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The Kingdom Beyond Midnight

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Chapter 7 – The Empress

She spent yet another day in her solemn spire, watching the world below pass her by – slaves and grim soldiers beholden to the slow, uncertain rhythm of time.

Yet again, the last dim light of day slowly sank beneath the pall of night. Silent grey guards stalked the maze of battlements, their flickering eyelights casting a lattice of fractured shadows across the white tower walls. Far below, scores of tired servants scrubbed the streets and swept away the previous day's litter and grime. Beyond the outer walls, faraway Mushroom City still glimmered like starlight.

Once more, the black abyss of night gradually birthed another new day. Patrols changed, and fresh guards arrived on the parapets to replace the old. The cleaning crews slipped from sight, as the daylight staff spilled from their homes to herd towards the unseen center of the palace. The outer walls peeled open, and a steady line of flatbed trucks hauled in supplies imported from the city and beyond.

On and on the time spun by, hours slowly blurring into a senseless mess; and yet the vast white citadel never truly slept. Neither, to her endless frustration, did Princess Peach.

"It's been six days, and I've yet to even leave this room," she thought as she curled against the bare mattress, absentmindedly reaching for a quilt that wasn't there. "Wasn't I supposed to get a meeting with the person behind all this?"

Truth be told, the princess rarely bothered to keep track of time during her kidnappings anymore. After all these years, she had sort of grown numb to the whole "captivity" thing. It was practically a routine – Bowser would snatch her away, and then she'd wait a day or two for Mario to turn up. The hero and the Koopa King would have a little tussle, and then she'd get to go home and have a nice warm shower.

That's how it normally played out, anyway. This time, the situation wasn't even Bowser's fault in the first place; and Mario, wherever he was, had not yet come to save her.

She felt like she was fraying at the edges, her patience running thin. She'd spent nearly a week in this pink padded cell, with precious little to do but lean on the window sill and stare at the sky. Nothing special ever happened outside, save for that one festive night with the mysterious golden palanquin.

She was bored, to put it simply. That, and extremely, hopelessly tired. She'd always struggled a bit with insomnia – a little-known secret that only her closest friends and Toadsworth were privy to – but rarely had she gone so long without a good night's rest. This creepy room and its bleak solitude were draining her sanity by the day; but luckily, she didn't plan on staying to let that happen.

The princess shivered in bed, wishing she still had a blanket to wrap about her bare shoulders. Sighing, she pushed herself upright and wiped her tired eyes. "So much for squeezing in a last-minute power nap," she silently lamented. It was almost six p.m. – nearly time for her to go – and she couldn't afford to lie around if she wanted to be ready.

Getting to her feet, she smoothed her nightgown and padded across the plush carpet to check the window one last time. Inching it open, she looked this way and that to see if anyone was presently watching her. Outside, crews of uniformed worker Toads were stringing thick silver-blue cables between some of the faraway towers, overseen by small clusters of the typical armored guards. On the ground, a few specks passed back and forth through the shady, narrow streets.

Peach wasn't very interested in any of that – the same scenes had been playing out every evening that week. Instead, she knelt down and grabbed the long rope of knotted bedclothes that she had crafted earlier that morning. She tied the end of one bright pink sheet to the nearest bedpost, tugging at the knot a few times to make sure it held. Next, she gathered up the chain of quilts and bedspreads, tossed the bundle out the window, watched it unfurl down the side of the tower, and finally…

…She hurried across to the other side of the room, climbing into the immense pile of faded dolls and threadbare plush toys. She shifted and squirmed until she was almost totally buried, leaving just enough of a gap to see through.

Obviously, she wasn't really going to try and climb out the window. She was sixty stories high in a tower, for stars' sake! Such a thing would be insane. But the guards didn't know her well enough to know that she wouldn't try it, and that was the key. She had a plan, and it made sense in her head – now, she just had to play the waiting game.

Over the past few days, Peach had been learning the schedule of the guards posted outside her door. They never spoke to her, but they often spoke amongst themselves when one would come to relieve another. If her insomnia had a benefit, it's that she was always awake to hear the murmurs.

It didn't take long for the pattern to emerge: shifts lasted for exactly six hours, and there was only ever one watchman outside at a time. The changings occurred at noon and midnight, as well as halfway between the two. A set of clunky armored footsteps would approach the door (always from the right, Peach reminded herself, never from the left), and another would stomp away in the same direction.

The noon and midnight guards never entered her room, but the halfway guards always did. At six a.m., Peach was brought breakfast; and at six p.m., she was given supper. (Neither meal was ever particularly tasty or filling, but that was beside the point). The princess supposed it was too much of a hassle to send maids or cooks up the tall tower, leaving the task to whichever soldier happened to be going up anyway.

"Either that, or whoever is in charge here simply doesn't want anybody to see me," Peach supposed, although she was unable to guess why she would be kept a secret after her captor had gone to such mad lengths to obtain her.

