BECOME HER SERVANT
Chapter Two: The Great Fiery Beast


by Victar (vctr113062@aol.com)
http://www.victarfanfics.com


GPS LOG: Peak of 100 Puzzles, level 61
Year 20XX, Day %7
10:49 a.m.

[click]

LUIGI: H-hello again, secret diary. I hope you can k-keep working in ice and snow, because it's c-cold up here!

We went to the locked door in that vision at Merlee's place. Only it wasn't locked anymore, it opened to a whole bunch of light bulbs and computer panels! I wonder why that room wasn't trashed like the rest of Rogueport? Everything was in good working order, there was just no power.

No power until I came in, that is!

I charged up several good Thunder Zaps, and I got it working again! The controls were really weird, but Daisy and me figured them out. The whole room was part of a big transporter! If what Daisy guessed was right, it could send people to the moon!

But for some reason, the transporter was stuck so it couldn't send anyone to the moon, or anywhere else. Except for one place. This humongous mountain.

The Peak of 100 Puzzles...

We climb, and climb, and climb some more. Again and again, something strange stops us. Switches, blocks, mazes, levers - we have to think and think about how to keep moving upward, we have to think so much it makes my head hurt. Being hungry doesn't help. We ran out of food yesterday, nothing left to eat but ice and snow. I'm beginning to wear out. Daisy pretends she's okay, but I know she's not doing any better than I am.

Daisy is working on a puzzle right now. I'm feeling kind of dizzy, and cold, so I'm taking a break to tell you all this, my secret diary.

PRINCESS DAISY: [from a distance] Luigi? Give me a hand here, please.

L: Okey-dokey.

[footsteps]

D: On the count of three. One - two - three - LIFT!

L: Urrrrgh!

D: Nnnngh... set it down... here!

[thud]

L: Whew! That was heavy.

[rumbling]

D: Puzzle sixty-one solved.

L: Do you think snowflakes taste good if they're cooked?

D: Come on. We can't stop yet.

L: I could make roast snowballs with icicle glaze...

D: You may be thinner than Mario, but I can tell you've never had to diet before.



GPS LOG: Peak of 100 Puzzles, Summit
Year 20XX, Day %7
5:34 p.m.

[click]

PRINCESS DAISY: Is it working?

LUIGI: Yeah, it'll record our talk with this magic bird like you want. I can't believe we made it all the way up here!

D: [muttered] Hunger makes for good incentive.

L: Look, there's a cave with... iron doors?

D: At least they're open. I doubt we could budge them if they weren't.

L: I thought bats lived in caves. Do magic birds live in caves too?

D: I don't see the Albaphoenix anywhere else. We'd better look in there.

[rustle, jumping]

D: Grrr - I can't reach the ledge!

L: Huh?

D: I did not climb all the way up here to be stopped by a stupid ledge!

L: Daisy, are you okay?

[more jumping]

D: Aaaaargh! No! No!

L: Daisy-

D: COME OUT HERE AND TALK TO US, BIRD, OR I'LL MAKE YOU INTO FRYGUY FOOD!

L: Daisy! Don't yell like that, w-we don't want to make a fuh-fire breathing monster angry-!

[Daisy sniffles]

D: No... [muffled crying]

L: Hey, hey now. Have you forgotten who I am? I can jump up there, I'm sure of it. Just stay calm. Don't cry.

D: I'm sorry... [sniffle]

L: There, there. It'll be okay. See, watch this.

[rustle, jump]

L: Now you. Jump up and grab my hand.

D: [deep breath] Okay.

[rustle, jump]

L: Gotcha! Wowser, you're pretty light. Come on, rest of the way up now.

D: Rrrgh.

L: There! See? Nothing to cry about.

D: [muttered] Like you're a bastion of emotional stability.

L: Huh? Did you say something?

[sudden silence]

L: Oh, wow.

D: [detachedly] That's the second biggest orange-red bird I have ever seen.

L: It's almost the size of King Bowser-!

D: Do you think it's sleeping?

[pause]

L: Uh, I think we woke it up. Helloooo there? Albaphoenix?

