Once upon a time there was a kingdom ruled by a powerful, wise, and benevolent monarch. Tales of his deeds reached far and wide. He was so powerful, it was said, that his castles outnumbered the stars and reached far into foreign lands. He was so wise, it was said, that he built roads under the ground and cast the walls in metal so his subjects could travel to and from his lands freely and safely. And he was so benevolent, it was said, that he dispensed his riches freely amongst his people, scattering them wherever he went. The land practically overflowed with the gold cast in his name.
When monsters attacked, the monarch led his armies against the scaly menace, trapping them in magical boxes. He was so respected that the very spirits of the land came to his aid, from the flame sprites deep in the ground to the cloud smiths in the air, mighty with their hammers and throwing arches. The denizens of the kingdom were very satisfied with the monarch, and would go to the ends of the earth for him. They guarded his castles and his roads, and peace reigned throughout the land.
However much his subjects loved him, nobody in the kingdom could help the monarch with his greatest difficulty. Though he was powerful, wise, and benevolent, the monarch was stricken by a terrible illness. Some said it was the work of neighboring nations, jealous of his country’s success. However the disease came about, it caused the monarch a great deal of pain and embarrassment. The disease struck at his vanity, giving his body the texture of desert sands. It dyed his hair blood red and his skin a mud yellow. His face protruded grotesquely into a beast-like snarl, with a mouth full of sharp white teeth that matched his wretchedly ruined limbs. A bulbous, hard, green growth lay upon his back, spiny and horrid to behold. Worst of all, the monarch’s breath turned first foul, then rancid, then burned those who dared approach with fetid heat. He could no longer lead his armies, for his very words torched his most loyal generals to a crisp.
In his shame, the monarch took to hiding himself away in his largest castle, addressing his royal decrees from behind sets of moving walls to prevent anyone from seeing his pitiable state. His subjects so loved their monarch, however, they started wearing upon their own backs clothing to imitate his now wretched hindquarters, and thick clothes to protect them from his breath. The monarch was very moved by the gesture, and soon all of his subjects had adopted this sign of respect.
Years passed, and though the monarch was content with the state of things in his kingdom, his disease grew progressively worse. He even sprouted a tail. Finally, he could stand it no longer. Leaving his kingdom in the hands of his magistrates, he set off to a neighboring kingdom, to seek a famous healer.
While this nation was known in all the land for its medicinal herbs and fungi, the monarch sought no ordinary medicine man or witch. His aim was the princess of the kingdom herself, who was said to be the most skilled of them all. She was also rumored to be extremely beautiful, and the monarch hoped that once his disease was cured there would be hope of uniting their kingdoms and bringing even more prosperity to his people.
Like all well-laid plans, however, things did not turn out as he hoped. The second he stepped into the land, the denizens fled from his monstrous form, screaming of the horrid beast invading their towns. To make things worse, the monarch saw that upon each person were round spotted hats easily twice the size of their heads. The monarch burst out laughing. Unfortunately, his voice had by now degenerated into a feral roar, and his raucous merriment put more of the denizens to flight. Hastily, the monarch ran to intercept a person with a red spotted hat, intending to put his mind at ease. His steps shook the ground, for he had gained much weight since the advent of the disease.
“Hold, friend!” the monarch tried to say. However, his breath beat his words, scouring the land before him and setting several homes aflame. The monarch was horrified. Knowing what further damage could be done, he hastily beat a retreat, and could only pick his way through the wilderness in covert search of his savior.
However, news of his arrival spread quickly, for the red-topped denizen was an infamous bard, known throughout the kingdom. His steps, small and quick compared to the monarch’s long and lumbering ones, far outpaced any ordinary traveler. The only thing quicker than his step was his song, which spread far and wide. It told of a monstrous beast, bent on incinerating their homes and terrorizing the populace. It reached the ears of the kingdom’s guard, and by the time the monarch arrived to seek an audience with the famed healer, there was a heavily fortified platoon awaiting him.
“This is an outrage!” he cried, for never in his heyday had any nation hosted him with spears instead of succor. Again, the words of the good monarch were misunderstood as bestial cries, amplified thrice-fold by his righteous anger. His breath again flew forth, burning the road before him. The few retainers he brought knew his rage, and they rushed to his aid, wielding their honorary back-growths like projectiles. Some of his closest guard had even acquired a simacrulum of his terrible malady, and these spewed fire of their own. The round-topped guardians of the realm stood no chance, and were swept aside in the monarch’s fury.
“Where be the princess?” he cried as one monstrous foot crushed the beams of the castle’s strong front door. Apparently some aspect of his manner or words reached the guardians of the castles, and giving in to his demands, they produced the pink-clad princess atop the regal stair.
