Two weeks later, James Campbell stood waiting for his travel contact. It had taken him a while to make up his mind, but he finally decided that he had no other option. The early morning had passed, the dawn chorus having sung their notes long ago during the rise of the dawning sun, the clouds now perfectly white and fluffy above. He had barely seen a raincloud since his coming here, which kept his mood high and hopeful.
"Hope this works," thought James aloud, "there's gotta be something up that icy mountain I can do right? ...do I really wanna do this? ...maybe I can change my-no, no it's too late now, you had your chance just go with it."
He heard a door open behind him, followed by a cheerful voice and a slight rustle before the door was locked tight with a key.
"You got everything you need?"
James patted his satchel, which was nicely filled with plenty of provisional supplies, as well as a bottle of water just in case. The jug he had been given by the spirits in the mansion was not particularly useful, owing to having no cap to prevent leakage, and James instead sold it for a little extra cash. His guide walked past him briskly, ready to start his journey with a backpack securely against his shell.
"Ready for a REAL tour of the Mushroom Kingdom?"
"Heh, yep, guess I am! Lead the way pal."
As awkward as James still felt in having this stranger guide him through the world on his own vacation time, he was nevertheless thankful for such, as he walked alongside the koopa in the light of the morning sun, a pure blue sky above with the freshest air. Nevertheless he had to ask:
"You sure this is okay with you?"
"This whole thing, taking me along with you on your vacation?"
"Oh it's okay, really!"
"Sure? I mean I'm not even from around here, I just don't wanna make this a bad experience for you is all."
"What's to be ashamed of? You're exotic, interesting, needing a guide, and you didn't take advantage of me or rob my house!"
"You say that like it's happened before."
"Well...uh...I never brought a guy home drunk before and went that far with him."
"Ahh...heh, it's funny, out of all the guys I chat up in the club, I pick the one gay koopa."
"...uh, I wasn't the only one there."
"Oh no, course not, I mean you can't have been the ONLY one."
"No, I mean 'cause it was Pink Shell Night."
He didn't stop walking, but he did slow his pace down slightly as Koopin smirked.
"Did you...not notice the pink shell sign above the door? They have it like once a week, got a kind of sponsorship deal going on with this chain of bars across the kingdom, and uh...yeah, sorta encourage business by encouraging people to come in!"
"Wait wait wait, I remember girls, surely."
"Well girls just wanna have fun too right? There were girls who like girls and boys who like boys."
"...oh my god."
The raptor facepalmed himself in slow-motion.
"Ohhhhh maaaaan I feel so stupid I'm sorry, god how did I not notice?!"
"Well, considering all the Rainbow Rum you drank, and you did drink a lot of it I gotta say."
"Well...wait did I? I don't remember a lot of it."
"Yeah, you remember I was asking you all these questions? About where you were from and all that, and you kept telling me about how much you loved Rainbow Rum? You were trying to figure out if the flavours were actually different in each bottle?"
James looked rather nonplussed, making Koopin giggle at remembering what little he could of that night.
"I mean, you were either really really drunk, or really trying hard not to tell me anything about you or where you were from...and not doing real well now that I think about it."
"Hah, yeah I tend to not focus very well when I'm drunk. Man that was...well, glad it ended okay. I mean lemme tell you, I had some pretty bad nights when I tried to take a guy or a girl back home, kinda decided to stop that after the third time."
"Nah I'm bi."
The slight clarification made both of them smirk out of impending awkwardness, before they chuckled together and shook their heads, heading onwards towards Toad Town. James was personally rather glad he had somehow managed to not spill too much about his origins, not entirely certain as to how the inhabitants of this world would handle such. As they reached the town centre, it was still as cheery as the raptor had remembered it, with the locals greeting the two as they wandered by.
"So where's this pipeway then?"
"Right over here."
Koopin pointed to a large green pipe sticking out of the ground, alone in its own small clearing, wide enough to easily accommodate a person's size. FG now wondered whether it was either a teleportation device, or an actual chute to an underground road, but he felt more confident with a guide this time.
"Well...guess we better go. Does it cost any?"
"Haha no way, why should it cost any to go down a pipe? You really ARE from far away arentcha?"
The raptor smirked and rubbed his neck a little as he followed instructions, with Koopin walking up first.
"I'll go in first okay? And you just follow me."
Koopin happily jumped into the pipe, which made a strange sound as the koopa slowly sank into its depths, a sound somewhat like PRUN PRUN PRUN. Cautious at first, he clambered onto it, seeing the black darkness from within. Pushing his legs inside, he soon felt the pipe swallow him with another PRUN PRUN PRUN.