D: Magical Albaphoenix? Hi, I'm Daisy. This is Luigi. We regret disturbing your privacy, but Mario - no, we - no the whole world needs your help. Please.

[long silence]

D: Umm... pretty please?

L: Maybe it doesn't know your language. Let me try Pidgit.

Albaphoenix, pidgit? Pidgit-pidgit. Pidgit-pidgit-pidgit. Pidgit-pidgit-pidgit. Pidgit?

D: [almost inaudible] Takes a birdbrain to talk to a birdbrain.

L: Pidgit - ssh Daisy, don't distract me - Pidgit-pidgit-pidgit!

[flapping]

D: Well, we got a reaction.

L: [mumbled] This is a very tense moment-!

ALBAPHOENIX: Greetings, noble heroes. Welcome to my humble domicile. My furnishings are meager, yet I should hope it's to your liking?

L: Oh - oh yeah, it looks real good! Nice huge cave, lots of space, not windy or chilly at all. I guess you understand us just fine?

A: All too well. If anything, my hearing is intensely acute.

L: Uh - okay. W-we don't mean to bother you, but it's been a long way up here, and cold, and... and... w-would you have anything we could eat?

A: Would that be a repast fit for royalty, or a "birdbrain"?

D: Um...

A: Or were you expecting "Fryguy food"?

D: I - I apologize, I shouldn't have said-

A: No need for excuses, little yellow chick.

[heavy flapping]

[wind whooshing, iron doors slamming]

D: Please tell me you didn't just seal us in here.

A: I thought the green fledgeling there desired respite from the inclement weather? You both must be very cold after your long journey. Why don't you warm up a little?

L: Gee, that would be nice.

D: Oh, pidgit.

L: [shocked] Daisy! That's a very bad word!

[Albaphoenix inhales]

D: Look out!

[FWOOOSH]

L: AAAAAAAH!

[panicked sprinting]

A: Is that warm enough for you?

D: You've made your point! - Luigi, don't run like that, stop drop and roll!

A: Oh, I'm just getting started.

D: We came here for your help!

A: Talk to the fire, little chick.

[Albaphoenix inhales]

D: HEART SHIELD!

[FWOOOSH]

D: Nnnngh-!

L: Hot-hot-hot-ack! [pats self] -huh? Daisy?

D: [strained] ...h-help... I can't keep this up long-!

L: Hey, stop breathing fire on Daisy!

[rustle, jump]

[wing buffet]

L: Ugh!

[thud]

L: [dazed] Uhhh...

A: You call that a shield, little chick? A feeble, flickering thing like that? And you, green fledgeling - is that really the best you can do?

L: Owww... huh?

[Albaphoenix inhales]

D: Luigi-!

[FWOOOSH]

D: HEART SHIELD!

[fwooshing continues]

L: Oh, wow.

[fwooshing subsides]

A: Hmm, now that's a decent shield. You must really want to protect the green fledgeling there.

But can your magic protect you from this?

[swooping]

L: Daisy, look out!

[rustle, jump]

D: AAH-!

[CRASH]

L: That was close.

D: ...you almost wrenched my arm out of its socket-!

A: You're rather skilled at getting out of the way, aren't you green fledgeling? Much more so than the little chick you're trying to keep alive.

L: Don't be mean to Daisy!

A: How about if I'm mean to both of you?

[heavy flapping]

L: Ah? Ahhh! Hey!

D: Take cover!

[hurricane whooshing]

A: Hiding behind rocks won't save you.

D: Come down here and say that!

L: Yaaah!

[clatter]

A: Are you trying to throw a hammer at me? How droll. My turn, now.

[hurricane intensifies]

L: AAAHCK!

D: Luigi-!

[SLAM, thud]

L: Owwww...

[hurricane subsides]

A: Now little chick, let's see how quickly you can get away when you're separated from the green fledgeling.

[swooping]

[rustle, jump]

D: AAAH-!

A: Not fast enough.

L: [groggy] Uhh... huh? No! Daisy-!

D: Put me down!

L: THUNDERRR!