She was pulled from her thoughts by the subtle creak of plate mail, and then the low tones of muffled conversation. The princess strained her ears to listen, picking up a few words like "wires" and "progress," and finally smiled as she heard footsteps retreating down the hall.

It was clockwork. It was predictable. It was easy. "If they wanted me to stay here like a good girl," she thought as she lay hidden amongst the dolls, "then they shouldn't have made my cell so dreadfully dull."

A moment later, the door swung open and a soldier entered the room carrying a small tray of potato salad and bland-smelling mushroom stew. Just as Peach had hoped, the food was instantly flung aside as the guard gasped and ran to the open window.

Part of her brain was telling her to run right now, while the guard was distracted. The more rational part knew that she wouldn't make it very far on her own. She was a young woman in a flimsy nightgown, in a maze filled with hostile armored warriors carrying spears. Changing that fact was "part two" of the plan.

Quiet as a shadow, the princess emerged unnoticed from her hiding spot. The soldier was still busy peering out the window and reeling in the rope of sheets, so Peach oh-so-carefully climbed onto and across the bare bed. This was precisely why she had taken off her cumbersome royal dress – she needed perfect maneuverability for what came next.

Unable to help herself, she let out a little yell as she leapt from the bed and onto the soldier's back. The guard reeled back in violent shock, trying to shake her off, but Peach had already wrapped her slender legs tightly around his waist.

The guard spun and flailed like a mad Broozer, determined to free himself from the blonde who had latched onto him. He would get her before long; but before things could get that far, Peach brought her arms up to grasp either side of his iron helmet, twisting and yanking until it popped free with a clang and a hiss. Wasting not even an instant, she flipped the headgear upside-down and brought it down hard on her foe's head. His flailing body went limp, and together he and the princess dropped to the floor with an unceremonious thud.

Peach untangled herself and got to her feet, brushing off her nightgown which had gotten a bit dusty in the scuffle. She looked down at the unconscious guard, seeing his unmasked face for the very first time. She hadn't known what to expect – the clunky armor meant that her captors could have been anything – but she was pretty sure that nothing could surprise her.

She was entirely wrong. Despite everything, she still wasn't prepared for the sight of a normal-looking, blue-spotted Toad, lying in a pitiful heap amongst pieces of armor that were several sizes too big.

Peach's heart sank into her stomach. "They're just Toads," she realized as the guard began to drool a bit onto her foot. "Toads are supposed to be gentle creatures, and they've always been so loyal to me. What in the world could have happened to make them turn traitor…?"

She'd love to stay and ask, but time wasn't permitting. She had six hours until the next guard arrived to find her missing, but it was a very large palace. Hastily, she stripped the sleeping Toad of his armor and began the task of equipping it herself.

The gauntlets and boots were easy enough; the greaves and chestplate, much less so. She made some very unladylike noises over the next few minutes as she struggled, and was quite glad that nobody was around to hear. Finally she donned the suit's helmet – a bizarre construction lit from within by an array of tiny LED lights - and headed out the door.

The hallway was blessedly empty, and much smaller than Peach had imagined. She emerged from her cell at the end of a low-ceilinged corridor built of dark grey stone, lit by dim track lighting that crisscrossed overhead. To her left was a blank stone wall, while the passage itself curved gently away and out of view to the right.

Using the guard's key to lock the door behind her, the disguised princess made her way down the hall, following the subtle curve as it rounded the tower. She noticed the floor beginning to slope, and wondered if this single passageway descended the whole spire. She was soon proven wrong when she found herself before the wrought iron gates of a narrow cage lift.

Uncertain, she climbed inside and pulled the lever. "I have no idea what's down there," she thought as the bars slid shut and the old elevator began shuddering its way down the side of the tower. "I've made my choice now, though. It's freedom or bust."

She was safe enough for now, so Peach lifted her visor and walked to the bars to take in the view. The lift was on the opposite side of the tower from her little window, so these sights were all new to her. She gasped softly in concern; for what she saw was so alien she wondered if it could truly be called a castle at all.

The pale palace sprawled in all directions; bridges and walkways threading between slender towers like spider webs amidst frozen grass. Silver-blue cables and wires hung from the bridges like loose tinsel, snaking their way down walls and lying in great coils in the stone courtyards far below. Armored and unarmored specks alike could be seen gathering the cables and unraveling them down darkened alleyways and out of sight.

She turned her eyes back upwards and looked out over the alien skyline. The white towers marched away into the distance, growing steadily smaller in orbital rings until they ended altogether around a single, immense brick plaza. There - beyond lavish fountains, grand gardens, and yet more silver wires - stood the central keep in a hundred stories of horrifying glory.

The tower's base was a great elliptical structure that reminded Peach very much of the Vice, a tremendous covered stadium she had once played soccer at with her friends, back in simpler days. The roof of the "stadium" sloped upwards in a gentle dome, before erupting upwards into an immense spire that far overshadowed any structure that the princess had ever seen.

