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Wings of Ice: The Rift Between

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~Javelina~

I crashed into the mountainside, sparks flying through my teeth as my jaw grated against my cheekbones. The pale golds and browns of my scales were bruised and battered, and my wings ached from my frantic flight.

Risking a hurried glance downward, I confirmed that my youngest son, Sunstone, was still safe in the curve of my talons, if not a bit bewildered. The silver chains of my necklace were tangled among his horns.

I still remember when Cyclone gave me that necklace as a gift.
How many years has it been? How many years have we been on the run?

“Javelina, you have to fly faster; they’re catching up to us,” Cyclone roared back to me, already only a silhouette of giant maroon wings backed by the crimson sunset. I strained against the limits of my wings, trying to reach Cyclone before he disappeared into the clouds. As I finally caught up to him, he swiveled back to face me, and I glimpsed the terror in his eyes. I had seen the SkyWing enraged, brokenhearted, and ashamed, but I had never seen his courage shatter so completely before. “We’re out of options. Take Citrine with you,” he said hastily, untangling our older son from his arms and hurriedly draping him over my shoulders. “There’s a cave on the eastern side of this mountain hidden by gorse bushes. You’ll know what to do. I’ll distract them, buy you some time.”

I gazed into his orange eyes, panicked. “But what about-”

“You have to go while you still can, Javelina. I’ll catch up.” He turned to fly back, but swiveled back to me once more. “If we don’t make it out, I...never mind. I love you.” Cyclone held my gaze for a short moment before he disappeared into the sky.
Looking back down, I couldn’t help but notice how Sunstone’s amber eyes reflected the sunset, turning them a deep shade of red, even darker than his brother’s maroon scales. My thoughts shifted to Cyclone’s order, and I focused again on the task at hand.

I’ll see your face at the end of this, my love. I won’t fail us.

The chill of the night air seeped in between my scales as I initiated a steep dive to the flat outcropping smothered with gorse. Citrine stumbled from my back as I landed, Sunstone gazing worriedly towards him.

Sunstone is only a year old. Citrine is three. Can I really trust my dragonets to keep themselves safe while Cyclone and I are gone?
I have to. Besides, Citrine knows the drill by now. It’s not like we haven’t done this before, even if he might not remember the last time. He was so young...

“Stay. I can’t explain everything right now, but all I need you to do is stay here,” I whispered hurriedly to Sunstone, covering him with the yellow flowers and hoping feverently that the thorns didn’t scratch him too badly.

Moving on to Citrine, I unhooked my amber necklace from its place around my neck. Quickly but gently, I wrapped it around his. The silver chain links glittered coldly, clashing with the dark reds and pale golds of his scales. “Protect Sunstone while I’m gone. Do anything you have to. Promise me. Promise me.”

Citrine stared at me with wide amber eyes and nodded quickly, but I could see his panic. I knew he wouldn’t break his vow, though - if my first son was anything, it was loyal. I wrapped my wings around both of them, not wanting to let go of the moment.

Come on, you’ll see them again.

“I love you, my little springboks. I'll be back, I promise.” I smiled at them.

“W-what's happening, Mother?” Citrine stuttered. His voice trembled slightly, and he clutched the shining orange pendant that hung from the chain.

“My dear son,” I whispered, holding his face in my claws. “Everything will be okay. Just wait for me here with Sunstone. Remember your promise, okay? Always. I love you both.”

I had to return. I had to survive, because someone had to be there with my dragonets. They alone stood no chance against the unforgiving mountains of the Rift. My eyes began to water as I fought the sudden tightness in my chest, and I blinked quickly, dispelling the tears.

Citrine shifted his gaze to Sunstone, who was currently gazing into my eyes with hope. Was it possible for such a young dragon to fathom the sheer peril of the situation?

I let out a quiet, shuddering sigh. Reluctantly, I relaxed my wings and took to the sky, casting a single glance back to check that the shrubbery covered them both. The tension in my body lowered slightly when I saw only gorse bushes. Turning quickly to the clouds, I sped up, already hearing wingbeats but hoping to lure the attackers away from the cave.

I had flown for less than half a minute when suddenly, a glacial cold engulfed my tail, and I shrieked. I looked back to find my tail coated with frost, the ice marching up towards my wings. Jagged white claws tore into my back, dragging me towards the earth I’d taken off from. The ground seemed to rush toward me at an ever-increasing rate.

My skull slammed against the hard stone. Sharp pain stabbed through my ribs, bright lights dancing behind my eyes. As I pushed myself up to stand I spotted the frost-colored spines of an IceWing’s crest glinting from behind a red mist.

It can’t be. The plague...
Cyclone said…
He wouldn’t have lied. He couldn’t have known.

I had to be dreaming. There was no way that any of the IceWings could have survived. Not after Icefall took the NightWing throne. No one had heard anything from them in over a decade.

Talons like jagged slivers of cold metal ripped into my stomach. The red fog clouding my eyes swirled thicker, and my talons clawed the ground in weakening desperation. The tears I had been holding back spilled over onto the earth, mixing with the blood slowly soaking the ground. My talons felt damp, covered in something hot and sticky.

Wet? Why are my talons wet?

What was I doing? The assassin wouldn’t stop when it was finished with me. I had to save my dragonets. We were still too close to the gorse cave.

What dragonets?

A roar of fury dragged me back from the darkening fog. A blur of maroon dove toward the attacker looming over me. Their scales seemed familiar but darker than usual, and another icy figure was closing in behind him.

...Cyclone?! No...he has to escape...no time...

A drop of red liquid rolled down his snout, landing on the ground next to my face.

Is that...blood?

The red haze was coming back quicker than before, and my vision only came in flashes. Talons clashing and Cyclone’s roars seemed to thunder from a great distance.

A disturbing tearing noise came from the direction of Cyclone, and my vision cleared just enough to see him lying in a crimson heap. A dark, coppery smelling liquid pooled from his body and spread over the ground, bubbling at the base of his throat. His amber eyes seemed to reach regretfully for me before they dimmed, like stars trying to escape the morning sun.

His eyes were always so beautiful.

I turned towards the IceWing framed by the rising moons, my movements more lethargic than ever. It had to be an IceWing -- the remnants of frostbreath littering the mountain crag, the scales like white marble and diamond, and spikes like a row of icicles down the dragon’s back couldn’t prove otherwise.

But...how? They’re...all supposed to be...dead. Am I hallucinating?

The wounds ripping over my scales were real, though, and the pain was blinding. My every move seemed slower than the last, and it seemed like it took a thousand years for me to finally meet the dragon’s cold eyes.

The dragon smiled slowly, revealing teeth stained with red. Her tongue flicked in and out of her mouth. Her glacial eyes pulled me in, and I coughed weakly, blood trickling from my throat. My eyes wouldn’t focus, and I couldn’t make out many of the dragon’s features. They leaned down, pressing a bloody smile against my ear. I stared into their bright, empty blue eyes, unable to move. “I told you this would happen eventually, since you turned down such a generous offer. It’s a shame, though...I could have saved you. I could have given you a real life...but I’ll have to make do for now, though, won’t I?” The IceWing’s sinister voice seemed to echo impossibly against the sky. “At least you won’t be around to hide those dragonets of yours away. You’ll bleed out on this frozen ground before you can find them again.”

The world was turning dark. My talons twitched feebly, unresponsive to my intents of self-defense. The dragon’s rasping, low laugh scraped against my ears.

I felt like I was drowning in the darkness. It was almost as if these shadows were an ocean, and the tides had finally come to rise and pull me down, and I could only struggle to stay atop the surface. My frantic, shallow breathing was interrupted as talons of ice leisurely dragged across my neck, holding me beneath the dark waters. I choked, the ocean rushing into my mouth.

Or was it blood?

Am I…dying?

Death’s ice-blue eyes faded from sight as it pulled me into her freezing arms, carrying me out to sea.

Chapter Text

~Citrine~

Angry roars shattered the silence as I huddled closer to Sunstone. He stared back up to me with fearful eyes. I’d given up on hiding my fear a long time ago, so I’d settled on holding my younger brother as tightly as I could while also clutching the pendant of my mother’s necklace so hard my knuckles turned white.

“What’s happening?” Sunstone blinked at me anxiously.

I gave up on trying to hide my fear and sighed, flopping my wing over Sunstone to cover him like a blanket. He curled closer, and I felt him tremble as something slammed into the ground outside. Another roar exploded from outside the bushes, and I noticed Sunstone flinch harder.

“W-what’s that noise?” His eyes welled with scared tears, and his breathing quickened. I tried not to jolt at the sound of the roars, holding my little brother tightly.

“I don’t know. But Mother said she would be okay, so don’t worry.” He was still shivering, but I couldn’t think of anything more comforting to say. A garbled scream erupted from outside the bushes, and a coppery smell filled the air. A long few minutes passed and the screams finally died out, the echoes fading quickly. I heard the scrape of something being dragged over the ground, and then, the flapping of wings fading into silence. “See? It’s gone now. We’re not in danger anymore.”

I could dimly remember something like this happening before, from when I was really little, but no matter how hard I wracked my brain I couldn’t get the details. Everything past that memory was filled with days of learning hunting and survival techniques, and moving from one location to another through the Rift. But the present was what mattered now.
I attempted to be as comforting as Mother. “Nothing bad has happened to us before. Remember, Mother just said to wait for her, so we’re going to do that. You can sleep if you want, because I’ll protect you until she gets back.” I hoped I sounded braver than I felt.

“Okay...” Sunstone buried his snout in the fallen star-shaped flowers lining the ground. “But wake me up if you need saving or anything.” He slowly fell back asleep, leaning into my shoulder.

I wanted to do the same, but my terror hadn’t completely left me, and exhaustion was nowhere to be found.

. . .

I jolted awake, surprised to find morning light filtering through the leaves. Had I nodded off? I panicked, jerking up and cringing when spiky stems poked at my forehead. Lowering myself again, I spotted Sunstone a small distance away.
Sunstone sighed and shifted slightly in his sleep, making the gorse fronds decorating his snout slide to one side. I quickly moved them back to their original position, squinting as the morning dew trickled into my eyes. Growling softly as I blinked the water from my eyes, I lifted my head carefully.

The yellow petals covering the ground looked like jewels in the morning light, nearly as beautiful as the gleaming pendant on Mother’s necklace. But where was she?

She said she’d be back soon. She said everything would be alright.

I stood up slowly, wincing as my stiff arms creaked. Stumbling awkwardly from the yellow flowers, my eyes widened at the sight.

What…?

The entire outcropping had been covered in a dark, rusted red color. It seemed slightly damp and smelled slightly metallic, like iron or copper. It looked like a blot of darkness by the flowering bushes, and the scent of it made me want to gag.

Blood.

I only recognized it from a time when I’d splintered myself with driftwood for a fire, and I’d cut myself trying to dig it out of my palm. But who did it come from, and what had really happened last night? After a moment of poking at it, I returned to the bushes, hissing as the plant’s thorns pricked between my scales, causing small drops of red to seep out from between them.

Just like the red outside...
But Mother is alright. She said she would be. Mother doesn’t lie.

I squished myself into the gorse, tucking my barbed tail to my side. I had to keep waiting, and Mother would be mad if she found out I had left the bushes for any reason. She had to get back soon. I fiddled with the orange amber pendant of Mother’s necklace, turning the jewel over in my talons. With a start, I realized that Sunstone was glaring at me.

“Mother said not to go out,” he said fiercely. I glared back.

“Well, good morning to you, too,” I replied. “...Don’t tell Mother, okay? Our secret?”

Sunstone watched me as I settled in and he rested his head on my shoulder. I smiled at the warmth of his scales, finally relaxing a bit. Somehow, without even trying, Sunstone always lit up the darkness like a sweetly oblivious torch. Sunstone poked at the pendant, his brow furrowed slightly. I silently begged him to agree.

“Fine. But you can’t do it again, okay?”

I snorted, reassured. “Of course not. I was just curious.” I buried my head in my wings and tried not to worry about Mother. Or the blood outside.

Sunstone shoved his face into my shoulder, his breathing evening as he returned to sleep. I closed my eyes, trying to rest, but failing as my worries tumbled through my thoughts.

Where is Mother? Why was there so much blood outside? Why isn’t Mother back yet? What about Father?
Mother said that when dragons die, they disappear forever. They’ve been gone for a while now. So where did they go?
Did they die?
Is that why there’s blood outside?

I held Sunstone close to me, shivering in the morning chill. The air here was never warm, and neither of our parents were close by to hug us, but we had each other. We couldn’t stay here forever, though. If Mother wasn’t back within the next few days, we would be forced to leave. And then we’d be on the move again - Father had taught me that staying in one place for long was never a good idea.

What if I would have to teach Sunstone all the survival techniques my parents had taught me? I’d always expected Mother and Father to do it, but they might not get back in time.

What if I can’t do it all? But...
I made Mother a promise.
I won’t fail her, no matter what. She is coming back, and Father will be with her. I can keep Sunstone safe until then.

So why did I feel so uncertain? Panicked thoughts whirred around in my head, and I left it to sleep to steal them away for the moment, my limbs finally relaxing.

Chapter Text

~Iceblink~

Two years later...

It was the first time in months that I was truly free for more than a few moments of daylight, and dragons just couldn’t stop constantly pestering me. If I made one wrong decision, or one wrong move… What would follow would be the exact opposite of freedom. There were too many things hanging in a too-delicate balance here.

My tail twitched impatiently as I lounged on my chair, stacking the scrolls on the desk in front of me. I placed the obsidian tablet next to them - a thin, rectangular paperweight of sorts. The sight of its glossy black sides made something in me shrivel with disgust, and the eclipse over a silver sun carved on its surface seemed to mock me. I really didn’t want to deal with this right now.

The commotion outside of the office door grew louder, and I began to suspect the unwelcome visitor had gotten in an argument with the current shift of guards outside. I grimaced.

I wish they’d just go away.

My second-in-command took in a shallow breath, and I met his eyes. He looked away for a heavy moment before appearing to find the courage to speak. “Leader Iceblink-”

I silenced him with a freezing glare, the one that I’d perfected over the years when I was alone. He cringed, wings bending in on himself, and I felt only the slightest bit of guilt.

Poor old IceWing.
Nobody knows what you saw that day, and nobody believes the whole ‘I’m-scared-of-you’ act that you keep trying to shove up my snout.
I know you’d leap at the first chance to steal my position and terminate everything I’ve worked for. Everything that still has a chance of succeeding.
You still think I don’t know what I’m doing, and that I’m going to tear apart what’s left of the Ice Kingdom?
I’ll make you eat those words when I crush those barbaric NightWings and their King, no matter what a hypocrite you think I am.

I snarled, leaning forward and propping my chin up on the desk with my talons, ignoring my dull, familiar rage. “Let them in,” I finally replied. “I’ll speak to the guards later about their poor performance today.”

“Leader Iceblink, I must insist-”

“I’m waiting, second-in-command. I haven’t got all day for you to wring your sorry stubs for talons.” He had lost them long ago to the Plague of Ice. I’d been one of the dragons to watch him gnaw them to bloody stumps in the shadows of that basement with his eyes rolling in his skull.

The plague had not spared a single IceWing - not even me. It had jumped from one dragon to the next like rapid wildfire, and it took their sanity with it. Most went mad, screaming gibberish and killing every dragon within reach of their talons, while others let the sickness overcome their minds, usually ending up killing themselves. A few tried to wait out the pestilence and watched their own lives bleed out onto the ground in flowing rivulets of blue blood. Icefall, king of the NightWings… he hadn’t wanted a single one of us left alive.

But the strongest survived. The strongest overcame the deadliest of plagues, and fear eluded them as they began to rebuild their lost civilization from the ground up. New traditions, new laws, new legends, every single one better than the last. Now the whole tribe was gathered in one spot, ready to be eliminated once and for all if the plague - or something worse - ever dared to return. They’d never see death coming if it came for them.

And it’s coming for them, isn’t it.
But I’ll be the one to save them, and then they’ll all grovel at my feet and shower me in grateful praises. I’ll be the queen of a utopian kingdom of ice.
Icefall and the NightWings will be banished to the darkest of shadows.
All I’m doing is paying the price for glory.

I sighed and refocused, facing the rusted iron door as my second struggled to unlock and open the door, his scarred, stubby talons stumbling. When he finally dragged it open, I stood and glared steely at the commotion outside.

Rising to my claws, I leisurely stepped over the talon-carved desk and met the eyes of my suddenly anxious and fidgety guards. My second shooed them in quickly, closing the door after them. I scanned the small crowd in front of me.

Two incompetent IceWing guards, one lying IceWing snake of a second-in-command, and an incompetent MudWing scout who failed to get here on time.

What has this place become?

It was a serious question.

An icy glare sent them all into submission. “What is the meaning of this?”

The guard on the far right digging his claws into the messenger’s dark shoulder spoke first. “An intruder, Leader Iceblink. We must contain her in the dungeons.” His companion nodded reluctantly, glaring at the outraged MudWing.

I sighed, my eyes turning skyward. The guards shifted uncomfortably. “I’ll speak to you later about the difference between intruders and my very own dispatched scouts, Elk and Snowdrift. Get out of my sight.” I turned to the MudWing dragoness as her captors fled hurriedly out the door, slamming it behind them. I nearly flinched, but managed to hold myself still.

Why do I still feel like collapsing, even at this point?
He said it would get easier, but it’s only gotten harder and harder instead.
Still, I’ll gladly take this little bit of freedom.

I glared at the MudWing scout for a long moment, watching her shift uneasily. “You’re late. Give me your name and your post.”

“I-I’m sorry, but the guards-”

“I’ll speak to all of the guards if it makes you feel any better. Three moons. Just give me your name and post.”

Three moons, just let this end quickly.

“I-I’m Caiman. Noon and dusk patrol; southwestern Rift foothills.”

I picked out her file from a cabinet in my desk, barely glancing at it before studying the MudWing dragoness again. She looked skittish. What could she have possibly seen out there that could have been so worrisome? I narrowed my eyes.

“Report.”

“There were two dragonets on the very lowest parts of the foothills, near the southern cave system and the moor.” Caiman’s gaze darted to the floor, but I didn’t have the energy to lecture her about proper etiquette towards her Leader.

Well, this was news, if anything. If any of the trainees had even dared to try to run off, the punishment would be severe, to say the least.