A: Oh, I don't think so.

[electric crackle]

A: No, you're definitely not hitting me with that.

L: Leave Daisy alone!

[Albaphoenix inhales]

D: RRAAGH!

[ripping, Albaphoenix's breath cuts off]

A: [startled gasp] AH-! Little chick-!

D: Let me go or I'll pluck out all your feathers!

A: Hmph. Very well.

[flapping]

D: Aaaah-!

L: Daisy, I got you- OOF!

[thud]

L: Ooog...

A: Now where was I?

D: Ugh... ow... huh?

A: Oh, yes.

[Albaphoenix inhales]

D: Oh, no.

[FWOOOSH]

L: THUNDERRR! -rrrrgh!

[electrical and fiery crashing, footsteps]

D: [gasping] Luigi! I'm clear now, get out of the way!

L: Yaaaah!

[leaping, fiery explosion]

A: Weak. Just too weak. Both of you.

D: He's coming around for another pass!

L: THUNDE-aaack!

[rustle, jump]

[swooping, CRASH]

A: At this rate, it's only a matter of time before you fail to evade me.

L: I can't get a clear shot! He's too fast!

D: I don't have the strength to sustain a shield for long.

L: But you can for a little while?

D: What?

L: [rushed whispering]

D: Okay.

A: Excuse me, no time outs allowed.

D: [contemptuous] What are you going to do about it? Breathe fire again?

L: [sneering] I've felt hotter flames at Mario's All-Night Mushroom Roast!

A: You want the heat turned up higher? That can be arranged.

D: It's not like you can hit us. Seriously, are you aiming at all?

L: You look ridiculous when you try!

A: Just for that, you get the double inferno special.

[deep, prolonged inhale]

D: [whispered chanting]

L: Rrrr... [electric crackle]

[FWOOOOOOSH]

D: HEART SHIELD!

L: THUNDERRR!

[ZZZZZAP]

A: AWWWWWWK!

D: Yes! We got him!

L: Ha-ha! Can't move fast when breathing fire, can you?

[flapping subsides, Albaphoenix lands]

A: Not so much, no.

Congratulations, noble heroes. You have proven yourselves worthy. You may rest now. Or lie down and writhe in pain, whichever you prefer.

D: [breathing hard] That - that was your idea of a test?

A: Come now, admit it. You'd be disappointed if you climbed all the way past one hundred puzzles and didn't get a rousing good fight at the end.

L: [sulkily] No I wouldn't.

A: Don't forget what you have learned here. Individually, you are weak. As a team, you are... well, you're still weak, just not so much.

D: You were expecting us, weren't you? You know why we're here.

A: Did I not mention that? My bad.

D: Did you send us that vision of your mountaintop?

A: Does it matter?

D: I suppose not.

A: Before we proceed with this interrogation, I believe I have some dehydrated provisions suitable for flightless goslings such as yourselves.

L: Huh?

D: He said he has food.

L: Really?

A: In the chest back there. Help yourselves.

D: I'd say thank you, but I think my hair is still on fire.



GPS LOG: Peak of 100 Puzzles, Summit
Year 20XX, Day %7
7:49 p.m.

L: That was a feast!

D: Are you sure you want us to keep this sack of supplies? Don't you need any of them?

A: Not so much, no.

D: What if you get more visitors?

A: Somehow, I don't see that happening. Oh, and do keep that map I gave you in a safe place.

Now. Are you ready to receive guidance on your grand quest, noble heroes?

D: Yes.

L: Can you - can you tell us anything about Mario? H-he isn't really in over his head, is he?

D: And if he is, how can we save him?

[Albaphoenix chuckles harshly]

A: I can tell you "about" Mario. "How to save him"... not so much.

L: What happened to my brother?

A: See for yourself.

[Albaphoenix inhales quickly]

L: Ack-!

D: Um...

[FWOOSH]

[fire crackling]

A: Calm yourselves. I prefer using a bonfire to conjure visions. Or were you expecting a plasma screen home theater?

L: I keep telling Mario we should get one of those.

A: You do realize that was sarcasm.

