CHAPTER 15

"Eclipse"

Keo paced back and forth on the western rampart, turning his gaze occasionally out in the direction of the Enchanted Forest, as if he could see the skeleton of a building which was all that remained of the explosion that had obliterated his best friend.

He was so shocked, so horrified, that he didn't even notice the pouring rain that was drenching his whole body. He was shivering, but he didn't care. He couldn't believe that Spyro was gone.

How can this be? He felt like wailing; stupefaction held his tongue. He could hardly imagine what Cynder was feeling…if she was awake…

The moment that she had received that unfathomably terrible news, she had collapsed from shock and disbelief; Captain Polemos and Keo had rushed her off to the nearest infirmary, whence Doctor Ambulo had whisked her off to her chamber until she awoke. Keo just remembered being glad that Arial hadn't been in that infirmary…

Keo had stayed with Cynder for an hour, had heard Doctor Ambulo advise Captain Polemos to keep the news quiet until the morning, and had eventually been enjoined by the former to take a walk, since Cynder would not likely awaken for a while…

So, here he was. He had been walking around in the rain for an hour, and the sun was finishing its submersion beneath the horizon: The blackest night that Keo had ever seen was descending upon the Earth.

Keo's mind felt number than his body; everything was passing through like fogged lightning, everything was wrong, so very wrong…

Maybe I should go back and see Cynder, Keo thought. Maybe I can help her

Keo wasn't sure of anything right now, but he directed his steps inward anyway.

— — — — — *** — — — — —

Marius entered the little supply closet on the southwestern side of the Temple, sealing the door behind him and glancing around: The room was very dimly lit, the faint candlelight revealing the miasmic dust in the air. The room was deathly silent; the only sound was the muffled staccato of the ferocious tempest outside, almost as if it were a great distance away…

"Have you heard?" Marius asked, seemingly to no one; a voice, low and quiet, answered out of the gloom:

"Yes."

"No more than expected."

"…maybe…"

"Desperate times…" Marius quoted. A young dragon emerged from out of the shadows to his left, seemingly materializing from the darkness: He was thin and robust, sinewy and sharp-looking, with sagacious green eyes and scales of a murky, nebulous gray that, had it been a few shades darker, would have resembled the tenebrous skies outside.

"'A more aggressive and personal approach,'" he quoted in return, still in that soft, grave voice. His face was solemn, soulful, almost dolorous, and utterly inscrutable. It seemed to betray everything, yet nothing; it was a face of marble: cool, impenetrable, radiant. One might have thought him angelic, were it not for the shadow of somberness that hung over his eyes.

"Indeed," echoed Marius.

"So what's the plan?"

"I've been going over the intel for hours: Piecing together what we already knew with the data from the storage facility, as well as what little we managed to glean from Permotta, I think I might have deduced the headquarters location."

"Where?" demanded the dragon voraciously. Marius passed him a slip of paper, on which a few lines were scribbled.

"That's a general location," he advised, "so I would suggest some recon before we move in: The element of surprise will be paramount, and there's no sense trying to kill a mosquito with a bomb."

"Agreed," the dragon said in a voice that sounded almost reluctant or disappointed, "I'll set out right now."

"Be careful — if you're caught — "

"I won't be," the dragon replied firmly, his eyes glittering. He slid past Marius to the door. "I have the night to conceal me."

— — — — — *** — — — — —

Keo faltered along down the hallway, the deep shadows of midnight threatening to pull him into an exhausted sleep right where he stood; he had talked Doctor Ambulo into leaving Cynder alone till morning, and he had cheered her up as best as he could: She had woken up shortly after the doctor had left, and he had only left her when she had fallen back asleep.

Keo felt guilty: He couldn't expunge the image of her grief-marred face, her lovely green eyes blurred with the thickest tears that he had ever seen, her body wracked with sobs, shivering in the strangely cold night —

Keo shook his head, trying to clear it of those ghastly images; his entire body and mind were reeling from exhaustion. He was numb with emotions that he had never felt before, most of all a plaintive sort of cloudiness, obscuring everything he thought…

"Keo?" He looked up; Doctor Ambulo had appeared out of nowhere and was standing next to him in the darkness. Keo chastised himself blearily for not having noticed him — he was a soldier after all, a sentinel

"Yeah, doc?"

"I need to speak with you for a moment. Come with me." Doctor Ambulo's normally highly courteous and ceremonious tone was drowned in somberness; he had not requested: He had commanded. Keo obeyed. Doctor Ambulo led him promptly down a few winding corridors and into an office, whose occupant – indicated by a sign next to the door – Keo did not even noticed.

The room was not empty: Lieutenant Colonel Cognova stood off to the left, looking very grave, and Marius was in the rear right corner, watching the door with a cryptic and distrait gaze. Doctor Ambulo led Keo in and shut the door behind him; Keo heard him seal it. This must be serious

"There are important matters to discuss," Ambulo said immediately once he had shut the door against unwanted intrusion, "We are in the midst of a highly lugubrious situation a hairbreadth away from becoming the biggest crisis that the world has seen since the days of Malefor."

"Our first priority should be to find a suitable replacement," Cognova intoned somberly, "With Spyro dead, the Dragon Army will need leadership, and Cynder appears in no ways capable to take over at the moment, even though she is the first in the pecking order."

"There is tradition to consider," Doctor Ambulo noted, sounding only half serious, "The Dragon Army has always been led by a Guardian, of which Cynder remains the only one."

"Certainly she could take over once she has dealt with the trauma of this incident, but at the moment I doubt that she is in any way fit to take control of the Dragon Army."

"Somehow," Doctor Ambulo began in a dark, slow voice, "I doubt that Cynder will ever again be fit to rule."

