The Temple of the Sun
The group was irritated to find yet another hallway full of Mini-Suns and Mini-Moons just beyond the door, identical to the previous one. Judging by the way the strange enemies were patrolling back and forth, there was no way to sneak past all of them.
"Ugh... not more of these things," Mario groaned. "We really don't have time to fight them all off again..."
"You're right, dude... so I say we take another option!" said Ferdinand as he stepped forward. Mario and the others watched in surprise as he suddenly jumped into the air and started crazily flapping his arms, and just like that, he summoned an enormous Tsunami from out of nowhere. It surged up underneath him, and he cheered as he rode it straight toward the enemies and it came crashing down on them, sweeping every last one of them out of the fight.
When it was over, he found himself standing in the middle of the dripping-wet hallway with the others all staring at him. "Heh heh... hope this carpet is waterproof, man," he said sheepishly.
The only one who didn't look completely awed was Snatchel. "Now hang on a minute! Why the heck didn't ya just do that the first time?!" he demanded, looking exasperated yet again.
Ferdinand just shrugged unconcernedly. "Well hey man, it'd be way cheap if I just did that every time, now wouldn't it?"
"Hey Mario..." Hanner cut in before Snatchel could say anything else, "is it just me, or is the glow around here getting brighter?"
"Hmm?" Mario paused and suddenly realized she was right. All the rooms they'd been in so far had at least a faint golden glow to them, but in this part of the Temple, he noticed that the glow seemed to be getting gradually brighter the farther along they went. Not only that, but there seemed to be a faint feeling of power in the air... and the farther they went, the stronger it became.
"You're right, Hanner... that can only mean one thing. We're getting close."
With that in mind, the group found themselves growing in anticipation as they opened the door and entered the next room... but they weren't too happy at what they found.
"Hang on... haven't we already done this puzzle?" said Mario. Sure enough, the room they were currently in appeared to be an exact replica of the previous room that had contained the warping block puzzle. Just like before, there was an upper and lower pathway, and the upper one was cut off by a dark-colored block.
"Do I have to break it again, Mario?" asked Stubba.
"I don't think so... this block looks different from before. I don't think we can break it."
Mario walked up the stairs and examined the block curiously. Finally he gave it an experimental push and was surprised to find it gave easily. Deciding to roll with it, he kept pushing it down the hallway until he suddenly noticed a glowing tile on the floor near the door.
"Huh... what happens if I..."
He pushed the block onto the tile, and suddenly it vanished into thin air.
"Woah! What just – "
"It's down here, Mario!" came Dulia's voice from below him. "We don't know what you did up there, but you moved the block down here somehow!"
"Huh?" Mario peered over the railing and saw that there was now a light-colored block down in the lower hallway, right next to the door.
"Huh. Well, that was simple enough..."
He walked through the now-open door on the top floor, and just like before, found only a small room with a chest containing a Temple Key. Now the group had to get through the door on the lower level, but the block was in the way.
"Well, great. How do we move it back up there?" asked Goomblaine.
"Well, there's another glowing tile back there," said Mario, looking back at the very beginning of the lower hallway. "I'll just have to get it back there somehow... except there's not enough room for me to get behind it and push..."
He suddenly grew a not amused look. "I'll just have to pull it."
After spending several minutes struggling and grumbling loudly to himself, Mario finally managed to pull the large block onto the second glowing tile, warping it back up to the upper floor and allowing the group to progress through the door on the bottom.
The next room was a very strange one indeed. There were more Mini-Suns and Mini-Moons floating around, which irritated the group, but more notable was that the floor seemed to resemble a checkerboard, laid out in a grid of square tiles. On one of these tiles was a metal statue of a Mini-Sun with glowing red eyes, and on another one further across the room was a similar statue of a Mini-Moon.
"Whaddaya reckon them statue things are for?" asked Snatchel, scratching his head.
"I dunno... but I don't like 'em. They're really creepy looking," Hanner said with a light shudder.
