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Traitor

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The small glitter of sky above was all that Talon forced his eyes to focus on. Not the numbing cold that was trying to force its way into his very bones. Definitely not the feel of burnt scales and torn flesh against his claws, or the water threatening to choke him if he opened his mouth.

Talon forced his huge orange wings to unfurl with a rush of bubbles, beating them against the icy water to try and drag himself and the dragon clutched in his claws up to freedom. The dragon in his claws threatened to pull him back into the depths with its unconscious weight. He beat his wings harder, forcing them back to the air above.

It was so close now, he could fill his lungs again, if he just made it to the surface. With a last push, he broke the surface of the water, heaving himself and the dragon up. He tumbled away from the cracked, weak ice and lay panting, surrounded by limp corpses. The dragon in his claws was heavy and still.

Talon heaved himself to his feet and swung his head to stare at the unconscious IceWing. He had nearly died for this dragon, whose name he didn’t know. This IceWing who had tried to kill him without a second thought. But when it dropped unconscious after the explosion of a dragonflame cactus, Talon couldn’t let it fall to the freezing water and drown. That one impulsive second where he chose to dive into the freezing water after it could have been his death.

Talon leaned closer to the pale blue dragon. The IceWing wasn’t breathing. Talon inspected it, amber eyes peering at glossy blue ones. He’d never seen a dead dragon up close before. The smell of blood and ice filled his nose. His mouth tasted bitter and metallic.

The rush of wings swooped past him, followed by the crackle of fire. Talon’s gaze turned to the sky, seeing the tail of the red dragon who had swooped past him, then beyond to where red and white and yellow dragons clashed against the clear blue.

Such a pretty day. Too pretty for a fight. For Talon’s first fight.

And the death of so many dragons.

He pressed his talons against the IceWing’s throat. There was no pulse under those cold scales, no life in those blue eyes. This dragon was dead. Talon had been too late. Had the cactus killed the IceWing? Or had it been the fall? Had the IceWing drowned? How much of it had been Talon’s fault? Was it all Talon’s fault?

His head began to hurt, making the sweeping ice plains spin nauseatingly. The smell of blood made Talon’s claws curl. Blue blood stained his talons. What if this dragon had been a SkyWing? Had had a family to protect and fight for? Had this IceWing had a family? A lover? Dragonets? Brothers? Sisters? What was their story?

“Talon!” The claws of another dragon swiped at his ears as it dived past. Talon ducked his head as the red SkyWing made another swoop. “Get up here and keep fighting!”

The red SkyWing turned and wheeled away, sweeping up into the sky once again. Talon forced his water-heavy wings to open. He shook them, splattering the IceWing with cold droplets. Its scales shone like diamonds in the light. Not it. She.

“Talon!” The SkyWing swooped past again. “If you can’t fly, you’re as good as dead. Blaze’s troops are nearly defeated, we can win this! Come on!”

But what was the point of winning? All that they won was less dead dragons, a temporary break from the war, until the next battle. Neither Burn nor Blaze were here at this battle, why were all these dragons fighting as though they could kill one of the SandWing princesses themselves? Queen Scarlet wasn't even here.

Talon gazed over the blue, white, red, orange and yellow corpses, frozen and burnt, half submerged in icy water that surrounded him in all directions. If they did win, could it really be called a victory?

Talon looked up to see SandWings, SkyWings and IceWings still warring back and forth, fire and ice made sweeping arcs through the sky, wings beating the air in uneven strokes. Talon knew how to make sense of the chaos, how to see the patterns and attacks that his battalion was using and to see those the opponents tried to counter with. He’d been trained to see them since he was two. But here, in the midst of battle, it was only chaos.

Talon caught sight of the red SkyWing turning to dive towards him again, and he forced himself into the air. His wings felt heavy, as if he was still pulling the dead IceWing up through the water. Talon didn’t know her name. Didn’t know who she was. Didn’t know anything about her. But she was dead because he hadn’t saved her in time. What if she’d been a SkyWing?

Talon shook his head, trying to clear the confused, traitorous thoughts from his mind. IceWings were enemies. Not dragons he should have been saving in the first place.

“RETREAT!” The command was an alarmed screech from a glistening silver IceWing. SandWings and IceWings fell back, fleeing as fast as their wings could take them. Talon watched them go, saw the blood dripping like red and blue rain off their scales and to the icy ground below.

“We did it!” The red SkyWing circled Talon joyfully, grinning at him. He couldn’t find it in himself to smile back. More joyful cries from the SkyWings filled the air. Talon was sure that everyone found it a sound of hope and triumph.

All he could hear was the howls of pain that the bloodshed had caused.

Chapter Text

It was one of those wonderful, beautiful days where nothing could go wrong.

Far above, beyond the surface of the water, the sky was a beautiful brilliant blue. The ocean was a matching hue of colour and both sea and sky stretched out infinitely in all directions. Nautilus let himself float gently through the shallow reef, small fish darting around his legs and wings.

He was supposed to be hunting, a small favour to Nix after she’d helped him finish the latest report in Current Issues in the SeaWing Territory for Queen Coral. But in a day as beautiful as this, he didn’t want to move. He wanted to float indefinitely here, admiring the beauty still left in Pyrrhia. On days like these, he could almost imagine that there was no war. That there never had been any war.

He knew it wasn’t true, knew it in every bone of his body, but he could almost trick himself into believing it. Nautilus closed his eyes, smiling to himself. For once everything was completely at peace. Until claws tapped his nose and he opened his eyes in surprise, to see a pair of emerald green eyes staring at him.

Nautilus huffed out a surprised flurry of bubbles and lit his scales to talk to his older sister. Can’t you give me even a moment of peace?

Nix smiled, flicking her tail in a way both she and Nautilus often did when amused. Looking at her always made Nautilus feel as though he were looking at his reflection. They had the same seaweed-green scales, marked with spirals of black, the same emerald green eyes, the same sloped snout. If not for Nix’s pale green underscales and wings, the two could be identical.

Nix’s flashing scales bought him back from his thoughts. You’ve been floating there like a clump of dead seaweed for ten minutes!

Ten minutes? Nautilus was surprised. It hadn’t felt like ten minutes. Surely it had only been a few seconds.

Yes, ten minutes. You’ve been almost no help today. Nix complained. You promised you’d help me meet the prey quota today, but you’ve only caught a few fish!

Nautilus shrugged. I’m sorry. I got distracted. It’s beautiful today.

It is. Nix agreed, smiling. Then she glared at Nautilus again. But it’ll be more beautiful if manage to bring in the right amount of prey, you know!

Alright, alright. I’m sorry. I’ll keep hunting now, oh glorious and wise sister. Nautilus mocked, flicking his tail.

Oh shush, we both know you’re the glorious and wise one, Counsellor Nautilus. It was Nix’s turn to huff a flurry of amused bubbles into the water.

Nautilus grinned at his older sister. Do go on.

Shut up. Nix replied, scales going on to flash a message that wasn’t exactly dragonet-friendly.

Ouch. That hurts, Nix. You’ve wounded me. Nautilus pretended to clutch at his chest, as if he were really hurt. How could you say such things to me?

Oh dear. Nix’s face showed pretended amusement. Whatever shall I do now, my only brother is dying.

Because of you! Nautilus declared.

Alright, alright, enough messing around. You aren’t a dragonet anymore. Nix rolled her eyes. We really need to get back to hunting.

I don’t like hunting. Nautilus complained.

But you do like your favourite older sister. Nix replied.

You're my only sister. I don't have a choice in who my favourite is.

It would still be me. You love me.

Do I?

You do. Nix’s scales flashed confidently. Now stop stalling.

Nautilus sighed another flurry of bubbles and flashed his scales in a way that didn’t really carry any particular message, but definitely displayed his lack of enthusiasm.

Come on. Nix coaxed. If we have any spare time you can spend it sleeping like a RainWing if you want. After you catch some fish.

His sister spun and swam off, cutting gracefully through the water. Nautilus watched his sister for a few moments, before opening his wings to speed after her. He had promised to help her, as much as he would rather just watch the sea grass grow. Either way, hunting was better than fighting.

Chapter Text

Avalanche flew back to the Sky Kingdom, wingbeat for wingbeat with her best friend, a deep red SkyWing named Kestrel. Kestrel was grumpier than the normal SkyWing, but was a good, loyal friend and an incredible fighter.

“-and that’s when he struck. He rammed into the IceWing, diving down to the water and holding it under until it drowned! He was so brave.” Avalanche rambled. “He nearly drowned himself!”

“Uh huh.” Kestrel agreed. “So when are you actually going to talk to him?”

The topic of their conversation, as it often seemed to be, was a fellow member of their section, a male SkyWing named Talon. He was a quiet dragon who always seemed lost in his own world, caught up in different ideals and spent a lot of time reading. Whenever she called the image of his sunset-orange scales to mind she recalled them washed with yellow torchlight in the light of their sleeping-cave. The way his amber eyes glittered whenever he spoke. His large wings swamping his body. He was small, even for a SkyWing dragonet.

And whenever she thought about him, or whenever his eyes met hers, she felt as though a warm fire had been lit in her chest. A fire that made her want to roar to the sky, made her want to sweep right up to Queen Scarlet’s throne and claim it for herself. She felt invulnerable just living near him. It had been that way since she’d joined his section two years ago.

A little later than most SkyWing sections, who train as a group from two years old onwards, but she had been moved into the palace at the age of five. Queen Scarlet seemed certain that before long the rivalry the three SandWing princess had openly displayed since the death of their mother would turn into a fully-fledged war, and she was right. The choice to place all newcomer dragonets into a section to learn to fight had been a wise one.

“I have talked him.” Avalanche said, feeling warm although the air was cold.

“Sure you have.” Kestrel rolled her eyes. Her voice went high in a bad imitation of Avalanche’s. “‘If you can’t fly you’re as good as dead!’. I mean really talk to him. You’ve been putting it off for the last two years. What’s your excuse this time?”

“Well, he probably wants to celebrate with his other friends . . .?” Avalanche offered.

“What other friends?” Kestrel asked, chuckling. “That dragon is as aloof as a NightWing.”

“He’s not aloof!” Avalanche protested. “He’s just shy and quiet.”

“Keep telling yourself that, you might just believe it.” Kestrel snorted. “I think you should talk to him.”

“No way.” Avalanche said, flapping her wings to get ahead and away from Kestrel. Kestrel, however, swooped low under another dragon and popped up beside her.

“You’re just going to keep talking and talking about him forever.” Kestrel said. “Why don’t you talk to him and get it over and done with?”

“Oh, so this is all for your own gain, is it?” Avalanche asked. “Get your friend to talk to their crush so that she stops annoying you? No want to actually help me, your bestest friend?”

“Bestest isn’t a word.” Kestrel scoffed.

“You didn’t deny it.” Avalanche pouted.

“Just go talk to him. I’m sure that once we’re old enough to be put into the breeding program, you can get him to put your name down. But only if he actually knows you exist.” Kestrel said.

“He knows I exist!” Avalanche protested.

“Does he?” Kestrel asked.

“I’ll talk to him, okay? Now shut up.” Her eyes drifted away from Kestrel and out into the crowd of SkyWings flying back to their castle.

Her gaze fell on Talon, flying ahead and to the left, behind a group of SkyWings who had captured an unconscious IceWing to take back as a prisoner. She wasn’t sure why the small SkyWing always stood out to her. Maybe it was his flight pattern, a little different from the even beats of the other SkyWings, as if he was only just remembering to fly. Maybe it was his sunset orange scales, standing out against the more common reds and maroons of the SkyWings. Maybe it was just her crush, so she just happened to notice him.

“He looks sad.” She realised. And Talon did. His claws were still stained blue from his kill, but his head drooped and his wingbeats were, for once, in time with all the other SkyWings, as if now all he could focus on was the steady beat of his wings.

“Who?” Kestrel asked, gazing in the general direction. “Oh, Talon.”

“Yeah.” Avalanche said.

“Go and cheer him up.” Kestrel said.

Avalanche scowled. “No! . . . I’ll talk to him during the celebration. Everyone will congratulate him on his kill then, right? So it won’t be too weird.”

“I don’t think anyone will ever realise he killed anyone in the first place.” Kestrel muttered. “But yes. Go talk to him. Just stop annoying me.”

Avalanche looked back at where Talon had been flying, but she could no longer see him. She resigned herself. Tonight, for the first time in two years she would properly talk to Talon.

Chapter Text

Talon’s section had suffered two losses. That left eight dragons in their dormitory. But despite their loss, there was only cheering and celebration between the dragons. Someone had snuck some extra prey in. Someone else had managed to obtain a bitter tasting drink made from cactus juice.

But Talon couldn’t bring himself to enjoy the celebrations. He kept staring at the empty bunks, wondering which dragons it had been who had died and questioning how he hadn’t learnt or remembered their names in the five years he’d been training with them. He couldn’t even name the seven other dragons in his section. How had that happened?

He didn’t have a bad memory. He just . . . mustn’t have given it any thought. After all, they weren’t his friends.

“Hey.” It was the red SkyWing from before. Talon hadn’t even realised she was from his section. Although now that he was up close, Talon recognised her ruby red scales, delicate horns and tall stature, yet still no name came to mind.

“Hey.” Talon couldn’t find it in him to even feign excitement.

“What’s wrong? We just won our first ever battle.” The red SkyWing flicked her long tail. “You should come celebrate with us.”

“Don’t really feel like it.” Talon shrugged.

“Why not?” The SkyWing asked, concern in her eyes. “Are you hurt from where you crashed into the water? I heard that it can be even more painful than landing on rock! You were really brave, killing an IceWing that was nearly double your size.”

“I’m not hurt. And I’m not brave.” Talon sighed, dropping his head to his claws.

“I would never have had the guts to do that!” The SkyWing protested, raising her claws to the sky to show she really meant it.

“She was already injured.” Talon said. “She was already falling. Her throat had been cut open. I didn’t make it in time.”

“Make it in time?” The SkyWing asked. “That makes it sound like you were trying to save it?”

Talon stayed silent.

“You . . . were trying to save it?” She realised, looking shocked. Her orange eyes widened and she unfurled her large wings, then rolled them back up nervously. “You’re a traitor?”

“No, no!” Talon sat up, equally alarmed. “I’m not a traitor.”

“But you tried to save an enemy.” The SkyWing said.

“What if she’d been a SkyWing?” Talon asked in a hushed tone, glancing around to make sure no one would overhear them. “Would you have been shocked I’d tried to save her? Who’s to say that that IceWing didn’t have a family? Dragons who loved her and cared for her? Who says she didn’t believe that Blaze would be a good leader? Who’s to say that Burn would be a better leader than Blaze?”

His voice had started to rise as he spoke. The red SkyWing pressed her claws to his snout.

“Lower your voice!” She hissed. “You could be killed for even thinking those things, let alone saying them! If anyone overheard-”

“But it’s true.” Talon said, grabbing her foreleg to lower it from his snout. “Right? You aren’t disagreeing?”

“Of course I’m disagreeing!” The SkyWing yelped. “Burn is a good queen – the best queen for the SandWings. If Queen Scarlet thinks we should support her she must be the right choice!”

“You didn’t feel it.” Talon said suddenly, shivering at the memory. “The blood bubbling over your claws. The body going limp and still. Lifeless eyes turned towards the sky, the endless war and bloodshed above. It was disgusting.”

“Talon, be more careful! You can’t say this!” The red SkyWing continued to protest.

“Queen Scarlet must know that war ends in bloodshed.” Talon said, leaping out of his bunk and pacing back and forth. “She must know that this is only killing dragons. Burn and Blaze weren’t even there at that battle. Queen Scarlet wasn’t even at that battle.”

“She’s doing what she believes is best-”

Talon felt like his mind was going a hundred miles an hour. Everything was clicking into its horrible place. And it was then he realised it. “She’s doing it only for herself! She loves the bloodshed! All the dragons fighting in the arena. This is just boosting that! Of course it is! This isn’t about the good of our tribe at all!”

“Talon!” The red SkyWing yelped again. “Stop! These things you’re saying, they . . . they scare me.”

“Because they’re true?” Talon challenged. Surely he wasn’t the only one who could see it! Surely the others could see it to. The SkyWing didn’t answer. Her long claws tapped on the stone floor as she thought. Talon was silent, letting her consider what he was saying.

When she met his eyes again, she shook her head. “You can’t really believe that.”

“Why not?” Talon asked.

“You’ll be found out. Queen Scarlet will kill you, Talon.” The red SkyWing warned, but Talon noticed it wasn’t a defence of their queen, just a reminder that he could and most likely would be punished for saying what he was saying. “I’m trying to look out for you, as a member of your section. And . . . just please listen to me.”

“I- I just can’t believe that Burn is really the right choice. If she were then wouldn’t every dragon agree?” Talon muttered. “But I can’t figure out what to do about it. I could talk to the queen, but she’d kill me. I can’t do anything. This is so stupid!”

Talon!” The red SkyWing leapt in front of him, spreading her wings to stop his pacing. “Stop this! You could be killed as a traitor.”

“We could be killed in battle at any second!” Talon shot back.

The red SkyWing sighed. “Let’s not think about that tonight. Let’s just celebrate that we aren’t dead.”

Talon gazed over at the other dragons. A SkyWing was hanging upside down from one of their cave’s stalactites while the five others crowded around her, laughing and cheering.

“Two of us are.” He murmured.

“But not me. And not you.” The SkyWing murmured. “Can’t we be grateful for that?”

Talon slumped his shoulders, sitting down. “It just feels wrong to me.”

“I know. I know battle isn’t easy, not for any dragon and especially not for someone as kind as you.” She sat next to him, twining his tail with hers. “But let’s be grateful for what we have now. You and me and the rest of us are still alive. You could claim that IceWing was your kill and rise to a higher station in the war!”

He hesitated. This wasn’t right. He couldn’t say yes to that. It was wrong. It stood against what he figured had to be right. But he couldn’t disobey his queen. No one ever got away with defying Queen Scarlet. So Talon nodded. “You’re right.”

The red SkyWing rested her head on his shoulder. “It may not be perfect, but there’s still good in the world, Talon. After all, there’s you.”

Talon suddenly felt uncomfortable tingles under his scales. He didn’t even know this dragon’s name! And she . . . was she . . . did she like him? Suddenly it all seemed so obvious. She had swooped down on the battlefield to make sure he didn’t forget to fly, to make sure he didn’t end up dead. She had come over to talk to him. She hadn’t threatened to turn him in herself. Because she loved him?

Talon felt sick that he hadn’t realised earlier. Was he really so oblivious? He couldn’t lead her on. That would just hurt her more, right? That was always how it went in the love stories he’d read or heard in the Wingery as a dragonet.

“Um.” Talon cleared his throat, voice suddenly small and choked. “Who- I mean- I don’t- I’ve forgotten right now, I’m sorry, but- I can’t recall your- what’s your name?”

“What?” The SkyWing stood up, expression worried and nervous and hurt all at the same time. “Avalanche. Didn’t . . . didn’t you know?”

Talon shook his head, “I’m sorry- I’m really oblivious. I didn’t- I swear I don’t know anyone’s name at all! Not just you! You’re not special- I mean, no! That’s not it!”

Three moons, he was making this so much worse. He must look like an idiot. An insensitive idiot.

Avalanche was taking small nervous steps backwards.

“I’m sorry.” He mumbled.

“I didn’t realise you didn’t know . . .” She said. “I- uh, I’m going to go talk to Kestrel.”

She whirled around and darted back to the crowd of dragons. Talon stared after her. When did everything become so complicated? Why was everything so complicated? What in Pyrrhia was he going to do? What could he do?

Chapter Text

“Your majesty.” Nautilus landed on the platform as neatly as he could, but he felt as though his claws were slipping out of place on the wet, smooth stone floor. “I apologise for being late.”

He bowed low, feeling the eyes of his fellow council members on him. The council table was already covered in trays of food, the rest of the council members in their pools.

“You are forgiven, Nautilus.” Queen Coral said. “But do try harder not to be late.”

“Yes, of course, your majesty.” Nautilus said, standing and making his way to his pool. Publishing. He slipped into the pool and felt the gazes of the other dragons leave him finally.

The Spies and Secrets dragon, Cuttlefish, tilted her head towards him. “Why were you late?”

Nautilus couldn’t help but be surprised she was there, there was something in her scales that was just utterly forgettable to Nautilus. Perhaps it was on purpose, after all, being forgettable was surely a desired trait for the Councillor of Spies and Secrets. Cuttlefish was a nondescript grey-blue with pale under scales and dark intelligent eyes. Her voice was soft and had a low, hypnotising hum to it. She appeared plain and unassuming, but she was smart. Scarily so. There was never any point keeping a secret from her, she would find out.

Spies and secrets, Nautilus thought the job must have been designed just for her.

“I was out hunting.” Nautilus admitted.

“The publisher, out hunting?” Cuttlefish mused, glancing at Queen Coral to check if Coral was waiting for the meeting to start, but the queen was busy talking to her husband, King Gill.

“A favour to my sister. I finished my report early and thought I should spend some time with her.” Nautilus said easily. It was best not to make a big deal out of it and wait for the entire thing to wash away like talonprints in a tide.

“Ah, yes, Nix. The family disappointment.” Cuttlefish agreed, although there was no real venom in her tone. “How is she?”

Nautilus felt like imaginary claws were digging into his skin. His family was distantly related to Queen Coral, a factor which had let him become a council member with that much more ease. It was always his mother’s ambitions that they would both become council members and end up marrying into the royal family. Nautilus had seen no problem with that plan. As long as he wasn’t a councillor of war, as long as he never had to fight himself, then he was willing to plod along and do what he was told.

Nix however, had not so willing. She had met a royal blue servant called Tang and fallen in love. The two were beautiful together, Nautilus thought. And Nix was so happy around her. He’d kept their secret for as long as Nix had wanted and pushed her to talk to her crush at any opportunity. But then their parents had found out.

It was a family scandal, a shameful thing to mention or even hint at. Imagine, a future councillor in love with a low-classed servant. Nix had been instantly demoted from assistant councillor of agriculture to a hunter. Nautilus was still unsure as to what had happened to the SeaWing his sister had loved, but he knew it could be nothing good. He realised Cuttlefish was still waiting for an answer.

He evened his voice. “Nix is going well.”

Before Cuttlefish could interrogate Nautilus any further, Coral cleared her throat. “The council meeting will now commence. Posidonia, report.”

The pale lilac dragon sitting in the pool for dragonet care started and said, “Your eggs are still looking healthy, your majesty. They will hatch within the week, we think.”

“My daughter?” Coral asked.

“Yes, your majesty, safe in the Royal Hatchery, currently being cared for by Sunfish.” Posidonia said. “Your three sons are also equally safe in the Hatchery.”

“That is excellent news.” Coral declared. “Gill, we’ll have a daughter within the week!”

“And three sons.” Gill agreed contentedly.

“Lagoon, report.” Coral said. The plump turquoise SeaWing looked up with big green eyes. It was her second council meeting, the dragonet was only seven years old. “Your majesty, I’m sorry to report that the eastern field recently had to chase off some manatees that were attempting to eat the sea grass we had growing there. We have stationed lookouts to make sure they do not come back and, if they do, that they will be hunted.”

Gill gave Lagoon a small smile and nod. Lagoon seemed to swell up under the silent praise. The council meeting went on in a similar fashion until it was Nautilus’ turn.

“Nautilus report.” Coral said. She had started eating, the invitation for the other council members to join her feasting.

“Copies of Sea Life: A Basic SeaWing Survival Guide have been distributed to all the schools in SeaWing territory, your majesty." Nautilus reported. "A team of several dragons are re-inking copies of The Royal Linage of the SeaWings, from the Scorching to the Present.”

Re-inking was most of Nautilus’ job, truthfully. While there was ink that lasted several years underwater, SeaWings had yet to invent a type of ink that could last for longer periods of time.

“A three year old dragonet known as Whirlpool, in particular, seems talented in re-inking. Always following me around and asking if he can be of assistance.” Nautilus finished. “If he is still interested in publishing when he turns four then, with your permission, I will inquire if he is interested in becoming my assistant.”

Coral nodded idly. “Cuttlefish, report.”

“Your majesty, this morning there was a battle between Queen Scarlet’s SkyWings and Queen Glacier’s IceWings.” Cuttlefish said. With only a few words, everyone’s attention was on her. Including Nautilus. Just this morning? While he had been relaxing and feeling as though nothing were wrong in the world?

“Where and what happened?” Coral asked.

“In IceWing territory on their ice plains, where it freezes during autumn and winter.” Cuttlefish said. That was a day and night’s flight away at least, how could Cuttlefish have that information? “The SkyWings won. There are no planned attacks from either tribe currently. That is all, your majesty.”

“Cuttlefish.” Tempest, the war council interrupted, “How close was the victory? If the SkyWings get too strong they may win the war.”

“I suggest an attempt at a peaceful negotiation.” Gill added.

“It was close. The IceWings were very close to winning. The SkyWings would have lost if the newest trained dragons hadn’t started fighting alongside with them.” Cuttlefish said.

“Even more SkyWings joining their army?” Nautilus blurted out before he could stop himself. “How many dragons, do you know?”

“I would think that the numbers rose by approximately a hundred. That makes it around two thousand, five hundred dragons fighting for them in total.” Cuttlefish answered, looking at Nautilus in an almost confused way.

“Two thousand five hundred?” Lagoon murmured. “That’s a nearly more dragons than the SeaWings have in our entire tribe.”

“Although our dragons are undoubtedly better trained.” Tempest declared, clearly trying to ease the nerves that had settled over the table.

“We can’t let them attack us. We have to be prepared.” The council of defence and the Queen’s brother, Shark, spoke up.

“We aren’t allied to any tribe as of yet.” King Gill said. “Although Princess Blister will undoubtedly want to know our stance and if we intend to formally ally ourselves with her after this.”

Queen Coral cleared her throat, “Well it seems that it shall not affect us SeaWings, so there is no need for us to worry!”

But Nautilus was worried. If the SkyWings had fought on the ice plains of the IceWing’s territory then it meant that the SkyWings were getting stronger. The idea did not sit well with Nautilus.

Chapter Text

The sky was pretty that night. Swirls of galaxies far above Avalanche’s head. On any other night she’d be aching to soar up among those stars, just to fly, but tonight she hardly had room in her mind even think of flying. She had known that Talon hadn’t paid her as much attention as she paid him. She had been prepared for him to reject her.

But she hadn’t been prepared for the fact that he might have no clue who she was at all. Avalanche had been so shocked, so completely shocked, that she couldn’t stay there. She’d had to get away. So she had. She’d come here, a tall tower on the SkyWing palace, where she could look out at the kingdom for miles in every direction.

There was an aching loneliness inside her. She wanted someone here to comfort her, but she knew that Talon wouldn’t be that dragon. And she so desperately wanted him to be.

“There you are.” Avalanche near jumped at the voice, spinning around to see Kestrel standing behind her at the top of the stairway.

“Here I am.” Avalanche sighed, turning to look at the stars again.

“I take it that things didn’t go so well?” Kestrel asked, walking over to sit next to Avalanche.

“He didn’t even know who I was.” Avalanche said, feeling tears prick the corners of her eyes. “He didn’t remember my name.”

“He’s a pretty dumb dragon.” Kestrel said. “I doubt he remembers his own name.”

“You aren’t helping.” Avalanche muttered.

“Yes I am.” Kestrel swatted her lightly with one wing. “I’m always helpful.”

“No you aren’t.”

“Yeah, I am.” Kestrel grinned. “Don’t worry about it. He’s just a dumb male dragon. He knows your name now, right?”

Avalanche sniffled. “Yeah.”

“See?” Kestrel said. “Now, I have a plan. You’re gonna be the best dragon ever and catch his attention. You’ve already got the looks down, so now you just need to show him what a fierce amazing warrior you are.”

“No, Kestrel.” Avalanche said. “You have to promise not to tell anyone what I’m about to tell you.”

“Yeah. Sure. That’s what best friends do.” Kestrel shrugged.

“He’s a traitor.”

“Talon, our resident social recluse . . . is a traitor?” Kestrel scoffed.

“He went on and on about how he hadn’t wanted to fight and how awful war was.” Avalanche was blurting out the words now, unable to stop herself. “And then he started talking about how maybe Queen Scarlet was a bad leader and how Queen Burn wasn’t the right choice!”

“Well . . . that certainly does sound traitorous.” Kestrel admitted. “But you have to admit, a lowly soldier like him can’t start anything. He’ll likely resign himself to being silently aloof about it.”

“But . . . I can’t be in love with a traitor!” Avalanche protested.

“Oooh! So it’s love now.” Kestrel grinned. “Not just a crush?”

“Shut up!” Avalanche nudged Kestrel.

“You shut up.” Kestrel nudged Avalanche back.

“Oof! I wasn’t even talking.” Avalanche rolled her eyes.

“Your mind was talking! I could hear your heartbroken thoughts.” Kestrel protested.

“What are you, a NightWing?” Avalanche snorted.

“Oh, I am hurt!” Kestrel put a paw over her heart, feigning indignation. “How could you assume me to be like those cowardly little worms?”

“Now can I tell you to shut up?” Avalanche asked.

Kestrel shrugged. “Alright.”

They fell into silence.

“Who are you going to put down when you get put into the breeding program?” Avalanche asked suddenly.

“Hmm.” Kestrel gazed up at the stars above. “That’s still three years away. And even so, I’m not interested in the breeding program. I might try and train instead so that I’m chosen as a warrior instead of a mother.”

“Really?” Avalanche looked surprised. “I thought you and Vulture-”

“Ew, no.” Kestrel snorted. “Having a dragon moony-eyed over me doesn’t mean I have to put his name down.”

“Alright, alright.” Avalanche said.

“But do you think there’s even a chance he’d consider me? Talon, I mean.”

“You’re probably the only dragon whose name he knows.” Kestrel said. “You’re, like, his only option.”

“If he isn’t killed for being a traitor.” Avalanche said.

“I doubt he would.” Kestrel said. “He’s too smart for that.”

“I suppose so.” Avalanche said. “But what if-”

“No, Avalanche. No what ifs.” Kestrel said. “I forbid you to keep worrying about it. You’re making me worry about it! I don’t like being worried.”

“Sorry.” Avalanche offered meekly.

She stared up at the sky again, wide and infinite and stretching on and on forever. She felt the strong impulse to soar up and up and up into the sky, to leave her worries behind and disappear into the beautiful starry blackness.

“I’m going flying.” She said abruptly. “So I can, you know, figure out what I should do now. Don’t wait up for me. Although I doubt the celebrations will be over.”

“Sure.” Kestrel said. “I’ll send Talon your lov- joking, joking!”

Avalanche shook her head and spread her wings, circling up into the blackness above.