“Who dares assault mine castle?” She demanded of him, but the good monarch was overcome with her beauty. She wore a crown of flowing gold that melded seamlessly with her bright curls. Her delicate fingers were encased in silken white gloves that reached to graceful elbows, and her face was stern, round, and elegant to behold.
“Like a summer peach,” the monarch sighed, smitten. Caring not to announce his name, the monarch lumbered up the stair and swept the princess up, pink frothing skirts and all. It would not have mattered; his appearance marked who he was more than any royal herald could.
“Now hear me!” the good monarch announced. “I mean your princess no harm, and only seek a remedy for myself and others of my castle. You may have her returned as soon as commonly feasible, and never fear her safety. I forgive all your transgressions against me and my kingdom!”
With this, the monarch leaped from his perch, and was escorted from the castle by his diligent guard.
“Did you hear?”
“Did you hear?” the round-topped denizens asked of each other.
“He means our princess great harm, that no remedy shall cure!”
“He means to have her for himself, locked in his castle!”
“He means us never to have her returned, lest we transgress his rule!”
Woe surely bereft the good monarch at every turn, for the very disease that drew him to the princess left his speech mangled and garbled to her loyal subjects. Even as the monarch’s retinue made their way back to his kingdom, word of their plans against him seeped through the ears of his men, until the good monarch was at a loss about how this kingdom’s people could hate him so readily and with such venom. They regarded him a tyrant, a monster, and a kidnapper to boot! Of course, the princess had to be restrained, but she was put in the highest comfort, and attended by his trusted guard. As such, her kingdom’s best efforts to rescue her came to naught, and the brave, round-topped soldiers could only flee before the monarch’s best attempts to apologize.
Finally, the kingdom had had enough. As the monarch’s party left the edge of the Healers’ Kingdom, word came of a pair of champions, having arrived by some dark magic, to rescue the princess from the monarch’s hands. They were extremely distinctive, a pair of brothers with fierce facial hair and identical helmets, one red and one green. Their wrath was terrible to behold, for they were possessed of prodigious height, and would simply jump atop their foes and crush their skulls against the ground.
Hearing of such fearsome fellows, the good monarch made haste across the lands friendly to his cause. His roads were of good use to him now, for they were defended well by his subjects, and the coin scattered on them delayed his pursuers. What pitfalls and dangers were known to the monarch as well, though they slowed his foe.
Unfortunately, all plans tend to go awry, and the brothers laid waste to all his defenses. The princess’ loyalists assisted their rampage, and supplied their champions with strange herbs and fungi that made them leap farther, spit fire, or glide over the monarch’s traps with great ease.
The brothers had even freed some of the dangerous beasts locked in boxes all across the land, riding them as steeds. These scaled monstrosities were true beasts, unlike the merely diseased monarch. They ate their way across the land like locusts, and could even consume the denizens they came across in huge gulps of their maws. The wicked brothers would demolish each castle they defeated with their own stores of powder, lighting the cache and watching the walls fall.
Frustrated and pushed to extremes, the monarch could only flee from castle to castle, gathering all his allies to his side. His great generals fell one after the other, even the cloud-smiths, the flame sprites, and the metal-skinned orb snapper, a fiendishly clever ally who chained himself to the ground in fear of biting a friend.
Amidst all the chaos, the good monarch found in the princess a ready ally, a compassionate person who took time to listen to the monarch and attempt to remedy his condition. Though her frequent ministrations were of little use, they bolstered the monarch’s courage and kept his retinue in high spirits, even as castle after castle fell in their wake. Even as the stones began to crumble around the good monarch, he was always able to turn to the princess’ gentle smile and whisk her away before harm befell them. The brothers always arrived in the rubble when the princess had already left, soon safe in another castle.
In this way, the monarch quickly found himself in his own kingdom. Even there, he could not rest, for the brothers chased him to his doorstep, destroying the castles of his royal kin one after the other. At last, they came to his own castle, the biggest, most well-defended of them all, filled with sharp spikes, moving walls, and floors aflame with lava.
“Princess, I must insist you cease this insistent attachment to me,” the good monarch told her even as the brothers’ cacophony was heard in the dungeons. For the good monarch had fallen deeply in love with the gentle pink princess, and he did not wish her to see his inevitable doom. The princess, likewise, was fond of the monarch in her own fashion.
“Good King, I have oft insisted on your innocence,” she told him in furtive gasps. “If any of my people have come with their champions, I pray the chance to convince them of your well-meaning.”
“I fear that will not be enough,” the monarch sighed. “These brothers come from another world. The deep pits and foul tunnels that form our defense are like a second home to them. I do not think they will be well-intentioned, nor mean to hear reason.”
At that point the royal doors began to shudder with the impact of the brothers’ terrible feet. The portal quaked hard enough to jostle the great golden rivets from the red metal.