Parts of the thing were silver, and parts were black; the two sides held apart by haphazard gashes and glowing violet lines. It all looked starkly mechanical, and the strange silver-blue wires coiled up the sides like creeper vines, disappearing and reappearing through yawning gaps and holes in the walls. The structure split and morphed around itself in ways that defied all logic, and Peach was sure that no sane creature could have ever dreamed of such a thing.

She had to remove her helmet entirely, just so she could crane her neck back far enough to see the very top. Up there, almost beyond sight, a great glass sphere had been built into the twists and bends of the mangled spire. From where she stood, Peach thought it looked totally empty; but she took notice of how the cables snaked in beneath it, forming a shiny nest on which it snugly rested.

The princess was so transfixed by the sinister tower that she failed to notice when the lift arrived at ground level. It wasn't until the iron bars creaked open that she realized her precarious situation. Panicking, she reequipped her helmet and stepped out of the cage as casually as she could, praying that nobody had just seen her.

Luckily, she was alone. The lift opened into a small alcove at the back of an empty plaza, shaded by the tower that loomed above. Peach spun around, trying to recall which direction the outer wall had been in. Once she had gotten her bearings, she ventured out of the little courtyard and into the nearby street.

"Where do you think you're going, soldier?" a voice barked from nearby, and Peach snapped her head around to find the source. Another watchman had been posted at the entrance to the plaza, and now he was staring blankly at her through the flickering slits of his iron helmet. "You just went up there. What, did you forget the prisoner's dinner or something?"

Peach had hoped to avoid confrontation, but no such luck. She put on her best 'deep' voice – not an easy task for her – and tried to think up an excuse. "I, uh, yes! I did! That's exactly what happened, sir." She stood straight and tall, looking the guard in the eye and wondering if she should salute. "It seems to have slipped my mind. I'm… going to get it right now!"

The watchman eyed her steadily, unmoving for a moment, but then sagged into a hollow sigh. "You recruits are beyond hopeless, you know that?" He limply raised an arm to the side and pointed off down the street. "Go and get the food, but you'd better believe I'm filing a report about this."

Peach let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding. As she set off briskly down the path, she heard the guard chuckle behind her. "It's pretty ironic, the scraps we're feeding that girl. I mean, considering what the other one is like…" He paused as if waiting for a laugh, but Peach had no idea what he was even talking about. Getting nothing for his efforts, the guard shook his head and continued. "Then again, I suppose that is the entire point."

With that, he spun about-face and began heading toward the lift. Wait, why was he going into the tower? Peach jumped and stumbled forward a bit, inwardly cursing her lack of composure. "Wait, don't go up there! I mean… shouldn't you stay at your post?" she called out, hoping the watchman would turn back.

"Don't be stupid, solider!" the guard called back, not even bothering to stop. "Someone has to keep an eye on the prisoner while you're not here. Fetch the meal, and don't keep me waiting, got it?" He climbed into the iron cage and pulled the lever; and before Peach could respond, the lift was already trundling up and away.

This… was very bad. In fact, it was pretty much game over. "As soon as he gets up there, he'll realize I've escaped! So much for six hours; I'll be lucky if I have six minutes!" Peach waited until the guard had risen out of view, trying very hard not to panic all the while, and then began walking as quickly as she could toward where she believed the outer gate to be.

She could see the walls easily enough, looming over the distant horizon; but time was suddenly very short, and it wasn't exactly easy to move in such clunky armor. Soldiers were stationed here and there, standing outside various buildings up and down the street, so she couldn't risk removing the gear and making a run for it. Instead, she walked with purpose down the sidewalk, passing a few workers and servants who edged aside to allow her passage.

As she went, Peach scanned the buildings around her and tried to puzzle out what the strange and sinister constructions could be meant for. Peering in open doorways, she spotted quaint homes and stark barracks; cramped storage lockers and sprawling warehouses. At an intersection, she even passed what looked like a corner coffee shop serving refreshments to a handful of off-duty staff.

Banners hung from every edifice, and flags waved proudly above every street. They all bore the same grim sigil – a white mushroom set against an inverted violet star – that also adorned the chestplates and shields of every grey soldier. Peach had never seen the symbol until the night the army had invaded her castle, but now it was a sight that haunted her dreams. The more she looked at it, the more the pallid, eyeless mushroom began to resemble a stylized skull.

The princess was so lost in her worries, that she almost didn't notice when she emerged onto a much wider and busier street. Turning back, she saw that she had come quite a fair way already. In fact, if her estimations were correct, then this was the boulevard she had seen the parade pass down earlier in the week. And if that was true, then that meant freedom was only a few short blocks away!

She turned left, gazing past the oncoming supply trucks and busy worker teams, and there it was. The outer wall, and all that lay beyond. Safety, the sparkling lights of Mushroom City, and the way back to her friends. The way home.