"Even so," Cognova said, "the pecking order's not the real problem: The real problem is how the public will react. Spyro was a pretty important dragon — "

"Yes," Ambulo interrupted, "the symbol of this new era — gone, dead. That will be horribly shocking to say the least, and then there are the political repercussions to consider: Spyro was essentially the only factor that kept the North Isles in the state of tenuous peace that has allowed them to survive these past couple of decades. With him gone, and particularly in the absence of King Parcel, who, as far as I am aware, has yet to be replaced, the North Isles could very likely plunge into turmoil."

"And then there's the matter of the dragon responsible for Spyro's death," Cognova added in a growl, "This Sefdomai — we'll have to catch him, go all out against him; the best way that we can reassure the public is to capture the culprit and have him promptly dealt with."

"You mean executed," Ambulo pointed out; his voice was indecipherable. Cognova gave him a somber, shadowy look.

"That is the price for treason and murder, doctor."

A chilled silence met his words; then, Marius piped up in a very tranquil, grave tone:

"I think that perhaps we are acting too hastily." The others looked at him quizzically. "We are presuming that we must reveal the news of Spyro's death now, abruptly and harshly — when in fact we could just as easily conceal it."

"Conceal the fact that quite literally the most well-known dragon in all the world has been murdered?" Cognova asked sarcastically. Marius did not even remotely flinch beneath his superior's vitriol:

"Yes. Spyro leaves – left – the Temple quite often on military exploits, and he was, in fact, searching for the assassin when…when it happened. It would be child's play to promulgate the idea that he is still out in the field, and no one but those few who are privy right now would actually be any the wiser."

"But the ERSOU returned," Ambulo noted, "They came back without Spyro; they were the ones who brought us the news of his death. How do we explain that?"

"No one knows that they have returned," Marius answered coolly, "Deploy them back out into the field, and no one will know the difference."

"That's rather underhanded, Marius," Cognova observed, narrowing his eyes slightly.

"It is better than announcing tomorrow morning that our leader has been murdered and we have not the slightest clue as to where the culprit is," Marius replied calmly, "In the meantime, we can be looking for that culprit."

"What about Cynder?" Ambulo asked, "There is no way that she will be able to effect a façade anywhere near sufficient to mask the facts: She's utterly destroyed right now, and I doubt that she will improve any time soon…if at all."

"Cynder can remain isolated," Marius answered delicately, "She doesn't have to go anywhere, and, for all anyone knows, she could be out in the field with Spyro."

"And her children?" Cognova demanded, "Do you intend to keep the fact that their father is dead from them? Let them hear it the same way everyone else will — when we announce his funeral?" For once, Marius shifted uncomfortably.

"I think that that matter should be left to Cynder," he replied evasively.

"Cynder is hardly in a position to make decisions like that," Cognova retorted.

"But still, they are her children," Ambulo observed peaceably, "I think that Marius has a point: If anyone tells them, it should be she." Cognova looked around, as though waiting for another argument to be presented; when none arose, he spoke, with a firm and final air:

"Well then, I suppose our priority now will be to ensure that no one blabs this to anyone, to redeploy Captain Polemos and his team to the field, and to initiate stringent search-and-destroy operations to hunt down this killer."

"I took the liberty of beginning with the latter already, Colonel," said Marius coolly. Cognova nodded.

"Then let's get going, Marius — we have ops to supervise." The two intelligence officers swept from the room, resealing the door behind them. Doctor Ambulo sighed.

"I'm sorry that I dragged you here, Keo," he said, in a voice that was heartbreakingly exhausted, "I know that you must be very drained; but I need your help with one final issue."

"What's that?" asked Keo hoarsely; he hadn't spoken in so long, and he was so tired, that his voice was cracking. Doctor Ambulo started pacing up and down, looking thoroughly uncomfortable.

"You recall," he began slowly after a long moment of silence, "what I said a few minutes ago about Cynder likely never recovering?"

"Yeah…" Keo had heard it, but the horror of that thought hadn't quite registered in his tired brain just yet.

"I sincerely doubt that she will. She and Spyro…well, their relationship was a highly unusual one: one of such unity of spirit that I don't think that she will survive this separation. It doesn't help that her entire life has been built off of Spyro's, from the moment that he rescued her from Convexity."

"You think she won't pull herself back up?" Keo asked, not sure that he believed that: Cynder was an incredibly strong dragoness, with an iron will and a huge amount of courage. Doctor Ambulo shook his head sorrowfully.

"No, I do not think that she will — there are some wounds which are irremediable, Keo. This is no ordinary death of a loved one: Spyro was quite literally her life. Their two souls were linked so intricately and inextricably that…well, I don't think that their being torn asunder is possible: Cynder's soul will soon join Spyro's."

Keo didn't know what to say: He felt a nearly overwhelming urge to be sick right then and there. He thought that maybe his heart had stopped beating. The thought of losing Cynder on top of already having lost Spyro…that was inconceivably excruciating: He simply couldn't believe it. He couldn't.

"I…I dunno if I'll be able to take that, doc," Keo admitted, his voice trembling a little. Doctor Ambulo gave him a sympathetic grimace.

"You may have to, Keo, but I want your help to try and avert that eventuality as much as possible."

"How?" Keo demanded: He would do anything.

"I need you to sort of fill in for Spyro, to be the best friend that you can possibly be…perhaps more. I do not know what that might entail, Keo, and it will probably be difficult, but it may very well be our only shot at pulling Cynder through this." Keo shifted uncomfortably, feeling thoroughly awkward.

"I dunno if I can replace Spyro, doc," he murmured, "I don't think that I could…"

"You may have to," Ambulo repeated in a dark voice, "Otherwise, Cynder does not stand a ghost of a chance."

"I'll…I'll do everything in my power, doc."