But not my fault. Never my fault. This isn’t-

“I didn’t recognize either of them, and I’ve had to answer to nearly all of the dragons here. One looked like an average SandWing? Or SkyWing? One had pale yellow scales with red speckles here and there, and the other was mostly a dark maroon red. The maroon one had a SandWing tail barb that didn’t look quite right, I believe.”

Hybrids? There’s only two hybrid trainees here, and neither of them fit those descriptions. Useless sea dragon of a father went hightailing it out of the Rift by flying around the Obsidian Cliff instead of joining the cause.

“Yes, go on. How old are they? What were they doing?” I didn’t much care to know what they looked like, but the new possibility that hybrids were traversing the Rift’s stone crags and hills was...extremely intriguing.

Potential threat or potential ally? Any dragon can be a monumental asset. And if they’re hybrids, they might have a valuable arsenal of natural abilities.
Could be useful.
For other reasons, as well. They sound young. Maybe, if...

It was a wild idea, almost insane, but that obsidian brought back waves of memories that did nothing to stop the wheels turning in my brain. That day, if nothing had changed, if they’d survived, would everything be different now?

Could I have another chance?

“They only seemed about three to five years old at the very most. They were setting up some sort of shelter in one of the smaller caves, but it looked temporary. They’re sort of stuck in the Rift anyhow, since the Ice Cliff was restored three years after the plague.”

The wall had mysteriously shattered just before the first plague quarantine was put into effect, leaving the Ice Kingdom more open than ever. But three years later, long after the last explorers from distant tribes gave up on trying to unlock the secrets of the crushed IceWing civilization, the Ice Cliff rose again in the dark of the night.

Except it had turned to an impeccable wall of glossy black stone sprouting from the Rift, so dark you couldn’t even see your reflection in some areas. It almost seemed to absorb light instead of reflecting it. The Obsidian Cliff was what we called it. Though it had the same powers, the wall also shot down any IceWing that tried to cross it.

It was obviously Icefall’s work. Just another pretty show to prove that powerless dragons were ants under his talons. Another party trick to make sure the IceWings would never have a chance to face him.

But he’ll pay.
Maybe he’s the one writing this story, but I’m the hero, and the IceWings will trump him before long.

That black-and-silver eclipse glittered in the corner of my vision, and I gritted my teeth, suppressing the paranoia that I’d already been outwitted by the NightWing king.

My second and scout were gazing at me almost earnestly. I must have missed something important. I was so distracted today - I just wanted out of these stone walls. Out of the darkness and into the sunshine where the wind actually blew and everything was alright.

You’re all wasting my time. Useless bunch of trespassers and know-nothings.

“What? I didn’t ask you to give me a history lesson,” I growled, leaning back against the stone wall behind me and closing my eyes.

The scout snapped first. “We should get rid of them, right? They’re probably only going to cause us trouble if we leave them, and no one’s going to notice a couple of missing dragonets.”

But maybe…

Those memories flickered in the back of my mind again.

My second snorted, showing off to appraise me. “Really? Get rid of two possible new trainees? Leader Iceblink, recruitment is an absolute must here. It’d be foolish to pass up a chance for young blood like this.”

I replied with a noncommittal hum. Both of them had good points, but I already knew which path I would take. It wasn’t either of what they’d suggested. Instead, an idea had already formed in my mind, desperate and hopeful. Maybe a way out of this. Maybe just one tiny bit of something for myself, in a world where I couldn’t help but live for something else.

My second cleared his throat quietly. “Permission to speak, Leader Iceblink?”

“Go ahead,” I said, not paying attention to his schemes to get on my good side.

“The scout reported both sand-pale scales and dark maroon, correct? These traits are adherent of SkyWings and SandWings. Thus, these two dragons could be a hybrid of the two.”

Wow, like nobody could have ever figured that out without his palace-trained brain. “So? I don’t care about how dazzlingly handsome they are.”

“Leader Iceblink, two years ago we had received intel on a SkyWing and SandWing located in the southeastern Rift. You dealt with them yourself as they refused to comply with our regulations and take up assignments from the Compound. Is it possible that these new dragons could be their...dragonets?”

I dealt with them? Oh, that sounded terribly sad and gory, given what I’ve heard through these walls.

My talons twitched, and I glared at them, quelling the lurch in my stomach.

I wish I knew…
But dragonets. Dragonets, for sure...

Well. There had been several SandWings and Skywings spotted throughout the last two years, some even taking the time to fly all the way around the new Ice Cliff. They’d finally stopped coming in sometime within the last decade, but getting rid of or recruiting the ones that had arrived had been like trying to scrape sand out between scales.

Stubborn creatures. You all just want to gloat in the fall of the IceWings.
You wouldn’t even think about lending us a talon after what the NightWings did to us. Not that we’d ever need your help anyway, with me in charge.

Really, the chance that they could be hybrid dragonets at all was small, but my second was right that the possibility was not to be ignored. Every dragon was integral to the Compound’s success, and he wouldn’t be pleased if I did nothing with them.

They’re just nobodies. They’ll probably amount to nothing, but...
Hybrids are powerful.
Nearly every IceWing here knows that firsthand, thanks to Icefall.
But...if I wanted to, I could make those dragonets bow to me and me alone.
He would be out of the picture, if I did everything just right.

If they were completely binded to my will and cause, then they would have no reason to look for real answers. Training them and guarding the secrets I held would be more time-consuming and important than ever, and it would be so, so selfish, but...

That obsidian tablet glittered on my desk, almost mocking, and my lip curled. After everything that had been stolen from me, who said I didn’t deserve anything? I’d never even had a chance. Maybe, just maybe, I could finally have a try at that life I’d always dreamed to have in the Compound.

He’s not controlling me right now. This is my one chance. And he said it himself - I’d be satisfied one day. I deserve that much. If this is what it sounds like…
I might not be empty, but that’s not enough anymore. He’ll understand. If he doesn’t, then I’ll make him, somehow.
And when I’m ready, I’ll crush him under my talons...and the IceWings will finally have their place in the world again. This is just the beginning.
I just need this one thing for myself. It’s not too much to ask.

I rose, the shadows cast by my wings blanketing their faces.

“I’ll fetch these mystery dragonets myself.” I eyed my second-in-command, and he snapped to attention. “Flurry, I trust that you’ll assume my roles.”

I exhaled, almost vibrating with anticipation and… Hope? Or something like it, at least. That bubbly, vaguely warm feeling I hadn’t felt in decades.

A smirk split across my face. “I may be gone for a spell. Time for some recruiting.”

Chapter Text

~Sunstone~

“Prey is almost always smaller and faster than us. So if you just run at the first meal you see, it’ll quickly escape as strength and speed isn’t as crucial as stealth in hunting, especially out here in the Rift.” Citrine droned on about hunting techniques as we strolled through the rocky field. He looked as bored as I felt, almost more focused on the lichens and rough patches of grass beneath our claws.

He dragged me along for his lessons almost every day now. Something about taking care of myself or having responsibilities, like hunting would majorly affect either of those in my lifetime. But why couldn’t I have a different responsibility? Citrine could do the hunting. I always thought I could do something else to help, like scouting the area or keeping watch at night, but apparently I wasn’t stealthy enough and other options were nonexistent. According to Citrine. I loved my brother and I would do anything for him, but why did it have to be hunting? I was so much more skilled at other things, even if I wasn’t quite sure what those other things were yet.

I zoned out and began to pluck at the heather stalks coating the ground, my pale yellow-gold forearm stark against the dark leaves.

‘You’re not stealthy. You stand out on the ground from above.’
‘You can’t guard at night, because you don’t know how to fight properly and you look entirely harmless without a tail barb. Besides, it’s not safe.’

Sometimes, dragons would fly overhead us, but they never paid us any mind. Unlike me, Citrine had a tail barb that appeared slightly elongated and knifelike from our SkyWing parentage, but it wasn’t like it was really necessary to scare off the occasional predator. We both had fire, after all.

‘Why can’t you build the shelter?! I’ve showed you seven times now. Here - like this.’
‘You’re supposed to build a trap with the rocks, not a pile of rubble. What were you thinking? We need to eat.’
‘This isn’t good enough. Do it again.’
But no matter how hard I try with you, it’s never good enough. Why should I even bother? Even when I actually do something correctly, you don’t see.

Citrine suddenly stomped his talons onto the ground, catching me off guard. His smoldering glare burned into my eyes, and my heart leaped.

“Sorry. I was just--” I began before Citrine interrupted me with a loud snarl.

“All I’m asking you to do is listen. WHY are the most simple of tasks SO DIFFICULT to accomplish for you?!” The tired frustration in his voice was an obvious hint that I shouldn’t try to form an excuse. “I’m so tired of this, Sunstone. Tell me what to do that will make you do things properly for once. Just for once.”

My heart thudded in my chest, and I hated how cornered I felt in that moment. Something made Citrine angry, all the time. Deeply angry, on the inside where I couldn’t see, and it just so happened that I was the only dragon around for him to take out his frustrations on. We both hated it, but neither of us were ever brave enough to really talk about it and sort things out.

Citrine groaned, shaking his maroon and sand-pale head. “Argh. I shouldn’t have yelled; I’m sorry. We’ve been doing this for days, though. I wish you would pick this up a little quicker. Maybe I should just send you out to hunt. If you can actually do it, then I won’t have to waste time teaching you this.”

That tiny nagging fear vanished, and I could feel the grin appearing on my face. This was it. He was giving me a chance!

I can finally prove that I can do this! He won’t think so badly of me anymore!

I nodded eagerly. “Yes, please! I promise I won’t let you down!”

Citrine gazed at me for a moment and smiled, his anger melting away to reveal the brother I really knew underneath. “Try the cedar forest at the edge of the foothills we saw yesterday. There’ll probably be some squirrels or something, maybe even badgers or foxes if you’re really lucky.”

I knew exactly where that was. I turned, squinting against the sun, cool wind blowing past my horns. Everything seemed brighter suddenly.

This is awesome! I’ll bring back a wolf just to see the look on his face!

Citrine tapped my shoulder. “I’ll be following at a distance, and you’ll see me by sunset. If you ever need help, just give a roar. I’m here for you. Also, this might be a good opportunity to teach you tracking-”

“We can do that tomorrow; I want to hunt today! I PROMISE I won’t let you down, Citrine, let me do this already!” I bounced up and down, wings shivering with sudden adrenaline.

He laughed, throwing his head in the air. “Bet you five squirrels that you won’t catch anything.”

I snorted in reply, twin trails of smoke appearing momentarily. “Bet you ten I will!”

I extended my wings and took to the sky, remembering to stay in the clouds like Citrine had said in an earlier lesson. My wings were large and gangly compared to the rest of my body thanks to my father’s blood, but they made flying so much easier. Minutes later, I dropped down into the cedar forest as quietly as I possibly could, cringing as twigs and needles crackled under my claws.

‘You’re not stealthy.’
But I know that, and I’ll deal with it! I can still feed myself.

I righted myself and craned my neck, peering into the undergrowth. Not seeing any clues of animals residing in this particular area, I decided to set off in a random direction, tramping through sticks that snapped under my talons. Before long, I was peering at a sunny dip in the ground not far ahead.

I bet something lives there. Maybe a wolf? What do wolves look like?

My tail swished along the ground in anticipation of the catch, disturbing the pine needles coating the ground. I had told Citrine I wouldn’t fail him this time, and I really didn’t have the time to chase five whole squirrels up trees. My talons curled over the edge of the basin, and I quickly spotted the sparkle of slitted eyes resting near a granite boulder.

I grinned. It wasn’t anything huge, but it would do just fine.

Prepare yourself, animal. This time, you won’t escape!

Chapter Text

~Citrine~

I trailed Sunstone at a distance, the bright red specks dotting his scales barely visible through the undergrowth. Crouching underneath a particularly bushy cedar tree, I regretted my decision almost instantly as the wind shook hidden droplets of water onto my now-damp snout. I clutched the amber pendant of my necklace, trying to wipe the moisture away.

The necklace was the last thing that Mother had ever given me. One moment she’d clasped it around my neck, pulling me in for a hug with her sand-colored wings, and the next she was gone. Spirited away. Neither Sunstone nor I knew where she had gone.

That day was clouded and faded in my memory from time, despite how hard I tried to remember it as clearly as I could. I knew that there was an undeniable truth in there somewhere - maybe even an answer to where Mother had gone, but I wouldn’t be finding it any time soon.

We did know one thing, though, and that was that Mother had promised us that she would return. And even if it had been two years, even if I was slowly forgetting all the broken bits of memories I had of her and Father, even if it made me ridiculously angry at some times, I knew that Mother didn’t lie, and that she always kept her promises. I knew in my heart that I’d see her again someday, and I refused to believe otherwise.

Sunstone was skeptical. He’d only lived for just over a year out of the eggshell before Mother disappeared, and he couldn’t recall any memories of her at all, let alone Father. He seemed to doubt that Mother would return for us no matter what I told him, but I didn’t let that sway me. Whatever doubts or fears he had were stubbornly covered in a blinding sheet of optimism, and I loved him too much to argue with him despite his disbelief.

The sky had turned dangerously cloudy, and Sunstone was far too cheerful for the weather. My brother didn’t need the sun; he glowed enough to light up his own little bit of the world at every second. I was worried that he’d fall into an invisible pit from sheer oblivion if I didn’t do anything.

Fighting the urge to sneeze from the sudden shower I’d gotten, I crept forward, watching Sunstone step to the edge of a sandy basin littered with rocks. I froze as my wing accidentally snapped a tree branch, but the sound was covered as Sunstone slipped, sending a small avalanche of pebbles clattering to the bottom of the basin. I froze again, double and triple-checking that he was alright.

He really needs to work on his stealth.
Anything could have easily ambushed him just now. And what if he’d hurt himself falling down? What if he IS hurt? Was this really a good idea?
I just want him to be happy.

When I heard Sunstone drop to the bottom of the hill, I moved forward to find him slowly stalking towards a creature in the shade of a large boulder. I stared at the animal for a moment. It appeared to be a lizard of some sort, with the trademark beady eyes and glossy scales, but something felt off.

Where are the legs?

The creature coiled into a hypnotizing spiral, its head barely grazing the ground as it fixed its slitted pupils on Sunstone, who was still smiling like an idiot. A forked tongue flashed briefly, and a dark, reddish color mottled some of the creature’s scales.

Snake.
Three moons, there’s snakes here?!

I suddenly felt lightheaded staring at the animal, and my limbs cramped, frozen to the ground. Faint images of a blood-soaked ledge smothered with gorse flashed through my mind.

Mother said to protect him with everything I have. If Sunstone moves even an inch...

I launched myself out of the trees and into the clearing, not caring as falling rocks scraped and pinged against my scales, rubbing them raw. “SUNSTONE! DON’T MOVE! WAIT!”

I’d spoken a second too late, frozen by fear. Sunstone had already leapt for the snake, and the animal was already pinned between Sunstone’s talons and the ground, thrashing like a whip. Sunstone turned to me, eyes wide with surprise at the sight of me diving towards him. Horror and revulsion writhed in my body as I watched the snake slip free, rearing and bearing its fangs.

In a flash, Sunstone was suddenly shrieking and the snake had attached itself to his shoulder. Sunstone staggered toward me, and I jumped towards the snake, ripping the creature from my little brother’s shoulder. The scarlet streaks of blood gushing towards the ground were beacons in my vision as I set the snake aflame, tearing its head off with my talons. The snake head rolled a few feet away, leaving a trail of stained sand beneath it. Inexplicably, the head thrashed and bit at the air for a few more seconds before finally resting, the ashen scales beneath my talons cooling.

I lurched to Sunstone’s side, trying to wrap my wings around him while at the same time trying to staunch the bleeding snake bite. It should have been a clean wound, but the way I had torn it had turned the bite marks into bleeding scratches. The crisp air felt colder than ever, and the sun felt far too bright as the tears in my eyes threatened to overflow. I had the irrational fear that if I didn’t stop the bleeding, my little brother would turn into a puddle of blood like the one on the ledge from so long ago.

“S-Sunstone! Don’t p-panic, I’m here… It’ll be okay.” I wasn’t sure whether I was speaking to him or myself.

I shouldn’t have let him do this. This is all my fault!
If only I had taught him about snakes; if only I had made him listen, this wouldn’t have happened. Why can’t I teach him anything useful?
What if I can’t keep my promise? I can’t fail Mother...

Something wasn’t right. Sunstone was growing too weak too fast, and even though I was staunching the bleeding somewhat successfully, he wasn’t responding to me. My chest felt tight. White lights started to flash behind my eyes, and my heartbeat turned into a roaring thud in my ears. I was gasping for breath, shuddering and more lightheaded than ever. The tears rolled down my snout and distorted my vision, rendering it nearly impossible to see.

Then it started to rain, thunder rolling through the clouds and the downpour soaking us through to the bone. I felt almost as if I was underwater, it was raining so hard.

I can’t lose Sunstone now.

An ugly sob wrenched its way out of my throat as I panicked completely, my talons slipping from Sunstone’s wound. I attempted to put them back, but blood spurted from the slashes on his shoulder. The redness was suddenly everywhere and I couldn’t pinpoint the source anymore as tears turned everything into a blurry mess. I couldn’t tell the difference between the sandy basin and that gorse-lined crag two years ago.

So much blood.
Why was there so much blood the day Mother disappeared?
Why won’t she come back now? Why won’t she come save Sunstone? I can’t do this by myself! Why did she think we’d be alright without her for two whole years?! Why did she think that I was capable of keeping us both safe?
I’m such a failure.
I just want her back.

Suddenly, a pale, wraithlike figure stood in front of me, blotting out the dark clouds while wrapping their wings around me and rubbing my back. Their scales felt cold and wet from the rain, but everything seemed slightly warmer than before as I looked into calm, serene blue eyes the color of a winter sky.

“Shhh, now. It’s going to be okay. Your brother is going to be okay.” The voice sounded far off and muffled by the rain, making it so that I could barely understand. The dragon hugged me tighter, but it couldn’t control my panic.

Looking again at my little brother with his wings splayed against the ground, everything was blurred, and he appeared simply as an unmoving splotch of pale yellow. The violent thudding in my ears turned to a deafening thunder, and I blacked out, head slamming against the ground.

I can’t lose him.

. . .