The outer gates stood open, towering slabs of pale white marble that slid out and away from the sheer wall on massive metal tracks set deep into the ground. Trucks and trolleys passed back and forth, carrying employee Toads out into the city and hauling wires – ever more wires – back into the palace.

Peach noticed that many of the departing Toads had guard escorts, and realized that it would be a simple task to attach herself to a party inconspicuously. She felt her heart soar at the idea – things were finally starting to put themselves right in her life. "I'm almost home free! This'll teach these brutes for treating me like some common eight-bit damsel…"

She started forward, each step bringing her closer to the wide open world, but before she had reached the end of the block she heard a voice calling out for her attention. Back up the sidewalk a bit, a joint team of soldiers and worker Toads was emerging from an alley, carrying a hefty bundle of the silver cables. "Hey there, fella!" one of the workers called out to the disguised princess, waving an arm in friendly greeting. "C'mere and help us get this cable up onto the roof! We'd really appreciate it!"

"I absolutely don't have time for this," Peach hissed to herself, trying to think of a way she could weasel her way out of the task. "Actually, I should really be going. I… need to be out in the city right about now."

One of the soldiers spoke next, and he wasn't acting quite so cheery. "This will only take a few minutes, unless we decide to bring you along on the next job." When the princess made no move to assist, he took a step forward. "Get over here; that's an order."

Instead of obeying, Peach took a nervous step backward. How was she going to get out of this? "I really shouldn't. I… have an appointment with my… eye doctor? Yes, it's very urgent," she lied lamely, taking another backwards step.

Some of the workers looked at each other, confused. The soldier merely took another threatening step forward. "All medical emergencies are handled at the infirmary here on-site. Why are you really trying to sneak out?" Another step forward for the soldier, and another one back for Peach. "I swear, if you're headed to one of those revolting spore shows in the red coin district…"

"I… that is…" Peach was struggling to come up with any kind of response, and was seriously beginning to consider just bolting. Suddenly, as if things hadn't already gone as sideways as possible, a shrill and cacophonous alarm started up, blaring out over the rooftops and echoing down the streets. Blinding searchlights fired into life up on the spires, fanning outward from the tips like many-legged spider halos.

As the lights cast their gaze over the palace, a thousand hidden loudspeakers began conveying a single, dreadful message. "The prisoner has escaped. This is, of course, unforgivable. Find her, catch her, and bring her to me." The voice came from the sidewalks, from the streetlights, and from the very walls of the pale buildings themselves. It was regal, and commanding, and there was a strange sort of familiarity to it that made Peach's blood run cold.

All the nearby guards were staring at her now. Peach couldn't see their eyes, but she could feel the suspicion grow behind the dancing light of their helmets. The one she had been talking to was standing his ground, and several others soon stepped up to join him. "Remove your helmet, soldier. Show your face!" It was a barked order, and the 'or else' was very much implied.

"I'd rather not. I mean… my eye, the one I'm going to the doctor about… It's very gross. And it's contagious! You really don't want to see it…" The princess could see that this was getting her absolutely nowhere. If anything, it was making the soldiers advance faster. There was truly no talking herself out of this.

So Peach ran. Turning down the adjacent alley, she sprinted as fast as the clunky armor would let her. Not far behind, she heard the platoon of guards clambering in after her, boiling down the alleyway like a raging metal stampede. The princess was hopelessly outmatched when it came to speed – somehow, she would have to outmaneuver them.

It wasn't going to be easy. The streets were a circular grid, and the alarm must've alerted every soldier in the palace to her escape. Each time she glanced back, the pursuing army had grown several members larger as more and more guards were pulled into the chase from every building and side street.

Dashing into another tight alley, she hoped to lead the chasers through a bottleneck and thin the herd. If anything, it would buy her a minute or two. The idea seemed to work, as the thunderous footsteps faded into clanging iron and cries of frustration; but that would only last until the guards realized they could loop around the grid to pincer the princess from the sides.

True escape was off the table, now. In fact, Peach could already hear the low roaring grind of the outer gates sliding shut. Soon she would be back in her cell, or perhaps somewhere even worse. But this little misadventure wasn't going to be a complete waste of effort – she was determined to see to that.

A small open-faced supermarket was just ahead, set into the diagonal face of another tall tower. It looked to be a store that operated after-hours, selling drinks and late-night snacks to nocturnal workers. Luckily, it didn't seem to be open for business yet; so the princess stumbled inside, sweaty and very much out of breath.

Taking off her helmet and glancing around between the aisles, she quickly spotted what she was searching for – a white landline telephone, hanging on the wall behind the checkout counter. She hastily grabbed the receiver and ducked down behind the booth and out of sight. If she couldn't escape, she could at least get a message to her friends.

