The dark, dreary clouds constantly hanging over the crash site blocked any warmth or happiness that could be obtained from the rising sun. The area's current inhabitants had finally overcome the chaos of the night before and settled into a practiced emergency routine, with medics tending to the injured, recovery crews salvaging whatever supplies from the ship that weren't destroyed during the attack, teams of koopas pitching various emergency tents, and a perimeter watch ever-vigilant of the potential dangers lurking beyond.
They had all heard the stories, of course. Crumbleden was merely a stone's toss from the Koopa homeland, which made it a common bedtime story mothers told to make sure their children ate their vegetables and washed inside their shells. Not all of those fairy tales were completely true, of course, but unfortunately for them, they were true enough. The ruins of an ancient civilization, now inhabited by carnivorous beasts far more dangerous than even the largest dragon-koopa.
The perimeter watch, which had very nearly finished building a small, makeshift wall using the abundant amounts of purple rubble available to them, had not yet reported any incidents. The ship had come to rest on high ground - one side of the perimeter was a large cliff face downward and did not need as much guarding, which allowed them to focus better elsewhere.
As far as the ration situation was concerned, food was not a problem. Most of the perishable goods from the kitchen were destroyed in an electrical fire, but several large crates of MREs had been recovered from the cargo hold - enough to comfortably feed the crew for two months, far beyond even the most pessimistic timetables for rescue.
Water was, however, a different story. The pencil pushers back at Koopa Command had the foresight to institute a policy for all airships to carry three large 500-gallon containers for water, in case of emergencies such as this. However, they had all been burst open by cannonballs during the attack. The only water supply was from other sources they could scavenge - water bottles, water coolers, and the like - but it wasn't much. Even though the reptilian species of the crew could survive on little water for moderate periods of time, the various shy guys, mice, ninjis, and monty moles on the crew could not. Even with rationing, it would only last a week before the mammalian crew members began to run into issues. They could only hope for a quick rescue.
It's Just Like Camping
Junior awoke in an unfamiliar place, looking up at an unfamiliar sky. He was used to dark skies of volcanic ash in the Darklands, but this was different. This was wrong. And kinda chilly.
His head ached, a dull throb pulsing through his skull, and he began to sit up in the cot and take note of his surroundings. He was on a cot of some sort, but not in a tent. He could see crumbling ruins as well as minions bustling about. Where exactly was this place...?
"I see you are awake," a familiar elderly voice said softly. Junior turned to see Kamek hovering comfortably on his broom, tucking away a worn journal into his robes. "I trust you are feeling well? You gave a lot of us quite the scare, but our medics are quite capable."
Junior turned to face him and groggily rubbed his head. "Your injuries have been mended," Kamek continued, "although I would not be surprised if you have a splitting headache. I also would not advise walking on your left foot for a few more hours." His expression was soft, rather than stoic, amused, or condescending like usual.
"Mmm. Kamek... what's going on? Why aren't we home? Is this another one of your lame field trips?"
"Not quite, my liege. While we were en route to the Darklands, our airship encountered some... difficulties."
Junior eyed the smoldering wreckage of the ship in the distance, incredulously. "What kind of... 'difficulties?'"
Logically, Kamek figured that whatever motives their attackers had were most certainly related to the crown prince. That could mean anything from a simple scare tactic to an outright assassination attempt, but either way, Kamek did not want to frighten Junior any more than was necessary. If that meant protecting him from the truth, so be it. "Our engines failed, and we had to make an emergency landing," he lied.
"Well, why isn't it fixed yet?! I wanna go home now!" Junior pouted.
"The damage is irreparable. We will just have to wait for someone to pick us up."
Junior scowled. It wasn't fair! His one chance to hang out with his dad and brothers and instead he was stuck in the middle of... wherever this was.
Kamek saw the familiar expression on the prince's face. He felt bad for Junior, of course. He knew full well that he hardly had any interaction with family and friends during his travels. Keeping the prince's morale high through the situation was imperative. "Now, now, we won't have to wait very long. I'm sure they're already on their way! And then we'll all be home before we know it." Kamek managed a smile, despite the uncertainty of such claims, as well as the looming dangers surrounding them, of which Junior could not become aware of. Even some of the adults were having trouble coping; Kamek couldn't imagine a seven-year-old faring any better.
"Yeah, I guess so..." Junior mumbled as he began to climb out of the cot. A sharp pain ran through his left ankle as it hit the ground.
"The healing spells are still working their course. You should stay in bed, young man." Kamek folded his arms.
"But there's nothing to do here!" Junior protested.
"Tell you what. We'll get you something to eat, then make a nice little fire and roast marshmallows. How does that sound? Just think of it like a camping trip."
Junior didn't seem completely sold on the idea, so Kamek continued. "Well, it's either that, or you can listen to one of my captivating historical lectures," he added with a knowing smirk.
