"You warm-bloods aren't from around here."
Chapter 14: The Forsworn
Glade of Dreams
The wonky plant life of the Dream Forest had been rather uninviting even before the Heartless. Some looked like bright-colored Truffula trees straight from The Lorax; others resembled twisting wooden Krakens snaking their way above and across the ground; still others were covered in unsettling, serrated leaves that looked like they wanted to eat you, and some of them, in fact, did. The atmosphere had been made even spookier by odd animal noises and the feral Lums and Electoons which sought to cause mischief—of the harmful variety—to any stranger that wandered into their labyrinthine woods.
Emerging from the shadows into one of the forest's few open clearings, an immense amethyst dragon crushed the pale mossy ground beneath its claws as it approached the silhouette of a man standing on an ancient tree stump. The dragon's eyes seared through the darkness, almost as white and bright as (and significantly more malevolent than) Professor U. Reeka's R.A.W.s. Its horns curved up like demonic curly brackets, its leathery hide as impervious to the elements as its heart was impervious to sympathy. Scalding steam blew from its nostrils as it beckoned toward its fellow Vassal and spoke in a thunderous, but articulate, voice.
"The stump of Polokus suits you well, Commander Sigma…unlike its previous oaf of an owner."
In the swaying of the trees, a beam of sunlight penetrated the canopy and shed a strip of light on the bulky human silhouette, revealing a cruel, strangely smooth face with pupilless azure eyes, a black scar running down through each socket, a round ruby embedded in his bare forehead. His square-sculpted jaw was set in a rather vicious smile, and his voice was was even deeper than the dragon's, like some sinister electric bass.
"Then it's a good thing you've ensured that the Heartless robbed the god of the Forest of whatever little sanity he had left."
The dragon's massive wings stretched and then contracted in amusement. "Vassals rarely cross into each other's stewardships. For what purpose have you come?"
Sigma stepped off the stump and began pacing along the forest floor, the rest of his body still concealed in shadow. "The Smash Brothers have come, as Master Xehanort has no doubt informed you. But now…I have received word that our associate up north—the Desolator—has fallen to them. Which means they'll be coming for us next."
The dragon expelled a small spurt of flames as if it were spitting on the faces of its enemies. "Let them come. Robotnik was cunning, but foolishly bogged down by his quirky projects. The Nintendonians will cower before the Aether…as has the Dragon Realm."
Sigma nodded. "Their only advantage is the boy, Sora. Beware of his Keyblade, for it's the one weapon that can pierce through even the Kingdom Hearts. But on the same token, put an end to him, Malefor…and then the rest of the Smash Brothers will be finished."
A fearsome aura of emerald energy shone around Malefor's reptilian body. "I will burn him to a cinder…should I be privileged with the opportunity before you."
Sigma then returned to the stump, and his body began to shimmer and flicker as he prepared to teleport.
"Then I can only hope chance favors me with that opportunity first. I've notified The Mystic in Microsoft of the situation…so once the rebels are no more, we shall celebrate Smash Planet's commensuration together. Until then."
His figure flashed faster and faster like a spinning coin, and then vanished, leaving the Dream Forest's convoluted contours behind.
Ratchet's garage didn't seem like the most natural choice for the Smash Brothers and liberated Sonians to meet at first. But considering the fact that Mobius was still more or less a wasteland, Shadow Moses Island was filled with nuclear waste, and Sly Cooper simply didn't want to show everyone how to get inside his secure Cooper family manor on Kaine Island, the Veldinian outpost on Kyzil Plateau was the only viable option.
People were seated on toolboxes and machine parts and a few stools scattered around the mechanic's shop, some watching absent-mindedly as Ratchet and Clank went about their usual business of making endless modifications to their ship, Aphelion. The desert landscape and tin huts and screw-shaped platforms outside the open garage door weren't much to look at, and the garage itself, though kept reasonably organized, was quite filthy. And yet, the overall feelings of gladness and accomplishment and blissful release made the place seem like a paradise.
"Well, it's good to hear that Yoshi and Jigglypuff are doing better," Sonic said, preferring to stand. Shadow was leaning against the wall with folded arms beside him.
Mario nodded. "Egg-a-man's mech did a number on them, but at least his machines and his a-base are gone now." Following Eggman's defeat, the Smashers had made sure to shut down or destroy the Death Egg's numerous weapons before returning to Smash Planet (they didn't blow it up for fear of the damage a falling metal moon could cause to Sony). In addition, all the Mobian critters who had been imprisoned by Eggman's robotic prisons were freed, so while the region's plant life would take a long time to grow back, Mobius was already on its way to recovery.
"Gee," Sly Cooper said, fingering his hooked staff. "I'm sure glad Robotnik didn't use that thing on my island. My security equipment's super expensive, and my family fortune wasn't exactly left to me in anticipation of a laser apocalypse."
Ratchet slid back out from beneath the Aphelion on his creeper, OmniWrench in hand. "You're telling me, guy; it was bad enough being a stingy ship salesman for three years living with a tin can who refused to accept anything that wasn't a well-documented empirical fact."
"Excuse me?" Clank protested, the propeller on his head bearing him over from one of the tool shelves.
Snake cleared his throat. "In any case, at the risk of sounding redundant, you Smash Brothers cannot comprehend how indebted we are to you. As the first part of This World freed from the Heartless, we're safe from Xehanort's intrusions and are able to meet together as we have today. Now the question remains…where will you go next, and how will we help you get there?"
Everyone looked to Mario for an answer. This question, at least, wasn't hard for him.
"It's a-time to contact Pit again," he said. "Or at least to a-try." He nodded to DK, who flicked one of the Skyworld pebbles into a puddle of oil that had accumulated near the Aphelion's fuel tank.
They waited in anticipation as the ripples went out across the dark liquid…and then, to their relief, the ripples recolored and formed the outline of the familiar angelic Smash Brother. He looked tired and a bit disheveled, but otherwise healthy.
"Guys!" he said. "I'm so sorry I couldn't respond last time. Lady Palutena has been growing suspicious about what I'm doing at the Reflection Pool all the time. It's only been a couple days since she stopped watching everything I do; now she's off making cloud sculptures in her own image or something, but we'd best make this quick and stick to night visits in the future."