Chapter Text

Talon breathed a small, anxious cloud of smoke as he watched his squadron member slip into the cave alone. He had been hoping that the blood-red SkyWing now entering the dormitory – what was her name? He didn’t know – would have returned with Avalanche so he could apologise.

He couldn’t believe how badly he’d stuffed up talking to her. She had had a crush on him and he’d blurted out traitorous thoughts about Queen Scarlet and Queen Burn and how he hadn’t wanted to kill the IceWing, then admitted to not knowing her name. He really couldn't blame her for running off. But he could blame himself all he wanted, which is what he'd proceeded to do as he watched Avalanche leave and, soon after, the blood-red SkyWing follow.

Maybe he could make amends. He could apologise and they could pretend nothing had ever happened and it would all be normal, albeit slightly awkward. He sighed to himself, Talon, it would be for the best. He approached the blood-red SkyWing, wanting to ask where Avalanche was, so he could find her and apologise. The SkyWing heard his claws clicking across the cave over the sounds of the other five dragons playing some kind of game with a bottle of cactus juice.

“Um, hi, uh . . .” Words failed Talon and he just stared helplessly at the red SkyWing, unsure of how to proceed. The SkyWing gave him a withering look.

“Kestrel.” She growled.

“Right, Kestrel.” Talon nodded, trying to act as if he’d known her name all along. He took in her sharp features and brilliant red scales, trying to cement her name in his mind so he wouldn't forget and anger her again in the future. “I was, um, wondering if you knew where Avalanche was, I have to-”

“No. You hurt her and I’m not letting you talk to her.” Kestrel growled, spreading her wings slightly as if Avalanche were right there behind her and she was shielding the other red SkyWing. “She needs to be alone.”

“I’m trying to apologise!” Talon explained quickly. “I know, I know, I’m an awful dragon, the worst, and I'm really insensitive, but I’m trying to make it up to her!”

“I don’t care how guilty you feel.” Kestrel snarled. “I’m not letting a traitor talk to my best friend.”

It was not going to be easy to convince Kestrel to let him talk to Avalanche, he knew that much. Talon cleared his throat, claws curling into the rock beneath him as if to ground himself. “Look, Kestrel, I know what I did was hurtful to Avalanche. She’s your best friend and you want to protect her. I know that I’m not a great dragon for anyone to love – I’m forgetful, immature, traitorous even. Sure, okay. But I also realise that my actions indirectly hurt Avalanche and I feel as though she will not truly forgive me unless I apologize to her. I know you don’t believe me, but I also know you won’t let your best friend suffer because of my stupid actions.”

Talon wasn’t sure where all those words were coming from, but he knew as soon as he said them that he really believed it all. Kestrel stared at him for so long Talon started to try and run through what he had said to figure out where he’d gone wrong.

“Um, I- please?” Talon added quietly, mostly trying to prompt a response from the red SkyWing.

“Stars, you sound like a NightWing or something, speaking like that, reading into emotions like you saw them in my mind.” Kestrel made a slight rumbling sound that Talon realised was laughter. It didn’t feel appropriate to him, he still felt bad. Kestrel shook her head. “Alright, but you better have another speech like that, cause if you hurt her more, I’ll kill you.”

“Where is she?” Talon asked.

“She’s out flying. Probably above the palace or just north of.” Kestrel said.

Talon nodded gratefully and slipped past Kestrel into the tunnel. He hoped just as much that he could fix what he’d said to Avalanche. He admitted to himself that he sort of wanted to see her smile at him again.

Chapter Text

Nautilus’ claws sunk into the sandy beach as he waited. Moon high, that was what she’d said, wasn’t it? Moonhigh on the beach. Yes. That was right. He shook his head to clear the doubts crowding his mind.

The night sky above was a beautiful inky blue, as if a roll of parchment had been dipped into a vat of ink and left to dry high in the sky. Splatters of stars sprinkled the sky like grains of pale sand. Two of the moons were full, the other a barely visible claw shaped curve. The beach was silent, other than the gentle splash of waves washing around Nautilus’ claws.

Out at sea, under the waves, far apart SeaWings drifted. Patches of blue, turquoise and green against the sandy ocean floor. By the tunnel, a small dark green SeaWing floated lazily, half-submerged in the waves.

For a moment, Nautilus wondered why he didn’t come outside at night more often. It was beautiful. But despite being able to see in the dark, SeaWings weren’t nocturnal. He had no reason to be outside except for this meeting. He wasn’t looking forwards to it. There was nothing wrong with admitting that he’d rather be in his sleeping cave, safe and comfortable.

Once again, Nautilus’ thoughts drifted to the recent battle between the SkyWings and IceWings. Who would the SkyWings attack next? Would the SeaWings be able to defend them? SeaWings were mainly pacifists. They preferred to dedicate their lives to art rather than to war. After all, even their very location was hidden.

“Lost in thought?” A voice sliced through his distracted mind like IceWing claws.

Nautilus jumped and spun around, coming face to face with Cuttlefish. The blue-grey SeaWing tilted her head, eyes glittering.

“I was just thinking of your news about the battle between IceWings and SkyWings.” Nautilus said uneasily.

“Ah, yes.” Cuttlefish nodded. “What do you think we should do next?”

“I’m not part of the war counsel, why don’t you ask Tempest?” Nautilus said.

“But she’s not nearly as interesting as you.” Cuttlefish said.

“Oh?” Nautilus didn’t really want to be having this conversation. Especially not with Cuttlefish.

“Yes. She’s very boring and straightforward.” Cuttlefish said. “Queen commands her to fight, she fights. Queen asks her for advice, she gives advice. But you . . . you’re not nearly as blindly loyal.”

Nautilus snarled. “If this is about me hunting with Nix-”

“No, no.” Cuttlefish said. “Not at all.”

“Then why did you want to talk to me?” Nautilus demanded.

“I wanted to know what you were planning on doing now.” Cuttlefish flicked her tail carelessly.

“What do you mean?” Nautilus asked. “Nothing’s changed.”

“You’re nervous about what the SkyWings growing powerful means for us SeaWings.” Cuttlefish said.

“As any SeaWing should be!” Nautilus exclaimed. “Did you bring me here just to annoy me?”

“Why are you annoyed?”

“Because you’re asking stupid questions.” Nautilus huffed.

“No. Why are you really annoyed?” Cuttlefish asked.

Nautilus paused. What on earth was Cuttlefish referring to? He met her gaze and she held it unblinkingly. He ran her question through his mind. Why was he annoyed? Surely it was just Cuttlefish’s questions. Why had she singled him out? Why was she so invested in him?

Sure, his family had had that scandal with Nix, but it was years ago and it was, unfortunately, common knowledge. Nothing that should interest Cuttlefish so much. Cuttlefish’s comments just didn’t make any sense.

“I don’t know.” Nautilus said. “Why am I so annoyed?”

“Oh, don’t ask me!” Cuttlefish snorted. “Why would I know?”

“Because you know everything.” Nautilus snapped.

“No I don’t.” Cuttlefish shook her head. “I barely know anything, honestly.”

“Keep telling yourself that. You might just believe it.” Nautilus snapped, turning to look at the ocean again.

“I wonder how many other dragons are staring up at the sky right now.” Cuttlefish said. “I don’t know that.”

“No one could know that.” Nautilus said.

“If I had animus magic I would use it to know the answers to any question.” Cuttlefish said.

“Why are you telling me this?” Nautilus asked. Cuttlefish and Nautilus’ interactions had never been anything other than professional. So why was the blue-grey SeaWing suddenly talking like they were close friends?

Cuttlefish shrugged her shoulders. “No reason that would make sense to you.”

“That’s not a very satisfying answer.” Nautilus said, annoyed by Cuttlefish’s mysteriousness.

“So that’s why you’re annoyed?” Cuttlefish asked.

“What do you mean?” Nautilus asked, spinning around to stare at her. She was still staring up at the sky serenely.

“You’re so annoyed because you aren’t satisfied.” Cuttlefish said. “You don’t have the answers to questions you haven’t even thought of asking.”

“That’s not true.” Nautilus said. He was satisfied. He was a council member for Queen Coral, he had his sister, he had nearly everything a SeaWing could want, he even had a chance of marrying into the royal family one day. And he was happy! Nautilus recalled looking out over the coral reefs and wondering how infinite they were earlier that day. He had been happy then.

“Of course it is.” Cuttlefish said. “I know that for a fact.”

“And how come you’re so sure of yourself now?” Nautilus asked.

“The same reason you’re interesting to me. The same reason it struck me odd that you of all dragons would participate in a discussion about war.” Cuttlefish said, standing and wading into the water. “We’re very similar – more so than you’d ever admit.”

“How?” Nautilus demanded.

“We’re both quiet, reserved dragons. We prefer to watch rather than to act.” Cuttlefish said. She glanced back at Nautilus, eyes glittering in the dark. “We both know how dangerous this war is for our tribe. And we are both too cowardly to stand up and do something about it.”

Nautilus watched Cuttlefish turn and disappear under the ocean floor. He knew he should have been angry at her last comment. He wanted to be angry at it. But somehow he just felt hollow and cold after talking to Cuttlefish. It was like she had cut into him and drawn out deep secrets even he hadn’t known.

Was he really dissatisfied with his life? No. Not at all. So why did what Cuttlefish was saying resonate with him so deeply? Why did he want more from his life? He didn’t. He knew that if he asked for too much and sought to have every whim of his fulfilled he’d be even more unhappy. After all, Nix had done what made her happiest and she’d ended up heartbroken.

Was he too much of a coward to do something about the war? No. Of course not! He would fight for his tribe if he had been trained to do so. He just didn’t interfere with war discussion because it wasn’t his field of expertise.

And anyway, if it meant no blood staining his talons or weighing down his mind, then that was a good thing. Cuttlefish could think whatever she wanted about Nautilus. It was as true as SkyWing propaganda – which is to say, not true at all.

Chapter Text

Nights as beautiful as this, Avalanche could almost believe she was back up at the north of SkyWing territory, flying through the night with her mother and father. She could almost imagine the sea reflecting the star-lit sky, the flames that shot sparks of warmth through the cold night air, the gentle, almost inaudible wingbeats of her parents.

Avalanche’s life in the Wingtip Forest Province seemed like centuries ago, although it was only two years. But two years ago, Queen Oasis hadn’t yet died. Two years ago, there was no war. Two years ago, there were no morals being questioned. Two years ago, there was no Talon making her feel so many conflicting thoughts at once.

There was just Avalanche and her parents and their duty to the queen, and by extension, to Duke Conifer. There were long nights under the sky and above the sea. There were days spent soaring through the air. There were stories around fires of old wars and SkyWing heroes.

She could still remember her last night at Conifer Manor. The great stone hall of the manner, the tapestries hanging from the walls on golden ropes, the raised platform where Duke Conifer sat, red-brown scales flickering in the firelight.

‘Yesterday your father, the last remaining member of your family, died, yes?’ He had said, deep voice reverberating around the hall.

‘Yes, sir.’ Avalanche had agreed, claws digging into the floor. ‘But why did you summon me here, sir, if you don’t mind me asking?’

‘There is a SeaWing meddling with affairs up north.’ Conifer had said. ‘Have you heard of this?’

Avalanche had shaken her head, remembering what her father had told her to do whenever anyone mentioned SeaWings. There was no connection to SeaWings. There was never a connection to SeaWings. Other dragons didn't need to know anything about SeaWings. Avalanche sort of wished she knew more about SeaWings so she could understand why her father insisted that. The SeaWing they knew wasn't a bad dragon, was she?

‘A SeaWing has been meddling with our affairs, tampering with supplies, stealing information.’ Conifer had explained, turning his head to examine one of the tapestries hanging on the wall. ‘Corrupting dragons to aid her in the process.’

‘Why are you telling me, sir?’ Avalanche had asked. She thought she knew. Sharp claws were slowly sinking into her stomach, making her feel sick and hurt.

‘Your father, Eagle, was corrupted by this SeaWing.’ Conifer had said, turning to look back at Avalanche. ‘He was marked as a threat, he was disloyal and a traitor, and as such he was eliminated.’

‘Y-you mean . . . you killed my father?’ The claws in Avalanche’s stomach had sank into her even further. She felt her throat constricting.

‘I arranged to have him killed.’ Conifer had corrected. ‘I was protecting the dragons Queen Scarlet had placed under my care.’

‘I-I see.’ Avalanche had stuttered. ‘But that doesn’t answer why I’m here sir.’

‘You no longer have any family left.’ Conifer had said. ‘Your mother died two years ago, yes?’

‘Yes, sir.’ Avalanche had agreed.

‘And now your father has died. Their parents and siblings are either dead or unknown.’ Conifer had continued. ‘But you are still a dragonet of only five years, a dragonet without anyone to care for you.’

‘Yes sir.’ Avalanche had repeated.

‘Fortunately for you, there is a simple solution.’ Conifer had said. ‘Three weeks ago, Queen Oasis of the SandWings was killed by scavengers.’

‘Yes, sir, I know that.’

‘Yesterday Queen Scarlet decreed that all SkyWing dragonets with no family to look after them shall be transferred to the palace and trained as a soldier.’ Conifer had said, shaking out his large wings. ‘Her royal majesty thinks the death of the SandWing queen will end in inevitable conflict, possibly even war. She decrees we must be worried.’

And with that Avalanche had been swept away from Conifer Manor and south to Queen Scarlet’s castle and the warmer weather. She shook the thoughts of her exile from her home out of her head, turning to stare at the sky again.

After the low point in her life that was the death of her father and her exile from the Wingtip Forest Province, her life had gotten better.

She had arrived at Queen Scarlet’s Palace the next day and seen her queen for the very first time, a picture of royalty and elegance, shimmering scales and jewellery, commanding her troops with confidence and precision. Avalanche felt truly proud to be a SkyWing. Who wouldn’t with such a magnificent queen?

Avalanche had stood before the queen, waiting for her future to be determined by her. Whatever it was, Avalanche promised herself, she wouldn’t complain. Even if she was assigned to washing dishes all her life. She would still have the entire sky to fly in.

But she had been assigned to a soldier section of other five year old dragonets. She would be trained to fight for her queen. And it was there she had first met Talon. Sure, he had barely glanced up from his scroll as she entered her section’s dorm. But that hadn’t bothered her. One of her new wingmates, Kestrel, had reassured her that Talon was always like that.

But to learn in one quick conversation that, not only did Talon not know her name, but he was also a traitor – or at the very least had traitorous thoughts – was overwhelming to say the least. Avalanche turned her eyes up to the sky above. The stars and moons never changed, no matter where in Pyrrhia she was. It was reassuring to know that, no matter how far she flew, the sky would always be there.

Part of her wondered what was happening elsewhere in Pyrrhia. Where there other dragons staring up at the same stars? Dragons from other tribes? What were their stories? Why were they staring up at the sky?

Was that what Talon was thinking? Was that how he thought about other tribes, with sympathy rather than hostility? Was he right? Was this war pointless? Why were the SkyWings fighting for Queen Burn – Princess Burn – a SandWing. A dragon of a different tribe. A dragon whom she had never met and should feel no alliance to.

Was it fair? Was it the right thing to do? It had to be if Queen Scarlet thought it was. But was that true? What would change if the SkyWings weren’t involved in the war? How many lives could be saved?

Maybe Talon truly did have a point. Maybe the war was stupid. But what other choice did the SkyWings have? They had to obey their queen. And Queen Scarlet had chosen to alliance her tribe with Burn, who was the oldest and strongest of the SandWing princesses. Who was most likely to win in a battle to the death.

Burn was surely the right choice. There wasn’t any doubt that she would win the war. But there was a small nagging in Avalanche’s mind about whether fighting in the war was the right choice after all.

Chapter Text

Talon soared up into the night sky ahead, scanning for any sign of Avalanche. The night was clear, the sky a canvas of beautiful stars spread out above him, but there was no sign of the red SkyWing anywhere. In fact, the only sign of life outside the palace was the far of funeral arrangements for the fallen SkyWings on a mountain several peaks away from the palace.

Talon half felt as though he should go visit and say a final goodbye to his fallen section-mates. But that would be inappropriate. He wasn’t family and he’d be lying if he claimed to be a friend. He hadn’t known their names, although their deaths weighed on his mind.

And anyway, Talon had another, more important reason to be out here. He spun in a slow circle, searching for Avalanche. There was still no sign of her. Talon sighed, flying higher. Kestrel had said there was a chance Avalanche would be further north, and Kestrel had presumably talked to Avalanche before this night, so her word was as good as any to go on.

He glided north, scanning below him for any sign of Avalanche. He could see the dark shapes of SkyWings below, but couldn’t recognise any as Avalanche. Disappointed, mostly in himself, Talon lifted his head to stare up at the skies.

Above him and to the left was another SkyWing, her snout turned towards the stars. In the moonlight her scales glittered like she was made of gemstones. Talon examined her a moment, thinking she looked familiar. Then his brain made the connection that really should have been obvious. He’d found Avalanche.

With a few silent wingbeats he soared up to fly next to her. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

She started in the air, looking around wildly. Her amber eyes fixed on him. “Talon! What are you doing here?”

“I came to apologise.” Talon said, unable to meet Avalanche’s gaze. “I was pretty insensitive, seeing as you have a crush on me.”

“I-I don’t-” Avalanche sounded flustered. “I mean- oh, three moons. Yes, I do have a crush on you. I know you don’t like me back, but . . . I can’t help it.”

“It’s my fault. I didn’t even take the time to know the names of dragons I’ve been training with for five years.” Talon chuckled nervously, glancing at Avalanche. She was looking at him curiously, wearing a small, uncertain smile. “I wanted to apologise for being so caught up in my own thoughts that I couldn’t even think about your feelings. I must have sounded insane, going on about not wanting to fight for our queen.”

“You did a bit.” Avalanche said. Talon looked at her again and saw that her smile was growing.

“Yes, well.” Talon hesitated. “I hope you aren’t upset. I wasn’t deliberately trying to treat you differently. I’m just really oblivious.”

Avalanche laughed, a little nervously, still smiling. “It’s okay, I forgive you.”

“Thank goodness.” Talon huffed in relief.

“I just thought that . . . well, that you didn’t care about me.” Avalanche said. “But since you came to find me and apologise, that can’t be true, right?”

“Yeah.” Talon said. He felt a smile of his own plastered on his face. The two flew on in silence for a while, wingbeat for wingbeat. There was something nice about flying with another dragon so close to him. The sky felt less empty, more full of life. Talon thought that the sky was meant to feel that way, big and endless but comforting and lively.

“I thought about what you were saying.” Avalanche said suddenly. “About the war, I mean.”

“Oh.” Talon was snapped out of his thoughts in a jolt. “Oh. Really?”

“Yes.” Avalanche nodded. “It made sense, what you were saying. We are fighting for a princess who we’ve never seen. A throne that isn’t even our kingdom’s. It does make you question the point of it all.”

“You agree with me?” Talon asked. He felt excitement creeping through his wings. He wasn’t crazy, his arguments made sense. This war was wrong.

“Yes, but . . .” Avalanche fell into silence.

“But?” Talon asked anxiously.

“But we can’t disobey our queen.” Avalanche said. “We’d be killed.”

“If there was no queen.” Talon proposed. “If we weren’t under the rule of Queen Scarlet, but instead under the rule of a queen who would let us speak our minds whenever we liked, who would let us fight for peace, then what? What would you do about it?”

Avalanche stared up at the stars again. “I would obey my queen’s orders, no matter what, but if there were no orders to obey . . . then I would follow you. I would trust your judgement and follow you to the ends of Pyrrhia.”

That warm feeling was crawling under Talon’s scales again. “You would follow me?”

Avalanche nodded.

“Because you have a crush on me?” Talon asked. He couldn’t imagine any other reason for a dragon following him to the ends of Pyrrhia.

“No. Well, yes. But I think that you’d be a good leader. A great leader. You’re smart, you value dragon’s lives, even if you have no reason to. You’re loyal to what you believe is right. You’re interesting, your mind is so different to all the other SkyWings, you think, you dream, you ask questions that other SkyWings don’t dare to ask, questions that don’t have answers. That’s why I would follow you. That’s why I’m talking to you now.”

Talon processed Avalanche’s answer. Did she see him that way? As more than an outcast scrollworm with treasonous thoughts? Then again, perhaps she’d just said that in the nicest way possible.

Before Talon could think of a suitable response other than ‘really?’ or ‘seriously?’ or perhaps ‘seriously, really?’, Avalanche proposed another question. “Where would you go?”

Talon found himself lost. If there were no queens, no territories, no limits to how far he could fly . . . if he could go anywhere in Pyrrhia, where would it be? “I would want to explore. I would want to see as much as I could. I think . . . I’d want to start by seeing the ocean.”

Chapter Text

The glittering moonlight that shone through the leafy cover of the SeaWing’s Summer Palace made the pavilion shine in pale ghostly light. It was deserted of dragons when Nautilus soared up and around it. Finally, he reached the level he was looking for, the level where he worked as the Counsellor of Publishing.

The round level was full of cauldrons of scrolls and, on a large table, a scroll lay open, words scrawled across it. Small, smooth wooden carvings of seashells weighed down the corners to forbid the scroll from rolling back up. A pot of ink sat beside it. And leaning over the scroll, studying it intensely, was a small, dark green dragon, scales glistening with water from the lake.

“Whirlpool?” Nautilus was not expecting any other dragons to be up so late, let alone a three year old dragonet.

The dragonet whirled around, squeaking in surprise and bowed low. His pale green eyes flashed nervously. “Mr Nautilus, sir. I wasn’t expecting you to be up so late, sir.”

“What are you doing up so late, Whirlpool?” Nautilus asked.

“I was seeing if I could add anything on this scroll, sir.” Whirlpool said, bowing again.

Nautilus strode over to Whirlpool’s side and peered at the scroll Whirlpool had been trying to add to. Current Issues in the SeaWing Territory lay on the table. Several lines were inked out in Whirlpool’s scrawling writing.

“Whirlpool.” Nautilus snapped, pushing Whirlpool away from the scroll with a wing. “This is a very important scroll. The queen reads this scroll. We can’t afford any mistakes or she will have no reliable source of written information about what is happening in her territory.”

“I know, sir.” Whirlpool said, smiling. Nautilus knew from experience that he was aiming to charm his opponent, who in this case was Nautilus himself, but Nautilus had been through too much of a whirlwind of emotions recently. He wasn’t going to let Whirlpool throw him into more trouble.

“So why did you get it in your head that you could write in it?” Nautilus demanded.

“It was Ms Cuttlefish, sir.” Whirlpool said. “After dinner she spoke to me. She said you wouldn’t be here much longer, sir, and so I decided to practise for when I replaced you.”

“Cuttlefish doesn’t know anything about what I will or will not be doing and I will not be quitting a position I worked hard to get for seven years of my life.” Nautilus snapped.

“Oh, I thought you were in trouble with the queen, sir, and that she would take away your title.” Whirlpool shrugged, seemingly unbothered by Nautilus’ anger.

That made Nautilus pause. Was he in trouble with the queen? He hadn’t done anything wrong, as far as he knew. Or did Cuttlefish intend to assassinate him? Why? She had had a perfect opportunity just minutes ago while they were talking. So why not kill him then?

Perhaps she didn’t intend to kill him. But why would she think he wouldn’t be Counsellor of Publishing for much longer? He was perfectly content with his job. The only thing that could make him give everything away was Nix, and his sister was proud of him for having such a position.

But maybe . . . . Maybe Cuttlefish was threatening Nix. Or had Nix disobeyed the queen somehow? Was Queen Coral going to take it out on Nautilus? Was he going to lose his position because of her? What is she was going to be imprisoned? Or worse, killed?

Nix could easily have done something to upset Queen Coral. Coral already had a dislike for Nix because of her relationship with Tang. Maybe, despite Nautilus’ help, Nix hadn’t managed to catch enough prey. Maybe Cuttlefish had found some secret from Nix’s past unknown even to Nautilus and told Queen Coral. That would make sense, why else would she have asked him about her before the council meeting?

“Sir?” Whirlpool asked.

Nautilus’ mind was racing so fast he almost didn’t hear Whirlpool.

“Mr Nautilus?” Whirlpool said, louder.

“Yes, Whirlpool?” Nautilus asked, then before Whirlpool could answer, muttered, “Three moons.”

 “Sir?” Whirlpool repeated.

“Don’t touch that scroll, Whirlpool.” Nautilus ordered, flicking his wing towards Current Issues in the SeaWing Territory, which was still lying open over the table. “Go back to bed, I’m sure your mother is worried.”

“Why? What are you doing?” Whirlpool asked.

“Making sure my sister is okay.” Nautilus declared.

Nautilus had to make sure his sister wasn’t in danger. Then confront Cuttlefish and ask her what exactly she thought she was doing, threatening Nautilus’ sister. Without a backwards glance, Nautilus dove off the pavilion and swept through the cave, heading straight for the hunters’ sleeping cave.

Chapter Text

Avalanche’s flight faltered in surprise. “The ocean?”

“Yes.” Talon said. “I’ve read in scrolls that it stretches on and on and on forever, like you’re surrounded on all sides by the sky.”

“Yes.” Avalanche nodded. “Yes it is. I just didn’t realise you’ve never seen it. But, since you grew up in the palace, I suppose you had no chance of seeing it.”

“You’ve been to ocean?” Talon stopped for a moment mid-flight, eyes wide with shock.

“Yes.” Avalanche said. “I grew up in the Wingtip Forest Province. I could see the ocean from my bedroom window.”

Avalanche grinned as she saw the excitement in Talon’s eyes. She had been able to create that excitement!

“Tell me everything.” Talon demanded.

“Most SkyWings thought it was too cold to swim in.” Avalanche said. “But it was a brilliant blue, like sapphires, all year round. Some dragons did swim. My dad would swim in the summer. They caught fish sometimes. Duke Conifer never approved of it. He always called fish SeaWing food.”

“Did you ever eat a fish?” Talon had a look of child-like wonder all over his face.

“Yes, sometimes. They're really cold and slimy.” Avalanche said.

“Didn’t you cook it?”

Avalanche shook her head. “No. My dad, who had caught the fish, worked with SeaWings sometimes. He said that’s how SeaWings ate them and that meant it had to be the best way to eat them.”

“But SeaWings can’t breathe fire, according to the scrolls.” Talon protested. “So how would they know which way was better?”

Avalanche shrugged, not sure of the answer. “Maybe if we ever meet a SeaWing we can ask her.”

“Why did you leave?” Talon asked. “If you could see the ocean every day!”

“My parents both died.” Avalanche said quietly.

“Oh. Oh, I’m sorry.” Talon’s voice caught in his throat. “I didn’t mean to remind you of them. Being insensitive twice in one night, three moons, I’m the worst dragon ever-”

“No, I like talking about them.” Avalanche said. “It feels like it keeps them alive in my memory.”

Talon smiled slowly. “I never thought about it like that.”

“What happened to your parents?” Avalanche asked.

“My mother was a guard. She stole a loaf of bread to give to prisoners three years ago. Queen Scarlet didn't like that and, well.” Talon drew his claw across his neck. “My father is still alive, I think. But he's arrested earlier that year for conspiring with dragons from other tribes in Decollate Island Province - you know, the one on the boarder of SandWing territory.”

“Decollate Island Province?” Avalanche asked. “Why was he so far from the palace?”

“I don’t know, some sort of mission, I suppose.” Talon said. “Anyway, I was never really close to them, what, living with my section since I was two and even before then, they just pushed me in front of a scroll and left me alone, so don’t feel too bad.”

“Not that you were ever really close to your section.” Avalanche said.

Talon snorted, “Fair enough. I guess I never really learned how to talk to dragons. Maybe just blurting out whatever’s on your mind is the way to go. I mean, it worked with you.”

Avalanche glanced around. They had flown further north than Avalanche usually went. The mountains were starting to shrink into hills. “We should start heading back.”

Talon nodded. The two swept in a large circle and started flying back.

“If we drop down a bit there’s an air current we can glide on. I felt it on the way up.” Avalanche offered. She dove down, wind whistling past her, until she felt the push of warmer air and spread her wings. Talon spiralled down beside her and the two floated on in the silver moonlight.

Talon’s eyes focused on the ground below, expression troubled. “How do you think the war will end?”

Avalanche blinked in surprise. “Well . . . Burn will win and become the queen of the SandWings.”

“But how much bloodshed will there be before then? Blister and Blaze won’t stop fighting. What if the war goes on and on for years?” Talon asked.

“Then we fight and hope for the best.” Avalanche said.

“I don’t want to fight for bloodshed.” Talon said decisively.

“What other choice do you have?” Avalanche asked. “If Queen Scarlets tells you to fight, then you have to fight.”

“If Queen Scarlet commands the death of more innocent dragons, I won’t fight.” Talon said, lifting his head defiantly to glare at the approaching castle walls. “I’ll leave. I’ll visit the ocean. I’ll explore Pyrrhia. And I’ll fight for my own side in the war. Not any of the SandWing princesses. I’ll fight for peace.”

Chapter Text

When Talon and Avalanche reached their section’s dormitory, it seemed that the celebrations were finally over. Four of the SkyWings were slumped on their rock-shelf bunks. One was slumped on the floor, nose in an empty bronze bowl that smelt of cactus juice. Talon was sure Avalanche knew them all by name and would tell him if he asked, but he didn’t want to ruin the light-as-air, bubbly feeling in his chest.

And the last SkyWing was sitting by the entrance like a huge red shadow.

“Hi Kestrel.” Avalanche said cheerfully. Talon waved a wing in greeting, smiling.

Kestrel blinked in surprise. “You two look . . . happy.”

“Unknown concept for your grumpy self, is it?” Avalanche nudged Kestrel playfully.

“Oh, yes. I find it outrageous that any dragon could possibly be happy.” Kestrel said. “I assume Talon didn’t manage to royally screw something up?”

“Excuse me.” Talon interjected.

“Oh, right, you never screw anything up, do you?” Kestrel rolled her eyes.

“I’m offended the thought would so much as cross your mind!” Talon said in mock-hurt. It was surprisingly easy to joke and laugh with other dragons. Talon had seen SkyWings do so often enough, but he had never had anyone to joke with and if he ever did make a friend, he didn’t want to risk ruining said friendship by actually hurting their feelings. But with Avalanche and Kestrel it suddenly felt easy, natural, as if he’d done so thousands of times before.

“Avalanche can I have a word with Talon?” Kestrel asked.

“Yes, of course.” Avalanche nodded, yawning.

“Privately.” Kestrel added.

“Oh. Oh, yes. Okay.” Avalanche said. “Goodnight Kestrel. Goodnight Talon.”

Avalanche smiled at Talon again, and the light bubbly feeling rushed through his wings again. He smiled back, “G’night Avalanche.”

Avalanche made her way to her ledge, hopping over the unconscious dragon on the floor and curled in a tight circle, resting her head on her claws. Talon turned to look at Kestrel, who was frowning as she watched Avalanche.

“So . . .” Talon prompted.

