A/N: I get that Mario and Luigi not speaking is part of the charm of the series, and I do love their babbling sound bites, but at times it seemed pretty odd that they can somehow convey so much just by jumping…

Chapter 31: You're Too Slow

It was clear that the only way the Mario Bros. were going to get anywhere was through the caves, and so they returned through the pipe and headed north underground, fighting their way past wild Nooze birds and Fawflants – strange mechanical Fawful-faced bugs. Eventually they came across a friendlier face too.

"Whoa! Hey, Mario Bros.!" the Toad smiled as the Bros. walked up to him, but his face soon fell back into a worried frown. "I came to see what was up with the security system, but… I got lost. And I couldn't get this bridge working to go back. It's easy, usually. To rotate the bridge, you hit the lever. But I lost my lever-whacking wrench, so I can't do anything. Mario, any chance you know how to hit far-off things?"

Mario and Luigi grinned wryly at each other as the Toad looked up at them pleadingly. As it just so happened, there was a Blue Shell Block right there in the sewers, although whether one of the recently-released ones or one the Paratroopas hadn't found in the first place, they didn't know or care. The Mario Bros. had grown used to lucky breaks helping them along in their heroic adventures, and didn't question this latest fortune either, although Starlow made note of it. Luck tended to be on the brothers' side for a reason, so perhaps the other Stars hadn't completely forsaken them and their Sprite on this latest quest after all.

Using the shell, Mario and Luigi easily navigated the maze-like lattice of Stretch Block bridges, activating both the switches that controlled the blocks and the ones connected to the door that barred them for getting further along through the caves. After all three of its switches were hit, the door whirred to life and opened, and discarding the shell, the Bros. pressed on ahead.

The next room was quite unlike the rest of the flooded caves, looking more like an antechamber than a tunnel. Mario and Luigi walked up to the two Toads guarding the passageway leading out the other end of the chamber. The one on the left hopped in greeting. "Mario!" he said, "Listen, sorry, but even you aren't allowed in here. Because something really, really, really important is stored here."

Popping into visibility, Starlow herself addressed the guard, figuring the presence of a Star would ease their trepidation. "Yeah, the Dark Star, right?! Listen! Did Fawful pass by?"

"Fawful? Who's that?" asked the Toad on the right.

Starlow frowned. "Something's off…" she muttered to herself, eyeing the Toads mistrustfully before speaking up again. "Isn't it odd for you guys to be down here?"

"Odd? Really?" said the first Toad, smiling vacantly at the threesome. "Odd like… THIS?!" as he spoke, the Toad disguises blinked away, revealing two Fawflants.

Mario, Luigi and Starlow shouted in alarm as the enemies attacked them, but the Bros. made quick work of the mechanical creatures. They had scarcely ended their battle when the ground began to shake and an explosion echoed down the hallway, followed quickly by a cry of "I HAVE CHORTLES!"

Mario and Luigi sprinted through the doorway with Starlow floating along beside them, but they were too late: there floated Fawful, surrounded by the wreckage of the security system that had held the Dark Star dormant for centuries. They watched in horror as the accursed Star now floated up to the Bean's outstretched hand and began radiating black energy.

"The beauty hurts my teeth! Such power of darkness! My spine has the tingle!" cackled Fawful, letting the waves crash over him.

"No! Too late! It's Fawful!" gasped Starlow, scarce believing what she was seeing.

The Bean looked around at the sound, stowing the Dark Star under his cloak and summoning a barrage of blasts at the intruders, sending them scurrying back to the doorway. But he didn't mind that he had witnesses to his latest triumph, and he didn't even let the fact that the Bros. had inexplicably escaped from Bowser phase him: free or not, they couldn't stop him now, and he laughed gleefully at the looks on their faces.

"Time for the crying! Too badness for you! For the Dark Star is snuggled with Fawful! Are you wanting to see it? Fawful's new Dark Star?" He spun around and pulled the Star out once more, letting it float above his head. "You look! Such badness! Such pitch-black power!" Bubbling with wicked happiness, Fawful danced in place atop his flying platform, celebrating in song:

"Fawful sings a song of bad!
Mushroom Kingdom is so sad!
All of it is for Fawful!
And the…rhyme with…that."

Rhyming wasn't the Engrish-babbling Bean's strong point, but he didn't let it faze him as he stopped his jig, put away the Dark Star and sneered down at his three spectators. "It is Fawful day! Joys! Be trembling before me! All who resist will be beat like naughty little eggs! I HAVE CHORTLES!" He then flew up and away, blasting a hole in the ceiling and disappearing from view, his laugher still echoing through the tunnels as the heroes hurried over the bridge to the pillaged platform.