"We're a-glad you're safe," Mario said. He briefly explained how they had reached Sony and defeated the first Vassal.
Pit grinned. "Man, you guys are really on a roll now, huh? Well let me see what I can do to keep that going…" He turned away to adjust and examine the Smash Planet map in the Reflection Pool, zooming in with his fingers to focus on Sony and taking note of the various markings scattered around the regions.
"Looks like the other two Sony Vassals are in Megaland and the Dragon Realm. Megaland's much closer, so…"
But Shadow shook his head. "You cannot go there."
Samus raised an eyebrow. "Why not?"
"The Vassal there—known as the Maverick—enclosed the entire region in a high-tech barrier called the Skull Dome. Not only is it impenetrable to physical assaults, but it's been strengthened by the Kingdom Hearts in such a way that you can't even get past it with the Chaos Emeralds like most of us did to come here, or like the Twelve can do to reach other regions."
"Well, that's a problem," DK said. "So…Dragon Realm, then?"
Mario nodded. "For a-now; hopefully by the time we beat the Vassal there, we'll a-find a way into Megaland to reach a-the Maverick."
"Uh…I think there's another problem," Sonic said. "The Chaos Emeralds have only ever been used by Mobians; but neither Shadow nor I can leave Eggman's territories. So I guess you'll have to go the long way after all."
"Thad depends," Zelda said. She addressed Shadow. "I am skilled with magic; do you think you could teach me to use the Emeralds?"
Shadow looked surprised, but considered it. "Maybe…but it'll take some time."
"Party?" Kirby suggested.
Snake chuckled. "The pink one's right; you Smashers need a few days to recover before tackling the next Vassal. We should celebrate this victory as the first of many more to come."
"Yeah!" Luigi agreed. "Let's a-boogie!"
"But…" Sora, who appeared to be the only one anxious to move on, appealed to Mario with a meaningful look. "What if Xehanort finds us here?"
Mario furrowed his brow. "It's a-possible; but we'll be a-safe as long as we're in the freed regions. And having the Chaos Emeralds will a-be worth the wait in the long a-run."
Red put a hand on Sora's shoulder and smiled. "You've been doing great, Sora. But even heroes need time to relax."
Sora sighed, but finally consented. "All right. I didn't sleep very well on that dragon anyways."
For the next three days, the Smashers did just as they had discussed—rest and prepare. Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy, Cream, and Big the Cat were available to take anyone across Eggman's former stewardship using Chaos Emeralds. Shadow, on the other hand, spent most of all three days with Zelda, training her with the purple Emerald.
"The magic of the Emeralds is not the same as that of your Triforce," Shadow said as they trained one day on the craterous ruins of Angel Island. "You're used to the power coming from a deity; but the Chaos Emeralds find their energy source in nature itself. You must connect with the life force in the same way you connect with your Hylian goddesses. Now try again."
Zelda held the purple gem in her hands and closed her eyes, trying to feel for this "life force" of which Shadow had spoken. But it was difficult; her soul, though lightened somewhat by her experiences on the Death Egg, was still burdened by thoughts of Link, and even of Ganondorf. For someone who had long grown used to the responsibility of being a princess, she was finding it remarkably difficult to assume control of the full Triforce power and her emotions and doubts and regrets and responsibilities all at the same time.
Try as she might, however, all she could produce was a faint glow within the center of the Emerald.
Shadow shook his head, coming forward and taking the Emerald in his own hand. "Remember what you did for me on the Death Egg, Zelda. Remember how you felt when you played the Time Flute. Be at peace with yourself, and with nature, and it will come to you. Picture in your mind where you would have it take you." He closed his eyes and teleported from his current position to a large chunk of earth a quarter mile away, and then back again. He handed the Emerald back to her. "Again."
Zelda took a deep beath and shut her eyes once more, concentrating on the serenity she'd felt with the Time Flute's magic at work. It had been as if she'd somehow known that even with all the tragedy and heartache she'd faced, everything would be all right in the end.
She opened her eyes, and suddenly she was half a mile away from Shadow. She blinked in surprise, not having felt anything more than a slight brush of air. She focused again and was almost immediately back in front of Shadow.
Shadow smirked. "Good; but that was just a short distance. Now we learn how to travel long distances—even to places you've never been."
"What's up, bro?"
Luigi had finally found Mario sitting on one of the strange screw-shaped platforms of Kyzil Plateau. The red-capped hero looked distant, and Luigi knew when something was bothering him.
Mario didn't look over as Luigi sat beside him; he just continued to stare off into the dusty distance. "I almost a-killed him. Sonic. Back in the Death Egg."
Luigi remembered getting a glance of Mario's confrontation with Mecha Sonic while he'd been dealing with Eggman's mech. "You didn't a-know it was him, bro. Eggman was a-trying to trick you."
Mario didn't say anything for a long while.
"What if Xehanort's a-right? What if we're all a-monsters on the inside even without the Heartless?" Mario didn't say it, but Luigi knew what he was thinking: that he didn't deserve to lead the Smash Brothers or to be Peach's hero after what had almost happened. Little did Luigi know that Bowser's counsel to never let the princess down had made the idea take even stronger root in Mario's mind.
"You don't really believe that. Yes, we did a-things the last three years we're not a-proud of. But believing that's all we are—that's what Xehanort a-wants. For us to doubt our own a-goodness."
At that, Mario smiled slightly and finally looked at his brother. "How do you a-do it?"
"Have such a good a-heart, no matter what. Like a-Peach. Never bitter when you don't a-get attention. Always seeing the best in everyone."
Luigi had never considered himself that way. "Maybe I'm a-different from you, bro. You're the brave one, the strong one. But just because we're not all a-the same hero, that doesn't a-make you any less of one. That's what the Smash a-Brothers are all about, right?"
Mario felt a strange peace come over him, eclipsed only slightly by L.O.G.'s existential words which continued to nag at him from the backburner.
"Thanks, Luigi. You're a-right."
"Lost in thought, I see."