“So.” Kestrel repeated, focusing her attention on Talon. “I just wanted to thank you.”

Talon pointed at himself, tilting his head to the side, but stayed quiet under Kestrel’s glare.

“For making Avalanche so happy. She was really upset with what you were saying. She loves you a lot, you know.” Kestrel said. “And whatever you said did make her happy, so thank you.”

Kestrel’s claws scraped against the stone with small screeching sounds. Her eyes were focused on the gentle rise and fall of Avalanche’s chest.

“Okay. But why did you want to talk to me privately?” Talon asked.

Kestrel snorted out a small burst of flame and said, “Of course you didn’t buy it, did you? Well, okay. I talked to Avalanche earlier.”

“Yeah, you mentioned that right before you almost clawed my wings off.” Talon agreed.

“And I didn’t think about it at the time. But she said you were a traitor.” Kestrel said.

“A traitor?” Talon asked, taken aback.

“You were conspiring against Queen Scarlet.” Kestrel said.

“No, no, I wasn’t. I was just questioning her decisions. She wants war, I want to not kill any dragons. It’s a difference of opinion, but it isn’t me being a traitor.” Talon held his front claws up wincing away from Kestrel’s glare.

“Being a loyal subject means you follow the queen’s orders.” Kestrel snarled.

“Being a loyal subject means you are loyal to the good of the tribe.” Talon shot back, then bit his tongue to stop himself angering Avalanche’s friend further.

“I’m not going to turn you in. Not just yet.” Kestrel said abruptly. “Because you’re making my best friend happy. But if you can’t be loyal, then you’re dangerous. Avalanche is too blinded by her crush on you to think you’d do anything wrong, but I know better. I’ve got my eye on you, Talon. Don’t hurt her.”

Talon frowned. “Why would I hurt her?”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Kestrel asked, staring at him in a mixture of frustration and pity.

“Get what?” Talon demanded.

“You’re putting yourself in danger even thinking about questioning Queen Scarlet’s orders.” Kestrel said. “If any dragon overheard what you’re saying, they’d turn you in immediately. You’d be punished or killed or both. And personally, I wouldn’t care if that happened to you. But Avalanche would. And I don’t want Avalanche to be upset. So at least keep your loud mouth shut and your treacherous thoughts to yourself.”

Talon puffed out his chest, glaring up at Kestrel. “What if I’m right, though? What if other dragons agree with me?”

“Fear is a powerful weapon, Talon.” Kestrel lowered her head so they were eye to eye. “Dragons are afraid of what Queen Scarlet will do to traitors, so much so that they will not support what you’re saying even if they agree with it.”

Talon frowned and opened his mouth to argue back, but Kestrel snapped, “Don’t argue. Just be happy with Avalanche.”

She turned away and stalked to her bunk next to Avalanche’s, curling up on it and throwing her wings over her head. Talon stared at her, arguments still on the tip of his tongue. He looked at Avalanche again. She was still sleeping peacefully.

Dragons were confusing, Talon decided. He wasn’t used to so many emotions whirling around inside his chest all at once.

He sort of wished it could go back to how it had been only a day or two ago, before yesterday’s battle. All he had to worry about then was the war and his place in his section. Now he had to worry about Avalanche’s feelings and Kestrel’s threats. But if it went back to how it was he wouldn’t have the warm bubbly feeling that spread through his wings when Avalanche smiled at him.

Chapter Text

Nix was sitting on the sand by the mouth of the hunter's cave, staring out at the patches of moonlight glittering on the Summer Palace’s lake. A shaft of moonlight cast eerie shadows into the cave behind her, making the shapes of the sleeping dragons look like bejewelled rocks. Nix looked like she was made of emerald, beautiful and unearthly in the moonlight.

Nautilus landed beside, spraying up sand as he skidded to a stop. Nix shook the loose grains from her claws and gave him a surprised glance before her gaze returned to the water. “You’re up late, Nautilus.”

Nautilus didn’t answer, concentrating on taking deep breaths to make it seem as though he weren’t in such a panic. Nix was okay. She was fine. For now.

“Nautilus?” Nix asked. “Are you okay?”

He stared at his sister as she traces small patterns in the sand with one claw. Urgent questions circled in his mind like hungry sharks. Questions about Cuttlefish and Whirlpool and Queen Coral. But he had to be careful. He didn’t want to make Nix worried about him.

Nautilus took a final deep breath, then blurted, “Are you okay? Did you do anything to upset Queen Coral? Has Cuttlefish spoken to you?”

“No?” Nix said questioningly. “Why?”

“No reason. It’s nothing. At least, I hope so. I’m just getting nervous for no reason.” Nautilus bit his tongue to stop himself from talking.

“It didn’t sound like nothing.” Nix said dryly.

“It really isn’t something I want you to worry about.” Nautilus said. “You have enough on your talons, don’t worry about me.”

“Nautilus.” Nix’s emerald eyes fixed on him. “I’m your sister. Of course I worry about you. Now explain.”

Nautilus stared back, but Nix didn’t back down and he relented. Nautilus sat down beside his sister, intertwining his tail with hers. Taking a deep breath, he started to explain. To her credit, Nix stayed silent throughout Nautilus’ recollection of events.

When he had finished, she tilted her head to the side and said, “Your life certainly is exciting.”

“But I don’t understand why.” Nautilus snapped in frustration. “Why does Cuttlefish seem so certain – why does every dragon seem so certain – that I’m not going to be Counsellor of Publishing for much longer?”

“Why would you expect me to have answers?” Nix asked, an expression that was half serious and joking on her face.

“Because – I- I don’t know.” Nautilus hung his head, staring at the grains of sand that sprinkled his talons. The two were silent for a while. Nautilus watched a crab dig itself up from the sand, scuttle over his claws and away towards the lake. “Because you’re my older sister. And I- I don’t know, I just thought you might know something. Or at least, would listen to me.”

“Well, I am listening, aren’t I?” Nix smiled.

“Yes.” Nautilus agreed. He wanted to ask Nix what he should do. He felt small and confused, like a dragonet. But he wasn’t. He was the Counsellor of Publishing, he was a grown dragon, he had to make his own decisions and deal with his problems himself. He couldn’t run away from everything.

Nautilus blinked in surprise as he realised how similar that sounded to what Cuttlefish had been telling him. That made his scales itch uncomfortably. He stood up, shaking out his wings. “I’m going to go talk to Cuttlefish.”

“Now? While she’s sleeping?” Nix asked. “Why don’t you get some rest yourself? Your head will be clearer in the morning and then you can talk to her. Talk, mind you. Not confront. Don’t make her angry if she isn’t. Making enemies is never a good thing.”

Nautilus sighed. Why did Nix’s information have to make so much sense? He nodded. “Alright. Yes. I’ll do that.”

He spread his wings, ready to leave Nix to her thoughts again, when a sudden question sprung to mind. “Why are you still awake so late?”

Nix blinked in surprise, but smiled slightly. “I was just thinking.”

“Of what?” Nautilus asked.

“I was thinking about Tang.” Nix’s eyes dropped down to the water again. “I miss her, you know.”

“I know.” Nautilus said. “I’m sure she misses you, wherever she is now.”

Nix smiled at him, then leapt up and encased him in a tight hug. Nautilus smiled over her shoulder. Maybe not everything had to be dealt with now. He could worry about SkyWings and Queen Coral and Cuttlefish and Whirlpool in the morning.

“I love you.” Nix murmured.

“Love you too, Nix.” Nautilus said, slowly stepping away from his sister. “I’m going to go get some sleep. You should do the same. I can’t help you catch enough food every day.”

“You hardly help at all anyway.” Nix nudged him playfully.

“I am hurt.” Nautilus huffed. “For someone who never trained to hunt, I think I do an exceptional job helping you.”

“Yes, what would I do without the three little tadpoles you caught to help me today?” Nix asked.

“Starve!” Nautilus declared.

“Most likely.” Nix laughed. “But then, so would you without the fish I catch being placed on the counsel’s dining table. You get more than you give, Nautilus.”

“What would your education be without me?” Nautilus asked in mock-hurt.

“I would be nothing but an illiterate, sobbing mess.” Nix said decidedly.

“Precisely.”

“Goodnight, Nautilus.”

“Goodnight Nix. I'm going to get some sleep now. I’ll talk to Cuttlefish tomorrow.”

“Tell me how it goes. I rarely hear anything exciting as a hunter.”

“Of course. But I expect a fish in return.” Nautilus nudged his sister playfully.

Nix nodded, smiling. Nautilus turned around again and leapt into the air. He circled above Nix once, then pivoted and swept away towards the other side of the Summer Palace and the counsel bedrooms.

Chapter Text

The dorm was quiet when Avalanche woke. The only noise was the gentle grumbling of dragons and the deep and the heavy breathing of Kestrel on the ledge next to Avalanche’s. She allowed herself several seconds to enjoy the warm, light-as-air feeling creeping along her scales, before she forced her heavy eyes open.

The torches were dim, casting dramatic shadows over the dorm. One of the members of her section, Breeze, was still sprawled out on the floor, dull red scales flickering in the dim torchlight. Across the dorm, one torch was brightly lit. A dragon hunched beside it, pouring over a yellowing scroll. Talon.

His soft orange scales looked almost like molten gold in the torchlight. Avalanche climbed off her ledge and stretched, the tips of her wings scraping against the stone ceiling. A few loose shards of rock clattered to the ground.

Across the cave Talon lept to his feet, looking about wildly. He saw Avalanche and his shoulders slumped in relief. “Hi Avalanche.”

“Hey Talon. What’re you reading?” She walked to his side, peering over his shoulder at the scroll.

“A scroll about the tradition of the arena.” Talon said. “Originally there weren’t fights to the death, and it wasn’t dragon against dragon. SkyWings caught animals like lions or cougars and scavengers, and got them to fight against dragons, or each other.”

“That’s interesting.” Avalanche said.

“I just wondered, because I thought maybe Queen Scarlet had started the tradition of the arena. She didn’t. Neither did her mother.” Talon said. “It’s an age-old tradition. There’s mentions of arenas back in folklore as well.”

“What does this have to do with us?”

“Nothing unless we break the law.” Talon shrugged. “I just thought it was interesting.”

“It is.” Avalanche agreed.

“The other tribes don’t have arenas.” Talon said, quietly. The idea that other tribes didn’t have arenas had never occurred to Avalanche. An arena was just the simplest, easiest way to deal with criminals. The strongest survive to get out and the weak die.

“Then how to they deal with their prisoners?” Avalanche asked.

“Apparently they just imprison them for a certain amount of time. Or execute them. Or have other forms of punishment.” Talon said.

“Why don’t they use an arena?” Avalanche asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t figure it out.” Talon shook his head. “Arenas are a perfect weapon for a queen. It shows how powerful, how strong, she is.”

Avalanche sat down beside him, curling her tail around Talon. “Maybe if we ever meet a dragon from another tribe we can ask them.”

“Do you think other dragons know?” Talon asked, curling and uncurling the corner of the scroll.

“Know what?” Avalanche asked.

“Do you think other SkyWings know that other tribes don’t use the arena method of dealing with prisoners? Do you think SkyWings like us know how easy it is to access that information?” Talon sighed. “Do you think other tribes know about the arena? I wonder what Queen Scarlet thinks about it all.”

Avalanche watched as Talon turned his head to look at the sleeping SkyWings curled in their bunks or, in Breeze’s case, sprawled on the floor. Avalanche wondered briefly where all those thoughts came from. Why did he always question everything? The way the tribes worked? The history of the SkyWings? The morality of his actions?

There were so many questions that it was impossible to answer any of them. What was the point of asking at all?

“Why do you bother asking?” Avalanche asked. “If you can never find out the answers.”

“If I don’t then maybe no one will.” Talon said. “And then everyone would just be mindless servants.”

Avalanche snorted. “I suppose. But you still will never find the answers.”

“Says who?” Talon asked. “Surely there must be answers out there. The queen, dragons from other tribes, scrolls, something, somewhere.”

“But you’ll never get those answers.” Avalanche frowned. Was Talon really so unable to see how impossible it was to answer the questions he asked? Why couldn’t he understand that no one he could ask had the answers? And he could get in trouble for asking.

Talon shrugged and began quietly rolling the scroll back up. “I suppose. I just thought it was worth discussing. I wanted to see your opinion.”

Avalanche tilted her head. “You argued because you wanted a different opinion?”

“Yeah.” Talon nodded. “My thoughts are boring by themselves. Isn’t it much more worthwhile to have someone else to share your ideas with? It’s like . . . hmm, it’s like how you always want to remember your family and talk about them. It makes it feel more real, like other dragons have those thoughts too, it isn’t just you, alone in the world.”

“Oh.” Avalanche stood up. “I never thought about it like that.”

Talon snorted a small plume of fire into the dorm and placed the scroll onto his ledge, then stretched his wings. Unlike Avalanche’s, they didn’t quite reach the top of the cavern.

“SkyWings of section eighteen-seven.”

The clipped, official voice made Talon and Avalanche jump. They spun around and saw a large red SkyWing standing in the dorm’s entrance, an unrolled scroll clenched in her talons.

“Yes?” Avalanche asked.

The SkyWing read off her scroll. “In celebration of the SkyWing’s recent victory over the IceWings, the gracious Queen Scarlet has declared today a celebration day. All soldiers are free of duties. Tonight at sundown there shall be a feast and various gladiator fights in the arena that you are all expected to attend.”

The red SkyWing vanished again, the faint tap of her claws the only sign that she had been there at all. Avalanche looked down at Talon, grinning. “We have an entire day to ourselves.”

“Yeah.” Talon agreed.

“What do you want to do?” Avalanche asked.

“I was going to go to the library and read about the arena.” Talon suggested. “You can come if you like.”

Avalanche sighed. “No, that’s boring. We should do something fun.”

“We?” Talon looked at her questioningly.

“Duh.” Avalanche grinned. “I think there’s a scavenger den a few mountains away. We could go visit it.”

“Why?” Talon asked, snout scrunching in confusion.

“Maybe it’d just be fun to do.” Avalanche snorted in amusement. “Do we have to have a particular reason?”

“I suppose not.” Talon complied.

“So what’ll it be?” Avalanche asked.

“Let’s go to the scavenger den.” Talon grinned.

“Great!” Avalanche leapt neatly over Breeze, who was still unconscious on the floor, and slid up to Vulture’s bunk. She poked him with her claws until he stirred, blinking sleepily.

His dull orange eyes blinked open. “Avalanche?”

“We have the day off.” Avalanche said. “Tell Kestrel that Talon and I have gone off by ourselves and tell her not to worry.”

“And tell her that there’s a feast and arena fight at sundown.” Talon added from across the cave.

Vulture nodded once, then his eyelids dropped and he fell back into sleep. Avalanche turned and grinned at Talon. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Unlike the day before, the sky was heavy and overcast. The air was humid and still. But to Talon, it was a welcome change. It carried none of the memories that the battle had left on his mind, none of the memories he’d tried to push from his thoughts by distracting himself with reading.

To the west, the clouds ended and streams of yellow-white sunlight hit the ground below. Avalanche flew half a wing beat ahead of Talon, gliding through the air in a light-as-a-feather way that only SkyWings could.

“How far is the scavenger den?” Talon called.

“Not far now.” Avalanche called back, glancing over her shoulder. Her eyes were warm amber as she grinned at him. “Have you ever seen a scavenger?”

“In Queen Scarlet’s arena.” Talon offered, trying to recall what the strange, two-legged creature looked like. “Never up close.”

“Let’s change that!” Avalanche swept in a large circle then dove down to the trees, disappearing through the foliage.

Talon hesitated for a moment, then followed her, spiralling down towards the forest below. Springy branches and leaves brushed past his scales as he forced through them, spreading his wings to slow his fall. He landed with a cloud of leaves floating up through the air and then gently back down to the ground.

“Avalanche?” Talon called, spinning in a circle to find her.

“Yes?” Avalanche’s voice echoed slightly through the trees.

“Where are you?” Talon asked, stopping at peering in the direction Avalanche’s voice had come from.

“This way.” Avalanche called, which did nothing to help Talon. He wandered blindly through the trees, searching for any sign of Avalanche’s ruby red scales.

“Boo!”

Talon jumped, spinning around wildly. There was no sign of Avalanche at all.

“Look up.” Avalanche’s voice snorted.

Talon looked up. On a branch above him, peering down at him with a smug look, was Avalanche.

“What did you do that for?” Talon demanded, frowning.

“For fun.” Avalanche snorted. “Your face is hilarious.”

Talon huffed out a breath of smoke. “You scared me for fun?”

“Duh.” Avalanche slid neatly off the branch, landing with a small thump beside him. “It’s more fun than arguing for fun.”

“That’s a matter of opinion.” Talon turned his nose up.

Avalanche just looked down at him in amusement. “Don’t be such a stuck up IceWing.”

Talon rolled his eyes. “Well then don’t be such a dragonet.”

“Ouch, I am hurt.” Avalanche clutched the scales over her heart. “I am wounded.”

Talon sat down, still staring at her, unamused.

“Alright, alright.” Avalanche relented. “If I’m right, the den is just through these trees. But stay quiet, we don’t want to scare them.”

“Us? Scare them? I doubt a cow would be scared by you.” Talon said.

“Well at least I’m not nearly as tiny as you. A strong wind would blow you away.” Avalanche retorted. Talon glared. Avalanche grinned. “I’m joking, I’m joking!”

“Ha. Ha. Very funny.” Talon grumbled.

“You are small.” Avalanche pointed out. “Anyway, come on.”

She turned and raced through the trees. Talon leapt to his feet and darted after her. Despite her warning, she was hardly quiet, branches snapping as she shoved through the trees. With her longer legs, she easily drew ahead of him.

He had almost lost sight of her when she came to a sudden stop, flaring her wings, then ducking down and peering through the foliage. Talon slowed to a stop alongside her, panting.

“Get down.” Avalanche whispered. “There’s one just through these bushes.”

Talon crouched down and peered through the branches. “You realise we’re putting ourselves in danger? These are the creatures that killed Oasis, the Queen of the SandWings for nearly fifty years?”

“Oh, live a little.” Avalanche whispered back. “Look, just there.”

Talon leaned forwards and saw the creature that Avalanche was referring to. It was small, no taller than Talon’s foreleg. Short, black fur coated its head. It was wearing some kind of thick grey animal pelt. A brown leather pouch was slung across its back. In its hands was a long stick with a round, shiny tip. Its bare skin was a dark brown colour.

“It’s really small.” Talon commented.

“And cute.” Avalanche said.

“I don’t think so.” Talon said. “It’s weird. What kind of creature walks on two legs?”

“Birds?” Avalanche offered.

“But they have wings.” Talon counted.

Avalanche huffed a plume of smoke. “Be quiet, it might hear us.”

“Why are we here again?” Talon asked.

“For fun.”

“And how is hiding in a bush watching a weird thing fun?”

Avalanche snorted. “We’re watching it because it might show us where the den is.”

“Can’t we just find the den ourselves?” Talon pointed out.

“And it’s cute.” Avalanche added. The two watched the scavenger as it knelt and shifted through the ground in the middle of the clearing. “You know, it reminds me of you.”

“Me? Why? Because I’m small?” Talon huffed.

“No. Because it’s very . . . focused. It’s so intent on whatever it’s doing, even if it’s something that makes no sense to those around it – namely me.” Avalanche said. Then as an afterthought, added, “And it’s cute.”

“Huh.” Talon said.

“Are those good enough reasons?” Avalanche asked, tilting her head as she looked at him.

“Yes. I suppose so.” Talon said, meeting her amber eyes. In the dappled forest light they were like honey, smooth and sweet. The warm, floaty feeling crept through Talon again. The way Avalanche was looking at him made him feel like he was the only other dragon in the entire world.

“I suppose this would be an inappropriate time to ask if they’re edible.” Talon whispered, although he was only half joking.

“Talon!” Avalanche exclaimed, batting him with a wing. He ducked under her wing and pressed himself against her side where she couldn’t hit him without also batting her own scales.

“Shh!” He hissed. She settled back down, her wing encasing Talon. He snuggled in closer and peered at the scavenger. It had shrugged the leather sack off its back and was rummaging through it. He glanced up at Avalanche, who was watching the scavenger again.

For a moment he considered whether he’d rather be back in the palace at the library, lost in scrolls about tales of SkyWing heroes and queens, or here by Avalanche’s side, watching a silly little creature do weird things.

Then he dismissed the thought. He had a lifetime to read scrolls. He only had one shot at living this day and he decided that living it with Avalanche was definitely a much better way to do so.

Chapter Text

The air was stuffy, the sky overcast beyond the leafy roof of the Summer Palace. The lake was a dull grey colour that perfectly reflected Nautilus’ mood. He sat on the edge of the pavilion, staring down into the water as Whirlpool re-inked several scrolls behind him.

“Mr Nautilus?”

“What is it Whirlpool?” Nautilus sighed, scanning the lake for any sign of Cuttlefish. He hadn’t seen the Counsel of Spies and Secrets at all during the morning. She hadn’t appeared on the council level at breakfast. Either she had disappeared somewhere, off collecting information about the war, or she was at the Deep Sea Palace. Both were equally likely, but Nautilus could only go to one of those two places to attempt to find her.

“I finished re-inking another copy of-”

“Yes. Good job.” Nautilus cut the dragonet off, standing and glancing over his shoulder. “Go, take the rest of the day off unless I find you and tell you otherwise.”

“Why, sir, if you don’t mind my asking. Where are you going?” Whirlpool asked, walking over to Nautilus’ side and peering into the water.

“I must visit the Deep Sea Palace.” Nautilus said.

“Can I come?” Whirlpool asked.

“I’m afraid not. It’s . . . confidential.” Nautilus decided. There was absolutely no need for Whirlpool to know about what he wanted to talk to Cuttlefish about. The little dragon already knew too much as it was.

“I’m very good at keeping secrets, sir.” Whirlpool said, puffing out his chest importantly. “You can trust me, Mr Nautilus.”

“I do trust you.” Nautilus said. “To go and spend the rest of the day hunting or doing something equally useful for the tribe instead of eavesdropping.”

Whirlpool’s wings drooped, but his expression didn’t waver. “Yes, sir. That I will do, right away.”

Nautilus watched Whirlpool fly off, circle the pavilion twice and then swoop down towards the tunnel. Nautilus waited for several minutes, making sure Whirlpool wouldn’t reappear and try to add on to any scrolls without permission.

When Nautilus was sure there would be no sign of Whirlpool’s dark green scales, he leaned forwards and dove down towards the water. He slipped under the cool, clear surface with a flurry of bubbles and winged towards the entrance.

Nautilus tucked his wings in tight as he swam through the entrance. The small, tight rock tunnel seemed to press in on all sides, threatening to collapse and crush Nautilus deep under the rocks.

And then he pushed through the seaweed on the other side and felt the familiar push pull and of the ocean tides. He flared his wings and propelled himself through the water in the direction of the Deep Sea Palace.

About half way there, he found a current that sent him speeding towards the ravine the palace was located in with very little effort. The coral spires that reached out of the canyon came into sight and Nautilus swooped low, out of the current.

The beautiful green sea-grass floor of the canyon waved in a gentle current. Several SeaWings circled lazily around the palace, scales flashing as they conversed in aquatic. Nautilus swept past them and into the entrance hall of the palace, a huge room lined with coral pillars.

SeaWings swam purposefully past, scales flashing past in the corner of my eyes. A shimmer of turquoise scales as a SeaWing swam overhead, a small flash of dark green zipping towards a column across the room.

But no sign of Cuttlefish’s blue-grey scales. Nautilus swept in a slow circle and spotted a sleepy looking blue-green dragonet snuffling about near the floor, wearing too-big armour that showed his training to become a soldier. He swept down to the SeaWing and tapped his shoulder. The SeaWing spun around, eyes nervous.

His scales flashed bright in surprise as he saw Nautilus. Aren’t you the Counsellor of Publishing? What are you doing here?

Nautilus nodded. I'm Nautilus, yes. I’m looking for a fellow Council member, Cuttlefish.

The Counsellor of Spies and Secrets. What do you want from her? The dragonet asked.

I have important business that I must discuss with her. Have you seen her recently? Nautilus asked.

No, sir, I haven’t. I’m not anyone important, no one would tell me any news. The blue-green SeaWing shrugged pityfully.

Thank you for entertaining my questions . . . Nautilus hesitated, not knowing the dragonet’s name.

Webs. I’m Webs. The dragonet said. And- oh, she’s right behind you!

There was a flurry of wings and Webs sped away. Nautilus spun around and came face to face with Cuttlefish. His scales flashed in alarm. Cuttlefish tilted her head to the side. You wanted to talk with me?

Nautilus blinked in surprise. Oh, yes. Yes, I did.

Why is that? Cuttlefish asked.

Have you spoken to Whirlpool recently? Nautilus asked. As in, since last council meeting?

Your would-be apprentice? No. Cuttlefish actually looked surprised by the question. Why do you ask?

Because I found him on the library level of the Summer Palace last night and when I asked him what he was doing, he replied that he thought he would try writing himself, as you had told him you wouldn’t be around much longer.

Cuttlefish stared at him for so long that Nautilus began to wonder if he’d been signing too fast and she hadn’t understood what he was saying. Then Cuttlefish asked, And when did you talk to him? After you spoke to me?

Directly after, yes. Nautilus snorted out a flurry of bubbles.

I didn’t speak to him. In fact, I would hardly be able to pick him from a crowd. Why he is lying to you, I can’t say. Cuttlefish shrugged.

I thought you had been threatening me or my family in some way. Nautilus admitted.

I wouldn’t use such underhanded methods to rid a dragon of his position. Especially a dragon I very much like. Cuttlefish offered Nautilus a grin. He didn’t return the smile, just stared, trying to determine whether she was telling the truth.

Nautilus realised Cuttlefish’s scales were shining under flashes of light. He looked around and realised a crowd had gathered while they were talking. Their flashing scales went dark as Nautilus stared at them.

Please return to your previous activities, thank you. Nautilus scowled at the crowed. The watching SeaWings seemed to shake themselves out of their speculative thoughts and drifted off. Nautilus turned back to where Cuttlefish had been, but found her gone too.

If Nautilus was correct, Whirlpool, despite his brilliance, didn’t have a problem with using any means nesesrcary to achieve what he wanted. But how could he trust Cuttlefish, a dragon whose entire job was lying?

Chapter Text

When Avalanche and Talon returned to the SkyWing Palace, the sun was just peering over the mountains, painting the sky a pale blue as dusk-stained clouds creeped over the mountains. Avalanche felt giddy. She had spent an entire day with Talon. Just her and Talon and entire Sky Kingdom to explore.

After tiring of looking at scavengers, the two had hunted. Avalanche had tried to teach Talon how to catch trout in a stream, but Talon didn’t seem to have a knack for it. It ended up with him falling into the river and, when Avalanche laughed, pulling her in too.

Then they had flown about until the sun had started to lower in the sky. Avalanche lead the way as the two swept directly down through the open ceiling of the pavilion and spiralled towards the entrance of the feasting hall.

At the entrance, two burly SkyWing guards crossed their spears over the doorway.

“Avalanche and Talon of section eight-seven.” Avalanche said importantly, puffing out her chest. This was the first party she had ever attended in the castle. In fact, it was a lot of firsts. Her first party as an adult SkyWing, her first party to celebrate a victorious battle, her first party with Talon.

She couldn’t wait to tell Kestrel all about her day with Talon.

The guards nodded shortly, lifting their spears to let them through. The room was massive, high ceilings and rocky walls inlaid with decorative golden patterns. There were several metal perches made to look like branches, where armed guards looked over the celebrations.

The room was lined with tables full of food – cows, goats, pigs, chickens – and more exotic food, such as scavengers, cougars and albatrosses. At one side of the room was a raised platform, where Queen Scarlet herself sat on a thrown carved to look as though it were made from clouds.

Several other important dragons – Scarlet’s dragonets and a handful important-looking SandWings – sat on similar, yet smaller, thrones surrounding a table full of food. SkyWings holding platters of goblets containing cactus-juice wandered through the hall, offering the drinks to the partying dragons.

On a ledge halfway up the cliff wall a group of SandWings with a collection of strange looking instruments played an upbeat tune. Near the middle of the room, dragons swirled in elegant dances to the music.

Avalanche grinned giddily down at Talon, who was looking around the room with an expression somewhere between amused and amazed. He turned to look at Avalanche, as if sensing her gaze.

“I suppose now is a less inappropriate time to ask about the flavour of scavengers.” Talon nudged her cheerfully.

“I suppose.” Avalanche huffed. “Want to find out?”

The two squeezed through the crowd of dragons till they found a table offering a collection of roasted scavengers. Talon glanced at Avalanche sheepishly, as if asking for her permission to take one. Avalanche leant forwards and cut a neat chunk of meat and handed it to Talon.

He huffed out a snort of smoke. “I could have gotten some myself.”

“Yeah. I know.” Avalanche cut another piece for herself. “But would you have? You were looking at me as if you had killed the scavenger yourself, against Queen Scarlet’s own orders.”

Talon rolled his eyes and nibbled on the piece of meat. “It . . . tastes sort of like cow.”

“Yeah, but not as juicy.” Avalanche shrugged, swallowing her own piece.

Talon turned his back on the table and looked to the dragons dancing in the middle of the room. “Want to join them?”

Avalanche felt a tingle creep along her wings. Talon was offering to . . . dance with her? Avalanche nodded, feeling warm all over.

“Wait.” She said suddenly. “You know how to dance?”

“Not . . . well.” Talon admitted. “But I’m sure I can figure it out. You can teach me. I mean. If you can dance. Can you dance? Sorry, I just kind of, uh, assumed that you could dance. I read about Conifer Manor balls and I thought, well, since you came from up there, you must have known how to dance, but if you don’t-”

Avalanche snorted, “I know how to dance, Talon.”

“Oh. Right.” Talon nodded. “Great.”

Avalanche half-smiled in amusement as she led Talon to the centre of the room. The music was slow but upbeat, nothing Avalanche had ever heard in the Sky Kingdom before, but she did her best to lead Talon in the dance.

His eyes never left hers as they moved in time to the music. His orange eyes reflected the firelight as if the flames were trapped in his eyes.

“You’re really good at this.” Talon murmured.

“So are you.” Avalanche replied.

Talon grinned sheepishly. “I have a good teacher.”

“I have a good student.” Avalanche returned. She could imagine what Kestrel would be saying in this situation; ‘stars, you two are so lovey-dovey. If you don’t stop I’m going to claw my eyes out’. Which made Avalanche wonder, if they really were so ‘lovey-dovey’ did that mean Talon felt the same way as she did? Or was he just leading her on? No. He was too sincere to manipulate her like that.

But she had to be sure. “Talon.”

He smiled up at her. “Yes?”