"Well, we just won't bother with them then," Mario decided as he set off across the room... but just as he was about to walk past the first statue, it came zooming sideways and jerked to a stop right in front of him.
"WAAAUGH!" Mario cried in shock, flailing his arms and falling over backwards.
"Mario? Are you okay? What just happened?" Dulia cried as the others came running up.
"Uh, that statue thing just moved all by itself, that's what happened," Ferdinand said uneasily. "That's... just not right, man."
Mario glared up at the statue as he stood up, never taking his eyes off it. He tried to walk around it, but whenever he moved, the statue mimicked his movement and shifted in front of him again, making it impossible for him to go any further.
"It won't let us go through!" he complained. "What do we do now?"
"Oh Mario, there's something written down here!" said Stubba, who happened to be near eye level with the lower portion of the statue, a pedestal that the Mini-Sun was resting on. He crouched down and slowly tried to read what was written there. "'As Day...' uh... what's that word, Mario?"
Mario got down next to him. "'As Day spurns Night and Night spurns Day, only its self may pass this way.'" He groaned. "Ugh, more rhyming puzzles. Well, what do you suppose that means?"
"It sounds like this statue will only let itself pass through here... hmm..." Dulia looked thoughtful, and then her eyes lit up. "I got it!"
She grabbed a shocked Mario by the wrist and pulled him over to where one of the Mini-Suns was floating around. Before it could attack them, she closed her eyes in deep concentration and put a hand on Mario.
"Dulia, what are you – "
"I'm making you like that statue!" she said as Mario's body suddenly started tingling all over. The next thing he knew, he was enveloped by purple smoke and he'd been transformed into a Mini-Sun.
"Ugh... this is not comfortable at all," Mario sighed as he tried to look down at himself. "But... I think I see what you mean, Dulia... this might just work!"
"Heh heh... looking good, Mario," Hanner joked as he floated back over to the statue. As soon as it saw Mario, it suddenly made a noise like a machine powering down and its eyes went dark.
"Hah... you were right, Dulia!" Mario cheered as he turned back to normal and they all raced around the inert statue. "Of course, now we have to do that again..."
So Dulia next turned Mario into a copy of one of the Mini-Moons, and they did the same thing to the second statue, causing it to shut down like the first before they all raced out of the room.
"We're getting really close now... I can feel it..." Dulia said nervously. And Mario had a feeling she was right; the tension was just getting stronger and stronger. The room they were in now was similar to the version of the clock room that lead to Garudawn; there were only sun decorations on the walls, which gave Mario an inkling of what they'd have to do next. There were three platforms rising out of a bottomless pit that led over to the next door, and they were bridged by more of the glowing light-pathways.
"Well, we can't just go over to that door. It's locked again," Maizee sighed. "So there must be a key hidden in here somewhere, but where?"
Goomblaine had the answer. "There's a doorway right over there," he said, gesturing at the left wall halfway across the room. Sure enough, there was a doorway there they could reach from the middle platform.
"All right, let's head over there," Mario said as he prepared to step onto the glowing walkway... but just as he did, the whole thing vanished from underneath him, leaving him to step out onto thin air. He cried out and started flailing, and Hanner and Stubba gasped and scrambled over to him, grabbing him by either arm and pulling him back onto the platform before he could go falling off.
"Be careful, Mario!" Stubba cried.
"Phew... thanks, guys," Mario sighed, looking out as the walkway suddenly reappeared. "...I guess that thing appears and disappears at an interval. We have to make it all the way across before it fades away."
So the next time the pathway reappeared, everyone raced across it to the middle platform as fast as they could, barely making it before it vanished behind them. From there they walked through the doorway on the left into an adjacent room, but all they found was a short stairway up to another platform cut off by a huge metal block, along with two gold-colored Chain Chomps on either side of the room.
"Those things're called Golden Chomps. Yeah, real original," said Goomblaine as he Tattled on them. "Like you probably guessed, they're stronger than regular Chain Chomps."