L: He said they're too expensive, but I thought Apook Home Entertainment's monthly plan was very reasonable...

D: Luigi - look! In the fire!

L: ...it would be nice to watch "As the Spiny Egg Turns" on something more than a little black-and-white TV while I'm washing dishes... huh?

[gasp] Mario!

D: [fretting] I knew he was in trouble. I knew it.

L: M-Mario... no... he's wasting away-!

D: He still looks twenty pounds overweight to me.

L: [disheartened sniffle] For Mario, that's practically a skeleton.

D: We have a worse problem. Look at his eyes.

L: [gulp] Oh, no...

D: I've seen that vacant stare before. On the faces of people in Rogueport who serve the Shadow Quee-

L: Don't say it!

[crying, sobbing]

D: Luigi...

L: M-my brother would never give up! H-how do we know that is Mario!? It could be a, a Duplighost or a Tanoomba or something!

D: [firmly] No self-respecting shape-changer would take on Mario's form to scrub a statuary floor. With a toothbrush, no less.

L: And - and that's another reason why this can't really be Mario! Mario never scrubs floors, that's my job!

D: Please tell me you don't use a toothbrush.

L: Well, not the same one I use on my teeth, silly - hey! Is that Princess Peach?

D: [softly] Cousin...

L: What's she saying to Mario?

A: Seems to be along the lines of "You missed a spot."

D: Oh, Peach... what happened to your dress? Purple is not a good color for you.

L: Why does she have that nasty smile? And her eyes - they look so proud! So mean!

D: It's not a zombie look. It's worse.

A: Did I not mention that the Shadow Queen has possessed your songbird cousin?

D: What?

A: My bad. Well, now you know.

D: Is that why I've felt Peach crying in my dreams?

A: Could be. She's probably the only one of the Shadow Queen's minions who never volunteered to serve. Mario arrived a little too late to stop the Queen from inhabiting the princess he cared so much for. Or so I'm given to understand.

D: What happened to Mario's traveling companions? Luigi told me he was adventuring with a Goomba girl, and a Koopa, and-

A: Take a closer look at the fire.

[short pause]

D: The stone statues...

A: Aren't just for decoration, no. They all refused to submit to the Queen. Tried to fight her. Didn't last very long, lacking help from Mario or the Crystal Stars. But since they loved their dear friend Mario so very much, the Queen kindly ensured they could always watch over him.

D: "Kindly"?

A: The Shadow Queen thinks of herself as a merciful and benevolent ruler.

D: Is that more sarcasm?

A: I said she thinks she's benevolent. Your mileage may vary.

D: [wistfully] I wonder if Mario chose to serve her because he couldn't bear to fight Peach.

L: Stop saying that! None of this can be right! Mario just wouldn't give up, even if - even if something bad happened to Peach, h-he would do whatever it took to free her-!

A: He may not have thought he was truly giving up. Who knows? Perhaps he sought to trick the Queen by pretending to concede. Perhaps he didn't suspect that pledging allegiance to her would permanently ensnare his will.

D: The zombie effect?

A: What you blithely call a "zombie effect" is simply the Shadow Queen's way of bringing peace and contentment to the world.

D: If that's contentment, I'd rather be bitter.

A: All who declare their service to the Queen, in full understanding of the words they say, have their consciousness bound to her power. Of course, they cannot seriously contemplate attacking the Queen herself, but that is not all. They must selflessly dedicate themselves to the greater good of serving and protecting their beloved Queen. They become pathologically incapable of speaking any falsehood; you cannot find a soul on this earth more truthful than Her Majesty's legions. And they most assuredly cannot take any harmful actions against their brethren servants. Not without the Queen's permission, anyway. Her enchantments make sure of that.

A thousand years ago, many more of the Queen's servants retained the ability to cogitate and communicate as you and I are doing now. But in this day and age... it's a shame, really; the overwhelming majority of her followers just can't seem to accept world peace.

D: "Can't seem to accept" - you mean, only the servants who resist the Shadow Queen become zombies? And Mario is - he's like that because he resisted, too?