"Good, Keo — now, you should get some sleep."

"Yeah…sure thing…"

— — — — — *** — — — — —

"Who thought that it was a good idea to hide these things so close to the headquarters?" the red-eyed, blue-scaled dragon grumbled, extracting, with some measure of difficulty, a thick, leathery sack full of candlesticks.

"I dunno, man," his partner mumbled as he pushed back into place the large, inconspicuous rock that had concealed the inconspicuous supply cache. "You'd think that they would put the stuff a little farther than just around the bend of the stream — "

"Shh!" the first dragon said harshly, "Who knows who might be listening! Maybe those cheetah-people…"

"You kidding, man? They're miles away from here!"

"Yeah, but there was that one that got into the forge, remember — and that wasn't far from here…"

"And he's dead now — guts all over the ground and everything! I don't think that they'll be bothering us again anytime soon…"

"Still, I don't like it."

"You said it, too!" the second pointed out.

"I just said near!" the first retorted indignantly, "I didn't give the directions!"

"Whatever, man — let's just get this stuff back inside. It's dark as a dragon's maw out here…"

"True that…" The two dragons left quickly, their bag of candlesticks bouncing along. Unbeknownst to them, they were being watched: A gray-scaled, green-eyed dragon stepped out cautiously from behind a tree, quietly removed the stone from the supply cache, looked around inside, and smiled mysteriously.

He reclosed the cache and walked off in the opposite direction from the other two.

— — — — — *** — — — — —

Cynder cringed as shadows with forms like wolves snapped their hideous jaws around her, bursts of sinister dark light blossoming up around her like monstrous flowers, a demoniacal cackling noise inundating her ears —

She felt herself falling through webs of shadows, darkness on all sides, furious whirlwinds of sound pummeling her eardrums, rapid evolutions of light, as though she were hurtling at incredible speed through the deepest, remotest, coldest, eeriest reaches of space, passing comets and stars and nebulae —

She was pulled into a black hole, feeling herself slowly suffocating beneath the crushing pressure, a horrible, deathly silence clogged with screams of victims past echoing all around her, draping her like a blanket —

And then she was floating in a sea of frigidly, terribly cold darkness, shadows of ice, a glacier of blackness, and she was suspended in the middle, feeling the blood congealing in her veins, her brain shutting down as the warm arms of Death wreathed around her —

Cynder's eyes flew open; she breathed again; she was not dead, not surrounded by those evil flowers of lightless light, not plummeting through the folds of shadows, not languishing beneath the horrendous force of the black hole or within the icy depths of the black glacier, and the warmth that had enveloped her was that of a body pressed against hers, wings wrapped around her shoulders —

"Spyro…?"

"Not quite," whispered a voice, a gentle, warm, kind voice.

"Keo…" The Fire dragon grinned mildly at her, but she collapsed into tears: The sight of him and not of Spyro had brought back into her mind with terrible, excruciating vividness the memory of that news — Spyro…gone —

Keo held her close, whispering something into her ear, probably something intended to be soothing, but the intense waves of grief crashing over her rendered her deaf. She simply continued to weep uncontrollably, her sobs so strong, so soulful that her whole body quaked, and Keo was forced to tighten his grip on her to hold her steady.

When she finally calmed down enough to at least see through her tears, she noticed the deep shadows that filled the room: The pale, almost dusty quality of the light told her that it was a couple of hours before dawn.

"You should eat something," Keo told her gently. The thought was sickening. Cynder shook her head and slid out of his grip, staggering over to the balcony and collapsing onto the stone, looking up into the sky: The rain was still lashing through the air, whipped by ferocious winds that were howling like the screams that she had heard in the black hole —

She shuddered and felt her tears returning. The balcony was shielded by an overhang, enough so that she was not being drenched by the rain, but the wind was so strong that she was being peppered by mist, and that reminded her of her nightmares as well and only served to intensify her sobs.

Keo came out onto the balcony, despite the rain and cold, which she knew he hated, and lay down next to her, draping his wing over her…like Spyro used to…

…and never would again.

— — — — — *** — — — — —

Marius entered his office, sealed the door, crossed to his desk, pulled a folder out of a drawer, and began sifting through the papers that it contained; he whirled around when a voice spoke up from the corner to the left of the door:

"I've made progress," it said. Marius relaxed when he recognized the speaker: a young, robust dragon with gray scales and sharp green eyes.

"Must you sneak up on people like that?" Marius asked him tiredly, closing the folder. The dragon gave him a thin smile.

"I can't very well use the door, can I?"

"No, I suppose not… What progress?"

"I've figured out where they're based."

"Where?" demanded Marius, suddenly avid; the dragon crossed calmly to the map on the western wall and pointed promptly to a spot very near the forge that Hunter had discovered, a spot that abutted on the mountains that bounded the Enchanted Forest on the north.

"Here — there's a subterranean network that they've worked into a series of living and operational spaces. They have aboveground caches for some supplies and such, and there's obviously the forge and storage holding facilities like the ones we've found. From the layout, I would guess that there are smaller underground units scattered throughout the forest."

"Do you know the location of any of them?"

"I have a general fix on one — a few miles southeast of Avalar. I would guess that they used it as a relay point in getting their men from the headquarters to Warfang, as well as to Permotta."

"How general?" The dragon shrugged.

"I have a few landmarks — a skilled tracker could probably piece it together."

"Well," said Marius with a sigh, "I don't think that we can do anything about that just yet — dispatching a team to investigate could reveal that we have inside information — "

"I want them to know." The dragon had changed: His aloof, amiable mien had transfigured into a mask of cold fury, and there was death in his sagacious eyes, which had become like chips of green ice. Marius returned his gaze levelly.

"Are you sure? That might compromise my sources…"

"I'll alert your sources."