They had been fighting for nearly twenty minutes now, his entire army seemingly no match for the Mario Bros. Bowser threw another powerful punch at Mario, which he narrowly dodged. The Koopalings - despite their protests and eagerness to help - had long been whisked away to safety by the aptly-named royal guard. With the sheer amount of chaos and forces at play in the battle, the Koopalings would have been just as likely to get hit by a friendly attack as getting hit by the bros.
Goombas charged, paratroopas dashed, various other troops threw projectiles, and yet it didn't do a thing against the agile plumbers. Nothing could even touch Mario as he masterfully dodged every attack, and whenever Luigi was caught off guard, his brother would swoop in at the last second and deflect whatever attack was coming green-stache's way. It almost seemed uncanny, but it had always been that way with the Mario Bros, for as long as Bowser could remember.
On the plus side, Bowser remembered why he had chosen Tubel as his royal adviser in the first place - it turns out that he's a pretty dang-sweet fighter. His combat style was somewhat unconventional; he preferred to hang back and take advantage of weak points and sweeping motions to disrupt the plumbers' movement patterns.
Luigi bounced on a koopa's head and flipped backwards, sticking the landing. As Luigi kicked the shell, Tubel swept his legs up, causing Luigi to stumble. Bowser saw his chance and tried to strike an uppercut on Luigi. "Behind you!" Mario yelled, and Luigi narrowly jumped out of the way of his attack. Crud. He probably could have knocked Luigi clean off the side of the cliff with that punch.
Bowser was nearly at his limit. He roared one final, last-ditch fire attack, completely missing. Then, Mario stomped on his head one final time, sending Bowser to the ground. He and his army had been defeated once more, but for once Bowser had no idea why.
"What gives, anyway?!" he spat. "I don't remember doing anything recently that warrants... this much defeating!"
"Give us back the princess, you overgrown tortoise!" Mario demanded.
"What?!" Bowser retorted. "Is that what this is about? I don't even have Peach, you bumbling morons!"
"That's goomba crap!" Mario accused.
"If I had the princess, you would already know it by now, genius!"
The bros paused a moment to contemplate this. "Actually, he kinda has a point," Luigi mused. Bowser was the kind of person whose kidnapping plans involved stuffing all of his children into a giant birthday cake, or spreading thousands of flyers about his wedding with Peach across the globe. Luigi would never admit it out loud, but Bowser had style. Just stealing the princess silently in the night lacked his brazen flair.
"Look," Bowser said as he got up and dusted himself off, "I don't have time for this, okay? I got my own problems!"
"If I may..." Tubel nervously addressed the Bros. "... his Majesty is also investigating the disappearance of a member of royalty. It is possible that the disappearance of your Princess Toadstool is related to the disappearance of Lord Bowser Junior."
"I'd say there's a connection!" Mario yelled. "In fact, I bet Bowser faked his kid's disappearance just so that brat could sneak out to do his father's dirty work!"
Luigi violently stomped on Mario's foot, causing him to hop around comically in the background. "Do you really think both kidnappings could be caused by the same person?" Luigi asked Tubel.
"We are not sure whether Prince Bowser Junior's disappearance is indeed a kidnapping, but, yes," he responded.
"Now hold up a minute!" Bowser snarled. "Why are you telling our sworn enemies all of our secrets?!" he snarled at Tubel.
"Sir, I only thought that perhaps if we joined forces-"
"Over my dead body!" Mario exclaimed.
"That can be arranged, linguini-breath." Bowser growled back.
"Mario, I think this might be our best option right now," Luigi reasoned. "Bowser has pretty much always been our only lead on Peach for as long as I can remember. With that gone, we don't exactly have another plan of action."
"Who said you guys were invited in the first place?!" Bowser huffed.
"Who said we were coming, you ten-foot tyrant?!" Mario retorted.
As the two arch-nemesis got into a verbal shouting match, Luigi and Tubel stood away on their respective sides. Luigi shrugged his shoulders at Tubel, and Tubel responded by tilting his head slightly in the direction of Bowser and Mario. As they stood on opposite sides, they glanced at two arguing enemies, and then to each other, sharing a look of understanding.
"I spy... something purple," Kamek mused.
"Everything! Literally everything in this stinkin' place is purple!" Junior exclaimed.
The fire was burning low, a delicious meal of rehydrated hot dogs and smores consumed. The mess hall officer even found a package of Junior's favorite candy, which had done wonders for morale. It was late afternoon now, although with the thick, purple cloud cover, someone might mistake it for twilight.
"Can I go now?" Junior pleaded. He was tired of being stuck in that cot.
"Yes, I suppose your ankle is healed enough. Just don't get into any trouble."
