There wasn't much to occupy the wooden toy as it made its way through the overgrown foliage. The whisperings of wishes were replaced by the hooting of owls, peace was abandoned instead for the scritching and scratching of the creatures that lived in the woods, and the glittering lights of the stars were blocked out by the dense canopy. Long before this point, any sane person would have abandoned the hidden paths, creaking branches, and suspicious trees of the forest and opted to go home, perhaps even make some hot cocoa. But this was not the determination of a person, but rather a spirit. Not born of decay, he hailed from above, following the orders of a higher authority.
And he never would have imagined that this would be the way he finally got to set foot on the surface of the world again: trekking through a haunted forest, alone with only a carrier bag strapped to his waist. His destination: a strange mansion in need of investigating, where a snag had been hit and no amount of subtle pushing from Star Road or the star spirits was going to move events forward.
He could put up with the Boos and the howling winds. He could even stand being by himself with nobody else around to talk to on the way to his destination. At least, if current circumstances weren't so ominous. But the looming consequences of recent incidents were not so easily shelved.
His thoughts began to drift once again, as they often did when there was nothing about his surroundings or immediate future to solidly concentrate on. Try as he might, he could not help but think back to the chain of events that had landed him into this predicament.
Eight mornings ago, everyone had known that Bowser had kidnapped Peach - again - leaving the Mario Brothers to go on yet another chase through fantastic and terrifying lands. Unfortunately, nobody had seen a trace of the Koopa Clown Car exiting a particular forest, nor its occupants nor the brothers. It was assumed that they were trapped deep within, unable to find a way out. Search and rescue parties were sent in, but they either came back disoriented and confused as to how their compasses and routes failed or didn't come back at all.
If current conditions were left unchecked, what would transpire in the following weeks would be a domino effect. Without the return of one of the brothers or the princess, the people of the Mushroom Kingdom would begin to wonder why the stars hadn't granted their wishes of allowing people to come back. Wonder would lead to withering hope, withering hope would lead to doubt, and doubt would lead into despair. After that it would only be a matter of time before mistrust took over the hearts of many and the star spirits would soon have no purpose.
After all, what could they do when hope and wishes, their source of power, ran dry?
It was a prospect that the higher authority never wanted to see through.
And so he, an experienced walker of the land, had been chosen to personally fix what had gone wrong before too many dominoes began to fall.
Thoughts buzzing, the star spirit almost didn't notice when the thick trees suddenly gave way to a cobblestone path. It led on past a rusted, broken fence, the gateway having long ago fallen from its hinges and entangled in weeds. Disquieting winds wrapped around him, hissing warnings, as he stood stock still. His eyes traveled up the short way to the towering estate ahead. Three stories of broken or cracked panes, flapping shutters, and chipped blue paint, topped off with two tall arches near the roof that brought to mind hate-filled eyes. He nodded to himself. This was where his search began.
Geno ambled forward, eyes on the great double doors of the mansion. His feet met the stony road with a light click-clock that was often muffled by the overgrowth of plants peeking through cracks in the path. There was an overwhelming feeling of wrongness about this place that Geno couldn't shake off. More so than any mortal could comprehend, the star warrior could feel the malice and mischievousness originating from inside. But he had a mission, and it demanded that he kept going.
Not even halfway to the abode, the earth shook beneath his feet with the force and muffled boom of an explosion. He stumbled, falling to his hands and knees as he tried shaking the ringing out of his ears. Gliding his eyes over the area, he at last spotted a wisp of black smoke making its way out of some bushes off to the side. Cautiously, Geno moved forward, trying to decide on how to take this phenomenon.
To have a dark being scramble out of the bushes while only three feet away following a forceful thump was not something the guardian could have prepared for. With all the grace and speed of a Spikey, the frantic being slammed into Geno sending the two tumbling to the ground. The two bashed their heads together, forcing the Guardian to clutch his own with both hands. It wasn't until the pain subsided that he caught wind of a voice. A small, old one that kept muttering on about calculations, ghosts, possession, and some incredibly long name he couldn't make out but sounded like it had to do with photos.
"-ello? Are you hostile by any chance?"