"…If you say so: I'll send out Captain Polemos posthaste." The young dragon relaxed, his fury subsided, and his eyes returned to their normal peaceful twinkle.

"Good. I'm going to head back out."

"Have you found somewhere to stay during the day?"

"Yeah, I've found a place."

"Then," said Marius, turning his back on the dragon so that he could reopen his folder, "I suppose that you should get going." But when he turned back around…the dragon had vanished, leaving nothing but a small sheet of paper, tacked to the map.

— — — — — *** — — — — —

"Oh, by the way," Keo murmured softly to Cynder after a good hour of silence other than the sounds of her sobs, "I…don't know what this means, but I found them just inside the door when I came to check on you." He stood up and walked back into the chamber proper, pulling something out of a shadowy corner and placing it before her.

Cynder stood slowly, trembling, the shrieking of the storm pounding in her ears, the mist tickling the back of her neck as she stared at the mysterious parcel: It was a bouquet — or, more properly, three flowers tied together by a sprig of holly bound to a yew branch.

The first was a white carnation, the second a violet, and the third…a snow-white lily spattered with blood-red.

— — — — — *** — — — — —

Sunrise broke slowly the following day; the deep black clouds of the previous day's storm had been momentarily parted by the daring rays of sunlight; the air was full of mist, and the light seemed to be not light but simply a thinner form of shade.

Captain Polemos scented the air, but the water that clogged the air drowned out any odor that might have clued him to the presence of his enemies. Three of his troopers stalked through the bushes behind him, making nary a sound. The others, in two other groups, were converging on the same location from different angles.

Marius had dispatched them a couple of hours before with orders to check around this little pocket of the Enchanted Forest squeezed between the mountains bordering the Valley of Avalar and those bounding the forest itself; he had given them nothing but a piece of paper listing a few landmarks and an advisement to be watchful for entrances to underground facilities.

Confused but under orders, the ERSOU had set out, and they were now cautiously and deliberately making their way towards the indicated area — but so far, they had seen neither hide nor hair of anything or anyone, much less hostiles.

"Are we sure about this, sir?" one of the troopers hissed.

"These are our orders," Captain Polemos replied vaguely, "We don't have a choice." So they slinked along in silence. After about ten minutes, Polemos spotted something up ahead: a large, gnarled oak tree with a single branch broken, hanging perpendicular to the ground, a single vine suspended from it.

"There's one of our landmarks," he whispered to his men, "Keep a weather eye open; who knows what's lurking around here. Their vigilance redoubled, the troopers pressed on, silent as ever, until they reached the tree. There they paused, and Polemos looked around carefully: There should be a — aha!

A bush, several of whose branches had been snapped in a triangular pattern, lay about ten yards to the northwest. It was a sign that would be inconspicuous to any who were not privy to its purpose.

"There's landmark number two," Polemos breathed, pointing to the bush, "The third should be — "

"Over there!" one of his men hissed: Some twenty yards to the right of the bush was a tree with two long, deep claw marks forming an X.

At that moment, Polemos spotted movement to his right; he darted behind a tree, but relaxed the moment he recognized Yplago and two other of his men. He motioned for them to approach, and they did.

"Where are the others?" Polemos asked in a hushed voice.

"About a klick north of here, my guess," Yplago replied, "The terrain's pretty rough in that direction — would've slowed them down."

"We can't afford to wait," Polemos grunted, "There are six of us here, and that ought to be enough. All right, everyone, listen: We're going to fan out and search the area for any sign of hostile activity. Remember, intel suggests that the enemy is likely utilizing subterranean facilities, so be especially thorough checking out the thick underbrush. Give a whistle if you find anything; otherwise, keep it quiet, and everybody remains in visual contact — there aren't enough of us to set up a proper search perimeter."

"Yes sir," five voices responded.

"Move out — Lieutenant," he added, seizing one dragon who was about to troop off, "Head north a ways and keep an eye out for the rest of the team."

"Yes sir." The lieutenant darted away into the trees. Polemos started snooping around the oak tree, which was girded with dense, scraggly bushes; finding nothing, he progress northwestward a few yards, searching through a clump of even thicker bushes, with no results other than a few scratches. C'mon — where are you…?

Polemos continued to poke around quietly, taking his time and scrutinizing each patch of foliage for signs of foul play; after a solid fifteen minutes of nothing, he heard a whistle; his head snapped around, but Yplago, who was only a few yards away, shook his head.

"Bird," he growled quietly; they all went back to work.

— — — — — *** — — — — —

"She's falling apart, doc," Keo said miserably, staring at Cynder through the open chamber door; he and the doctor stood outside in the hall, while Cynder was inside, sleeping — or, more appropriately, drowning, inundated by savage nightmares that were making her twitch and moan. "I'm doing everything I can think of, but she's still…" Keo could find a word that summed up the horror of what he knew that she must be suffering.

"I was afraid of this," Doctor Ambulo whispered, his voice shaking ever so slightly, "I…I am not sure what can be done at this point."

"We've gotta do something!"

"I do not know if we can, Keo," Ambulo said with infinite sadness, "She has lost so great a part of herself that…well, I am not sure that she will survive."

"Don't talk like that, doc," Keo croaked, barely managing to force the words out. Those words were like a vise around his heart.

"I am very serious, Keo." He paused before prognosticating in a doleful voice: "I am not convinced that she will last the week." An agonizing silence followed, and Keo just had to say something:

"We can't…I can't let that happen, doc," he mumbled. Doctor Ambulo gave him a strange, half pitying, half austere look.

"I know, Keo, but we are powerless to fight this. It is Cynder's battle now…a battle of the soul."

"She's strong," Keo declared immediately — then he remembered what Cynder had said only yesterday about battles of the soul: It's not always the stronger soul that wins

That made him feel infinitely worse. Ambulo said nothing.