“Do you . . .” Avalanche took a deep breath, preparing for disappointment. Rejection. “Do you-”

“Soldiers, nobles, honoured guests of the Sky Kingdom!” Queen Scarlet’s voice rung through the hall, echoing off the stone walls.

Talon and Avalanche stopped as the music cut off abruptly. The SkyWing Queen was standing at the front of the raised part of the cave, wings raised and glittering with the reflection of the hall’s gold.

“First and foremost I want to thank you all for attending this party!” Scarlet announced. “It is absolutely thrilling to have you all here. I wish that our esteemed ally, Queen Burn, could join us, but it seems she had more pressing issues to attend to. No matter. Before the arena battles begin, I shall take a moment to congratulate the brave soldiers who fought, claw and tooth for us against our most dreaded of enemies, the IceWings.”

Chapter Text

Talon felt himself stiffen involuntarily. His previous light-as-air feeling vanished. He felt as though he were filled with boulders, weighed down and unable to fly. Reality came crashing down on him and he suddenly felt ashamed to have been feeling happy in the last few days.

Those ‘enemy’ IceWings were in their Kingdom now. Some of them were mourning the loss of the dragon Talon hadn’t been able to save. That IceWing’s family, her friends, perhaps she had dragonets of her own.

Talon had taken her life away from them. If only he had been quicker.

“Talon . . .” Avalanche hissed warningly.

Talon kept his eyes on Queen Scarlet, curling his claws into the stone floor.

“The battle marked the first fight of our newest troops, the dragonets who have now officially become soldiers. Congratulations to our newest sections.” Scarlet continued. “And congratulations to every dragon with IceWing blood on their claws. If you were one of the lucky dragons who killed another, come forth tomorrow with proof of your kill and you will be awarded twenty gold coins.”

Murmurs flitted through the hall. Greedy-eyed dragons turned to one another, grinning and boasting. Talon felt sick to his stomach. Celebrating killing a dragon? How animalistic.

“With that out of the way, I encourage you all to the arena where we will see our captured prisoners fight for survival.” Queen Scarlet announced, flicking a wing towards the door. Several dragons were already streaming out of the hall.

“Come on Talon.” Avalanche’s wing nudged his shoulder. “Let’s go.”

“Twenty gold coins for proof you killed.” Talon muttered.

Avalanche hesitated. “I didn’t think you of all dragons would-”

“NO!” Talon yelled.

Nearby dragons cast surprised glances their way.

“No.” Talon repeated, quieter. “I’m not interested in it at all! I don’t want money to prove I’m a murderer.”

“You aren’t. You said you tried to save the dragon.” Avalanche looked uncomfortable, claws fidgeting on the stone floor.

“I did.” Talon agreed. “But I failed. She still died because of me. How could anyone encourage that . . . that horrible feeling of . . . of a dragon’s eyes losing their light, of her going still at your claws, knowing you took her life away.”

“Talon, this is a public space. Can’t we just enjoy ourselves tonight and talk about this later?” Avalanche asked, tone a little desperate.

“Enjoy celebrating the death of dragons? Of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters?” Talon asked. “I forgot – I somehow forgot it all. But this . . . this is so, so wrong.”

“Talon. Please.” Avalanche stepped towards the door, glancing at the exit longingly. The hall was mostly empty now, a few dragons milling around the food tables or at the entrance.

Talon hesitated, staring at her. Avalanche’s amber eyes were indecisive. She wanted to spend an evening with him – the dragon she loved – and just have fun. Her first party at the Sky Palace. And then he ruined it all, making her think of him as a traitor again.

She was his only friend. If he scared her off, he’d be alone again. Talon had never felt lonely before, he’d had scrolls and practise and other things to fill his mind. But now that he’d spent a day with Avalanche, laughing, joking and flying with her in cloud-streaked skies. He didn’t want to give that all away because she thought he was a traitor.

He wasn’t. He just didn’t want to harm other dragons. That didn’t make him a traitor. But it also didn’t mean that Avalanche saw it that way. Kestrel definitely didn’t see it that way.

Talon took a step towards the cave exit. “You’re right. We should just enjoy tonight. We can worry about things tomorrow.”

Avalanche smiled again, although she still looked worried. The two of them joined the slow straggle of dragons at the door, soaring up and towards the arena. The clouds pressing down over the kingdom throughout the day were still there, inking out the stars and moons.

The only light was firelight on tall beacons that surrounded the arena, casting flickering shadows onto the sand. Talon and Avalanche circled low, landing on the stands opposite the protruding rock that held the pavilion and throne constructed for Queen Scarlet.

The SkyWing queen was sitting on her throne, wings spread as she addressed the crowd once more. “And now for the main entertainment of the evening! Our IceWing prisoners have agreed to entertain us!”

There was raucous laughter and howling and wings slapping together in applause. Talon felt his stomach curl as he looked up at the pillars surrounding the arena. IceWings, enemy SandWings, SeaWings and MudWings cowered on their prison, hunched close to the rock.

SkyWing guards swept menacingly in circles around them, just waiting to pounce and drag a dragon down to the arena floor. Scarlet flicked her wings and the SkyWing guards separated into two and swarmed around two dragons, an IceWing and a SandWing.

The IceWing was pale silver and blue, body long and low. He looked fully grown, older than Talon, possibly as old as Queen Scarlet. Some kind of icy necklace hung from his neck. The thick spines on his neck clattered as the guards deposited him on the sandy arena floor. He stayed still and quiet, watching the SandWing as she was flown down. The SandWing was younger and smaller. She writhed angrily until a guard smacked her head hard with his tail, dazing her.

“First of all, we have Arid of the SandWings, formerly a supporter of Princess Blaze!” Scarlet announced. “And opposing her, her former ally, Hvitur of the IceWings!”

Hvitur crouched low to the ground, glancing about the arena with wide blue eyes. Arid flicked her barbed tail, causing the guards still restraining her to scatter away from her, before swarming back in, pinning her tail down.

Talon shuddered, feeling a lump form in his throat. These two dragons, who fully believed Blaze to be the correct choice as the next SandWing Queen and who had both fought side-by-side less than twenty-four hours ago were now to fight each other to the death.

Queen Scarlet sat back, setting her wings again. “Claws up, fire ready, FIGHT!”

The SkyWing guards lept up and away, clearing out of the arena and back to the pillars, leaving the audience the best possible view. Beside him, Avalanche leaned forwards in anticipation. Talon felt frozen to the spot as the two dragons circled each other, Arid snarling quietly.

Suddenly, she darted forwards, claws outstretched. Hvitur dodged to the side, but Arid’s tail barb swung around towards his face. Hvitur leapt neatly over her tail, twisting in mid-air and landing on her back, using a back leg to pin down her tail.

“He’s good.” Avalanche whispered.

He was. He had clearly been in battle multiple times before, clearly been trained to fight SandWings.

“Kill her! Kill her!” The cheer started up and began sweeping through the crowd, louder and louder. “KILL HER! KILL HER!”

Don’t. Talon thought, but he knew there was no chance of that ever happening. If Hvitur let Arid escape, then he’d be the one to die. Hvitur glanced up again, staring out at the crowd. His eyes met Talons for a brief second and Talon saw the fear, the desperation, the anger in his eyes. The IceWing was trapped there, forced to kill his allies for entertainment.

Talon took a shuddering breath. He felt Avalanche shift next to him, felt her gaze on his, but he couldn’t look away. Hvitur raised his claws, which glittered coldly in the firelight. The crowd cheered and yelled, clapping their wings.

Then Hvitur pivoted, leapt off the SandWing and sped towards the side of the arena, only a few metres away from where Avalanche and Talon sat. The IceWing leapt half-way up the wall and began clawing up the side of the wall. He heaved himself up over the top. There were screams and SkyWings flocked to the air.

 Hvitur leapt up over the rows of seats, past Talon. Talon turned to see his blue-white tail disappear into a tunnel. Seconds later, guards swooped past and into the tunnel. Talon sat in shock, staring at the air, shocked. The IceWing, wings still bound, had escaped and was now loose in the palace.

“FIND HIM!” Queen Scarlet shrieked. “FIND HIM AND KILL HIM!”

Chapter Text

Nautilus sighed heavily, breath rippling the surface of the water below his nose. Gentle waves lapped at his wings. Glimmers of the night sky shone through the foliage cover of the Summer Palace and glittered on the water surface. The Summer Palace was still, silent like yesterday night. The only movement was the occasional swish of dragon wings as a SeaWing swept overhead.

Nautilus was lost in thought, emotions thrown about like pebbles in a hurricane, swirled around and around and lost in the wind. Was Cuttlefish being honest? There was no reason for her to lie. But why else would Whirlpool have claimed the Council of Spies and Secrets said he’d lose his job soon? Would Whirlpool lie? Why? To get Nautilus’ position? He was too young. Unless Whirlpool had a personal hatred of Nautilus, it made no sense that the little dragonet would want to get rid of Nautilus. And if Whirlpool was telling the truth . . . what motivation would Cuttlefish have for getting rid of Nautilus? None, surely. But the only dragon it would benefit was Whirlpool.

There was a sudden flurry of wingbeats and a splash beside him, spraying cold drops of water over Nautilus as a green dragon dropped into the water. Nautilus turned to see Nix fall into place next to him, gazing at him with her concerned emerald eyes.

“What’s got your tail in a twist?” She asked.

He blinked in surprise. Had it been that obvious? “How did you know?”

“You’re moping about in the middle of the night, floating here like a waterlogged tree trunk.” Nix said matter-of-factly. “Of course there’s something wrong. You talked to Cuttlefish, right?”

“Yes.” Nautilus said slowly. “I talked to her. She said she’d never spoken to Whirlpool.”

“Oh. I see.” Nix hummed thoughtfully. “So you’re not sure what to do now?”

“Yeah.” Nautilus agreed. He paused, then said, “But it’s not your worry. I can figure it out.”

Nix’s tail swished through the water in a flurry of bubbles. “You really don’t expect me to worry about my little brother?”

“Nix, I’m not a dragonet.” Nautilus protested.

“You’ll always be a dragonet to me.” Nix said. “And anyway, where would I get any entertainment in my boring little life?”

“I’m sure chasing whales is much more fun than endless council meetings.” Nautilus grinned. As always, his sister seemed to be able to lift his mood with just a few moments.

“You think I’m important enough to hunt whales?” Nix asked, scales flashing to illustrate her mock surprise. “You flatter.”

Nautilus snorted, flicking his tail in amusement. The two lapsed into silence again, floating side by side in the still, silent night.

“With the sky clear again it’s a beautiful night, isn’t it?” Nautilus murmured.

“Yes.” Nix agreed. “Everything is quiet and still.”

“What were you doing up late again?” Nautilus asked.

“I often stay up late. I like to be alone with my thoughts.” Nix said. “It seems you’re developing a similar habit.”

“I suppose.” Nautilus agreed. “But it’s the only time I can really think.”

“And I’m just interrupting, aren’t I?” Nix flicked her tail and smiled playfully.

“What are you thinking about?” Nautilus asked. “If you’re always up thinking?”

“Oh, compared to you, nothing important.” Nix rolled her eyes and sighed. “But I like to think about when we were younger.”

“About Tang?” Nautilus asked. He remembered her clearly in his mind’s eye, the last time he’d seen the blue SeaWing. Her scales a deep royal blue, her turquoise eyes sparkling, her smile brighter than sunshine reflecting on the ocean. And Nix’s matching smile. What he wouldn’t do to see his sister smile like that again.

“Yes.” Nix murmured.

“I’m sorry.” Nautilus said. He shouldn’t have bought it up. The smile was gone from Nix’s face, replaced with that melancholy look she had.

“You have no reason to be sorry.” Nix shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault. And it’s in the past. There’s no point being sad about it.”

“I would give up being a counsellor if it made you smile again.” Nautilus blurted out. “I would give up everything.”

“What do you mean?” Nix asked, nose scrunching. “I smile.”

“Not the same smile.” Nautilus said, feeling like an immature dragonet. “You were much happier with Tang.”

“I was.” Nix agreed. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not happy now.”

She smiled, but it wasn’t a real smile. Nautilus knew, despite her words, she wasn’t happy. She was far from happy when, every day, she was reminded of how much of a disappointment she was, waking up as only a hunter, whispers following her.

“I promise you’ll be happy again someday.” Nautilus murmured, not entirely sure if Nix heard, and not entirely sure if he had wanted her to.

“Don’t worry about me.” Nix said after a while. “You have enough on your claws to deal with.”

“You really don’t expect me to worry about my older sister?” Nautilus asked, offering her a smile.

Nix smiled back, chuckling. “Enough moping about for both of us. Get to bed, you have a big day of counselling tomorrow.”

“You make my job sound like a chore.” Nautilus huffed indignantly.

“Isn’t it?” Nix asked, feigning innocence.

“Only when I-” Nautilus cut himself off, blinking in surprise. A SeaWing had just dashed through the tunnel, scales lighting up in the same pattern over and over. She leapt out of the water and into flight, circling around the palace so fast her wings were a blur. Nautilus could just make out the message on her flashing scales. BLISTER BLISTER BLISTER BLISTER

Nautilus blinked hard, then shook his head. He recognised that dragon, her familiar blue-grey scales and smooth, sleek shape.

Nix made a small sound of alarm. “Isn’t that-”

“Cuttlefish.” Nautilus finished as the SeaWing made one more lap of the Summer Palace, caught Nautilus’ eye and dove straight towards him.

Chapter Text

Avalanche glanced over at Talon, who sat motionless beside her, eyes on the cave which Hvitur the IceWing had just disappeared into.

“Talon!” She cried, smacking him with her wing. “Come on, we can catch him!”

The SkyWings flocking the arena took to the skies or dove into tunnels. Queen Scarlet was shrieking about the ice dragon and tearing his wings off. In the arena, Arid the SandWing was crouched low to the ground, clearly trying to be forgotten in the midst of all the commotion.

“Talon.” Avalanche said again. He turned to stare at her, amber eyes blinking owlishly. “Hey! Sleepy-claws, you listening?”

“Wow.” He muttered. “That was clever.”

Avalanche stared at him for a moment. An IceWing, an enemy dragon, was loose in the palace and all he could talk about was that he was clever?

A slow smile crept over Talon’s face. “He had it all figured out! This was his only chance to escape! He knew he could beat a young, probably inexperienced SandWing. And he knew he was large enough and fast enough to escape, if given the chance. Oh, but Queen Scarlet responded quickly, he’ll probably be caught within the night.”

Talon’s face fell and Avalanche smacked him again. “Shush! Stop saying such traitorous things! That was a stupid thing that a stupid IceWing would do.”

“Right.” Talon said suddenly, seeming to snap back into reality. “Stupid dragon. We should look for him.”

Before Avalanche could get in another word, Talon launched himself up through the remaining crowd of SkyWings and into the sky. Avalanche stared for a few seconds, then sighed and followed. The queen only knew what Talon was up to now.

Talon circled the arena a couple of times before spiralling up and out of it, heading north. Avalanche gave his tail a confused glare as she followed him, until Talon seemed to think it was safely away from everyone else and he dropped like a stone towards the forest floor.

Avalanche spiralled after him, casting a glance back towards the palace, where blasts of fire lit up the night sky. Then a mountain obscured her view and a few seconds later she and Talon were perched on a small ledge, wings pressed together. Usually, Avalanche would be thrilled to be so close to him, but she had more pressing matters on her mind.

What is this all about?” Avalanche demanded.

Talon peered at her, grinning again. “Well we couldn’t talk about Hvitur in the SkyWing Palace where others might overhear us, could we?”

“We have to go back!” Avalanche snapped. “And search!”

“What for? I think he deserves a decent chance at freedom.” Talon said, frowning a little.

“He’s an enemy dragon, in our palace.” Avalanche said, speaking slowly, as if Talon would understand if she spoke clear enough. “IceWing. In SkyWing palace. Loose.”

“You’re acting like I’m a dragonet.” Talon said, expression a mix between offended and confused.

“An enemy in our palace. He could find out information and give it back to Blaze. It could cost us the war.” Avalanche said. “And beyond that. He could take it back to Queen Glacier and use it against us.”

“I think he was preoccupied with escaping.” Talon said. “And he was just following the orders Queen Glacier had given him. Maybe he really believed that Blaze was the right choice.”

Avalanche groaned. “Talon, not this again.”

“Avalanche, don’t you get it?” Talon said, spreading his wings and shoving Avalanche, who shoved him back. “Burn can’t be the correct choice. Because if she were, there would be no competition, no fighting, no war, not dead dragons. After all, who’s to say that Blaze or Blister wouldn’t be just as good a queen as Burn could be?”

“By that logic, none of the three should be queen.” Avalanche said. “And if you wouldn’t chose Burn, who would you chose?”

“None of them. I’d tell them all to stop fighting and figure it out peacefully.” Talon said, puffing out his chest.

Avalanche tried to imagine the three impossibly large, impossibly dangerous SandWing princesses in the same area as Talon. And she tried to imagine the tiny SkyWing telling them each to decide peacefully who should be queen. She wasn’t sure whether to be endlessly amused or scared to death by that scenario.

“You know that would never work.” Avalanche sighed.

“Why not?” Talon demanded.

“They would never listen. Surely you know that.” Avalanche said. “Asking rivals for a throne to find a peaceful solution is like asking a scavenger not to steal your treasure.”

“Scavengers can’t understand us.” Talon said, tilting his head in confusion.

“That’s the point!” Avalanche huffed. “They just wouldn’t listen. Or if they did, they wouldn’t pay any attention. You may as well be talking to a tree.”

“Says who?” Talon asked. “Says who they wouldn’t listen? You listened to me when I talked about peace.”

“I’m just a nobody.” Avalanche rolled her eyes. “I’m some un-royal SkyWing from Wingtip Province with a crush on a dork from my section whose head is so far up in the clouds its lost.”

“Hey!” Talon bristled, narrowing his eyes. Avalanche stuck her tongue out at him and he stuck out his in return.

“That’s not true.” He said.

“Yeah it is, you’re a dork.” Avalanche smirked.

“No. I mean, you’re not a nobody.” Talon said, looking at his claws as they curled around the edge of the rock ledge. “Not to me.”

Avalanche smiled without realising it. She felt warm hearing Talon’s words. “Well, okay. I guess you aren’t a dork then.”

Talon burst out laughing, shoulders shaking as he leaned into Avalanche for support. Avalanche felt that warm, light-as-a-feather feeling creep along her wings again. Talon finally calmed down, taking a deep breath and turning to look at her, amber eyes warm.

“Thanks, I guess.”

Avalanche chuckled. “Well we can’t all be as great as me.”

Talon grinned, then his expression dropped. Avalanche examined his suddenly sad expression with concern. “What’s wrong?”

Chapter Text

“Do you really want them to find him?” Talon asked, staring at his claws. “Hvitur, I mean. If anyone finds him he’ll be dead before he can curse the three moons for his luck.”

Avalanche shifted. Talon looked up to see her staring up at the night sky. The cloud cover hadn’t lifted and only a few stars managed to light up the sky. “I don’t know, Talon.”

Talon frowned. “What do you mean ‘you don’t know’?”

Either she didn’t want Hvitur to be caught, or she did.

“I don’t know what I want.” Avalanche said. “If you’d asked me just a day or two ago, I would gladly have said I’d wanted him dead and I’d be happy to kill him with my own claws if Queen Scarlet told me to. I’d have said the same about any enemy tribe. But now . . .”

She sighed and turned to look at Talon. “You’re making me question what I thought I knew.”

Talon found himself unable to look away from Avalanche’s amber eyes. “I didn’t try to.”

“I know.” Avalanche said. “But you’re just so . . . different to other SkyWings. You don’t just mindlessly follow Queen Scarlet’s orders. You think about things, you question things. And I just . . . I wonder if we really do have it all wrong. Maybe you’re right. Maybe Hvitur should escape, maybe we should stop obeying Queen Scarlet, stop fighting in the war and not care who the next queen of the SandWings is.”

“But . . .?” Talon said.

“But,” Avalanche repeated. “But, we have to care. The SandWings share a boarder with us. We could be one of the first dragons they attack. What happens if a dragon who isn’t Burn gets onto the throne and declares war on us?”

“Blaze wouldn’t.” Talon said. “And Blister’s too smart.”

“And we can’t disobey Queen Scarlet. She knows what’s best for the tribe.” Avalanche said.

Does she? Talon thought. Tonight it didn’t seem so. How is watching dragons fight to the death for entertainment ‘best’ for our tribe during a war? Shouldn’t we save resources, not spend them on useless death and partying?

But he didn’t say it. Avalanche already looked so upset, he didn’t want to make her more confused by adding more doubt to the fire. After all, she’d look to him for answers he didn’t have. And he really wished he did have them. He wanted to be able to tell Avalanche exactly what he would do or exactly what would happen in any situation.

But he didn’t know.

Avalanche finally broke eye contact and sighed. “Everything was much simpler before I met you.”

“Really? Things have never been simple for me.” Talon said, scratching at the rock under his claws.

“That’s because you think too much.” Avalanche scoffed. “Now let’s get back to the palace before anyone notices we were gone.”

Talon nodded and leapt into the air, feeling a rush of wind as Avalanche soared up past him and started to lead the way south. At the castle, there were still dragons circling every tower, looking for the missing IceWing.

Hvitur. Talon decided to commit his name and face to memory. Hvitur. The IceWing who had fought for Queen Blaze, only to be captured and used as entertainment to his enemies.

Avalanche swept into a tower, landing neatly on the side. Talon fell in next to her.

“No sign of the IceWing?” Avalanche called to a SkyWing as she swooped past.

“Not one.” The SkyWing called back.

Talon couldn’t help but feel relieved. He and Avalanche sat for a moment, staring out at the palace and the dragons swooping about it. Then another set of wings landed on Avalanche’s other side. Kestrel’s red scales glittered in the moonlight as she brushed her wings against Avalanche’s in her process of folding them back.

“Where have you two been?” She demanded.

“Looking for the IceWing.” Avalanche said. Talon nodded.

“Out of running distance from the palace?” Kestrel demanded.

“Why do you want to know anyway?” Talon asked.

“Queen Scarlet has declared the palace to be on lockdown.” Kestrel said. “No dragon enters. No dragon leaves. Until the IceWing is found, anyway.”

“That serious? It’s just an IceWing.” Talon said.

“Just an IceWing?” Kestrel huffed indignantly. “Just an IceWing? That dragon is an enemy soldier! He could-”

“Yeah, I know. Avalanche gave me the same lecture, so save your breath.” Talon snapped, suddenly annoyed at the other SkyWing.

“Talon!” Avalanche reprimanded.

Talon sighed. “I just think that Hvitur will be a little preoccupied with saving his own scales and won’t be bothered with stealing whatever secrets we have. I would be if I were in his scales.”

“Okay, okay, whatever.” Kestrel said. She took a deep breath then said, “I just wanted to tell you two the palace was on lockdown. We should keep looking for the IceWing. Bye.”

Then she lurched off the tower and sped into the sky, heading for the other end of the castle.

Talon frowned. “That was odd.”

“What was?” Avalanche asked. “That was just Kestrel being her usual grumpy self.”

Talon snorted. “I guess you know her better.”

“She’s probably jealous.” Avalanche said quietly. “We’re best friends and I’ve spent all of today with you. So she probably isn't happy about that. Especially since you’re always saying such traitorous stuff.”

“Hey!” Talon protested. He hesitated for a moment, thinking, then said, “I suppose you should talk to her.”

“Now?”

“Not now!” Talon said. “Not when she’s still upset because of my stupidity.”

“Aren’t you meant to be bad at giving social advice?” Avalanche asked.

Talon laughed, then said, “Talk to her tomorrow I guess. Anyway, I don’t think we’re any help with the search party. We may as well head to bed. Who knows, maybe Hvitur will turn out to be hiding in our dorm?”

Chapter Text

“What do you mean Blister?” Nautilus demanded as Cuttlefish splashed into the water beside him and Nix.

Cuttlefish’s scales were still flashing. She was panting heavily. “J-just what it sounds like. Blister, h-heading this way.”

Nautilus had never seen the Council of Spies and Secrets look so discomposed.

“How soon?” Nautilus asked.

“Sunrise, tomorrow morning.” Cuttlefish panted. “I don’t know why now, b-but I was hoping Queen C-Coral might be here.”

“She’s at the Deep Palace.” Nautilus said. He turned to his sister. “Nix, do you mind-”

“I’ll fetch her right now.” Nix nodded.

“Find King Gill and Counsellors Tempest and Shark as well.” Cuttlefish said.

Nix nodded again and dove underwater.

“Who else knows?” Nautilus asked.

“Anyone who saw me on the way? You’re the first dragon I spoke to.” Cuttlefish said, catching her breath. “I wasn’t close to the Deep Palace.”

“How do you know Blister is on her way?” Nautilus asked.

“I’m the Council of Spies and Secrets for a reason.” Cuttlefish flashed him a smile. “I can’t go giving information to just anyone.”

“Do you know what she wants?” Nautilus asked.

“I don’t, but I can guess.” Cuttlefish said. “I would assume that Queen Scarlet’s victory against the IceWings just reached her ears. She’s worried Burn will soon defeat Blaze and come for her. She wants the support of the SeaWings. She’s coming for a definitive yes or no answer.”

“You seem to have composed yourself very quickly.” Nautilus mused. “Only a few minutes ago you were circling the palace like a crazed seagull, no doubt causing great deals of alarm.”

“Well, now that action has being taken to deal with the problem, there is no reason to panic as of yet.” Cuttlefish said. “I was in shock, I will admit.”

“Do you suppose I would be allowed to contribute to your war meeting?” Nautilus asked, half-joking. He wasn’t going to be allowed a say, war was well outside his area of expertise.

“Oh, I insist.” Cuttlefish said seriously.

Nautilus snorted. “Me?”

“Yes.” Cuttlefish said. “If Queen Coral takes issue, I will vouch for you myself.”

Nautilus blinked in surprise. Why would Cuttlefish offer to let him listen in and contribute on an emergency war meeting? She surely wasn’t doing it out of the goodness of her heart.

“You’re wondering why.” Cuttlefish said, tilting her head at him. Nautilus nodded. Cuttlefish smiled. “So you trust me.”

“Why would you want my trust?” Nautilus asked.

“I don’t know. I just have a feeling that it will be important.” Cuttlefish shrugged.

There was a loud splash and Nautilus turned to see four dragons sweep out of the lake, scales glimmering in the moonlight. In the lead was Queen Coral, blue scales dark in the moonlight, followed closely by King Gill, Shark and Tempest. The four swept up to the second to top floor.

“Let’s go.” Cuttlefish said. Nautilus followed her up to the level designated for visiting royalty. Queen Coral was sitting on her throne, wings raised, posture alert, although her eyes still looked sleepy. Gill sat on the throne at her side, looking much more awake, but much more stationary, as if he might melt into his throne. Shark stood stationary on Queen Coral’s other side and Tempest was pacing back and forth in front of them, muttering under her breath.

As Cuttlefish and Nautilus landed on the platform all eyes turned to Cuttlefish. The blue-grey SeaWing bowed low and said, “Your majesties.”

“We don’t have time for frivolous customs, Cuttlefish.” Shark said. “Report.”

Cuttlefish straightened up. “Princess Blister wishes to visit and discuss the war. No doubt she wants a definitive answer on our alliance with her. She wishes to be seen at sunrise.”

“What will we tell her?” Tempest asked. “Are we her allies? Or her enemies?”

“She is allied with the MudWings.” Gill said. “If we deny her offer, no doubt she will have no qualms in allowing them to destroy our shore settlements on the mainland.”

“Do we need those settlements?” Shark asked. “They seem a waste of supplies.”

“It makes us more connected to the rest of Pyrrhia, which is important.” Coral said. “Cuttlefish, how many troops do the other tribes have, approximately?”

“SkyWings have five hundred and fifty.” Cuttlefish listed. “IceWings, three hundred, Blaze’s SandWings have three hundred and fifty, Burn’s four hundred, Blister’s unknown but probably about one hundred, MudWings unknown but likely more than five hundred.”

“And how many trained dragons do we have?” Coral asked.

“Two hundred, approximately.” Shark shifted uncomfortably.

“If they wanted to, the MudWings could wipe out all our above water settlements.” Tempest flicked her tail irritably.

“Your majesty, if I may.” Nautilus said, all too aware that all eyes had fallen on him.

“Yes, Nautilus?” Queen Coral asked.

“The advantages of staying out of the war include, not making a possible enemy of Blaze or Burn is Blister does not win, not losing any dragons in fighting other tribes and being able to focus our energy on other matters.” Nautilus said. “Disadvantages include making a possible enemy of Blister, being seen as an easy target to raid for supplies and allowing a violent or idle-headed queen take the SandWing throne.”

Cuttlefish nodded and shot Nautilus a strange, almost pleased look. “That covers the basic pros and cons of each option.”

“I don’t think it would be a good image to be seen as an easy target. What if they think we’re like RainWings.” Shark said. “Lazy and incompetent and cowardly. Easy picking, seeing as we have more resources.”

“But we don’t want to lose SeaWing lives in a squabble for a SandWing throne.” Tempest argued.

“Blister is a dangerous ally, but a much more dangerous enemy.” Gill chipped in. “However, I think she would not destroy our tribe for merely not siding with her. She has the MudWings, one of the most powerful tribes, with her.”

“Although MudWings aren’t nearly as organised as us.” Shark said. “They have numbers and brute strength. But that’s all they have.”

“Blister favours planning.” Cuttlefish agreed. “She would value our tribe in an alliance more than Moorhen’s tribe.”

“We do not have time for a proper council meeting.” Coral said, glancing up at the sky.

“Less than two hours till sunrise.” Cuttlefish agreed. “More dragons mean more discussion and more delay.”

“We will vote now.” Coral decided. “The six of us.”

Tempest and Shark exchanged glances and nodded. Cuttlefish stretched her wings, as if already bored in the conversation.

“All in favour of denying a meeting Princess Blister of the SandWings?”

Tempest and Gill raised a wing.

“All in favour of accepting a meeting with Princess Blister of the SandWings and, potentially, accepting or denying an alliance?”

Shark, Coral, Nautilus and Cuttlefish raised their wings. Tempest squared her shoulders, looking resigned but not upset. Gill looked worried.

“It’s decided.” Coral said. “We shall be allied with Princess Blister.”

“Your majesty, should I go and meet Princess Blister?” Cuttlefish asked.

“Yes, go on.” Coral nodded.

“May Nautilus accompany me?” Cuttlefish asked. “I would like to speak to him privately.”

Nautilus felt as though his claws were frozen to the spot. Cuttlefish wanted him to go with her to meet Blister herself? Yes, Nautilus had met the SandWing Princess before, no less than three times. But he’d never directly spoken to her and he didn’t want to start.

Please say no, please say no, please say no. Nautilus prayed.

Coral’s eyes regarded the blue-grey SeaWing. “If you so please.”