He quickly appeared in the underground, landing beside Koopin onto the cold pavewalk beside the darkened river. The dank cold atmosphere and sluicing water through grates unknown among cool blue-bricked walls made him realise where he was.
"Um...this is a sewer."
"Well yeah, wouldn't make sense if they had the sewer above ground, right?"
"I...guess but...I expected an underground road, or even like instant teleportation."
"What, like magic? Nah, not unless you're a magikoopa or something. Anyways at least someone was putting up signs around here to make it easier for us."
And he was right for after several steps there were signs in the semi-lit darkness showing pipes to various areas.
"So...you can just reach ANYWHERE in the Mushroom Kingdom?"
"All the way to Yoshi's Island even, it's a miracle ain't it?"
"Well...yeah but...well I noticed a train station back in Toad Town, wouldn't they be out of a job if people just used pipes to reach Dry Dry Desert or so?"
"Well...not really, see, most people don't really like using the sewers. But it's the only way to really get around. Plus you can't really move supplies through the sewers as easily as say, a train. Dry Dry Desert's got a lot of stuff to offer so it became a pretty big trading area of the world."
James pondered briefly on the desert region of this world, wondering how unusual a kingdom must be to contain both snowbound mountains and arid desert within its borders.
"Well uh, you don't mind coming down here."
"Oh no, it's easy if you can avoid trouble enough."
"Even if there are like gloombas here?"
"Well yeah," shrugged Koopin, "but it's not like I can't protect myself a li'l."
"Well that's good to know."
"Yeah...real good to know that."
The third voice from the darkness was from a dark-skinned goomba, almost a sort of black-blue coal colour. Three of them stood before the reptiles.
"Uhhh yeah," replied FG warily, "...you're not gonna let us pass are you?"
"Nah-uh, unless you give us all your money."
The raptor shot out a burst of flame from his palm at the three, blasting them all back much to Koopin's astonishment as the gloombas snarled:
"Wha-...m-magic!?! That ain't gonna stop us from beating the shell out of you!"
"Yeah?" said FG as he prepared his attack, "how about THIS!?"
He shot out a blast of water across their feet, making them slip before he blasted it stone-cold with ice, freezing them on the spot. He felt more confident in his nanos ever since he faced off with ghosts, the gloombas trapped and struggling as James and Koopin passed them by, the koopa's eyes widening at his travelling companion.
Maybe it's not a bad idea to not always maul them, thought FG to himself, I mean...in a world like this, it just doesn't feel right somehow.
"Wh-what was that back there?!" asked the koopa in awe. "You didn't tell me you could use magic!"
"Wha? Oh, well it's not REALLY magic it's a sort of...power, I can't really explain it to ya."
"Whatever it is, I call it magic, so let's keep going!"
"Damn right, onto Shiver City!"
With a prouder spring in their steps they reached the pipe to Shiver City and with Koopin going first to show his new friend, James followed into the pipe. The darkness filtered in and out with the constant background noise of water echoing in rushes and drip-drops. The raptor was surprised by how quickly Koopin took to the idea of magic, realising that perhaps was a lot more common than expected in the Mushroom Kingdom.
The off-duty tour guide helped him understand the world more with a little factual understanding about the nature of warp pipes, a vital facet to this land in terms of transport. But the pipes were select in where they wanted to go, and not always were they accessible to the average person, hence the need for other methods of transport such as by ship or train.
Eventually, Koopin stopped briefly to point something out to James.
"Oooh you know about these?"
The raptor saw three solid blocks floating in the air, perfectly cubed and not even showing the slightest hover. Two of them were made entirely out of bricks, but the one in the middle was perfectly yellow with a question mark upon it.
"Ohhh yeah," said James, "I saw these a few times when walking around, what the hell are they?"
"I'm glad you asked!" said Koopin as he hopped up beside them. "These are Brick Blocks, big solid blocks that people break for something special inside them, possibly."
"Wait, break them?! Like a pinata?"
"Yeah! You just punch one out and bingo, free money!"
Koopin readied himself for a smashing uppercut, slamming his little fist with surprising strength into the square-bricked block and breaking it into pieces. A single coin fell out amidst the debris, with James blinking in surprise.
"W-woah...you're real strong."
"Hah, naaah these things are just easy to break, go on, try it!"
"Yeah yeah go on, you won't hurt yourself, trust me!"