— — — — — *** — — — — —

"How can someone die of grief, doctor?" Lieutenant Colonel Cognova demanded; Marius remained silent.

"It is quite simple, actually," Ambulo replied with tired dryness, "The body submits itself, to a certain degree, to the mind, as does the mind to the soul; when the soul is in chaos, so is the mind, and when the mind is flung into enough chaos…the body reacts: It obeys the implicit impulse of the shattered mind, and that is the will to die."

"Cynder wants to die?"

"Wouldn't you?" Ambulo asked him darkly: "We are talking about a dragoness whose entire life – all of the good that she had ever known; everything she loved, cherished, held dear; all the things that she had built her life upon; the very reason that her life was even intact – has been ripped violently and bloodily from her. I would not be surprised if she wanted the pain to end." He paused before adding almost indignantly, "You cannot possibly comprehend the torture that she is enduring right now, a torture that no being has ever, to the best of my knowledge, suffered before."

After a short stretch of silence, Ambulo added epigrammatically: "For some, death is peace."

"Who can we instate to head the Dragon Army?" Marius asked quietly, his voice choked and indecipherable. Cognova, now staring queerly at his paws, looked up and replied mechanically:

"General Caelo is the highest ranking officer in the Army. He'll take over."

"Military leadership is…potentially hazardous," Marius replied, "Caelo is a fantastic soldier and would make a stupendous ruler, to be sure, but what about after him? Who will succeed him? We must think of these things — "

"I think," Ambulo interjected almost bitterly, "that the question of local politics can be deferred momentarily, particularly since Caelo is, while not young, certainly not old; he will be fit to rule for at least a few centuries. Our problem now is what to do about Cynder."

"It seems that there is nothing to be done," Cognova muttered.

"Perhaps not, but there will be repercussions once she has gone. Think of her children — they will be orphaned. Think of Keo, who is quite genuinely breaking his heart trying to support her, to keep her breathing, to keep her fighting. He will be…intensely traumatized once she is gone: He will have lost both of his best friends within a week of each other!"

"That's your department, doctor," Cognova said quietly.

"Yes, but your department will be the sociopolitical backlash: The North Isles, the public here, the criminal organizations worldwide — they will all react very violently and abruptly to this news."

"I honestly don't know how to broach the subject, doctor," Cognova admitted exhaustedly; he looked at Marius: "Captain — any suggestions?" Marius, who appeared lost in thought, shook his head dolefully.

"No sir…none."

"Then for now," Cognova said ominously, "I suppose we just try to carry on."

That was far easier said than done.

— — — — — *** — — — — —

Captain Polemos looked up, whipping his head around towards the source of the whistle: One of his men was standing between two large trees wreathed in tangled foliage; he was giving out the loud, birdlike whistle that was the signal that he had found something. Polemos and the rest of the squad quickly convened around him, taking care not to make too much noise.

"What is it?" Polemos whispered to the signaler.

"Found what looked like a rabbit warren here in the bushes," the lieutenant replied quietly, "Took a peek inside and saw several boxes — no indication of what's in them."

"All right: Yplago, establish a perimeter; Lieutenant, you're with me: Let's check this out." The lieutenant led the way into the bushes, picking his way carefully to avoiding rustling and snapping the branches too much. He cautiously parted a screen of vines creeping along the ground, revealing a hole large enough for a dragon to squirm through; Polemos entered first, the lieutenant following.

Polemos pushed through the tunnel, finding himself in a comfortably sized, vault-like space that smelled of wet earth; roots laced the walls like spider webs, and there were indeed a few boxes off to the right. Polemos moved away from the tunnel so that the lieutenant could enter, and then they both swept the little underground room for enemies.

Finding it clear, Polemos approached the boxes and looked them over carefully: There was no writing to indicate their contents, but they were not damp or dank-smelling, so they evidently had not been there very long.

"I wonder what's in these…" the lieutenant mused.

"No idea," Polemos replied, "but they've been moved recently: no signs of wear…"

"Shall we open one?" Polemos nodded.

"Check for explosives," he added, recalling painfully what had happened yesterday. The lieutenant did so, and, finding none, he flung open the crate that he had selected.

"Looks like desiccated foodstuffs," the lieutenant replied, "We've got rabbits, sheep…I think some voles…"

"Vole's a little small," Polemos noted.

"Yeah — they are pretty common up in the north, though…"

"Could give us a lead on their base of operations," Polemos observed, "Let's make a note of that. What's in this one?" Checking to make sure that the crate was not wired, he ripped the lid off and looked inside. "Clerical supplies. No files, though."

"This one's empty, I think," the lieutenant said, pushing the crate a little to check its weight.

"Check it anyway." The lieutenant did.

"Yep, empty."

"Maybe they were going to put something in it, something from around here," Polemos thought aloud.

"Perhaps they'll be coming back for it," the lieutenant remarked uneasily, glancing towards the entrance.

"Then perhaps we should ready ourselves for them."

— — — — — *** — — — — —

"And you are sure that your plan has been a success?" the dragon asked.

"Absolutely," Felador replied instantly, "Spyroisdead."

"But you never recovered a body?"

"The entire building was blown up!" Felador said exasperatedly, "The walls were barely standing!"

"So I assume that that's a no?"

"I was unable to find a body," Felador admitted through gritted teeth. The dragon cast him a foul, grave look.

"I cannot take chances, Felador. If we are to move in, I must be certain of Spyro's demise. His involvement would be a…complication to my plans."

"He is dead, I tell you, Voynastraja!"

"I believe you, but it has not even been twenty-four hours, Felador," Voynastraja countered imperiously. "I am in no hurry to rush my enterprises onto such thin ice. We shall give it…four days more. If all things are quiet after that period, I shall move the pieces into place."