My bleary eyes opened to the light of two full moons, the third nothing but a glowing sickle in the sky. I rubbed my eyes and sighed. I was at the mouth of a large cave, and the stony floor extended out over an abyss of shadow that I couldn’t see in the night.

Where am I? Where’s Sunstone?

I jerked up, all exhaustion instantly lifted, and whirled around to find my brother lying peacefully in the back of the cave. A white bandage was wrapped around his shoulder and forearm, and only a single speck of blood had bled through the cloth.

“Sunstone?” I quietly padded to his side, wings shaking. “Are you alright? Please wake up.” My little brother’s sand-colored scales looked to have lost their former luster, appearing pale and waxen. The ruby-red freckles dotting his snout and back seemed like pinpricks of scarlet blood. His chest rose and fell faintly, and I held his small talons in my claws.

“He’ll be fine. He just needs rest. I bandaged him and already administered the antidote, so there’s nothing to worry about.” I turned around to find a white dragoness watching me from the mouth of the cave. She had to be at least twenty years older than me, standing in the place where I was moments ago. Her snow-white scales and spines had the barest tinge of pale ice-blue at the edges, and she seemed to nearly glow in the light of the moon. Her eyes weren’t unlike the sky-colored hue of the strange and mystical mountains made of ice I had once seen in the distant north.

I think they were called glaciers, but I’m not sure...

The beautiful dragon smiled, and the expression looked almost ethereal on her face. “You need rest, too. And food, let’s not forget that!” She pushed a turkey on the cave floor towards me. “Eat up, and then sleep, okay? Everything will be alright.”

She talks like Mother.

I cautiously pulled the turkey towards me, and began to eat slowly. Carefully. “Who are you? What do you want from me?” I wasn’t about to let myself be tricked now. As amiable as the strange dragon seemed, she was still a stranger, and I didn’t know if I could trust her. The handful of dragons we’d ran into since the time Mother had disappeared hadn’t been too reliable. “And where are we?”

She hadn’t taken us to a place where Mother wouldn’t find us, right?
It’s been two years. Mother will have to find us soon, but she can only do it if we’re still in the Rift.

She looked down at me, amused, and sat down. “My name is Iceblink! I’m an IceWing, but you probably already know that. I don’t need anything from you - I just wanted to help you two dragonets out. You have nothing I would possibly want.” Her voice reminded me of sunlight, but almost too saturated.

Her words were true, but they stung, because Sunstone and I really did have nothing at all. I must have appeared downcast anyway, as Iceblink took a sharp intake of breath.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I just meant that I had no reason to help you besides the fact that I couldn’t stand just leaving you.” Her blue eyes gazed earnestly at me, refusing to look away. “I was passing by and I couldn’t just leave two dragonets alone with a snake, especially not when one was already hurt. I just wanted to help, I promise.”

Maybe I could trust her. I watched the tiny red freckles on Sunstone’s snout. And it really wasn’t like we had anything she could take from us.

She promised...but so did Mother, and she hasn’t kept hers even though it’s been two years. What makes this dragon any different?
Still, she seems okay, and she helped Sunstone by bandaging him. I should stop worrying so much. Sunstone and I are safe now. That’s all that’s important.

“But where are we?” I pressed the question, seeing as she hadn’t yet answered it.

“Oh, of course!” she exclaimed, remembering. “Northwestern foothills. Actually, a bit north of that; we’re on the edge of the mountains.”

“We’re still in the Rift, right?” I asked, trying not to sound panicked.

“Of course. No one can leave, anyway. Don’t you know that?” Iceblink studied me, eyes full of wonder. “...How old are you? Where are your parents? I tried looking for them, but I haven’t seen any dragons anywhere today.”

My cheeks reddened. “I’m five, and my name is Citrine, and that’s my little brother Sunstone. He’s three.” Iceblink opened her mouth to answer, but she turned her eyes to watch Sunstone, who had begun to snore rather loudly. My expression softened a bit as I gazed down at my brother. “Um...I don’t know where my parents are, but they’re coming. Soon. Probably. Eventually.”

Iceblink turned back to me and smiled sympathetically, almost as if I was telling her a funny joke, and something pricked inside my head, almost spitefully.

Mother is coming back, and Father will be with her, so don’t you dare act like she isn’t! Don’t you dare not believe me!

“Well… It doesn’t seem like you know the geography of the Rift that well. How about I tell you more about that, and the dragons living here?” She wrapped a wing around me, and my anger evaporated. My head was bubbling with confusing emotions, from the discomfort of this stranger’s touch to the sensation of how her cold scales were soothing like a fall morning. It was as if my mother was right there beside me, even if it was a different dragon.

“Of course!” I couldn’t explain it, but I already craved this dragon’s attention. It was all too easy to picture Iceblink as a pale SandWing with warm brown freckles and replace the chill of her white scales with summer warmth.

Occasionally checking on Sunstone through the night, we chased away the darkness talking about the Rift and the world surrounding it. Iceblink explained what seemed like every nook and cranny of the area - its barren moors and taiga forests, mountains, rivers and streams, and yes, glaciers, in the north.

The Rift encompassed all the land between the northern Ice Kingdom, where it was too cold for the other tribes to thrive, and the wall of black stone cutting off the kingdom from the rest of the world. It was called the Obsidian Cliff, and no dragon could pass it. Somewhere beyond that wall were the other kingdoms, but none of us would ever venture beyond the wall to see them.

Not knowing what else to do afterwards, I fell silent, gazing at the paling sky and watching the stars slowly fade into the morning. Iceblink hummed a lullaby, getting up and looking towards Sunstone.

“I think he’s waking up,” she said suddenly, and I rushed to his side. Seeing his tired but curious amber eyes open, something finally loosened in my chest. I finally felt truly safe, knowing for sure now that Iceblink could mean no harm. She’d saved Sunstone, even if Mother or I couldn’t. Beaming, I let myself relax. Everything was finally going to be alright.

Chapter Text

~Sunstone~

I awoke to find two pairs of eyes staring into my own, one an amber copy of my own, one a bright and icy blue. Citrine grinned down at me, and his smile was almost blinding. Compelled, I flashed a smile back in return, and all of the fear left over from the strange animal lunging at me evaporated.

“I don’t want to interrupt,” the mystery dragon began, “But I need to redress that wound. The bandages are coming off.” Citrine stepped back reluctantly.

Redress?
Wound?

As if on cue, my shoulder began to throb, and I remembered what had happened. The way that animal had lunged for me instead of running away…

I’d never been so scared before in my life.

Any nervousness was blanketed by my awe at the new dragon. I stared at her, eyes wide. Her scales looked as if the moons had fallen down to touch them, and then she’d gone and ran through a field of snow. In the faint light of the approaching dawn outside, she seemed almost otherworldly. Although the temperature of the air around her was chilled by her scales, the warmth of her smile was enough to melt it all away. “You’re so… You’re so amazing! How do you look like that?”

She laughed, and the sound of it was like bells. “Oh, thank you! I look like this because I’m an IceWing. You can call me Iceblink. And you’re Sunstone, right?” She began to unwind the bandages, reaching for another wad of the strange fabric at her claw tips. Glancing back to me, she smiled. “You’re pretty strong, you know? You survived the bite of a snake!”

Pride bloomed inside of me.

Finally a dragon who can praise me without criticism.

Citrine wanted the best for me, I knew that, but sometimes it was just hard to live with him. He could be so negative, and putting up with whatever he was carrying but wouldn’t tell me about was just so exhausting. But his new dragon - Iceblink - was different. Something inside me pulled me towards her like a magnet, or a moth to a flame.

Iceblink finished tying off the bandage and sat upright. “Well, that should be the last time I have to do that. You guys look hungry, and I saw a herd of elk run through earlier. I think I’ll go get some food for us to eat. Stay here, okay? Promise me.”

Citrine shivered slightly, but he only smiled at her. He glanced at me before turning back to Iceblink, grinning again. “Alright. That’s probably for the best. We wouldn’t want Sunstone to get hurt again.”

He was already back to mocking me again. I instantly felt crushed.

I just got bitten by that thing! Give me a break.

“Hey! I can protect myself!” I burst out, sitting up straight. They both looked at me incredulously and I shifted. “Okay, maybe not last time, but I will next time!”

I saw Iceblink smile and turn away from the corner of my eye, and I turned my full attention to Citrine. He looked uncomfortable, almost queasy. I glared at him. Served him right for being such a jerk.

He sighed. “I’m really sorry for yesterday, Sunstone. I didn’t mean for all that to happen, I should’ve taught you about snakes, how to-”

So that thing was a...snake. And he’s apologizing.
When’s the last time he’s ever been sorry?

I stared in shock as my annoyance shattered. I jumped up and hugged him, suddenly feeling like I wanted to cry. “I’m sorry I’m so bad at hunting, I-I promise I’ll do better next time.” Tears stung in my eyes, and I began to sob. How did it all go so wrong?

Citrine’s eyes glittered with more than just the moonlight. “I’m just sorry that I let this happen. I should have...could have…” He trailed off, and a tear spilled from the corner of his eye. “I feel like I almost got you killed, suggesting you go off to hunt alone like that.”

I stared at him. What was I supposed to say? It was too alien and unfamiliar to hear Citrine apologizing like this. After what felt like an eternity, Citrine wiped his face and turned away, squaring his shoulders suddenly. “How do you feel?” He couldn’t hide the quaver in his voice.

I decided to put the issue to rest. “I feel fine. My shoulder hurts a bit, but I’m okay.”

I’m okay.

. . .

I gazed at the twin scars branding my shoulder, two slivers of raised pink flesh.

It had been nearly seven weeks since the incident with the snake, and while my shoulder was back to perfect health I still couldn’t get the hang of hunting. Even the lumbering mountain goats managed to elude me. Though Citrine had forgiven me and seemed to blame himself for the snake, I could sense his past frustration returning, and refused to give up.

I dug my claws into the fat elk that Citrine had caught for us to share. Tearing it open messily, I could almost feel Citrine’s gaze of disapproval boring into my skull.

I glanced up at him, taking a bite. “Sorry.”

He sighed wearily. “We need to work on your tracking skills first. You’re not going to catch anything at this rate, blundering aimlessly--”

“I DO NOT BLUNDER AIML-”

“Yes, you do. You simply rely on prey to be there when you want it to be. Remember to look for trails used by deer, scat from assorted wildlife--”

“Ugh! You keep telling me this, and I KNOW-”

“Use your knowledge, then!”

I glared at him, standing up. My appetite seemed to dissolve. I could totally hunt, I just needed a bit more luck.

Are we seriously arguing about this?

Citrine grabbed my arm. I tried to shake him free, but he just held on tighter, his grip like a vise.

“Let me go!”

Citrine snarled back at me, the old anger alight in his eyes. “Look, I just don’t want history to repeat itself, okay? You don’t understand anything! I have to do everything for you, and everything that goes wrong is always my fault, and it never matters how I feel because I always have to think about you first! Why can’t you be more agreeable?! I get that I’m not the best brother, but you never even try to take responsibility for anything! I have to do this all alone! You don’t understand, and you don’t even try!”

I shoved at him angrily. “Are you serious?! How can you tell me that?! You always treat me like some sort of newly hatched dragonet, and I’m already three! I’ll be four in a few months! You think I never do anything right and I usually don’t, but when I do you don’t even notice! And I thought we were in this together! You’re always obsessed with Mother finding us and taking care of me, but you never actually care about how I feel! Let me GO!”

He dropped my arm like a rock, glowering at me. I turned abruptly towards the cave entrance, wanting to be somewhere - anywhere but here.

But there’s nowhere to go.

I sat down at the cave opening, my anger like a cauldron of boiling water that was seconds away from overflowing. Citrine and I had to be in this together, but maybe even optimism couldn’t prevent ties from being broken. All I wanted was for Citrine to be my brother, and maybe that was too much to ask for, without parents I never knew - but I never wanted this. We were always close and we had always loved each other like normal brothers, so why did it feel like there was a gap spreading between us now?

“You’re exaggerating, Sunstone,” Citrine said, somehow still calm. “You need to calm down and hear me out. For once, I just want you to-”

“SHUT UP!”

The cave was deafeningly quiet. The sound of beating wings approaching forced me to look up, and I spotted Iceblink flying towards us from the east.

“I’m back!” she called to us, and I returned my attention to the empty sky. Iceblink had appointed it upon herself to do daily rounds of the terrain, wanting to be sure there were no threats lurking. We never knew where she went, but she was always back within a few hours.

Iceblink smiled at us. “You didn’t finish the elk. Can I have the rest?”

Citrine sighed and turned away, melting into the shadows at the back of the cave. “Sure.”

Iceblink gazed at his departing figure for a moment before tearing apart the elk and popping it into her mouth in little strips of meat. I continued to stare at the sky, watching a wisp of cloud that had appeared to the south. Iceblink picked the last bone clean and swept the last of the carcass out of the cave with her tail. My eyes followed the bouncing motion of the pale bones as they cascaded down the mountain.

“Did you guys fight? I mean, you fight a lot, but somehow this seems different.” Snow plopped down beside me, curling her tail neatly over her front talons.

It is, because now we’re fighting about what actually matters - not just some pointless thing, like not being able to catch prey.

“Citrine thinks I’m a worthless idiot who can’t understand anything.”

“I never said that!” Citrine roared, storming towards the very back of the cave. “Don’t put words into my mouth! It’s just that you never try to understand anything!”

“I don’t care!” I called back with a growl threatening to spill over into my voice. “Anyone could say the same about you!”

Iceblink’s expression was grave, and something flickered behind her eyes that I couldn’t recognize. I glared at her, silently willing her to take my side. “He keeps treating me as if I’m incapable of doing anything at all!”

Iceblink glared at me. “Well, that’s convenient, isn’t it? Because it’s true. Maybe you should just let me do all the work for you instead, since it’s such a load to Citrine.”

I gaped at her. My vision went blurry again, and my throat tightened. How could she say something like that?

Iceblink instantly covered her mouth in horror. “I’m so sorry, Sunstone, I just...I’m not feeling too well. Go apologize to your brother.”

I scowled at her before stalking towards the cave, feeling worse than ever. Everything was supposed to be perfect after Iceblink had arrived, but I felt more at a loss than ever.

Chapter Text

~Citrine~

Ever since that day, even if there had been no one to see, I’d felt like a thousand dragons were watching me closely from every direction. Everything I did with Sunstone - was it good for him? Or was I just ruining things even more? Whatever I did always felt like a mistake, even if we were happy at the end of the day. Even from before Sunstone could remember, I’d been messing up and putting our lives in jeopardy.

I’d leave to find us food, and when I’d return, there would be a bear sniffing around the entrance to our shelter. I’d turn my back on one-and-a-half-year-old Sunstone and lose him a moment later, only to find him again hours later just before dark. Some nights, I would fail to catch anything to fill our bellies at all, and I would listen to my little brother’s stomach growl loudly as I tried to fall asleep.

Mother and Father would have been able to defend Sunstone against bears. Mother wouldn’t make the mistake of looking away from Sunstone for more than a moment and letting him wander away. Mother and Father always managed to catch something, no matter how small, for us to eat. I can’t do anything right.
Mother, why? Why did you have to ask me to be Sunstone’s parent? Why did you think I could do all of this by myself? I just want to be his brother, and he wants the same.
Why haven’t you come for us yet? Sunstone doesn’t even remember you.

I reached for a lump of coal and a blank sheet of papyrus, and began to sketch the outline of a female SandWing. I tried to recall her long snout, the way her wings bent when she rested, how she curled her tail when she laughed - but the images in my mind were too faint. While the figure looked like a SandWing, there was no way I could make it look like my mother. Trying again using my father, it only appeared to be an average SkyWing in mid-flight, all familiarity gone. Missing.

Vanished.

Please come back.

I settled for drawing an anonymous subject, a RainWing, her wings flung out as far as they would reach. Her ruff was flared, and she seemed to stare out of the drawing, her claws reaching for the world beyond the canvas as she bared her fangs. Somehow, she just looked sad, like some dragon had leached all the happiness out of her scales until she was nondescript and gray. I couldn’t even draw anything nice, let alone do anything else.

I tossed the RainWing, not-mother SandWing, and not-father SkyWing onto a pile of other drawings. Among them included sketches of the local plants and animals, and others of inanimate objects like the necklace that Mother gave me. Touching the amber pendant gently, I sighed and closed my eyes. There wasn’t anything on my back, but I still felt weighted, like I was carrying a mountain on my shoulders.

I was crushed. I just wanted Father to fly into the cave and smile like he used to do and pat me on the back with that glimmer of pride in his eyes. I just wanted Mother to follow him in and hug me and Sunstone tightly and call us her little springboks like she always did.

I hope you’ll return soon. I’m starting to lose hope...

I turned for the exit, but Sunstone was blocking it, the outside light shining through the membranes of his disproportionately long, pale wings. My face twisted into a scowl.

“Citrine, I wanna talk to you.” He looked sad, but desperate, his amber eyes jumping from one thing to the next in the cave. Just like my own, but still a thousand times happier.

You don’t understand anything!

“What is it?” I didn’t bother concealing my anger, a snarl rising into my voice.

He flinched. “I’m sorry about just now. I shouldn’t have said all of that. You were right, and I was overreacting. But I meant what I said, and Citrine?”

“Yeah?”

“It’s okay now, and you don’t have to overwork yourself anymore. You’ll finally have time to be my brother! We have Iceblink. She could be… She’s like Mother.” Sunstone’s expression was hopeful, but rage suddenly roared to life inside of me.

“She’s not Mother!” I yelled. “Why are you giving up on her already?! If Mother is - if she doesn’t come back, then everything I’ve done for the last two years has been for NOTHING! You don’t understand! I made her a promise!”

Sunstone was crying now, falling apart right in front of me.

“I made her a promise, and I won’t let you replace her! You don’t understand how hard this is! I like Iceblink, too, but she isn’t Mother, and she never will be!”

“MOTHER ISN’T COMING BACK!” yelled Sunstone, burying his face in his claws. “NEITHER IS FATHER! I’M APOLOGIZING AND I’M TRYING TO FIX THIS, BUT…” he sniffled. “It’s been two years, Citrine. Just give up. I want my brother.”

“Stop crying,” I spat. “You look pathetic. Mother will come back. We’re done here.”

“I’m sorry,” insisted Sunstone.

I ignored him and walked out of the cave. Iceblink shot a disapproving glance at me, but I ignored her. “I’m going out to hunt.”