A: Our magnanimous Queen extends her forgiveness to even the most recalcitrant ingrates. Rather than inflict undue suffering on those followers who persist in selfish behavior, she prefers to soothe their minds with a sweet, oblivious fog.

D: Don't call her "our" Queen.

A: Did I say that? My bad.

L: Huh? Are you saying the people of Rogueport are acting all spaced out because they're selfish?

A: It's called Rogueport for a reason, you know.

I don't suppose you've explored past the city boundaries much? The Queen's power, combined with the might of her legions, is fast purging neighboring lands of war, greed, and misery. Soon she will finish transforming the world into Paradise.

L: She turned Princess Eclair's whole kingdom into stone!

D: [simultaneous] She destroyed my homeland and my subjects!

A: Welcome to Paradise. Your mileage may vary.

D: How do we undo the Queen's spell on Mario?

A: You can't. Cannot unpledge pledges once pledged.

D: There must be some way to restore his mind.

A: Oh, that? Physical pain, and lots of it. Should break through the fog.

L: Wait, I - I know you're wrong about Mario, but - all we have to do is hurt him some, and he'll wake up? He won't be a zombie anymore?

A: Perhaps. For a little while, at least. But he won't be any less bound to the Queen for it.

L: Mario...

D: And Peach - how do we free her from the Queen?

A: Can't do that either. It's too late; the Queen is too strong. One could even say invincible.

D: I don't believe it. We have to get that horrible demon out of my cousin's body!

A: Well, I suppose you could offer your body to the Queen in her place. I doubt Her Majesty would see it as a trade up, but who knows?

D: You make me sick, bird.

A: I was only answering your question.

D: The Queen was sealed away in a tomb, a thousand years ago! Please, can't you tell us - how was that done, and how can it be done again?

A: Hm, very well.

A thousand years ago, four noble heroes dared to oppose the Queen. They stole her Crystal Stars through a combination of trickery, magic, and brute force, and used them to imprison her.

Now, the Queen has learned from her mistake. Mario has returned her Crystal Stars, and she will not let them out of her possession again. She has grown much stronger than she once was. If you were to so much as get close to her, she could turn both of you to stone in the blink of an eye.

L: [barely restrained whimper]

A: Unless...

D: Unless?

A: There does remain one set of relics created by the Queen's power, other than the Crystal Stars. Relics that could theoretically be used against her. Possessing them would ward away the Queen's weaker servants, and shield you from being turned to stone at her whim.

D: Now you're talking. What relics?

A: When the four champions imprisoned the Queen, a thousand years ago, she unleashed a final curse. She wrapped them in an enchantment that would lock each hero's soul within a black box, as soon as they became separated from the Crystal Stars they stole. One by one, they lost the Crystal Stars... and the black boxes consumed them.

I believe Mario has since set their ghosts free, but the black boxes remain.

L: G-g-g-ghosts?

A: I have marked the locations of the black boxes on the map I gave you. You had better collect all four of them before you think of confronting the Queen. Oh, and do be mindful of the curse when you pick them up.

L: Uhhh...

A: The boxes manifested expressly to punish the souls of heroes, in revenge for imprisoning the Queen. Unfortunately, her rage and acrimony imbued her creations with a biconditional trigger, rather than a simple if-then. Any "hero" can sacrifice his life and soul to a box, simply by opening the lid and willing it so.

L: S-s-suh-sacrifice!?

D: "Biconditional trigger" - you mean that's how to seal the Queen away?

A: In theory. I wouldn't seriously contemplate the idea, though. Four heroes would have to voluntarily condemn themselves. There are only two of you.

D: What about you?

A: I'm no hero, little chick.

L: [nervous gulp] Uh, I really don't like where this is going-

D: [reassuring] No one is going to sacrifice themselves, Luigi.

L: Y-y-you mean it?

D: Yes. I promise.

L: O-okey-dokey.

