CHAPTER 7: THE MUSHROOM KINGDOM
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Bowser, king of the Koopa, walked the wooden deck of the Thunderstruck toward his chamber, carrying the five apprehended Royal National Coins.  Unlike the shuttle, this vessel was made of more substantial materials and only adorned in synthetic cloud.  

Bowser briefly turned his eyes towards one of the several propeller-topped masts which, to his great annoyance, presently made a racket and prevented cloud from forming on the upper portion of the ship.  Fortunately it was night and the vehicle would hopefully go unnoticed by those below.  Unless they heard that infernal noise.  He snorted in irritation. 

Bon Bjornin trailed behind the king.  The two of them met Captain Lakitu, who just finished setting the new course, outside the doors of Bowser’s chamber.  Bowser wanted to speak to both of them. 

“This ship was at maximum capacity before having to bear the weight of an entire ground force.”  Bowser said sharply.  “The propellers were not intended to be in use while the cloud is on.  And they weren’t intended to share the weight-load of an overladen ship.  The Kinoko Zoku knew we were there.”  Bowser did not hide the accusation in his voice.

“Sire, the human who escaped….” Bjornin began.

“They were already there!” Bowser interrupted. “The human would not have had time to alert the Kinokos and have them mobilize as soon as they did.”

“Are you suggesting treason, Your Majesty?” asked the captain.

“I am suggesting carelessness,” he answered.  “Whose idea was the beacon?”

Lakitu lowered his head.  “It was mine, Lord.”

Bowser was disappointed.  He would have much rather had to punish Bon Bjornin. “When we dock,” the king said, “consider yourself demoted, lieutenant Lakitu.  But not without means to enter my good graces again.  Find those humans.  Bring them to me.  Preferably alive.  If you succeed, we’ll reconsider your rank.”

“Yes, Lord.” Lakitu bowed.

“Bjornin,” said Bowser, “I want you and your force off my boat as soon as we reach Hightail Falls.”

“Hightail Falls?” asked Bon Bjornin.  “I am unfamiliar with the place. I thought…”

Bowser‘s nostrils flared and released smoke.  Bjornin got the message.

“We will disembark at Hightail Falls and await further orders,” Bjornin corrected.

“Both of you,” said Bowser, “see to it that I am not disturbed for the next hour.”

They nodded as Bowser turned and entered his chambers.  He locked the door behind him, set the coins on a table, and unlatched one of the steel, spiked wristbands he wore.  Hidden in a cut-out in the inside of the steel cuff was a key.  He plucked it out and used it to unlock a chest that rested on the floor.  He removed a highly ornamented music box and set it on the table near the coins.  

The top coin caught his eye.  He picked it up and examined it.  It bore the image of a lower koopa, as they are called - the unintelligent, animalistic, koopas that crawl about on four legs.  This was not one of the six Royal National Coins. Why would another nation have a koopa on their coin?  He flipped through the others.  Yes, he knew the rest of them.  What this one coin was and how it was used in conjunction with the real Coins was beyond him.  He would certainly look into it later.  The important thing was that it was capable of opening the portal.  

He returned his attention to the music box and cranked the handle on the side.  When it was fully wound he released the handle and watched as the mechanics began to animate. Twinkling music began to fill the room with its magic. 

 On the top of the box, two polished brass Koopa warriors mechanically swung hammers down upon a brass mushroom from opposite sides.  The two koopas turned clockwise around the mushroom that was turning counterclockwise.  Below the rings that supported the top scene, was a network of interlocking gears.  A couple brass piranha plants would rise up from the gears, chomp at the air, and descend back into the gears in time to avoid a collision with the rotating koopas. 

This intricate music box was designed as a weapon against the Koopa.  It was given in the form of a gift.  But the Koopa’s enemies’ plan backfired.  Now in Bowser’s possession, it was a weapon currently being used against its own creators.  Within moments Bowser would be using it to gain access into lands his people have been forbidden from for hundreds of years.

 

*****

Daisy, only half conscious now, groaned as one of the Kinoko Zoku transporting her misstepped on the rocky slope and jolted the makeshift stretcher on which she lay. 

“Captain Toad, can’t we give her some more of that medicine?” I implored.

“I’m afraid not.  Too much balm is not good for the brain.  Besides, more of it would not relieve the pain anymore than what we already applied. It only takes the edge off - like hard drink.  But we’ll be at the castle shortly.  There is better medicine there.”