She sighed, white scales glittering in the sun. “Okay, but don’t leave the mountain-”

“No. I’ll go where I want. You’re not our mother, so don’t try to be.”

I might have imagined it, but the beautiful IceWing seemed to be charged with fury. But then it was gone, and Iceblink nodded slowly. “Fair enough. I’ll have to ask you to be back by dusk, though.”

“Whatever. Later, Iceblink.”

“Later, Citrine.”

. . .

I had not flown far before I heard wingbeats behind me. Looking over my shoulder, I spotted Sunstone flying as fast as he could towards me down the mountain. I ignored him, but I still slowed down enough so that he’d be able to keep up. Even if I was still angry with him, I couldn’t let him wander the Rift by himself.

“Where are we going?” Sunstone called to me.

Instead of answering, I veered abruptly downwards into a steep dive, hurtling towards a rushing river. A flat slab of stone jutted out of it in the center, and I landed on it neatly. A moment later, Sunstone was standing beside me. My talons gripped the stone, slick from the spraying water, and I had to shout back to Sunstone to be heard over the thundering of the water. “Be careful!”

Sunstone stumbled as a gust of wind slammed into us, scrabbling to hold the stone. “Yeah, I know!” He peered into the frothing water. “Citrine, why are we here?”

I strode over to him, squinting against the spray that glittered like a million diamonds under the afternoon sun. “Hunting. For fish.”

Just then, I spotted a shining figure arching above the water. Leaping up to face the fish, I barely managed to see it swim off towards the more calm, shallow banks.

“Was that a fish?” Sunstone squinted in the direction of the shallows.

“It was. I’m going after it. Stay here,” I said pointedly, creeping towards the far side of the rock closest to the banks. It felt slimy from algae, and I shuddered at the wetness.

Watch and learn, Sunstone.

Again spotting the shine of smooth scales just beneath the surface of the water, I leapt, extending my wings momentarily before diving into the water. The sound of the water became a muffled rushing in my ears, and my jaws closed around the enormous fish. I held my necklace in one claw, making sure it didn’t float away.

Tastes disgusting.
Oh, well, it’s food.

I shot back to the surface, exploding out of the water in a cascade of shining droplets. Compared to the murky river bottom, the world above was so filled with color and noise that I felt nearly faint for a moment. I landed again in the center of the damp slab of stone, water spilling off of my wings and trickling past my scales to the ground. Setting the silvery fish on the ground and pinning it beneath my talons, I turned to Sunstone.

Before I could say anything, his eyes darted over the river. They suddenly fixed on something in the rushing expanse of the river, and he leaped, copying my movements as he went under.

I froze. I couldn’t see Sunstone anywhere under the whitewater.

No.

A minute passed, and then another.

What will be the last thing he remembers about me? How I yelled at him and shot his apologies down? Or how I failed to protect him against the snake?
What am I doing?!

I moved, running towards the edge of the rock to leap into the frothing river only to barely miss sand-colored talons clawing their way over the boulder. I reached to help a gasping Sunstone over the edge.

Any rage from before had vanished as I saw the fish struggling in his jaws.

“That fish is gigantic!” I gazed at him, unable to put my pride into words. His fish was huge, making my fish appear small and stunted. “Three moons. You can hunt!” He nodded quickly, shaking the water from his horns, too overjoyed to speak. I threw my head back and laughed, hugging him and holding him close. I nudged him. “Let’s take these back. Iceblink’s reaction will be priceless.”

We rose into the sky, the last of the river water falling from our scales. The journey back to the cave was quick and uneventful. Before long, the dark opening of the cave greeted us, like the gaping mouth of a petrified monster. It was almost dusk, and the shadows around us were long and distorted.

Something’s off.

Iceblink wasn’t there.

“Where’d Iceblink go?” Sunstone asked his question through a mouth already full of fish. I followed suit, trying to choke down the slimy meat. Unable to stomach the taste, I set it aflame until it was charred with black marks and scarfed it down.

Fish is horrific.

“I’m not sure,” I said, swallowing, “But I know she’ll be back soon.”

We finished the fish in silence, Sunstone attempting to carve something into its slimy skull but failing. Iceblink had a hobby of carving little figurines from stone, and Sunstone had quickly picked up the practice. It wasn’t like a real lesson like the ones we occasionally did to learn letters or how to read, but Sunstone seemed to enjoy it anyway.

I wondered briefly whether or not I could make any drawing tools from the bones before deciding that I didn’t really want the smell of fish hanging around my utensils anyhow. Besides, the bones bent far too easily and most weren't the right shape.

Where is Iceblink? She’s not back yet and it’s almost dusk.

Sunstone and I sat at the front of the cave. Sunstone tried to count the rapidly appearing stars, and I tried scouring the shadowed valley for Iceblink.

Is she okay? Did she get hurt?
Or did she leave, like Mother did?

The fire we had burned out, and I felt Sunstone shiver in the darkness. I rose suddenly, hearing the familiar beat of wings and recognizing pale white scales rushing towards us through the night.

“Are you okay? Where did you go? It’s nighttime already!” Our questions overlapped each other as Iceblink touched down on the cave floor.

“I’m so sorry,” she said in a rush. “I went out for a little fresh air and I must have fallen asleep. I’m so, so sorry.” She looked at us, obvious regret spilling into her voice.

Falling asleep in a situation like that wasn’t something I’d put past her, and I was just relieved that she wasn’t hurt. But why did she look so panicked, like we weren’t supposed to know anything about this?

“I thought you’d be asleep.” She looked over us, craning her neck and squinting at the pile of fish bones. “Fish? Interesting choice of dinner.”

“Yeah! They were awesome, you should come fishing with us sometime!” Sunstone bounced around her eagerly.

Iceblink hugged him, panic gone but still holding him harder than necessary. “I’ll have to do that.” She strode to the back of the cave and flopped over, spreading her wings wide. “Well, I’m going to sleep, and I think you guys should, too. It’s practically midnight.”

Sunstone snuggled himself under one of her wings, and I followed suit. His scales were warm against mine, and I was immeasurably relieved that he was there, despite our arguments from earlier. There would always be another day to make amends.

Iceblink’s scales felt cold and hard, and her wings wrapped around us like a frozen chamber. I couldn’t help but notice how much it felt like a cage. This had happened before - like the phalanges of her wings were iron bars and all the space in between was empty void.

But I was just being paranoid.

Right?

Chapter Text

~Sunstone~

Lately, Iceblink had been trying to teach us to read scrolls for one reason or another. I loved those lessons - she would read and show us all sorts of stories with countless heroes and villains that were always given justice at the end of the day. I desperately wanted to be able to read like she could, especially because I could only read short sentences, but Citrine seemed to deem it a waste of time and usually spent the lessons doodling in the corners of the parchment we were supposed to be writing letters on.

Iceblink didn’t seem to care, though - she was always watching over me closely. And the attention was enough to fulfill my desire, so I stole it all away from Citrine. He didn’t mind; it just gave him more time to do what he liked, although he sometimes appeared jealous.

I was about halfway through a scroll when Citrine walked into the cave and sat down beside me. His expression was grim, and I set down the scroll on the cavern floor gently.

“We need to talk,” said my brother.

“We already talked,” I told Citrine, refusing to look at him.

“No, like…” Citrine sighed. “I’m sorry. I’ve done a lot of things as a brother that were less than satisfactory to either of us. But you are my brother. So don’t forget that, okay, Sunstone?”

“Of course not. I just don’t get why you have to be so-”

“I made a promise to Mother, Sunstone. I promised her I would protect you and teach you how to survive with everything I’ve got. Some - Most of the time, I feel like I’m failing horribly, but I can’t just give up. Please, Sunstone. You’ve got to try and understand how much you really meant to Mother. To me.” Citrine’s face was pleading, and he held my talons.

Citrine sometimes brought up his promise to Mother - it was never a secret between us, but he never talked about it like this. Usually it was just used as a motivator to make me practice hunting or flying more. I frowned. “I don’t want to survive. I just want to live like a normal dragon, and I can’t ever do that with you.”

“But you can do that with Iceblink.”

It wasn’t a question. I hesitated, and then nodded guiltily. It wasn’t that Citrine was a bad brother; I just needed more than what he could give me sometimes.

“Listen, Sunstone, I…” Citrine’s gaze drifted to the cave entrance, where Iceblink was out of earshot. “This probably won’t make any sense, but the way Iceblink watches you...It scares me. I don’t know why, but Sunstone, sometimes I just don’t trust her.”

“That doesn’t make any sense!” I said. “All she’s ever done for us is to be the best dragon ever! You’re so scared of everything, and you have to have something against everyone! I hate that!”

“I just want to keep you safe!” yelled Citrine. Then he sighed, rubbing his face with his talons. “Look, forget what I said about Iceblink. You’re probably right.”

I sighed angrily, turning to walk away, but Citrine grabbed my tail. I sat back down again, glaring at him.

“Please don’t be mad. I’m your brother. I feel like - even if I never made that promise to Mother, I would still be doing all of this for you. Because you’re also my brother, and I love you. So I’m going to do whatever it takes to stay by your side and keep you safe.”

Why had I been so frustrated? I finally relented, and I hugged Citrine as hard as I could. Before I knew it, I was crying. “I love you too, Citrine, and I - I’m sorry about how I’m so...so…”

“You’re yourself. We’ll work around it,” Citrine said, smiling. “We’re brothers. We stick together until the end.”

. . .

When we later emerged from the cave, Iceblink looked almost disappointed for some reason. As we ate dinner, though, any tension disappeared along with our meal. The seasons were changing, and the Rift was starting to fill with the chill of autumn, soon to be winter.

Winters had always been hard. The last one I really remembered had been from a year ago, where the snowstorms had come quick and fierce and stayed until spring. The cold had been unbearable - even letting Citrine walk a few tail-lengths away was torture. It had been as if the northernmost lands of the Ice Kingdom had fallen down to our talons in an attempt to freeze us solid.

It had been so hard to find prey. I wasn’t able to hunt at all, and Citrine’s success was completely unpredictable. Almost everything still alive after the bitter frosts stayed underground, and the temperatures made the dirt rock-hard. The few animals that emerged to the surface were always scrawny.

But Citrine had always put me first. Whenever he actually caught something, I was the first to eat, and he would only help himself to the smallest of portions. Although I hadn’t realized how much it weakened him then… Now?

It was just a painful reminder.

Just a painful reminder of how much more young and naive and stupid I was compared to Citrine, who was two years my senior. Just a painful reminder of how I always took everything I had for granted, and never saw the things that really mattered. Just a painful reminder of how hard Citrine worked to keep us both alive, only to see the results pay off in the very worst way with an ungrateful little brother.

At least we had Iceblink now. With her, we would never go hungry again. No matter how much Citrine tried to protest it, I couldn’t deny what we both knew and wanted, deep down.

Mother - if she had ever really existed - hadn’t come back.

Maybe she could be replaced, though. There was something about Iceblink that just sucked me in every time I saw her, and I wanted to spend my whole life with her. She was the first dragon who’d ever made me feel truly at peace. Citrine tried hard, but that just wasn’t something he could give me.

Iceblink had started to carve away at a chunk of fallen rock, hammering at it with a small chisel. She often did that when she wasn’t busy. Curiously, I walked over to her side, and she wrapped a wing around my shoulders.

Citrine watched us with an unreadable expression for a long moment before heading back inside the cave, yawning. I ignored him, gazing in wonder at Iceblink’s talons. The stone between them was slowly taking shape, and before long, I realized that it was me.

“Wow!” I shouted. “That’s so cool! I want you to teach me how you do that.”

Iceblink smiled, and in the twilight it looked oddly warped and stretched at the edges. She handed me another slab of stone and a chisel, and I eagerly grabbed at them. “Maybe I will. I was taught by my father,” she whispered, looking to the sunset where I couldn’t see her face. “He was a master at his craft. I like to think that every little object I make is a piece of a memory. They string together to make a story.”

Who knew that statues could be so meaningful? “How do I fit into your story, then?” I gazed up at Iceblink eagerly.

She tapped the miniature stone version of my face. “This is the exact expression you made when you first saw me. From that very moment, I knew our destinies would be intertwined. We’re amazing dragons. We’ll do amazing things together.” Iceblink turned to look at me, still wearing that stretched smile. “All you have to do is say yes.”

Citrine had emerged from the cave and walked over to us quietly, sitting a short distance away. I didn’t look over at him, too entranced by Iceblink’s blue gaze. “Yes to what?”

Iceblink’s smile widened, and something came alight in her eyes. “The Rift is a dangerous place, and there are lots of bad dragons out there, Sunstone. Citrine. Bad dragons, with too much power in their claws, but we can stop them.” She leaned in close to me. “I have built a paradise. Safety and wonder for all dragons, where no one will ever go hungry again. Everyone has a purpose, and everyone works for the same goal. It is the beginning of utopia. If you wish…”

She stared us down.

“I am making you an offer. Come with me and live to be heroes. The foe we are up against needs a powerful enemy - and hybrids are always powerful. You are powerful. I can take you to glory.” Iceblink had seemed to undergo a complete transformation, and I was in utter awe. Suddenly, the IceWing no longer just seemed friendly and warm. What she spoke of - power - seemed to radiate from the spaces between her scales. She tilted her head, and I did the same, hypnotized by the glacial blue of her eyes. “So...what do you say?”

I…
I want this.
It’s just like the scrolls I’ve been reading - I could be a real hero! Isn’t living life in the Rift pointless and boring? I’ll never be anything more than one dragon then. If I take this…
Even Citrine won’t be able to deny that I’m not useless.
But I love living like this in the Rift. Citrine is finally a real brother to me.

“What’s the catch?” Citrine asked suddenly.

The trance was broken. I stared at him, suddenly and keenly aware of how cold Iceblink’s wing around me felt. With a start, I realized that her claws were clasped around mine like cold iron. Her shadow seemed impossibly dark, even in the evening, like an inky cloak of night cast to the ground beside her body.

Iceblink tilted her head. “Catch? What are you talking about, Citrine? Destiny doesn’t have a catch. You can take it, or you can leave it, but it always catches up to you eventually. The future doesn’t judge.” A gentle smile spread across her face, and the warm dragon I knew was back. “I’ll still be here for you, no matter what. I love you, don’t you know that? You’re like my own dragonets to me.”

Citrine glanced away. “I...I think that Sunstone and I would prefer just living on our own out here. We don’t need a glorious destiny. I mean, I get what you’re doing, defeating whatever bad guys are out there, but we don’t need happiness from that.” Citrine smiled hopefully at me. “We have each other. And that’s more than anything you can offer.”

Iceblink watched him with narrowed eyes for a moment before turning away. “I see. Don’t worry, though - even if you won’t join my cause, I’ll still be by your sides. Every step of the way.”

She lifted her wing, and the air felt ten times warmer without her around me. I bounded towards Citrine, smiling back at Iceblink. “That sounds awesome! Like our very own secret guardian!” Iceblink laughed, and I grinned up at Citrine. “Isn’t that right? Iceblink is the best dragon ever. Promise me you’ll stay with us forever. Promise me!”

I bounced back over to her, flinging my wings around her body in a hug. Iceblink smiled, clasping my talons again. “I promise.”

“Maybe we’ll even defeat villains together like you said one day,” I said.

“Brothers first, though,” Citrine insisted, amber eyes glowing.

“Yeah. Brothers first.”

Chapter Text

~Citrine~

Iceblink had been a completely different dragon, if only for a few moments. I still wasn’t sure if I like that new version of her. I ushered Sunstone into the cave where we slept, glancing back out to the mountain ledge to find Iceblink still watching us. She was smiling the same beautiful smile she always had, but now…

I didn’t know why, but it felt so fake.

What if I was wrong to trust her? What if she’d lied that first day, and she actually did want something from us? It was my duty to protect Sunstone, no matter what he wanted. I wouldn’t make my past mistakes. But she’d healed him after the snakebite. The twin scars on his shoulder were reminders enough. Besides, she’d kept us fed and warm and played with us every moment she could.

Like a mother.

I shoved the thought away. Sure, Iceblink treated us well, but I just didn’t feel as safe as I thought I should around her anymore. Just now, when Sunstone and I had been outside, the way she’d looked at him and held him…

Possessive.

She’d had the exact same expression I would sometimes find Sunstone watching me with when he was really little - the expression he’d wear when I was out too long and he grew desperate for any form of attachment. The way her eyes had widened, the way she’d held my little brother so tightly until his scales became discolored from the pressure - it all matched.

It just felt so wrong, seeing that look on a dragon who was clearly an adult.

I didn’t even know what to think anymore. Sighing, I turned away and tucked Sunstone in between some ragged furs before lying down and winding my tail around him. I twisted the end of it around carefully so that my barb wouldn’t pierce his scales. I knew for sure that it had no poison from several failed hunting attempts, but I’d never forgive myself if I accidentally stabbed him in my sleep. I heard snoring, and I realized that Sunstone was already asleep. Smiling slightly, I shivered as I felt Iceblink curl around us and cover us with one of her wings. She hugged us, whispering in our ears.

“I love you.”

There was no way that I could feel suspicious anymore, not with her this close. Not with how much she reminded me of Mother in that moment. Finally closing my own eyes, I let myself drift into sleep.

After a long while, the air seemed to grow warmer, and I realized the weight of Iceblink’s wing was gone. Just before I fully fell asleep, I heard the faint clicking of talons as someone left the cave. I opened my eyes a crack just in time to see a white figure leaping off of the ledge and out into the Rift. But I was too tired.

Iceblink is...leaving?

I listened but didn’t hear anything more, and I felt too tired to open my eyes again and investigate.

It was probably my imagination.
She’ll be with us...in the morning.

. . .

It had been several weeks since the offer of going to Iceblink’s ‘paradise’, but none of us had ever mentioned it since. Iceblink would occasionally drop hints about it, but not a single word was ever really spoken. My concerns weren’t alleviated, though - when she thought Sunstone wasn’t looking, sometimes Iceblink would just stare at him.

She never did anything, but it still made me uncomfortable. I never could understand how Sunstone was so oblivious to her actions. He loved Iceblink like she was his real mother in a way that I couldn’t understand. I had this feeling that Iceblink had lied - that she wanted something from us, and she would do whatever she had to get that something. I just didn’t know what, and it scared me.