A: The Queen is a little paranoid about her boxes, by the way. She wants to re-absorb their power, a process that would probably take a day or two. To do that, she needs the boxes brought to the crypt where she cast the curse that created them. Problem is, the boxes were made expressly for heroes. Only heroes can carry them, and none of her thralls qualify; not even Mario, in his currently numb state of mind. She's a little upset over that.

D: So if we collect these boxes, their power will protect us from the Queen?

A: Not quite. Their power will repel her lesser legions, and preserve you from being instantly turned to stone, but that is all. Her Majesty can still smack you around quite thoroughly, as can the strongest of her servants.

D: Then we can fight her!

A: Fight, yes. Win, no.

D: But-

A: Are you asking me how you can save the world?

L: Huh?

D: Umm... yes?

A: Oh, good. Because I thought you'd never ask.

[heavy flapping]

D: Luigi, get down!

[hurricane whooshing]

L: Aaah? Wha- what-

[bonfire roars, sizzle, hiss]

[hurricane subsides]

A: Your pardon. I don't keep fire extinguishers here.

Now, listen closely.

I'm going to tell you a secret that no one else in this world, living or dead, is aware of. Not even the Shadow Queen herself. It is the only way to restore flesh to those who are stone, life to those who are slain, and free will to those who are enslaved.

Our existence must be RESET.

[short pause]

D: Ummm...

L: Huh?

A: Pay attention. Both of you.

The phenomenon that you experience as "reality" is highly malleable and impermanent. You see, the world - this particular world, anyway - depends exclusively upon "heroes" to maintain its delicate balance.

Unfortunately, true heroes are hard to find. One could speculate that such abstract idealizations of virtue and resourcefulness cannot be realized as living, breathing mortals. And so, the world must conscript whatever humdrum individuals it deems suitable into the role of the chosen "hero."

L: Why are you saying "hero" in that funny way?

[rustle]

A: Because you're not really a hero, are you? You're a self-absorbed, mentally handicapped, weepy, panicky coward.

L: [gulp]

D: [sharply] Careful, bird. Don't poke his eye out with your big beak.

A: And you, little chick - deep inside, you're more of a mess than he is. You just hide it better.

True heroes wouldn't be so imperfect. They would be pure and selfless, never lapse in their judgement, never falter in their cheer, and never, ever fail. The "heroes" we're stuck with... not so much.

Fortunately, the world is sufficiently resilient to recover from the screw-ups of its makeshift "heroes." If reality as we know it proceeded uninterrupted every time a "hero" failed in his noble quest to champion the status quo... well, what can I say. The world will have none of that. Instead, it RESETs.

D: When you say heroes "fail", you mean...

A: Die.

L: D-d-die?

A: Splat. Smush. Piranha Plant food. Dragon roast. Skewered on spikes. Blown up by Bob-ombs. Dragged to death by vengeful ghosts-

L: AAAAAAH-!

D: Easy, Luigi.

A: On the contrary, please do feel free to scream. You're a "hero" too, green fledgeling, just like your dear brother. And you've always been a little more sensitive than him, haven't you?

L: -aaaah - huh?

A: [quietly] You're not consciously aware of your last moments before RESETing. You can't remember it. Not clearly. But you can feel it, can't you? Deep within, you know what it is like to die in the most agonizing ways. Because you have been gruesomely murdered again, and again, in your noble quests to save the kingdom. Or the world. Or maybe just a single princess.

L: AAAAAAAAACK!

D: Luigi-!

[sprinting]

[hammering on door]

L: Let me out of here! [sobbing]

A: Every single time you perished in miserable agony, the world RESET, until you finally got it right.

D: Stop frightening him, you overgrown bird! - Luigi, relax, there's nothing to be scared of-!

A: Still your ignorant tongue, little chick. You do not exist on the same vector of reality that he does. You have never been the "hero" before. You've only been the damsel in distress. As I understand it, Mario toiled mightily rescue you.

D: [darkly] Once. A long time ago. I will never let myself be kidnapped again.

A: We shall see.

And by the way, do not take what I've said as license to disregard your own safety. Not during this phase of existence. You may be "heroes", but neither of you is the Champion that reality itself selected to battle the Shadow Queen. If either of you perish now, it won't RESET anything.