Snake turned to find Samus joining him in the large hangar of Shadow Moses Island's base. It was huge and empty, occupied only by a couple piles of metal crates, a few distant memories, and one lonely soldier.
Snake turned back again as if transfixed by the open floor, allowing Samus (who had opted for her Zero Suit during her days of rest) to sit on the crate beside him.
"This is where the Captain and I first met…though it wasn't exactly under the friendliest of circumstances, was it?" He laughed softly, pointing to a scorch mark on the ground where one of his own grenades had exploded with the intent of scaring the Smashers away.
Samus rested her elbow companionably on Snake's shoulder and smiled sadly. "Good times."
They sat in silence for a while, the only sound the humming of the lights above.
"The past three years…" Snake finally looked at her. "It was just the Heartless, wasn't it? It didn't mean anything?"
Samus took a long time to answer. "The Heartless pushed us into a selfish relationship…but a relationship nonetheless. One that must have had roots deep within us all along. Xehanort's style was never to force us to do things we weren't already capable of."
Snake's features relaxed, an otherwise internal tension loosened. "So…what now?"
"Now…" Samus's mind flashed back to the most terrible moment of her life: when she and Snake had had to abandon Captain Falcon on the exploding Spartan Frigate. "You remember the last thing he said to us?"
Snake didn't even have to ask who "he" was. He nodded. "Take care of each other." He slowly reached over and took Samus's hand.
"Things might be as messed up as Hell right now," Samus said. "But once this is all over…I think it's worth a shot." She smiled at Snake.
Snake wanted to feel happy, to accept that his life could find true and lasting peace. But it seemed too good to be true. "I wish I could come with you."
"Through Cypher, you will," Samus said.
"Yes," Snake said. "Assuming that machine doesn't have the battery life of a 21st-century smart phone."
Snake thought about the upgrades he'd made to Cypher so that it would hopefully endure for quite some time, especially with the spare parts and extra batteries he was going to send with Samus. "Still…I wish I knew more about the Sony Vassals to be of greater help."
Samus snorted. "Well, if you could build some kind of Metal Gear monster that can magically suck all our problems away in an otherwise harmless mushroom cloud, that would be great."
Something clicked in Snake's mind. He stood abruptly.
"Where are you going?"
Snake was already halfway out the door by the time he heard Samus's question. "You've given me an idea."
Samus raised an eyebrow and called after him.
"Glad I could help."
They gathered at the southern edge of Mobius. The mostly lifeless landscape cut off suddenly against the disturbing wall of electric blue skulls that marked the beginning of the Maverick's Skull Dome which enclosed all of Megaland. A few bored Mobians had tried throwing rocks at it, but they bounced off with a deadly sizzle that was not at all reassuring.
And there they stood: Yoshi; DK; Red; Kirby; Luigi; Mario; Samus; Zelda; Sora. The travelers who were charged with the task of saving the rest of the Smash Universe from Xehanort—and from itself. And standing in a semicircle around them were the liberated Sonians: Snake; Sonic; Shadow; Tails; Knuckles; Amy; Cream; Big the Cat; Ratchet and Clank; Sly Cooper. It was a moment that seemed as sacred as the maiden voyage of The King's Krystal.
Shadow approached Zelda and solemnly placed the purple Chaos Emerald in her hands. He nodded with approval and respect—both sentiments that were rarely found in the hedgehog Eggman had dubbed the Ultimate Life Form.
Zelda acknowledged his offering. "Thanks to your help, Shadow."
But that wasn't the only gift to be offered before the Smashers' departure. Ratchet approached Mario and, to the plumber's great shock, offered up his precious one-of-a-kind OmniWrench.
Mario pulled back. "I can't take a-this."
Ratchet pressed it into his hands nonetheless, grinning. "You forget that I'm familiar with your fighting style, guy. We fought once…on Yoshi's Island way back during the First Copyright Wars, remember?"
Mario nodded, although after L.O.G.'s memory tampering, their battle wasn't as vivid as it might have been. "Mm-hm."
"That hammer of yours is pretty handy," Ratchet continued," but let's face it, guy—people have been watching you fight for a long time. Sooner or later you're gonna run out of new tricks, and that's when Xehanort'll nip you in the bud. You've seen my wrench in action enough to have a general idea of how it works, and I trust you'll make much better use of it out there than I would here."
"You would be wise to avail yourself of my associate's valuable asset," Clank added from his shoulder.
Mario shrugged and took it, though he almost dropped the heavy tool immediately, having underestimated the physical strength of such a slender Lombax.
Sly Cooper sauntered up to Red with a grin and presented him with his Cooper Cane, the golden hook on top glinting like a 24-carat question mark.
Red backed away, shaking his head. "No way, Mr. Cooper; I'm no good at physical combat, and you'd kill me if I broke your staff!"
The thieving raccoon laughed. "Well, yeah; but the way I see it, if you and your friends don't succeed in this mission of yours, we're all dead anyways. The Cooper Cane has yet to have an owner who's let it down or been let down. Bentley's remodeled it to fit your measurements, so it'll feel as if you've been fighting with it your whole life. And face it, kid…you may have some pretty slick Pokémon to protect you, but you need to be able to defend yourself, too—with something more than just those flutes and water bottles."
Red thought of protesting further, but realized it was no use. He just nodded and took the cane, which did in fact feel surprisingly light and comfortable in his grip.
Finally, Snake came forward, bearing Cypher over to the group. He handed it to Samus and smiled at them all.
"Never feel alone, Smash Brothers; I will be with you, and I believe this Hand of Fate of which many have been speaking will be on your side. Now…one small thing before you go." He nodded to Luigi, who stepped aside—with Kirby—and turned to face the others.
Luigi gulped, hoping his brother wouldn't be too mad, and spoke. "I'm, uh…I'm a-going with a-Kirby on a different mission."
"What?" DK said.
"Luigi?" Mario was not angry, but puzzled. "What's a-going on?"
"Luigi and Kirby have agreed to go on a special assignment," Snake said. "While the rest of you go after the Vassal in the Dragon Realm, they're gonna follow a lead I have on a possible way to get past that Skull Dome."