But who should she call? Her first instinct was Mario, of course, but the reckless adventurer ran through so many phones that she was never quite sure of his number. "Luigi, then? No, he never picks up unless he knows who's calling. Think, Peach; there has to be someone!" The answer came to her in a sudden flash of red and white. "Of course; Toad! He hasn't set down his cell phone since I bought it for him!"

Sitting on the tiled floor in an attempt to stay hidden, she dialed the number of her mushroom friend. If something had happened to the little guy, then all hope was lost. Peach waited impatiently as the phone rang once, twice, thrice; and then…

"Hello? This is Toad! Who is this?" The princess let out something halfway between a giggle and a sob. She'd never been so glad to hear that scratchy little voice. "Is that you, Mario? Did you butt-dial me again?"

"No, no; it's me! It's Peach!" she replied, running a trembling hand through her sweat-matted blonde hair. There was some shuffling and excited whispering from over the line, so she decided to keep going. "Listen, Toad, I need you to tell-"

"Princess Peach, is it really you? We've been worried sick!" Toad's voice was faint and echoey – he was either underground, or somewhere with truly pitiful reception. Still, Peach wasn't about to criticize the first friendly conversation she'd had all week. "Where are you, huh? Mario's gonna go nuts when he hears that you called!"

That's right; she needed to talk to Mario! There was some awkwardness between them, but this was the perfect time to shove it all aside and collaborate like old-times. "Is Mario there right now? I don't have much time; but I have information that he needs to know."

There was silence for a moment, during which Peach could hear the alarms and shouts pick up again, far off down the street. She was running out of time, but luckily her friend soon answered. "He's not here right now, but Luigi totally is! He's here in the professor's library with me! Do you wanna talk to him?"

"Yes! Luigi is just fine. Thank you so much," she nodded rapidly, as if the phone could somehow convey her urgency. There was some more shuffling, which Peach guessed was the cell changing hands, and then a new voice spoke up.

"Peach? Where are you?! Mario said that you got hauled off in a bubble by some cackling hooded maniac!" The younger brother sounded frantic, as per usual, but there was also warm relief to be heard in his nasally voice. "So, who is that; and where are you? How are you even calling us right now, anyway? Tell me everything you can."

Outside, the heavy footfalls and urgent shouts of the army were getting ever nearer. In a minute or two, the jig would be up. "I don't have time for 'everything,' but I'm in Mushroom City. Or, at least, I'm near the city." She paused a moment, gathering her scrambled thoughts, and then tried to elaborate. "I don't exactly know how to explain it, but I'm in some kind of pale mechanical palace made of spires and bridges."

There was a low whistle from the other side, and the faint sound of flipping pages, before Luigi answered her. "That's bad, Peach. You're in the Empress' citadel – the dark heart of the whole Empire! I've just been reading about that place, and it's not a nice story. It's apparently made from crashed-"

Toad's excited voice cut in, interrupting whatever Luigi had been about to tell her. "Have you met her yet, huh? Have you met crazy evil Peach? What's she like, and are the rumors true? Is she as totally giga-"

'Crazy evil' what? Luigi had apparently snatched the phone back, because Toad's voice vanished yet again. The footsteps were thundering back and forth just outside the shop now, but Peach simply needed to know what her friend had meant. "Luigi, what is Toad talking about? Who is this 'Empress' person?"

Luigi sighed, and when he spoke again his voice sounded strained with doubt. "Okay, this is going to sound nutty, but hear me out." Peach said nothing, waiting patiently for his explanation. "We're trapped in an alternate timeline – all of us. The star that hit your castle did it, somehow. The 'Empress' that Toad mentioned – that's you. In this world, you're this evil tyrant that everybody is terrified of."

"But, that's absurd," Peach gasped, perhaps a bit too loudly, finding the entire concept too bizarre to believe. "It's impossible! There's no way I would ever become something like that, do you understand?" The idea was ludicrous, but she found herself starting to hyperventilate as the evidence floated to the front of her mind. The mushroom sigil; the golden palanquin and pink fireworks; the fact that there was no white citadel in Mushroom City…

"Peach, are you still there? I'm really sorry, but-" Luigi's voice cut out as the line suddenly went dead. Cold dread crawling down her back, the princess slowly lifted her head from her spot on the floor to see a grey soldier leaning coolly over the counter, arm outstretched with a finger on the switchhook. He turned his iron head down to meet her gaze soundlessly, quiet fury flaring in his eyeless lights.

One by one, more guards ghosted in from the gathering darkness, silently filling the little market like a stoic gallery of living statues. Peach pushed herself to her feet, one hand on the countertop and the other braced against the wall, proud and defiant to the last. "I simply won't believe it," she straightened her back and addressed the staring horde. "The things my friend said about your 'Empress,' they can't be true."

"Is that what you believe, little Princess?" the soldier that had ended her call now drew his arm back in a fluid sweep to grab Peach's wrist. As a wave, the others surged toward the counter; pinning her in and grabbing her by the arm, the shoulder, the waist…

"How about you come with us, and see for yourself?"