Chapter Text

The torch on the wall was unlit when Avalanche woke up. Although, to be fair, it had been dying when she had fallen asleep on her rock ledge. Across the cave, Talon was curled on his ledge, fast asleep. And the rest of her section had also returned some time during the night. They were now all sleeping peacefully on their respective ledges.

Avalanche slipped off her rock ledge and stretched, yawning. She assumed it was still early, as there was no sign of any higher-ranking dragons informing them of what was to happen throughout the day. Then again, with the palace on lockdown, perhaps all the important dragons were busy.

She wondered if the ice dragon had been caught yet. She hoped not. Avalanche paused, surprised with herself. She hoped an enemy dragon was still alive and able to take their secrets back to his tribe? Then, as Talon had said, over and over, he was probably preoccupied with trying to escape with his scales not burnt off.

Avalanche turned to look at Kestrel. The maroon SkyWing was asleep on her ledge, twitching unpleasantly as she dreamt. Avalanche reached over and shook her shoulder. Instantly, Kestrel leapt to her feet, banged her head on the cave ceiling and let out a muffled curse.

Avalanche burst out laughing. Kestrel gave her a hard glare and said, “Excuse you.”

“You looked like you were having a bad dream anyway.” Avalanche said. “And I want to talk. Come on.”

“What’s the time?” Kestrel asked, rubbing her head.

“I don’t know. Let’s find out.” Avalanche said, leading the way to the door. Kestrel stumbled sleepily after her as the two wondered down the dim corridor, past other dormitories of sleeping dragons. They emerged on a balcony overlooking a room Avalanche recognised as the dragonet training room.

It was huge, with one wall open to the sky, which was a dull purple as the sun rose. The room was full of racks of armour, daggers, spears and a few weapons Avalanche still didn’t know the name or use of, but assumed they were all equally deadly. There were lines carved onto the floor, for designated fighting spaces.

She’d never fought in the room herself, joining her section after they had finished the indoor practise fighting for two to four year olds, and were practising outside in all sorts of weather. It had forced her to learn quickly, however.

“It’s morning at least.” Kestrel grumbled. “So why are we talking?”

“I’m sorry for ignoring you.” Avalanche said. “I got carried away once I talked to Talon and just forgot about you. Sorry.”

Kestrel gave Avalanche an odd look and said. “Oh.”

“I didn’t mean to ignore you.” Avalanche continued, when Kestrel didn’t say anything else. “So I wanted you to know, you know, you’re still my best friend. Just cause I like Talon doesn’t mean I don’t like you. As a friend. Gosh, I sound like Talon did when he realised I had a crush on him.”

She scratched at the floor with her claws. “I’ve made this awkward, haven’t I?”

“Yes.” Kestrel said, shrugging her shoulders back. “Very.”

“Sorry.” Avalanche said.

“What’s happened to the Avalanche I knew? Talon’s done a number on you. You sound like an identical socially awkward Talon.” Kestrel nudged Avalanche with a wing.

“He’s not actually that awkward when you start talking to him.” Avalanche said defensively.

“I know.” Kestrel said. “He can talk when he wants to. Anyway, if you aren’t all starry-eyed over him, do you want to do something today? Assuming the palace is still on lockdown.”

“Sure. We could go explore the old mining caverns.” Avalanche brightened up. “But we should check we don’t need to train or something first.”

The two made their way back to their dormitory, exchanging familiar jokes and stories. When they entered the room, they saw three dragons had left while they were gone, leaving only three.

Breeze, who was still sleeping, Vulture and a purple-red dragon with a long neck, Claret. No Talon, Avalanche noted. Vulture grinned as he saw the two enter.

“Hi Kestrel. Uh, hi Avalanche.” He said. “Palace’s still on lockdown, we have the day off. Want to do something?”

“Yeah, Avalanche and I were just about to. See ya round, Vulture.” Kestrel spun and walked out of the cave without a backwards glance.

“Sorry about her.” Avalanche said, then quickly followed. She caught up to Kestrel and gave her a reproachful look. “That was rude. What did he ever do to you?”

“Become a moony-eyed idiot whenever I enter the room?” Kestrel scoffed. “What a sap.”

“Excuse me.” Avalanche huffed. “He likes you. You can at least be nice.”

“Newsflash. Pyrrhia isn’t nice. Neither am I.” Kestrel shrugged. Then she flashed Avalanche a smile. “But he’s the dopiest dragon you’ve ever seen, you have to admit it.”

“Yes.” Avalanche agreed. “He is.”

“So, old mines?” Kestrel asked. The mines were full of old tunnels that could collapse at any time, pockets of deadly gases and dragon skeletons. They weren’t a place many dragons went voluntarily now that all precious minerals had been long-since mined, but it was a favourite place of Kestrel and Avalanche ever since the latter had foolishly agreed to a dare from the former that she wouldn’t ever enter it.

Avalanche nodded, grinning back at her friend. “Potentially deadly caves, here we come.”

Chapter Text

Talon reread the note outside the throne room once again, although he’d read it enough to know the words by memory.

All and any SkyWing soldiers who fought in the most recent battle against our IceWing enemies; if you have killed an IceWing or enemy SandWing, I invite you to retell me your story and, if you have proof or a witness, then you shall be rewarded.

Queen Scarlet.

Talon growled under his breath. The note made him so angry. What right did Scarlet have to reward a dragon killing another dragon? Every right as a queen, no right as a decent dragon. Did she have no morals? No shame?

Talon had been debating entering the cavern for the last five minutes, reading the note time and time again, and each reread becoming angrier and angrier. It was taking all his self-restraint not to go in there and give her a piece of his mind.

And that surprised him. A week ago he would have read the message and, while yes he would have been angry, he would have bowed his head and moved on. But somehow it seemed so wrong to do so now. Maybe it was talking to Avalanche, sharing his mind with another dragon. Maybe it was fighting his first battle, the IceWing dying right under his claws. And to be rewarded for that? It made Talon feel disgusted in his tribe. What had war done to them?

He pivoted and turned to stare at the entrance to the throne room. Then he glanced at the offending note. Without any more hesitation, Talon plunged into the cave.

Bright morning light shone through the wall open to the sky and gleamed stunningly off the gold embedded in the floor and walls. Queen Scarlet sat on her cloud-sculpted throne, wearing golden chainmail and a crown embedded with rubies. Several guards and official-looking dragons surrounded her, all of them talking at once.

Talon walked to the middle of the room and bowed low, crossing his talons and spreading his wings as customary, waiting for Scarlet to notice him. It felt like centuries before Scarlet’s voice rung through the room. “Yes?”

He glanced up questioningly.

“Yes, you.” Scarlet said, beckoning him with one wing. “What is it?”

Talon straightened up and walked stiffly across the room. “Your majesty, my name is Talon, of section eight-seven. I fought officially for the SkyWings for the first time against the IceWings, two days ago, a battle which killed two members of my section, and-”

“Get to the important part, I’m busy.” Scarlet interrupted.

“Yes, your majesty.” Talon agreed. “In the battle I found myself down on the ice plains with an ice dragon bleeding out under my claws.”

“So you want a reward?” Scarlet asked. “Grouse, go and-”

“No!” Talon flinched as Scarlet’s amber glare fixed on him. He took a deep breath and continued. “No, your majesty. I don’t want a reward. I wanted to ask why we were fighting in a war for a throne that isn’t our kingdoms, your majesty. Surely there must be a good reason.”

“Of course there is a good reason.” Scarlet threw up her wings. “I get new prisoners to fight in my arena, you get to put the years of training you had into practise and fight for me.”

“Yes, your majesty, I understand that.” Talon said. “But perhaps fighting isn’t the best way to decide the next SandWing queen-”

“Burn shall be the next SandWing queen.” Scarlet said. “Are you a traitor?”

Talon winced. “No, your majesty, I merely-”

“Then do not argue with your queen.” Scarlet said. “SkyWings cannot tolerate weakness, especially not in the midst of war.”

“I- I understand, your majesty.” Talon said, bowing again.

“Then you are dismissed.” Scarlet intoned. “Turbulence, escort this dragon back to his section.”

“Yes, your majesty.” A huge orange SkyWing said, bowling low.

Scarlet leant forwards and whispered something to Turbulence.

“Yes, your majesty.” Turbulence repeated. The SkyWing sauntered over to Talon, her tail making unnerving slithering sounds as she swiped it across the floor. She pushed past Talon and made her way out into the corridor beyond.

Talon followed dutifully. He’d clearly done enough damage for one day, disobeying this massive SkyWing who was trusted by Queen Scarlet would not do anything but get him in more trouble. He knew he was being escorted back, but it felt more as if he was being taken to one of the prison spires above the arena.

“Which section did you say you were in, dragonet?” Turbulence asked.

“Eight-seven.” Talon said. There was an average of one hundred dragonets enlisted to be trained for battle each year, sorted into sections of ten dragons each. That was the first number. The second was determined by the age of the dragons in the sections. Talon and all the dragons in his section were seven years old, hence the seven part in his section's name.

“I’m sorry.” Talon offered. Turbulence turned her nose up snobbishly and Talon stopped himself from continuing. The rest of the trek back past in silence.

In the tunnel leading to the seven-year dormitories, Talon spotted two red SkyWings, chatting and shoving each other playfully. He and Turbulence drew closer and Talon recognised the two as Kestrel and Avalanche. Turbulence brushed past the two and Talon followed, muttering a short ‘hi’, to Avalanche.

Avalanche frowned at Talon, then up at Turbulence, then said, “Talon, what’s happening?”

Turbulence turned to stare down at Avalanche. “Are you in section eight-seven?”

“Yes.” Avalanche said, looking perplexed.

“She didn’t have anything to do with me going and talking to Queen Scarlet!” Talon said quickly. “She’s just my friend. I swear.”

“Talon . . .” Avalanche said warningly.

“And you?” Turbulence turned to look at Kestrel.

“I’m in their section.” Kestrel shrugged her wings. “I’m not really friends with Talon though.”

“Well, Talon, you may go.” Turbulence said. Then her orange gaze fixed on Kestrel. “You, come with me, please.”

Kestrel shot Avalanche an alarmed look.

“You’re not in any trouble.” Turbulence looked as though she wouldn’t care either way. Kestrel nodded once and followed the larger dragon as she swept back towards the throne room.

“Talon.” Avalanche said. “What in Queen Scarlet’s name have you done?”

Chapter Text

The sky was a weak, pale blue, spotted with fluffy grey clouds. Nautilus was quiet as he glided along after Cuttlefish. His thoughts were anything but.

“Why do you want me to come with you and meet Princess Blister?” He asked finally, rubbing his claws together nervously.

“Because you’re smart.” Cuttlefish said. “And Blister likes smart dragons. Tempest would have wanted to go, to try and intimidate Blister. It never works. Blister hates Tempest. But you’re a blank slate to her, and you’re smart.”

“Oh. Well. Thank you?” Nautilus said doubtfully. “How do you know so much about Blister?”

“I’m the Council of Spies and Secrets.” Cuttlefish said. “I know things.”

Nautilus sighed. “What if I say the wrong thing?”

“You won’t. I’ll do most of the talking.” Cuttlefish said.

She made a sharp bank and started flying north. A few minutes later she dove down towards a small rocky island, cupped by white sea-foam. Nautilus followed suit, spotting a couple of pale shapes on the island. He landed on a small boulder. The island was three dragon-lengths long and two wide. It had no signs of life other than some half-dead moss clinging to the rocks. Two SandWings were coiled on the centre of the island by a burning fire. Cuttlefish was opposite them. Nautilus slipped down off the boulder and gave Blister a short bow. Blister nodded in return.

“Princess Blister.” Cuttlefish said. “Torrid. It is a pleasure to see you both again. This is Counsellor Nautilus, the Council of Publishing. Nautilus, as I’m sure you’ve realised, we are graced with the presence of Princess Blister and one of her closest allies, Torrid.”

Blister had pale white-gold scales, with a pattern of diamond-shaped black scales down her neck. She was still, every movement in her body entirely composed. She had a royal aura around her, as if she had been queen for so long nothing could possibly take her by surprise. But she wasn’t queen. She wasn’t even in her own kingdom, she was as far from it as possible, it seemed.

Torrid, on the other claw, couldn’t be more different. She was a huge, hulking mass of muscle, with pale yellow-grey scales that seemed almost dirty. Her tail was flicking sporadically. She had a long scar running down one side of her face, blinding her left eye. Her remaining eye was closed in a squint. The rest of her body was equally battle-scarred and her expression seemed locked in a constant snarl.

“A pleasure, your majesty.” Nautilus forced the words out of his throat.

“Indeed it is.” Blister said. Her voice was a smooth hiss that coiled like sea serpents in Nautilus’ mind. “And Cuttlefish, late as always.”

“I’m afraid many dragons sleep at night time.” Cuttlefish said.

Blister gave her a half-humouring smile. “You would think the dragons that can see in the dark would use their ability. I certainly would.”

“Ah, well.” Cuttlefish shrugged with open claws to show her helplessness on the matter. “I’m never sleeping, if it eases your pains.”

“That makes the two of us.” Blister said. Then she stood and stretched, large wings glittering pale gold in the morning light.

“Common practise dictates that we blindfold you so that you don’t find the location of our Summer Palace.” Cuttlefish said.

“Anything to make my allies sleep well at night, as they seem to be doing so comfortably.”

Torrid lurched to her feet with several small cracking sounds. “Your majesty, I strongly advise against letting yourself be blinded while with an unknown, potentially dangerous dragon.”

“I trust Cuttlefish entirely. And if she trusts Nautilus, then that is good enough validation for me.” Blister said, nodding in Nautilus’ direction. He felt an odd chill down his spine. “You will wait here until sunset. Any later and you may start practise drill seven.”

“Yes, your majesty, understood.” Torrid said. “That shall be done, your majesty.”

Cuttlefish offered a handful of slimy dark green-black seaweed to Blister, who looked at it distastefully but wrapped the seaweed around her head. Cuttlefish examined it, then flashed her scales in front of Blister. Nautilus blinked in surprise, Torrid started, but Blister stayed perfectly still, evidently unable to see.

Cuttlefish seemed to agree, because she nodded in satisfaction and turned to face the Nautilus. Her scales lit up in aquatic. We’ll be flying back.

How? She’s blindfolded. Nautilus asked, flicking his tail at Blister.

I’ll fly in front, my tail will be against her nose so she’ll be able to feel it. You make sure she stays on track. Now, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell other dragons of our conversation on the way, or with Blister. Cuttlefish glanced at Blister, who was still waiting patiently, and Torrid, who was growling under her breath.

Nautilus nodded. Cuttlefish spread her wings and turned to face the air. “Goodbye Torrid.”

Torrid growled.

Blister spread her wings. “Lead the way, Cuttlefish.”

Then the two swept into the air. Nautilus watched for a moment, turned to glance at Torrid, who was glaring at him, then he launched himself into the air after Cuttlefish and Blister. The three flew in silence. Blister’s wingbeats were steady and even, despite her blindfold. She didn’t once veer off track from Cuttlefish’s path.

When the island of the Summer Palace came into view Cuttlefish made a sharp dive down. Blister hovered for a second, then followed suit. Nautilus followed, hovering just above the water as Cuttlefish landed neatly on the surface with barely a splash. Blister slowed her decent in time to land somewhat gracefully in the water.

“Alright.” Cuttlefish said. “We’re going to swim forwards for about half a minute, then dive.”

Blister made a humming noise to show she’d heard. Nautilus dropped into the water and the three swam up towards the hidden tunnel entrance. Once they reached it, Cuttlefish dove down into the seaweed. Blister followed in a whirl of bubbles.

Nautilus waited several seconds, scanning the sky for any sign of Torrid or other SandWings who might try to locate the Summer Palace. The skies were clear of dragons. Nautilus turned and followed Blister and Cuttlefish, feeling claws sink uncomfortably into his stomach.

He had a bad feeling about this day.

Chapter Text

Avalanche watched with narrowed amber eyes as Talon shifted uncomfortably.

“Uh . . . something perfectly well thought out and very logical that could never result in the harming of myself or other members of my section?” He offered, flashing her a smile she didn’t return.

“Talon.”

“Okay, okay.” Talon said. “Went to the throne room and, uh, well . . . I may have talked about the battle and the IceWings and Hvitur?”

“You what?” Avalanche asked in disbelief.

“I talked about my opinions on the battle and the IceWings and Hvitur to Queen Scarlet.” Talon repeated.

Avalanche wouldn’t be surprised if smoke was pouring out her ears. “Talon, you idiot! That was a braindead RainWing thing to do!”

Talon winced away, staring at his claws.

“You could get hurt! You could get killed! You could get me and Kestrel killed!” Avalanche yelled. She hesitated, then said. “What did that SkyWing want from Kestrel?”

“I don’t know.” Talon said. His spines were drooping. “Look, Avalanche, I’m sorry. I just saw this awful note and I just couldn’t stop thinking about that and about Hvitur and about the battle and about the IceWing I couldn’t save. I let my emotions get the better of me.”

“Yes. You did.” Avalanche snapped.

“I just- I feel so bad about her.” Talon continued.

“Who?”

“The IceWing that I couldn’t save. I don’t even know her name.” Talon said quietly. “And I just . . . I wanted Queen Scarlet to see that it wasn’t just . . . that she wasn’t just a thing. She was real. She had a family, dragons who cared about her. Scarlet took her away from them. I took her away from them.”

Avalanche stared at Talon, who avoided her eyes in favour of the stone floor under his claws. She hadn’t realised he was still thinking about that, still regretting that. Whenever he was with her, he’d seemed happy. But it had only been three days since the battle. Of course he would still be upset.

“I didn’t want to get anyone else in trouble.” Talon mumbled.

Avalanche suddenly found it hard to speak. “I- I know. I’m sorry. I can’t- I can’t imagine what it was like. But . . . that was still really stupid.”

“Yeah.” Talon agreed morosely.

“I can’t think of any reason Queen Scarlet would want to talk to Kestrel, though . . .” Avalanche mused. “Kestrel’s never done anything wrong. She’s not really friends with you, she said it herself.”

“If I was . . .” Talon hesitated and shook his head.

“If you were?” Avalanche prompted. She saw Talon get that thoughtful look and she knew that whatever he was thinking was undoubtedly an idea, hopefully a clever one.

“If I was Queen Scarlet,” Talon said tentatively. “And a dragon threatened the way I ruled my kingdom, I would want to make sure that the dragon didn’t do it again.”

“Well, duh.” Avalanche said. That much was obvious.

“I’m not done.” Talon said. “Anyway, if that was me, then I would want to make sure that there were no more traitors in the tribe, or specifically in that dragon’s section.”

“But Kestrel is the most loyal dragon I know!” Avalanche protested. She couldn’t in a million years imagine Avalanche leaving the SkyWings. There wasn’t a disloyal bone in her body.

“But Queen Scarlet has no way of knowing that.” Talon explained. “So I’d want to get another member of the section and try and find out everything I can about the traitor and other potential traitors.”

“You think she’s threatening Kestrel?” Avalanche asked. “For information?”

“Yes.” Talon agreed. Then he blinked and flicked his tail uncertainly. “But, uh, that’s just what I would do. Queen Scarlet doesn’t think anything like me. Obviously. Because otherwise I wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with.”

“Well, I wouldn’t worry anyway.” Avalanche agreed, mostly to herself. “Kestrel doesn’t know much about you, right?”

“Yeah.” Talon agreed. Avalanche met his gaze and held it, smiling hopefully. He gave her his own, small smile.

“Nothing bad will happen. Just learn to keep your mouth shut.” Avalanche said. “This will all blow over in a couple of weeks.”

“You’re right.” Talon nodded. “I’ll just keep my head down and my wings tucked.”

Avalanche stretched her own wings and said. “Scarlet will forget all about us after she realises Kestrel doesn’t know anything. By next year the war will be over and we’ll all forget about stupid accusations-”

“Talon.”

Avalanche spun around at the sound of Kestrel’s voice. The red SkyWing was standing a little ways down the tunnel, posture stiff.

“Kestrel!” Avalanche exclaimed. “Are you okay? What did Queen Scarlet want?”

“I’m fine.” Kestrel said, tension in every word. “Great, really. Scarlet just wanted to check if I knew about any more traitors in our section. I said no. So now I’m here.”

“That’s what you said would happen.” Avalanche nodded, twining her tail around Talon’s.

“I know.” Talon agreed, but he looked oddly worried. “But . . . it seems a little underwhelming, doesn’t it? She’s just taking Kestrel’s word for it. I . . .”

The little orange SkyWing trailed off thoughtfully.

“Talon.” Kestrel said again. “I’d like a word. Please.”

“Oh. Sure.” Talon agreed.

“Privately. Now.” Kestrel added.

Avalanche felt something that wasn’t quite worry and wasn’t quite jealousy and wasn’t quite unease. Whatever it was, it must have showed on her face, because Kestrel said, “Don’t worry, Avalanche. It’s nothing really serious. Talon’s not in trouble.”

Talon flashed Avalanche a comforting look, then walked towards Kestrel. From a distance, Talon really did look small, especially in comparison to Kestrel. It looked like the larger SkyWing could easily squash him under one foot. And judging from the venomous look Kestrel gave Talon, whatever it was that she wanted to talk to him about, Avalanche doubted it actually was ‘nothing really serious’.

Chapter Text

Talon followed Kestrel in silence as the large SkyWing wound her way up a long staircase into a tower. Kestrel was practically oozing hostility as she stormed through the castle, scales glittering like dark fire in the torchlight. The two came to a stop at a tall tower that overlooked the palace. The sky was a pale blue, with long streaks of clouds, as if a dragon had ran her claws through the sky and left scratch-marks made from clouds. One thing was for sure, it was certainly private.

“Um . . . well?” Talon prompted, when Kestrel had glowered at him long enough to make him feel uncomfortable.

“Stay away from Avalanche.” Kestrel snarled. “I don’t want you near her. Keep away from her.”

“What? Why?” Talon asked.

“What do you mean, why?” Kestrel growled, snorting flames. “Because you’re a traitor, that’s why!”

“Excuse me?” Talon said, somewhere between shocked and annoyed. “I’m not!”

“Which is why you questioned Queen Scarlet’s orders, is it?” Kestrel asked.

“I questioned them because I morally disagreed with them.” Talon said, trying to keep his voice calm. Kestrel’s anger was so huge that it felt contagious, feeding into Talon’s mind and trying to entice him into an argument that he knew would solve nothing.

“What do you know about morals, traitor?” Kestrel asked. “Tell me, if being loyal is wrong, what else do you classify as ‘wrong’?”

“I know it’s wrong to kill a dragon with friends, family, loved ones. I know it’s wrong to fight for a cause you don’t believe in.” Talon said, spreading his wings to try and seem larger. “I know it’s wrong to harm dragons, to force them to fight each other. I know it’s wrong not to give a dragon freedom of speech. I know it’s wrong to agree with a queen who does all those things.”

“Her majesty is a good queen. She gave Avalanche a home here. She gave you a second chance.” Kestrel snarled.

“She can be a good queen.” Talon snapped. “She has made our tribe strong and prosperous. She has expanded our territory. But all dragons have faults. Hers is that she likes making dragons fight to the death.”

Kestrel huffed out a burst of flames and turned away. “I don’t- I can’t agree with you.”

“You think it’s acceptable to force dragons to fight each other to the death?” Talon asked.

“They’re prisoners of war. They’re different.” Kestrel huffed. Talon noticed she was staring in the direction of the arena, the pillars topped with glittering scales of dragons from other tribes visible across the palace.

Talon had a sudden, dizzying thought. He felt his legs shake and he sat down heavily. “It’s not.”

“Not . . . what?” Kestrel asked, curiosity evidently overcoming whatever her issues with Talon were.

“Not just prisoners of war.” Talon said. “It’s all of us. We’re being forced to fight against other tribes. We’re worth no more than they are. Three moons.”

Kestrel stared at him for a long time, then shook her head slowly, unfurling her wings. “You’re wrong. You’re just . . . wrong.”

“I wish I was.” Talon said.

Kestrel took a deep breath, spinning around to face Talon. Talon pushed himself to his feet, trying not to shake under the sudden intensity of Kestrel’s glare.

“Look, traitor. Let me lay it out for you.” Kestrel hissed. “I don’t know what you said that was such a big mess-up this time, but you’re treading thin ice. It’s a danger to be seen with you. And I don’t want my best friend in danger. So you’re going to stay away from Avalanche and she’s not going to hear a whisper about any of this, okay?”

“B-but-”

“Okay?” Kestrel snarled, claws scraping against the floor.

“Okay.” Talon said, backing away a couple of steps. “But . . . what if she talks to me first?”

“Then don’t respond. Don’t talk. Do whatever you have to.” Kestrel snarled. “If you really cared about her and wanted her to be happy, you’d stay away from her.”

“Surely we can talk this out.” Talon said under his breath.

“What was that, traitor?” Kestrel asked.

“Stop calling me ‘traitor’.” Talon said. “I have a name, Kestrel.”

“I’ll stop calling you that when you prove to me you’re anything but a traitor.” Kestrel hissed. “Keep your wings down and your claws clean and maybe you won’t be killed.”

Talon felt his jaw drop. “I’m on some kind of- of death list?”

“Yeah. My death list if you don’t leave me and Avalanche alone.” Kestrel snarled.

“But- but I mean, an official one from the queen? Am I on one of those?” Talon asked desperately. “I’m not a traitor! I swear!”

“Prove it.” Kestrel said. The larger SkyWing swept past him and disappeared into the tunnel with an irritable hiss and the slithering sound of dry scales on stone.

Talon stared after her, trying to make sense of the conversation. Whatever Queen Scarlet had threatened Kestrel with, it was effective. Kestrel didn’t want anything to do with Talon. Didn’t want Avalanche to have anything to do with Talon.

Talon sighed. Fine. He’d allow the larger SkyWing some time to calm down and, hopefully with some persuasion from Avalanche, come to her senses. He’d go to the library. It’s not like anyone he knew would ever be there.

Chapter Text

Every member of the council had gathered by the time Nautilus, Cuttlefish and Blister arrived in the early afternoon. Queen Coral and King Gill were sitting on their thrones, Coral’s claws worrying on the stone below, Gill still looking resigned and tired.

Tempest and Shark were standing side by side, staring unashamedly at the three newcomers as they landed. Lagoon was sitting quietly, wings raised in a slightly defensive position. Nautilus realised it was the first time the Council of Agriculture had been anywhere close to Blister. Beside her, the elderly Counsel of Communication, Baiji, ran a sympathetic wing along her side. The only council member missing was Posidonia, Counsel of Dragonet Care.

“Princess Blister.” Queen Coral smiled. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

King Gill nodded in uneasy agreement.

“You too, Coral.” Blister said easily, sidling up to the Queen. “And you, Gill. I assume Cuttlefish has told you why I requested a meeting.”

“To discuss a potential alliance, yes.” Coral agreed.

“I assume, since your entire council is gathered, you have already made a decision.” Blister said.

“We have some conditions.” Shark cut in. “We aren’t getting involved in this war for nothing, you know.”

Nautilus watched for Blister’s reaction. There was none, the SandWing simply blinked and said, “That is to be expected. What terms are we to meet?”

“We would like to negotiate with the MudWings.” Gill said. “The SeaWings have plans to build several civilisations along the shore of Pyrrhia, but we would like Queen Moorhen’s approval, seeing as it is her territory, strictly speaking.”

“A diplomatic meeting could certainly be arranged.” Blister agreed. “I cannot promise that Moorhen will compromise.”

“We’d like to open up trade with the SandWings, after the end of the war.” The Counsel of Communication, Baiji, said.

“That can be done, most certainly.” Blister said.

“We’d like protection from the SkyWings.” Conch, Counsel of Medicine, added in. Shark gave him a harsh look and he shrugged his broad shoulders helplessly. “There are more of them then there are of us. I loose count of how many SkyWing patrols have crossed boarders and injured our dragons. Nothing I can’t heal, but something I don’t want to keep seeing in the future.”

“That is a possibility that can be further discussed.” Blister said. “Is that everything?”

Coral nodded succinctly. “At the present time.”

“I suppose it’s my turn to ask what I would like of you.” Blister said. Her black eyes glittered. “I would like your knowledge of the islands to help me protect the dragons following me. If Burn comes for me after Blaze is killed we will need the advantage of surprise on our side and if we were able to navigate more of Pyrrhia, that would be a great advantage.”

The council members glanced at each other uncertainly.

“Feel free to discuss with each other.” Blister said.

Your majesty. Shark’s scales lit up instantly. That is not something we want any other tribe to know! Say they find our island!

You have a fair point, Shark. Cuttlefish retaliated. But say we only gave them a guide to a few islands with shelter. Pelican Island, for example, would be a perfect location for them, but is of no use to us and is a reasonable distance from our palace.

We can compromise. Gill agreed.

I don’t see the severity of the problem. She’s our ally. The Counsel of Justice, Undertow, commented. If she had any honour she wouldn’t betray us.

Does she have honour? Tempest asked.

Limited access. We shall start with Pelican Island. Coral decided, then turned the conversation audible again. “Very well.”

“Naturally, I would like support in the war. This consists of actual dragons to fight, but also smart dragons who can plan attacks and defences.” Blister said. “MudWings are powerful allies, but I’ll be the first to admit they are, on average, not intelligent in the way SeaWings are.”

“That is obvious.” Coral agreed. “MudWings are stupid dragons.”

“My last request.” Blister said. “Before you pass your judgement.”

Blister hesitated for a moment, tail swinging in a slow arc, back and forth along the floor. It made a dry, almost rasping noise as it did, the poisonous tip skidding dangerously close to Cuttlefish’s talons, although the blue-grey SeaWing didn’t seem to mind.

“Yes, Princess Blister?” Baiji prompted after a moment.

“I would like to know the exact location of your Summer Palace.” Blister said.

It was so silent that you could hear a raindrop hit the surface of the lake. The council members stared at each other in shocked silence. Nautilus saw bright flashes of surprise on many of the Council Members scales, but he couldn’t bring himself to move, let alone try and find the meaning in their scales.

A dragon that wasn’t yet their ally, wasn’t a SeaWing, was highly dangerous, expected to have knowledge of where the SeaWings lived? That could endanger hundreds of lives. That could change everything.

The flashing scales died out and all dragons sat in stunned silence. Blister’s black eyes were narrowed, her tail now still against the floor.

“Blister.” Gill said finally. His voice trembled and he cleared his throat before trying again. “Blister, with all due respect, you know why we cannot allow that, I hope.”

Blister was silent for a few moments, then slowly nodded. “Yes. Yes, of course. I spoke thoughtlessly. I was . . . too caught up in my- our futures. The futures of our tribes, where we are allies for hundreds of years, where we traded freely and where you had villages along the shores of Pyrrhia. Where the SeaWings are the most prosperous tribe in Pyrrhia. But that doesn’t excuse my assumption that you’d give such valuable information to me so soon. I humbly ask for your forgiveness and hope you will still consider me a potential ally.”