"You're the only dragon I know," Felador said slowly, "who'll play chess after the king's been checkmated!" Voynastraja smiled twistedly and left. He was immediately replaced by some gray-scaled page with bright green eyes.

"Yes?" Felador snapped; he hated being pestered by these underlings.

"Begging your pardon, sir," the page said in a low voice, "I was sent to inform you that I've been assigned to this office."

"In what capacity?"

"Miscellaneous duties," the dragon replied with a shrug.

"By whose authority, page?" The dragon's eyes flickered curiously.

"Higher up, sir, I'm not really sure who. I just go where they tell me." That sounds about right for mindless drones, Felador noted contemptuously. To the page he simply said:

"Then get to it, boy."

"Yes sir."

— — — — — *** — — — — —

"Let's try that again," Polemos said slowly as the prisoner reeled from the blow to the groin that Yplago had given him. "Where is your base in this area?"

"I — I don't know!" Polemos nodded to Yplago, who came around and swiftly whacked the dragon upside the jaw, sending two teeth flying off into the bushes. Spitting blood from his mouth, breathing hard, the dragon cried: "A few miles east of here!"

Polemos considered that for a moment; then, he nodded to Yplago again, and the lieutenant gave the dragon a second blow to the groin. "I would advise you," Polemos said indifferently, "to speak the truth this time. Oh, and just in case you were thinking of trying to trick us again, you should know that we'll be taking you with us just to make sure that your story checks out."

The dragon, lying curled up in pain on the forest floor, trembling and wheezing, managed to splutter: "Okay…okay. It's…set in the mountains…north by northwest of here…"

"Now that sounds like a truthful answer," Polemos growled, "Yplago, you'll remain here with Bravo Team; I'll take Alpha with the liar here and check things out. If we're not back in an hour and a half, come looking and expect the worst."

"Yes sir."

"Get up, you!" Polemos snarled at the prisoner.

— — — — — *** — — — — —

"And what did you find?" Marius asked, staring out the window into the setting sun — not that he could see it well: The rain had begun again soon after noon.

"Documents and such," Captain Polemos replied, "We rounded up several prisoners. They're being interrogated right now."

"Good," Marius grunted, "Get down there and supervise awhile, and then you and your team get some rest. …It's been a long couple of days — and I'm going to need you again tomorrow."

"Yes sir." Captain Polemos bowed out, sealing the door behind him. Marius continued gazing out the window, even though the weather made it next to impossible for him to see anything.

"You played that well," a voice said suddenly; Marius didn't even start: He knew who it was. He turned around, and, sure enough, there stood the gray-scaled dragon with green eyes.

"Yes, well, the situation is rather sensitive. We are trying to keep Polemos and his ERSOU away as much as possible…for obvious reasons…"

"Hmm," the dragon replied with a sort of pensive indifference.

"You look tired," Marius said carefully and measuredly, gazing at him. He returned his remark with a cryptic smile and a robust twinkle of the eye:

"I got about seven hours. I'm fine."

"Still, you've got your work cut out for you — perhaps a few more hours…?"

"I don't think so," the dragon replied with an inexorable shake of the head, "I only stopped by to let you know something before getting back to work."

"What is it?" The dragon's countenance changed: The last vestiges of his grin vanished completely, his eyes grew dark, and an almost dangerous air exuded from him.

"This whole plot…it's only a part of something bigger. The Raven's Wing is a front, a subsidiary of some other, larger, and more mysterious syndicate. The real criminal, the real leadership, the dragon behind all of this mess, is someone by the name of Voynastraja."

"You're sure?" Marius asked weakly; the idea that all of the chaos and horror of the past week had been nothing but a prelude to some darker terror was simply ghastly.

"Absolutely," the dragon answered staunchly, "I don't know where they're based, or who they even are, but this runs deeper than we thought." Marius processed this chilling news for a moment; then:

"Can you give me a description of this Voynastraja?" The dragon could, and he did.

"I think he might have been from the east," he added helpfully, "Judging from his accent, anyway — besides, where else could you hide an entire criminal organization?" That was true: The swamps and wastes that surrounded the Temple and the City of Warfang respectively were not very conducive to such organizations. The forests far to the east were secluded, enshrouded in mystery and superstition — the perfect atmosphere for a criminal syndicate.

"I'll send out some feelers that way," Marius mused, "but I guess that that's all I can do for now."

"Agreed."

— — — — — *** — — — — —

Keo wasn't ashamed: The doc had never seen him cry before, but that was precisely what he was doing now. He had just left Cynder in her chamber, and it had taken every ounce of willpower that he possessed to prevent himself from bursting into tears until the door was shut. Now he sobbed quietly but profusely, standing by one of the windows along the corridor's east wall, hoping that the sound of the fierce rain pounding on the glass would drown out what little noise he was making so that Cynder would not hear.

Doctor Ambulo paced slowly up and down along the opposite wall, walking a few yards before turning around to walk in the other direction; he appeared to be on the verge of tears himself, but tiredness was what principally prevailed in his face: sheer, ineffable tiredness.

"I dunno what to do anymore, doc," Keo slurred, barely keeping his voice level, "I've tried everything I can think of – everything – and she's just slipping further and further…"

"I know, Keo," the doctor replied very direly, "but I…I do not think that anything can be done. She has lost too great a part of herself."

"But — "

"There are storms we cannot weather, Keo," Ambulo interrupted him softly, "I am afraid that this is one of those storms." Keo had no reply: He was numb with a horrible, plaintive cold that seemed to radiate out from his heart, which had become but a lump of ice in his chest.

It can't be, he told himself.

But he knew: It is.