Shaking his head, Geno peered up and got his first look at his so-called assaulter. A short man covered head-to-toe in black and dark gray splotches stood before him. Spiral glasses sat on the man's nose, seemingly smeared with the same substance that coated the rest of him. In all, it seemed as if this person had been caught in a Bom-Omb explosion yet had come out unscathed.
Geno had to stifle a chuckle at the sight. Among other things, it was bringing up old memories that he didn't have time to dwell on.
'I guess my question's just been answered...'
A snicker escaped. He really didn't have the time. Getting to his feet, he shook his head as he regained his composure. Certain memories of a horrific minecart ride that had resurfaced were also shoved down with the laughter in the seconds it took for the doll to straighten up.
"Not at all," Geno replied with a smile. "I'm here looking for someone." There was a brief pause before he continued, his words carefully uttered. "You wouldn't happen to have seen the Super Mario Brothers come through here, would you?"
"Oh, why yes!" the man responded cheerfully, "Those chaps showed up not too long after a rather large object fell from sky. At least I believe it was a large object judging from how much my laboratory shook. After they explained the situation, I insisted that they take some of my ghost-catching inventions. But..." The elderly man sighed. "I have not heard back from either of them in quite a while. I tried entering the mansion myself, but the doors were locked!"
"That certainly is odd..." Geno commented, his mind racing. The Koopa Kar had crashed, Mario and Luigi had taken some gadgets to help them fight off ghosts, and now communication was cut. Boos were a tricky and cowardly foe, playing pranks on others and sometimes wanting to increase their numbers. Chances were that his old friend and the brother were trapped somewhere within the mansion. Just as likely, the Boos weren't keen on letting them go free.
That is, assuming they were Boos. He didn't know what to think if some other specter had gotten to them.
"Excuse me," said the short man, snapping Geno out of his thoughts, "but it seems we haven't been properly introduced! I am Professor E. Gadd! Don't let my appearance fool you. My latest invention was a resounding success, but it inadvertently triggered an unstable compound in my lab." E. Gadd took off his glasses and pulled out a moderately clean cloth from a pocket inside his coat. As he began wiping off the lenses, Geno saw his opening and nodded.
"My real name is difficult to pronounce, so I go by the name of this doll, Geno," said the star guardian.
"Hmm? Doll?" E. Gadd replaced his spectacles to get a better view of the wanderer, only to back up a few paces as he gazed intensely at Geno. He readjusted his glasses, asking, "You're possessing that toy? Oh my! I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, but that seems not to be the case." In wonder, he breathed out his next words, "Astounding..."
"I'm sorry, but I don't have time to chat," said Geno, suddenly feeling the pressure of a temporal limit against his back. He had to move quickly if he was to be of any use. "Is there any other way into the mansion?"
"Well, I suppose you could always break open a window... But why on earth would you want to enter that ghost-filled nightmare?" He paused. "You're not hostile, so you can't be siding with King Boo..." The star warrior raised a nonexistent eyebrow at that. He crossed his arms and asked,
"Oh yes," said the professor, "Ever since Luigi captured him in the last mansion that blasted Boo created, he has been seeking revenge on us both! Now it seems that King Boo has not only Mario and Luigi within his grasp, but King Bowser and Princess Peach as well! This does not bode well..." Geno's brain nearly shut down after that. His mouth gaped open and shut like a cheep-cheep while his mind tried to comprehend the fact that all four missing persons he had been told about had been captured by a Boo. And not just any Boo; the king of them.
At last, he was able to get a coherent response out.
"What?!" The doll jumped into the air. This was not what he had been anticipated. Oh, not at all. His thoughts raced. A King Boo. Every aspect of any ordinary Boo would be increased to an extent mortals could barely fathom. In short order, images of a dead Koopa King, Mushroom Princess, and two heroes flashed through his mind. His entire body shook in a way it hadn't in years. He doubted even a Fearless Pin could have prevented him from the action. So many years had passed since he had felt anything close to this grip of --
-- so much doubt, nearly asleep on his feet since he had used most of his energy in the transfer, and now he had to find the Star Pieces - alone - starting in this deadly forest. He was only one star spirit, not even as old as the others who had more power, and it was up to him - and only him, the only one who could be spared - to fix the Star Road. Their power, the power of the more powerful spirits, was needed up above to maintain as much order as possible while he searched the earth for every last piece of the Star Road that had fallen. They were counting on him. A laid-back, carefree star spirit with the weight of the world's hope on his now-wooden shoulders and he could barely concentrate through the --
-- suffocating apprehension. It wasn't the least bit pleasant.