"Oooooh… Mario… I'm so sorry…" moaned the Toad that lay there. He was one of a select few denizens who had been trusted to guard the Dark Star, but he had found himself powerless to stop Fawful from blasting away the electrodes that had kept the sinister Star secure in a field of electricity. Now he lay there, burned by Fawful's blasters and unable to move as the Mario Bros. kneeled over him. "The Dark Star… is raw evil… Quickly… You must get it back…" he beseeched them.

"Peach has been captured… The Dark Star is freed… If this keeps up, the Mushroom Kingdom is done for!" moaned Starlow, the despair evident in her voice. She had failed. No matter what she did, they were always one step behind Fawful – Fawful! That a crazed Bean like him could recover the Dark Star – it was unthinkable. And it was on her watch, too. She was a shameful excuse for a Star Sprite.

Mario and Luigi exchanged worried looks, stood and jumped up and down. In the Mushroom Kingdom, jumping wasn't just a greeting, it was also a substitute for fist-shaking, a show of celebration, and a gesture indicating confidence and overall hot-bloodedness. They knew that trying to talk Starlow out of her dread wouldn't work, but without speaking a word, the Mario Bros. were showing her that they hadn't given up yet – that they were still willing to fight, and she should be too. Looking at their confident faces, she smiled slightly: she had forgotten exactly who she was on that adventure with, and forced away her self-doubts. All wasn't lost yet, and with the Mario Bros. on the case, it wouldn't be lost.

"Yeah!" she said, snapping herself out of her temporary nadir. "We must return the Dark Star before its seal breaks!"

"Mario…" groaned the Toad. "Fawful said he… was off to take control of Peach's Castle! That door up there leads straight to Toad Town… You have to hurry…"

Mario and Luigi nodded and hurried away, taking a different bridge over the water that flowed far below the walkways. Once on the surface, they'd send someone down to help the Toad guard, adding even more impetus for them to hustle, avoiding the Noozes and Fawflants as they made their way through the last of the Toad Town Caves and finally found a Warp Pipe that wasn't blocked off.

They came out the other end in eastern Toad Town, directly south of Peach's Castle. Their eyes had barely grown used to the bright sun when a Toad came sprinting over to the Bros.

"Mario! Oh man, and Luigi too! Where have you guys BEEN?! You two disappeared and Peach and Toadsworth too… It was like, all of a sudden, Peach's Castle was just empty!" he babbled.

"Have you-a seen Fawful? Did he-a come through this pipe?" asked Mario.

"Huh? Fawful? Dunno about him… Anyway, castle entry is prohibited now. But you're allowed in, right? I mean, right? You oughta try!"

Mario and Luigi nodded and headed north. By 'prohibited', they knew the Toad just meant that everyone else was too scared to investigate – typical Toads, waiting for the Mario Bros. to set things right while they immediately went back to their daily lives. It was Bowser's fault, really, since his constant attacks were the reason why the Toads had gotten so accustomed to crises. But on the other hand, they supposed that not having to deal with a panicking populace each time Peach was kidnapped or whatever did make the plumbers' jobs a little easier.

Unfortunately, no sooner had Mario and Luigi started across the bridge over the moat when the ground began to shake and one by one, purple and black barriers started bursting out of the flagstones. The last one rose up right in front of Mario and Luigi and Starlow came out for a better look. "No!" she cried as red eyes opened in the middle of the black, star-shaped spot of the barrier. She turned to Mario and Luigi. "I can feel the dark energy – it goes far beyond these physical blockades: there's an entire forcefield surrounding the castle!" She looked back towards the citadel, her face riddled with worry. "Fawful, Peach and the Dark Star are in there, I can feel it… The Dark Star… Its power has begun to awaken…" Not letting despair get to her again, she glared at the obstacles resolutely. "We have to get past this blockade…"

"Maybe there's a way underground that we can-a use," said Mario. "We should ask-a the Toads if they're keeping any more-a secrets about the caves from-a me and Luigi."

It was clear that Mario was a bit irked about not knowing about the Dark Star and its secret resting place, and given how the Toad Town Tunnels were essentially the plumbers' domain, Starlow could see why. And he had a point, too: Starlow wondered if the guard could perhaps help them, and either way, they had forgotten to tell anyone he was stuck down there, adding to the reasons for them to backtrack a little. "Good idea… Let's head to Toad Town and come up with a strategy." But before they could take a single step, an all-too-familiar chuckling filled the air.