It was a race; nightfall was approaching, exhaustion had worn the travelers down. They all knew that night unprotected could result in robbery, kidnapping, or worse. Mario just wanted to find a sign of hope. For all he knew, everything he cared for had been ripped from this world. He reached into his overalls pocket and found his wallet.
"Heh." He chuckled to himself.
"What? What's up?" The wary and outspoken Koopa turned his head.
"I wouldn't have expected to feel so lucky to have my wallet, even if it's out of money."
"What good would mon-" Mario flashes the Koopa his wallet, with a picture of him and his brother, a couple Toads, Peach and a green Yoshi out on a picnic. "Ah-- I-I see." The Koopa looks to the sand, hiding his face.
"Say, what's your name?"
"Your name? These people listen to you, I figure the least I can do is learn your name."
"K-Kodi. K-Ko--I'm Kodi." He forces a smile.
"Well, Kodi, how'd you all find each other?"
"You really haven't been outside The Mushroom Kingdom, lately, have you?" He fires off, a bit more bitter than he intended.
"I-well, w-why would I? I haven't really had a need to in a couple years, except to go to Yoshi's Island. Why?"
"It's been like this for years. Bowser went crazy. Ever since he last took Peach, it's been madness. He locked up his own kids. He conscripted thousands of Koopas on threat of death. Villages that resisted were cursed with spells by the mages in his ranks. No food would grow. Everyone submitted or starved." The plumber's face surrendered his distress. "Small groups of us have found each other. We shared the food we had. We found other survivors. We have been living off the bits of food we find in old sheds, canned goods in safe houses, rare oases that weren't ruined." He sighed. "Look, sorry I have been so angry, but you just act like because The Mushroom Kingdom sees you as a leader that you can run the show around here. Some of us had friends you've destroyed."
A stone hit Mario in the chest. "D-destroyed? I... I was just protecting... I-I."
"You've never even thought about it, have you?" A vigor in Kodi's voice wells up. "You are a 'hero' after all. You only hurt those who get in your way. Those people have kids. Those people have families. Wives. Friends. Some of them couldn't find any other work. You think every soldier wanted to kill you? Much like you, they didn't want to do it. It was their job. How many have you killed over a single woman?"
Mario fell silent.
"Look. Again, emotions are high. We could be dead by tomorrow. Big things have happened, and I don't know what, but you're out here which must mean your precious Peach has been captured again. I don't think what Bowser does is right, but you have to realize that this is the cards we were dealt. If every ally weren't a precious commodity I'd have probably hurt you or died trying. You've proven to be more than I assumed, and I apologize for my jumping to conclusions, but please understand that I am not calling you a friend."
"Calm down Kodi."
"It was my wife, okay? My wife. My wife died over this. Three years ago. Outside my home village. Kait was out in the woods. She didn't even know anything was going on. When they found her she was on the ground unconscious with her shell nowhere to be found. Her kidneys failed in the hospital. She was crushed to death by you!"
"Hey, hey, hey! Woah. Hold the phone. What do you mean?" Mario's heart was pounding. "Three years ago I wasn't even here. Three years ago I was in the southern continents. Nothing had been going on with Bowser, so Luigi and I went on a vacation for months. We had the phone nearby if anything happened, but three years ago, nothing was going on. Nothing. What are you talking about?"
"I-I uh..." Kodi shrunk a bit.
"Are you lying about me? Are you trying to turn these folks against me?"
"No! No. No, no, no. They... they lied to me. Kait..." Kodi fell into his shell, sobbing.
Mario was taken aback. Another Koopa picked up Kodi in his shell. "C-come on, Mario. We have to hurry. It's getting dark."
Mario was silent. He didn't know what had happened. He was accused of an attack. He wasn't even able to be placed at the scene of the crime. The only other leader of the group he knew was sobbing. He just stayed in his own head until the sand became firmer. He looked to the ground and noticed rock, dirt, grass, sure it was ill grass, but it was indeed plant life.
The bandits who had tagged along shouted. "There it is! We're almost there!" One pointed at a faint pile of stones in the distance. "If it were much darker, we would've probably missed it." They redirected toward the crumbling castle. "It's not paradise, but walls will protect us, and we don't have to worry about sandstorms anymore."
The Princess pushed doors open, trying to find the voice echoing through the maze of broken stone and iron. "Keep calling out! We hear you!" She urged.
"I'm-I'm downstairs! There's two others. At-at least I think."
Door after door, there was nothing. No way downstairs. The Princess and her steed wandered rooms and back into the entryway, time and again. No way down.
"Are you sure? Downstairs? Like a basement?"
"Y-yeah. A dungeon. Underground. I can see a tree outside with moss all over the wall. The fruits are how we've been able to last this long. Winter's not coming soon is it? I'm afraid of what will happen when the trees stop dropping fruit. It feels like it's been years, though. I really don't know where... or when it is." They follow the voice, it becomes clearer and clearer. Three doors left in the direction the voice echoes. The sound is so clear for how distant the person must be.