— — — — — *** — — — — —

"Get those things loaded up!" Felador snapped at the pathetic underlings scurrying about like mice, moving crates of supplies into a cache hidden in a densely foliaged copse of trees. He had to speak a bit more loudly than he would have liked in order to be heard over the driving rain and howling wind. The bluish shadows of nightfall did not help much, either.

"Excuse me, sir, but do these go in with the others? They're from Wing A, and we don't have orders for that wing yet." Felador turned around: It was the gray-scaled page from earlier, and he was toting a box that was slightly larger than him on his back; it did not seem to be bothering him at all. Perhaps he's not worthless after all

Felador checked the seal on the top of the box, read its contents, and stepped back: "Go ahead, put it in with the others." He considered it a note of praise that he did not call the dragon "page," or "boy."

"Yes sir." The dragon hefted the box away, and Felador was left to scowl at the other drones who were mindlessly and frantically going about their jobs.

"Keep hustling, people!" he called out, "We have to be prepared to launch the operation in a four days' time!" Should be launching it now, he growled to himself. Then he shrugged his shoulders: I suppose Voynastraja knows what he's doing — and besides, why should I care? My job has been completed already

Nevertheless, he commanded his men to work faster.

— — — — — *** — — — — —

Cynder staggered, her paw sliding on the wet stone of the balcony; she stumbled her way towards the edge, sitting down in the pouring rain, which pummeled her like driving sheets of ice. She was hoping that her numbness might be pierce by its deathly frigidity: It was so cold…so cold…

Why was it so cold? Spring should not be cold…

Cynder peered over the edge of the balcony, perceiving – even in the wan light of the tempestuous dawn – the dizzying height at which it sat: The forests and swamps below, thinning at the edge of the craggy plateau upon which the Temple was situated…

…It would be so easy…so easy…

Just…drop, a voice whispered to Cynder. Just drop. A quick fall through the rain. It would be so easy…too easy…

For a reason that she could not explain, with a tremendous effort, she turned her head around to peer melancholically back into the dormitory: Sitting by the door…

…was a bouquet exactly like the one Keo had found yesterday.

That hadn't been there when she had sunk into her latest string of nightmares. That had barely been a few hours ago. She hadn't noticed it when she had woken up a few minutes ago.

Arising from her cold, wet spot on the balcony, she crossed back over to the flowers and sniffed them: There was something familiar in their scent that made tears well up in her eyes. It was like the scent of the past — of childhood, of innocence, of things lost…

Cynder broke down weeping.

— — — — — *** — — — — —

Marius paced his office, head throbbing from stress and lack of sleep; he struggled to determine what he should do next. Come on, you dolt — think! he chastised himself. Pausing by his desk, he cast a bleary-eyed glance on the papers that lay there: miscellaneous documents pertaining to the Sefdomai case. His analysts told him that they had managed to discern which data had been fabricated and which were genuine, and the latter lay on his desk now…

Marius strode over and scrutinized them, though he had already done so four times — review never hurt… This is useless, he thought grumpily after a few moments of strenuous and futile effort squandered in attempting to goad his brain into making sense of the words on the paper before him: He already knew what they said, and it didn't help. The only way they would find Sefdomai was by field work, and he couldn't help with that…

Marius replaced the papers, sighed, and rubbed his eyes exhaustedly. Okay, so what else could he do? What other leads were there? Psychoanalysis had run its course — all that remained there was to capture the assassin, and indeed, that was the terminus of most of the data. It was no longer Marius's game: It was Polemos's — and, of course, his

Well, there was that dragon we captured at Strix Laboratories, Marius recalled suddenly: one of the three thugs with whom Sefdomai had assaulted the labs. I suppose I could send to Warfang for news of their investigation… Yes, he would do that; meanwhile…

Scabré! he thought abruptly; the Vunoiran inspector was still in the Temple, and he would surely be wondering what was going on with the Sefdomai case: Marius had not updated him in days… He would soon be asking questions, and that simply could not be permitted, but how could Marius get him out of the way…?

I have to get him back to Vunoire, but how…? He could certainly just tell him that his services were no longer required, but that was hogwash — and Scabré would know it. What if I told him that I couldn't keep him here anymore? That might work, but he would definitely have to put the right spin on it; otherwise, Scabré, astute as he was, would surely detect foul play.

I'll tell him that I need him to follow up on the BOLO in the North Isles, Marius thought. That was plausible, and together with the first story, it would hold.

That'll do. That decided, Marius felt his weariness crash down on him anew; he glanced out the window: It was nearly noon; he would head to his chamber, take a nap for a few hours, and then hunt down Scabré.

— — — — — *** — — — — —

"I'm fed up with this pussyfooting around, Sortolo!" Felador snarled, pacing furiously up and down; Sortolo watched him with a mixture of sympathy, annoyance, and fear that looked so juvenile and peculiar in his muddy blue eyes.

"I know, Felador, but Voynastraja is simply being careful — we never did find a body…" he added timidly.

"THAT'S BECAUSE THERE IS NO BODY!" Felador roared, "He was blown up, you blithering moron! There's not going to be a body — not now, not in four days, not EVER!" He punctuated the last word by sweeping everything atop Sortolo's desk to the floor with a loud crash.

"Felador, I wish you wouldn't so violently rearrange my furniture," Sortolo remarked with uncharacteristic equanimity, gazing sadly at his strewn papers and such. Felador only grew more enraged at this remark.

"I'll rearrange your face if you don't fix this, Sortolo!"

"I can't do anything about it, Felador: I have to listen to Voynastraja, too. He's the kingpin, remember? Besides," he added, "what's your hurry? Your job is done, it's mine that's beginning. You have almost nothing to do but sit back and watch."