Though I wished they could do more, I was impressed with what they were able to do.  A few of the Kinokos carried backpacks full of supplies.  Those packs became the center of a well organized routine.  Short rolls of a sturdy, silky fabric were removed and used to wrap around glow staffs to form the stretchers needed to carry the injured (of which there were three).  The same material was wrapped around the glowing red arrows to form a splint for Daisy’s leg.  

Finally we were nearing the bottom of the mountain and could see the lights from the city in the distance.  For Daisy’s sake, arriving at the castle could not come soon enough.

I noticed a clump of tiny little mushrooms growing together and quickly plucked a handful.

“Let’s give her these,” I suggested.

“Those are minish caps.  They’re used in salads.  They have no medicinal value,” Captain Toad replied. To prove the point, he took one and ate it.  

“Yes, but you said you’ve never heard of any mushroom causing the effects that me and Mario experienced.”
“Purportedly experienced,” Toad interrupted.  

“And yet we experienced them,” I continued, ignoring his comment.  “We were made faster and stronger - healthier, if you will.  Maybe the mushrooms have a different effect on us than they do on you.  Maybe these will make her healthier.”

“I’m not stopping you,” Toad said.  “I just demonstrated that they are harmless.  Be my guest.”

I held the minish cap mushrooms to Daisy’s mouth.

“Here you go, Daisy,” I coaxed, “eat these.  They might make you feel better.  Go on now.  Try it.  Come on.”

Daisy groaned.  

“Not the small ones or the purple ones.  Not the small ones or the purple ones,” she mumbled.   

“Come on, Daisy.  These could help.  Just a little bite.” I said.

“Not the small ones or the purple ones.” She clamped her mouth shut and turned away from the mushrooms. 

When I tried to force them into her mouth, Captain Toad stopped me. 

“Now wait a minute,” he said, “she may be more aware than you suppose.  There are purple mushrooms that are poisonous.  And if she knows that, then she may know some reason why the small ones are dangerous to her as well.  Maybe she has an allergy to them.”

“But how would she know?  She’s not from here.” I pointed out.

“Maybe she’ll tell us when she’s feeling better but for now I suggest you respect her wishes.”

I put the mushrooms in the front chest pocket of my overalls.  

“Captain!” another Kinoko called, “Reggie’s not doing well.  I think we’re going to have to remove his topper.”

Toad rushed over to the stretcher carrying the mushroom man who was the most seriously injured.  If I’m not mistaken, it was the same fellow who was whipped in the face by the Koopa king’s spiked tail.  The mushroom thing on the top of his head - which I now assumed they called a topper - was very damaged.  Only about two thirds of it remained.  The man also had serious cuts across his face.  He was presently pale as a ghost and sweating profusely.  

“Am I gonna die, Captain?” asked Reggie.  His voice was weak and quavering.  

Captain Toad looked at the man who first called him over here.  “Do it.”

Reggie’s eyes went wide.  “Do what?  What are you gonna do?” he asked. 

“We have to remove your topper,” Toad said.

“No!” Reggie protested.  “I fought valiantly against the Koopa. If my injuries are fatal, so be it.  Tell my kids I love them.  Tell the Princess I died protecting the kingdom.  Just don’t remove my topper.”

The Captain and his soldier hesitated a moment.

“I don’t get it,” Mario said.  “Why is that a big deal?  Why would he rather die?”  

Mario was genuinely concerned.  I knew he couldn’t stand to watch someone lose their life if there was anyway to avoid it.  “Is it pride?” he asked.  “Are these toppers some source of pride with you people?  If that is the reason, for God’s sake get over it and save the man’s life!”
“As a matter of fact,” answered Toad, “it is a matter of pride.  But it’s much more as well.”

Toad looked to Reggie.  “I’m sorry, Reggie.  This is for the best. Remove it.” 

The palace guard used two hands to pry the topper off.  Reggie attempted to resist but he was too weak.  As soon as the topper came off, Reggie passed out, his moist bald head reflecting in the moonlight.

“Is he dead?” I asked.

“No,” Toad said.  “Removing the topper is hard on the body but he’ll recover.”

“What do they do?” I asked.

 “You’ve really never seen a Kinoko before?  Amazing.”  Toad said.  “Toppers absorb energy from the sun and turn it into energy for our bodies.  Without it, we are weaker than humans.  It is part of us.  The toppers also contain about three years worth of memories.  Not a copy, mind you.  The actual memories.  On the upside, we have three years worth of photographic memory.  On the down side...”  Toad paused and looked me in the eyes.  “ His children are two and three years old.  He won’t remember them now that we removed his topper.”