"Stairs!" The Princess shouted. They head for the door, and their path seems blocked. "I--I can't get down. There's a big column in the way. Wait." Yoshi gestures to a gap above the rubble. "Can you help me, pal?" The yoshi nods. Peach clambers over the stone, her shell falling to the floor. She sighs. The yoshi tosses the shell up. It soars past Peach and down the corridor. She gives a sarcastic chuckle and shakes her head. She follows the dimly lit hallway to the foot of the stairs. Bones litter the nearby cells.
"Is that you?" The voice booms, echoing loudly around the room.
"Yes! Y-yes. Yes, I'm here. How are you so loud?"
"I-I'm an apprentice magikoopa. I hid my wand. It couldn't get me out of the cell, but it's helped me collect fruit for me and my cellmates, and I've tried calling out every hour I've been awake. You happened to be here when I called. Can you help us out? A key? Something? P-please?" Her voice shared a combination of hope and fear.
"They left us to die! You have to help us. There has to be a key somewhere. Somewhere. Just please." Her voice shrunk significantly. "P-please?"
"I don't- I can't- I-I mean, I have no idea how."
"Just look around the castle. There has to be a key somewhere. I heard a lot of noise back when the castle fell to pieces. Explosions. Screaming. Surely there were bodies around. They didn't do anything for us, why would they move the bodies?" Her voice was matter-of-fact. "Just, try. Please?"
One of the koopas, emaciated, on the floor next to her, stirred and stretched. Muscles creaked and bones groaned. Peach winced. "H-hi. Wait. Hey! Am-am I awake? Who are you? Can you help us?"
"Uh." The Princess backed up. The darkness of the dungeon hid her blush.
"Just--just try. It's more than anyone else has done." Peach felt like she was going to throw up. She had never felt so directly responsible for the lives of people. When the quantities are so great, it never seems that real. But these three, starved, frail Koopas had nobody else. If she did nothing, they'd possibly starve to death where they were. The thought of being the last one crossed her mind and she felt dizzy.
"Y-yes. I'll-I-I'll try."
"Look, do you know how to use magic at all? Any magic. Anything. Even just enough to light a hallway?"
"I can use magic, yes. A bit."
"I am trusting you with this. Please. Don't betray us. This wand is all we have left. We need this. Please. Just. Try and find a key. Don't abandon us. I beg you, kind lady."
Peach's head throbbed with pressure. The gravity of the situation, after her own escape was so much for a single lifetime.
"Let it light your way. But please don't forget about us. I-if it's too late, at least someone who tried will have another tool." Every word was a knife on the Princess' skin. She was their sole guardian. They had given up everything they had for this chance.
"It's getting dark, Lem, get inside. We don't know what's out there."
"Relax, there's four of us. We can take anything that comes at us." His voice was somewhat brash. Iggy scowled.
"We have been given the greatest opportunity in years and you're going to throw it away like this? Don't go looking for a fight. We need to plan. Tomorrow Luigi and I can go on a search party or something. You and Kamerin can guard the place."
"Why have anyone stay at all? We know where we are. One of our castles is only a day's walk from here."
"And why wait until day? We have Kamerin, and you and I can use magic. We can light our own way."
"Chill. This is time for strategy. We can't go risking our lives recklessly."
"Every minute wasted is a minute someone dies. Every second spent sitting around is another chance for him to do something."
"Don't call him that." Lemmy spat at the floor. "When it was just us, fine. He was just a paranoid loon. But this. This is beyond anything I could forgive. Even if we turned him to his sense I still would want nothing to do with him. For the first time, I think I'm the one who wants to kill him most of the two of us."
Luigi comes out to see what the ruckus is about. He steps over Kamerin's snoring lump. He wanders toward the noise, cautious steps and frightened glances.
"Guys." He whispers, the two yelp and pose for a fight. Luigi, in turn, yelps, going into some made up stance that reflected a sloppy martial arts pose. "Woah, woah, calm down. It's just me." His voice was shaky after almost being tackled by two masses moderate of muscle, scales and claws. "Just--what's going on?"
"Lem is trying to throw this away. He's determined to get himself into danger tonight. I told him we should wait until morning."
"I told you we don't have--"
"What's that?" Luigi points into the distance. The last bits of sun betraying several figures shambling across the dirt, sand, and stone.
"I don't know, but you better be ready to fight, just in case."
"Or hide, we still have time to get inside. They can't see us in all this junk."
"I'd rather be ready in case they can." Iggy sighs.
"You really want to get us killed."
"I really want to go down fighting, not on my knees."
"Why don't we all just wait and see what's happening. As empty as everything seems to be, they can't be in too good of shape. They may just want to, y'know, find help?"
"Well, we better decide soon."