With little reason not to, James stepped up and gently tapped at the floating brick block. He decided however to just play it safe, and strike the underside of it with his scissors, smashing the blade straight into the stone and shattering it into a dozen pieces. Nothing came out however.
"Hah! Cool, it IS like a pinata!"
"Sooo uh...what the hell's up with these things? Why are they here?"
"Hard to say, no one's really sure actually. Some say they're inhabited by the former people of this land, turned into blocks by ancient wars and demon kings with only their possessions left for others to take. The generous and pious spirits reward you, while the mean and horrible give nothing. Buuuut recent studies more logically suggest that they're formed by a natural culmination of magical energy in the land, just appearing whenever the buildup of the magic aether gets too much. Or something like that, I'm not sure myself."
"...right. How do they get items in them then?"
"Oh, that's another odd thing too. Either they're naturally formed too, or they already existed in that area, abandoned, and it was taken up by the magic aether when it turned into a block. Least that's what I think, but they got a whole study devoted to these blocks over at Woohoo University."
"Yeah over at the Beanbean Kingdom, they're real fascinated by all this."
"Ah...well someone's trying at least, what about this yellow one?"
"That's a Question Block, this ALWAYS has an item in it, unlike the Brick Block which might not."
"You wanna do the honours? It's on me."
He swept his hand gracefully as if introducing a mademoiselle, allowing FG to take a shot at it. He did the same thing as before, smacking the underside of the block with his scissors as the cube bounced in the air slightly. It soon turned a dull brown with something growing out of it. A mushroom, white-capped and dotted red.
"Oooh a mushroom!" said Koopin.
"Well yeah. Not that special though."
"Well no, but it's healthy for ya!"
"Oh I know, I been eating some of these, they're delicious! I always loved mushrooms, so I'm already loving this place a lot."
The raptor took said mushroom and placed it in his satchel, heading on with Koopin as he was guided further throughout the underground.
After traversing through the darkening sewers of the Toad Town tunnels, Koopin soon lead him towards one particular pipe to the side, somewhat by memory rather than by intuition as they clambered up a few steps towards it. A cool wind seemed to emanate from it barely, as the koopa clambered inside. James was already intrigued to see more of the kingdom after two solid weeks of nothing but grassland and suburbia.
The moment he found himself climbing awkwardly out of the pipe, a cold breeze stroked across his bare chest to make him shiver with surprise. A wide expanse of pure white snow laid in all directions around him, the wind coming from the direction of a huge mountain that towered above the land. They were also right next to a gorgeous little town, literally at the entrance itself. He stuck close to Koopin as he introduced the area formally.
"Welcome to the Shiver Region! Here across this wide northern land, you'll find several fascinating places such as Shiver City, home of the bumpties; Shiver Mountain, a tall treacherous summit said to be the home of the forgotten Crystal Palace shrine; and lastly the Starborn Valley, a sacred place that lies beyond the Shiver Snowfield. Any questions?"
"Yeah, I got one."
James raised his hand awkwardly against the gentle snowdrifts falling from the sky.
"Do you ever like, NOT be a tour guide?"
"Hahaha, hey you said you wanted a tour right?! I'm giving ya one!"
"Hah, yeaaaah I guess, but you don't have to be so formal about it, loosen up a li'l."
"Ah-uh," said Koopin with a fingerwave. "I gotta keep my standards up or else I'll get sloppy in my work. Besides, it's easier guiding around one guy than a group of people."
"True that. So where do we go first?"
"Well, we gotta head to Shiver City and check it out."
"Alrighty...why did you pick this place first in your vacation? You gonna go skiing?"
"Nope, it's 'cause I like to start northeast an' skirt allll around the Mushroom Kingdom in a kinda clockwise pattern. It helps me keep focused so I don't get lost too easy."
"Hah, is it that easy to get lost here?"
"Well it HAS to happen to some right?"
James merely shrugged. The snow picked up slightly, covering them in thickening drifts upon their shoulders as they made their way swiftly into the nearby town. Thankfully, despite the night-like sky that perpetually existed in this region according to Koopin, the town's lights were easy to make out amongst the rolling white hills of the Shiver Region.
The raptor cursed himself for not having a coat, but kept himself warm with his fire to warm up his body, wrapping himself within its blazing aura, but not too closely. Just enough to warm up. Even he knew how stupid it would be to burn himself with his own abilities. Koopin was impressed, fascinated by the raptor's ways which made him all the more curious to the travelling guide. He was secretly glad to be with someone, especially someone so new to the kingdom that he could educate and befriend easily, as well as wanting to learn more about James over time.
