Well, as promised, here's the next chapter. :) This is one that I've actually been looking forward to getting to for a while, so I'm glad it's done. This chapter marks the beginning of the transition from laying the base to starting the main action, and so I'm very excited. :D
As always, hope you enjoy it. Read on!
Chapter 11: A Seed of Doubt
"Well, goodnight you two young ones," Kaver said amicably as he turned to depart down the darkened corridors of Sky Haven. "I hope you both have a sound night's rest before the vote tomorrow. I'll meet you in the same place as we did this morning an hour after first light."
Spyro offered a tired smile to the councillor, he and Cynder pausing wearily outside the door to their assigned chamber. The corridors were lit only by the flickering glow of torchlight since the sun had descended below the horizon over an hour prior, signalling the end of a very long day. After all of the touring that the two young dragons had done over the course of that day it was a miracle that they were able to remain standing now.
"We'll be there," Spyro answered the wind dragon, nodding his head sluggishly. "Thanks for everything today."
"Yeah, we really had fun," Cynder added gratefully, despite the way she tried to stretch the dull aching out of her body that lingered from all of the walking they had done since morning. These new twinges only compounded the pains of leftover exhaustion from all the flying they had done to get to the city, but it was a small price to pay for the wonders they had seen that day.
"I'm glad to hear it," the wind dragon councillor smiled. "Now, I won't keep you any longer. Sleep well, both of you."
"Thanks, you too," Spyro replied.
Kaver bowed his head in farewell, then turned about and disappeared down the dim corridor. At the same time Spyro heard the door behind him creak open as Cynder entered their room and he promptly followed her. The room inside was almost pitch black, the only light coming from a faint ray of moonlight seeping in through the room's single small window in the back wall. As such it was barely enough for Spyro to be able to see the lantern sitting on a shelf beside him, which he quickly lit with his fire breath.
Soft flickering light filled the slightly cramped but cozy room as the lantern began glowing with Spyro's flame. The room itself was quite simple in terms of arrangement, with a smooth tiled stone floor, carved stone walls, the single window and a small fireplace for warmth built into the side wall. Aside from the collection of cushions for sleeping, the only furnishing was a couple of small end tables and a low wooden shelf by the door on top of which sat the lantern, Spyro's bag resting safely within. It looked to have been built for a single adult dragon to reside in but Spyro and Cynder still managed well in it with the two of them, having divided the bed cushions between them the night before.
"Well, that was a long day," Cynder yawned as she padded slowly over to her designated cushion pile and gratefully lowered herself down on top of them. "For such a small city there really is a lot to see here."
"Yeah, no kidding," Spyro chuckled. "I could spend all week exploring this place."
"Especially if you got lost again like this morning."
Spyro shot his roommate a hurt look, and Cynder laughed quietly before shifting about to try and find a more comfortable position for her sore body. Just at that moment, however, Spyro noticed a shiver run through the length of her form, making her cast an accusing glance up toward the open window.
"Cold?" he asked with a touch of concern.
"Maybe just a little," she relented after a short hesitation, but another shiver betrayed the true extent of her discomfort.
Spyro gave a thoughtful growl, feeling a similar tremor shoot down his spine when a breath of the chilled night air brushed against his scales from the window. Then, with an aura of decision about him, he crossed the room to the window and pressed a forepaw against the wall beneath it. There was a small rumble in the stone as a slab of rock slid across the opening, the purple dragon's earth power sealing it shut.
With that accomplished Spyro then immediately padded over to the fireplace, examining the wood stacked inside. He sucked in a breath of air in preparation to bathe the logs in flames, but then he hesitated when he saw the oddly-shaped backing on the fireplace's left wall: flint granules. He then recalled something that Kaver had said earlier in their tour, about how the absence of fire dragons among the city's original population had led the earth dragons to incorporate flint into the fireplaces to make lighting fires easier.
Taken by curiosity, Spyro let the heat that had been blooming in the back of his throat dissipate. Then, instead, he spat out a rough lump of stone from between his jaws at the surface of the flint. It impacted with a sharp CLACK and a couple of faint sparks erupted in reward of his effort. They touched down on the ready tinder but after smoldering for a second they simply fizzled out. Spyro frowned, and behind him he heard Cynder laughing again.
"Not as easy as it sounds?" she asked teasingly.
Spyro answered with a simple "Hmph," at the same time falling back on his original plan and lighting the wood with a blast of his fire breath. Then he turned back and paced over to his own small bed of cushions, sinking into their plush embrace with a quiet sigh.
"I guess it takes a bit of practice to get it right," he said with a mildly embarrassed shrug.
Cynder laughed again, but then her expression clouded a touch. While she apparently tried to hide it Spyro noticed the way her wings rattled almost unnoticeably from another bout of shivering.
"Still cold?" he asked her, half rising from his cushions despite his body's protests.
"I'll be fine," she answered quickly. "Just need to wait for the fire to warm the room up a bit more, is all."
Another frown appeared on Spyro's muzzle, knowing that she was just being brave. After only a brief hesitation he rose to his paws again and moved over to a recess in the wall nearby that was used for storage, Cynder watching him curiously. In the recess a set of soft fur blankets had been folded neatly and stacked, awaiting the use of the room's guests, and Spyro didn't hesitate to accept the invitation. He grabbed the top one carefully in his jaws, then clumsily turned back with the blanket falling around his forepaws and made his way over to the black dragoness, who was watching him with a half-puzzled, half-amused expression on her face. Once he reached her side he flicked his head back so that the blanket swung around and fell over his shoulders, then used his wing to spread it over his companion as he lay down by her side on the edge of her cushions, allowing them to share its warmth.