"Y'know, gold is one of the softest metals there are. Why would a golden version of an enemy be stronger?" asked Hanner, looking confused.
Goomblaine just glared at her. "You wanna take over this job?"
Whatever the case, the party took care of both Golden Chomps in quick succession, and as soon as they did, a bright glow came from the top of the staircase as a chest magically materialized.
"Well, that's fine and dandy, but how do we get up there with that dang ol' block in the way?" asked Snatchel.
Mario grinned. "Oh, come on. This is no problem for Super Mario!" he said, walking up to the metal block and smashing it with one good wound-up strike from his Ultra Hammer. Then he raced up the stairs and opened the chest, finding a Badge inside of it.
"Heh heh... check it out, everybody. Looks like this is our Lucky Day!" he joked, holding up the Badge for his partners. Unfortunately for him, they all just groaned at his attempt at humor.
"I'm sorry Mario, but that wasn't even a pun, that was just lazy," Dulia sighed, shaking her head.
Mario frowned. "Well, fine then..."
"Anyway, what we're lookin' for is a key, and we don't got one of those yet," Goomblaine reminded him.
"Hey, look over here!" came Stubba's voice, and everyone turned to find him gazing at a crack in the right wall. "Ooh, I know what to do here!"
He eagerly wound up his club and bashed the wall, causing a huge hole to open up that seemed to lead to another room.
"Good job, Stubba! I would've missed that completely," said Mario as they all walked into the newly-revealed room. It actually looked exactly the same as the last one, with another metal block in front of a short staircase, although the enemies in this room were more Light and Dark Magiblots. At any rate, once the party took care of them, another chest appeared at the top of the stairs, and inside this one was a Silver Key.
"Sweet! That'll get us out of here for sure, man!" Ferdinand cheered.
But Mario found himself frowning unsurely as he held the key, remembering the room they had come from. "I hope it does... but I'm not quite sure..."
Back in the main hallway, the group raced across the second glowing path before it disappeared, heading right up to the padlocked door. But as Mario tried to fit the key in the lock, his heart sank as he realized his suspicions were confirmed. The key didn't fit.
"What? Come on! That's the only key we could find!" Hanner complained. "What else are we supposed to do?"
"I've got a pretty good idea," said Mario, turning to look back over at the shining golden walls. "This place looks just like the room before we fought Garudawn, doesn't it? It's so bright and sunny..."
He pulled out the Aeon Hourglass. "So there must be another one."
He flipped the hourglass over, and everyone vanished.
The Temple of the Sun
As they emerged in the new room, they saw that this version of it looked just like the room before Garudark. The walls in here were dark blue and covered with stars, and although the door directly in front of them was still locked, the padlock here was silver, not gold.
"Perfect," Mario said with a smile, fitting the Silver Key into the silver padlock and opening the door. Beyond it was only a tiny anteroom with a single chest, but inside of it was a Golden Key, which could only have one possible use.
"I still don't really understand how the hourglass can possibly work in a place where there is no time... but I suppose that's something else to worry about another day," said Maizee as they returned to the main hallway.
"Yeah, once we're not racing to save the whole world, I'd really like to know more about this place," Dulia agreed with an eager nod.
"Unfortunately, I would be very hard-pressed to find a time like that," Mario sighed as he pulled out the hourglass again. "In fact, at this point, if I weren't constantly saving the world, I'd have no idea what to do with myself."
"Just wonderin', partner, but how exactly does a plumber get roped into bein' the constant savior of the world and all that?" Snatchel asked curiously.
Mario rolled his eyes. "Your guess is as good as mine."
He turned the hourglass over again, and they were engulfed in yet another flash.
The Temple of the Sun
Back in the bright version of the hallway, Mario instantly unlocked the golden padlock in front of them with the Golden Key and led the group into the next room. By now they were growing exasperated; the room was impossibly huge, the puzzles looked the most complex of all, and they were all certain that they were now right at King Shroude's doorstep.