I also knew now that Iceblink leaving that night hadn’t been a sleep-induced vision. It had been real, and what was unsettling was that it was happening again and again. Without explanation, Iceblink would leave late in the night to go somewhere. Often, she wouldn’t return until dawn. It had only happened a few times, but it was starting to occur more and more often. However, it wasn’t that she was leaving that bothered me.

It was that she left without telling me or Sunstone, and timed her departures in a way that suggested that she didn’t want us to know that she was leaving. What could Iceblink be hiding from us? I had a sneaking suspicion that it had to do with the utopia she’d spoken of. So I stayed up late into the night, pretending to sleep while I tried to figure out what was going on. It never worked, and I never found out anything.

I knew that I wasn’t going to tell Sunstone anything until I knew something for sure. I respected his adoration for Iceblink too much to tell him my suspicions. Besides, what if he accidentally let slip to Iceblink? It probably wouldn’t end badly, but I didn’t want her to know what I was thinking.

I don’t want her to think less of me.

I still hated that part of me that yearned for attention from someone that wasn’t Sunstone. I still hated how easily I could swap Iceblink out with Mother in my mind.

But it appeared that my silence had been for nothing, as I was growing too uncomfortable for my little brother not to notice. Tonight, I had waited for Iceblink while pretending to sleep as usual, but she hadn’t returned. After a while - too long of a while - I had gotten up and decided to wait for her at the ledge. I’d confront her when she returned. That way she couldn’t evade my questions.

The moons were beginning to set, and the eastern horizon was beginning to pale. I gazed out at the perpetual darkness, beginning to worry. Craning my neck, I tried to see through the blackness. It hadn’t been long before Sunstone had realized that I wasn’t sleeping next to him. He too had awoken and was now sitting beside me as I waited.

“Why are you so worried about Iceblink?” Sunstone glared up at me tiredly. “She’ll come back. It’s not like she’s done this a lot. Let’s go back to sleep.”

“But she has. I didn’t want to tell you, but she does this nearly every night.” I started turning the pendant of the necklace over and back in my hands rapidly.

Sunstone gaped at me. “Why wouldn’t you tell me?”

“Because you love her so much! And besides, how could I just tell you something like that without even knowing why…”

“Just telling me that wouldn’t make me stop loving Iceblink,” Sunstone insisted, injured. “You know that! But I don’t see why we should be suspicious of her.”

“I wish it would make you stop!” I flared. “I wish we had no reason to like her at all! Because now I don’t trust her anymore and I think she might even be working against us but I still want to spend my whole life with her! And I hate it!”

Sunstone glared at me. “Why do you even want to have something to hold against Iceblink so much?! All she wants is for us to be happy!”

“According to you,” I said. “But she’s been calculating this, I know she has. She never leaves if she thinks we’re still awake. Iceblink always tries as hard as she can to make sure we don’t know about the fact that she’s going somewhere. And I need to know why.”

Sunstone looked more convinced. “But… Citrine, for real, how long has she been doing this?”

“Since the day she went on that rambling spree about her little utopia or whatever. I knew something was up then. Maybe she was even leaving before then and I never realized it. I don’t know,” I said, clutching my horns.

A furrow appeared between Sunstone’s brows, and I sucked in a breath. I knew that more than anything, Sunstone hated being lied to. It was one of the few things that could really make him mad. If Iceblink had lied to Sunstone, he might actually never forgive her.

I held his shoulders. “Look, Sunstone, I have to find out what she’s doing. I…”

She could be doing whatever she wants, behind our backs where we can’t see her.
I should just follow her and find out what she’s doing. She’ll never know.
It probably won’t be anything suspicious or anything that could put Sunstone in danger, but I have to figure it out. For Sunstone’s safety.
To uphold my promise to Mother.

“I’m going to follow her, Sunstone. I'll see if I can find out what she’s doing.” I smiled at him, trying to hide my pounding heart. “Don’t tell her when we get back. This has to be a secret.”

I walked to the cave entrance on shaking legs and was pulled back by the wings. “I’m coming with you,” Sunstone said, glaring up at me with his amber eyes.

Same color as mine.

“You are not going on an adventure without me,” he insisted. “Besides, if Iceblink is actually doing something bad, which I doubt, then I should be there with you. Brothers first.”

I sighed. “But Sunstone, I have to keep you safe, and you’re not-”

“I CAN be stealthy!”

“You practically yelled that! That’s not stealthy at all!” I stared at him, incredulous.

“I can be stealthy,” he whispered loudly.

I rolled my eyes with another sigh.

“Just let me come, okay? I promise I’ll do what you say. Please?” He gazed at me. “You’re always protecting me, and I want to do that for you, too. We’re brothers, after all.”

My gut told me not to, but my heart had already relented. I hugged him as tightly as I could. “I guess you’re right. You can come, but on a couple conditions. You have to stay close, and you have to do everything I tell you to. Iceblink can’t ever know about this.”

Sunstone grinned and nodded, and I took that as an agreement. “Okay,” I said finally. “She usually goes southeast. I guess...we’ll just go that way. Follow me.”

I leaped off the mountain ledge into the dawn sky, Sunstone following me a heartbeat later as I turned southeast. I grinned back at him through my fear and exhilaration. “Together until the end?”

Sunstone grinned. “That’s right. Until the end.”

Chapter Text

~Sunstone~

I followed Citrine as quietly as I possibly could, being careful not to disturb the tops of the trees as I flew over them. Citrine had told me to fly as low as possible so we wouldn’t risk being spotted by Iceblink if she was resting somewhere. We flew like that over the forest for a long while, about half an hour, before Citrine took a sharp inhale and stopped in mid-air. I nearly slammed into his back.

“Iceblink,” he whispered, pointing to a white figure in the distance. She was heading towards some tall rock spires carved from the wind. They seemed blurry in the distance, but they stood like otherworldly pillars that had grown straight out of the Rift. Citrine nudged me. “We have to catch up. Come on.”

Citrine sped up slightly as the morning fog began to roll in, distorting the formations ahead. As we arrived in the maze of stone towers, the mist wrapped around us too, like threads from spiderwebs pulling us into the dawn shadow. Iceblink was barely visible, and we fought to keep her in sight while staying out of hers.

From a distance, we heard Iceblink land, and Citrine and I copied her as quietly as possible, landing behind a strange fence made of stones that had somehow been melded together. To our right, a flat boulder with faded words etched into its stone stared at us.

 

WELCOME TO CRYSTALLOFOLIA

 

Beyond it, I could see the dilapidated remains of buildings and burnt-out street-lamps. Rubble was piled in corners and alleys, and the mist covered the landscape like a shroud.

A village, here of all places?
Why is Iceblink here?

Citrine frowned at the letters, equally puzzled. He pushed my head low to the ground so I wouldn’t be seen, and we peeked out from behind the stone wall just in time to see Iceblink’s whiplike tail disappear behind another wall of small stones. Creeping closer, Iceblink appeared to be standing on an expanse of flat square stones, almost like tiles of a sort. The entire area was covered in fallen stones, in the shape of rectangles and squares, like bricks but with softer edges.

The fog had rolled in completely, and while Iceblink stood only a few feet away, I couldn’t make out any of her finer features. I hoped feverently that she couldn’t make out any of ours, either. I shared Citrine’s concerns of not being seen - it wouldn’t be good if Iceblink saw us. I was sure now that we weren’t supposed to be here.

That brought to light the way she held herself, and it was a pose I had never seen before, at least not on her body. It made her seem almost unnatural, like a doll that had been purposely posed by its owner.

Iceblink was standing upright, her head lifted as if she were royalty, and her wings were raised and flared. It made her appear slightly bigger and much more regal than she ever let herself act. Her eyes glittered like hard ice, and her mouth was a thin, displeased line. Despite the light of day, her shadow seemed darker than ever, monstrously warped by the indentations between the stones in the ground. She was staring out into the gray mist, gaze steely, almost as if she was waiting for something.

Or someone?

I turned to Citrine, opening my mouth to comment, but Citrine glared at me before I could say a word. Taking the hint, I turned back to watching Iceblink. Figures shifted behind the mist, and Citrine and I stiffened, staring hard at the shapes. Three dragons emerged, stalking towards Iceblink. What were they going to do? Did they want to hurt her? I wouldn’t let them do anything to her as long as I was standing.

But then I realized how cautious they looked. They way they lowered their heads, and the way Iceblink’s gaze seemed to fit them into invisible boxes… These dragons couldn’t possibly be a threat. I glanced at Citrine, and his brow was furrowed. Studying the scene in front of us, it appeared that the newcomers consisted of another IceWing, a MudWing, and a SkyWing with muscles so large and stretched so tight over his bones he looked almost like a disproportionate statue.

Iceblink narrowed her eyes at the sight of them. “You’re late.” She sounded so...distasteful. Angry, even.

The other IceWing...bowed? “My sincerest apologies, Leader.” The MudWing shifted on her claws nervously, and the SkyWing gazed at Iceblink, expression completely blank.

Leader?

Iceblink continued, freezing tone carrying out over the stone. “Action is necessary, and soon. I will not remain away from the Compound much longer, let alone keep hiding my tracks. I already have suspicions that the elder of the two may be starting to get his own ideas.”

The other IceWing sighed, wringing his talons. It was hard to tell in the mist, but for some reason, they seemed oddly short. “That’s a shame. Looks like there’s only one option left - did your plan end up working for the one you were most interested in?”

“The youngest would trust me with his life,” Iceblink said, voice cold but assured. “But the other is expendable. We must make our move. The wait is up. They won’t even know what hit them.”

I stared at Citrine, puzzled and slightly fearful. Who was Iceblink talking about? Citrine’s eyes were wide with horror, almost as if he suddenly understood something terrible that I didn’t.

What is Iceblink saying?!
I don’t understand it! It’s like she actually wants to hurt someone.

The other IceWing and MudWing began arguing, too soft for us to hear. The SkyWing continued to gaze at Iceblink, almost hungrily but with glassy eyes that reminded me of the fish in the river near our cave.

Iceblink glared at him, eyes raking over his figure like jagged icicles. “Potoo, why don’t you scout out the area? Not much sense in staying here doing nothing.”

The SkyWing, Potoo, jolted upright and ducked his head. “Of course,” he coughed out, launching into a stilted march. His gait immediately turned into a swagger - and he was headed straight for us.

The SkyWing’s demeanor would have been hilarious if not for the fact that we were about to be discovered. If Iceblink knew we were here, she’d never trust us again. And I couldn’t bear it if that was the case. Citrine grasped his horns and began to rock back and forth, muttering softly under his breath. I huddled close to him, eyes stinging with tears. We weren’t supposed to be here! And who were these other dragons? They didn’t look friendly at all.

Potoo’s footsteps seemed to grow louder and louder, like thunder carried by the weight of his bulky frame. The way tissue and sinew bulged around his body was almost grotesque, like a lumpy clay statue with too much water that had boiled in the sun. I bit my tongue to keep from sobbing out loud, but I was frozen to the ground anyway.

The SkyWing walked straight past us, seemingly still lost in his own brain, and melted into the mist. Citrine stared after him, letting go of his horns slowly.

The other IceWing and MudWing started to argue louder, looking angry. “We can wait a little longer! We need these dragonets to trust us completely,” the MudWing insisted. “Flurry, you don’t understand how crucial their trust is!”

The IceWing’s - Flurry’s - front talons flew above his head in exasperation. They appeared scarred, and morbidly stunted. “That’s second-in-command to you. And I know what you’re scheming, MudWing. You think you can buy them escape? Not so fast, Caiman. You are nothing but a simple scout. We don’t need them to trust us in order to recruit them. The same has been true for every trainee and graduate.”

Iceblink lashed her tail, snarling. “Enough!” The two dragons turned to her, instantly cowed despite their tribal differences. Her dark shadow fell over them like watery paint, and she suddenly seemed much larger than I remembered.

What’s happening? What are they talking about? What dragonets?
Why is Iceblink so different? Where’s the dragon I know?

“We’ll recruit them at sunset tonight,” she ordered. “No sooner, no later. As we know, the pair are hybrids - SandWing and SkyWing ancestry. The eldest has a barb, so be careful. Poison unconfirmed at this time, but it’s long and sharp enough that there can be no room for error.”

Suddenly, I heard Citrine choke, and I turned to find rust-colored talons wrapped around his throat. He clawed at them desperately, and I barely managed to shout for help in dismay before talons wrapped around mine as well.

All three dragons ahead turned to stare at us, Iceblink’s eyes going wide with shock or anger. I couldn’t tell, but I already regretted everything. At least I hadn’t let Citrine do this alone. My body flooded with purpose and adrenaline, and I gasped, kicking out and lashing around with my tail. Although it didn’t have a barb, it connected with Potoo’s flesh and he nearly dropped me as he flinched. I bit down on his talons as hard as I could, hearing a wet crunch, and he roared, letting go of both of us. A few droplets of red sailed through the air before splattering across the grass.

Citrine and I crashed onto the ground. I stared desperately at Iceblink, willing her to make a move to save us from the unfamiliar dragons, but she didn’t move. She looked too shocked and angry to say anything. Citrine had his tail curled over his back like a scorpion, positioned into a fighting stance I’d never seen him use before. His wings pressed against mine, and then we were back to back. “Together until the end,” he ground out. “I’ll protect you.”

Before I could respond, Iceblink sprung to life. “That’s them,” she roared, shooting frostbreath towards the dirt at our claws. “Those are our dragonets. SEIZE THEM!”

With astonishing speed, she lunged towards me, almost a blur of white. I glimpsed an object - a fist? - arcing down towards me from the corner of my eye, and I screamed. Citrine had just turned around when the object crashed into my skull. The whole world seemed to rattle and swim in front of my eyes, and I barely registered my brother’s face covered in a mask of rage and horror before everything went dark.

Chapter Text

~Citrine~

Sunstone screamed behind me, the noise cutting through my ears like a jagged knife. The sound of it made my stomach curdle, and I almost gagged. I whirled around to shield him, only to see Iceblink rearing up in front of my brother’s tiny figure. Her white fist slammed into the base Sunstone’s skull, and he dropped to the ground like a stone. I roared, diving towards him, but red talons dragged me backwards, digging into my back.

“WHY?!” I screamed at Iceblink as Potoo dragged me away from my brother. “WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS?! HOW COULD YOU HURT HIM?! I HATE YOU! I’M GOING TO KILL YOU!”

I surged forward again, but Potoo’s talons only cut deeper, tearing jagged lines in my back. In a flash, the area between my wings became hot and wet with blood, and my back began to sting with blazing pain. I made a noise somewhere between a scream and a gasp, shocked by how much it hurt.

I swung my claws in an arc towards Potoo, but he dodged out of the way. Instead of mauling the SkyWing, I only left a few bleeding lines along his side. They didn’t even look deep enough to scar. But his talons were gone, and I was free. Leaping away from him, I spun in a circle to find Iceblink flying away.

A sand-colored figure dotted with red speckles was hanging limp in her talons, completely unconscious.

“SUNSTONE!” I roared. “I’M COMING! WAIT! STOP!”

He already looked too far away to get to quickly enough, and I felt my hope crack as a broad MudWing snout blocked my view. Heavy forearms pinned me to the earth.

“I’m sorry,” the MudWing whispered. “But you’d thank me if you knew what was coming. No one escapes Leader Iceblink.”

I roared unintelligibly, lashing out with my tail. My vision was a blur, and my body still felt charged with adrenaline, but I still shuddered as the barb made contact with her thick hide. The MudWing roared in surprise and pain, and I barely ducked out of the way of a weak bolt of flame as I rolled.

I’m sorry too, but I won’t let anyone keep me from Sunstone.

She clutched at her side, just beneath her ribs. It had been a messy, dirty hit, but it had done the trick. The huge MudWing stumbled back and I shoved her even further away with my hind claws. She collapsed and started gasping and choking, spitting blood. The dragon spasmed for a few moments, glaring at me with eyes as wide as the moons. I instinctively reached for her, guilt poisoning my resolve, but I still flinched back.

I’m going to save my brother. I’m going to save Sunstone, no matter what.
Because I promised Mother, and I…
I really love him. I won’t lose him. I won’t leave him all alone like Mother did.
Together until the end.
But only if I live to see it.

I sprung to my claws and spread my wings, rearing up to lift off. I lunged into the air and made it about half the length of my wingspan before I was yanked back down by the tail. I flipped my head around, dizzy, to find that the SkyWing held my tail in his grasp. The grip was tighter than a vise, and stars danced in my vision from the pain. I could feel the tendons scraping against bone, and a strangled gasp hitched in my breath. He started dragging me towards a skeletal tree at the edge of the clearing, sparks flying from between his teeth as he gnashed them.

“You will not touch Iceblink!” he roared, voice garbled and almost unintelligible.

Let go of me! I can’t lose now!
My brother...

I thrashed, but it made no difference against his monstrous momentum. The SkyWing threw me against the tree, and my jaw slammed against the base of my skull. Everything blurred as I fell to the ground and gasped, retching.

“Sunstone,” I choked out, and the world spun, flickering dark to painfully bright to dark again. My head hurt. My back was a beacon of pain. Everything ached, like every scale I had was bruised. My brother was only a dot in the sky, carried by white wings I would never find the strength to catch.

I couldn’t do it anymore.

The world spun into darkness.

. . .

Warm, early morning light flooded into my eyes and I opened them slowly, turning to find a grove of star-shaped yellow flowers sprouting from thorny bushes. I picked up a handful of yellow petals in my palms, knowing exactly why they seemed so familiar.

Wait.
Where’s Sunstone?

My tranquility was instantly punctured by an all-consuming fear. I didn’t see him anywhere. Panicking, I leaped up and darted over to the closest of the flowering bushes. I tore it apart, desperately hoping to find Sunstone uninjured and curled up underneath, but to my disappointment, there was nothing except a pile of scrolls stacked neatly inside, scattered among yellow petals. Hoping I would find something that could help me reach Sunstone, I reached for one and unraveled it swiftly but gently, not wanting to damage the message inside. Despite never really learning to read, it all made perfect sense.

 

YOU CAN’T SAVE HIM

 

The same phrase repeated over and over again on every single line of the rough papyrus. I continued to unwind the scroll, desperate to find something else written, but it seemed to go on forever as the same words kept reappearing. Inexplicably, the ink turned a deep crimson color and began to roll off the paper in thick rivulets of a coppery-smelling liquid.

