Disclaimer: This story contains characters and concepts that are not the property of the author. They are the intellectual property of Nintendo and their associates. This work of fanfiction is not endorsed by the original creators and is not meant in any way to be an attack on their copyright. The author has not and will not receive monetary benefit from this posting.

Beta read by: Byoshi, Flare Zero

In Another Castle

The echo of the monster's dying screams chased Mario into the dark. Beyond the killing pit of molten stone, a vast, high-ceilinged chamber stretched far beyond the fringes of flickering magma light. The air was dank here—moaning in so much empty space. Somewhere distant, water dripped into black puddles. The Koopa king's stench grew stronger the further he stepped into the fortress lair. For years, this place had served as its den, until its putrescence had seeped deep into the gray stones.

The heat of battle fled his skin and left behind a layer of clammy sweat. Mario shivered. He stopped and looked around for something to burn. Unlit torches protruded from holders in the walls, some fifteen feet off the floor. He leaped and pulled one loose. Jumping long and high was easy. Gravity in this alien world played odd tricks, operating more like a fairytale enchantment than a law of nature. Maybe the forces of the universe were only spells here.

Magic was real. That had taken some getting used to. A little of the fire blossom power had survived the battle--a spell imparted by mystic flowers—warm and coiled in the pit of his stomach. He summoned a fireball into his open palm and lit the torch with less effort than flicking a zippo lighter.

Smokey torch light revealed what he could only describe as a throne room. Copper candleholders, once finely wrought, had tarnished into knobs of green crust. Tapestries dangled on the walls, rotted to greasy threads. A green, stringy mess squished underneath his boots—the remains of a royal carpet.

Most awful to behold were the two white marble thrones set into an arched alcove at the back of the chamber. Pale and gruesomely majestic, they loomed in the darkness like lost altars built to honor evil forgotten gods. One was twice the size of the other—the lesser chair still large enough to dwarf any human who sat upon it. While the smaller throne remained in pristine condition, the marble of the larger throne showed signs of hard use. Its seat was worn and scoured by deep scratches, layers of grime dimmed the white luster of the fine stone. Relief-work carved onto the panels below the hand rests on both thrones depicted scenes of koopa armies marching to battle where the fine detailing had not yet chipped and flaked into featureless gray blobs.

Mario tried—and failed—to imagine the monster on this throne, high above his court of wriggling horrors, those pitiless crocodile eyes sweeping over the shrieking throng. He had heard the tales often, spoken in low voices over a guttering cooking fire. Arraigned in grisly robes and swinging a spiked warhammer for a gavel, the koopa handed down judgments and dooms in a hissing mockery of human speech. There had been no mercy for prisoners of war issuing forth from between those slavering jaws.

A sob in the darkness drew him up short. Could that be her, at last?

"Hello?" His voice reverberated off the cold stone walls, returning to his ears with a sinister tone. "Where are you? I'm here to help."

Scuffling noises came from underneath the larger throne. Sure enough, there was a hollow space beneath the seat. Mario shone his torch into the gloom of that grim cubbyhole, terrified at what he might see.

A woman, too caked in grime to guess her age, shrank back into the farthest corner of her hiding place. She wore a dress reduced to filthy, shredded rags. Only a few faded splotches of pink remained on the battered fabric. The woman began to whimper piteously, mewling like a beaten cat. It tore at his heart to hear those noises come from another human being. He swallowed, finding it hard to breathe.

"Hey, it's going to be all right." Her wide and glassy gaze fixed on him. He reached for her, but she only tried to squeeze herself further into the tiny corner. She started shaking, not because of the cold, but from a disturbance that bit far deeper.

This was her. The princess the mushroom men had pleaded him to save. Long had he searched for her, finding only decoys in dark places at the ends of lonely and dangerous paths.

He fumbled to find words, briefly unable to move his hanging jaw. At last, he tried. "Your Highness? I, uhh... Your bodyguard, Toad. He sent me to rescue you. Said I'd find you here, held captive by that thing."

A change came over her at the mention of a familiar name. Her eyes became a little more focused and she stopped shivering. "Toad? Toad sent you?" she asked, her voice ragged from weeks of futile screaming.

"Yeah. I'm here to take you back to your castle. Come on out. You don't want to catch anything, not from this dump."

The princess watched him for a while, as if searching for something. Then, she spoke, "Your eyes look human, at least. No spell can hide the soul behind the eyes."

Mario blinked, not understanding what she was talking about. He forced a chuckle. "You got me there. I'm way too tired to hide much of anything except the change in my pockets."

She hardened her face and reached out to him with a hand gloved in blackened lace. He helped her out from under the throne. She stood shakily at first, but then seemed to remember her royal training, and stood as straight and stiff as exhaustion would allow. Now that he got a good look at her in the flickering light, he could see that she might be pretty under all that dirt, in a dainty sort of way. When he thought about the kinds of things she must have endured up until now, he wished he could bring the Koopa king back to life, just so he could kill him again. It was a wish he would one day rue bitterly.

For now, Mario swallowed again and tried to keep his line of sight lowered. A desperation seized him. Would she feel harassed or pitied if he kept looking at her, or cruelly disregarded if he didn't make eye contact? After a few seconds, he looked anyway, and fell into her blue eyes. He felt indecent for not having a coat or something else to offer her for clothing.

If he bothered her in some way, the princess was in no hurry to show it. "Is there some cause for delay?"

"Yeah. The bridge I used to get in here collapsed. I hope you know another way out."

"There is a back entrance the beast would sometimes use." She pointed to what he'd assumed was another, smaller alcove. Under scrutiny, it turned out to be a narrow hallway. "We can follow this to the outside."