"My job is done, yes, that's precisely the point," Felador hissed, "Why should I remain here, tethered by protocols, when I could be off to — "

" — to where?" Sortolo interrupted curiously, "Just where do you intend to go? Back to Vunoire? There's no place for you there, or in Frolichthon, and they certainly will not welcome you in Juzgara."

That was true: Felador wasn't sure where he would go. His entire life had revolved for so long around the murder of the dragon whose iniquities had haunted him for even longer; what was he to do now that the deed had been done? There was no returning home, no moving on; his life was effectively complete.

I suppose I could do further service for the Raven's Wing, he mused; there was always work to be done in a criminal empire, and the world was a big place.

— — — — — *** — — — — —

"Sit down, Scabré," Marius said politely, with just the right touch of weariness; Scabré obeyed, and Marius at opposite him, behind his desk. "I'm going to be honest, my friend: We are having immense difficulties in tracking down this assassin. Spyro and Captain Polemos – along with his ERSOU – are both in the field now, hunting him down." That was a risky move: Though that was the official story in case anyone inquired, no one had cared to do so yet. This was the first time that that version of events had been divulged, and now there was no revoking it.

"So," Marius continued, "I need your help to run down leads in the North Isles."

"You think he might have returned there?" There's a big question, Marius thought; he would have to answer cautiously:

"It's possible," he said with a shrug and just the right touch of exhausted vagueness. Scabré swallowed his ambivalence:

"So you want me to head back to Vunoire and…what, exactly?"

"Chase down anything that resembles a lead on that BOLO we promulgated there a few days ago." Scabré waited a moment and then stood:

"Consider it done, my friend."

"Thank you, Scabré," Marius replied heavily; Piece of cake

— — — — — *** — — — — —

"I think it best," Doctor Ambulo said somberly, "that we simply leave her alone for a while, Keo."

"Leave her alone?" he repeated, aghast, "But — "

"Keo, please," the doctor interrupted him with infinite gentleness and something akin to pity, "There is nothing more than you or anyone else can do for her. We must let things unfold as they will." Keo wanted to resist — he wanted to fight, to struggle, to tear to pieces the notion that Ambulo had just propounded, to rip it to shreds and obliterate its pieces so thoroughly that its recurrence would be simply laughable —

Instead, his shoulders sagged, his head drooped, and his eyes filled with tears.

"O-Okay, doc…I g-guess you're right," he gulped, hardly able to choke out the words. The doctor put his wing on his shoulder sympathetically.

"Come, Keo, you need some rest."

— — — — — *** — — — — —

"How are things on your end?" Marius did not even flinch when he heard the familiar voice; he lifted his head from his paperwork: There was the gray-scaled, green-eyed dragon, standing in the corner, watching him.

"Haven't you been watching?"

"Yes, but not your side of things. Just — you know…"

"Of course," Marius replied soberly, "Well, I've managed to get rid of Scabré for the time being, and I have put in a request that the Warfang PD forward me the results of their ongoing investigation into the events at Strix Laboratories — that ought to arrive in the morning…" He glanced out the window: The sun had set only an hour or two ago, and it was at that exact moment when night fully descended, when the darkness became complete, and the last dregs of day had utterly vanished.

"I have other news." Marius's attention snapped back:

"What?"

"I believe I have discovered, shall we say, the inner intricacies of the Raven's Wing, and rest assured that Sefdomai will be in our clutches before this time tomorrow." That was truly the most phenomenal news that Marius had heard in years. At last, this can all be over! "Oh, and by the way, his real name – his real one, not another alias – is Felador."

"I'll make a note of that," Marius said, shuffling through his papers in order to do so. "What's the status on my men on the inside?"

"The moles and informants have gotten out, but your deep undercover guy is still in — no heat, though: Even after I take Felador down, I doubt that they'll come anywhere close to catching him."

"Good," Marius grunted wearily; his nap had done little for his energy level, though he was better able to concentrate… He paused in his work and looked up seriously into the younger dragon's brilliant eyes. "Are you headed back out to do the deed now?"

"Not just yet," the dragon replied slowly, an almost painful look coming into his eyes, "There's something I need to do first."

— — — — — *** — — — — —

Cynder teetered, trembling violently from the cold as the rain still came down in frightful torrents, unable to hold her balance from sheer exhaustion, unable to fall asleep from sheer terror. She shook, she paced, she cried, and eventually she had collapsed out here on the balcony, the icy mist from the rain chilling the back of her neck.

Oh, to die — what solace it would be! What unimaginable peace! She had thought about it so many times, nearly done it once — what was to stop her now? The last time it had been the bouquet of flowers, whose intoxicating yet painful scent had given her just enough courage to endure the day.

But now the agony was too much — she had to end it; there was no going on…

She glanced around: No use doing it out here on the balcony in the wet; why not be dry?

She arose and walked back into the dormitory, stopped, and sat down; her head turned, and her gaze fell with a mixture of longing and timidity upon the gleaming, wickedly sharp blade on the end of her tail.

It would be so easy: Just lift it to her neck — one good slice, and —

Nothing.

Peaceful oblivion.

And I'll be with Spyro again.

That thought broke her heart…and every last remaining ounce of her will to live.

She lifted her tail.

Then, in the corner of her eye, she saw something, something that had not been there only a few moments ago…

A third bouquet.

Well, it won't stop me this time, she thought with anguished resoluteness.

She poised the blade at her throat; she could feel its coldness against her scales, not the horrible, torturous coldness of the rain and of despair — but the warm, inviting coolness of death…

"Don't do that, Cynder."

Her heart stopped; her blood froze in her veins.

Not able – not willing, not daring – to believe what she had just heard, she turned, seeking the source of that voice, that voice which was so achingly, so painfully, so impossibly familiar —

Spyro was standing in the doorway to the balcony, his amethyst eyes fixed sadly on her.