Three moons.
I just want to know where my little brother is!

It gushed all over my talons and claws, staining them a sickening shade of red, and I shuddered, a bitter taste rising in the back of my throat. I violently thrust it away, back into the pile of scrolls that had started to seep blood from their rolls. Now even the bushes and flowers were bleeding, and soon the whole outcropping of stone was covered in red. Lights began to flash behind my eyes like sparks.

WHERE IS SUNSTONE?!

I felt heat flickering to life in my chest. Panicking, I set the scrolls ablaze. The fire leaped to the surrounding bushes, and everything began to burn, glowing ashes floating down from the dark sky. Everything around me seemed to grow larger, twisting and distorting, but maybe I was just shrinking. I turned in a circle only to find that I was completely trapped by the unrelenting inferno.

How could I do that? Now I’ll never get out of here.
What if the scroll was right?
What if I can’t save him?

“You promised me we’d be okay!” White scales and ominous red eyes flashed through the smoke and blood, and a faraway voice called from somewhere beyond the fire. It wasn’t one I had heard before, but it echoed in my ears and rattled around in my brain like hollow bones.

“You promised her you would protect me!” the voice called again, this time in a different pitch, and I recognized it as Sunstone.

“Sunstone!” I screamed back uselessly. “I’m here! I’ll protect you! Just tell me where you are! Sunstone!”

An undulating wail broke through the hissing and crackling of the fire, rising in pitch and volume until it filled my ears completely.

“NO! MAKE IT STOP, MAKE IT STOP! SUNSTONE!” I whirled around, covering my ears desperately as I searched for Sunstone through the fire and burning bushes. Suddenly, as I turned around again, a small dragon stood in front of me. The wailing abruptly muted into silence, and the sand-pale dragon stared at me, his amber eyes devoid of emotion, of life. They were the same hue as mine, but stripped of the strange magic that had made them so alive.

Sunstone.

I reached for him, but suddenly charred, black, blistering burns ripped through his scales, and Sunstone became unrecognizable. Dark, ash-filled blood began to cascade from the burns, his eyes, his mouth. I stumbled back in revulsion. “S-Sunstone?”

The blood rushed faster, turning his eyes to empty craters, stripping the flesh from his bones, until all that remained was a skeleton turned black from the smoke. It continued to stare at me silently, and the only sound left in the world was my panicked breathing and the distant crackle of the flames. Suddenly, the skeleton caved in on itself, and amid the noise of ugly snapping, the last of Sunstone turned to dust and disappeared into the firestorm around me.

A small patch of scroll drifted down in front of me, flame slowly devouring the papyrus.

 

YOU CAN’T SAVE HIM

. . .

I woke with a jolt, gasping as I tore myself from the dream.

You can’t save him.

I shook my throbbing head, rising slowly and painfully. I was in a very dark, very cold enclosed space, small enough to feel claustrophobic. Frost and mildew were gathering in the stone corners. Shivering, I tried to step towards the thick bars at the end of one wall, the faintest light shining through them.

I couldn’t go any farther than a tail-length, and as I struggled, I looked back to find rusted iron manacles wrapped around my ankles and a strange iron case covering my tail-tip, rendering the barb useless. All of it was attached to the stone wall with a chain.

I gave up and sat down, pressing my wings to my sides and curling my tail around me, trying to find any warmth in the chill of the stone around me. My joints creaked, and the dried wounds on my back flared with pain again. I knew they’d scar. It would probably look awful once it had healed over. Instinctively, I reached for Mother’s amber necklace, but the silver chain links were missing.

A cold shock crept through my scales, and I looked around, panic threatening to overtake my mind again. No silver glinted in the corners. No pendant to be found on the floor.

It can’t be gone now. It just can’t. It’s all I have left from Mother!

A scraping noise echoed from the front of the cell, and I turned to find the barest outline of a dragon standing in front of me, the darkness rendering it impossible to tell who it was. The dragon stepped closer, and I recognized the glacial, distant hue of her eyes.

Iceblink.

She stared at me with an unfathomable expression, and my anger blazed to life. If rage was a substance, it poured into the cracks between my bones and set my heart on fire. It filled my body with a wave of fiery heat and turned my vision into pinpricks focused on the dragon in front of me. “You betrayed us.”

Iceblink frowned at me coldly. “I did what had to be done. A dragonet like you would never understand.” She held out her talons, and familiar silver chains and an amber pendant swung lazily from them. “Looking for this?”

I reached for it, hope clouding the rage. Was she actually offering it to me?

She really just took it from you, didn’t she.

But she was beyond the limits of my shackles, and I could only grasp for it desperately as Iceblink stood there, necklace in hand. The only item I received from my efforts was an indifferent stare. Without warning, she dropped the necklace, and the pendant shattered into a thousand broken pieces. My heart cracked, and my breath caught and a lump rose in my throat.

How could you?

I clawed for the remnants of the necklace desperately, but Iceblink just walked towards me, her back talons crushing the last of the silver chain links. I stared at the glittering shards littering the floor in horror.

Iceblink and I were face to face with each other now, and she began to speak, her voice jarringly cold and unfamiliar. The warm protector I’d known, vanished. Just like Mother, except now she was something worse. Her dark, dark shadow stretched behind her, almost like an entity of its own. “Dragons can be so clueless; dragonets even more so. Lost in the Rift, with no one to guide you, with everyone you loved gone… What were you supposed to do? Who were you supposed to be? What you wanted didn’t matter. All you could do was survive.”

I stared at her, not understanding. She continued. “But you’re in a better place now. You won’t go hungry. You won’t be chained down by responsibilities you never wanted. You won’t be faced with difficult decisions any longer, because I’ll make them for you. Maybe you don’t understand now, but you’ll thank me one day. I’ve saved you from a useless life.”

“How did you save me?! I don’t want to be saved! Where’s Sunstone?!” I backed up as far as I could go, stopping only when the chill of the stone wall behind me touched my scales. Iceblink advanced, as calm as ever.

“Now, you can finally be the dragon you were destined to be. There’s nothing left to hold you back. No one you’ll have to wait for.” Iceblink smiled, almost warmly, but it felt like a cheap imitation. “I’m giving you a new purpose and a life that will matter. You’ll be one of many, and you’ll change the world one day. Don’t worry, you won’t be anyone important. Just a pawn, but still better than a nobody. You’ll be grateful.”

I began to shrink down, cowering against the raw cold of the floor beneath me.

Iceblink, where’s the dragon I know?
And where is Sunstone?

Iceblink caressed my cheek with a freezing claw before pinching it sharply and grabbing my chin. Her talons dug into my jaw like nails, and I cringed away, but I couldn’t see anything past her frozen blue eyes and empty smile. “Have you ever wondered what happened to your parents? Have you ever assumed that they would be anything except alive? They left you in the dust, but I can replace them. I can give you something better than either of them ever could.”

I glared up at her. The rage had returned, almost blinding me. “SHE’S ALIVE! SHE SAID SHE WOULD COME BACK; DON’T YOU DARE SAY OTHERWISE!”

Iceblink’s smile dripped with sympathy, like half-frozen honey sticky with flies and writhing worms. “But she never did. I sought her out like everyone else, and she could only let me take her. She’s dead, Citrine. They’re all dead. Don’t even ask about Cyclone; I know Javelina watched him die with her own eyes.” Iceblink’s smile twisted into a smirk, her piercing blue eyes stabbing into my soul as she loomed over me.

Tears overflowed from my eyes, and I silently screamed at myself to stop crying. My fists trembled, but I didn’t have the strength to retaliate against her. Deep down...I’d always known they’d been dead. It had just been a fact. But I had to protect Sunstone. I had to be there for him, and I needed to have something to keep me going.

But does that mean my promise was all for nothing, doomed from the very start?
No. I HAVE to protect Sunstone.

I blinked away the panicked tears in my eyes. “WHERE IS SUNSTONE?!” The words emerged as a half-sob, half-scream.

Iceblink went silent, and her half-smile curled into a faint frown. Somehow, although it finally matched her emotions, it still sent a dangerous chill down my spine. “Oh, him?” she crooned. “I tore him apart slowly in the very same cave you hid him in all those years ago. First tore his wings off, then ripped out his talons and teeth one by one. Then slit his throat, and finally cut out his heart to feed it to the wriggling maggots in the dirt. ‘Citrine, Citrine! Save me!’” She pantomimed, mimicking his cries.

I stared up at her, my jaw slack. Something in my chest was closing up, crushing in on itself and detaching me from the reality in front of me. She couldn’t have. All those times she sat with Sunstone, carving with him, teaching him about the world so lovingly and diligently couldn’t have led to this. She wouldn’t have. Nobody could be that cruel.

Iceblink’s sick smile returned, and her shadow seemed to copy her. “The Iceblink you knew never existed. I just needed her to bring you to this cause, but not every plan executes flawlessly. From now on, I am Leader Iceblink. The future is already here, and you’ll thank me for ridding you of your chains when the time comes. You’re finally free.” She let go of my chin, brushing my cheek again, and she turned towards the exit, opening the door and letting the dim light filter in. “…Oh, and Citrine? Welcome to the Compound.”

The door slammed behind her, locking me inside inescapable darkness. I sat up, rubbing my head with my palms and struggling against an invisible weight that pulled at my shoulders and covered my eyes. Everything else in my conscience dissipated, and I could only stand there, unable to summon the energy to think or even feel. The world around me barely felt real. A while later, the thoughts in my head began to swirl, repeating in an endless cycle.

Sunstone is gone. Forever. Mother and Father are too. The dragon I imagined that even for a moment could replace them was just an act. A lie.
All I have left...
Is myself.
My useless, worthless, disgusting failure of a self.
Sunstone is gone.

Slowly, almost unconsciously, I let the last of my hope wink out. Iceblink had destroyed me, and I had practically let her. I’d failed. I’d broken my promise.

You stole away everything that I had, and you didn’t even have to try. I stood idly by while you took my brother and our independence and crushed them between your talons.
Maybe it’s my fault, but who says I’ll just let you get away with it?
It’s my fault, but who says I’ll just let you control me?

I took a deep breath before exhaling slowly, still brimming with rage and aching confusion, but somehow empty. I wiped at my tears and shakily hardened my face into an unreadable expression, watching the cell door through the murky gloom.

Iceblink will pay.
I’ll be the one to end this, no matter how long I have to wait.

Chapter Text

~Sunstone~

I woke slowly, opening my eyes to the soft glow of lanterns. As I came to, I realized I was sprawled on top of a pile of soft and shimmering white furs with a gauzy canopy above me. The floor was beautifully sculpted marble tile, and lanterns hung from colorful silk ribbons hooked to the tall, domed ceiling covered in paintings of the mountains.

To the left, two ornate, jeweled glass double doors were opened, leading to a stone deck overlooking a huge, mirror-like lake that reflected the cloudy autumn sky. It was set in the middle of a stone basin nestled between huge mountains. A cold wind blew in, ruffling the sheer white curtains above embroidered with gold thread, but an unknown heat source kept the room at a comfortably warm temperature.

To my right, there was a shining basalt couch inlaid with what appeared to be gold, and more white furs were draped across the seat. Beside the couch was a massive wooden door with a glistering pane of shaped glass in its center gilded with shining platinum. Upon peering inside, I found that it led to a narrow marble stairwell. It was only about two or three steps high, and it lead to an enormous library nearly overflowing with scrolls.

In the wall to the right of the bed where I sat, an extravagantly carved cypress door lead into the unknown. I briefly wondered whether I should open it and go through, but I decided against it. I had no clue where I was, and no idea how to get back if the outside world was unfamiliar.

Am I in paradise?

That might have been true, given the amount of luxury that I was surrounded by, but where was Citrine? Together until the end; that was what he’d said. He had to be nearby, but I didn’t see any sign of him anywhere.

I lay on the canopied bed, unsure of what to do for a long while before the knob on the wooden door suddenly turned. I stared at it, startled, and the door opened, revealing Iceblink. She strolled in briskly, smiling warmly at me before closing the door softly behind her.

I beamed at her, and the tension in my muscles melted away like snow under the sun. At least I knew she was safe. “Iceblink, where were you? What happened? Who were those dragons from before?”

She hugged me, rubbing my head with her talons and sitting down beside me on the furs. “Let me explain. It’s...difficult.” Iceblink’s voice was heavy with some unseen burden. “Sunstone, during the days we spent in our cave...we were not alone. There are evil, evil dragons in the Rift and the world beyond in Pyrrhia. I should have figured it out sooner, but we...we were being watched.”

“What?” I stared at her in horror. The entire time I’d spent with her...had we really not been safe? “Seriously?”

Iceblink nodded. “It’s true. As soon as I figured it out, I knew I had to do something. That was why I kept leaving in the night - did Citrine tell you about that? - to make negotiations. To keep you safe. But they weren’t satisfied with what I could give them. I’m just glad you were with me in those last few moments. Who knows what could have happened if you weren’t...”

I hugged her back. “You saved me.”

“Yes,” she whispered, and the end of the word sounded like a hiss. “I saved you.”

“So you were acting, that entire time in...in…”

“Crystallofolia? Yes. That was just a ploy to fool who could have been your captors. The other IceWing you saw, Flurry - he’s working with me as well. Don’t worry. You’ll see him quite a lot now.” Iceblink patted my head reassuringly. “Never fear, Sunstone. I am always on your side.”

I leaned into her, relieved but still confused. “Where’s Citrine, though? And where are we right now?”

“We are in utopia. My utopia, built from the ground up from the claws of dragons like you and me.” She took my talons and helped me rise to my feet, not giving me a chance to question anything as she led me through the glittering glass double doors and onto a balcony.

On the deck, there were several intricate gargoyles that reminded me of Iceblink’s carved statues. The balcony of sorts overlooked not only the shining lake, but a vast expanse of bare gray stone surrounding it. Along the rocky shore of the lake, the sheer cliffs were riddled with holes and windows, and I could see the distant forms of other dragons flying around them.

The whole thing was set in the middle of a gigantic basin nestled in an even larger mountain, the peaks of the mountain reaching up around us. It felt like a gargantuan nest, large enough to hold every dragon in the Rift comfortably. My room and balcony were set into the highest peak, far from the rest of the busy mountain. Four tall spires of black stone stood on the outside slopes of the mountain, one for each of the cardinal directions. Though the sky was overcast and gray, the sun’s light still filtered through the clouds, lighting up the black towers and shedding warm rays onto the scene.

Iceblink grinned at me, the continual gusts of wind buffeting her wings. “This is the Compound, Sunstone! A safe haven I’ve created for dragons in a chaotic world filled with turmoil. Pyrrhia doesn’t know it yet, but the Compound is the start of the future. Heroes are born and raised for greatness here, Sunstone; trainees and graduates, and you’re one of them. No one will be forced to live a mundane life; to be a forgotten nobody. I chose you to be the greatest of them all, and to lead them in times of peril. You are not just meant to be a hero, Sunstone. You are meant to be my heir. The next Leader of them all.”

I gazed out at the Compound, my eyes dancing.

A hero? An heir...to this whole place? Me? It’s a dream come true.
But...

“If this is so important, why didn’t you mention I’d be the Heir before? Did you really build this place? How? And when? Why have I been living in a cave when I could’ve been here from the beginning? With Citrine. Citrine should be here, by my side. I shouldn’t have all this without him.” I glowered at Iceblink, then pointed to the lake. “What about all the dragons down there? Were they forced to live in caves before they could come here too? Who were the bad guys that tried to hurt us earlier? Will I get to meet all those dragons outside?”

Iceblink chuckled, brushing off my serious expression with a gentle touch to my cheek. “My dear, there’s nothing to worry about. I try to bring every dragon I can into the Compound. Once you are ready, and once they are ready, you will all meet. You’ll be crowned with the title of Leader, and you will save the Ice - all of the dragon tribes from the danger that is coming. But not yet.” She ushered me inside, shutting the glass double doors. “Some of them are still unprepared. Some might still try to take advantage of you, with you this young. So until I say you’re ready, never leave these rooms. It’s for your safety, Sunstone.

“Although I am the one who saved you and brought you here, eventually, you will be the one to save us all. Just you wait, Sunstone. My little prince.” I hopped onto the pile of furs, already forgetting my anger as I bounced up and down. Despite the confusing circumstances, everything had turned out better than I could have ever hoped. Iceblink smiled at me. “You may not have been born to be a ruler, but I’ll make you one.”

And where is he?
Why didn’t you answer the rest of my questions?

I was starting to worry. Was Iceblink avoiding my questions?

Suddenly, a knock came at the wooden door, and Iceblink moved to answer it. Watching curiously, I witnessed a short exchange between her and a tiny dull gray-blue RainWing, the little dragonet handing Iceblink a covered basket.

The maid was young, younger than me. Her eyes were a bright yellow, like lemons or daffodils, contrasting the muddy gray of her scales. They widened as she realized I was staring at her. The small RainWing ducked, embarrassed, and worried a delicate-looking white lace choker around her neck.

“Thank you, Pineapple. You may go. I do hope you’ll enjoy your new position serving the young Heir. What an honor! But do try and look more cheerful, dear.” Iceblink’s voice was quiet, but something about it seemed tense. With a blank expression, Pineapple bowed slightly and left, scales shifting to a paler lavender speckled with gold. Iceblink smiled tightly before closing the door behind the RainWing.

“Pineapple is your maid,” she explained. “If you ever need her, you can ring for her using this bell.” Iceblink pointed to a contraption on the wall. “Be gentle with her, please. Pineapple has… a delicate personality.”

Iceblink carried the covered basket back to me, opening it and presenting its mouth-watering contents. The woven contraption was filled to the brim with delicious-looking food, the cuisine including fragrant juicy fruits, roasted and dried savory meats, and even some sort of elegant roasted fish diced and served over flared lettuce leaves and lemon garnish. Iceblink arranged the feast on gold-rimmed dishes, and we devoured it in silence as the food was too good to pause for conversation.

After we had finished, the maid, Pineapple, returned to remove the dishes and basket, struggling under their weight. Her before-vibrant scales had turned back to a mournful gray-blue. She didn’t look at me once, and I could see that it bothered Iceblink.

Strange. Is she sad? Someone should try to cheer her up.
I have more important things to worry about, though.
Where is Citrine? I haven’t seen him anywhere!