"Yes, I'm afraid that it's a very troubling predicament." He wasn't listening. Not well anyways. He lowered his head, needing an idea - any idea - on how to go about this mess, but he needed to stop thinking of the worst case scenario; of Mario lying on the floor; of the soul of the Mushroom Kingdom's hero chained to this mansion for all eternity; of the princess possessed, with sickly skin tone, murmuring sweet lies as he was forced to fight the foreign spirit out of her --
"Are all of them inside of that mansion? Or are they spread out in other areas?" the star spirit asked. There was no telling how far King Boo's influence went. Having command over a large number of ghosts was a given, and just because the ruling Boo had been subdued by Luigi before didn't mean it was going to be any easier in trapping it again. The guardian had to keep positive, maybe even unrealistically so, if he wanted to succeed.
The scientist nodded at Geno's inquiry. "More than likely, yes. They should all still be somewhere within the confines of that mansion. If you are insistent on going in there, of which I am sure you are, you will need some of my ghost-catching inventions to help you! Come now! We must equip you properly, posthaste!" He spun around and headed back to the bushes, the smoke now reduced to barely visible trails of light gray.
Blinking a few times at the desired outcome, Geno strolled behind E. Gadd, the short man halting in front of the shrubbery. A meter-wide metallic plate, covered in the same substance as the professor – smoke? Soot? Some chemical or other? - flattened some of the leaves and branches, allowing entrance into a hole in the ground. How far down it went was unclear.
"Wait here for just a moment, Geno," said Gadd, "I must be sure that my lab is suitable for visitors." With that he climbed down into the hole and down a wooden ladder. After a moment, there was a fair amount of clanking and banging and rustling from somewhere under the earth. It wasn't long before the excitable old man called out.
"Ah, there we go! Come in, Geno!" he beckoned from below. "We haven't much time!" Geno approached the hole and lowered himself onto the top of the ladder, steadily making his way down. "Oh! And please shut the silo, would you?" Going back up to pull the heavy metal lid along with him, the guardian sealed off the entrance with a clank.
The underground room he found himself in was lit by only a few electric lights hanging from the steel ceiling. Contraptions and gizmos littered the room as did a layer of soot and the lingering smell of something burning. Such odd sights, those machines, that the star spirit had never seen. He couldn't even begin to attempt comprehending what half of the contraptions in the room were supposed to do, or what they were for. Still, his eyes wandered --
-- to the tall windows above. She was up at the top of this strange tower, the number of stories still out of reach unknown as they continued to climb higher and higher past these deadly traps, the result of a demented child in a man's body. And yet these strange areas they found where they could rest for a moment, figuring out puzzles or grabbing something out of the pack to eat. They were peaceful and somehow not so out-of-place with the bizarre architecture, the creation of a child's dream, and he just couldn't get --
-- over the absolute mysteries around him.
"I apologize for the mess," said E. Gadd, standing near a tall, rectangular device that whirred from within. "The smell of smoke will dissipate eventually. Unfortunately, that won't be anytime soon even with my Absolutely Exceptional Sooty Oxygen Purificationizer operating again. Also known as A.E.S.O.P. for a quicker flick of the tongue." The man grinned like a goof, showing off his one huge tooth in his pride. "Although it feels like it needs a new name. Ah, another pondering for another day." He waved one hand dismissively, as if the proper ridiculous name would come to him in time.
"Er," began the star spirit, "I believe you said something about 'ghost-catching inventions' a while ago...."
"Oh!" The scientists seemed to perk up at that. "I apologize. I seem to have gone off my initial train of thought. Now, let's see... Luigi and Mario already took the Poltergust 5000 and Poltergust 3001, as well as the DSi Horrors... Let me see if I can't dig up some old replacements." E. Gadd slipped into a door beside the noisy machine that Geno had overlooked, muttering to himself all the while.
Geno had to restrain from taking in a breath of dirty air. The old timer sure knew how to talk, and it was cutting into his time limit. Now he just had to hope that the professor found something soon. Without anyone around he had nothing to concentrate on anymore. He was left with his thoughts, the ones that he couldn't keep down any longer.