It was a long, slow march to the central keep; and Peach could feel the palace crowd's leery eyes on her every step of the way.

Her platoon of captors had walled her in on every side, corralling the princess helplessly down the wide main avenue that cut through the grid of streets and spires. Servants and staff paused along the roadside to watch the grey parade pass by, wearing expressions of confusion and vague worry that were plain to see, even at a distance.

As Peach and her escort emerged into the vast inner plaza, the handful of scattered bystanders slowly grew into a silent and melancholy throng. "Why are they looking at me like that?" the princess asked herself as she met their baleful eyes. "What have I ever done to them? Unless, it really is 'me' inside that building…"

To be honest, she was still reeling a bit from the information Luigi and Toad had given her. An alternate timeline, with an alternate version of her? Peach couldn't believe that she was capable of building a monstrous place such as this, even in another life. And yet, in spite of it all, it was the most sensible explanation she had for the strange situation.

What would she be like, then; this other Peach? Would she be soft-spoken and calm, or menacing and cruel? The princess recalled the time her body had been hijacked by the Shadow Queen, at the climax of another adventure long ago. She had watched from the inside as the demon moved her body like a puppet, taunting Mario and the others with an air of superiority and perfect poise. If Peach had to imagine herself as an evil tyrant, that awful experience was the perfect baseline.

Across the plaza, the foreboding "stadium" surged ever closer into the foreground; the open entrance darkened to near-blackness by the twisted shadow of the tower looming high above. Up close, the colossal main spire seemed to thrum with an unknown energy; an intangible aura that pulsed up and down the sky-piercing monolith in sluggish purple waves.

Peach must have slowed down during her contemplation, because the guard behind her was starting to rudely push her forward. As she glared back at him, the shadow of the entrance passed overhead; and suddenly they were inside the keep, walking down an opulent golden hallway towards the second-largest door the princess had ever seen.

The party moved in tense silence down the corridor, passing over lush magenta carpeting as their path was lit by hanging chandeliers of crystal and gilded glass. Sheets of immaculate gold leaf cascaded down the walls and across the great door, etched with images of lofty mountains and falling stars. The walls muffled the low humming of the tower above, but Peach could still feel the strange energy pulsing in the air.

As the group approached, the shining doorway swung open for them by means unseen, revealing the tables of a grand dining hall piled high with a sumptuous feast. Peach's wide eyes darted up and down the room in total awe, scarcely believing the sight. She often held Galas and parties back home, but there was more food in this hall tonight than her chefs prepared in an entire year.

Stuffed pork roasts and savory meat pies lined the table alongside smoking slabs of Shroom Steak, perfectly charred and lathered with thick layers of sweet honey syrup. There were mountains of fresh pasta pungently drizzled with inky sauce, whole wheels of buttery cheese, and green leafy salads topped with minced horsetails and chopped Subcon turnips. The air was heavy with the spicy scent of crushed Fire Flower seasoning, wafting from deep dishes of fish-and-mushroom stir fry swimming in garlic sauce, and high hills of rice pilaf served with toasted goomnuts in lightly-seared upturned Koopa shells. Smaller side tables offered an enchanting selection of desserts – fruit pies and nutty cakes, and bowls of airy mousse piled high with rich dark chocolate and cream.

Instead of a golden throne, as Peach would've imagined, an immense pile of fluffy pink pillows lay at the far end of the table, partially covered over by a resplendent purple quilt. Aged wooden chairs lined the feast from end to end, but every one of them sat empty. As far as she could see, the only people in the room besides herself and the guards were a pair of shriveled Goombas in plain servant garb. One was pushing food gingerly down the table, while the other seemed to be precariously balancing a wine glass and silver tray on his head.

"Leave her here, she will not harm me," a melodic voice drifted from somewhere nearby, as the tide of soldiers began to recede backwards through the door and into the darkness. Before long, Peach was alone in the room, save for the Goombas and the mysterious voice, which kept speaking. "I must say, armor doesn't become you. Was there no more fashionable escape plan you could have chosen?"

Peach looked hesitantly around the room, trying her best not to be distracted by the sights and smells of the gigantic feast. "I can't tell where you are, you know. If this is a game, I'd personally rather not play." She was answered by a warm and comforting laugh, and a rippling disturbance in the pillowy mound. She started down the aisle, thinking to investigate, but stuttered to a halt when the mound jiggled and raised an arm, reaching forward to grab at the glass of wine.

"Those aren't pillows," Peach thought, turning pale as the truth slowly began to dawn. "No, they're not fluffy pillows at all. That's a woman." A mountainous, corpulent, utter ruin of a woman; who currently sat in decadent bliss, shoveling down the feast she had prepared for herself alone.