"Okay," Sonic said, also confused. "But where are they going? And how? Zelda's the only one of you who can use the Chaos Emeralds."
"Star!" Kirby cheered, as a glinting Warpstar heeded his summons and shot from the sky until it hovered in front of him.
"It's a-hard to explain," Luigi said, "but we're a-going to Craftworld."
Mario stepped past the other Smashers and took Luigi in a hug. "See you a-soon, then."
"See you later, bro!"
DK and the other clueless Smashers shrugged or just dealt with the sudden change in plans, and they all gathered around Zelda's Chaos Emerald as Luigi hopped onto the Warpstar behind Kirby.
"Remember," Snake said. "We're all Smash Brothers; we're all All-Stars; we're all Sentinels. Xehanort can't keep apart what was always meant to be together. Now move out, soldiers; I'll see you on the battlefield!"
"Bye!" Kirby and Luigi waved as they sped away toward the ocean to the west, from which point they would follow Sony's coast counterclockwise until they reached their destination. One moment they were there, and the next they were a glittering speck in the distance.
"We'll see you again when all of Sony is free," Zelda said. "Now…everyone gather close."
The Smashers (and Red and Sora, who were not technically Smashers in the strictest sense, but were Smashers in spirit) all came together to where they could each touch Zelda's hands or arms as she focused the Chaos Emerald's magic…and winked them away.
Zelda was the only one among them who had visited the Dragon Temple before (as Tetra), and so she was the one whose eyes widened in surprise at how dramatically the place had changed since last time.
Whereas Mobius had gone from paradise to wasteland, the dense swamps surrounding the Dragon Temple had undergone more or less the opposite. In place of putrid muck were neat grassy paths which wove between placid ponds and gnarled trees that appeared less monstrous and more enchanting now that the humid tarn had been cleaned out. The aroma of rich purple flowers with ladylike elegance drifted through the air, providing a welcome change to the dust and dirt of Mobius and Veldin—not to mention the trace radioactive remnants on Shadow Moses.
Zelda's eyes were nearly scalded, however, by the brilliant structure before them. The Dragon Temple, which had before been crumbling and caving in and overgrown with ivy and fungus, was as immaculate and perfect as if it had just been finished yesterday. The polished gold surfaces reflected the sunlight into Zelda's eyes, the hexagonal domes and dragon-sculpture columns and hieroglyphic legends carrying all the awe of the Great Pyramid—if the pyramid's walls and ornaments had all been dusted and polished and refurbished on a regular basis, that is.
"Um," DK said, speaking everyone's mind, "isn't this supposed to be a pile of marshy ruins?"
Cypher sped around, taking in the pristine temple and surrounding landscape. "This is very strange," Snake's voice admitted. "I would think a Vassal called 'the Forsworn' would be a little more…destructive."
"That's because the Dragon Temple is Malefor's legacy, warm-bloods!"
A burst of fire came out of nowhere and struck DK, though he was fortunately blasted straight into one of the pools which immediately extinguished the flames.
"DK!" Sora wanted to go to the Kong's aid, but at the moment his and the others' attention was very much held by the circling figure of Spyro above them.
"Piikaaa…" Pikachu's cheeks were sparking, ready to unleash a Thunder to bring the dragon down.
But his Trainer, who was frankly tired of fighting his own friends, was one step ahead. Seconds after DK's unlucky tumble, Red had a Time Flute to his lips and was blowing as hard as he could, hoping the music would carry up to the Heartless All-Star some forty feet above.
It did. The Time Flute did its thing, and moments later, the dragon was slowy spiraling down to them. He landed and folded back his wings, laughing sheepishly.
"My bad, guys…I guess those weird Heartless creatures turned me into a completely different person."
"Actually," Sparx the firefly said, having been concealed on one of the Dragon Temple's ledges after informing Spyro of the intruders, "you were still you—just an even more arrogant, reckless, full-of-it, newt-minded version of yourself."
Spyro narrowed his eyes, his guilt already forgotten. "Yeah, well, nobody asked you, you little gnat!"
"What did you mean by Malefor's legacy?" Zelda asked.
"Well," Spyro said, glancing back at the Dragon Temple, "I'll tell you my story if you all tell me yours. But for now, let's just say that going in there is not a good idea. How about we take a flight—er…" He noticed the clear lack of wings on all of the Smashers. "…a walk, then."
Once Spyro was up to date, he explained his side as they walked among the twisting trees of the beautiful, thinly forested fields.
"The Dragon Realm has always been protected by the Dragon Guardians," he began. "All of 'em are in the temple right now, under the Heartless' control, which is why we had to move away from it. But once every thousand years, a special Purple Dragon is born, with the destiny to shape the fate of our kingdom during the next millennium. Of course, these dragons are really powerful—like myself." Sparx rolled his tiny insect eyes. "The first one…Malefor…he was bred of pure evil, and wreaked terrible destruction upon our lands during his era—until the Dragon Guardians were finally able to stop him and trap him in a magical prison dimension called Convexity."
"Like how Ganon was sealed in the Sacred Realm in Hyrule," Zelda said.
"Sure," Spyro said, having absolutely no idea whether the two realms were actually anything alike. "So when I became the next Purple Dragon, some dark forces stirred that wanted to bring Malefor back. A tribe of crazy Apes and some other baddies actually managed to break him out, so it was up to me to take him down for good."
"Only for Xehanort to bring him back again," Samus guessed.
Spyro nodded. "If what you say is true, and this Sora kid can stop Malefor, then I'll do everything I can to help you get that chance. But don't be fooled—the Forsworn may have brought the Dragon Realm back to its former glory, but he only did it because…well, let me put it this way. You know how dragons are typically considered territorial creatures? Think of that, and then multiply it by a hundred thousand and five and compound it with the powers of Aether and Kingdom Hearts, and then you have Malefor. He's one nasty dude."
"And five?" Sparx said.
"So where do we a-find him?" Mario asked.