“Dang.” I said solemnly. 

“Was it really killing him?” asked Mario.

“Though the toppers give us energy, if it is damaged enough, it will drain energy from the body to repair itself, like a wounded tree.  Yes, it was killing Reggie.”

As magical as stepping into another world may be, we travelers were too heavy hearted at the moment to discuss the wonder of it all.  We walked on down the mountain in silence. 

A half hour later we were on flat ground, walking through the city streets of Mushroom City, the capital of the kingdom.  

After seeing the simplicity of the weapons of this world, I expected their civilization to be equally simple.  I imagined medieval villages lit by torches.  I imagined horse drawn carriages carrying little mushroom people down dirt roads.  What I actually saw was quite different.  

At a glance, one might confuse this as some place in modern Connecticut or England.  Tall, skinny Victorian houses lined the streets, some with picket fences, some with wrap-around porches, all sitting on small, well manicured lawns.  Well hidden electric lights illuminated the trees and plants and even the sides of the houses, revealing this culture’s love of color. 

The non-residential areas were comprised of blocks of city buildings, equally as colorful.  These too were Victorian in style.  I don’t know if you’ve heard of The Painted Ladies in San Francisco.  If not, you should look them up.  The Painted Ladies are a section of pastel-colored city homes that have earned themselves a place on many a postcard.  I had the privilege of attending a conference in San Francisco a few years back and got to see them in person.  Anyway,these Mushroom Kingdom city buildings reminded me of those.

The streets were paved with brick and upon them drove cars that looked like they were from the 1940s - only they must have been electric because they hardly made a sound as they passed.  

The other thing that surprised me was the people.  Only about half of the people out and about at this time of night were Kinoko Zoku.  The other half were human.  That explained Toad’s lax reaction to seeing our race.

Now in the metropolitan area, we saw a staircase descending underground with a sign that read Warp Zone.  It looked like a subway entrance.  We descended the stairs.  

Underground was indeed very much like a subway station, complete with ticket booths.  The primary difference was the lack of tracks. Instead, large, rusted pipes of red or green or gold ran the length of the large corridor.  Many of the pipes had vertical openings that people could access via platforms.  

“Wow!” I said, “look at all those warp zones!”

“Those are not warp zones,” Captain Toad corrected.  

“But they’re just like what we went through to get here,” I pointed out.  “And the sign out front…”

“Those are warp pipes.  This is a warp zone.”

The other Kinokos giggled at my confusion.

“A warp zone is a place where warp pipes are.”  Toad explained condescendingly. “You’ll have to jump with me or another of the palace guard.  Our insignia work as keys to open the jumpgate.  The pipe won’t work without a key.”

“So the people buying tickets...do they have keys?” Mario asked.

“Their tickets are the keys,” Toad said, “but they won’t open the pipe to the castle.  Only our insignia will.”

“What about Daisy?” Mario asked.  “Aren’t these things dangerous?”

“Regulation pipes are safe.”  Toad answered.

I could see others stepping off the platforms with their tickets and dropping into the pipes.  I could not guess how this could be safe.

“Come,”  Toad said to me.  

We walked the platform and stood before the open pipe.  

“On the count of three…”. Toad counted and we jumped in.  Like before I fell through total darkness.  After two or three gut-wrenching seconds gravity shifted and my feet landed on the floor of the pipe.  The momentum caused me to walk forward fairly quickly out of a horizontal pipe.  I wouldn’t exactly call that safe but neither was it as dangerous as the pipe we used to get here from New York.  We exited onto a brick paved area under a canopy.  All around was rolling grasslands with purposely placed trees and shrubs and topiaries.  The paved area turned into a road which wound through the elegant landscaping to a gorgeous castle about a half mile ahead.

“Get out of the way,” Toad instructed.  He pulled me away just in time for the two Kinokos carrying Daisy to come briskly out of the pipe.   I noticed the pipe curved into the ground.  How odd!  I did not realize we were twisting so much in our short pipe travel.  The  grassland we were standing on was actually a large hill and was separated from the rest of the city by an ivy covered wall.  I only know the city was behind and below because I could see through the windows in the wall.  

A few moments later our entire party was safely on castle property and boarding some sort of trolley.

As we approached the castle, I could see moonlight reflecting on a massive lake behind it.  I could also see the shadow of mountains in the distance. 

The palace guards who were presently on duty at the castle rushed out to meet us.   I could hear them shouting,  “Lower the drawbridge,” “Injured Kinoko,” “Alert the medics,” “Summon the princess.”