Iceblink led me to the fur-covered couch, and she began to speak before I could ask. “In order to be a hero, a Leader, you must learn. The other IceWing you saw yesterday - he, too, was acting. His name is Flurry, and I appointed him my current second-in-command. He’s a wonderful dragon. Flurry will teach you the ways of the world - he will be the one to give you your true skills. But the only way you will ever lead the dragons here is if you accept his teachings.”

“Of course I’ll do that,” I said earnestly. “I… I’m so glad I’m here!” Who knew Iceblink was connected with so many dragons? And Leader of this place, even. It was amazing that she’d created this. It was a completely different world compared to what I’d lived with in the Rift. Out there life had been so simple, but so difficult. All I could do was try to survive each day while Citrine did the work.

But now… I was the Heir. I could do something. I could help dragons. I’d finally be good for something instead of a useless dead weight to burden my brother.

I can finally show him I can be better.

“You’ll learn from a lot of subjects, but you must have some sort of way to unwind. So, I’ve designated times where we can just hang out and have fun. Weren’t you interested in carving and sculpting once you saw me do it?” Iceblink questioned.

I nodded. “I’d love to learn how you do it! It’s so amazing. Please teach me!”

“I will, in due time.” Iceblink glanced out through the glass doors. “The sun is setting, Sunstone. Unfortunately, I must go soon. Don’t forget - you can’t leave this floor.”

“Okay, but why? The dragons below can’t be that bad,” I protested. “Won’t staying up here all the time get boring?”

“They are not yet prepared to meet the Heir,” Iceblink said again. “And I’ll prepare them. But before they are ready, it may be dangerous for you to venture out into the rest of my paradise. This is the Rift, after all, and many of the dragons here didn’t have the best lives before I found them.”

“Doesn’t sound like paradise if I can’t go walk around in it,” I muttered.

“Please,” Iceblink begged, mouth forming a line. “This will be the one thing I ever ask of you. It’s only for your safety.”

There was a tense pause, but I finally sighed and relented. “Okay. But…”

“Yes, dear?” Iceblink seemed almost reluctant, as if she knew what I was going to ask.

“I just need to know, and you haven’t told me anything. I know I shouldn’t be worried, but…” I sat up slowly, letting blankets slide from my wings. “Where is Citrine?”

Iceblink’s calm demeanor seemed to evaporate, and her shoulders sagged. She turned to the side, and I spotted tears glimmer in the corners of her eyes. Her face grew haggard, and the cold, unforgiving truth surrounding Citrine’s absence suddenly hit me like a stone.

No.
What if we aren’t together until the end?
No. NO!

She rushed back over to the bed, pulling me to her chest, wrapping her wings around me. “I’m so, so sorry, Sunstone. I was only able to save one of you.” I began to shake, and tears spilled over, running down my snout. “He was already gone when I went back.”

I shook my head, still in denial. “W-What do you mean he’s gone? He’ll come back! HE’LL COME BACK!” Iceblink hugged me tighter, and shaking, I could feel tears of her own dripping onto my head. “TOGETHER UNTIL THE END, THAT’S WHAT HE SAID! UNTIL THE END! HE’S NOT GONE!”

“I’m so sorry, Sunstone. He can’t come back. He’s dead.” The weight of those final words echoed in my head, bouncing around the walls of my ears until they were all I could hear.

He’s dead.
Dead.
DEAD.
Has it all been for nothing? Every moment we spent, doomed to only be a memory?

I sobbed, the tears and the pain rushing out of me in an anguished wail. This was it. I’d never see him again. What was the last thing I said to him? I couldn’t remember. When was the last time I hugged him? I couldn’t recall. It had almost been his sixth birthday. Had I even thought about giving him a present, or making his favorite meal? I hadn’t. This whole time I had taken him for granted, and now that he was truly gone, it felt like someone had torn a gaping hole into my heart, and there was nothing I could do to fill it.

So I sobbed until my tears ran dry and I no longer had the strength to scream, Iceblink’s wings wrapped around me the entire while as she stroked my head and I shook softly. My throat was scraped raw, and I couldn’t speak.

When I was caught somewhere between dreams and the waking world, my head throbbing from all my crying and exhaustion tugging at every scale, a voice whispered in my ear. It sounded so far away, and I could barely make out the words. I wasn’t sure if they were real.

“How does it feel to lose everything? What is it like to belong to nothing?” the voice crooned. “I’ll shield you from the pain of such an unforgiving world. You won’t go anywhere if there’s nowhere for you to go. You won’t love anyone else when I love you the most.”

It had to be some kind of waking dream. Maybe I should have felt like it was a nightmare, but somehow, I felt safer, hearing those words. I fell asleep like that, tucked against Iceblink’s strong wings, letting her fill the emptiness in my heart where Citrine used to be.

Chapter Text

~Citrine~

The door grated open abruptly, like rough talons against stone, jolting me from my fitful sleep. My eyes opened, and I squinted against the sudden light where the cell door used to be. The perpetual darkness had made even the faintest of light appear blinding. A pale, wraith-like silhouette stepped into the cell, and the faint torchlight filtered around her figure, casting a dark, void-like shadow. There was only one dragon that the figure could be.

Iceblink strode closer, her ice-blue eyes glittering colder than ever in the dim torchlight. I matched her gaze, tense and waiting for her to make a move, but her figure remained unmoving. The silence awaited like a snake, coiled and ready to lunge at the slightest sound. After a short eternity, I finally gave in.

“I won’t forgive you. I’ll never forget what you did to him.” I narrowed my eyes at her. Iceblink didn’t move, and I snarled at her, my face twisting with rage. “You’ll pay for my brother’s death with your own.”

Iceblink just smiled at me, her expression almost soft. Almost affectionate - but it was like the curved shape of her mouth had been painted on a porcelain doll. I smoothed my face to neutrality, returning to a blank stare, but it didn’t stop the chill down my spine and the fiery rage simmering in my stomach. Even if I had nothing left to lose, I’d never let go of the memory of what she’d done to Sunstone. Not as long as I was alive.

I can’t save him...
I couldn’t save him.
But I can give him what he deserves. I can give you what you deserve.

Iceblink finally shifted, leaning closer. Her night-black shadow loomed over me, and my heart began to race against my will. She curled her talons around my snout with one quick motion, forcefully bringing my startled gaze to hers, drawing blood where her talons dug into my scales. The sudden movement had torn at the slashes on my back, and they began to throb. I could feel my blood trickling down my face, small droplets staining my talons as they fell to the floor, bringing color to the gray stone.

Don’t touch me.

I tried not to react, gritting my teeth and glaring into her eyes. A small frown replaced her painted smile, but it still felt fake. I still couldn’t tell what she was feeling, and it scared me. “That’s no way to talk to the dragon that saved you.” Iceblink’s voice was calm, but the words were frosty cold. “Of course you don’t understand now. You’re still nothing. Still nobody. But I’m giving you a chance to be more than just another useless life staining Pyrrhia’s soil. Your time here, in the Compound, will be for nothing unless you get up and do as I say.”

“I’ll never-”

“From this moment on, you are my trainee. You will climb the ranks with your peers, and when you graduate, you will ascend to something greater as dragonets of the Rift. You won’t make a difference alone, but with my guidance, you’ll at least be more than a simple space on a chessboard to be filled. You’ll be a pawn, and maybe more if you’re lucky. Mistakes will not be tolerated. Failures; even less. I’m gracious enough to give you this life; to see any kind of potential in your weak body. You will take what I give you and do as I say, or you’ll return to the Rift’s soil like the dirt you really are.” Iceblink’s faint smile had returned, but this time, it was stretched thin like a branch stripped of its leaves.

“You’ll still pay for what you did. I won’t be your plaything,” I vowed.

I still felt impossibly small under her gaze.

. . .

When Iceblink returned the next day, opening the cell door with an ominous scrape, I was instantly awake, but still exhausted. I’d spent the whole night obsessing over every little thing I could remember about Sunstone - but the details were already fading. Did his eyes sparkle when he laughed? Hadn’t that extra ruby scale been on his right ear, or had it been the left? I couldn’t remember.

But we had the same eyes.

There was a small pool of water in the corner, and whenever I looked to see my reflection, I felt like folding in on myself and disappearing forever. Those weren’t my amber irises anymore. They were just a reminder of how I’d failed to keep my promise. Sunstone should have been the one alive, not me.

Iceblink had taken it all away.

Every little moment we’d shared, the few times we’d been able to laugh together or smile at each other or go to sleep happy, that was all sand in the wind now. It all meant nothing without Sunstone beside me. I’d devoted my entire life to making his just a fraction better. What was I supposed to do without him? Who was I when he was gone? I was beginning to think life itself was nothing without Sunstone. But that was weak, and I wouldn’t give up. Wouldn’t that mean that Iceblink would win? That was the one thing I wouldn’t allow. I would be the one with the last laugh, not her.

Not that backstabbing monster.

Iceblink watched me from the cell door for a long moment before stepping in. As soon as she was in range, I lunged at her, blasting fire towards her face. I clawed at her neck, but a cold tail whipped across my snout and I roared, flinching back. Iceblink remained unscathed. Before I could pick myself up, she threw me into the side of the cell, and my back slammed against the wall. Pain clouded my vision with sparks of white as the gashes on my back began to seep blood. I didn’t understand how she wasn’t injured. I didn’t know where that invisible wall of strength was coming from.

“I was going to introduce you to the rest of the Compound today,” Iceblink said from the shadows, voice like silk, “but I don’t think you’ve acclimated to your surroundings adequately. Would you prefer to remain here for more conditioning? I have no use for pawns that switch their colors.”

“YOU CAN’T MAKE ME DO ANYTHING!” I roared, curling into a ball. “YOU KILLED SUNSTONE! I’LL KILL YOU!”

A chuckle wormed its way out between Iceblink’s lips, and the sound reminded me of broken bells. “You think that because you can barely hunt; that because you can just manage to chase down a deer and slit its throat, that you have any chance of beating a dragon decades older than you? For moons’ sakes, dear. You’re just a dragonet.” Iceblink finally let go of my snout, and the scales on my face stung. I could feel hot liquid filling the lines between my scales, filling my nostrils and staining my tongue. “Look at yourself. You’re choking on the blood that keeps you alive. You’re full of imperfections and emotions that get in the way, but I’ll sculpt your body into something stronger. I’ll carve those thoughts right out of your head. I’ll make you into something better; into something that matters, so just do as I say.”

“I won’t,” I coughed, spitting blood. “You can’t make me. I’ve got nothing left to lose.”

Iceblink backed away until she was only an outline in the cell’s doorway. “Oh, Citrine. Even after all those years fighting alone in the Rift, you have much to learn. There is always more to lose.”

The door slammed behind her, trapping me in the darkness.

. . .

The gashes on my back hadn’t healed. Instead, each day, they only hurt more and more. The pain had gone from slow and throbbing to whips of lightning that spread from my back to the tips of my talons every second. I was too weak to stand.

But I couldn’t let Iceblink turn me into the dragon she wanted me to be. I couldn’t let her change me if I was going to avenge my brother. It would be what he wanted, right? It’d make him feel better, knowing that his murderer had gotten an eye for an eye. If Sunstone was out there beyond this life somewhere, he’d want me to do it, right? He wouldn’t want me to be broken by her.

I’d lost track of the days that had passed. I vowed to end this suffering one way or another. I’d be patient if I had to - at least I knew, one day, I would see Iceblink’s death. I let the fact be an anchor, tying me to the ground and keeping me afloat, but I still felt like I was drowning. I’d see the end of this, and I’d survive the Compound, and once it was all said and done, maybe I’d just drop off the face of the planet myself.

I won’t let you change me.
I won’t let you break me.

But I was only Citrine. I was just my weak, worthless, promise-breaking self, and Iceblink was right. I was nobody, and I couldn’t win.

I couldn’t win, but I would get what I needed anyway.

Chapter Text

~Sunstone~

Five years later...

And a new day begins!

I breathed deeply, sitting up on a pile of furs and staring up at the stone ceiling. After a few empty-headed blinks, I leapt up and began to make my way towards the balcony. Striding through the gauzy sheer curtains and the glass double doors, I breathed in the swift wind as it played over my face. I savored the cool rock beneath my talons as I set them upon the railing, and I looked up.

The sun had just barely made it over the easternmost peak of the Compound, and the ever-present clouds had finally traveled elsewhere. The ice pond far below seemed to almost glow pale blue and gold in the morning light, and my condensed breath sparkled in the crisp air. I realized that the lake was finally thawing - wonderful! Spring was coming around at last. The latest winter had been the longest and coldest in a while, but the weather was finally warming up.

I wonder what I’ll do today.

Reading sounded appealing. Iceblink had recently gotten several new scrolls for me, and they were sitting in a leather bag by the library door. I couldn’t wait to get into them, especially since they were my favorite genre.

The fictional stories of heroes, danger, and happy endings always intrigued me the most. It was a fact that Iceblink occasionally teased me about, since she was always trying to nudge me to read more about politics, real dragons, and the real Pyrrhia we lived in, since I was supposed to be the Leader one day, according to her. But I’d decided that even an Heir to the Compound should be able to have fun, scrolls included or not.

I would have started looking for a story, but the sudden noise of footsteps sounded up ahead of me, throwing me from my search. I looked up from the pile to see Iceblink’s figure coming through the cypress door. She cast a warm smile towards me as she rested the familiar and aromatic wicker basket on the smooth granite table in the center of the room.

I blinked at the table. “When did this get here?” The table hadn’t been there before - was it an upgrade? The one I’d had last was a plain wooden one, made from mahogany or something equally expensive.

Iceblink grinned, patting my head and dishing out breakfast. “Since you’re so studious, I figured I’d carve a table for your use, and for our meals too!” She set down a silver platter of sweet-smelling sliced strawberries in front of me and began to pour golden honey over them.

“Thank you so much! For the new table. And for the food too.” I said as I began to dig in, savoring the juicy sweetness slowly before swallowing. “Maybe I should make you something in return!”

After seeing Iceblink carve - it was a favorite hobby of hers - I’d wanted desperately to learn her passion. For the past few years, I had dedicated a small amount of time every day to carving. Most of the time, Iceblink would be there, watching and teaching me new skills. I hoped that one day I’d be as good as her. Iceblink’s creations were amazing.

I listened to Iceblink chewing her own meal for a long moment before she spoke. “Oh, darling. You know you don’t have to. Besides, my second-in-command Flurry has important lessons for you today. I really think you should spend more time under his instruction.”

I hid my wince. No matter how much Iceblink tried to glorify Flurry’s presence, I’d never be able to like him. Everything he tried to teach was boring and dry, and when he wasn’t teaching, he was always droning on about the end of the IceWings, tyrannical NightWings, and Pyrrhia’s downfall. “No, thanks,” I said. “I think I do perfectly fine without extra time.”

“Flurry’s been telling me that you’ve been falling behind in his math classes, though,” Iceblink insisted. “As well as history.”

That old pile of bones. Why’d he have to give my grades to Iceblink? All I wanted was to look good in her eyes - and to actually have some free time. “Oh, I’ll pick it up soon,” I promised. “I’m just going through a tough spot right now.” I was pretty sure I was always going through a tough spot with math and history, but who said Iceblink needed to know that?

“Well, alright, little master,” Iceblink joked. “There’s no time to waste while the sun is up. You should get to class.”

I hugged her before disappearing out the door. Spotting Pineapple dusting the rugs at the end of the hallway, I waited until the cypress door had fully closed before lifting a wing in greeting. She glanced up and smiled, a faint rose color blooming along her neck and tail as her scales shifted color.

Iceblink had been right all those years ago - Pineapple, my maid, did have a delicate personality. Her brows were always furrowed, and even the slightest things could scare her. Even Iceblink herself seemed to terrify Pineapple, and I could never figure out why. She always shut down when it came to the IceWing.

But even so, we’d become close friends after I’d approached her one morning after breakfast. It had only been to tell her how good the food was, even though she hadn’t cooked it, but Pineapple had smiled and that had been the end of it. We’d been pretty much inseparable ever since, when we could get away with it.

It was such a shame that the whole thing was kept a secret from Iceblink, though. I never did find out why, but Pineapple always insisted that I never tell Iceblink about our friendship. She’d had a hard time convincing me, but eventually I’d relented, even though I couldn’t understand how Iceblink would be mad if I made a friend.

It didn’t really matter, though. I’d see her again during lunch, which I always had alone. Maybe Pineapple would even stay to talk, although she might be busy with whatever chores Iceblink gave her.

I turned away and walked in the opposite direction of Pineapple, heading towards Flurry’s rooms. First, I had to get lessons out of the way.

. . .

I opened the door, mood plummeting as Flurry’s frowning expression filled the entryway. His frown deepened into a scowl. “I trust that you’ve been working on your math project,” Flurry said disdainfully. Another reason why I hated his teaching - he always gave me work, but he always acted like it was pointless and boring and would never do anything for me, although he wouldn’t dare speak it.

If he hated the curriculum so much, why wouldn’t he just quit teaching me? I was sure we’d have a lot more fun if we weren’t spending time on maths and history and whatever else he gave me on any given day. But maybe he just hated me, and all the work was just so that he could revel in my pain.

The truth was that I had not been working on my project. But why would I tell him that? He didn’t have to know, and I could always wing whatever questions he asked. I glared at Flurry’s back as I followed him diligently.

His scales were completely unblemished until you saw his claws. Flurry’s talons on all four arms and legs had been worn away somehow to the point that they were nearly nonexistent, and several of his teeth were gone. Missing. I’d never learned what had happened, and they looked too ugly and gross for me to work up the courage to ask Flurry.

Flurry’s scales were plain and white, but his wings, spines, and horns were tinged with the slightest shade of cyan and periwinkle. His eyes were a violet-blue a few shades paler than Iceblink’s, and a million times more distant, as if he was watching something else, far away, and never really in the moment with anyone else.

I put on my most genuinely fake smile, showing nearly all my teeth as I walked with him, heading through the Firn dormitory and then towards his sunlit study.

Flurry held the door open for me. “Come in. Wipe that jovial grin off your face while you’re at it too, won’t you? This is a serious learning environment.” My grin immediately collapsed into the deepest pout imaginable, and the IceWing’s frown dipped further, almost breaching the limits of what was possible for a dragon’s facial muscles. It brought a spark of joy to my morning.

Moving my face back to neutrality before he could say anything, I stood with my back to him. “How has your morning been, Flurry?”