"Better?" he asked her past the nervous flutter that rose in his chest from being so close to her.
Cynder regarded him with a look of surprise for a moment, but then slowly the amused smile returned to her features.
"Getting a bit bolder, are we?" she asked playfully.
"Is this alright?" Spyro asked her, a note of uncertainty in his voice. "Because if you'd rather have your space I'll..."
The next words died in his throat when he felt Cynder shift her body closer to his, a sensation of warmth seeping through him as her flank pressed against his own. Cynder's smile grew larger and gentler.
"No, this is nice," she told him. Her eyes swivelled over to the fire burning quietly a few feet away from them and a long, slow sigh escaped her lips, her body relaxing against the purple dragon's. "It's been a while since it was just the two of us like this, hasn't it?"
"Yeah, it has," Spyro replied quietly, at the same time letting his head sag down onto the cushions as his weariness from the day of touring finally caught up with him. Then he added, "Sometimes I think too long..."
Cynder looked down at him with another soft smile, then set her head down as well and nuzzled over tentatively until her snout rubbed against his jaw, being careful not to catch him with her horns. Spyro felt his smile grow wider at her touch, and a contented rumble escaped him unbidden.
"I missed it," she told him, her voice partially muffled by the cushions and his scales.
"Me too," he answered. Then an idea suddenly struck him, and he opened his eye to look down at Cynder again, though he didn't move. "Let's make each other a promise."
The purple dragon paused for a moment as he used his free wing to adjust the blanket over himself, then shifted even closer to his companion's side on the cushions, his other wing still resting across her shoulders and back. His eyes drifted back to the fire, watching it distantly as he sorted out his thoughts. Finally he said, "Let's promise that when we get back to Warfang we'll try harder to find some time just for each other. I mean, things have been going pretty well between us for the past little while, but it's not like what we had before, is it?"
"No, it's not," Cynder murmured, a faint tint of regret creeping into her voice.
"Well I want to get closer to you again, Cynder. But I know that won't happen if we don't make the time for it. Do you know what I mean?"
The black dragoness let out a soft, contented growl from her throat at these words from him. While Spyro couldn't see it, a joyful smile crept across her muzzle as if she had been hoping secretly to hear him say such a thing for a long time.
"Yeah, I think I do," she replied. "And I would like that."
It was Spyro's turn to smile as a feeling of relief and joy flowed through him, warming him from the inside out. "So we have a deal?"
"We do," Cynder sighed happily, shifting her head so that it rested snugly against her companion's cheek. "Goodnight, Spyro."
A long, deep yawn emanated from the purple hero's mouth, and with a tired sigh he closed his eyes and relaxed his aching body at last, softly tightening his hold on Cynder with his wing. Then, feeling warm and filled with blissful contentment the likes of which he hadn't experienced in what felt like ages, he allowed himself to succumb to the comforting embrace of sleep...
What started out as an embrace didn't take long to transform into a crushing grip that was far more sinister.
Why his life seemed to bear an obsessive compulsion to smother moments of peace and joy underneath the looming threat of discord he would never understand, but seemingly only seconds after closing his eyes he was assaulted by a string of sharp images. Fragments of memories from throughout the last few months of his life sped past at a dizzying pace, leaving him reeling.
They began with a deceptive air of happiness. Scenes from the opening celebrations of the Liberty Festival in Warfang were intercut with episodes of serenity in Bayside, flashes of him surrounded by his friends juxtaposed with images of him and Cynder together in what had arguably been the happiest time they had ever known. He saw his parents, the Guardians, even Ignitus, all of them with smiles on their faces and their presence exuding a feeling of warmth and security. These visions caused a feeling of relaxation and happiness to fill his being, and he could have spent forever reminiscing in them.
But then, inevitably, the misty images began to change. It began slowly, with smiles becoming mildly strained, concerned, as though given in a feeble attempt at comfort when a threat was looming overhead. Soon the smiles had been replaced with expressions of uncertainty, quickly followed after by anxiety and doubt. Bright sunlight faded behind thick, angry clouds. The atmosphere of warmth and comfort became one of foreboding. It was a feeling Spyro knew too well—the uneasy silence before a storm. He was most familiar with it from his time at the old Temple just before the Night of Eternal Darkness had sent his world spiralling forever.
Then, in a single violent flash, everything turned to chaos.
Confused voices layered over each other to the point that nothing was intelligible except a deafening roar. The blazing glare of raging fires and all manner of elemental magic was blinding, and yet it still wasn't enough to obscure the ever-increasing horrors that assaulted his mind's eye. Hoards of grublins intermixed with even fouler monsters could be seen sweeping over homes and villages indiscriminately, with the burning buildings of Warfang somehow always forming the backdrop of each terrible scene. Dragons, moles and cheetahs were helpless before the relentless tide of the dark creatures, their screams of pain and fear splitting the darkened sky, the smell of blood clogging the air. The screams were torturous to hear and always inescapable, and they only made the images—both remembered and imagined—all the more painful to witness.
Spyro was helpless to block out the visions as they came at him with rapidly increasing frequency, bringing each torture of his past surging back to him when he wished nothing more than to never have to endure them again. The images weren't even the worst of it anymore as he began to feel the pain that had been inflicted on his body by the paws of Malefor, Nexus, and every other foe he had ever faced.