Spyro looked uncertain. "That's the thing; Malefor controls not just the Dragon Realm, but also the Tasmanian Islands, the Glade of Dreams, and Craftworld. He could be in any of them, and even if he's still here in the Dragon Realm like your friend Pit claims, it's a pretty big place. I'll have to sneak back into the temple and take a peek in the Pool of Visions, which should be more specific on his location than Pit's Reflection Pool."
"Fair enough," Snake said through Cypher. "What would you have us do, then?"
Spyro shrugged. "Wait here, I guess. The Guardians will just assume I'm up to my normal mischief; if they saw any of you, though, I can guarantee there would be an elemental whirlwind of dragon fury. So, uh…Sparx, tell them some jokes or something. I'll be back soon!"
He lifted away and was off back toward the Dragon Temple, leaving the Smashers to wait around a cluster of Twizzler-like trees. Red went with his Pokémon and with Yoshi to dip his hands and feet in one of the pools, leaving Sparx with a rather awkward audience to entertain.
"So, firefly," DK said, resting against the tree with his hands behind his back. "entertain us."
Sparx gulped, eyeing Mario, Sora, Samus, and Zelda as well. It didn't look like a very hot crowd.
"Sorry," he said, "but I'm fresh out of bright ideas…" He paused. "Get it? Because my body's bright, but my ideas are—"
"Yeah, okay," DK said. He swung himself onto the tree and quickly climbed to the top, alleviating his boredom with a view of the surrounding countryside.
By that time, Mario and Sora had gone off to join those by the pool, while Samus and Zelda had walked away to have their own private conversation. That left Sparx with just Cypher for company. He sighed, buzzed around for a while, then grew bored and flew over to where he thought the lens was.
Samus and Zelda walked slowly through the grassy fields with no particular route in mind. Samus was carrying her helmet under her arm for the time being.
"You're still thinking about him," Samus said. It wasn't a question.
Zelda wasn't sure what to say. How could anyone possibly understand the perpetual anguish she still felt inside? How could they comprehend the emotional magnitude of losing her star-crossed hero and eternal enemy at the same time—all while remaining ignorant of how to actually manage the completed Triforce within her?
"Good," Samus went on. "Link deserves your thoughts. He saved us all from certain failure. Gave us a chance. Gave us hope. You're not the only one who's harbored a scar from his absence."
Zelda glanced at Samus in mild surprise. She had completely forgotten that way back when, Samus had traveled with Young Link during the events leading up to the War of the Hands. Link's various incarnations had touched so many people in so many different ways.
Samus paused as they reached the edge of a pool and turned to Zelda. The bounty hunter's eyes were oddly moist. "But take it from someone who's lost her hero too—the last thing he would want is for you to blame yourself. Especially when there's absolutely nothing you could've done."
"It's…" Zelda lowered her eyes, staring at an assemblage of lily pads. "It's not just that."
Samus nodded slowly. "I wish I could make peace with it too. But I guess there are some things that never leave us alone. Maybe for our own good." She wasn't normally one for heart-to-heart conversations, but this was different. This seemed to be as much for herself as it was for her fellow Smasher. "When you talked Shadow down in the heat of his power—even while he was still under the Heartless' control—that's when I knew."
Samus smiled. "That Link's still with you, princess. I'd recognize that courage anywhere."
Twenty minutes later, Spyro returned—remarkably, without any angry Dragon Guardians in pursuit. They gathered around him to hear the news.
"So, go figure," Spyro said, "apparently Malefor's holed up in his ancient stronghold, the Mountain of Malefor. Should be about half a day's flight—er, a couple days' walk from here."
"Two questions," DK said. "First—with a name like that, why on earth did we waste our time checking the obvious? Clearly Malefor's going to be in his mountain, and even if he isn't, our intrusion would probably bring him to us pretty quickly."
"Puff," Jigglypuff said, meaning, "He's got a point."
"And second," DK continued, "why didn't Zelda just Chaos Emerald Samus's gunship here with us so we won't have to go all the way on foot? Not to steal your thunder or anything, President Jumpman," he added, glancing at Mario.
"No, it's a good idea," Mario said.
There was an awkward silence. Then Mario turned to Zelda and Samus. "Can you a-do it?"
They glanced at each other and nodded.
"Be right back," Samus said, placing a hand on Zelda's Chaos Emerald before it whisked them away.
Samus's gunship followed Spyro over the former swamp, most of its passengers somewhat put off by Donkey Kong's brazen attitude, but secretly grateful for his practical ideas.
"Pi Pikachu?" the Pokémon asked, meaning, "Remind me why we can't just use the Chaos Emerald to take us directly to the Vassal, again?"
"It's like Spyro said, warm-bloods," Sparx explained. "The Forsworn's Kingdom Hearts amplify a power called the Dark Aether, which he suspects would make it really dangerous, if not impossible, to teleport near the Mountain of Malefor using magic."
"Jiggly," the Balloon Pokémon said, which translated roughly as, "Convenient."
After some time, the pleasant grasslands gave way to a thickening wood which took on a rather less cheery tone. It was a densely forested mass of mahogany and maple, and though they were flying above the canopy, they could sense the presence of dark secrets lying within. Streams of poisonous maroon water trickled amidst the plantlife of the Ancient Grove, the sky above them suffusing the place with an amber light that somehow seemed cold and warm at the same time.
"I take it we're getting close," Sora said, reminded of Halloween Town and wondering whether the Ancient Grove's inhabitants were similarly spooky.
A dragonish snort came through Cypher (Samus had attached a microphone to Spyro so they could communicate with him from within the gunship). "This is nothing. You wanna talk about nightmares? Try dreaming every other night about being trapped in a place called the Well of Souls."
"No thanks," Yoshi said.
Samus kept her eyes trained on the sky, glancing occasionally at her radar in case any unfriendlies tried to ambush them from behind or below.
For another hour or so, they passed over the otherworldly wilds. Spyro's excessively elaborate flight patterns were a clear sign of his perpetual bigheadedness, Heartless or no Heartless. It reminded Samus of Captain Falcon's less mature self, when he would deliberately try and show off just to impress her—usually without success.