This gauntlet of a final room looked largely the same as the last one, except now there were four main platforms leading across the room instead of three. Like before, the second one had a doorway on the left wall that led to another room. Unlike before, there were now Mini-Sun and Mini-Moon enemies floating around to cause even more trouble.
Worst of all, this time there weren't even any pathways connecting the platforms. They were stranded on their side of the room.
"Well, now whaddawe do?" Goomblaine griped. "We got no way across the room this time."
"Calm down, guys," said Mario, who was looking intently out at the room. "There has to be some way over there. We just don't see it..."
Suddenly he paused and grew a strange look, echoing his last words. "We don't see it..."
Ever so slowly, he lifted his foot out over the edge of the platform and put it down... and it landed on something solid as a glowing square of light suddenly appeared underneath it.
"Aha!" he cheered, stepping onto the glowing square. "I knew it! There is a pathway here! It's just invisible."
"Invisible?" Hanner said with a gulp.
"But how do we go across it if we can't see it?" asked Stubba.
"...Very, very carefully," Mario decided.
So the party very cautiously edged out in single file across the walkway. Mario led the way, always very carefully looking for the next section of the path by sticking his foot out. Whenever he found it, another glowing square would appear under his foot and he'd step onto it. Unfortunately the path wasn't straight and ended up zigzagging back and forth numerous times before they finally made it all the way across.
On the second platform, they walked through the doorway to the left and found themselves in a largely empty room. After eliminating the Golden Chomp enemies, they saw that there was a staircase in the corner that seemingly led up to nothing. Apart from that, the only noteworthy thing was that the ground floor had for large tiles all lined up in a row.
"What's up with these things, I wonder?" said Mario as he walked up to the tiles, looking down at them. To his surprise, each one of them had a number inscribed in them. From left to right, they were numbered 2, 4, 3, 1.
He frowned. "Really? That's the best they could come up with?"
He finally shrugged resignedly, walked underneath the tile marked "1" and performed a Spin Jump, slamming down onto it with all his might. As soon as he did, it lit up underneath him and started to glow. He walked over and did the same thing with the other three, Spin Jumping on them in numerical order, and they all began to glow as well.
As soon as he'd lit up the last one, he and his partners all gasped as a narrow walkway suddenly came unfolding from the wall above their heads like the paper it was. They could reach the walkway from the stairs in the corner, and as they raced up the stairs and across the path Mario saw there was yet another Temple Key up there... only trouble was, the ceiling suddenly dropped down right in front of it and prevented them from being able to reach it.
"We can't exactly squeeze under there," Mario griped, examining the wall that came down from the ceiling and stopped just a few feet above the walkway.
"Maybe we can't, but I know somethin' that can!" Snatchel declared, looking eager to spring into action. He grabbed his lariat and threw it under the wall, grabbing the key and yanking it back with no trouble at all.
Back in the main hallway, they crossed over to the third platform via another disappearing pathway, scrambling across it in a big hurry, and then made it over to the door by having Ferdinand carry them across a group of smaller, hovering platforms. Knowing they were about to face something big, Mario took a deep breath before unlocking the door and leading them all into the next room.
As it turned out, there was nothing in there. It was a pretty small, circular room with the same elegant decorations on the walls that were in the rest of the Temple. The group looked around warily, but they seemed to be alone.
But they weren't alone for long.
"So, you finally made it, Mario. We were getting impatient."
"Oh no..." Mario groaned at the sound of the voice. He and the others all stepped backwards as three very familiar clouds of smoke suddenly rose out of the floor and three very familiar Darkstriders came stepping out.
"Hmph. Long time no see, you guys," Hanner grumbled.
"Well, Mario, our lord is quite impressed that you've all made it this far," Jaff said casually, dusting himself off and standing directly between them and the door. "But he's also told us to make sure you all never get past this room. I'm afraid your little adventure is now over."
The entire party was glaring at them, and Goomblaine gave them a contemptuous scoff. "You freaks stupid or somethin'? We made it all the way through this place and you think you're gonna slow us down?"