Nautilus heard nothing humble in her tone or her words. The great future she was talking of, that wasn’t what she had been thinking of when she had asked for their location. She had been asking because she wanted an advantage over her SeaWing ‘allies’.

“A moment to discuss this, if you will.” Coral said. Blister nodded.

A vote. Coral said. The counsel shall vote again, now after hearing this latest development. I thought we had reached a solid decision, but this no doubt changes everything.

No discussion? Tempest asked.

I’m sure that, at this point, you’ve all formed your own opinions. Coral shrugged, the pearls on her shoulders rippling in the dappled sunlight.

Dragons are stubborn. Gill agreed. Once you are set in your ways, I doubt there are many words that could change your opinion. We will vote now, the majority will be seven votes.

Shark gave a long, low sigh through his nose. This is a mistake. This entire war is a mistake.

Coral’s scales flashed. All in favour of continuing our alliance with Princess Blister? Opinions need not be explained, nor will they be judged.

Undertow raised her wing, glancing at the other dragons defiantly. Marine, the Counsel of Hunting, raised her wing cautiously, staring at the droplets of water on her claws. Baiji and Conch exchanged a look, then both raised their wings. The Counsel of Treasure, Pearl, followed suit, giving a helpless little shrug as Tempest cast her a sharp look. Coral looked around at the dragons with raised wings and slowly raised her own.

Nautilus counted quickly. Six. That was only just not enough dragons for a majority. He looked up towards Cuttlefish, wondering what she would think of the divided opinions of the counsel, only to see her raise her own pale wing in support of Blister, making the vote a majority.

Chapter Text

Kestrel returned with steam practically pouring out her ears she was so angry. Avalanche blinked in surprise at the sight of her friend.

“Kestrel?” She asked as the other SkyWing neared her. “You okay?”

“Fine.” Kestrel snarled. “Just tired. Stressed. Both.”

“Oh.” Avalanche shrugged. “Where’s Talon?”

“Dunno.” Kestrel grunted. “Said he was going off somewhere, didn’t want to be disturbed, didn’t want to talk to you.”

Avalanche frowned, that didn’t sound much like something Talon would say. He had seemed to like her, she thought he liked her. At least enough to maybe tell her in person if he didn't want to see her. Had she done something to upset him somehow? Didn't seem likely, but why else would he be reluctant to see her? Kestrel slid past Avalanche and ducked into their dormitory. Avalanche followed quickly, watching as her friend stormed to her sleeping ledge.

The only other dragon in the dormitory was Vulture, who was blowing lazy smoke rings into the air. His expression brightened as he lifted his head to look at Avalanche and Kestrel.

“Hey Kestrel, hi Avalanche.” He greeted. “Want to do somethin’ today? Was gonna go off to the library, but I would totally rather hang out with you two.”

“Leave us alone.” Kestrel snarled, before Avalanche could politely decline the offer. “You aren’t a dragonet, You’re a big grown up dragon now, you can do things on your own. So go off to the library or wherever.”

Vulture stared for a moment, looked at Avalanche, who gave him a sympathetic look and a shrug, then he dashed from the room.

“What did you talk to Talon about?” Avalanche prompted after Vulture’s footsteps were no longer echoing down the tunnel outside.

“Nothing important.” Kestrel muttered into her wings.

“You seem worked up.” Avalanche stated the obvious. “Well, more than normal.”

“Excuse me?” Kestrel demanded. “I’m not worked up. I’m fine.”

“Okay.” Avalanche said. “Why did Queen Scarlet want to see you?”

“She, uh, she didn’t. Personally. That older dragon just- just told me to check that Talon wasn’t planning anything traitorous.” Kestrel said, face still buried in her wings, claws worrying on the edge of her sleeping ledge. “That’s, that’s what I talked to him about. He, um, said he wasn’t, so it’s fine.”

“Oh.” Avalanche said. She thought for a moment, then grinned. “That’s good! That means that he’s not in trouble, right? Not serious trouble, since Queen Scarlet isn’t personally targeting him.”

“Oh, uh . . .” Kestrel shifted, poking her snout out from behind her wings. “I guess, but, you know, he still may have some . . . sort of, I dunno, he might still be being watched by higher ranking dragons, might still get in trouble if he steps out of line. Probably best to steer clear of him.”

“What happened to you telling me to grow a backbone and talk to him?” Avalanche was only half joking.

“That was before he was a traitor.” Kestrel apparently missed the attempted humour in Avalanche’s voice. “I mean- before he said traitorous things. Not implying that he is a traitor. Of course.”

Avalanche inspected Kestrel. The red SkyWing was acting odd. Kestrel was never nervous or unsure of herself. Yet now she seemed to be backtracking, undoing everything she said, words covered in doubt.

“You seem nervous. You’re never nervous. Are you sure you’re okay?” Avalanche blurted out before she could stop herself.

“Hmm? I’m fine.” Kestrel said. “Like I told you before, tired. Stressed. The battle, the arena fight, my section loosing members, Talon being chaotic, you being upset. But hey, it’s nothing I can’t handle.”

“You’d tell me if it was. You’d tell me if there was something bad going on, right?” Avalanche asked, hating how much she sounded like a little dragonet all of a sudden, but she couldn’t help it. She just wanted her friend to be alright. She didn’t like to think that Kestrel might be upset, especially with Talon, who really hadn’t done anything wrong.

Avalanche wished she could go back to the night before when she and Talon were dancing at Queen Scarlet’s ball and her bones had hummed with light-as-air energy and Talon’s smile had been brighter than fire and the stars in the sky had been as beautiful as they were up north.

Avalanche felt her wings twitch. She wanted to fly again, fly far, far away from the palace. Far away from all the confusion of the battle and Kestrel and Talon. Up in the sky where it was only her and her thoughts, where the calming blue countered the red of SkyWing scales and she could feel free and like herself.

But she couldn’t. First of all, the castle was still on lockdown. Second, she wasn’t a coward who would run away from her responsibilities. SkyWings didn’t flee. SkyWings fought tooth and claw till they won or died trying.

Avalanche was no exception.

Chapter Text

Talon traced the outline of the diagram on the ancient scroll paper rolled out in front of him. The stocky, short drawing of the SeaWing detailed the dragon in harsh, approximated strokes. It was a chunky-looking dragon, with a wide, short snout and muscular legs.

Talon wished he had seen a real SeaWing to compare it with. He wished he could see the ocean. On the maps throughout the Palace, Pyrrhia had been surrounded on all sides by water, stretching infinitely into the distance.

He pictured the bluey-brown of the Diamond Spray Delta and tried to imagine all that water for as far as the eye could see. It wasn’t possible, was it? From the Palace, all that could be seen was the mountains and the sky. Talon had no problem believing the sky could stretch forever and ever.

But a body of water as equally large? It seemed entirely fabricated.

Talon sighed a puff of smoke as he dismissed the thought. Instantly, his mind looped back to the conversation he’d had with Kestrel earlier. What had Queen Scarlet threatened her with to provoke such hostility?

Sure the red SkyWing was always grumpy. But she wasn’t malicious. There was no reason for her to suddenly lash out and decide that Talon was definitely one hundred percent a traitor out to kill Scarlet herself. Scarlet must have threatened her somehow.

Talon sighed again, standing and stretching his wings. There was no point in trying to read, or study. Clearly, it wasn’t working, his mind just went back to the thing he was trying to forget. He rolled up the scroll and turned the replace it on the shelf he’d found it, only to come face to face with an almost familiar red-brown SkyWing.

Talon yelped and leapt back, tail smashing painfully against the stone table. The other SkyWing blinked in surprise.

“Sorry Talon, didn’t mean to scare ya.”

“It’s fine. It’s fine.” Talon said. “Um . . . aren’t you in my section?”

“Yeah.” The SkyWing agreed. “Name’s Vulture.”

“Oh. Um . . . sorry.” Talon said. “I should have kno-”

“Nah, s’fine.” Vulture shrugged.

“Oh, well, uh, what brings you here?” Talon asked.

“Guess I’m sulkin’.” Vulture shrugged his shoulders, wings flicking uncomfortably. “Yourself?”

“Talked to Kestrel.” Talon said. “She told me to stay away from Avalanche. I’m here to give her time to calm down. I’m sure she’ll come around. She wasn’t serious about it, she was just mad.”

“Ah, that musta been right before she told me to leave her alone.” Vulture said. “She hasn’t calmed down yet, if ya wondering.”

“Oh.” Talon said. He tried to step around Vulture and put his scroll back, but Vulture’s tail was swinging serenely across the floor and to get past, Talon would have had to risk stepping on it. So he stayed where he was, eyeing the other dragon nervously.

Vulture scratched his forehead and said, “So . . . what cha reading?”

“It’s about SeaWings and the ocean, but I can’t concentrate, so what’s the point?” Talon asked.

“Why’re ya reading ‘bout SeaWings? We’ve never been to the ocean.” Vulture pointed out. “Probably never will if the SeaWings continue to stay out of the war.”

“Aren’t you interested, though?” Talon asked. “Doesn’t it mean anything that there’s a body of water that stretched as far as the sky?”

“Nah, not really.” Vulture said. “Doesn’t affect me.”

“Are you kidding?” Talon asked, stating to pace in tight circles. “Imagine what the SeaWings could explore underwater! It’s endless! Imagine the fish, the coral, imagine flying with the sky above and the sea below and nothing to watch for in any direction, just you and the sky! Imagine-”

“Right, right, I get it.” Vulture said. “Ya wanna visit the ocean.”

Talon paused for a moment, “Um, no offense, but why are you talking to me?”

“Because it’s a conversation?” Vulture offered. “That’s what dragons do. One talks, the other listens. Then the other talks and the first one listens.”

“No, why in the first place?”

“Cause you’re in my section, I guess.” Vulture shrugged. “Maybe cause I was lonely? Dunno.”

“You’re not . . . spying on me?” Talon asked.

“Why would I be?” Vulture looked genuinely upset at the idea.

“Don’t know, just paranoia.” Talon said quickly. He scanned Vulture’s face, but the other SkyWing just stared at him, open expression. Talon decided that he was indeed just being paranoid. “Anyway, I need to put this scroll back. Uh, good luck with . . . talking to Kestrel again?”

“Um. Thanks.” Vulture shifted, avoiding eye contact. His tail stilled and Talon took the opportunity to jump neatly over it and find the shelf he had to return his scroll to. He slotted the scroll into place and turned to where Vulture had been standing. There was no longer a sign of the reddish-brownish SkyWing.

Talon shrugged it off and turned to a new shelf, flicking through the scroll titles to find something else to distract him from Kestrel or Avalanche or being a traitor that could be killed for voicing an opinion.

He snorted indignantly, then stopped, surprised with himself. When had he been confident enough to feel indignant towards his Queen and his tribe? Was he really a traitor? But what was a traitor? Someone who betrayed a cause. If he betrayed Queen Scarlet, and by extension his tribe, then he was a traitor. But if he betrayed his morals did that make him a traitor to himself?

Which one would he rather be? Which one would Avalanche rather he be? Would they agree on their opinion? Talon hoped so. The idea of disagreeing made him feel odd and itchy, like his scales were too big for him. Talon shook his wings and squared his shoulders. It wouldn’t come to that. He wasn’t a traitor and he never would be, no matter what Kestrel seemed to think.

He grabbed a scroll of a shelf and took to the air, heading back to his favourite perch, when something shining a brilliant white reflected a ray of sunlight into his eyes and his flight faltered. He spun slowly in mid-air and stared at the white scale balanced precariously at the top of the library’s skylight.

Chapter Text

Looks like we aren’t so similar after all.

Nautilus blinked sightlessly at Cuttlefish’s flashing scales. He understood the message, he knew what she was saying, but it didn’t comprehend. Why would she have chosen to support Blister? It made no sense, there was no logic behind it.

Cuttlefish was logic-driven, if Nautilus was correct about anything at all during the time he’d spent around her. But where was the logic in allying one’s tribe to someone so potentially dangerous as Blister?

Nautilus turned and stared at Queen Coral, eyes fixed on her scales, waiting for this all to be over. She would tell them they were dismissed soon. She had to. Nautilus didn’t feel like he was in his body. He felt like he was watching a bad dream, a nightmare playing out before him.

“We will officially ally ourselves with you and the MudWings.” Coral’s voice met Nautilus’ ears after her mouth had finished moving. Nautilus shook his head and forced himself to focus on the meeting.

“I’m glad to hear that.” Blister smiled.

“I believe that concludes today’s business.” Gill said.

“Oh, not quite.” Blister said.

“No?” Tempest asked, claws scraping slightly on the stone floor.

“No.” Blister confirmed. “I would like to discuss a plan Moorhen and I had devised. It concerns Burn and her allies.”

“You aren’t going to try and take the stronghold back again?” Shark demanded. “Because we all know how well that ended for you-”

“No.” Blister flicked her wing, scowling. It seemed she didn’t like to be reminded of her failed siege on the SandWing Palace. The SeaWings fell silent, waiting for her to continue. Nautilus forced his shoulders to relax.

“My older sisters’ allies are weak after their battle with the IceWings.” Blister said. “I suggest we attack at once. Take them by surprise. We outnumber them, we outsmart them. We could knock the SkyWings out of the war while Burn is preoccupied with finding Blaze.”

Blister paused for a moment, brows furrowed. It looked to Nautilus like she was almost about to say something more, but then she snapped her mouth shut and said, “Well?”

“We- we would need time to think about that.” Coral said.

“This is a war, Coral. You don’t have time on a battlefield.” Blister said.

“We can afford a day to think and discuss it.” Shark growled.

Blister’s dark eyes stared into Shark’s pale ones, neither of them speaking for a small eternity. Finally, Blister shrugged. “I suppose.”

She turned to face Queen Coral and King Gill again and bowed smartly. “Your majesties.”

“Princess Blister.” Coral and Gill nodded in return.

Cuttlefish’s scales lit up. I suppose that’s my cue to escort our ally out?

Yes, go on. Coral said. “Counsel, dismissed, we will meet again tonight.”

Cuttlefish and Blister swept off towards the tunnel.

Nautilus wasn’t aware of his claws moving, his wings opening and catching the air under them, or the water hitting his scales until he was at the bottom of the lake, sand and bubbles swirling around him.

He hadn’t realised it, but he felt drained, physically and emotionally. Being around Blister had caused Nautilus to build up mental walls he didn’t know he had. He’d felt like one wrong move and her black eyes would swallow him whole. Her venomous tail would flick down on his skull, piercing the bone and sending poison right through his brain. Her snake-like voice curled through his mind, words twisting his thoughts and bringing steady doubts, like waves crashing on a beach. And that was the dragon Cuttlefish thought they should side with.

Nautilus forced himself to stop dwelling on the feeling that vines were trying to wrap around his throat and suffocate him. He made himself open his eyes and look around. The sand had settled. Above him, dragons flitted through the water, not giving a second glance to the Counsel of Publishing.

A dark green dragonet circled the water above Nautilus, caught his gaze, then darted off towards the other side of the cavern. Nautilus blinked, watching the dragonet speed off. He could swear that it was Whirlpool.

Had he been worrying about his mentor? If so, why would he have run when Nautilus caught his gaze? Maybe he had mistaken Nautilus for another dragon then realised his mistake and left. Nautilus shook his scales and slowly floated towards the surface of the water.

Above, dragons were fluttering importantly about the pavilion. Queen Coral, King Gill and Shark were sweeping from level to level. Nautilus drifted up to the water’s surface and stayed there for several moments.

He felt as though his scales were too big for him, like they were swallowing him whole. He felt anxious. On the one hand he didn’t want to sit still, because that felt like he was waiting for the war to sweep him up and kill him, Blister’s claws digging through his scales and catching on his gills, tearing them open.

But everything he thought of doing felt like he was procrastinating, holding off doing something important. What that thing was, he didn’t know.

So he stayed where he was, watching and waiting for Cuttlefish to sweep back into the Summer Palace. He wanted to talk to her. He wanted answers. Why did she support Blister? Why did she want the war to come to their doorstep with claws dripping blood and a promise of death?

Chapter Text

Avalanche tucked her wings in closer to her body as she slipped into the unfamiliar cave. The sign engraved into the stone above the entrance marked it as a library and the abundance of scrolls seemed to support that idea.

Stone shelves lined with curled scrolls stood on haphazard patterns. Ledges and branches stuck out of the high walls, providing places to sit. Large, smooth stones formed desks. The atmosphere was quiet, subdued. The only sound was the occasional soft whoosh of dragon wings or crackle of scroll paper. The light came from a huge skylight in the ceiling, where the pale, cloud-streaked sky was visible above.

“Avalanche? What are you doing here?”

Avalanche turned her gaze from the skylight and found herself staring into Talon’s warm amber eyes.

“Uh . . . looking for you, actually. Kestrel came back but she was all grumpy so I decided to find you instead.” Avalanche shrugged. “This is the library?”

“Yeah.” Talon nodded. “Haven’t you ever been here before?”

Avalanche shook her head.

Talon snorted in surprise. “My parents left me here all the time as a dragonet. . . . Hey! I have to show you something.”

He turned and leapt into the air, soaring through the library towards a small rock shelf near the top of the library. Avalanche unfolded her wings, careful not to knock anything over, then followed Talon into the air. He had landed on the rock shelf and shuffled over to allow her room to sit next to him.

The ledge was small, smaller than the one the two had shared last night under the stars. Talon ducked under Avalanche’s wing as she landed and she found him pressed into her side, head at the perfect height to rest on her shoulder.

She felt her scales grow warm at the idea of cuddling with Talon, but he lifted a claw and pointed up and out the hole in the ceiling. From a closer distance, Avalanche could tell it was easily big enough to fly out of. From this angle, she could see a tower, shining gold and red in a patch of sunlight.

She glanced down at Talon, who grinned back at her excitedly. “I mean, that’s a pretty view, but-”

“No, not that, look, right at the edge of the skylight.” Talon said. Avalanche lowered her head to Talon’s eye level and followed his gaze. She thought she could see what Talon was pointing at, but it didn’t look all that special to her.

A small white . . . something, reflecting the sunlight towards them and making it difficult to see. Her first thought was a shard of ice, but then she realised it couldn’t be, because it wasn’t anywhere near cold enough to be snowy.

And then suddenly something clicked. “Talon . . . is that an-”

“IceWing scale!” Talon hissed. “Yes! Hvitur was here! He escaped from the library!”

“And that’s exciting . . . how?” Avalanche asked.

“Because we know where he went to escape.” Talon said. “It’s like a mystery scroll. Isn’t it exciting? And it’s good to know that he got away here. If I ever need to escape then I could use the library, it seemingly isn’t well guarded.”

“If you ever- why would you need to escape?” Avalanche asked.

Talon’s gaze fell to his claws and his voice was quiet. “No- no reason. I was just- hypothetical, you know?”

“Okay.” Avalanche said, squinting at Talon.

“Anyway.” Talon said, a little quickly. “We know how he escaped, that’s exciting, right?”

“I suppose so.” Avalanche said. “So . . . should we tell Queen Scarlet about this or-”

“No! No way!” Talon interrupted, eyes wide as he stared at Avalanche incredulously. “That wouldn’t be fair to Hvitur!”

“You’re talking like you actually knew the ice dragon, as if he wasn’t just a prisoner.” Avalanche said.

“He wasn’t.” Talon snapped. “He was a dragon with friends and a family and everything.”

“Okay.” Avalanche surrendered.

“And I can’t exactly go and talk to Queen Scarlet after this morning.” Talon added as an afterthought.

“What exactly did you say?” Avalanche asked.

“I just . . . protested about the war. I should have thought about what I was going to say. I wasn’t convincing enough, that was it.” Talon tried for a smile.

Avalanche could see the worry underneath it. “Talon . . .”

But Talon’s eyes were now fixed on the library floor below. Avalanche followed his gaze and spotted a large red dragon that could only be Kestrel, gazing around the library, wings hunched.

“Hey, she looks like she’s looking for us.” Avalanche noted. “We should go and talk to her. I want to apologise for leaving her.”

“Uh . . .” Talon moved his gaze back to the skylight. “You should do that. I’m going to go and do something somewhere else. Bye.”

Avalanche opened her mouth to protest, but Talon shot into the air and out the skylight as though his tail was on fire. The IceWing scale was dislodged as he soared past and fluttered down to land on Avalanche’s claws. She looked at it for a moment and couldn’t help but hope that Hvitur the IceWing hadn’t been caught yet, then shook it off. Talon was rubbing off on her. Instead, she opened her wings to soar down to talk to Kestrel.

Chapter Text

Talon circled the library skylight twice, trying to find Hvitur’s scale and swoop down to examine it. He had been about to go find Avalanche and tell her about the scale when she found him. It was a bit disappointing that she hadn’t found it nearly as exciting as he did. He hoped Kestrel hadn’t seen him with her, so soon after she’d gotten her tail in a twist about the two of them being friends. Hopefully Avalanche wouldn’t mention it.

Talon tilted his wings and headed towards the northern end of the castle. Guards in shining armour swooped about the edges of the castle, yells and bursts of flames whirling through the sky. There seemed to be no progress on finding Hvitur.

The IceWing had probably managed to completely escape the castle and cause this lockdown to be useless. Talon hoped so, that would give the ice dragon more time to escape. Hvitur was smart. Smart enough to escape the arena. So surely smart enough to escape the palace.

But if he’d escaped from the library skylight, how had he managed to get away unseen? Maybe Talon could trace his steps, find out exactly how the IceWing had escaped. Maybe even find out where he was now.

Talon banked sharply and headed back towards the library. He hoped Kestrel and Avalanche weren’t still there, or that they didn’t see him there. He didn’t want Kestrel to get the idea that he was talking to Avalanche until he’d proven he wasn’t a traitor. Although he wasn’t. Not really.

Talon landed on the edge of the skylight, claws digging into the slanted roof of the castle as he looked around. If he was an IceWing prisoner who had just escaped the claws of an enemy tribe and was now loose in their castle looking for an escape, where would he go?

“Hey Talon! I thought you were going to go do something somewhere else.”

Talon jumped away from the skylight, startled. He peered down into the skylight and saw Avalanche and Kestrel looking up at him from his usual perch. The former looked happy to see him, the latter anything but.

“Oh, uh, no.” Talon shrugged. “I didn’t have anything better to do I guess.”

Avalanche leapt into the air and, with a flap of her wings, soared out of the skylight and landed beside Talon. Kestrel followed suit.

“So you came back here?” Avalanche asked.

“Yeah, I . . .” Talon glanced at Kestrel, then lowered his voice. “I wanted to try and figure out how Hvitur escaped.”

“Oh.” Avalanche said. “Can we help?”

Talon hesitated. He did want Avalanche’s help. Avalanche was smart and funny and didn’t get mad when Talon said things that others could think of as traitorous. But Kestrel didn’t want to be anywhere near Talon and didn’t want Avalanche anywhere near Talon either. Kestrel was glowering at him behind Avalanche’s back.

So Talon shook his head. “Nope, I’m good. It’s probably easier alone, less suspicious, or something.”

“Oh.” Avalanche’s wings slumped.

“Come on, Avalanche.” Kestrel said. “We can go explore the old cave mines, like we were planning to do.”

“Right, yeah.” Avalanche said, smiling in a way that Talon thought was slightly forced. “See you, Talon.”

“Bye.” Talon said. The two larger SkyWings dived back into the library and disappeared.

Talon turned to survey the rooftops of the castle. If he were in Hvitur’s scales, Talon thought that being out on the open would be the last place he wanted to be. He’d want to mislead his pursuers and escape. But Hvitur didn’t know the castle in the way Talon or any other SkyWing did. Would he risk going back to unfamiliar territory? Surely the answer was yes, because SkyWings could easily catch an IceWing in flight.

So where? He would have wanted to find a place to disappear to quickly. Talon scanned the area again, eyes landing on the small tower visible from his usual perch in the library. It was only a short distance away, with windows at the top, large enough for a small dragon to squeeze through. Talon scrambled over the roof and inspected the tower.

There were no windows at the right height for someone to jump into from the roof, but Hvitur must have been flying when he escaped through the library skylight. Talon opened his wings and circled the tower, landing clumsily on a windowsill and slipping inside. The tower had a landing where Talon was at the top, but was otherwise hollow, a narrow staircase winding around the wall to the floor far below.

In the middle of the landing where Talon stood there was a small bowl full of small spiky plants, each with a long string attached to it. Two slingshots leaned against the bowl. A defence tower, to light and shoot cactus-flames at any hordes of attacking dragons.

Talon edged around the bowl carefully till he stood at the top of the stairs. Not so much as a torch lit the darkness below. He thanked the stars he had fire to light his path. Hvitur, if he had used this tower as an escape path, would have had to run blindly into the darkness with no idea what was ahead of him.

Talon shifted, ready to start his descent. Something on the tower’s wall sparkled. Careful to avoid setting the cactus bombs behind him off, he breathed a small plume of flame. On the cave wall was a small patch of ice crystals, the like of which could only have been made by an IceWing’s frost breath.

Chapter Text

Nautilus’ ink-stained claws hovered above the parchment indecisively. He hadn’t wanted to be useless while waiting for Cuttlefish to return to the Summer Palace, but he wasn’t really sure what to do with himself. He had wanted to update the scrolls on the library level, or re-ink them. But whenever he stood over a scroll, the words escaped his mind.

Whirlpool hadn’t appeared, much to Nautilus’ annoyance. He wanted to ask the dragonet what he was doing, constantly appearing and disappearing at seemingly random times, never really being helpful.

“I take it your council meeting didn’t go well?”

Nautilus jumped at Nix’s voice, spinning around to face his sister. She was perched on the edge of the pavilion, wings speckled with diamond-like water droplets. Nautilus shook his head, then nodded.

“You went with Cuttlefish to meet Princess Blister.” Nix said. It wasn’t a question, but Nautilus nodded anyway.

“Was it that bad?” Nix asked.

“You shouldn’t be here.” Nautilus said tiredly. “You should be out hunting.”

“And you should be properly updating your scrolls.” Nix said. “Sometimes there are things more important than our duty to the tribe.”

Nautilus smiled a little. Nix slipped onto the pavilion and made her way to Nautilus’ side.

“Talk to me.” She prompted.

“We’re allied to Blister.” Nautilus said, before he could stop himself. He flinched. “Don’t tell anyone, I’m sure Queen Coral is going to make a public announcement.”

“And you don’t think that’s a good idea because . . .?”

“She’s . . . dangerous.” Nautilus said. “Not in the way that Princess Burn is dangerous, or in the way Shark or Tempest are dangerous. She’s like Cuttlefish, she’s smart. But she seems . . . like she’s using us. Like we’re working for her, not with her. I don’t think she should be the dragon who wins the war.”

Nix was silent.

“Cuttlefish supports her.” Nautilus said quietly. “I didn’t expect that. She kept going on about how we’re similar, then she supported Blister.”

“Would you?” Nix asked.

“I’m not. Obviously.” Nautilus said.

“No, are you. Would you?” Nix asked. “Would you support Princess Blister, if it came down to the three of them?”

Now Nautilus was silent.

“It has to come down to the three of them. Burn, Blister and Blaze. Which one do you think should be queen?” Nix asked.

“I haven’t met all three of them, how could I possibly make that decision?” Nautilus asked, sounding more hostile than he intended to.

“That’s where you and Cuttlefish are different.” Nix decided.

“She’s met the other SandWing Princesses and I haven’t?” Nautilus asked.

“No.” Nix shook her head slowly. “She’s able to make a decision.”

“I can make decisions.” Nautilus snapped.

“Can you?” Nix smiled. “I don’t think you can.”

“I can. I just . . . don’t think that there is a right one here.” Nautilus said.

“Yes, but sometimes you have to choose a lesser evil.” Nix said. “I think that’s what Cuttlefish has done. Chosen a lesser evil.”

“She and Blister seemed so- so friendly.” Nautilus huffed.

“Are you jealous?” Nix asked playfully.

Nautilus stared at her for so long he thought he could bore holes into her scales. “Are you implying I have feelings for Cuttlefish?”

Nix pulled a shocked expression. “No, of course not! I was implying you were in love with Blister!”

Nautilus stared at her for a few seconds, then the two burst into laughter. He wasn’t sure if it was because he was so tired, or if he was just glad to be sharing his problems, but he somehow felt lighter in that moment.

“Honestly.” Nautilus said, after they had stopped laughing. “Are you implying that?”

“I thought there could be a chance.” Nix shrugged slightly. “She seems like your type.”

“Oh?” Nautilus asked.

“She’s smart and wordy, like you.” Nix said. “And she always looks at you funny.”

“Funny?” Nautilus asked.

“Oh, well, not in a romantic way. More in a way like she’s trying to figure out what’s going on in your mind.” Nix shrugged.

“Well, no.” Nautilus said. “There’s nothing like that.”

“Okay.” Nix shrugged. “I didn’t think it was romantic anyway. She looks at you like she’s examining you . . . she’s sort of like a NightWing trapped in SeaWing scales.”

“Who’s a NightWing?” A new voice said. Nautilus spun around yet again and saw Whirlpool. The dark green dragon was hovering in the air, watching the exchange with his pale green eyes.

“No one, it’s a metaphor.” Nautilus dismissed. Then he frowned at the dragonet. “What are you doing here?”

“I sort of work here as your would-be apprentice?” Whirlpool offered.

“Duh.” Nix snorted.

“No, as in, I saw you earlier, but when we made eye contact you disappeared, so there must be a reason for you to be here now.” Nautilus said.

“Oh.” Whirlpool looked at his talons nervously. “W-well, you looked like you needed to be alone, so I left you be. But I figured, since you flew up here, I was welcome here too.”

Nautilus nodded. “Yes, well, I suppose so.”

Whirlpool slid onto the platform and stretched his wings. “What happened with the meeting with Blister? Are we allies with her?”

“How do you know about that?” Nautilus asked.

“Well . . . I can’t have been the only one who saw a huge, menacing, terrifying SandWing princess enter the palace and enjoy a lovely council meeting with you all.” Nix said.

Whirlpool nodded, worrying at the floor with his claws.

“Well, I suppose Queen Coral will announce the outcome soon enough.” Nautilus shrugged. Something about Whirlpool’s excuse didn’t feel quite right. How could he have known what the meeting was about? And why did he seem to turn up at the most convenient times?

Whirlpool glanced up with narrowed eyes and a frown that mellowed into a smile as he caught Nautilus staring. Nautilus felt the claws in his stomach dig in tighter.

Chapter Text

Avalanche followed Kestrel through the palace in a tense silence. Their talk in the library had been short and full of tension that had yet to be resolved. It hadn’t been helped by Talon’s brief reappearance.