At length, the Ancient Grove gave way to a mountainous region, the sky darkening with the setting sun, though some of them suspected a place like this was never truly filled with daylight. The wind began picking up, forcing even a vessel as stable as Samus's gunship to make corrections as it was battered by the violent, moaning air. None of the Smashers envied Spyro at this point, for the cold weather was among the least ominous of the region's features.
The Concurrent Skies were a rocky stretch of giant blue crystals, which protruded from the hard ground like titanic diamond teeth, the little remaining sunlight reflecting off of each acute surface like a field of broken mirrors.
And then, to complete the picture, masses of dark gray clouds hosted bolts of lightning which zigzagged between the pointed tips of the crystals, occasionally shooting up into the clouds with merciless spontaneity.
"You dragons sure know how to decorate," DK said. "The lightning's a bit much, though."
Sparx rolled his eyes. "Everyone's a critic."
They pushed against the howling wind, half-expecting a tornado to appear and spit them out into the shining crystals. With some satisfaction, Samus noticed that Spyro had stopped showing off, requiring all his flying prowess to control his course through the wind-whipped skies.
Over the roar of the thunder, another even more thunderous roar sent a chill down the spines of the gunship's passengers (except for Jigglypuff, who did not, in fact, have a spine).
"What was that?" Red said in a hushed voice. "Malefor?"
"No," Spyro's transmitted voice said as the dragon watched a dark silhouette emerge from the clouds. For once, he didn't sound overly confident. "Cynder."
In her darkened form, she was significantly larger than Spyro, boasting a lean but muscular hide of obsidian black scales, thin, angular wings, a tail serrated with sharpened spikes, and several sleek white horns curving out of the back of her head like giant fangs.
"I'm guessing your girlfriend isn't on our side, Spyro?" Samus said through her microphone.
A large glob of regurgitated green liquid narrowly missed the gunship's windshield, its acidic poison burning through the paint on the roof like heavy-duty stain remover.
"I think that's a no," Sora said.
Spyro belted out a respectable roar of his own, and curved up to meet Cynder before she could bear down upon the gunship like an angry Ridley. Almost too much like Ridley, Samus realized.
The dragons bowled into each other like Simba and Nala, except with scraping claws and snarling snouts and whipping tails, and certainly without feeling the love that night. Samus redirected her ship to follow them down, her fingers poised on her triggers.
"Spyro…get out of the way so I can have a clean shot!" she seethed.
Spyro would probably have said something about not wanting to hurt his friend more than they had to, but he was a bit preoccupied not allowing Cynder's weight and the wind to drive both of them into the shards of crystal below.
"Can't we use a Time Flute?" Red suggested.
Cypher shook its robotic camera lens. "There's too much noise with the storm; she won't be able to hear it," Snake's voice said.
"I know, Pikachu," Red said. "I wish there was more we could do too."
Sparx, however, just grinned as he hovered near the windshield. "This should be good."
They had no choice but to watch Cynder latch onto Spyro's neck with her teeth and fling him off. He tumbled through the air, but managed to regain balance before he could be impaled on the crystals. Cynder turned to the Smashers' ship, grinned wickedly, and made an ominous gesture with her head.
From below, a host of electric blue spheres rose into the air, climbing through it with spidery red limbs of electricity. The Conduits, as they were called, were zoning in on the gunship.
"Well, at least we have something to do now," DK said as they led the energy creatures away.
Spyro took a deep, sulfurous breath, and then exhaled a steady stream of hot orange flames. Cynder met it with Shadow flames which were somehow even darker than the black sky. The two fiery torrents clashed together like rivaling Bunson Burners, pushing back and forth in that stereotypical energy beam fashion.
Because he knew Cynder so well, Spyro took advantage of her pride by doing the unexpected: He abandoned his flame stream, allowing Cynder's Shadow flames to overwhelm his own. But he also dived underneath it, and then rammed her underside with his horned head.
"Sorry," he said. "But you're in our way; and with the Heartless controlling you, you're even more stubborn than me."
"You mistake power for stubbornness, Spyro." Cynder quickly recovered from his headbutt and pounded her wings hard, pushing herself further back while buffeting Spyro with a strong blast of wind that very nearly speared him on a nearby crystal.
This is going nowhere, he thought. Then he noticed the occasional lightning streaks jumping from one crystal peak to another, and then up into the clouds. He smiled and narrowed his eyes.
"Over here, you sorry excuse for a lizard!"
That got Cynder's attention. She tilted forward and dive-bombed toward him like a flying demon, shrieking a fearsome Siren Scream whose red energy waves would have paralyzed Spyro had he not rolled out of the way at the last moment. And as he passed beneath Cynder once more, he faced the crystals below and emitted a Thunder Breath.
The spindly electric threads leaped between crystal peaks as if they had lives of their own, all converging on the tallest peak in the area—at which point they joined into one thick bolt and shot into the sky, searing through Cynder on their way out.
The darkened dragon shrieked in pain and dropped toward the surface. Spyro followed and nudged her body to make sure she landed on a rocky ledge empty of deadly crystals.
Cynder's fallen figure twitched; she glared at Spyro with hatred. "Malefor will still destroy you…even without me."
"Maybe," Spyro said. "But with you…we will destroy him together."
Fervently hoping his hunch would prove correct, he drew upon the ancient magic of the Purple Dragons, something he hadn't done since sealing Malefor away last time. The Light Aether, composed of all the elements combined, built up in his throat and then pushed out in a splendorous white beam. It engulfed Cynder in its brilliance, far surpassing that of the blue crystals around them.
Spyro expelled the last of his energy and collapsed onto his haunches, drained of magic.
The light faded to reveal his fellow dragon upright and uninjured—and judging by the way she was looking at him, free of the Heartless.
"What…Spyro?" She blinked and surveyed the sky. Of particular note were the steadily declining shroud of Conduits, which were being blasted from the sky by the lasers and missiles on Samus's gunship. One final charged blast finished them off, and then the vessel made a course straight for them.
Spyro grinned weakly at his friend, trying not to become too transfixed by Cynder's elegant features. "I hope you're not tired, Cynder, because that was just a warm-up."
The gunship landed where the two dragons lay, the Smashers giving Spyro time to rest after his exhausting demonstration of Light Aether.