The drawbridge lowered, we crossed, and parked in front of the castle.  

“We’ll take your weapons to the charging docks,” one of the guards said as he and his associates took each soldier’s staff.  Other soldiers took over carrying the stretchers. 

“I’ll take our guests to the princess,” Toad said to his company. “The rest of you go with the injured.  Get yourselves checked out.”

We entered the castle through large wooden doors.  Both me and Mario tried to go with Daisy but were prevented by the captain.

The interior of the castle was as luxurious as the exterior, boasting modern sophistication and ancient architecture.  It was as if The Property Brothers got their hands on an old German castle and had an unlimited budget.  I felt out of place, covered in mud, with tattered clothes and scraped and bruised skin.  

All sorts of people, both human and Kinoko came out of halls and down stairs to see what all the ruckus was about.  A young woman appeared on the balcony who gasped at the sight of us.  

“Stars above!” she exclaimed as she hurried down the stairs.  “What happened?  I heard there are injuries.”

“A few,” Captain Toad said, “Reggie’s the worse off.  We had to remove his topper.”

Now at the bottom of the stairs she rushed over to inspect Toad.

“I’m fine,” he said. “but we need to talk privately.”

She now turned her eyes towards us.  The gaze of her eyes took my breath away.  She was gorgeous with pale skin and dirty blonde hair.  She wore a sleeveless, pink Victorian dress that  did not seem as heavy or cumbersome as some Victorian dresses I’ve seen.  The extremely detailed gown seemed to bear some Asian influence as well.  Lotus blossoms rose from the hem.  She wore long white gloves that stretched over her elbows.  This woman was the very picture of a fairy tale princess.

“Your Majesty,” said Toad, “this is Mario and Luigi.  I’ll tell you their story when we meet.  Mario, Luigi, this is Princess Toadstool.”

That name sounded so familiar to me but I could not place why.

She curtsied and said, “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

I, like an idiot, waved and said, “Hi.”

Mario, like a different kind of idiot, took her hand and kissed it and said, “The pleasure is all mine.”

Toad made a stern face at him.

“Will you gentlemen be staying with us?  And if so, will you be in need of a change of clothes?” the Princess asked.

“I would not deny a change  of clothes if you had anything that fit,” Mario answered.

“There is a woman who came with them,” said Toad, “who will also be in need of a new wardrobe.  She is on her way to the medical chamber with a broken leg.”
“Poor girl,” said the Princess.  “Grayson,” she called to a servant, “fetch Toadette.  Have her bring her measuring tape, first to the medical chamber and then to the throne room.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” said the servant, who happened to be a human.

“If you don’t mind, Your Majesty,” said Toad, “I’d like to have the general and Toadsworth in the meeting.”

“Yes, right, of course,” said Princess Toadstool.  “Let’s go.”

She turned and ascended the stairs.  We followed.  

“I think I’m in love,” Mario said quietly to me.  

Toad, who obviously heard his comment,  punched him in the side with enough force to make Mario grunt.  

“What about Scarlett Johannson?” I reminded him.  

“I hate to be a heartbreaker,” said Mario, “but she’ll get over me in time.”

*****

The throne room turned out to be just as elegant but far less gaudy than I imagined, based on all my experience watching movies and cartoons.  While there was a throne on a dais, the princess chose to sit with us on the comfortable seats that were placed in a circle at the foot of the throne.  Joining us now were Toadsworth, a bespectacled elderly Kinoko with a bushy white mustache (he was introduced as the Princess’ head adviser), and General Starbright, a tall black man in his fifties with a neatly trimmed beard and a perfectly sculpted Afro that made him almost look like a Kinoko.  

“We’ve been invaded.  The Koopa are within our borders.  Bowser himself is here,” Toad began without waiting for formalities.  This news aroused gasps and murmurs from those hearing it for the first time.  “I was taking my men up to Japes Jungle for a training routine.  It started raining so we were about to turn around but then we noticed a light and decided to investigate.  There was a battalion of Koopa troopers on the mountain, using the rain as cover.”

“How did they get past border patrol?” asked the general.

“Even if, somehow, border patrol was overpowered, why did they not, at least, alert us?” asked Toadsworth.

“I don’t know,” Toad answered. “The rain cloud was not natural. It’s some new Koopa technology.  It’s a weaponised cloud and apparently some sort of air ship.  We engaged in a skirmish but the Koopa escaped on the cloud ship.  We rescued these humans from them.”