Empress Toadstool sat immobile on a tremendous cushioned litter beyond the table. Rolls and layers of excess flesh seemed to simply flow out from her gigantic belly, spreading far across the mattress and nearly dripping over the edges. Her stomach was a landmark unto itself, a veritable structure of quivering fat that was perhaps even wider than she was tall. Her enormous bosom rested heavily atop the mound; while behind her, her expansive rear consumed the litter on which it sat, swallowing the space gluttonously.

Blonde hair tumbled across her vast form in elaborate ringlets, speckled with jeweled hairclips of sapphire and amethyst that shone amidst the gold like sunstruck morning dew. The great purple quilt was draped carefully across her right shoulder like a half-shawl, trailing down her body and partially obscuring the rich, deep pink evening dress that spilled out across the expanse like a waterfall of frills. The air around her swam thick with the scent of lavender oil and perfume.

Peach barely remembered her mother, but in photographs the late Queen had always been a bit on the tubby side. It's one of the big reasons why the princess had always been so very careful about maintaining her own figure – a frugal diet, long jogs through the castle gardens, and at least an hour of tennis each day. The woman before her now was like a sight pulled straight from her teenage nightmares.

"Don't be shy, princess. After all, you and I are the same, are we not?" The Empress set down her glass, beckoning Peach down the long hall with a wave of her adipose-laden fingers. "I wanted to summon you so much sooner, but I've been terribly busy. It's exhausting work, ruling the world."

Peach felt her feet begin to move, betraying her deep desire to run and hide; to flee far away from this place and never look back, or to wake up back in her cell and forget that this awful dream had ever happened. Instead, she walked past the servants and the feast on shaking legs, stumbling step-by-step towards this mockery of everything she ever was.

"I suppose it's my fault that you tried to run. It must be so overwhelming, being in a place this grand with nobody to help or guide you." Peach idly nodded, only half-listening as she finally drew up beside her other self. Up close, she could now clearly see the Empress' plump face. While her lips were much fuller and her cheeks were bloated with fat, Peach couldn't deny that the deep blue eyes were the same as her own.

"You must have seen my tower; do you know what it is?" the vast woman inquired next, gesturing vaguely upwards with a doughy arm. Peach glanced toward the ceiling, recalling the mysterious colossus that towered above. Without waiting for a response, the Empress began to explain. "It's the mothership of the Shroob invasion; the same ship that nearly conquered this world. I had it moved here from where it crashed in the mountains, and raised as a symbol of victory. It's a symbol of the great feats which are possible under my guidance and care."

Peach didn't recall a ship like that ever being part of the Shroob fleet in her own timeline, but that wasn't the issue that concerned her at the moment. Steadying her breath, the princess finally found the courage to speak. "But why are you giving power to such an evil thing? What are you planning with so many wires and cables?

The Empress laughed, a warm mirthful sort of laugh that sounded almost motherly; and Peach had to remind herself she and her doppelganger were still the same age. "It's for the festivities, my dear; for the lights and sounds of a great celebration." She hummed to herself for a moment, closing her eyes in thought. Finally she said, "But let's not talk about such things yet. It would utterly ruin the surprise. Instead, I have something important to show you."

"You have something… to show me?" Peach asked, disliking how little control she had over this conversation. She had questions, but the Empress had an agenda; and Peach felt like she was being led along a path of answers she didn't quite need.

"Yes, it's something very secret and personal," her other self replied, awkwardly grasping at her heavy purple shawl. The two Goomba servants had paused in their work, and now lingered nearby to watch the exchange. Looking between them, the Empress spoke in a singsong voice, "That means that I would like to be alone with my guest."

The shriveled Goombas did not move, instead looking at each other in faint bewilderment as if this sort of thing had never happened before. Eventually, one began to back cautiously towards the exit; but the other – the one holding the wine glass – simply turned back to look at the royal pair.

"I SAID LEAVE, YOU INSIPID LITTLE SHIITAKE!" the Empress bellowed suddenly, brandishing her carving knife like a dagger and swinging wildly at the remaining servant. As she lashed out, the Goomba came to his senses and bolted from the hall, terrified, his wine glass spilling to the floor forgotten.

Peach had taken a step back herself, and nearly took a second when the large woman's eyes fell on her again. But when the Empress spoke next, no trace of the outburst remained. "Now then, let's talk about why you're here."

Again, the woman reached up to grab the hem of her quilt, reaching across her massive chest to lift the fabric as high as she could. As she helplessly tried to push and shake the shawl loose with her flabby arm, Peach wondered why she didn't just pull with the nearer hand. Her question was answered, a few moments later, when the great quilt came sliding free at last.

As the blanket fell away, the Princess curiously stepped forward to see what secrets it had been hiding. She regretted her decision almost immediately, and it took every last bit of her willpower not to recoil away from the mangled horror in front of her.

The Empress' right arm was a charred putrefaction of flesh and bone, a near-shapeless mass of burned tissue that protruded limply from a scarred and twisted shoulder. At the end curled a broken mess of a hand – two shriveled fingers were blackened to the bone, and the thumb was missing entirely. The whole thing smelled of death and decay, and Peach wondered if the lavender oil and perfume was merely to hide this one, terribly awful stench.