Faster and faster the images and feelings came, with Spyro powerless to escape them. The sickness that had almost killed him; the stinging bite of grublin blades; Malefor's convexity; the various battles against the pirate mutts all mixed together into one; watching Flash's brother Claymore die right in front of him; his dislocated wing; the poisoning that had come so near to claiming his life. They all pounded mercilessly against him, causing him to wonder how he had even survived so much in such a short span of time. The only thing that remained constant in all of the visions was that fateful night in Warfang when the grublins invaded, scenes from that battle for some reason always playing in the background of everything else. Soon the memories started to blur together, the noise and light threatening to overwhelm him until at length they all merged together into one overpowering surge. The only thing that was able to break through in the end was a single, all-too-easily recognizable shriek of burning rage that emerged from the jaws of a terrifying black dragoness. A dragoness who was at that very moment driving her lethal tail blade straight for his chest.
Spyro jolted awake with a strangled gasp as the piercing agony tore right through his heart, stealing his breath away and causing his chest and lungs to constrict painfully from the shock. He was utterly unaware of his surroundings as he struggled for air, his whole body trembling uncontrollably and his eyes as wide as saucers. It took several attempts to take in a full breath, and when finally he could manage it he began gasping in air as if he hadn't had it in ages. All the while his body continued to shake violently as the terrible images kept flashing in his mind.
The purple dragon gave an instinctual yelp of fear and surprise when something brushed against his shoulder. Faster than he could even think he had recoiled sharply from the contact, wide eyes gazing through the blackness in an attempt to make out the new danger. He faltered, however, when he was met with the sight of Cynder gazing back at him with an expression of profound worry on her face—and slight hurt as well. It was an odd mix of relief and fear that rushed through him, the last image from his nightmare flaring in his mind again. It took him a second to realize that he had retreated even farther from her in the split second that had passed since she'd spoken. Slowly, though, he was able to quell the frantic racing of his heart, his breathing calming gradually as reason came back to him and he remembered where he was.
"You were dreaming of that night again, weren't you?" the black dragoness asked a moment later in a cautious, tight voice.
Spyro's only reply at first was a long, heavy sigh, a few residual tremors still shooting through his form. His gaze fell toward the ground for a moment as he struggled to drive out the images from the dream that refused to be budged from his mind. After a long pause, though, he nodded his head.
"Among other things," he muttered weakly.
He easily caught the flash of pain and regret that glinted in Cynder's emerald eyes before she slowly, almost tentatively, edged closer to him. He glanced up at her briefly before letting out another sigh and closing his eyes tightly, letting his head dip forward until his forehead bumped against her brow. She didn't pull away from the contact, and Spyro felt the swirling emotions inside of him ebb slowly from the soothing touch.
"It's okay," she whispered to him. "It's over. Nothing can hurt you here."
Her gentle words helped tremendously in calming his nerves. He opened his eyes again and pulled back to meet her gaze, offering a small smile of gratitude.
"I know. Thanks."
She returned the smile, looking relieved, and Spyro made to move closer to her again, wishing to share an embrace with her to chase away the remnants of his fears. Cynder's eyes never left his own, showing her concern and eagerness to do whatever she could to help him escape his torments.
He was unable to go a single step though, because as soon as he had risen he was immediately dropped by a bolt of pain that lanced up from his left foreleg, causing him to cry out sharply and collapse onto the bed cushions.
"Spyro!" Cynder exclaimed in renewed concern, appearing by his side in an instant.
"Damn it," Spyro groaned through gritted fangs as he glared down bitterly at his leg and the offending poison scar upon it. He tried flexing the limb to work out the stiffness but only succeeded in causing another wave of pain to sweep through him, making him wince and gasp. "Not again."
"How bad is it?"
"Worse than usual," the purple dragon sighed. "And I thought it was finally getting better."
"Wounds like this are tricky things," Cynder answered sadly, lying down by his side and gently lifting his foreleg with a paw to examine it more closely. "It's probably just tension again from the nightmare. Just try and relax."
Spyro simply nodded, doing his best to unclench the muscles in his leg despite the piercing ache. It didn't have much effect though, and a moment later he gave a frustrated sigh. Cynder easily noticed this, another sad glint flashing in her eyes, but just then it seemed like she had an idea and looked up to catch his gaze.
"Spyro? You trust me, right?"
Spyro faltered, caught greatly off guard by the question, and for a fleeting second his pain faded to the back of his mind as he regarded her in confusion.
"Yeah, of course," he answered finally.
She gave a small nod, though she still looked hesitant about something. Then she said, "There's something I want to try that I think will help. Just relax and don't move, alright?"
Spyro didn't answer, still too puzzled, but it seemed as if the question had been rhetorical because Cynder proceeded anyway. She lifted the forepaw that wasn't cradling his leg, and Spyro instinctually went rigid when the pad of her paw began glowing with an eerie green light. A small rush of fear and doubt passed through him, but when she looked up at him again and her eyes met his he felt a strange sort of calmness wash over his anxiety. Feeling him relax, Cynder shifted her gaze down to the scar on his leg and began carefully lowering her poison-imbued paw towards it.
A hissing gasp leaked through Spyro's jaws and he tensed again when her paw made contact, his scales flaring with a burning feeling at the touch of Cynder's poison element, but before he could pull away he faltered again when as quickly as the pain had come it vanished. Gradually, to his great surprise, the sharp pain in his leg was replaced by a dull aching as relief spread from the point of contact with Cynder's paw.
"How are you doing that?" he asked her in mild shock.
"It's an idea I got from your mother," the dragoness explained, her eyes never leaving her careful work as she began softly massaging his damaged leg with her still-glowing paw, further soothing his discomfort. "When we were looking for you in the swamp I was asking her all sorts of questions about it, and one of the things I asked was about one of the mushrooms we passed that she said they used for medicines."