"If I were you, I'd retreat right now and save yourselves a beating," Maizee said in a very serious voice.
"Sounds like a smart idea to me," Mario agreed, pulling out his hammer.
Jaff just gave a low chuckle in response, shaking his head. "Oh, Mario... I expected you and your little team would be smarter than that by now. We may have had trouble against you in the past, but do you honestly think our lord would send us out here without... leveling the playing field?"
And without any warning, he generated a huge ball of shadow in his hands and hurled it at Mario. The plumber's eyes bulged, but he was too late to move before it slammed into him, sending him flying across the room.
"Mario!" came several panicked cries.
Mario crashed onto the floor, wincing in pain and with his clothing singed and smoking. He struggled to lift his head up and stared at Jaff. "What... what was that?"
"Our lord was kind enough to give us a share of his power for this fight, that's what," the Darkstrider cackled. "He really wants you out of the way, doesn't he? You should consider it an honor that he's devoted so much to destroying you."
"This won't be like last time! You punks are going down! We're makin' sure of that!" Pell laughed, jumping up and down and looking eager for a fight.
"Nobody messes with our lord's plans and gets away with it," Nobb chuckled dangerously. "Get ready for a one-way ride on the pain train, Mario!"
Everyone looked at him. "The what?" asked Dulia.
Jaff growled and smacked Nobb. "Enough with your stupid metaphors, Nobb! Save it for when we've ended Mario's game once and for all!"
"You got it!" Pell and Nobb both shouted, and all three of them leapt into battle.
"All right, you're asking for it," grumbled Mario, who'd managed to get back to his feet. He pulled out his hammer and swung it at Jaff, but the Darkstrider jumped out of the way before he'd even gotten close, then sprang up behind Mario and slashed at him with his claws.
"YEOWCH!" Mario cried, staggering backwards and starting to worry for the first time. No doubt about it, they were much stronger than they'd been before...
"Hey! Slow down already!" Hanner shouted as she tried to throw her hammers at Pell, but he was moving far too quickly for her, racing around her in circles and taunting her all the while. Luckily he was so distracted with that that he didn't notice Stubba racing up behind him and clonking him on the head with his club.
"Why you – " he snarled, spinning around to face the Clubba, but Stubba just gave him a fearless look and used Shock Wave. He curled up and slammed into the ground, throwing Pell on his back and leaving his head spinning in confusion.
"Guess it's time to see who's got the bigger muscle, huh?" Snatchel said as he glared at Nobb, crackling his knuckles. The oversized Darkstrider grinned and came charging at him, and within seconds an all-out fist fight broke out between the two of them.
Mario was growing exasperated. He tried again and again to swing his hammer at Jaff, but his opponent was just too fast and too strong. Goomblaine was standing back-to-back with him and trying to fight him off as well, but he wasn't having any better luck.
"What a shame, Mario," Jaff laughed cruelly. "I thought you'd give me a little challenge here, just before the end. But it seems you've finally met your better!"
He opened his hands and generated another ball of dark energy, launching it right at Mario. The plumber winced and braced himself, only to then yelp in surprise as Ferdinand hauled him clear off the ground with Flutter Lift, causing the attack to fly right underneath him.
"That's bogus, man!" the Bumpty shouted at Jaff. "Nobody's better than Mario-dude as long as we got his back!"
Hanner, Stubba and Dulia were all ganging up on Pell. Though he was the fastest of the three Darkstriders and was flinging dark energy balls at them like there was no tomorrow, he couldn't possibly pick off all three of them at once.
Hanner winced as one of his attacks struck her right in the shell, causing her to skid backwards, but at the same time Stubba and Dulia shouted in fury and rushed at him. Stubba knocked him to one side with his Club attack, and then Dulia sent him staggering in the other direction with a Head Missile.
"You're just a bunch of kids!" Pell spat at them. "How the heck can you stand up to our lord's power?"
"We're not just kids, we're Guardians!" Stubba taunted him. Pell gave a furious shriek and hurled an oversized ball of dark energy at them.