As much as FG loved the cold for the fact he despised sweating in heat, he was still a reptile at heart, and therefore unable to withstand the cold as long as mammals. He wondered if koopas were the same, noticing that Koopin did shiver to some extent, but not as much as the raptor did.
Shiver City was the homeland of the bumpties, small fat penguin-like creatures who waddled around the frozen paths and houses. Though it seemed to the raptor they did not mind being inside or outside of their homes, taking either habitat with equal pleasure, he was already enjoying the atmosphere of the humble wintry town. Log cabins all in a row, ice ponds where skaters and ice-fishers ambled merrily so, snowball fights taking place as if it were just another day of fun. It looked perfectly like the front of a christmas card.
"Cute li'l buggers aren't they?" remarked the raptor.
"Hehehe yeah," said Koopin, "but don't tell 'em that. Come on let's find the inn, my shell's gonna turn blue in a minute!"
They quickly reached the Toad House inn, where naturally a Toad was the proprietor. The place felt oddly small despite being practically a well-built spacious shack, and having only one room with several beds dotted around. A few chairs, a fireplace and a desk with a trapdoor behind it was also here, probably for a basement.
"Welcome to the Toad House of Shiver City," said the innkeeper. "Name's Ice. T, looking for a place to settle?"
"Actually," said Koopin politely, "I'm just checking to see if you're not full or so. We're visitors on vacation and we may have to stay overnight here just in case."
"No problem at all, you guys can even sit right here and warm up if you want, free of charge."
"Really? You don't mind at all?"
"Oh no no no, I insist."
As the raptor and the koopa warmed up next to the fireplace, with the Toad busying himself with the upkeep of the place, they soon readied themselves to head on out again and explore the northern lands. James was more curious to learn about the bumpties, with Koopin introducing themselves to the locals, asking all sorts of questions from James to the penguin-like creatures.
Despite its far-away location, Shiver City was profitable enough from travellers passing through on their pilgrimage, as well as being protected by Starborn Valley nearby, which could only be reached by those chosen by the stars. James could even see the aforementioned valley, shimmering upon the arctic horizon with the northern lights hanging above, like the softest blanket weaved by the stars themselves.
"This place is also the home of a famous celebrity," added Koopin, "the great writer Herringway."
"Yeah, he writes about crime and murder mysteries, pretty good stuff! My dad's a fan of him."
"Your dad huh? What's he do?"
"He's a grocer down at Dusty Dunes, sells fruit and vegetables, pretty simple stuff."
"How about you, what does your dad do?"
James gently bit his lip and tried not to look away, trying to think of a less awkward answer. Koopin however sensed it and gently patted his arm wordlessly, much to James' confusion.
"Is...um...are you okay?"
"Heh, sure I'm okay."
"Oh no no, I just didn't wanna let the mood down because I'm an...orphan."
The koopa gasped softly and gently leaned his head with empathy.
"Oh...gosh, I'm so sorry."
"Hey-ey-ey, don't worry about it, I'm over it."
"I barely even knew them, it happened when I was like a baby, I'm not upset over it."
"You didn't even know them?! Oh stars that's awful!"
"Well yeah, but it'd be even worse for someone who lost them when they were like twenty or something, right?"
"I...I guess, but...I'm sorry."
James rolled his eyes and gently put his claw under Koopin's chin, making him look up.
"I've heard that enough man, it's okay. Really. Now, where else you wanna go?"
"Uhhhh we COULD go climbing up Shiver Mountain, if you wanna. I love to go hiking up it sometimes, over the hills a li'l."
"Isn't that dangerous on your own?"
"Oh no, I get a local guide to help me, course I don't go up on my own!"
"Heh, right, course."
As they walked further around the town to look for a local willing to help them out, their plans for a little mountain hiking were detained by a comment from one old passing bumpty.
"Ohhh no folks, no mountain climbin' today."
"Whysat sir?" asked Koopin politely.
"Cuz a blizzard be coming in, just had it reported yesterday, should be comin' round at night."
"And uh...when is that?" asked James as he looked at the midnight northern sky.
"Should be in about, four hours? Better make a room at the Toad House soon, don' wanna see two guys like you out 'ere in the middle of a whiteout."
With that warning made, the two scaled travellers continued to walk around for the next half-hour. Koopin struck up a healthy conversation with the general store owner about other places and potential routes of travel, and while he was curious to meet Herringway, he was currently out on an excursion. With little else to do, and with no way up the mountain for tonight, they settled in at the Toad House inn.