“A cloud ship?  That’s peculiar”, said General Starbright.  “Regardless, it should have shown up on radar.  We have anti-aircraft weaponry in place.  How did they get past it all?”

“I don’t know, General,” answered Toad.

“And what’s the Koopa’s interest in the humans?” The General inspected us carefully.

“They came from the old pipe on the mountain.” Toad said. 

“I know of no pipe on the mountain,” said the general.

“Yes,” said Toadsworth, “There’s a pipe. Just no key.  As far as I know it’s never been opened in my lifetime.”  He turned curious eyes towards me and Mario.

“Keys.  Not key.  And The Six Realms had the keys all along,” said Toad, “until Professor Gadd stole them.  The keys are the Six Royal National Coins.”  He turned his eyes to the throne.  The Princess and the general also turned their eyes.  Then I saw what they were looking at.  Above the throne, mounted to the wall, was a scepter.  Adorning the top of the scepter was a gold coin - just like the ones from the pipe.

“That’s impossible,” said the Princess. “The Mushroom Kingdom coin is still here.”

“Unless it's a forgery,” said Toad. “You know he has the skill.  He also has access into the throne rooms.  Not just here.  He’s been welcomed in all six throne rooms.”

“Because he’s earned the trust of the kings!”  Princess Toadstool said defensively.  “Why would he steal the coins?”

“If the Coins are the keys, does the pipe open to the Forbidden Realm?” asked the old Kinoko, putting the pieces together.  He looked at me.  “Are you from another world?”

I nodded.  The Princess gasped yet again.  

“I’m not following,” said the general.  “The Forbidden Realm?  Like from the fairytales?  You’re not suggesting it’s real, are you?  And what do the coins have to do with it?”

“In the old stories,” said the Princess, “the Star Sprites gave each king a coin, one sixth of the keys needed to enter the Forbidden Realm, where the Star Rod is kept.  Should the Six Kings agree that their realms are in danger, they could unite their coins, open the portal, and retrieve the Star Rod to use against their oppressors.  But as you say, General, they’re just fairytales.”  She looked at Mario and me.  “Right?”

“I don’t know anything about no Star Rod or Forbidden Realm,” said Mario.  “All I know is one minute I’m walking into a pipe in my world and the next moment falling out of it in this world, only to be attacked by a bunch of giant turtles.  I also know that the coins do apparently make the pipe work and I know that the professor knows all about it.  And that if you want any real answers, you’ll have to ask him - as I keep telling the Captain.”

“Where is he?” asked the Princess.  

“Escaped with Donkey Kong,” said Mario.

“Who?”

“One of the Japes apes,” said Toad.  “There’s another thing worth mentioning,” he continued. “The three humans claim to have been accompanied by a Star Sprite until she vanished into thin air shortly before my arrival.”

“This is ridiculous,” said the general.  “I don’t know what kind of cover up this is supposed to be. I don’t know if they’re working with the Koopa or trying to hide something else.  But Star Sprites, magic rods, and other worlds?  I say we keep them in custody and question them after we deal with the Koopa invasion - unless of course, they know more about that.”

“We don’t know nothing about nothing!” said a very peeved Mario. “We didn’t do anything to anyone and will not be made into prisoners!”

“Where’s the coins?” asked Toadsworth.

“The Koopa took them,” said Toad.

“Five of them,” I corrected.  “Rosalina has the other one.”

“Who?” asked the general.

“The Star Sprite,” answered Captain Toad.  The general rolled his eyes.  

I could see tears beginning to pool in the Princess’ eyes.  “Why did Father have to leave?” she said.  “I can’t do this.  I can’t rule.  I can’t make these sort of decisions.  The Koopa know I can’t.  That’s why they’ve invaded now - now that Father’s not here.  How am I going to protect the people?  I can’t do this!  Father would be so ashamed of me!”  She was sobbing now.

Suddenly a flood of memories overtook me.  Details upon details of the first time I followed the Professor through the pipe.  I remember the Professor reluctantly taking me to see King Toadstool.

“No, Peach,” I said, “ Your father is very proud of you.  He left you in charge because he knew you could handle it.  He knew the Koopa would invade.  He knew you’d be strong enough.  And he misses you dearly.”

All eyes were on me.

“What did you call me?” asked the Princess.

“Peach.” I answered.

“Where did you hear that name?  Only my Father calls me that anymore.”

“I met with him,” I said.  “I remember now.  Several months ago.  At Gadd’s hideout.  I think I might have even died for him.”

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