"So the Light Aether is a Heart Softener," Sora said as Zelda tended to Spyro with healing magic, a concerned Sparx fluttering nearby. "That's pretty cool."
"Yes," Cynder said, eyeing her friend with concern. "But it's a power the Purple Dragon can use only once in a great while; I don't think Spyro will be able to use it again in time to face Malefor."
Normally, Spyro would deny any claim that even vaguely suggested him being weak, but in this case he said nothing, allowing the Hylian princess to slowly rejuvenate his body with blue sparks from her hands.
"So I'm guessing that's the Mountain of Malefor?" DK directed their gaze to a towering peak in the distance, which was far enough that all they could see were deep veins of glowing emerald running down its black face.
Cynder nodded. "I still think you Nintendonians are out of your mind to go up there…but if you're really convinced you have what it takes to take him down, all power to you. I'd rather die fighting the Forsworn than go back to being his slave a third time…"
Mario didn't bother asking about the first time. "We can do it, if you'll a-show us the way."
Thirty minutes later, Spyro declared himself healthier than a ripe vole during the summer hunting season, so they went on their way. The Mountain of Malefor seemed to stare them down as they approached, like the Eye of Sauron with a green contact lense. Spyro and Cynder flew beside each other (Sparx snickered from his position in Samus's gunship), suspiciously happy together as they led the Smashers toward their final destination.
The raging winds continuously intensified, requiring all the strength the two dragons—and Samus's gunship, for that matter—could muster to prevent being blown off course and dashed to pieces. As the mountain drew near, its details became more distinct. The peak was actually a full-blown Gothic stronghold with dark green walls and many curving horns crowning the towers like some kind of giant evil cactus whose juice had been drained one too many times.
Zelda frowned. It was undeniable—the dark magical presence of this place would have undoubtedly frustrated any attempt of hers to teleport here with a Chaos Emerald, Farore's Wind, or any other spell. The Dark Aether was just as formidable as the Light Aether in its own oppressive way.
"There!" Cynder shouted over the wind, her microphone carrying the message to Samus through Cypher. The dragon was zoning in on a round, pointed opening in the side of the stronghold, just below what appeared to be a gaping dragon skull situated on the very top of the mountain. It was large enough for the gunship to pass through—and for something much larger.
Spyro drew a deep breath, his heart pounding with more than just adrenaline. Try as he might, he couldn't suppress the fear creeping through him upon returning to this forsaken place. "Well, this'll be interesting. Here we go!"
With that, he and Cynder dived straight into the black opening, followed shortly by the gunship.
In the darkness, Samus's floodlights proved instrumental in navigating them through the stronghold's interior, although the two dragons ahead were illuminating their own way by allowing flickering tendrils of flame to glow from within their mouths like unruly flashlights. The cavernous mountain was vast and open, the walls adorned with savage-looking dragon carvings and more long black horns and claws jutting from the sides like the teeth of a Sarlac Pit. The misty depths far below were shrouded in darkness, and as far as any of the Smashers could tell, there was little to no floor space to speak of—which made sense, considering the mountain's namesake.
The misty mountain cave also housed eerie green spheres which drifted aimlessly across the virtually bottomless chasm and down branching halls and through enormous arched bridges like Will-o-the-Wisps.
A hush had fallen over the dragons and Smashers.
"These are the spirits of evil creatures that have been sealed in the Well of Souls for one reason or another," Cynder explained. "Like Gaul and his army of sadistic Apes. They'll be trapped here until their period of punishment is finished, and then they'll be allowed to move on to the afterlife."
"Hm." Mario hadn't much considered the idea of an afterlife; after all, the diverse regions of Smash Planet held such different believes about what came after death. He'd always been too focused on the here and now to spend much time pondering anything beyond that. But he supposed, especially with all of the visitations from the dead that had been happening lately, that there must be something more to it all than mere superstition.
"An afterlife you will soon beg for, Spyro…as well as your foolish friends."
They all came to a halt in the air, taken aback by the deep, menacing voice that seemed to echo from every direction. Spyro narrowed his eyes.
"Show yourself, Malefor! We're not afraid of you!"
A flash of emerald green whisked across the chasm from within the mist, and the two piercing white eyes turned to face them, although the face behind those eyes remained hidden.
"That is unfortunate, for fear is the only source of strength any of you have left to protect you. Had you heeded it, fear might have spared you the fate you are about to suffer, now that you have dared face me in my own domain!"
"We'll see about that!" Cynder said, and shot forward, attacking the being in the mist with Shadow flames. She seemed particularly on edge in the Forsworn's presence, most likely because of her memories of being possessed by the evil dragon.
There were multiple roars, and Spyro spared Samus's gunship only a brief glance before rushing in after his would-be girlfriend, adding orange fire to the mix, which chased the mist away and revealed a tangle of dragon wings and limbs. Two of the dragons were overshadowed, however, by the sheer immensity of the third: Malefor was about the size of a sperm whale and many times less tranquil. His bright reptilian eyes flashed between white and emerald green, as if the eyeballs themselves were wrought of some precious reflective glass.
Within Samus's gunship, the Smashers were a bit at a loss on what to do. Samus would have loved to shoot the Vassal out of the air, but again there were friendlies in the way. Zelda couldn't seem to summon any magic in this godforsaken mountain; DK was virtually useless in sky battles; Sparx would be about as helpful as could be expected of a firefly; Cypher was needed for communication purposes; and Red had no access to his Flying Pokémon (like Pidgeot) to make a difference with.
But Mario donned his cape, and Yoshi swallowed another Blue Shell, and Sora, with the dinosaur's permission, climbed onto his saddle, Keyblade generating in his hand.
Mario nodded to Samus. "Open the hatch."
As the floor hatch opened outward, Pikachu joined Sora on Yoshi's back, and with a united yell, they jumped out of the gunship and followed Spyro and Cynder to render what aid they could.
Malefor's body wasn't just impenetrable; it seemed shielded by an emerald aura that deflected dragon fire, Pikachu's electricity, Mario's Fireballs, and Yoshi's eggs all at once. He snarled in amusement as he whipped his tail around, smacking all his opponents halfway across the chasm.