"Get behind me!" Dulia shouted at her friends, and as they scrambled behind her back she threw up a Plasma Shield just before it was too late, the dark energy ball splattering against it.
Snatchel had finally managed to out-muscle Nobb, and with one full-blown body check he sent the large Darkstrider flipping over and crumpling to the ground.
"And that's why you don't mess with the sheriff of Golden Spur Ranch! It don't end well," he said with a grin. He was prepared to turn around and leave Nobb there, but with a sudden burst of resolve, the Darkstrider let out a roar and slashed at him, knocking he feet out from under him and sending him crashing to the floor.
"Hey! What the - " Snatchel cried, but Nobb had already gotten to his feet and looked ready to finish him off... when suddenly his eyes rolled back in his head and he dropped to the ground again, sound asleep.
Snatchel stared in surprise as Maizee came out from behind him. "I think you'll find we work better together, wouldn't you say?"
The sheriff broke out in a grin. "That's the best idea I've heard all day!"
Mario and Goomblaine had finally managed to get the edge on Jaff, with Ferdinand throwing in a Beak Jab whenever he got the chance. The lead Darkstrider was strong indeed, but he wasn't tireless, and at the moment he was hopelessly outnumbered... so he went for a different tactic.
"You do realize you've already lost, don't you Mario?" he taunted the plumber as he ducked and dodged Goomblaine's Headbonks. "While you're wasting your time down here, our lord has no doubt finished off your precious princess already! Your world is doomed to darkness, all because you just weren't fast enough!"
Mario felt a familiar twinge of anger... but he forced it back. He knew better than that by now.
"We'll see about that," was all he said before he started smacking Jaff around with his hammer again. The two of them dived into a mano-a-mano fight, claws against hammer, but Mario was so determined by now that Jaff just didn't have a chance.
He seemed to realize that. "Darkstriders, regroup!" he shouted at the top of his lungs. Nobb was all too eager to scramble away from Snatchel and Maizee, who had teamed up and beaten him into the ground with very little effort, and Pell crawled away equally quickly from his three young adversaries.
"You will not get past us, Mario!" Jaff declared as the three of them stood staunchly between him and the door... all together in one place.
Hanner just laughed. "That was a bad idea," she told them before generating an electric ball and knocking it at them with her Volt Hammer, striking them all with blasts of lightning. Snatchel immediately followed up with a Double Dash, plowing into all three of them in quick succession. They were all sent sprawling on the ground and groaning in pain... but even then, to Mario's shock, they still got back up.
"You'll have to do better than that," Jaff panted, exhausted but with more resolve than ever. "We've come too far to be done in by all of you!"
"Geez, they're still not goin' down? We don't got time for any more of this!" Goomblaine cried. Feeling worried, Mario gave him a glance... and then got an idea.
"We have to wrap this up now," he said to Goomblaine. "And I think I know exactly how. You up for it?"
Goomblaine looked back up at him... and then grinned and nodded.
Hanner suddenly looked nervous. "Uh oh... get ready, guys. I think we're gonna see some fireworks."
Mario and Goomblaine stood together and shouted "Shine Down!"
All three Darkstriders looked up in shock as a huge, shining ball of light appeared above their heads... and then an entire volley of beams of light came crashing down from all directions. The three of them screamed and tried to scramble away, but they couldn't possibly evade the shining destruction raining down on them from every which way. One by one they were struck by one of the beams of light, and one by one they collapsed to the ground, very soundly defeated.
The ball of light died away, and the room returned to normal.
"That... that..." Hanner stammered after a moment of silence.
"That... was... SO COOL!" Stubba cheered, jumping up and down and looking completely hyper.
"That was the strongest attack I've ever seen!" Dulia cried. "How'd you guys do that?"
Mario turned and gave her a weak grin. "Well... it does take a lot out of you," he panted, looking ready to fall over. "I have a feeling it's for emergencies only."
"Let's not do that again," Goomblaine groaned, sitting down.