And they rose to the surface.
Fire. That raw intensity he knew by personal experience was nothing compared for what he was preparing to do. His resolve to find the Star Piece was solid, yet, inside, he found a shred of reluctance that made him hesitate, just for an instant, in jumping off the clouds. Lava, magma, living flame; he was about to throw himself into the middle of it all that could burn up the body he was borrowing. With his own natural power combined with the Star Pieces they had already recovered, he had been able to survive being damaged by sea water and all manner of fire and water attacks.
But this was another matter altogether.
Barrel Volcano. Their next stop and he had to brace himself.
Even if it was again in mid-air.
Uncertainty, fear, and hope he hadn't felt since Punchinello's final big bang filled him. Mallow was trying to keep his mouth shut and failing, Bowser was cursing at a screaming Mario, his words lost in the wind, and the princess...
He wasn't about to look up.
When the fall was over and he had regained his senses, he peered down at himself then back up at the rest of the group. The grin came naturally. It was incredibly stuffy down there and very uncomfortable, but they were alive. If they hadn't grabbed the other five Star Pieces --
"Amazing!" Geno's head snapped up in time to catch sight of E. Gadd, clothed in a new white coat, walking out from the door he had last disappeared into. He held a small device about the size of a portable game system, looking back and forth between it and his visitor. "My Boo Radar didn't detect you, and you weren't appearing on the normal ghost radar either! Hmm... Very strange..." The words had tumbled out of the man's mouth so fast, Geno had to replay them in his head to understand what it was that the odd man had said.
The guardian blinked then chuckled. "It only seems to pick up on earthbound spirits then." Gadd took in a sharp breath of air, being sent into a coughing fit. When he was finally able to breathe normally again, he said,
"So you... Could you have come from the other side? No, no..." He held his chin in one hand, seeming to continue to himself, "My radar would have picked you up, but... Could it be...?! Are you from beyond this plane, come back from your final resting place? Hmm...." Geno shook his head, a slight smile forming on his face.
"I'm afraid you're on a very different train of thought. You see, I'm temporarily borrowing this form while I complete a mission."
"Orders? Then that must mean...!" Gadd stifled another sharp inhale but when he spoke again, there was a note of awe in his voice, "Are you a spirit from the stars?" Geno nodded, folding his arms over his chest. The smirk came naturally.
"Indeed I am." As if answering an unasked question, he went on, "I'm here because of a surge in wishes that can't be fulfilled by normal means. Without the Mario Brothers and Princess T-- Peach, the citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom have begun to worry. Usually they would keep up hope, but with all the Boos terrorizing them, it hasn't been easy." The guardian shook his head. That was putting it lightly. He couldn't imagine the effort the other spirits were putting in to somehow help the terrorized populace. The Star Road would grant wishes, yes, but sometimes the more complicated pleas needed a little nudge. In this case, it was a series of nudges plus a battering ram.
The scientist swayed a bit where he stood, leaning on one foot then the other. "Er..." he mumbled, readjusting his glasses. Gadd spoke up a little louder, "I might have had something to do with that." He paused as he steadied himself. "Several days ago, there was a science fair extravaganza being held in the Mushroom Kingdom. More specifically, it was being held in the town just outside of the castle. I had brought my Portable Ghost Portrificationizer along to present to the masses, but when I wasn't looking, someone unleashed one of the ghosts I had captured! That one freed the others and soon the whole town was in an uproar! I tried recapturing them, but they chased me into this forest! Luckily I had already dug out a space for my lab when I first came here hunting for ghosts. This is terribly ironic..."
For a moment, Geno's eyes couldn't get any bigger. Then it passed and he spoke, "So it was your invention..." A figurative light bulb went off and some connections started forming in his head. He blinked. "What exactly did it do?"
"Why, it pressed ghosts into a visible form then turned them into portraits! Incidentally, it also happens to work in reverse."
"I think you may want to take out that feature in the future...."
"Ah, but then there wouldn't have been a chance of rescuing Mario when King Boo captured him before." Geno was about to question what that meant, when the old man waved a hand dismissively between them. "But we've wasted enough time talking. I managed to find some old inventions of mine that should help you inside the mansion. I'll be back in a jiffy." He turned and reentered the adjacent room as quick as he was able. After a brief moment of noisy rummaging, Gadd returned with a small, red machine hanging on his back, one hand grasping a green and pinkish flashlight and the other the gaming device from earlier.