Spyro knew which kind she probably meant, for it was an extremely common ingredient in all manner of remedies for disinfecting injuries and promoting healing that the dragonflies used almost constantly. "What about it?"
"I found it weird that it was used in medicine, because I could easily tell that the juices from it were poisonous when I touched it."
This caught Spyro by surprise. "Really?"
Cynder nodded. "Even lethal if it was too concentrated. But that got me thinking about something Terrador told me during one of my lessons, where he said that poison dragons used to be able to tailor their poison to do all kinds of different things. So I thought: if that mushroom could be used to heal, maybe my poison could be too."
Spyro's gaze fell to her paw again, watching with a feeling of mixed awe and bewilderment as he thought this over. He had never considered that there might be any uses for poison other than destructive ones, but the rapidly fading pain in his leg told a far different story. All at once he found he had a new appreciation for these so-called 'dark' elements, and was slightly amazed that something that seemed so dangerous and threatening on the surface could really be the opposite.
Not unlike her.
"So what are you doing to your poison to make it do this?" he asked after a brief pause.
"I'm producing it as a very weak kind of neurotoxin," Cynder replied. "It's targeting the nerves in your leg. Basically it's shutting them down for a while so you can't feel anything. I don't know how long it will last, but I thought it was still worth a shot and didn't think there was much risk of damaging anything as long as I was careful."
"That's amazing," he said, processing this information slowly, and Cynder gave a small chuckle. "Is it hard to do?"
"Sort of," she shrugged. "I've been able to make my poison do different things for years now, but it was usually unconscious. You know, burning through skin sometimes, acting slowly through injection at others, basically just doing what I needed it to do when I used it." She paused thoughtfully. "I guess the same is true here too. It's just a more...conscious effort this time. Is it helping?"
Spyro nodded quickly. "Yeah, it feels a lot better. That's really impressive."
A soft smile touched the black dragoness's lips, hard to make out in the darkness. Deeming that her treatment was complete, she allowed her power to fade and released Spyro's foreleg, freeing him to lift it and test it out. The scales and muscles around his scar had gone numb, taking the pain completely away. It was a deeply strange sensation and Spyro found it difficult to get used to as he flexed his leg experimentally, but it was certainly far better than the pain.
"So how is it?" Cynder asked a minute later.
"Good," he answered, a grateful smile quickly crossing his muzzle. "It still feels pretty tense, but the pain is gone. Thanks, Cynder."
Cynder's own smile grew a touch wider, obviously glad she could help.
"Well if it's tense then maybe we should go walk around for a little while to stretch it out," she suggested.
Spyro considered this option for only a second before he gave a small nod of his head.
"It's not like I'm going to be getting back to sleep for a while anyway," he sighed, his mood turning slightly more sombre for a moment. He slowly rose to his paws, testing his weight on his left foreleg before turning to Cynder, who had also quickly risen. "Are you sure you want to come? Or would you rather sleep?"
"I'm happy to keep you company," she answered without hesitation. "I like night-time walks every now and then anyway."
Spyro couldn't help giving another small smile, grateful for her constant support. "Okay, then let's go."
Cynder nodded in agreement, motioning for him to take the lead. He did so, turning toward the door and padding over to it, moving cautiously so as not to trip in the darkness. He could hear Cynder moving with much more ease behind him, her shadow powers granting her an advantage in the absence of light, and he felt a small twinge of envy that he didn't have a similar ability. Being able to sense the earth helped considerably, but as both of their abilities developed during their training it became clear that it just couldn't compete in this regard.
Still, it was more than enough to allow him to find the door without incident, and when he pushed it open he was greeted with the soft glow of torchlight in the corridor beyond. With a comfortable silence between them the pair set off with no destination in mind, conscious to keep their pawsteps as quiet as possible in case there happened to be anyone else sleeping in the rooms they passed. Within a couple of minutes they had left the inhabited hallways behind them, emerging in the same stretch of passages they had found themselves wandering through that morning around the city's perimeter, and from there on they were able to drop their caution and walk without further worry.
Spyro didn't know how long their meandering lasted, but he found that he didn't truly care. Aside from the occasional night watchmen that they would cross paths with the corridors were deserted and absolutely silent, though it was the comforting kind of quiet. Very few torches were to be found in these outer passages, possibly to keep from obstructing the guards' views through the open windows overlooking the sleeping landscape. Instead most of the light available came from the moons and the stars, the pale bluish aura suffusing the air with a sense of tranquility. The crisp, fresh scent of the high-altitude air that carried through the windows on the gentle wind only added to this feeling, and Spyro breathed it in greedily as he enjoyed this moment of peace with his companion.
Eventually they came across a lookout post that offered a spectacular view of the night-time world below them, and deciding that they could use a small rest they padded up to the arched gap in the heavy stone wall and sat back on their haunches. There they sat for several minutes in silence, gazing out over the landscape and admiring how incredibly different it looked under the night sky, shrouded in blackness and etched in pale, silvery highlights. It was almost otherworldly, and it made Spyro almost glad that he had woken up so that they could get this chance to see it.
There was still the cold to consider, of course. The altitude and the gradual changing of the seasons could easily be felt in that less-than-sheltered overlook, and it caused the two dragons to huddle together closely to try and share in each others' warmth. This necessity was something that Spyro couldn't say he minded, though, and judging by the faint smile that turned up the corners of Cynder's muzzle she didn't either.
"It's so quiet," Cynder commented after a time, her voice barely more than a whisper as though she was afraid to disturb the silence. "Warfang is never like this."
"Not even the swamp is," Spyro replied just as quietly. "You could always hear some sort of night creatures there. Here there's nothing. It's so strange..."