He narrowed his eyes at me. “Mediocre, if I do say so myself. But I suppose our dear Leader Iceblink would rather I tell you that it was something wonderful.”

Another thing I hated about Flurry. He always seemed to have this undercurrent of hate towards Iceblink, especially when she wasn’t looking. I couldn’t understand it. Iceblink had to be one of the kindest dragons in the world - Flurry was probably just jealous, or wanted her position. Too bad I was the Heir.

“Iceblink wouldn’t want you to say anything if that wasn’t how you felt,” I said loyally. “What do you have against her?!”

“Absolutely nothing,” the IceWing said, studying the ceiling. “Now, sit down. Today we’ll be doing something quite different - study of literature. You like scrolls, don’t you? Of course you do; you trust anything that isn’t numbers.”

I sat down at the single desk in the middle of the room - Flurry’s chambers had been split in half. One had been transformed into a miniature classroom, piled high with scrolls and maps of Pyrrhia and slates to write on. The other half was a smallish living space with a bed and chest of drawers. The room was still large enough to house multiple dragons, but nowhere near as large as my own. I almost felt sorry for him. He had to give up half of his personal space for a job he never wanted, and I proved that point every day.

I guess it was my own special revenge, after all, for all the pointless work he gave me.

“I asked you a question,” Flurry monotoned. “A question requires an answer.”

“You already answered it yourself. Also, not if it’s rhetorical.”

Flurry exhaled through his nose before slapping a scroll down on the desk. “The novel you’ll be reading for the next few weeks. Title: Inferno: Kairos Rising. Iceblink tells me you might actually enjoy it. Now, I want you to read the first five chapters and characterize our protagonist. Analyze him down to the bones; to the very words of his existence. What is his personality? What are his motivations? What makes him that way? These questions are oddly not rhetorical, so I do happen to require a well-thought-out answer, Heir.”

I sighed and dragged the scroll towards me.

Chapter Text

~Citrine~

The assembly hall was a vast, empty cavern on the lowest level of the Compound that was directly open to the ice lake. Torches flickered as they attempted to light up the area, and even though the ceiling was so high it melted into the mountain’s shadow, I was still burdened with the phantom feeling of a thousand boulders crushing down on my shoulders.

Directly in front of the ice lake, an outcropping of dark stone provided a makeshift stage for the regal IceWing dragoness perched atop. Her name was Aurora, and pale blues and purples hinted at her wings and spines. Her eyes were the only thing that didn’t reflect her name, and they were a dark and shadowed shade of indigo, always distant and never very sharp. She was also extremely old, possibly the most ancient dragon in the entire Rift.

She would have been nearly staggeringly gorgeous if it had not been for her scars. Her snout was wrapped in them, the pale slivers of raised pink flesh like chains. From there, they stretched down her neck and over her back, roping into the inside edges of her wings. It was a wonder she could still fly, and when she did, which wasn’t very often, she often lagged behind the rest of the dragons flying with her.

Many of the trainees quipped about how’d she die from tripping over her own tail one day from being so ridiculously old, but no dragon would ever dare to make fun of her to her face. Under the shrunken scales and wrinkled skin, there was a shocking amount of strength and stamina. She was slow, but she was still strong enough to beat almost every trainee into a pulp.

Aurora was also the Trainee Overseer, holding one of the most prestigious positions in the Compound. She was the only dragon other than her brother, the second-in-command Flurry, that had a say in Leader Iceblink’s decisions. Even the Graduate Overseer, North, had less power than her, and he was in charge of every dragon that had finally ascended beyond a trainee position and obtained an assignment. Despite her age, the trainees that had been around the longest had seen her in action, and she was not a dragon to be trifled with. Yet out of the four, she was the kindest, and her warm disposition somehow meshed seamlessly with the dangerous role she took part in.

In five years, this was the third time I had seen Aurora in an assembly like this. The next time would be the last, and I was already counting down the days until that day. I’d been counting down the days since I’d become a trainee. I was ten now, and hopefully I’d be done with this place by twelve.

I sat near the front of forty or so other congregated dragons, near the podium. My barbed tail flicked in the direction of the thawing lake, and my gaze swept over the mass of wings and tails. They came from all sorts of tribes and backgrounds, and all had different abilities, but all of them were trainees within the Compound’s ranks.

Most of the dragons were years younger than me, but we were all equally solemn. The only ones who appeared confused were the littlest, from Aufeis, but they’d learn soon enough.

Whatever confusion there was began to dissipate as the Trainee Master began to call names off of a list. “Flicker! You’ve been promoted to Sastrugi. Collect your schedule.” A tiny orange SkyWing scrambled for the podium and rushed away. “Willow! Your rank is constant. Collect your schedule.” The MudWing grabbed the small scroll and scrambled after the SkyWing.

There were three ranks, and each one was another step towards graduation and obtaining an assignment. Aufeis was for the littlest dragonets that had just been recruited, where the Compound’s rules and basic combat was taught to every trainee. Sastrugi was where trainee life got intense, and curriculum became focused on physical exams and rigorous training. It was where you learned to kill, and where you cut out your weaknesses and buried them. Cornice was the highest rank a trainee could have before graduating, and every class was advanced enough that the stragglers would quickly be sorted into the bottom of the pack. Every eye was watching you, and Leader Iceblink’s inspection was especially thorough.

A dragon’s rank was based on their skill, and if they didn’t work hard enough at improving, didn’t pay attention in class, or never did extra time in the training room, then they either stayed in their current rank or fell a rank. It all depended on a dragon’s score at the end of those two-and-a-half years. Even the assignments dragons earned when they graduated were based on their class rank in Cornice, with higher-ranked students getting more preferable positions than those that didn’t work hard.

The longer you spent in the lower ranks and levels, the harder it got to reach the top. The teachers would treat you harsher and Training Overseer Caribou would beat you harder. Sometimes the failures would give up and try to fly away, and in the end either the patrols and scouts or the Obsidian Cliff or the brutal cold of the northern Ice Kingdom would later claim their lives. Or other times, if you stayed long enough and failed even longer, you were deemed a useless amalgamation of meat or a waste of space and executed publicly, where everyone could learn a lesson from your shame. It had happened before, multiple times, and it would undoubtedly happen again.

You could get killed for a lot of things in the Compound.

Aurora yelled my own name out into the crowd, and I moved from my perch towards the podium. The dragons I passed ignored me, too absorbed in their own scores and schedules to pay attention. I was one of the best-performing dragons in my class, but they didn’t pay me much mind. I stayed out of the vague social hierarchy in place, and it was enough to make them overlook me. I stayed quiet, and I stayed invisible.

I nearly didn’t exist in this place, and that was okay.

I walked up to Aurora, her eyes darkening a bit as she turned to face me. I kept my face unreadable, waiting. She smiled, handing me a thin scroll and whispering, “Welcome to Cornice.”

I took the scroll and turned away, squashing the betraying hint of pride in my chest and flying out across the thawing ice lake towards the dorms on the other side.

This isn’t an accomplishment.
I won’t be who she wants me to be.

From a single glance at my schedule, I could already see that there wouldn’t be any time available to escape the routine of the Compound until after dark. After curfew. Even if it wasn’t allowed, I could always sneak around the night watch. Enough daring trainees had tried to get past and failed enough that I was sure of where every single guard was posted in the night.

I entered Aufeis’s common rooms, unseen by the newest trainees milling around the couches like they had no idea what to do. They were only dragonets - scrawny and brittle from life on the Rift, a few not even older than two. Their eyes darted towards every dark corner, and they stared at each other like they expected their peers to help them out somehow, even though there was nothing they could do. I’d been like them once, lost and broken and scared.

I would not be like that again.

Ever.

There was a spiraling stairwell leading towards the sky at the far wall of Aufeis’s commons. I climbed the towering flights of stairs, passing the Aufeis dorms at ground level quickly and leaping off at Sastrugi, the next level up. There were some things I needed from my dorm.

I strode towards Sastrugi-3, my old room, and opened the door to meet the surprised gaze of a female SandWing. Her ribs jutted from her flanks, like she’d starved herself in an attempt to look like she had any muscle, and her wings were slightly tattered at the edges. She looked about three years younger than me, but her eyes still glittered with the same adult bitterness as most of the trainees.

“Get out! This isn’t your dorm!” she hissed.

“Well, it was,” I said, voice hard, eyeing the way she moved in front of my things. Trying to keep me from them. “Haul your scales out of here. I’m getting my stuff.”

The pale yellow SandWing snarled at me, venomous tail twitching dangerously. She glanced once at the satchel behind her. My satchel behind her. “Like the moons I will. Finders keepers, losers can go eat my tail. You think you can waltz in my room like you own the place? No, you can’t. Get out.”

Every trainee was given one satchel to carry their items around the Compound for classes and recreation. The items included a few thin scrolls for notes, a folder for classwork, and whatever permitted weapons you had chosen. The weapons could range anywhere from a bottle of RainWing or SandWing venom to a crossbow. Aufeis trainees could carry three weapons of their choice, Sastrugi four, and Cornice five. Graduates with assignments from Iceblink that had assumed other positions could carry six, and nobody knew how many the aristocratic Firn residents could carry, or if they carried any at all in their chambers above and across from the other dorms.

I had three different knives and a vial of SandWing poison. The daggers had been the most useful when I’d been in Aufeis, but when I’d graduated to Sastrugi, the first thing I did was grab the small bottle of SandWing poison. I’d never needed to use it, but I liked knowing that it was there, especially since my own tail barb couldn’t provide the substance.

And all of it was in my bag, which the SandWing wasn’t going to let me have anytime soon. At least not without force, clearly - but it was a terrible idea to start a fight on the first day of my promoted rank. I glowered at her and growled, twitching my tail in response. “Maybe this is your room now, but that doesn’t change that that’s still my stuff. I’m here to retrieve it, so don’t make me force you to leave the room.”

I wasn’t stupid enough to start an actual fight with her, especially now - it would attract too much attention, and I didn’t know which dragons she hung out with or if they’d come for me next. But her self-centered disposition was wearing my nerves thin, and all of the built-up tension and nervousness in my body from promotion and final exams under Iceblink’s eye was starting to turn volatile.

She snarled again, even more enraged, and her obsidian eyes flickered with dark rage. “Oh, yeah?! You think you’re all that? You’re nothing, hybrid. Nothing, and you’re probably going to graduate with an assignment so far out in the Rift that our Leader’s going to forget you even exist. Do you know who I am? Jackal’s sister, Hyena. He’s been in Cornice way longer than you, and he’s going to put a little hybrid wimp like you to shame, and so will I! So get out of my room before I hurt you!”

“Jackal’s only still in Cornice because he keeps failing his finals, and that’s not the most attractive outlook for his assignment. For such an advanced trainee’s little sister, you sure don’t know when to shut up, and that’s a woefully underrated skill in this place,” I snapped, my exasperation reaching its peak.

The smaller SandWing’s frill bristled, and she roared, leaping at me and pinning me to the ground behind me. Her claws arced in the corner of my vision, and I barely managed to dodge a slash to the eyes. A sturdy punch to the throat made me cough, and I gasped for breath.

You think I’m just going to lie here and take your crap?
Three moons, you’d better think again.

Red flashed in my vision. Grabbing her shoulders, I dug my talons into her diamond-shaped scales and flipped her into the stone floor of the dorm. She grunted in surprise, snapping at my neck. I saw her tail arch above me out of the corner of my eye, and I deflected it with my bunched-up wings before dodging her teeth, clawing at her face. She lunged at me from below, and I unleashed a blast of flame without thinking. The orange-gold flickers spewed from my mouth towards her wings. A little burn wouldn’t incapacitate her, and I just needed her out of the way.

Hyena lurched away from my talons, and they whistled through empty air. The blast of fire I’d forced out hit her full-on in the face, and her screams echoed through her dorm. The SandWing stumbled back, flames still dancing on her snout and eyes, and she began to claw at her face, desperately trying to roll away. Blood and tears pooled from her head to the ground, and her flesh began to blacken as the flames died.

Oh no. What did I just do?
This wasn’t what I wanted at all.

She screeched, writhing in agony beneath my talons. I stared down at her, watching her clutch her burned face, a little numb from shock. Eventually I steeled myself, trying to prepare for the onslaught of rumors I’d face once I left the room. “I’ll take my stuff back now. Thanks for the cooperation.”

This was a terrible mistake.
What was I thinking? I should’ve just ran when she attacked.

I let go of her shoulders, my talons catching in the ridges of her diamond-shaped scales as I accidentally ripped two of them out of place. She roared and shrieked behind me, barbed tail lashing wildly as I stepped over her towards my satchel.

“I can’t see! I can’t see! It hurts! You’re going to be punished for what you did to me! Jackal is going to tear you apart, and so will Leader Iceblink!” Her roars of frustration echoed in my ears, muffled by her talons still pressed against her face. I stared back, numb, watching her thrash around on the ground. “You broke the rules!”

For the most part, Leader Iceblink’s trainees were free to do what they wanted as long as they were on schedule and respectful to the dragons ranked higher than them. But Iceblink had five rules in place that applied to every trainee and graduate in the Rift - rules that no dragon, no matter how stupid, would ever intentionally break, because doing so meant certain death. They were called the Sacred Five, and breaking them always resulted in a public execution.

One: Lies and deceit will not be tolerated in any way, shape, or form.
Two: Absence from the Compound or Rift for both trainees and graduates is not allowed without Leader Iceblink’s special permission.
Three: Romantic relationships between trainees are forbidden. Partnerships may only be created with Leader Iceblink’s consent after graduation.
Four: The release of confidential information and spreading of propaganda detrimental to the Compound’s cause is not permitted.

And…

Five: Murder, attempted murder, and intent to kill or harm towards any Overseer will be punishable by death.

When the time came, I would only have one chance. That time was coming soon, too. If I failed, everything would be lost. All the years spent working to rise in the ranks while still flying under the radar, all the time spent planning and obsessing and honing my abilities into something I could use against her… It would be for nothing, and Sunstone’s death would never be avenged. But I wouldn’t fail. Iceblink would die, sooner or later, and then I’d leave in peace. I didn’t need recognition or thanks. All I needed was her dead, and then I could finally disappear the way I always wanted to.

Nothing in the rules said anything against the murder or mutilation of a fellow trainee, though. I hadn’t meant for things to get this far, but I knew that no one would punish me. The few dragons that noticed what happened might watch me warily for a few days, but then it would all be forgotten - by them, at least. I just hoped that Iceblink would pay me the same amount of mind.

The only dragon I might have to be careful of would be the Jackal that Hyena spoke of - he sounded familiar. A Cornice trainee who’d ascended several years before now, and definitely more experienced in his ways than I was. Older and stronger, too, but I’d catch up. He couldn’t be that threatening if he’d failed his finals for the past four years.

I would fend him off, and Hyena could rot in the lake.

“I didn’t break the rules, and you know it. I’ll get away with this - and you can’t do anything about it. You’ll be lucky if Leader Iceblink decides it’s worth having a blind trainee stick around.” The words were harsh, but my rage was still threatening to spill over, despite my shock.

She curled into a ball, a keening wail escaping from her, and I saw tears spilling over her burned face.

Not quite as strong as she thinks, is she. She’s probably trying so hard, and I’ve just ruined it all for her.
The color of her scales kind of reminds me of Sun-
Don’t think. Don’t feel. Don’t forget.
Stay invisible. I only have one goal.

I grabbed the cloth sack with my scrolls, notes, and weapons inside, slinging it over my shoulder and walking out of the dorm. Slamming the door behind me, I didn’t pause to study the horrified eyes of dragons around me. They must have smelled the burning flesh, or heard the screams from Hyena, but I shut them out. I didn’t care. Couldn’t let myself.

From there, I climbed the stairwell up to Cornice and strode past the common rooms towards the dorms. One side of the hallway was filled with somewhat more fashionably carved doors, where the few graduates that stayed in the Compound lived. The other side of the hall was lined with plain doors like the rest of the ranks, and I began to search for my dorm.

Cornice-5.

I found the neatly labeled door and stepped inside, closing it tightly and locking it. Unlike the SandWing, I didn’t want any surprise visitors. Gazing at the sparsely decorated room, I marveled at how similar it was to my old Aufeis and Sastrugi dorms. Same gray stone, same gray stone table, same cold gray ledge of stone with a gray pelt of fur draped over it for sleeping. The only thing that was different, that indicated that I was any better than Aufeis or Sastrugi-ranking dragons was a rounded hole in the wall that served as a window with a view of the Compound.

It was too small for a dragon to fit through, but large enough to allow for a good amount of ventilation. But that wasn’t something that was needed in the Ice Kingdom. If anything, it would just make the winter nights unbearably cold.

Overall, the dorms of the Compound were devoid of any color that was visibly different from the gray stone around us. Sometimes, it felt calm, like it all blended together. Sometimes it felt cold and bleak, gray like the skies so often were over this place. But it was always the same oppressive color, and I always felt claustrophobic inside the mountain. Even on the shores of the lake, where the sky was open above me, I’d never been able to shake the feeling of imaginary claws around my throat.

But spring was coming, and so was the sun. I was in Cornice now - one step closer to finishing what had been started those five years ago. Maybe I wouldn’t even need to wait until graduation to get this over with. Maybe I’d be able to take down Iceblink by the end of the year, if nothing got in the way. I’d finally make Sunstone happy, because the moons knew I did a terrible job of everything before I’d lost him.

And afterwards...

I studied the thawing lake out the window. It reflected the sky like a mirror, empty and blue, ever changing with the clouds even as the mountain I stood on stayed constant. Maybe I’d fly somewhere, far away, where winter couldn’t touch me and I could finally forget. Or maybe I’d fly north until I couldn’t feel my scales, or just find the tallest cliff in the Rift. Maybe I’d even take a trip to the ocean to see the seafloor. It just couldn’t be the Compound. I couldn’t stay in this place.

I set my satchel on the ground next to the table, and rooted through it for the scrolls I’d last been studying in class. Finding them at last, I yanked them out and put them in a pile on the gray table, painstakingly trying to read through the jumble of letters in front of me, wondering when I could visit the armory for my new permitted weapon.

I’d made mistakes before, but now I couldn’t allow them. What had happened to Hyena today would only draw attention from the Overseers and Iceblink that I didn’t need. After all, classes started tomorrow. Being in Cornice…

There would no longer be any room for error.