No, our existence stagnates in the final chapter Champion's stymied quest. The world will not RESET until the Champion dies.

L: [sobbing subsides] Ch-... champion?

D: [flatly] You mean Mario.

A: As long as he lives, the Shadow Queen's rule will remain absolute.

D: You're telling us we have kill Mario?

L: What?

A: It's quite ironic, really.

Many a monster has struggled to slay Mario, and quite a few have succeeded - but that only prompted RESET after RESET until at last Mario saved the day. Only the mercy of the Shadow Queen could conquer him. And through him, everything.

L: NO!

A: Not even the advance of years will put this world right. Both the Shadow Queen and the Champion are immune to the ravages of age. Existence does not acknowledge such trivialities as the natural cessation of lifespan for its "heroes." Not while their noble quests remain unfulfilled.

No, the only way for the world to RESET is for Mario to be slain.

L: No, NO! NO! We have to save Mario!

D: I'm not saying I believe any of this, but - are you saying that if Mario did perish-

A: All the world will RESET to what it once was, before the Queen reclaimed her dominion.

D: Including the Queen herself?

A: Reality would most likely designate a new "hero" to use the Crystal Stars against her, instead of the failure Mario. Perhaps one of you.

L: Don't call my brother a failure!

D: Then, what would become of Mario if - if this RESET happened? Would he be saved, too?

A: Ah, alas.

If Mario had met his demise while questing for the Crystal Stars, or in battle with his enemies, that would be one thing. Then, both he and the world would have RESET as usual. But by turning to the Queen's service, he betrayed the unspoken contract between reality and its designated "heroes".

When he dies as her slave, without making any effort to defy her, it will be the end for him.

D: That's awful.

A: But it would save the world.

L: You're a crazy bird talking crazy talk!

A: I have seen "heroes" come and go since this world was an egg. I am the Immortal Albaphoenix, that rises from its own funeral pyre. Even a dull-witted earthworm like you can feel echoes from past RESETs; well, my body and consciousness transcend being reduced to ash. Do you find it so surprising that I comprehend our existence better than any other worldly creature?

D: I don't care how magical you are. What proof do we have that any of what you say is true?

A: Concrete assurance, I cannot give you. But I can offer some lesser pieces to the puzzle, which ought to correlate with your own experience.

"Heroes", as I have said, are immune to the onslaught of Time. As are those who indefinitely bind their lives to "heroes". You could even say they are Immortal, for as long as they choose to remain "heroes", or the close friends of "heroes".

With that gift comes a price.

"Heroes" and their allies exist to maintain worldly balance. Therefore, "heroes" embody the status quo. They cannot grow or change, save in the most subtle ways. Their station in life, however high or low, shall always remain unquestionably immutable. And they cannot know the ultimate transformation. They cannot share true love.

L: Huh?

A: Unrequited love for or from a hero is allowed. Or the lesser form of love that creates the bonds of friendship. Or even mutual love that remains perpetually pure and distant. But Immortality and true love - these powers are too great to co-exist. Immortals cannot share true love, and those who embrace Love must forsake their Immortality. Such is the greatest curse of all "heroes", worse than a thousand deaths.

L: I don't get it.

A: One wonders if Mario's resolve wavered when the subconscious understanding dawned that no matter how many times he rescued his beloved sweetheart, they can never truly be together. Not because of how he feels, or how she feels, but due to the constraints of their very existence, as intrepid "hero" and damsel in distress.

L: I still don't get it.

A: What about you, little chick?

D: What about me?

[rustle]

A: You are bound to "heroes" such as Mario through friendship, and partake in their immunity to the advance of age. You also share their doom. The "hero" you have lost your heart to does not love you and never will.

D: Get your beak out of my face.

A: You are the one who demanded proof.

L: What's all this about Mario? I know he's sweet on Peach, and I know a lot of girls like him - I always wondered if it was the 'stache - but what does that have to do with anything?

A: Corroborate your gestalt with the accumulated hypotheses, and answer that for yourself.

L: Huh?

D: I think we've had enough answers for one day.