"I like it," Cynder said firmly, causing Spyro to glance toward her. "It's so peaceful. I feel safe, like I don't have to worry about who's watching."
"Why would anyone be watching?"
This time it was Cynder who glanced toward him, studying him, and finally she answered, "I don't know. I guess I'm just used to being scrutinized back in the city, of people's wary looks. They usually aren't suspicious anymore or anything, but they don't forget either." There was a brief pause, but then she turned her gaze toward him again with a thoughtful expression. "I guess you have your own kind of scrutiny to deal with too, huh? Everyone expecting you to behave like the hero and all that."
Spyro gave a small snort, a wry, half-grin pulling at his mouth. "Yeah, I guess you could say that. I try not to think about it usually. Maybe that's why I like to spend so much time with you and the others instead of trying to meet new people. I know I'm not being judged when I'm with you guys."
"Yeah, I know what you mean."
Another silence elapsed, broken only by the long, quiet breath that Spyro took in and released. He could feel his tension melting gradually away with each breath he took, the images from his dream fading back into memory where they belonged. He felt Cynder shift closer to him as another quiet gust of wind brushed past them, leaning against his flank for warmth. He shifted his wing so that it wasn't in the way, allowing it to rest limply against her back.
"Do you ever think about leaving?" she asked suddenly.
Surprised by this question, Spyro turned an inquisitive look toward her and saw that she was gazing out toward the horizon with a distant expression. It was a few moments before he was able to respond.
"No," he said, wondering where this question had come from. "Why, do you? You don't like Warfang?"
"I do," Cynder nodded. "But I do wonder what it would be like to just fly away somewhere quiet where no one knew me and start over. Do you remember when we were in Bayside, what it felt like then?"
"It probably wasn't the same for me," he replied with a small smile. "My colour kind of gives me away. Even if they don't know my name, they still know about me."
Cynder let out a small grunt, a look of contemplation in her eyes. "I guess that's true. It's a shame really. I can't tell you what it was like to just meet someone out in the street and not wonder if there was suspicion or fear hidden behind a friendly facade. Maybe there's still somewhere that you could find that too if you just looked far enough."
"Maybe," Spyro nodded thoughtfully. "But I don't really feel like I need to go searching around for that. Warfang is where I belong, and so I'm happy there."
"You sound so sure," Cynder remarked.
Spyro merely shrugged. "I guess it's because of how I think of the Guardians like family after the way they took me under their wing. For as long as I've known them they've guided me, supported me, trusted me. I guess I just can't imagine being anywhere else but with them." He looked down toward Cynder again. "What about you? Do you think you'll find that one place where you belong someday?"
Cynder met his gaze for a moment, surprised, before a large smile spread across her features.
"I already have," she told him softly.
"Oh yeah?" he asked.
Cynder nodded, her sparkling emerald eyes gazing straight into his own. "It's right here. By your side."
Spyro blinked, caught unprepared for such a response, but slowly his surprise was replaced by a feeling of warmth and happiness that spread outward from his chest. A tender smile grew on his muzzle, one that Cynder returned in kind before letting her head rest against the side of his neck, just beneath the edge of his jaw. Spyro savoured the close contact, using his wing to gently pull her closer to him and letting out a contented sigh.
"Spyro?" Cynder murmured a second later.
"Yes?" he answered, not shifting his position.
There was a beat of silence. Then she said, "I'm glad we're okay."
Spyro's smile spread wider, taking on a slightly amused air, and he leaned his head back enough to meet Cynder's gaze.
Cynder let out a small chuckle. "You know what I mean."
Spyro chuckled as well. Then, as a new sensation of fluttering warmth bloomed in his chest, he did something that he hadn't done in quite some time. With careful, almost hesitant motions, he leaned his head forward until the side of his muzzle brushed against that of Cynder's, his sensitive facial scales rubbing gently against her own. He moved slowly, feeling anxious about pushing things too quickly, but his fears proved to be baseless when Cynder returned the gesture without hesitation, leaning into his touch and angling her head to maximize the contact between them. They remained locked in that posture for what could have been ages, neither of them holding any desire to break away from the other in that moment.
"I love you, Spyro," Cynder whispered, her breath tickling his scales and sending a chill through him. "You know that, right?"
"I do," he answered just as softly, not moving or opening his eyes. "And I love you too."
A long, slow sigh filled with utter happiness seeped out through Cynder's nostrils, and she adjusted her head to rest more snugly against Spyro's. He could feel an aura of contentment and satisfaction radiating from her, as though some sort of secret, inner doubt had been put to rest forever. Spyro smiled once more as he felt her relaxing, wishing that this moment would never have to end.
Unfortunately, as seemed to be the way of things, he would have no such fortune.
Spyro jolted in surprise at the sudden unknown voice that sounded out from the corridor behind the young pair, and both he and Cynder whipped their heads around in unison toward the source, jumping to their feet by little more than instinct. Spyro was expecting to see some patrolling guard that had stopped while passing them during their rounds, but there was no such dragon in sight. Puzzled, his eyes flitted around the passage in search of the intruder, but it still took him a moment before he spotted him. When he did, though, he faltered in surprise and confusion.
"Who are you?" Cynder asked, a look of similar uncertainty on her angular face.
The newcomer, who was some form of tiny bird that Spyro had never seen before, didn't reply, and in the silence Spyro studied him curiously. His feathers were a mix of deep red and vibrant orange, two large golden eyes peering up at him and Cynder with an odd, unsettling sort of light inside of them. A tiny black beak protruded from the centre of his mostly-round face, a pair of diminutive wings folded against the sides of his body. Two feet reminiscent in form to those of a hawk or eagle supported him, the miniscule points of developing talons barely poking out from the toes. All in all he stood only a couple of inches off of the ground, and he had a distinct look of infancy about him. He couldn't have been more than a couple of months out of the egg.