Junior beamed and quickly hopped out of the medical cot and toward the crashed airship. Kamek looked to where he was going and bit his lip. Junior didn't apply himself in school, but he was a smart kid - a little too smart for his own good. He silently hoped that his story about the crash was convincing enough.
Junior didn't like being lied to. Did Kamek really think he was that stupid? He might be young, but he liked big machines, and he's piloted enough contraptions to know that Koopa engines don't simply fail on their own - machinery was one of the Darkland's major exports because of their expert craftsmanship. (Those darn economics lessons from Kamek are rubbing off again...) In any case, Kamek's "emergency landing" story seemed fishy.
Another thing Junior had noticed was how guarded Kamek was while speaking about the crash. Junior was used to the vast majority of servants always dancing around with their words when they spoke, as if trying to find the words that would please him. But Kamek always spoke very frankly to Junior, something Junior somewhat respected Kamek for. He didn't like to be patronized.
But now even Kamek wasn't giving him the full story, which made Junior's imagination run wild with possibilities. Something was definitely wrong here, and he was going to find out.
Mario leaned against the balcony of Bowser's airship - supposedly the best in the fleet. As he felt the cool evening wind blow softly on his face and watched the sun dip below the cloudline in brilliant hues of red and orange, Mario mused on just how many times Mario had stormed this very airship. Without the constant blasting of cannons and bullet bills, seemed peaceful compared to his memories.
The reserve fleet had finally taken off two hours earlier, after he and Bowser came to terms with the fact that arguing with each other would get them no closer to finding the princess or Bowser's kid. He still didn't like knowing that his sworn arch-enemy was on the same ship as him, probably only rooms away, but they had generally agreed to just stay out of each other's way for the time being. Mario looked over at the other side of the balcony, where Luigi was happily conversing with a blue-shelled koopa, who was apparently Bowser's new advisor. Mario smirked. It was so like Luigi. He had always been better at people skills, while Mario struggled even to keep conversation at the occasional date with the princess.
Luigi seemed quite enthralled with whatever the koopa was saying. Mario didn't have any particular prejudices against koopas, but he wasn't exactly keen on getting chummy with confirmed members of the Koopa Troop either - which happened to be every koopa on the ship. Luigi did not seem to have such reservations; in fact, just a few days ago, Luigi had mentioned that he was looking forward to seeing Bowser's minions at the next Mario Party. True, the princess had started inviting them to such events, and sure, Mario enjoyed chucking red shells at Bowser's offroader at the annual Mario Kart tournament, but Mario didn't like the fact that no one seemed to take Bowser seriously as a threat. When Mario told stories about his adventures, he liked to embellish them somewhat, which meant that neither Luigi nor the princess knew the full extent of just how many times Bowser truly had Mario running scared, how many times he had nearly died at the Koopa King's hands.
Even just earlier today, Mario had saved Luigi from a nasty sucker punch from Bowser. Mario doubted Luigi realized that if he had been hit by that punch, it would have sent him over the edge of the cliff face they were fighting on, and been badly hurt - or worse. Mario himself could deal with these constant brushes with death. Adventuring was his one true passion, and the danger was an innate part of that - it often exhilarated him, even. But Luigi's passion was of people, and food, and all things mundane. He never really signed up for any of this; he just had the bad luck of having a hero for a brother. This was why Mario didn't take Luigi on his more dangerous adventures. Would Mario be able to sleep at night if he got Luigi killed?
Mario looked away from the clouds and at Luigi once more, who was engrossed in his conversation, oblivious to Mario's inner thoughts. He had brought Luigi along today because Peach's kidnapping seemed like the usual, carefree sort of adventure - run through levels, stomp Bowser, rescue the princess, and be home in time for cake. It was simple and predictable, which meant that as long as Mario kept an eye out for Luigi, he would be just fine. But now there were so many unknowns, and he could no longer guarantee Luigi's safety.
Peach Toadstool peered out of a porthole, looking at the sea of clouds. So, she was definitely on an airship, she thought to herself, but she didn't think it was Bowser's. For one, if it was Bowser, the room would have been fancy and ornate, complete with a four poster bed, a new dress, and gift boxes full of jewelry and other things. The room she had woken up in was a simple prison cell. Someone had slid a simple dinner of chicken and vegetables under a slot in the door an hour earlier. The vegetables confirmed it - this definitely was a kidnapper other than Bowser. But no one had shown their face yet, so their identity was a mystery to Peach.
Peach sighed and looked through the small window again. The airship she was on was definitely moving. She took a deep breath and contemplated trying to escape as soon as someone decided to open the door to her cell. She could probably defend herself against a handful of people if she needed to, but the small, cramped quarters she was in would hurt her chances - and after that, what then? She had no viable escape route off of a ship floating eight thousand feet in the air.
Peach sat down on the bed again. She supposed she should do the same thing she'd always done. There was nothing to do but wait for Mario.