"This is what became of me, on that horrible night all those years ago." The Empress gazed past her ruined arm, at the blanket that now lay pooled on the floor. Sensing her wishes, Peach retrieved the quilt and hastily draped it back where it belonged. "I lost myself that night, and everything I'd ever hoped to be." She paused, her plump lip quivering, "and all because of that abominable dragon child, and his escape attempt gone awry…"

Peach was beginning to feel sorry for the wretched woman, but whatever had happened long ago did not excuse her actions in the present. There was still the matter of the princess' kidnapping; of the invasion of her castle and the slaughter of her subjects.

"But, what has this got to do with me? Why am I really here?" Right now, Peach wanted to be anywhere else but here; but her alternate self motioned her ever forward, drawing her intimately close as if sharing a cherished secret between friends.

The Empress sighed deeply, the motion sending ripples across her form. "The truth, then. You see, princess - my body is dying, and my world is dying. There is nothing to be done for either of them, so I plan to vacate both before it is too late." She cupped Peach's face within the pudgy fingers of her one good hand, and gently guided their eyes into alignment. "How lucky I was to find you, with your health and beauty, and your kingdom so full of life and light."

Peach wasn't quite sure she understood – or rather, she thought she did, but desperately hoped she was wrong. "Are you saying… that you want to take over my body, and my kingdom?" She backed away, slipping free of her duplicate's engorged fingers.

The Empress gazed after her with hungry eyes, her warm smile never faltering. "That's right, my dear. Your beautiful body is the key to my rebirth! I'll leave this world behind, and finally see the stars again…"

"That isn't even possible!" Peach shouted, backing further away. She was starting to see just how badly her alternate self had lost her mind. How could she make this woman understand that her plan was insane? "You're not a spirit or a demon, so you can't possess me. You're a human being, and you've ruined yourself! I'm sorry, but what you're suggesting is a mad fantasy!"

"You know so much less than you think, Princess," the Empress replied, her voice oddly cold and indifferent. The warmth and soft light seemed to flee the room, and for just a moment Peach felt that she was in the presence of some dark, alien cruelty that she barely understood. "I have, shall we say, an old friend who can help. He's a powerful sorcerer, whose very life is bound to me. You've met him before, so you should know how skilled he is with transference magic. He moved your castle into my world; and when the time is right, he will move my soul into your body!"

"It will never happen. My friends are here in this world, too! They'll rescue me, and-" Peach took one more step back, only to stumble and fall into the arms of a silent grey guard, who had entered the hall through a small side door during the exchange. Two more soldiers drifted up to either side, grabbing the princess' arms before pulling her back and away towards the exit.

"They're welcome to come, my dear," the Empress said with a knowing smile, as the false warmth flooded back. She turned to resume her lonely feast, reaching for a knife as Peach was dragged out into the darkness. "When that glorious night arrives, we'll all celebrate together!"

The princess returned to her tower cell to find a fresh bowl of plain mushroom stew waiting for her; but as she sat down to eat, she found that her appetite had left her long ago.

Late that night, while the cleaning crews toiled and the guards stalked their silent rounds, Peach found herself drawn to the window by the distant sound of the opening gates.

She pushed open the glass and leaned out once more into the night. Far away in the darkness, she could just barely see the shape of the walls as they peeled aside with a distant roar of metal on stone. This time, nobody rushed from their homes to watch the spectacle. There were no parades, no fireworks, and no festive cheer. There was only darkness and silence, as Peach watched a single supply truck pass slowly through the citadel gate.

The truck was flanked by no more than six guards, marching three to a side. But what drew the princess' attention was the strange shape that sat atop the trailer. A great white sheet had been pulled over some gargantuan object, which spiked and jutted sharp bulges in the cloth at odd angles. Spilling out the back, illuminated by the soft white glow of the taillights, was a snaking trail of silver-blue wire.

At the peak of the highest bulge sat a hooded figure, the subtle swishing of its dark cloak looking like pure shadow in the blackness of night. It spoke not a word to the guards who walked beside, but seemed to glance momentarily at the passing streetlights, somehow extinguishing them one-by-one as the truck drove ever on.

As the darkness deepened, so too did the mystery. The shape beneath the sheet glowed with a faint golden light, creating a dim, sheltered halo around the truck in which the shadows swayed and spun. Once or twice - although she was sure her tired eyes were lying - she spied a vague blackness shimmering through the ground, swimming figure-eights beneath the pavement in an intricate circus dance.

Peach watched the scene for as long as she could, but soon the strange little procession passed out of view behind the tower wall, and the great gates thundered shut once more. The palace returned once more to darkness, and the princess returned wearily to bed.

It would be yet another sleepless night for her, she knew, as she lie in bed watching the shadows dance; and listening to the far, persistent thrum of the mothership spire.