There was something not entirely right about his eyes, though, and Spyro had to suppress a shudder whenever the bird's gaze met his own. There should have been a sparkle of innocence and curiosity in those eyes, but while his expression was plenty inquisitive there was no innocence about his bearing at all. His eyes seemed to pierce right through him, looking into his soul with an ease that only Ignitus and the Chronicler had ever been able to come remotely close to before.
"What's interesting?" he asked at length, his eyes narrowing a touch in suspicion.
"That you show such tenderness," the bird replied in a distinctly childish, high-pitched voice, "while such darkness dwells in your heart."
Spyro's eyes widened for a brief instant before he immediately became defensive, his posture taking on a more defensive quality and a challenging light glinting in his eyes.
"You have no right to talk that way about her," he said firmly, not caring in that moment whether this bird was merely a chick or not.
He faltered, however, when the unknown bird turned a thoroughly puzzled look toward him.
"I didn't mean her."
Spyro faltered again, a surge of confusion shooting through him, and out of the corner of his eye he saw that Cynder had a similar reaction. It was a long moment before he was able to find his voice again.
"It's not at all hard to make out," the bird answered, taking a couple of tiny steps closer to the two dragons. "She may have been touched by evil in the past, but while the scars remain the darkness itself is long gone. But you...there is something sinister trapped deep inside of you. You are a very conflicted dragon inside."
Spyro couldn't believe what he was hearing and seeing, and for a second he was convinced that he must have still been dreaming. This entire situation was backward in so many different ways, and he quickly glanced up at Cynder for some kind of confirmation that she was hearing the same thing he was. The look in her eyes more than acknowledged that, and he turned his incredulous gaze toward the bird again.
"How do you know so much?" he asked uncertainly, a hint of fear mixing with his confusion as he thought that the secret side of him that he had guarded so closely had just been discovered.
To his surprise, the bird laughed. But while this laugh sounded just as one would expect from a small child on the surface, underneath there was that same unsettling quality that Spyro had noticed in the bird's eyes. The sound sent a cold shudder down his spine.
"Don't let my appearance fool you," the bird told him with a strange smirk. "I'm not nearly as young as I look."
Spyro was perplexed by this cryptic response from the bird, but very quickly Cynder let out a surprised gasp beside him. He turned a confused look toward her only to see her staring at the bird with an expression of surprise and comprehension.
"You're a phoenix," she said slowly.
The small bird merely nodded.
It suddenly clicked within Spyro's mind why he had been sensing this almost unnatural aura about the strange bird. There was no innocence within the orange and red avian's eyes because it had been long erased by time. How old could he really be, he wondered? How many lifetimes had he witnessed in the world already? He had heard stories from the Guardians about how phoenixes couldn't die from age, instead going through a process of rebirth in which fire consumed their old, failing bodies and a brand new body was born from within the flames while their minds and spirits endured. It was something that he had always had a difficult time grasping just from the stories, and it was no easier now with one of the reclusive birds standing right in front of him.
"You are quite the mystery, purple one," the phoenix said a moment later—rather ironically, Spyro thought. His golden eyes had taken on a glazed, distant appearance as he spoke, as though he was looking at something that wasn't physically there. "The love you display is genuine, and yet there is a strange sort of clash within your soul, as though a part of you is rebelling against those feelings without you realizing it. Your nature is at war with itself, it seems."
"What...what are you talking about?" Spyro asked, unnerved by the phoenix's words and doubting if he should believe anything it was saying, though something instinctually told him that he should. "Why should I have any doubts about my feelings for Cynder?"
"I never said that you did," the phoenix countered, somewhat to Spyro's mystification. "But perhaps such feelings aren't truly natural for one such as yourself?"
"I have a hard time believing that," Cynder snorted.
"Do you now?" the phoenix asked with another smirk. "Well, that isn't surprising, but you must surely know by now that you can never really know what to expect from a purple dragon, can you?"
Neither Spyro nor Cynder had anything that they could say in response to this.
"Your race is one that is enshrouded in a great deal of mystery, purple one," the bird continued in a tone that seemed suited to a scholar lecturing an ignorant commoner, something that was greatly at odds with the infantine pitch of his voice. "I suspect that even you don't really know what exactly you are."
"And you do?" Spyro asked, becoming defensive.
A strange, almost amused gleam appeared within the phoenix's eyes, and slowly he began turning around and walking on his tiny legs farther into the darkened corridors. As he departed, he glanced back over his wing at the two dragons.
"Let me show you something," he said mysteriously.
Spyro hesitated, still feeling greatly unnerved by this ancient bird in an infant's body, and he exchanged an uncertain glance with Cynder. He could see in her eyes a wary kind of curiosity, however, and he had to admit that he also wanted to know what this stranger's purpose was. With a slow breath to collect himself, Spyro set off after the phoenix with Cynder right by his side.
The pace was, understandably, slow with someone as small as the phoenix chick leading them, but even so it wasn't long before the path they were following began to lead them farther away from the populated portion of the city. The corridors began sloping downward, sets of stairs taking them deeper into the bedrock of the butte. The torches began to grow fewer and farther between, casting an eerie gloom onto the walls. The passages were also beginning to show signs of neglect, cracks and missing chips showing in the walls, giving the area the impression of being one that the city's inhabitants didn't regularly enter.
All the while, Spyro's anxious questions continued to grow in strength in his mind. Who was this phoenix? Why was he so interested in them? What did he know?