"These should do the job!" The pure enthusiasm in his voice alone insisted as such. "The Poltergust 3000 is an old invention of mine, but it still gets the job done. Simply shine the Gaddlight-" the flashlight was flicked on and pointed at an imaginary foe, "-at a ghost to reveal its heart then quickly suck them up before they can get away!" The professor slipped the machine off his back and handed Geno the Gaddlight. "Unfortunately," he added, placing the vacuum on the floor, "I don't have a training room here, so you'll have to work it out inside the mansion. Quite the inconvenience, I'm afraid." Geno gave the flashlight a once over, noting the Boo symbol on the side slashed over in red. He stashed it away in his bag then began looking over the Poltergust 3000. When E. Gadd chuckled, the guardian peered up again to see that the game system was being held out to him.
"This right here is the Game Boy Horror. It allows you to keep communication with me and show a map of the areas you have explored." Gadd placed the device in the other's outstretched hand. "There are other functions, but I doubt you'll have to worry about them."
Geno took a moment to fiddle with the buttons and learn what each one did. Finished, he placed it with the Gaddlight in his bag. Though he hesitated at the Poltergust.
"...And this still works?" he asked.
Gadd bobbed his head. "Yes-sirree. It may be an older model, but it can suck up ghosts like the day its final testing was concluded." Seeing no reason not to, Geno picked up the slightly battered vacuum and put his arms through the straps. If the circumstances were different, if his mission now didn't rely on him keeping off King Boo's radar or not drawing the attention of every spirit in the mansion with a powerful attack, he would have declined the equipment. As it was, he needed to find the Brothers, the Princess, and the King without stirring up too much trouble and possibly sparking the Boos into moving their unwilling guests.
"Just a moment. I have one more invention for you." Instead of going into the backroom again, Gadd picked up a slim, white object sitting on a table behind him. He held it up in the air like a great achievement, and seeing how he reacted earlier to his lent equipment, he probably thought as much. "Allow me to introduce the Specter Expeller! Point it at someone who has been possessed then press the B trigger button on the bottom to lock onto the ghost's signature. After that, just press the A button to start the exorcising process. Don't forget to use the security strap here so you don't lose it during a tough scuffle." During the spiel, Gadd had been twirling the gizmo around to show off the design. It seemed like it could fit snugly in one hand. Definitely made for convenience. Gadd handed over the Specter Expeller to his guest. "I'm not too sure what happened to Mario and Luigi, but if they haven't been turned into portraits then this may be the only key to saving them! Unless they got trapped in there somewhere...." He shook his head as if to banish the thought as Geno took up the small device. "Bah. But you needn't worry about that," the little man added, "Unless, of course, you actually need to use the Specter Expeller."
"I'll keep that in mind," Geno replied carefully. He examined the gadget, trying to tell himself that even though he wanted the best outcome --
-- now that they were finally here in the enemy's home dimension, now that everything was going to be thrown at them, they still had hope. Though he didn't want to, not when they had come so far --
-- he had to prepare for the worst. Anything was possible.
"E. Gadd," he began slowly, "if you wouldn't mind, I have one last question."
"Hmm? Yes?" Geno put the gadget in his bag, giving the short man his full attention.
"You said that the front door was locked. Is there any other way of getting into the mansion?"
"Hmm... I do believe there's a back way that Luigi opened a while back. You could enter through there if the ghosts haven't locked it back up." Geno nodded with a grateful smile forming on his face.
"Thank you. Your help is greatly appreciated."
"Oh ho ho! It was no trouble, my dear Geno. Go get those ruffians!" With one last bob of the head, Geno turned around and left through the hatch he came through. Shutting the lid, he spied E. Gadd coming up the ladder. He reopened it, asking,
"I thought you were staying behind?" Peaking his head out into the fresh evening air, the elder only laughed.
"Oh ho ho! Of course I am! I have a mess of a laboratory to clean up. I'm only here to see you off. It's a bit of a habit I've developed." Again that one-tooth grin. Geno softly chuckled before taking off, waving farewell as the elderly man did the same.