Mario smiled a big warm smile, every bit of it heartfelt. "Great. Let's blow this popsicle stand. Follow me."

As he stepped into the constricted confines of the hallway, he turned around to make sure the princess followed. She did not.

She remained where she was, a strange expression contorting her delicate features. A nameless dread prickled his skin.

"Let's get going. I bet you need to see some sunlight almost as much as I do." He walked back to her, throwing a comforting arm across her slim shoulders. As soon as he touched her, her eyes whitened. She ran from him, back into the lightless depths of the throne room. Mario blinked, unbelieving. Before he could think about what was happening, he ran after her. Even with the advantage of good health and stout legs, the princess nearly got away. At a complete loss for what to say or do, he scooped her up in his arms and tried to hold her still, careful not to burn her with the flaming torch that was their only source of light. His guts twisted into knotts of terror. If she escaped, he might never find her again in this fortress with its thousands of holes and secret passages. She screamed and beat him with her fists, and hit his nose hard enough to make it bleed. The pain and shock almost made him let her go.

Desperate to calm her, he blurted, "Stop, wait! I'm sorry I touched you. I didn't mean anything by it. Please, calm down and let's talk about this."

"No. No! I see only what I wish to see. You won't trick me again, Bowser! You think I could forget by now how your games are played?"

"Hey, it's just me. I'm real, I swear."

The princess would not stop struggling. Eyes clenched shut, tears cutting white tracks through the dirt on her cheeks, she continued to hammer him with her small fists.

Her voice raised and fell in hoarse shrieks. "You have used up your last trick. There is no hope left in me to crush. I'll chew out my own tongue before I allow you another chance. Release me, repulsive abomination, or have your way quickly and be done with it."

Half frozen with panic, Mario could barely hang on as she thrashed in his arms. Then he remembered the loot. "You've got it all wrong. I killed the monster. Here's the proof." Mario brought out the crown he had stolen from the Koopa king. It had snagged on his boot as he'd jumped over the monster's head. At battle's end, he had snatched it off the bridge before the span fully collapsed into the magma. It was a thick band of pure gold, adorned with golden spikes; set in each of these was a green gem larger than his thumb. The metal had a greasy sheen, and it held a strange warmth he could feel through his thick gloves.

The princess stopped struggling the instant she laid her eyes upon it. She reached out and touched it with the tip of one finger. With a cry of surprise, she jerked her hand back, as if burned. "That is the true crown. Then there is one way to prove you are who you say you are. Take me to where the fiend perished."

Mario led her to the edge of the pit. The last rungs of the bridge still dangled from the steep edges. The magma hissed and spat. Nothing stirred in the sluggish radiant flow. The princess turned to him, eyes wide. "Quickly! Do the one thing the king of all Koopas would never do."

"And that is?"

She scrutinized him, and would not answer.

Mario stared into the magma where minutes before, he had seen the monster's gaping maw pooling with yellow fire, had seen the gums blacken and the blazing orange mane of the beast transform into real flames. He looked down at the crown. The green gems seemed to look back, and the longer he studied their flawless glitter, the more the crown drew him in. In those soulless emerald eyes, he saw himself trading in the crown in for wealth back in the "real" world. Saw himself in a new house, happy and sated, wearing a crown of his own, atop a red throne...

He shook his head, aware that he had begun to lean forward over the edge in a trance. This was no time or place for day dreams.

Home. Even if he could return, would he want to? With no more hesitation, he answered that question forever in his mind and tossed the Koopa's crown into the pit. It hit the molten rock and sank slowly with a loud hiss. The gold melted at once as if made of wax, and became just another black whirl amidst the roiling stone.

The princess let out a big sigh. "Very good. Bowser would never have thrown away the sigil of his status. He would have set me free before abandoning that vile heirloom." She stared at the spot where the crown had vanished—stared through the fires, into a great distance beyond. "King Koopa would use his magic to disguise himself as one of my retainers. He would lead me down increasingly darker and more haunted corridors, telling me all the while we were heading for freedom. Eventually, the game would end when we arrived at a dead end, and then I'd hear that black howling laughter. When I turned around…"

"That's over now."

It was her turn to snap out of a waking dream. The weary burden of a hundred sleepless nights dropped from her. Shoulders straightened out from their slump, she took a deep breath. A smile bloomed on her face. She grew five years younger, beautiful in the way that we all become when we have been surprised by happiness. Eyelids aflutter, the princess again looked to him, and it seemed to Mario that she saw him better now than she had a few minutes before—him and the gray desolation of stone around them. She removed one filthy glove and stroked Mario's jaw with a soft hand. Warmly, she said, "In this den of devils, I have forgotten all courtesy. What is your name, savior?"

"It's, ah, it's Mario."

"No surname?"

He shrugged. Something inside him had changed. He felt light as a piece of confetti in the summer breeze. As free as a wild west pioneer. "I forgot it. Doesn't matter. I have a brother wandering somewhere out there—Luigi. He's been searching for you too. Maybe he'll know."

"Then let us hasten from this place. I would very much like to thank you, Mario. You have earned great rewards. I shall help you collect your brother, and then you both shall be guests of honor in my palace. And I shall take fifty baths in my royal tub."

Mario's face grew hot through no fault of the searing pit below. He blinked back the encroaching tears, took his hat in his hand and bowed before he knew what he was doing. "About fifty hot meals are all the thanks I need. Now, let's get outta here."

The princess laughed high and prettily. She took his stained glove in her bare hand. "Yes. Let's."

The End