“So, which mines should we explore today?” Avalanche said, wincing as her voice echoed off the cave walls, too loud for her taste.

“I was thinking the ones near the Dragonflame Towers.” Kestrel shrugged. “We haven’t been there in a while. And they’re in the middle of the castle, no one will be there.”

Avalanche nodded, before realised Kestrel couldn’t see. “Yeah.”

The tunnel split in a fork. Avalanche and Kestrel veered to the left and walked deeper into the palace. All signs of natural light had faded. The entrances to the Dragonflame Towers each had a torch over the entrance, casting a weak glow over Kestrel’s red scales, making them a deep flickering maroon.

Avalanche thought she could hear a small drip-drip-drip of water, although there had been no rain recently. And over that, there was a faint click of claws on stone that was too far away to be Kestrel’s or her own.

“Do you hear that?” Avalanche asked, stopping outside one of the tower entrances.

“Hear what?” Kestrel asked, half turning to face her.

“I can hear claws on stone.” Avalanche said. “And dripping water.”

“So?” Kestrel asked. “It’s probably just out claws. And it’s a dark, damp cave. Of course there’s dripping water.”

“But it’s not. It hasn’t rained for weeks and we aren’t walking yet I can still hear clawsteps.” Avalanche said. “Listen.”

Kestrel stood still and tilted her head. Then she shrugged. “Yeah, I can hear them, but it’s probably nothing.”

“What about the water?” Avalanche said.

“I don’t know.” Kestrel shook her head.

“You know where water could come from?” Avalanche asked. “An IceWing’s frostbreath melting.”

Kestrel sighed, a look of annoyance passing across her face. “You sound like Talon, drawing connections when there’s nothing there.”

“Okay, but hear me out.” Avalanche said. “If it is Hvitur-”

“You know his name?” Kestrel demanded.

“Shh, if it is Hvitur, then that means he’s probably still down here.” Avalanche said. “He could be the claws we can hear. And he could be able to hear us. He’s bigger than us, probably older with more experience fighting.”

“What if he attacks us?” Kestrel finished.

“I think it’s unlikely he want to.” Avalanche said. “I mean, he didn’t kill the SandWing.”

“The SandWing was one of Blaze’s. An ally. But we’re enemy SkyWings, the tribe of dragons who captured him and forced him to fight to the death.” Kestrel said. “If it were me, I’d want to kill the enemies.”

“But he’s not you.” Avalanche said.

“You sound like Talon.” Kestrel frowned. She scratched at the rock under her claws.

Avalanche scrunched her nose. “Who was it who told me to stop being a coward and just talk to him in the first place again?”

“Weren’t we all worried about an IceWing a few moments ago?” Kestrel said.

“Right.” Avalanche said, glancing about quickly.

“No need to be scared.” Kestrel squared her shoulders. “We’re trained soldiers.”

Avalanche nodded, folding her wings back again. She appreciated Kestrel trying to make her feel less scared, but Avalanche honestly thought that it wasn’t likely that Hvitur was going to attack. Or maybe Talon had just messed with her mind with his fixation on peace.

Kestrel breathed out a plume of fire that made her scales glitter like rubies. Avalanche glanced about as the firelight died off into sparks. Something shiny caught her eye, caught in a small shard of rock that was chipped off from the tunnel.

Avalanche knelt closer and then her eyes widened. A small silver-white scale was stuck between two rocks. A scale that could only belong to an IceWing.

“What are you looking at?” Kestrel said, crouching by Avalanche.

“He’s been here. Hvitur. I mean.” Avalanche said. “Talon would be ecstatic to see this. Shame he didn’t come with us.”

“Yeah.” Kestrel didn’t sound that enthusiastic as she reached forwards and pulled out the scale.

“He was going to try and find him.” Avalanche said. “Hvitur, I mean.”

“Oh.” Kestrel’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“I think he just . . . wants to get to know Hvitur? Wants to know why the IceWing didn’t kill that SandWing?” Avalanche offered.

“Hmmm.” Kestrel frowned. “Do you?”

“I don’t know. My head’s been so busy since the battle that I can hardly figure out which thoughts are mine and which aren’t.” Avalanche snorted out a plume of smoke.

Kestrel examined the scale thoughtfully. “Do you still like Talon?”

Avalanche blinked in surprise. “Yes?”

“Oh.”

“I know you think he’s a traitor,” Avalanche said. “But he isn’t, I promise. He just doesn’t think that war is the answer to all this.”

“He challenged Queen Scarlet’s decisions. To her face.” Kestrel said.

Avalanche stared at her claws. “He’s kind. He’s cute. He’s not a bad dragon.”

“I just don’t think it’s safe to be associated with a traitor. I mean, a dragon that’s been branded as a traitor.” Kestrel flicked her tail nervously.

“Come on, all the dragons in the Sky Kingdom and we’ve managed to befriend the one who happens to be marked as a traitor by Queen Scarlet?” Avalanche snorted. “Not likely.”

Kestrel placed the IceWing scale down between them. “Avalanche . . . I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I won’t. He’s impulsive.” Avalanche said. “But he isn’t stupid.”

“Talon’s not safe to be around.” Kestrel insisted.

“I trust Talon.” Avalanche said.

“I- Avalanche.” Kestrel lifted her head to scan the tunnels. “The clawsteps have stopped.”

Avalanche looked around as well. Nothing. She glanced at the tunnel doorway. Not exactly knowing what she was expected, Avalanche ducked through the entranceway and looked up, breathing a plume of fire.

In the firelight she caught sight of familiar sunset-orange scales and a bemused expression.

Avalanche glanced over her shoulder. “Kestrel, guess what?”

Kestrel squeezed into the mouth of the tunnel, wing pressed against Avalanche’s. Avalanche breathed another plume of fire and the orange SkyWing grinned sheepishly.

“Fancy meeting you two here.” He said, peering down over the edge of the staircase.

Avalanche grinned back up at the SkyWing, “Hi Talon.”

Chapter Text

As Talon reached the bottom of the staircase he ducked away from Kestrel. She shot him a glare from where she stood beside Avalanche. Talon shrugged hopelessly. “I swear, I’m not following you.”

“Talon, guess what we found!” Avalanche said suddenly, squeezing out of the entrance to the tower and into the tunnel beyond. Talon and Kestrel followed her into the tunnel. Avalanche held up something white and shiny.

“Is that . . .”

“Another IceWing scale.” Avalanche agreed.

“That means I was right! Hvitur did use the tower as an escape route!” Talon exclaimed.

“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.” Kestrel interrupted, pushing past Talon to stand by Avalanche. “Another IceWing scale?”

“Oh, uh, right . . .” Talon swallowed. “I found one in the library. I came down here because I figured Hvitur used the tower to escape. I wanted to know how he got out of the palace.”

Kestrel’s eyes narrowed.

“I was going to tell Queen Scarlet.” Talon added hopefully.

“Of course you were.” Kestrel snorted.

“Yeah . . . I wasn’t.” Talon admitted.

“What was Talon going to do with the information anyway?” Avalanche asked, glancing between Kestrel and Talon. “So he found a way to escape the palace? Hvitur already escaped, how are we going to stop that?”

“What if another enemy escapes through this tunnel?” Kestrel challenged. “Or worse, what if enemies attacked. That IceWing will tell the rest of his tribe, they’ll come back and take us by surprise, killing us all. And it would be your fault for not telling them.”

Talon stared at his claws. The truth was, he could imagine a day when he would have to use this exact route to escape. But he would never tell Kestrel that.

“Who’s to say he did escape?” Avalanche asked suddenly, placing the glittering white scale back on the cave floor. “These caves are endless and half of them are dangerous. Maybe one collapsed and killed him. Maybe he got lost and starved to death.”

Talon’s stomach twisted. The thought of Hvitur not escaping hadn’t even occurred to him. He didn’t like the idea of the ice dragon getting so close to freedom only to die.

“Do you know if there’s a way out from these tunnels?” Talon asked.

Avalanche shook her head. “But I wouldn’t doubt that there is at least one. The mines are huge. Kestrel’s been exploring them for five years and she still gets lost.”

Kestrel leaned closer to Talon. “Why are you trying to find out how the IceWing escaped?”

“I’m just . . . interested.” Talon said. He didn’t want to say that he was worried he’d have to use this as an escape. He didn’t want to admit that he was hoping to find Hvitur and talk to him. So he just kept quiet and hoped Kestrel would stop asking. She muttered something that sounded awfully like ‘traitor’, but didn’t ask any more questions.

“So now you’re here do you want to explore with us?” Avalanche asked.

Talon did. He wanted to explore these caves, see if he could find Hvitur, or a way out. And he wanted to spent time with Avalanche. But with Kestrel glaring at him like that, he didn’t think that ‘yes’ was the correct answer.

“Come on, it’ll be fun.” Avalanche promised. “What else are you going to do anyway?”

Talon shrugged his wings indecisively. “Nothing, really.”

Kestrel growled under her breath. Avalanche grinned. “Great!”

Talon scraped the rocks under his claws. “So . . .?”

“So now we explore!” Avalanche said.

“Why?” Talon asked.

“For fun.” She gave him a bemused look. “Don’t you ever do anything just for the fun of it?”

He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. Aren’t you meant to do things for a purpose?”

“That’s the mentality of the Palace.” Avalanche laughed lightly and Talon felt warm under his scales. “All you ever do is work, work, work. Back up in Conifer Province we had time for fun.”

“We have parties and things.” Talon offered.

“But it’s all organised by someone who isn’t you.” Avalanche said. “Don’t you ever want to decide to do something yourself?”

Talon blinked in surprise. “I guess.”

“That’s what we’re doing now.” Avalanche said. She spun around to face the tunnel again. Kestrel was leaning against the wall, staring down the tunnel absently. As if sensing Avalanche’s gaze, she turned to stare at them.

“You two finally ready?” She asked.

“Yeah.” Avalanche said. “Let’s go.”

The two larger SkyWings took off down the tunnel, breathing occasional plumes of fire. Their claws echoed down the tunnel as they laughed together. Talon glanced down at the IceWing scale at his claws.

He really hoped that Hvitur had found a way to escape. He hoped he would never have to do the same.

Chapter Text

“You didn’t like Blister.”

Nautilus flinched, glancing around quickly only to come face to face with Cuttlefish. The blue-grey SeaWing slid forwards a few steps to stand beside him on the beach, water lapping over her claws.

“I didn’t.” Nautilus agreed.

“She’s a smart dragon and a smart choice.” Cuttlefish said.

“Is she?” Nautilus asked.

Cuttlefish nodded. “For now. She and the MudWings can be strong allies for us.”

“She’s using us.” Nautilus said, lifting his head to look at the setting sun, which was hovering low over the water, casting an orange glow over the sea and the sky. “I don’t like the way she wants to know everything about our kingdom. Secrecy keeps us safe.”

“Secrecy makes us look like cowards.” Cuttlefish said, voice light. “Trust me, many of the dragons from other tribes don’t think of us in a flattering light.”

“I suppose that makes you the biggest coward of all, Counsel of Spies and Secrets?” Nautilus asked, turning to look at her. She was still standing beside him, smiling slightly as she watched the sunset.

“I would argue that the opposite is true.”

Nautilus sighed heavily. “Talking to you is confusing.”

“Is it?” Cuttlefish asked.

“Yes.” Nautilus said.

“Why?” Cuttlefish asked.

“You always say one thing, then completely contradict yourself.” Nautilus said. “You never really give anyone any answers.”

“I don’t give you the answers that you already know.” Cuttlefish said.

“What does that mean?” Nautilus demanded.

“You know that as well, I'm sure.” Cuttlefish laughed a little.

“You’re in a good mood tonight.” Nautilus observed.

“Yes, I suppose so.” Cuttlefish said.

“Any reason why?” Nautilus asked.

“I had some very good news today.” Cuttlefish said. “An informant from the Sky Kingdom told me their palace was on lockdown.”

“Why?”

“An IceWing escaped their prisons.” Cuttlefish said. “They’re trying desperately to find him.”

“That’s why Blister seemed to certain we could attack the SkyWings.” Nautilus realised. “But why didn’t she tell us?”

“The more dragons who know, the less valuable the information is.” Cuttlefish said.

The two SkyWings sat in silence for a few minutes, watching the sun sink below the sea, orange fading from the sky to be replaced with a deep, dark blue.

“I’m leaving tonight.” Cuttlefish said. “That’s why I’m in a good mood.”

“Leaving? Where are you going?” Nautilus asked.

“Away.” Cuttlefish shrugged. “Wherever the tides take me.”

“Aren’t you scared? You’re flying into a war zone.” Nautilus said. He couldn’t imagine ever being brave enough to fly right onto mainland Pyrrhia knowing there was a war going on.

“I’ve done it before.” Cuttlefish said. “And I much prefer the open sea to the palace.”

Nautilus stared at her in shock. “But all SeaWings love the palace.”

“Because they don’t know anything else.” Cuttlefish said. “Personally, I find the palace to be a prison. SeaWings have so many laws and customs that the rest of Pyrrhia doesn’t bother with.”

“If they don’t have laws it’s a wonder their kingdoms haven’t collapsed.” Nautilus said.

“You’ve never met dragons from other tribes, have you?” Cuttlefish asked suddenly.

“No.” Nautilus said. “I haven’t. I’ve seen MudWings and SkyWings from a distance.”

“I forget how young you are.” Cuttlefish said.

Nautilus frowned at the Counsel of Spies and Secrets. He wasn’t a dragonet, he was ten years old. He wasn’t the youngest member on the counsel. Nautilus glanced over at Cuttlefish. Wondering about her age, or anything about her, had never occurred to him.

“How old are you?” Nautilus asked.

Cuttlefish burst out laughing, scales on her wings flashing in amusement. Nautilus watched her in uncomfortable silence. Finally, the blue-grey SeaWing said, “How old do you think I am?”

“Younger than thirty.” Nautilus said instantly. His mother was thirty, and was over a head taller than Cuttlefish. “But older than ten, older than thirteen, because I assume you’re older than Nix, too.”

“Well, yes.” Cuttlefish said. “But any specific number?”

Nautilus examined Cuttlefish carefully. There were several tell-tale signs of a SeaWing’s age. The brightness of their flashing scales, the length of their horns, the sharpness of their teeth and the condition of their wings and scales. However, not every SeaWing showed traits of age.

Cuttlefish’s horns weren’t long, in fact, they were shorter than Nautilus’, her teeth, wings and scales were all in fine condition and her scales had been bright.

Nautilus shrugged. “Twenty?”

Cuttlefish made a surprised huffing sound.

“Was I right?” Nautilus asked, taken aback that his random guess had gotten such a reaction.

“No, but you were closer than I thought you’d be.” Cuttlefish said, grinning again. “I’ll tell you something that applies to every dragon tribe.”

“Oh?” Nautilus asked.

Cuttlefish nodded. “Footsteps.”

“Hmm?”

“You can tell a dragons age by the size of their footsteps, taking into account the average size-age ratio for each tribe.” Cuttlefish said. “Funnily enough, although dragons can be large or small for their age, many of them have similar sized feet as what is average for their age. That’s why you see so many small SeaWings with large feet.”

“That seems . . . rather obvious. I thought you had some secretive method that would be difficult to understand.” Nautilus said.

“Sometimes the answer hardest to find is the one right before our eyes.” Cuttlefish said.

“I suppose so.” Nautilus said.

“Eighteen.” Cuttlefish said.

“That’s your age?” Nautilus asked.

“Yes.” Her gaze lifted to the sky, where the last rays of sunlight were casting a glittering silver rays over the ocean.

“When are you leaving?” Nautilus asked, hoping he had properly interpreted her thoughts.

“When this conversation is over. But I'll have to come back.” Cuttlefish said. “When are you leaving?”

“I suppose I’ll go back inside after you leave.” Nautilus shrugged.

“That’s not the answer I was looking for.” Cuttlefish said.

“Then clearly you didn’t ask the right question.” Nautilus shot back.

“No.” Cuttlefish said. “Clearly you are not seeing what is right in front of your nose.”

Without another word, Cuttlefish unfurled her wings and leapt into the air, scales flashing once as a goodbye, before winging away towards mainland Pyrrhia.

Chapter Text

When the three SkyWings returned to their dormitory, a huge orange SkyWing was waiting outside, tail swishing from side to side in impatience.

“Turbulence.” Kestrel said in surprise. “I, um, what are you doing here?”

Avalanche blinked and looked between her friend and the large orange SkyWing.

“Kestrel, I must have a word with you at once.” Turbulence stood, stretching her enormous orange wings as best she could in the cramped tunnel. Avalanche didn’t usually feel small, but next to this SkyWing she did. The dragon had to be at least thirty years her senior. When standing, her horns nearly brushed the roof of the cavern.

Kestrel shot Avalanche an apologetic look. “Sorry, Avalanche, I’ll be right back.”

Avalanche nodded and she and Talon slipped into the dormitory. Immediately, the five other dragons who shared their dorm burst into anxious whispers.

“What was that all ‘bout?” Vulture asked, sliding up along Avalanche’s side.

“You’re in trouble now.” Breeze noted.

Claret raised an eyebrow. “Or you have some sort of secret mission.”

Someone else peered out from under Claret’s wings. “Spill it, what’s going on?”

“Shut up and let them tell us, Slipstream.” Breeze snapped.

“You’re one to talk.” Slipstream shot back.

Windstorm flicked a wing and said. “Well?”

“She’s not in trouble.” Avalanche said, although she wasn’t really sure. Talon was shrinking beside Avalanche, pressed close to her scales, nervous under the sudden attention of their wingmates. Avalanche felt something protective inside her. She wrapped a wing around his small frame and said. “I’m sure she’s fine.”

“It’s my fault.” Talon whispered. “This is my fault.”

“Don’t be stupid.” She hissed back. “How could it be your fault?”

“She’s the- she’s the dragon who escorted me back to the dorm last time.” Talon whispered back.

Avalanche looked up at her section, all of whom were listening eagerly. “We’re going to the library. We’ll be back before moon high.”

“You better be.” Breeze called after the two. “The lockdown ends tomorrow, training the day after, they’ll want you back before the lockdown ends.”

Avalanche didn’t respond, just steered Talon towards the library. It was mostly empty, with the torches out and the night sky shining through the skylight. “Let’s go.”

“Where?” Talon’s voice was shaky.

“Flying.” Avalanche said.

“The palace is still on lockdown.” Talon said quietly.

“So? We can still fly.” Avalanche said. “We’re SkyWings, we can fly anywhere.”

Before Talon could argue further, Avalanche lept into the sky and soared up through the skylight. Guards swept back and forth along the edges of the castle, but none cast more than a glance towards Avalanche and Talon.

The smaller SkyWing caught up to her and glided by her, eyes on the ground far below.

“It’s not your fault.” Avalanche said again.

“It is.” Talon said. “You shouldn’t be associated with me, that’s what this is. She knows I’m a traitor, Queen Scarlet knows, that’s why Turbulence was there.”

“But she didn’t want to talk to you, did she?” Avalanche pointed out. “And you aren’t a traitor anyway. You spoke the truth, that’s not being a traitor. It’s not like you’d ever leave the kingdom.”

“. . . Yeah.” Talon mumbled.

“But I hope Kestrel isn’t in trouble.” Avalanche murmured.

“She won’t be.” Talon said, suddenly confident. Then his voice lowered again. “But us – you and me, we’re going to be in trouble, Avalanche. Kestrel didn’t want me to say it. But I think I’m in deep trouble with Queen Scarlet. I think I’m being watched or something.”

“Talon, you’re being paranoid.” Avalanche said. “I understand why, that thing with Queen Scarlet must have been scary. But come on. You’re a tiny, little seven-year-old dragonet. You can’t- you can’t be on any kind of list or anything.”

Avalanche refused to believe it. Not Talon. Not her. What were the chances that out of the hundreds of dragons in the Sky Kingdom, she and Talon happened to be the ones who were in trouble with the queen? They were insignificant, by all definitions of the world.

“Avalanche, just for a moment.” Talon said, making a steep bank and turning to glide towards the arena. “Just for a moment, think about this. What if I was? What if I was in danger? What if it was dangerous to be seen near me? What would you do then?”

“What would you expect me to do, Talon? Just stop talking to you? Pretend that you don’t exist?” Avalanche shook her head. “I couldn’t do that.”

“We’ve known each other for less than five days, Avalanche.” Talon snapped. “I don’t want you throwing your life away for some dragon you just met.”

“Maybe you’ve only known me for less than five days. Maybe I’ve only been talking to you for less than five days.” Avalanche said. “But I feel like I’ve known you for much longer. I noticed you, Talon. The little things, the way you weighed down the top left corner of a scroll with a paperweight, but only the top left. The funny habit you had of pretending to claw your ears off whenever dragons won’t stop talking – ironic coming from you.”

“I grew out of that years ago!” Talon protested. “And how did you even notice that?”

“Well, unlike you, I’ve been paying attention.” Avalanche smiled. “For me, Talon, it’s not just these four days. It’s more than that. I know this is, well . . . I know this is weird. I’m sorry for that. But I didn’t know you didn’t know so much as my name before, so you can’t really blame me. I thought that you were paying enough attention to realise earlier.”

Talon laughed, a little nervously. “I still only know you, Kestrel and, um, and Vulture. Isn’t one of our section called Breeze?”

“Yeah, he’s the obnoxious one.” Avalanche agreed.

“The one that broke his nose flying into the castle wall during training last year?” Talon asked.

“That’s the one.” Avalanche agreed, laughing at the memory. “Say, why didn’t you bother to learn our names? We’ve only been living with you for five years – or two in my case. Still long enough to know.”

“It never interested me before.” Talon said. “I only bother remembering things that interest me, I guess. And, even back then, I knew there’d be a chance we’d all die. We were training for war. That’s what my parents told me when I was in the Wingery. Don’t get attached. I guess I took that to a whole new level.”

Avalanche laughed again. “I suppose you did. Why has that started to change?”

Chapter Text

Talon glanced at Avalanche and felt a smile creep across his face. “I guess I found someone that interests me.”

Avalanche’s grin looked wide enough to split her face in two, but she snorted and said, “That was disgusting.”

“You’re smiling.”

“It’s a pity smile.”

The two fell into a comfortable silence, slowly gliding in a large arc around the castle. Far above, the stars glittered like tiny white flames, watching over the two and keeping them safe. The castle was quiet, not silent, but quieter than the bustle of the daytime.

“Do you remember the last time we were flying about at night?” Avalanche asked.

“Right after the battle?” Talon asked.

“Yeah.” Avalanche agreed. “That was only three days ago.”

“So much has changed in so little time.” Talon mused. A week ago he hadn’t been questioning his place in the Sky Kingdom. A week ago he hadn’t been in a real battle. A week ago he hadn’t had to care about Hvitur or Kestrel or angering Queen Scarlet.

A week ago he hadn’t known who Avalanche was.

“You asked me on that flight,” Avalanche said, “if there was no queen and we could do whatever we liked, what would I do.”

“And you said you’d follow me.” Talon recalled, glancing across as Avalanche again. Her scales glittered in the moonlight in the exact same way, amber eyes staring at something far away, preoccupied with her thoughts.

“Yes.” Avalanche said. “I like to think I would. Would you still go to the ocean?”

“Yes.” Talon said without hesitation. For a long moment he debated telling Avalanche that he was thinking more and more about leaving. About just letting his wings take him where they would.

“I hope Hvitur’s okay.” Avalanche said suddenly.

“Yeah?” Talon asked, excitement catching his breath and making his voice a squawk.

“Yeah.” Avalanche snickered. “You’ve convinced me that he was some noble warrior or something.”

“He didn’t deserve to die.” Talon protested.

“I’ll agree to that.” Avalanche said. “But Talon, we can’t go around yelling about it, okay?”

“Okay. I learnt my lesson with Queen Scarlet, trust me.” Talon said. He had more than enough suspicions on Kestrel, on Turbulence, on being watched and examined, of being marked as a traitor, thought of as someone dangerous.

But since Avalanche wasn’t going to avoid him and he definitely was having trouble avoiding her, Talon decided that he wouldn’t do any other things that could be seen as traitorous. He couldn’t get Avalanche in trouble when she had never done anything wrong.

“Are you okay with the lockdown ending tomorrow?” Avalanche asked.

“Hmm? It is?” Talon asked, eyes widening. He felt his stomach turn painfully at the idea of having to fight again. His claws felt heavy, the IceWing’s blue eyes boring into his. It was always IceWings.

“Yeah, didn’t you hear Breeze?” Avalanche asked. “Training’s starting the day after.”

“I guess I was too preoccupied with my thoughts.” Talon said, voice small again.

“It’s just training.” Avalanche comforted. “It’s not actual fighting.”

“I know.” Talon said. “I just . . . I can’t get her eyes out of my mind – the IceWing’s, I mean. She’s dead because of me.”

“She’s not. It wasn’t you, Talon. You tried to save her.” Avalanche said.

“And I failed.”

“It was the fact you tried that counts.” Avalanche said. “Did any other SkyWing try?”

“N-no.” Talon mumbled.

“No.” Avalanche confirmed.

“I can’t fight again.” Talon said. “If there’s another battle and I have to fight- I can’t do it.”

The thought of fighting, of sinking his claws into another dragon’s flesh, of seeing their wings blacken with fire and their scales melt, of seeing the life drain from their eyes, it made him sick.

“Breathe.” Avalanche said. “Don’t think about it now, we’ll fight that battle when it comes – figuratively, I mean. We’ll tackle the issue of the morality of fighting and whether you can do it. We’ll do that later.”

Talon nodded, glancing up at the sky. “The moon’s pretty high, didn’t you say we’d be back my moonhigh?”

“Yeah.” Avalanche agreed, following his gaze. “And I want to know what that dragon wanted from Kestrel.”

Talon didn’t. He didn’t want anything to do with Kestrel or Turbulence or Queen Scarlet. But he and Avalanche swooped back through the library skylight and wound their way through dimly lit tunnels back to their dorm.

Kestrel was there, pacing by the door and growling. The other dragonets were curled on their sleeping caves although Vulture opened one sleepy eye as they entered.

“Hi Kestrel. What did that SkyWing want?” Avalanche asked cheerfully, leaving Talon’s side to curl her tail around Kestrel’s. Talon felt small without her at his side.

“Nothing.” Kestrel said, voice tense. “Just asking about Sparrow and Pinion.”

Talon didn’t know for sure, but he could guess those were the two dragons from his section who had died in the battle. Avalanche’s expression all but confirmed it.

“I guess they’re being replaced?” Avalanche asked quietly.

“Yes. I mean, they're dead. So.” Kestrel said. “The new recruits will join us when training starts again.”

“I wonder where the new section members will be from.” Avalanche said.

“Somewhere east of here.” Talon put in. “There’s more battling, more dead dragons, a higher chance of dragonets without a home being sent to the castle, as per Queen Scarlet’s decree two years ago.”

Avalanche nodded, frowning. Talon realised that she had probably been sent here soon after that decree had been given.

“Commander Squall will introduce them tomorrow.” Kestrel shrugged. “It’s late, we should get to sleep.”

Avalanche nodded. “G’night Kestrel.”

Kestrel unravelled her tail from Avalanche’s and sauntered over to her sleeping ledge, curling up Avalanche turned back to Talon. “Goodnight Talon.”

“Goodnight Avalanche.”

Avalanche smiled, amber eyes soft. Talon’s scales felt warm. Then Avalanche leant forwards and pressed her nose against his. “Sweet dreams.”

Before Talon could process what was happening, Avalanche turned and hurried to her sleeping ledge, burying her head in her wings.

Chapter Text

Nautilus emerged from the tunnel into the Summer Palace’s lake only to find it full of every dragon in the Palace. Over a hundred dragons floated on the lake, wings spread to keep them afloat, catching the moonlight and sending it glittering across their scales. Occasional ripples of surprise past through them, flashing scales gleaming.

Nautilus supposed that the news of their alliance with Blister was being announced. He paddled across the lake under the dragons until he could find a place he could squeeze up. He did so, slotting in among dragons who were staring, transfixed, up at the pavilion.

King Gill was talking, wings spread and scales flashing aquatic along with the message so that every dragon in the palace could understand.

“-this does not call for alarm, nor is this a permanent alliance with Princess Blister,” Gill was saying. “This also does not mean we are planning any kind of attack on our now-enemies. We are not. Please remain calm and continue about your duties as though nothing has changed, thank you.”

Gill bowed low and his scales flashed, Dismissed.

Instantly, there was the murmur of conversation, shrill voices, flashing lights, nervous glances around the room. No one wanted to admit it, but they were all clearly unnerved by the announcement. Nautilus huffed out a sigh of relief as he realised he wasn’t the only one who had a sense of foreboding about their alliance to the SandWing princess. Nautilus could see Gill sat alone at the edge of the pavilion, watching as the crowd slowly disbanded.

When the waters had cleared enough for him to take flight, Nautilus soared up to the pavilion, landing beside Gill and bowing low.

“Your majesty.”

“Nautilus.” Gill bowed his head in return.

“I suppose there are no two ways about it. We are allied with Princess Blister.” Nautilus said.

“Indeed.” Gill agreed. “Nautilus, have you seen Cuttlefish this evening?”

“Why, sir, if you don’t mind me asking?” Nautilus asked.

“It’s confidential, I’m afraid.” Gill said, green wings shrugging helplessly.

“She just left.” Nautilus said. “I spoke to her on the beach. She didn’t tell me what she was doing, or where she was going, so you don’t need to worry.”

“There’s always room to worry.” Gill chuckled.

Nautilus thought back to the council meeting, Blister’s plans for an attack on the SkyWings while they were still weak and of Cuttlefish’s new of the SkyWings’ lockdown. The two things were obviously linked.

“Cuttlefish has gone to investigate the SkyWings situation.” Nautilus figured out.

Gill inspected Nautilus, before nodding slowly. “I trust you won’t tell anyone?”

“Of course not.” Nautilus agreed. “But, your majesty, does this mean we are considering Princess Blister’s plans?”

“We must take what she says into consideration.” Gill said. “I do not think we would start a battle so soon, but there is no harm in seeing what has become of their situation after the most recent battle.”

Nautilus nodded. Then said, “But you do not think we should engage in war, your majesty?”

“I do not think any tribe should engage in war, least of all the SeaWings.” Gill said. “We have so rarely been at war in our history, it is SeaWing nature to converse with other tribes instead of fight. That is why we have the counsel, as a fair voice for all dragons in our kingdom.”

“Of course, your majesty.” Nautilus agreed.

“How is your sister, Nautilus?” Gill asked after a moment’s silence. Nautilus started, staring at the SeaWing King.

“Nix?” He asked.

“Yes.” Gill nodded. “Bright young dragonet, I remember when she first became apprenticed to Reef.”

Nautilus could remember the old Council of Aquaculture, a kind dragon with wrinkles around her eyes that showed a life full of laughter. He could picture a smaller Nix by her side, running through lists of corals and sea grasses.

