fueled by Elemental Energy will only strengthen me."

"Is that so?" Waluigi inquired wryly as he delivered a roundhouse kick to the Grimnex's face.  However, the skull slowly rotated back into place, and its eye sockets began to gleam forebodingly.

"Heh, you're just as feeble as your friend," Gaea remarked, placing his palm on Waluigi's chest.  In the blink of an eye, the greedy plumber was sent flying across the corridor onto his back by a shockwave of the Grimnex's Iniquity.  "No matter which way you choose to attack me, you will not be able to inflict any damage."

Clutching his midsection and coughing up blood, Waluigi forced himself into a sitting position.  "...My kick didn't even faze him...  How the hell are we supposed to attack him...?"  He smiled wearily.  "Ah, it's not like I have a choice...  If I'm not there to fight Kronos alongside Wario, I'll never hear the end of it...  I can't die yet, not in a place like this..."

His body bruised and battered, Luigi also struggled onto his feet.  "Bro... I'm not giving up yet..."

"First Luigi, and now Waluigi..." Gaea whispered.

Broken Vows

"Teach you...?  Eh, I doubt I'd be a very good instructor...  Besides, not just anyone can learn to wield this technique..."

"Please...  Unless I find some way to become useful during these next four days... my brother... and all of my comrades are going to have to pull my weight...  I don't want to be a burden to them...  I want to be on the front lines, fighting side-by-side with them in what may be the most crucial battle in history."

"You...  You have a brother?"

"An older brother...  He's always two steps ahead of me, taking on greater challenges and facing off against tougher opponents...  It's almost as if I'm constantly being left behind...  I just can't keep up..."

Gaea smiled sadly.  "Even though we're on opposing sides... I respect your determination to fight on your brothers' behalf.  Seeing how much you both look up to them... makes me regret how I treated my younger brother."

"A younger brother?" Luigi parroted in confusion.  "Can Grimnexes even have siblings...?"

Gaea nodded.  "My younger brother was the Eta Grimnex, and as such, I was two ranks above him.  Just as you two look up to your brothers, he held an undying admiration for me.  However, there was a key difference.  I can see that both of you have grown up under the guidance of fine elder siblings, but one could not say the same for my younger brother.  He yearned to gain my attention and approval, but I turned a blind eye to him.  This lack of acknowledgement did not spawn from jealousy or spite, but rather because I simply didn't care.  Why should I concern myself with my inferior younger brother's accomplishments?  That mindset led to many years of regret.  My brother's desire to earn my approval led him to recklessly throw away his life in battle.  And then, before Lucifer was created in one of Crocell and Leviathan's experiments, they asked for permission to use my brother's corpse. Back then, I couldn't think of a reason to turn them down.  If only I hadn't been so foolish...  And now, seeing you two boldly stand before me...  I can only think of my brother."

"You know, Gaea... you really are a lazy bastard..."  Luigi smiled sadly.  "But I think I finally understand what you meant before... when you said that if things were different, we could have been friends.  I wish there was some other way we could settle this, but... Waluigi and I each have elder siblings that are depending on us.  We won't let anyone hinder us, not even you. "

"It's not like you to talk so tough," Waluigi whispered.

"Waluigi... If this keeps up, we'll die.  That's why I need you to channel all of your Elemental Energy into a single blast... and fire it at me," Luigi told him sternly.

"And how is that supposed to help us against him?" Waluigi inquired, shocked at his rival's request.  "Do you have a death wish or something?"

"Trust me."

Waluigi sighed and began gathering energy for a colossal purple Fireball.

Gaea rolled his eyes.  "Haven't you been paying attention?  No matter how big the blast gets, it won't hurt me.  But I suppose you don't have many other options.  For the sake of my deceased brother, I'll end this quickly."

"This isn't for you, pal," Waluigi snickered, aiming the enormous Ultra Fireball at his own comrade.  "I hope you know what you're doing," he muttered before hurling the blast in Luigi's direction.

