Chapter 14: Fire

Bowser felt funny. He backed out of the fountain, a hand raised to his brow. He wondered if drinking too much water could give you a headache as he winced at the sudden twinge of pain. Maybe it was an ice-cream headache – the water had been cold.

Headache aside, he didn't think he could even another drop of water anyway, but fortunately for him, Starlow didn't order him back into the spray. He had done his part, and while she wasn't aware that her sudden burst of illusionary activity had caused some side-effects in her reptilian host, she supposed she owed it to him to fulfill her promise and get his fire back. Plus, she still didn't want him sucking down enemies – especially now that she had stockpiled plenty of energy from a far more agreeable source.

Unlike Bowser, Mario hadn't been negatively affected by the energy transfer at all. He had plenty more power to spare, after all, and obliviously followed Starlow through the door to the next area. She had generated a short climb for the Bros. to ensure their legs accustomed to non-aquatic usage, and at the top, the plumber twins caught sight of a pair of pipes, one in the roof, and one in the ground, with the bottom one blocked by a monstrous bug. It was another figment of Bowser's subconscious – a reason for why he couldn't breathe fire. The instability made manifest.

Well, not for long.

"Oh boy. I've seen these bugs," said Starlow, appearing in the illusion after the bug waggled its tongue at the Bros. and sent Luigi scurrying away to the back of the room. "They live in Dimble Wood," she explained. "Bowser must have inhaled it with whatever he ate. But to have gotten this big… What's it been eating?" It was partly true. The bug was clearly modeled after the Scutlets native to Dimble Wood, but Starlow knew very well it wasn't real. The threesome watched as fire swelled beneath the bug, but failed to lift it out of the way and get to the pipe above it. The bug itself may not have been Starlow's doing, but she had to hand it to herself – she had done a good job with the rest of the show. Barely keeping the smugness from her face, she continued her narration. "…Of course! This thing is blocking Bowser's flame pipe! No wonder he can't spit fire!"

Suddenly the bug lashed out with its tongue, slapping it against Starlow and pulling her into its mouth. "EEEYERP!" she screamed, unable to break free of the hold the bug had on her energy. Whatever it was, it wasn't normal – it was sick energy. Even more rotten than Bowser's regular essence. It was all Starlow could do to keep herself focused enough to keep the illusion going. If she lost it now, it wouldn't matter how good she had gotten – they'd all be doomed. Mario and Luigi and the others would go mad as the true nature of their existence within Bowser came crashing in on them. They'd dissolve into the pool, and so would the Scutlet – and Starlow would dissipate along with it. Then Bowser would destabilize. They'd all die and Fawful would win. The Mario Bros. didn't know it, but the entire future hinged on this seemingly average boss fight.

"Luigi!" called Mario, hurrying back to his trembling brother. "Luigi!" he repeated, circling around in front of the cowering man in green, but Luigi was curled up tight, his eyes squeezed shut. Mario didn't have time for that and hammered the ground at his brother's feet.

"Ahhh!" screamed Luigi, springing backwards and running straight at Scutlet, skidding to a stop just before being slurped by the tongue like Starlow. He backed up and pulled out his hammer, pulling himself together as Mario sprung up beside him. As if to mock them, the Scutlet pulled its tongue back in and when it came out next, it was holding an entranced Starlow. It chucked her at Luigi, who instinctively whacked her away with his hammer. Snapping to her senses, Starlow was ready to let the Scutlet – or Luigi – have it, but in an instant, the tongue was on her again and she was dragged back inside the energy monster.

Enraged, Mario and Luigi attacked the bug relentlessly, using every move in their arsenal. Fireballs and shells went flying as they dodged tongue-whips and the occasional swooping attack – courtesy of Bowser's fire sending the bug flying high. Outside, Bowser felt a new discomfort in his chest, coughing every now and then as his energy flashed and caused the fire bursts in the battle that raged in his ether. Starlow was struggling to keep it together, but she carried on, as did the Marios, and with a final barrage of shells, the bug exploded, leaving only Starlow in its place.

"Hoo boy!" she said sheepishly. "Shouldn't have let my guard down… I owe you guys one!"

Behind her the flames erupted from the lower pipe again, and without the corrupted mass of energy leeching away at Bowser's power, his next bought of coughing was accompanied by a burst of fire. "Whoa, what happened? My flame is back!" he shouted with glee, watching as the trees that had been standing before him burned to the ground.

"You had a bug problem! You sucked one up, and it plugged your flame pipe!" said Starlow, linking with his mind once again.

"What?! Really?!"

"We already took care of it! Calm down, will you?"

A bug problem was gross, but Bowser was just glad it was over and laughed. "GWAHAHAHA! Not too shabby! I might have to make you an honorary minion!"

"Uh…no thanks!" snorted Starlow.

"Hmph! Well, forget I offered. No one needs to know," huffed Bowser. Surprisingly, being rejected by the annoying voice in his head kinda stung. But even though he was offended, he was still curious about the girl who got his fire back. "What's your name, anyway?" he asked.

"Uh…my name?"

"Yeah. Your Name. Give me it."

"Uh… Ummmm…" Starlow hadn't expected Bowser to care enough about her to ask for her name and was taken aback. "My name is… Uh…" She couldn't tell him the truth – she couldn't remember if someone had called her by name in front of him that morning, and she didn't want to risk it. She didn't really care for the evil Koopa King knowing her personally either. In fact, she figured it'd be easier just telling him to mind his own beeswax, but in spite of herself, she suddenly blurted out a nickname from her childhood. "…CHIPPY!"

"Chippy? Weird name…"

"Yeah, a little weird…" admitted Starlow, although she knew folks with worse nicknames. "Look, it doesn't matter."

"Wait, hang on, Chippy! Did you just say 'we'? Who else is in there?"

Starlow, Mario and Luigi's eyes all widened.

"Huh? Uh… Did I… Did I say that?" she stammered, thinking back. 'We already took care of it.' – that's what she had said. Crap.

Fortunately, Bowser lost interest as quickly as his curiosity had arisen. "Well, whatever. The only thing that matters is Captain Flame is back, baby! He's got a fiery temper, but MAN is he a fun dude!" Bowser spat more flames, reveling in the warmth spilling from his jaws. "GWAHAHAHA! Just a little touch, and FWAAAARGH! Anybody standing in the way gets done medium rare! Maybe I'd better shake the rust off by burning these trees!"

As Bowser wandered around the clearing burning down foliage, Starlow turned to Mario and Luigi. "Well, looks like Princess Peach isn't around here, huh? Nothing we can do… I guess we might as well let Bowser do his thing. Maybe he'll create some more changes in his body environment…"

The Bros. agreed and the exhausted Starlow led them back to Toad Square to rest. She'd let the Toads handle the illusion for a bit. She needed to rest and compose herself – it had been too close a call when that Scutlet got her. She wasn't going to let her guard down again; she wasn't gonna let herself get so cocky again. Besides, Bowser displayed enough shameless swagger for the both of them.