“Go now, my loyal retainers!” the good monarch cried. “Leave me to face these otherworldly horrors alone!”
“Sire!” his men cried in anguish. “We shall not leave you to your fate! We desire to perish in your defense!”
“Fools!” he cried, and with his voice came the terrible, diseased breath that incinerated all in its path. Even his most loyal subjects cowered behind their honorary back-garments, harder than shields. They fled, in fear.
“And you, princess?” the monarch asked.
“I know you for the gentle soul you are,” she said to him. “You would never harm me with your cursed flame, nor the sharp claws I have treated night after night. It is only my deepest regret that I was unable to lift your terrible burden.”
“It is with the gifts of my malady that I shall defend my lands, and you, princess. These outlanders must perish here, lest they wreak any more havoc on innocents! Only, pray, princess, stay in this protective room for your own safety. See, you may watch the battle through the strong bars.”
“I shall, and my voice shall sound clearly through the fight. May you emerge victorious, Good King.”
With that final discourse, the doors to the good monarch’s throne room burst from their hinges. What terrible warriors stood framed in the doorway! Casually, the shorter one in the red helm reached into his pocket, and drew forth the red petals of the fleur-de-rouge, poison to any from this world. He chewed on the bitter, hot plant, and then from his hands he began to fling terrible fire, burning and eating at the beautiful tapestries of the good monarch’s throne room.
“I am not without my own flame!” the monarch shouted. “I shall never hand over the princess to the likes of you!”
His wrath was as terrible, for the monarch had grown a physical form as wretched as the brothers’ souls. With a step he shook the ground, throwing the brothers to their knees. With a leap he threatened to crush them underfoot, between toes hardened and tipped with sword-like claws. With a scream his breath lashed out a tongue of rolling fire, licking at the brothers’ clothes.
All the while, the brothers were leaping with their strong legs, staying just out of the monarch’s reach. They grinned a terrible war-mask, an amusement so alien that the monarch was struck with a superstitious fear. Even as they dodged his terrible breath and his swiping claws, they hurled their own fire, foul balls of the stuff that cleaved away huge chunks of the monarch’s thickened, diseased skin.
At last, the monarch seized the green brother by one leg, and snapped it with his strong arms. Not once did either brother cry out in pain or anguish, and even as the monarch placed the green one in his own hideous jaws, they grinned that insidious, disquieting grin, bright white beneath their identical brown beards.
“And now you die!” the monarch screamed, and exhaled a breath that cremated the green brother instantly, filling his mouth with a septic stench. He bit down, and spat the remains from his mouth. The small victory was of no avail to him.
With that joyous grimace never changing, the remaining brother leapt from the monarch’s own throne, and stomped hard on his head. The monarch screamed a cry of rage, but the red-capped murderer was atop him, kicking and stomping at his skull. With a groan of defeat, the monarch felt something break deep inside, a place that he knew not even the princess could reach to heal. He slumped, all the fight gone from him, and in a last haze of consciousness seemed to hear the princess’ incoherent sobbing, a funerary song for him.
“Princess,” the red-helmed champion said, stepping lightly over the monarch’s ruined back. Even the former ruler’s red hair had been set aflame, and now smoldered a burnt smell that covered the sick sweet odor of spilt brains.
“My champion,” the Princess managed over her sobs. She knew, of course, that neither the champion nor her subjects were aware of the monarch’s condition, and so could not be blamed for what they saw as a valiant rescue operation. Luckily, he took her sadness as a reaction to the terrible scene before them. With a firm kick, the red brother broke the lock and removed the princess from the room.
“This cage does not suit you. No doubt the terrible monster kept you in there for days on end, feeding you scraps from his tortured foes,” a familiar voice sounded near her feet, and she looked down to behold her royal bard, his round, red, spotted hat bobbing near her knee.
“My hero, your quest is at an end,” she said to the red-capped champion now. “Though I am at a loss why you do not mourn your brother.”
“I do,” the champion replied. “like I mourn our steeds, who gave their lives so we could cross the chasms before the castle, and all the citizens laid to waste by this monster. I mourn them, yet they were ready to give their lives for his defeat.”
The grave misunderstanding shocked the princess, as soon as she parsed through the champion’s strange accent. Her first instinct was to correct the champion and her bard, to convince them of their terrible act on so innocent a creature. However, she quailed; if they had come so far, scorched so much of the countryside to save her, what repayment would it be to tear down their sacrifice? What use would it be to save a dead man’s reputation? The good monarch would have understood, that to keep her country’s well-being, morale and relationship with its neighbors, this terrible mistake must never see the light of day. So, instead of giving voice to the terrible injustice, the princess composed herself. Wiping away the tears and giving some decorum to her dress, she asked the only question left to be asked.
“My hero, what is your name?”
“It’s-a me, Mario!” he said.