It seemed that Cynder had her own questions on her mind as well, because it wasn't much longer before she finally broke the silence and spoke up.
"Where are you taking us?" she asked, her tone wary as she glanced around at their surroundings.
"To a forgotten place," the phoenix answered. "You see, the citizens above are not the first dragons to dwell inside this butte. Millennia ago it was home to a small, isolated colony of nomads. The natural caves and passages that the earth dragons expanded into their new city were these dragons' home, and in these abandoned areas signs of their time here still remain if you know where to look for them."
Just then the unnamed phoenix turned abruptly to his left and walked over to a particularly large crack in the wall, the surface looking almost as if it were the site of some ancient cave in, the stone lumpy and irregular like chunks of debris that had been fused and compressed together over centuries. With quick, nimble movements, the phoenix hopped from perch to perch up the wall, then into a gap in the stone where he disappeared from sight. For a second Spyro and Cynder simply stood there gazing at the crack in surprise.
"Do you think he wants us to follow him?" Spyro asked at length.
"Probably," Cynder nodded. "How do you want to do this? I can get in using shadow, but what about you? Open it up with earth?"
Spyro stepped up to the wall and rested a forepaw against the lumpy surface, frowning in concentration. Only a second later, though, he gave a grunt of irritation.
"No good," he told her. "The space on the other side of it is unstable. If I try and open it up it might collapse."
"Great," Cynder sighed.
Spyro then turned to face her, an inquisitive thought forming within his mind. "Do you think you would be able to take me through with you?"
A look of surprise flashed across the black dragoness's features. "You mean like what Enigma did?"
Spyro nodded. Cynder gave a small, thoughtful grunt as her gaze drifted away, an expression of uncertain contemplation settling on her face. Eventually she gave a hesitant shrug.
"I don't know," she relented. "She has a better grasp of that sort of technique than I do. I'm not sure if it would work."
"You could try," Spyro told her, taking a step closer. "You already proved tonight that you have a knack for picking up new things with your elements if you put your mind to it."
"That was different," Cynder protested, her tone becoming forceful. "I knew that nothing bad could happen if something went wrong before. The poison I was using was too weak to do any damage to you if I had messed up. But if I don't do this right you could be really, really hurt, if not worse!"
Spyro hesitated at this, a worried frown creasing his brow as he considered their options. He glanced behind him at the crack in the wall where the phoenix had vanished again, feeling a deep, restless curiosity gnawing at his gut. As unnerved as he was by what that bird had said about him and whatever it was he was hinting at, he felt he just needed to know what this was all about. He had tried his best to put the disturbing inconsistencies that had been cropping up from his encounters with the other three purple dragons he had come across, but he just couldn't ignore the blatant gaps in his knowledge about what he was any longer. If this phoenix knew something about him, he had to find out what it was.
"I trust you," he said, turning to meet Cynder's gaze once again.
Cynder paused, clearly conflicted and grappling with her doubts, but when she saw the burning need in Spyro's eyes to sort out this mystery she let out a long, defeated sigh.
"Alright," she said, stepping toward him. "Don't move."
Spyro nodded his head and stood as still as possible as Cynder came to a stop directly in front of him. He could see shadow beginning to leech from her scales, sinking down to the stony ground in a swirling mist. At the same time she slowly reared up and placed her forepaws on his shoulders, bringing her wings around to envelop him and pull him tight against her. This caught him by surprise but he forced himself to remain still as the shadows began swirling around the two of them with new intensity.
All at once his world was consumed in blackness, that same crushing and stretching sensation that he had experienced the last time he had done this taking hold of him with shocking strength. Even though he had been expecting it this time the unnatural feelings seemed to hit with much more force than before and caused a jolt of fear to shoot through his being. It wasn't just uncomfortable, it was painful. His instincts began screaming at him to try and escape as it seemed like the very life was being squeezed out of him, but he was helpless to do anything but wait for it to end.
Only a split second later, it did. He staggered with a disoriented gasp as the veil of utter blackness fell away from his vision, and he shook his head sharply to clear the tremendous dizziness from it. Once his vision began to clear he looked up in time to see Cynder pulling away from him, releasing him from her hold.
"That really does feel weird," he said, still feeling a bit unsteady.
"Are you alright?" she asked with concern clear in her voice and expression.
He nodded quickly, a smile forming on his muzzle as the abnormal sensations faded away into nothingness. "Yeah. I knew you could do it."
A small, grateful smile graced Cynder's own muzzle at those words. However, it was short lived as the two dragons remembered the situation they were in and looked around at the dim chamber within which they were now standing.
It looked to be a small section of corridor that had collapsed on both ends, creating a narrow room about a dozen metres in length that was strewn with haphazard pieces of stone debris piled against the walls and scattered across the floor. The only light came from a lone outcropping of red spirit gem that had somehow forced itself through the wall in the back upper corner of the claustrophobic space. The only other thing not made of stone within the room was the small bed of twigs and dried grasses that formed the phoenix's nest, sitting just beneath the spirit gem on top of a mound of broken granite. The phoenix was just at that moment hopping up into said next, sitting down on its edge and rustling his wings.
"Why did you bring us here?" Spyro asked, puzzled.
"To offer you the first hint on your search to discover the truth behind your legacy," the phoenix answered with an odd smile. "To open your eyes to how little you really know."
"Why do you keep insisting that he knows nothing about himself?" Cynder asked, the challenging tone returning to her voice. "What proof do you have that the things the Guardians told him aren't true?"
"Do you believe them to be true?"