However bad they looked, though, the Darkstriders were far worse. Jaff finally managed to lift up his head and glare at Mario, though he knew it was futile.
"Fine, then," he groaned. "So you won, Mario. But no matter what, you've still done nothing but waste your time. Our lord will defeat you with his own hands... and this world will be his!"
He and the others struggled and stood up, looking furious, and then a cloud of black smoke enveloped them all and they vanished out of the room.
"Heh. That was no problemo," Ferdinand laughed casually.
"Is everyone all right?" Maizee asked as she came walking up to the others. "He was right, you know, Mario. While we were fighting, Shroude's had all this time to do whatever he needs."
"I know," Mario sighed, still aching. "All right, then, let's hurry up. We've almost made it."
After spending a quick moment healing up, feeling more anxious than ever, the group walked through the door on the other side of the room.
Beyond it was an enormous, pure white, spiral staircase leading up and up. Every several feet, the staircase had pairs of unlit torches attached to the banisters on either side. The walls of the stairwell were the palest gold, covered in the same intricate sun-and-moon decorations they were used to by now. There were no enemies, no puzzles, and the glow that had begun to fill the Temple was now shining brighter than ever before.
Silently, listening to the echo of their footsteps, the group approached the staircase, staring up and trying to see all the way to the top.
"He's up there," Mario finally said, breaking the silence, positive beyond a doubt that he was right. "Right at the top. And so is Peach."
"It's not too late, Mario," Hanner reluctantly spoke up. "Peach... she's still okay. We'd know if she weren't."
Mario nodded slowly, never taking his eyes off the stairs. "Okay everybody... let's get up there."
Slowly, almost reverently, the group walked up to the staircase and began the long trek to the top. Mario was in the lead, and as soon as he walked between the first pair of torches, he jumped back in surprise as they suddenly burst into flame on either side of him.
He stared back at his partners, but nobody said a word, and so he steadied himself and turned back around, continuing to lead the others up. There was no sound except for the crackling of the flames as they went. The staircase wound around and around, leading higher and higher. Every time they passed between a pair of torches, the flames would spontaneously flicker into life, lighting up two by two as the group drew ever closer to the top.
Finally they made it. They stepped off the stairs and reached the narrow landing, finding themselves in front of a towering set of white double doors covered in intricate gold filigree.
They stared at the doors, not daring to move. By now it was so bright it was as though the sun were shining right down on them.
Mario sighed shakily, feeling his heart start to pound. "This is it, everyone," he said. "I mean... I know I've said that a lot lately, but... this really is it."
Goomblaine gave a smirk as he stepped up next to him. "You're not scared, are ya?" he asked. "C'mon, we got this far, right? Nobody else coulda done that."
Hanner snickered. "Yeah, he's right. After all the crazy stuff we just did, what's one little insane overlord of Night compared to that?"
"I know we won't lose, Mario!" Stubba said fearlessly, standing up straight. "We always win when you're here! 'Cause you can do anything!"
"Shoot, are we gonna rescue Peach or are we just gonna stand here?" Snatchel chuckled. "C'mon, partner, I know you wanna get in there and bust some heads just as bad as I do."
Dulia smiled confidently. "We'll follow you wherever you go, Mario. No matter what happens after this, you know you can always count on us."
"I wouldn't dream of giving up at a time like this," Maizee agreed. "The rest is all behind us, Mario. The only way to go now is forward."
"It's like the Bumpty Boarders always say, man. Just go with the flow and don't sweat the small stuff!" Ferdinand said enthusiastically. "Whatever happens has just gotta happen."
Mario found himself beaming at his partners. He started to wonder why he'd ever been worried. Why had it taken him so long to realize it? As long as all of them were together, nothing was impossible.
"You guys really are the greatest," he said, then turned back to face the doors. "All right then... let's do it. Let's make history."
Knowing his friends were behind him, he stepped up to the doors and gave them a hard push. With a loud, ancient creak, they strained and then finally edged open, light spilling into the room on the other side.