Burning Willpower

His eyes gleaming with determination, Luigi's entire body was encased in a green aura of flames.  As his rival's Fireball collided with his aura, it began to expand and change to a greenish purple gradient.  "If Gaea can absorb other people's Elemental Energy, then so can I!"

"That was your big plan?!" Gaea thundered.  "Do you really believe that you can incorporate an entirely different source of Elemental Energy into your own body?  Such naivety...  Even for me, such a feat would be impossible were it not for this transformation!"

Now coughing up blood, Luigi screamed in agony as he fell to his knees and thrashed wildly about.  His entire body was now engulfed in purple flames.  Waluigi rushed to his comrade's side, but was sent staggering backward by a sudden shockwave.

"You've been crushed by your own stupidity," Gaea declared.  "I did not intend for it to end this way, but I'll admit that I'm somewhat relieved.  Killing you with my own hands would have been far more painful."

"I'm sorry to hear that..." Luigi muttered, slowly rising to his feet.  His eyes widened, and the purple aura surrounding him changed to a dark green shade.  "I'm not dead yet... so it looks like you'll have to get your hands bloody after all..."

"That aura... It's neither Elemental Energy nor Iniquity..." Gaea gasped, his eyes bulging.  "How is it possible for a mere human to imitate my Final Smash?  And how did absorbing his Elemental Energy create this new aura?"

"This... is the Emerald Flame," Luigi declared, slowly approaching Gaea.  "It's something that only the younger sibling of a Hero possesses...  I absorb all of the negative energy around me like a sponge.  This energy is stored deep within my body, never to be released unless I embrace the darkness...  However, there is one another way to unleash it...  I just needed a burst of Elemental Energy to trigger it."

"So he used my Fireball to break the dam that was restraining his Emerald Flame..." Waluigi whispered, shaking his head in disbelief.

"How reckless... that Fireball could have killed you!" Gaea howled.

"But I'm still here..." Luigi retorted, his Emerald Flame burning brighter than ever.  He sprinted toward the Grimnex and delivered a bone-breaking right hook to his jaw.  As Gaea stood up once again, he began to shriek as sharp pains began to erupt throughout his body.  "And just as I thought, your body doesn't know how to convert the Emerald Flame into Iniquity.  You've never encountered something like this before, have you?  You can absorb my Emerald Flame all you want, but it'll only cause you more harm."

"The Emerald Flame...?  Only possessed by the Hero's younger brother...?"  He dropped his fists and smiled ever so slightly.  I see...  This must be fate...  The spirit of my younger brother truly does live on within these two...  And now it is time for me to pay for neglecting him...

"Mario... Wario..." Luigi whispered, gathering all of the Emerald Flame into his right fist.  "I'm sorry Gaea... but our brothers are waiting for us!"  With a cry of determination, Luigi charged forward one last time and plowed directly through the Grimnex with a flaming right hook.

His entire skeleton now set ablaze, the disintegrating Grimnex collapsed lifelessly onto the floor.  "I see... so this is how it all ends...  For once, I'm glad that I'm a demon...  I won't have to endure an entire afterlife of regret...  Perhaps I can be reincarnated as a human... and someday have another chance at being an older brother...  I'd like that..."

His aura fading away, Luigi knelt beside his dying mentor.  "Gaea..."

"Don't waste your pity on me...  After all... you both have elder siblings waiting for you...  Luigi, even if trash like me doesn't deserve a last request, please... don't ever stop fighting alongside your older brother.  I never really got to know him, but... I can tell that he'll be proud of you..."  As he uttered these final few words, the remainder of his skull turned to ash and scattered into the wind.  The Epsilon Grimnex was no more.

Exhausted, Luigi collapsed onto the floor.  Standing above his unconscious rival, Waluigi grinned faintly.  "You know, Gaea...  You're not alone...  This coward and I have been enemies for years... but I never realized how much we had in common."

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