Ludwig and Larry sat in a cozy library playing a game of chess, a tradition of sorts whenever their paths happened to cross. Larry was never a real challenge for Ludwig, but he was a much better opponent than his other adopted siblings. Iggy was nearly equal to Ludwig in intellect - even surpassing him in some respects, but his scatterbrained personality was more suited for brainstorming and invention, and not for the slow, methodological thought process required for chess. Wendy had no patience for the game, Lemmy could hardly move the pieces without falling out of his chair, and Ludwig internally chuckled at the mental image of Roy or Morton sitting down in a plush seat, using their giant hands to move the tiny pieces around the chessboard. So, Larry was simply the best option Ludwig had outside of the chess masters he usually played on his travels.
"I suppose father is nearly at Crumbleden by now," Ludwig mused.
"Yeah, real shame, seeing how everyone else is already here and all," Larry half-chuckled, moving his knight. Larry had been one of the last Koopalings to arrive at the Volcanopalace, only a few hours earlier.
"Are you insinuating that he should have stayed here instead?" Ludwig asked with a hint of accusation in his voice.
"Nah, I'm just sayin' that blood is thicker than water, that's all."
"He would have done the same if any of us went missing," Ludwig chided as he moved a pawn forward on the chessboard.
"Are you sure?" Larry smirked. "Don't you remember the Koopmas when Junior was three? Dad gave him a mech the size of a building, while he gave you a hair comb and a pat on the back. "
"He was three; I was fifteen," Ludwig reminded. "There comes an age where toys and material gifts no longer hold any true value. His gifts to us are in different forms. I work with some of the greatest composers in the world thanks to his contributions. And, need I remind you that it was Father who built you your own castle, in which you spend more than three hundred days out of the year slobbing around?"
Larry moved his bishop to a spot in the middle of the chessboard. "Eh, don't knock it until you try it, Ludwig. I've got more games, books, and movies than I could ever consume in a lifetime. No people, no servants, no distractions, no rules, no bedtimes, just me and my thoughts. I woulda stayed too if I knew the old man wasn't even gonna show."
Ludwig decided that arguing with his brother over family issues was futile and dropped the matter, moving his rook forward instead. Larry moved his bishop from a spot Ludwig hadn't noticed, taking his queen. The game was essentially over now for Ludwig.
"Your game is sloppy today, Ludwig. You woulda never let me do that if you weren't, like, really, really distracted," Larry said. "What's cooking in that noggin of yours?"
Ludwig sighed. "I don't know. With everything that is going on, I just can't shake this feeling that Father is walking straight into a trap."
"Well…" Ludwig pondered on how best to explain what he was thinking. He tipped over his king piece on the chessboard as a symbol of forfeiture, then reset all of the pieces on the board to their starting positions. "Have you ever heard of the Tennison gambit?"
"I think so. Remind me again."
Ludwig began to move pieces on both sides of the chessboard to illustrate his point. "Essentially, you threaten certain pieces in a way that draws your opponent's king out of his starting position. As soon as that has happened, you keep attacking that corridor, which puts the king in check, forcing their king even further to the front lines and exposing their valuable pieces. And then, once their king is too far away to do much of anything…"
Ludwig moved his queen all the way across the board and took the opposing queen. "That is when the real attack begins."
To say this chapter is late is a bit of an understatement. It was the first chapter where I had to write dialogue for Junior, and nothing seemed "right." So I decided to re-watch cutscene footage from the games he was in, namely Mario + Rabbids and Bowser Jr.'s Journey. If you've played either of these games, you could probably understand why I would struggle to remain motivated. Why does Junior only get screen time in the weird, crappy spin-off games?
Anyway, unfortunately, I am prone to losing interest in projects. However, the good news is that Prodigal Son is not a very long story - only 10 to 12 chapters - so there is a pretty good chance that it will eventually get finished. More than that, I cannot promise.
Figuring out distinct personalities for each of the Koopalings was also difficult. They aren't a major part of the story, but I still want to have a couple scenes with them since they're useful for exposition dumps and allow the reader to glimpse the internal dynamics of the Koopa family. Ludwig typically gets portrayed as a snobby walking thesaurus, but I decided against it because, well, it's annoying, but also because the only people who actually talk that way are the people who try to act smart, and Ludwig seems like someone who knows full well that he is smart and therefore doesn't feel the need to shove it down everyone's throats. Larry doesn't seem to have any real defining characteristics, so I decided to make him the "there's one in every family" kind of guy. Sheesh, Larry, if you're gonna spend that much time indoors, at least open a window or something!
The identity of the mystery attacker will be revealed in the next chapter. You can go ahead and guess in the reviews if you want. Unless you're reading this in the future and you already know from reading the character tags in the fic description, that is. Thank you to everyone who followed and reviewed.