"Cynder…when will you learn that it is useless to resist the darkness? It is your destiny to serve me, and now to serve the Heartless. Your small spurts of rebellion only cause you greater pain—and that goes for you also, Nintendonians. You waste Xehanort's gift of a free, painless existence. You inflict the agony of trying to live as something you're not—not just upon yourselves, but upon all those you attempt to snatch away from reality. And this is that reality: All is eternal night! All is carnal and corrupt, and the only life worth living within this truth is one which embraces your core nature."
"You wanna see my core nature?" In spite of what Cynder had said earlier, Spyro willed himself with all his might to find access to the Light Aether within himself. "How about the natural power of the Purple Dragon—the way it was meant to be used!"
There was precious little Aether left within him, but somehow Spyro managed to convert that supply into a respectable stream of white energy, which made to pierce through Malefor—but was deflected just the same.
Malefor's nostrils steamed with triumph. "I would have thought you'd all learned from your dead friend, the Hero of Legend—not even a Vassal's original weaknesses can stop us with the Kingdom Hearts on our side! He broke his Master Sword against Ganondorf…just as you have broken your own spirit trying the same old Aether trick against me. Now…I shall break something of yours…"
He swooped forward and grabbed both Spyro and Cynder by their necks and began plunging all three of them straight downward with startling speed.
"After them!" Sora yelled, and accordingly Mario dove toward the mist below and Yoshi made his speediest possible descent in the form of a Ground Pound, while Samus's gunship followed close behind them. As they fell through the mist, the glowing green souls darting out of their way, the pointed emerald horns on the walls threatening to shred them from all sides, Sora felt his heart pounding as much as it had back on that fateful day in the Keyblade Graveyard. He narrowed his eyes.
I won't lose any more friends like this.
After what seemed like an eternity of falling, Malefor and his two victims rapidly approached solid ground, which was by now surely far below ground level—the deepest recesses of the Well of Souls. Spyro and Cynder roared in pain as their wings were raked by the proximity of the Dark Aether, tearing through the thin fibers between their wing cartilage. But there was nothing they could do. Their friends above couldn't catch up to them. This was the end of the Legend of Spyro.
Spyro closed his eyes and awaited impact and sudden death.
But there was no impact—just a sudden shift in the air around him, from the stuffy coldness of the Well of Souls to the wind-whipped warmth of…what was this place?
They had fallen through a tear in the dimensional fabric into a world of flashing magenta skies and fathomless black abysses. And hordes of Meanies. And the massive, winding neck of Negativitron, its sinister rectangular nozzle face confused for once by all of the intruders in its realm.
For they were not the first to breach its realm this day; Negativitron had in fact been in hot pursuit of a Warpstar bearing Craft Kirby (the result of swallowing Sackboy, being made of sackcloth and wielding a giant sewing needle, which was undoubtedly responsible for the dimensional tear) and Luigi, who wore expressions of exhilaration and terror, respectively. They sped right past the newcomers, luring the monstrous vacuum directly into the path of the dragons.
As Malefor slowed in surprise and the deadly nozzle loomed near, its pointed teeth open to receive whatever fell into its path, Mario and Yoshi knew they had to act fast. They dropped beneath Malefor and attacked the claws holding their friends captive, Pikachu with a Thunderbolt, Mario with a thrust of Ratchet's OmniWrench. Malefor was just distracted enough by the dramatic shift in setting that they were able to pry his claws sufficiently open to extract Spyro and Cynder.
They just barely made it out before Negativitron swallowed Malefor whole, sucking him down its hose like an anaconda eating a rabbit (albeit an evil one). It would have sucked in the rest of them as well, except Malefor made for a mighty-sized morsel.
Meanwhile, the two other dragons were freefalling, their wings in tatters. Samus took the initiative to direct her gunship down and beam them up with her tractor beam into the safety of the hold.
Luigi and Craft Kirby pulled up beside Mario, Yoshi, Sora, and Pikachu on their Warpstar. Luigi glanced at Negativitron with a relieved look.
"I'm a-glad that's—"
But then, like Hercules inside the esophagus of the Hydra, the hose was ripped open, and Malefor burst out, severing Negativitron's neck with a bloodcurdling roar.
"Oh, come on!" DK and Sparx said simultaneously from within the gunship.
Sora peered closely at the approaching dragon's underbelly and smiled. He put a hand on Yoshi's head.
"Take me closer."
"Yoshi?" The dinosaur, questioning the boy's suggestion in his own language, nevertheless did as instructed, pushing forward toward Malefor's enraged figure, reminded uncomfortably of his memorable fight against the Dark Dragon Medeus in Akaneia. Malefor opened his maw, the stirring magic of Dark Aether swirling in his throat, ready to roast the heroes like overcooked marshmallows.
With a yell, Sora leapt off Yoshi's back (allowing Pikachu to take his place on the saddle) and soared through the air, surrounded by the light purple aura of Flowmotion, his Keyblade stretched forward with both hands.
The Smashers watched incredulously as Sora plunged straight through Malefor's Dark Aether barrier, which had been weakened by Negativitron, and into the dragon's chest—right where the keyhole shape had begun flashing.
"Malefor, you have failed this kingdom!"
Malefor's green orb-like eyes froze in shock. Sora pulled the Kingdom Key out of his hide and pushed off with his feet, backflipping down to where Yoshi was keen enough to catch him. Malefor, on the other hand, fell into the black abyss along with Negativitron's severed head, the mindless Meanies jumping in after their creator out of confusion. A flock of glowing white hearts that had once been Malefor's body rose up and away. And then, within minutes, Negativitron's dimension was quiet.
"Pika!" Pikachu cheered, which meant something along the lines of, "Nice job, Sora! We hit two Spearows with one stone!"
Sora nodded, but said nothing, far too out of breath and traumatized by his close encounter with the Dark Aether to speak.
Mario rubbed Yoshi's head affectionately and patted Sora on the shoulder, then embraced his brother, laughing.
"You did it, bro."
Craft Kirby's black button eyes glinted buoyantly as he held up his giant sewing needle in true Prince Peasley fashion.