Cynder opened her mouth to answer, but then she seemed to find no words to say. Spyro's mind flashed back to the encounter they had endured in the Well of Souls, and a chill ran down his spine as an image of Ragnor's burning crimson eyes flashed in his mind, boring into him. After that day, he didn't know what he could believe when it came to purple dragons anymore.
"What you were doubtlessly told about the race of purple dragons is utter fiction," the phoenix said harshly, jolting them both out of their brooding thoughts. "I do not know what drove the dragons to begin claiming that Malefor, this 'Dark Master', was the first purple dragon to ever exist, but I can tell you that in my time I have come across many forgotten clues that suggest otherwise. This 'prophecy' of your birth? It is no such thing. It is a warning."
"A warning?" Spyro repeated, shocked.
The phoenix nodded. "A warning rooted in ancient history, long before the time of Malefor came about. It was likely only out of desperation and necessity that it was twisted into a tale of hope for when your day arrived, and from what the stories say of you it seems it was not a futile effort, but a dishonest one nonetheless, even if it was unknowingly so."
"I don't believe you," Spyro growled with sudden fire in his voice, his teeth clenching in agitation. "I'm not evil, and I never was. So why would there need to be a warning about my birth?"
"Perhaps you already know."
Spyro faltered, wondering what the phoenix could possibly mean by that, but as soon as he opened his mouth to voice this confusion he was suddenly hit by a memory from six months before.
'I am sure you were told I was the first of our kind, but I assure you, there have been many...This is the true nature of our kind. Your destiny is to destroy the world.'
"No!" Spyro cried forcefully, causing Cynder to start beside him. "It's not true. Malefor was lying when he said those things!"
"I don't know anything about that," the phoenix shrugged, "but I could probably guess what you speak of judging by the way you second guess yourself now. But if you won't believe what others tell you, maybe it's something you have to realize for yourself?"
"Wha...?" Spyro began, flustered, but then he trailed off when the phoenix nodded his head at the wall across from his nest. When the purple dragon followed the motion he realized with a start that the ruined wall wasn't actually bare, but in fact was covered in some sort of ancient, barely-visible mural that had faded over countless years. The ruby glow of the spirit gem was barely enough to make any of it out.
Drawn by curiosity, Spyro slowly padded toward the mural, his gaze sweeping across it rapidly as his bright purple eyes searched rapidly for whatever it was the phoenix wanted him to see.
It looked almost like some kind of primitive form of historical record, done before parchment or books, the faded painting on the wall depicting a confusing array of seemingly unrelated snippets and stories passed down through time from the dragons that had inscribed them. He saw various scenes of dragons flying, hunting, gathering in primitive villages, locked in vicious battle, and much more. However, what truly caught his attention was the image he beheld when he reached the far end of the wall.
It was one of the most elaborately-detailed images he had seen so far, with evident care and diligence going into its creation as if it were something of great importance that had to be told. The scene was of a broken plain of black stone and dried-out vegetation, a sky of ominous red forming the backdrop and framed in choking grey clouds. It would have been foreboding enough on its own, but the effect was only amplified ten-fold by the way the ground was breaking apart, enormous cracks and chasms opening up and causing the stone ground to buckle and heave. Curtains of fire erupted from some of the larger cracks, belching smoke into the sky.
And in the centre of it all, Spyro saw depicted what looked like the face of a dragon viewed in profile. Its head was tilted back, jaws gaping in a bellowing roar with razor-like fangs showing between them. An evil-looking ring of some kind of energy encircled it, and twelve small but bright purple stars formed a half-ring underneath the head within this energy, seeming to be somehow important. He couldn't make out any of the head's finer features, but even in the red glow of the spirit gem its colour was impossible to mistake.
Everything else in the room seemed to fade out of existence as Spyro stood staring at the dragon face with a numb feeling of shock seeping through his being. He didn't notice when Cynder stepped up beside, nor did he hear her weak gasp of surprise at the sight of the picture. He didn't see the glance that she couldn't seem to help shooting his way as the apparent meaning of this ancient image sunk in for her, her eyes holding a mix of confusion and what could almost be called fear. All he felt was a churning storm of conflict and doubt.
His eyes drifted over the image again, taking in the fracturing landscape and the twelve stars, wondering what this development could possibly mean. He thought they seemed important, but this thought was lost in the confused jumble that occupied his mind. His questions about what the meaning of this picture could be were rooted in denial, though, and he knew it. Deep inside, as much as he tried to resist it, a nagging voice told him that there was only one thing this image could mean.
'...Your destiny is to destroy the world.'
Spyro's eyes snapped shut and he shook his head sharply as the twisted voice of his old nemesis echoed in the depths of his mind. He simply couldn't accept that it was true. Not after all that he had given to achieve the exact opposite end. But when he opened his eyes again and his gaze was met by the distressing image before him, his feelings of doubt only increased.
Behind him, the phoenix gave a small smirk out of the corner of his beak.
"Do you really know what you are?"
He wanted to say yes. He wanted to reply that he was a hero, a warrior that had fought—and would continue to fight—for the lives of others. He wanted nothing else than to say anything to reject the accusation that was being levelled at him.
But in the end, no words came...
I just want to clarify one thing: The phoenix isn't purposely trying to be a jerk. He is trying to help Spyro by forcing him to let go of all the things he's been told about himself. It's just that, understandably, after living for ages things like delicacy and tact have lost some of their value.
That being said, what could this mean? :O I know. Anyone else have ideas? XD
Hope you enjoyed the chapter, and I'll see you all again on the next (whenever it may happen to get done). It's also a chapter that I've been waiting to get to since starting the story, so it should be fun!
Until next time...