“I’m surprised you remember, sir.” Nautilus said quietly.

“Of course I remember. Each morning she would bring me a collection of beautiful corals, for the queen she would say.” Gill smiled.

Nautilus smiled. “I must have been young then, I don’t recall.”

“Yes, you weren’t yet two years old then.” Gill agreed. “But I recall you scampering around the beach causing trouble while Reef and Nix tried to report their findings. The two of you would always get underfoot.”

Nautilus smiled. The wistful expression on Gill’s face made Nautilus wish he could better remember his dragonet years.

“That was the same year as the cyclone.” Gill murmured.

Nautilus shivered. That, he did remember.

“Ah, enough time lost in memories.” Gill shook his wings and stretched his neck. “Good evening Nautilus.”

Nautilus bowed again. “Good evening, your majesty.”

Gill lept into the air and soared in a large spiral around the pavilion and towards the lake, leaving Nautilus alone on the edge of the pavilion. The smile on his face remained, pleased that the king had remembered the assortment of details from his past. He wondered how much Nix remembered of her time as Reef’s apprentice as a four year old dragonet.

Nautilus turned his head to look at the Summer Palace’s leafy green roof and the sparse speckling of stars far above. Nautilus wondered how long it would be before the consequence of their alliance in the war crashed down upon the palace and haunted their every thought.

Chapter Text

The end of the lockdown consisted of a long day of standing in a line in their dormitory with no words and no movements, other than the occasional ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘no ma’am’. Their commander, Commander Squall, had entered at regular intervals, checking their attendance and asking of the whereabouts of Sparrow and Pinion. Avalanche had made herself not pay attention. She knew they were dead. She couldn't afford to shed tears over it.

Avalanche stood at the end of the line, as the newest member of the section. To her left was Claret, who didn’t speak to Avalanche at all. Talon was towards the other end of the line and as often as she could, Avalanche glanced his way, but he remained staring at his claws with a lost expression.

She wished she knew what was happening in his mind, what he was thinking. She was sure talking to him would be infinitely more interesting than standing still and silent.

By the end of the day, Avalanche’s muscles were aching and her eyes were sore. She collapsed onto her sleeping ledge with hardly more than a tired smile at Kestrel before her eyes closed and she slipped into sleep.

All too soon, there were claws poking her side and a voice hissing, “Avalanche, Avalanche, wake up.”

Avalanche groaned and blinked her eyes open.

“Avalanche, we have training.” Kestrel was leaning over her, voice a low hiss. “C’mon, wake up, we have to be in the training cavern by sunrise. Hurry up.”

Avalanche lurched upwards. Of course, training started today. She glanced around the dorm quickly, there were no other dragons, even Talon had left. It was just Avalanche and Kestrel. Avalanche leapt off her sleeping ledge and shook herself awake.

The two bolted out of the dormitory and along tunnels that were once again full of dragons, shoving and pushing and grumbling. They skidded into the training cavern, breathless and panting, looking around for the rest of their section. Avalanche caught sight of Talon’s warm orange scales by the wall open to the sky and nudged Kestrel, jerking her snout in that direction. The two wove through the crowd and joined the rest of their section.

Talon grinned shakily as he saw them arrive. “Hey, you aren’t late.”

“Lucky us.” Avalanche said. “How long do we have?”

Kestrel glanced out at the sky. It was devoid of stars, a beautiful lilac with pink clouds on the horizon. “Not long. Just in time.”

Avalanche stepped over to Talon’s side. “You okay?”

With him pressed against her scales he could feel his wings shaking slightly. Despite that, he nodded, “Yeah.”

“It’s okay.” She said quietly. “It’s not real fighting.”

“Section eighteen-seven.” The sharp call echoed off the cavern above the muffled dragon voices. “Attention!”

Talon slipped out from under Avalanche’s wing and hurried to his end of the line. Kestrel brushed past Avalanche’s side as she past, giving her a toothy grin. Claret filed in beside Avalanche, pinkish scales glowing in the pre-dawn light.

Commander Squall seemed to drop straight out of the sky and land in front of the section. He paced back and forth, dull red wings raised and neck stretched. “Section eighteen-seven, five days ago you fought in your first battle. An admirable feet as a newly graduated section.”

Avalanche wished she could feel the pride that the other members of her section were clearly feeling, the sense of accomplishment. She knew a week ago she would have. But a week ago she would have thought twice about ending a dragon’s life if her queen commanded it.

Squall continued, “However, as you undoubtedly know, Soldiers Sparrow and Pinion have given their lives for our queen and died an honourable death in battle against our enemies. As custom, two replacements have been provided.”

A murmur of excitement passed through the section. Claret glanced sharply at Avalanche and hissed, “Where do you think they’ll be from?”

Avalanche shrugged. She had no idea. The replacements could be from anywhere, whether it be as exciting a place as the other end of the Kingdom, or as mundane as the kitchens. There was simply no way to tell.

I think they’ll be from the north.” Slipstream butted in, peering over Claret’s wing. “If Avalanche was from there, they clearly have a lot of dragons with not much to do.”

“That was two years ago, MudWing-brain. And they couldn’t have gotten replacements that fast – it’s the other side of the kingdom.” Claret rolled her eyes.

“Silence.” Squall threw up his wings and clapped them together to gather the section’s attention once again. “Are you dragonets or warriors? Have some dignity!”

Claret and Slipstream fell silent. Avalanche glanced at Talon from the corner of her eyes. The smaller dragon was staring straight ahead, amber eyes focused on Squall as if looking at anything else would be too painful to bare.

“Now, as is custom.” Squall said, pacing back and forth now. “Two replacements have been provided and today they will be joining us.”

“Where from, sir?” Breeze called out, earning him a glare from their commander.

“Claws of Clouds Province, south-east of here.” Squall answered.

No wonder replacements had been found on such short notice. The Claws of Clouds Province was less than a day’s flight away, the two new section members probably could have flown here overnight.

Now that Avalanche thought about it, she supposed she should have guessed they would have been from Claws of Clouds. Many replacements were, although usually they were young dragonets. Dragons of age were usually taken down into the mines to dig for gold.

“With that interruption out of the way, here are your new section members.” Squall flicked his tail and two small SkyWings who had been watching them from the edge of the room, silhouetted against the morning sky, stood and walked towards the section, shoulders hunched.

“Soldiers Windstorm, Talon, Vulture, Breeze, Kestrel, Slipstream, Claret and Avalanche,” Squall announced, firing out the names in a way Avalanche couldn't help but find slightly amusing. “Meet Soldiers Overcast and Woodnote.”

The two dragonets came to a stop beside Squall, looking up at the soldiers with awe and terror. Avalanche felt her jaw drop. These dragons were tiny. Overcast and Woodnote were dragonets. They couldn’t have been more than five years old.

Chapter Text

Talon’s wings were trembling. The two new recruits were smaller than even him, they were dragonets. Queen Scarlet had approved dragonets to fight in a fully-fledged section, two dragonets with no battle training, no experience, thrown into a world of war and bloodshed.

The longer he stared at the two dragonets, the more disgusted he felt. His scales itched, he felt as though claws were tightening around his throat, his stomach twisted. He took a shaky breath, trying to reason with what he saw, trying to explain it. But there was nothing. There was no explanation as to why two dragonets were being shifted into a fully-fledged section.

Talon lurched forwards and before he had time to think, before the words of his commander met his ears, he had launched himself out of the training room and soared up into the morning sky. Without thinking, he found himself soaring towards the dragonflame towers, landing on the same one that he had tracked Hvitur down. He bolted down the same set of stairs, desperate to loose himself in the winding passageways. He needed something to distract himself from the memory of those two young dragonets with bright, innocent eyes and excited expressions.

This was too much. Queen Scarlet couldn’t have approved of this, of two dragonets with no training joining a section during a war. Queen Scarlet wasn’t a bad queen. Maybe she didn’t think of other tribes in a friendly light, but Talon reasoned that she had to put her tribe first. This wasn’t putting her tribe first. This was a suicide act. This was sacrificing dragons with friends, with families, with lives, all for nothing.

No queen would do that. Queen Scarlet couldn’t have known about it, Talon was sure of that fact. Queen Scarlet couldn’t have authorised this. Maybe she had commanded recruits from the Claws of Clouds Province. But she couldn’t have allowed untrained dragonets to join a section of dragons two or three years older than them. She couldn’t have even known that the recruits would be dragonets.

Talon reached the bottom of the staircase and stood, trembling, listening for the sounds of dragons chasing him. There was nothing, no one was chasing him. Talon wondered what excuse would have to be made to pardon his sudden departure.

He hoped Avalanche could think quickly enough to think of something.

Talon leant against the doorway that led to the tunnel systems and stared into the gloom. Now more than ever, he felt the need to leave. To run, fly, escape. He didn’t know how much more of this he could let sit quietly by.

He had made a resolution not to go against the queens orders again, to keep away from any attention. But if she didn’t know about the dragonets, then was it the honourable thing to bring it to her attention?

Their section’s commander wouldn’t want Talon to. But Talon couldn’t shake the feeling that he had to let someone know, had to fix whatever mistake had landed two dragonets in their section.

Talon stepped into the tunnel and started up towards the rest of the castle, trying to piece together some sort of speech, some sort of order to his words so that Queen Scarlet would understand exactly what was happening. Unable to find the right words, Talon sighed and stopped. He glanced around and found himself above ground, in a tunnel that led up towards the throne room. Small portholes revealed weak sunlight filtering into the castle.

He recalled Avalanche, Kestrel and even Vulture implying that he had a way with words, but at that moment none came to his mind. Glancing out the window, he saw the brilliant blue sky full of SkyWings once more, circling and diving, sunlight glinting of their scales and making them shine like rubies.

It was so precise, so uniform. They weren’t flying for the joy of it, they were like insects, rushing purposefully and mindlessly from task to task. That wasn’t what life was meant to be like. Dragons were free, dragons had the land, the seas, the skies and yet they chained themselves to responsibilities instead of flying free.

“I wish . . .” Talon whispered, resting his chin on the window. Talon wished he was free to do whatever he liked, to fly wherever he wanted to. Why had it taken him so long to realise that this existence he was forced into wasn’t living?

Avalanche came to mind, her smile, her eyes, the thoughtful expression she had when they spoke. Avalanche made Talon feel alive and in contrast, made him realise how trapped he felt in the castle.

If it came down to it, would Avalanche leave with him? Would she abandon everyone and everything she knew for him?

Talon shook himself and snorted. Of course not, what was he thinking? How selfish could he be, thinking that she would leave with him? If she loved him, he shouldn’t ask that of her, shouldn’t take advantage of her like that.

Talon shook himself again, he’d almost forgotten why he had come here in the first place. He had come to talk to the queen, to rescue the two dragonets in his section from what he knew awaited them in the war.

Talon squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and continued up the tunnel towards the throne room.

Chapter Text

The sun shone on the water, creating silver scales on the deep blue surface. Nautilus floated sleepily on the surface, watching the dragons below dart through the coral, scales flashing in patterns that didn’t mean words in particular, but sent fish swarming through the water in alarm.

He could see Nix alongside the other SeaWings, the elegant black patterns on her wings making her stand out among the other hunters. Beside Nautilus, the Council of Hunting, Marine, floated. Her silver-blue scales shone on the water as brightly as the sunlight.

“Agh, no, no, NO!” Marine snapped explosively, slamming her wings on the ocean’s surface as the hunters below darted around the fish. “You’re doing it WRONG!”

Nautilus frowned. “What?”

“Can’t you see, they’re leaving a huge section open there – CARP, NO, YOU MUDWING BRAIN!” Marine’s scales flashed violently.

“I see.” Nautilus didn’t. “Now, Marine, aside from this lacklustre performance, how would you say this previous week has been in terms of hunting? Enough prey? Changes in the rosters?”

“Any dragons who are outstanding or subpar, I know the drill, Nautilus. I’ve been Counsel of Hunting for fifteen good years – all your life and then some and- yes, YES, that’s it Torrent! NOW! YES!”

A turquoise SeaWing had darted under the tails of their peers and caught a fish in their jaws, hooking another one with their talons. Their scales flashed and they started to rise through the water towards Nautilus and Marine.

“Well, Torrent has been preforming well.” Marine grumbled thoughtfully. “As for the prey and whatnot, there’s enough of it. No changes in the rosters yet, next week I was going to bring it up with Lagoon and- ah, Torrent.”

The turquoise SeaWing had surfaced beside the two, now clutching the fish in their claws. “Council Marine, Council Nautilus.”

“Pleasure to meet you.” Nautilus said.

“Oh, you’re exactly what Nix said you’d be like!” Torrent said, grinning almost ridiculously wide. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Nautilus, sir.”

“Only good things, I hope.” Nautilus returned their smile. “Now, if you don’t mind, Marine, I have to know, last month you mentioned you suspected sharks were returning to the area, have you seen any? And are there any plans to hunt them?”

“Reef sharks, boring.” Marine dismissed. “Now, what you should report, Nautilus, is Torrent’s record! Five catches in three days! Six now! That’s two a day! Yesterday they caught a sea turtle!”

Torrent was practically humming with pride.

“You, Torrent, are as sharp as an IceWing’s claws!” Marine praised. “And today! First catch of the day, congratulations!”

“It was nothing, it was nothing.” Torrent shrugged.

“But you don’t see Carp making catches like that do you? Carp, no! Not towards Wave! The other way, THE OTHER WAY!” Marine slapped her wings against the ocean surface again, causing drops of water to splash down over Nautilus and Torrent’s heads. “Now Torrent, go put those over by W- WHAT IS THAT?”

Torrent and Nautilus both looked sharply down, expecting Marine’s anger to be targeted at something one of the hunters had done. They saw nothing out of the ordinary.

“There, at the horizon.” Marine said, pointing with a wing. Nautilus and Torrent stared up at the sky and saw no less than a dozen pale yellow shapes winging towards them.

“Unidentified dragons!” Torrent exclaimed. “They’ll see us! We’re hunting hardly three dragon-lengths from the surface!”

“Dive!” Marine commanded. “DIVE, DIVE, DIVE! Don’t let them see you!”

The three SeaWings plunged under the water, speeding towards the rest of the hunting dragons. The hunters noticed as the three drew near, turning to stare at them, scales flashing in surprise.

STOP! Marine’s scales flashed. UNIDENTIFIED SANDWINGS APPROACHING! DIVE, DIVE, DIVE!

The SeaWings shot away, scrambling for places to find far, far away from the surface of the water. Nix rushed forwards to meet Nautilus, grabbing his claws with hers, eyes asking a silent, ‘are you okay?’.

Nautilus nodded and the two shot off together, heading for deeper waters where they could wait, undetected, for the enemies overhead to pass by. Not being found was the most important part of survival. If they couldn’t be found, they couldn’t be tracked or attacked.

Nix stopped suddenly, throwing herself down to the ocean floor beside a large rock covered in coral and rolling to the side. Without hesitation, Nautilus followed suit. He found himself pressed against Nix, eyes squinted shut to avoid the sand that they had stirred up in hiding.

When the sand settled, Nautilus looked around. The two siblings where sheltered under a small rock outcropping. From the corner of his eyes, far above the outcropping, above the surface of the water, he could see the pale shapes of SandWings soaring above the waves. Nautilus wondered which side of the war the SandWings above were on. Burn’s side was likely, they could easily cut across Pyrrhia from the desert to spy on the SeaWings or MudWings. Blaze’s side was unlikely, the dragons being so far away and very much preoccupied with Burn’s ongoing efforts to find Blaze’s secret hiding place.

But if Nautilus thought about it, he was almost certain that the dragons were sent by Blister. Blister would deny it to the end, Nautilus was sure, but he could tell she was the type of dragon to use these underhanded methods to find the castle. And to cause fear to spread among the SeaWings.

Of course, he had no way to know and the only thing he was basing his suspicion on but his instinct.

And now, Nautilus thought, watching a SandWing swoop so low their claws trailed in the surface of the water, we wait.

Chapter Text

“I’ll ask once and once only.” Commander Squall threw his wings up. “What was the meaning of that disobedience? Soldier Talon has never shown such signs of disrespect before!”

Avalanche’s scales felt heavy. She knew exactly why Talon would have left. The idea of two dragonets, two underage dragonets, being placed in their section would be horrifying him to no end. Avalanche felt ill at the thought of the two fighting in a battle, but the consequences of speaking up would be far worse than letting them be. And she tried to trick herself with memories of how excited she had been to learn to fight when she was five and new to their section.

As Avalanche glanced down the line she saw the other dragons of the section’s expressions all held varying degrees of discomfort. Commander Squall simply looked furious.

“He’s sick.” Avalanche blurted out. “I mean, Commander Squall, sir, Talon reported to me that he had been feeling ill all morning. He probably was feeling too ill to continue training, despite insisting to me that he was. He left in a hurry, without proper dismissal as his mind was heavy and muddled with sickness, sir.”

The lie was so obvious Avalanche could practically smell it. Commander Squall tilted his head, frowning in a disbelieving manner.

“That’s true, sir.” Kestrel spoke up from up the line. “He was looking ill last night too. We suggested he request a day off, but he didn’t listen. If you would permit me, I can go find him, make sure he doesn’t need to visit the infirmary, sir.”

Avalanche shot Kestrel a grateful look and the other SkyWing shrugged her wings slightly in return. Squall gave a contemplating hiss, then finally nodded. “Very well, dismissed. I expect you back before open-air drills, Soldier. Remind Soldier Talon to request leave before rushing off next time.”

“Very well, sir.” Kestrel inclined her head, then hurried out of the room.

“Soldiers Woodnote and Overcast, join the end of the line beside Soldier Avalanche.” Squall ordered.

Avalanche gave the two dragonets a reassuring smile as they approached. They were tiny, smaller than Talon, even. Although, their frames had broad shoulders and muscular limbs and Avalanche was reminded that they would have lived their entire lives in Claws of Clouds Province, a mining province. It was no wonder they would be more muscular and compact than regular SkyWings.

“Alright section, listen up!” Squall commanded. “We’re starting with improvised fighting, remember to stay grounded throughout the match. Find yourself a partner – not your usual drill partner – and look sharp!”

Avalanche looked down to the dragonet by her side. “Want to pair up?”

The dragonet bounced on her heels, looking up at Avalanche in excitement. “Alright! But don’t think you’re getting off easy because I’m new to this!”

Avalanche laughed lightly. “Of course not.”

“I’m Woodnote.” The dragonet introduced. Avalanche inspected her carefully. The dragonet was smaller and less muscular than the other new dragonet, Overcast. Woodnote’s scales were a rich, dark red, tinged with pink on the edge of her wings. Her dark orange eyes gleamed with enthusiasm. She favoured her left side slightly, as she would shift her weight to that side every so often. Her puffed out chest and spread wings marked her as the outgoing type.

“Avalanche.” Avalanche introduced.

“So what’s improvised fighting?” Woodnote asked.

“It’s training for the battlefield, if you’re downed then you have to be able to fight your way out of it by yourself. Your section can’t back you up when you’re down here and they’re up there.” Avalanche waved a wing through the air. “It’s similar to arena fights.”

“Arena fights? Oh! Like the palace's arena.” Woodnote asked.

“You’ve never seen an arena fight?” Avalanche asked. Woodnote shook her head. Avalanche sighed. “Okay, well, I’ll give you three basic rules and then we’ll begin. One, keep your guard up at all times. Anything could attack you from any side in the battlefield, you can’t be taken advantage of.”

“Guard up.” Woodnote agreed.

“Two, watch your opponent’s eyes. Their eyes will betray them, their fear, what they’re planning to do. Keep your eyes locked with them.” Avalanche said. “You can learn to sense what they’re doing, see everything they do, while still keeping your eyes locked.”

“Eyes locked.” Woodnote repeated.

“Three, don’t show fear.” Avalanche said. “Whatever you do, don’t show fear. If your opponent sees fear, they will see weakness. In war, there can be no weakness.”

“No fear.” Woodnote nodded. “Got it.”

“First dragon to pin their opponent down for five seconds wins, no fire, no drawing blood.” Avalanche lowered herself to a crouch, hissing in the back of her throat. “Claws up, fire ready, fight!”

She lept forwards, aiming for the smaller dragonet. Woodnote folded to her left, throwing herself to the floor to avoid Avalanche, but the older dragon spun in mid-air, landing with her front paws pinning down Woodnote’s wings. Woodnote hissed in surprise, surging up against the sudden weight on her wings, but Avalanche was stronger and kept her pinned to the stone ground, counting out the seconds. One, two, three, four, five.

Then she stepped off the dragonet’s wings, sitting back and observing. Woodnote climbed to her feet and shook her scales off, bouncing on the pads of her paws again. “Woah! How’d you do that?”

“Simple.” Avalanche said. “You have a tendency to lean to your left, I knew if you were going to avoid my attack, you’d go left. And when you avoid an attack, for future reference, don’t just lay there, duck behind your opponent and attack. If you act like a RainWing on the battlefield, you’ll die.”

Woodnote’s eyes widened and she made a small squawk as Avalanche said ‘RainWing’. Avalanche tilted her head questioningly.

“It’s just- I’m not used to dragons, uh, casually insulting one another.” Woodnote whispered.

Avalanche chuckled, remembering her own shock when she first moved to the palace and found herself surrounded by insults and crude remarks of all sorts.

“You get used to it.” Avalanche promised. “I did.”

“You . . .?”

“Yeah, two years ago I was in your clawsteps. And in another two years, I reckon you’ll be as good a fighter as I am.” Avalanche promised, allowing herself to smile at the excitement in Woodnote’s dark orange eyes.

But her stomach clenched at the thought that this dragonet might not even make it two years.

Chapter Text

Talon burst into the throne room before he could doubt himself any further and came face to face with Kestrel. The larger SkyWing made a sound of alarm and then her face folded into its familiar scowl.

“Uh, hi. I wasn’t expecting to see you here.” Talon was ninety per cent sure that he’d seen Kestrel in line during training. She’d shown up late alongside Avalanche, that much he knew for certain. Talon stepped around Kestrel and found Queen Scarlet on her throne, staring distastefully down at him.

He crossed his claws and bowed, hissing in respect. The accompanying high-ranked officials in the room muttered and scoffed. Talon saw a glimpse dark orange scales he thought might be Turbulence.

“So there you are, little traitor.” The queen’s voice was laced with venom. Talon glanced nervously towards Kestrel, has she . . . she must have told Queen Scarlet lies.

“Your majesty.” He stood up. “With all due respect, I must disagree. I’m not a traitor.”

“Indeed? I’d be very interested to see how you justify yourself.” Queen Scarlet said, leaning forwards. “Because according to my informant here, your actions have been very traitorous since you last burst into my throne room unannounced.”

“Your majesty-”

“I’m not finished.” Scarlet bared her teeth, orange scales glinting gold, reflecting the embedded swirls in the walls and floor. “According to Kestrel here, you have continued in spreading traitorous thoughts and rumours through the palace, disobeyed direct orders and sought potential secret entrances and exits to the palace without reporting it. I would be thrilled to hear you justify yourself as anything but a traitor.”

Talon glanced at Kestrel, who glared back at him. This was it, Talon realised. This was the fight or flight moment. What he said here, he couldn’t take back. He had two options, play it safe, deny, deny, deny everything. Make Scarlet believe he was nothing more than a bumbling, unintelligent dragon who had happened upon bad circumstances.

Or defy her. Tell her he wasn’t a traitor, tell her what was happening within her own tribe, risk everything. But go down on his terms, saying what he wanted to say. When else would he get such a perfect opportunity?

Talon took a deep breath. “Well, Scarlet-”

“Queen.” Kestrel hissed. “Queen Scarlet.”

“No thank you, Kestrel. I’m talking to her as though we were equals.” Talon said, marvelling at his sudden confidence. “As I was saying, to classify myself as a traitor, we first have to discuss what it means to be a traitor. According to both the Mordern Pyrrhian Dictionary by Deepthought of the NightWings and the Caelum To Pyrrhian Dictionary by Quill of the SkyWings, both scrolls I found in the palace library, free to access by any dragon in the tribe traitor is defined as someone who betrays something, such as a cause, dragon or principle.”

He saw a couple of officials’ jaws drop.

“Wordy, isn’t he?” One murmured.

“Now.” Talon continued, raising his wings to keep the attention on himself. “This means that, if you commanded something and I failed to obey, yes, I could be seen as a traitor. Therefore, when I questioned your rules and orders and sympathised with both with an IceWing soldier I killed in my first and only battle four days ago and with Hvitur, the IceWing prisoner who escaped, I could be considered a traitor.”

“You have said it yourself, you are guilty.” Scarlet hissed.

“I’m not done, Scarlet.” Talon said. “Because, you see, had I fought in the battle against the IceWings and not sympathised with IceWings, had let myself think they were enemies with no compassion, then I would become a traitor to myself. I would have betrayed what I thought to be right, that every dragon has a story and not to judge a dragon so quickly. Yet you were telling me to judge those IceWings, those SandWings, as dragons unworthy of life because you did not like the stance their queen had taken on the war? Perhaps some IceWings didn’t agree with Queen Glacier’s stance, I know I don’t agree with yours.”

Scarlet was scowling now, claws scraping on the stone of her throne. “I will give you one chance, dragonet. I have been lenient thus far, but you are testing my patience. If you stop now and apologise, then perhaps I could arrange a place for you to stay that is not on top of an arena tower.”

“Thank you for your ‘lenience’, but it won’t be nesesrcary.” Talon said. “I’ve committed to this, I’m not backing down. This has to be said. You know what I found out today, Scarlet? I found out that some of the replacement soldiers from Claws of Clouds Province are dragonets. Not only untrained in battle, but dragonets stationed in sections of full-grown dragons fighting in a war. Did you know?”

Scarlet didn’t look shocked, which was enough of a sign for Talon, who pressed on. “I wanted to think that you didn’t, but now I’m being proved otherwise. This is too much. This is not the solution. Why are we fighting in a war for a throne that isn’t our own? I’ve never even seen Burn, Blister or Blaze, let alone know anything more than what scrolls can tell me. How can you expect dragons to follow the commands you give them? I’m not standing for it any more.”

“What can you do to stop it?” Scarlet asked, raising an eyebrow imperiously.

Talon shrugged helplessly. “What can I do? Nothing but talk, which is what I’ve done. I like to think I’m pretty good at that. Thank you for hearing me out your majesty. Do with me what you will.”

Talon folded his wings back and holding his head high. He may have physically be the smallest dragon in the room, but at that moment he felt the tallest.

Scarlet shrieked at her guards. “Don’t just stand there like a pile of useless SeaWings! Seize him!”

Although Talon hadn’t done anything to fight back, or even flee, the queen seemed to think he was a threat. Talon smiled to himself as he realised that perhaps the only weapon he had at his disposal, words, was perhaps the most powerful weapon of all. Scarlet certainly seemed afraid.

Talon remained compliant as the guards bustled around him, clipping chains to his legs, binding his wings and prompting him forwards with spears. At the tunnel entrance, he glanced back at the throne room, catching sight of Kestrel. He managed to shrug at her nonchalantly before he was whisked away.

I’m officially a criminal.

Chapter Text

At the feel of claws tapping his shoulder, Nautilus blinked his eyes open, squinting in the bright light. He looked up at Nix, to see her peering up at the sky, then looking down at him again.

Her scales flashed, I think the skies are clear again.

Nautilus glanced up at the surface of the water. He couldn’t see any dragons either. He nodded at Nix and the two left their shelter under the ledge carefully, scanning the skies above.

No SandWings in sight. Nautilus agreed, stretching his wings and sighing a flurry of bubbles in the relief.

That was worrying. Nix mused. This is the third time I’ve seen it happen since the war began.

It’s happened two other time? Nautilus demanded. Why hasn’t it been mentioned?

Nix shrugged helplessly. It’s not my place to report that sort of thing. If Counsellor Marine thought it were a threat, she would mention it.

Nautilus frowned. Would you mind me bringing it up next council meeting?

Nix flicked her tail in amusement. It’s not my place to tell you what you can cannot say. But no, it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest. Just don’t blow this issue out of proportion. It's the type of thing is only to be expected in a war.

But we could organise better defence, more patrols. At least a lookout. Nautilus reasoned.

Don’t get too ahead of yourself, we need to get back to the palace first. Nix rolled her eyes.

Yes, right. Nautilus agreed. But I think that it’s worth a mention at the next council meeting.

Nix stretched her wings, spinning to take in their surroundings. It’d say we’re southeast of the Summer Palace, the coral formations are familiar. Follow me.

Nautilus nodded and the two SeaWings rose out of the reef and headed northeast. They skimmed through the ocean near the water’s surface and Nautilus couldn’t help but notice what a beautiful day it was, much like the last time he’d been outside the palace with his sister, five days ago.

However, five days ago he hadn’t been overridden with the fear that his entire tribe may be destroyed by war.

The summer palace’s island rose out of the water, steep cliffs turned silver in the sunlight. Nix lept out of the water, gliding for a few seconds before falling back into the ocean. Nautilus snorted a flurry of bubbles and followed her in her next leap, basking in the sunlight that hit his scales, turning the usually dull green into a brilliant emerald.

The day was beautiful and now that the threat of attack was gone, Nautilus felt a dragonet-like sense of joy at swimming freely through the ocean with his sister. As the tunnel approached, the two slowed to a halt.

After you. Nix tipped her wings.

Nautilus flicked his tail and blew a flurry of bubbles at her as he passed, ducking into the tunnel and giving his eyes a chance to adjust to the claustrophobic tunnel. The horribly still water was almost stuffy as it passed through his gills and lapped at his scales.

Nautilus swam forwards slowly, careful to avoid brushing his wings against the tunnel wall, although he knew it was an irrational fear that the walls would crash down on him if nudged. Finally, Nautilus emerged into the Summer Palace and floated to the surface of the lake.

Nix popped up after him. “Slow-poke MudWing.”

“Excuse you.” Nautilus said indignantly. “Which one of us didn’t catch a fish while on hunting duty today?”

“You didn't either.” Nix said.

Nautilus rolled his eyes, taking the opportunity to glance up at the pavilion. There weren’t many dragons, sky blue scales on a higher level, turquoise and pale green on a lower one, a small smudge of dark green diving from one of the higher pavilion levels.

“Did you get enough to update your all-important scroll?” Nix asked.

“Ha ha.” Nautilus deadpanned. “But yes, I think so.”

“Doesn’t it get tiring? Writing report after report? I couldn’t think of a worse counsel position to hold.” Nix asked.

Nautilus was used to the question. He got it often, both from Nix and from every other dragon in the Summer Palace at one point or another. He didn’t want to waste time detailing the pros and cons of his position to Nix yet again when she would only dismiss him with an immature comment, so he simply said, “No. I like keeping track of things.”

“You’re boring.” Nix nudged his wing with her nose.

“Your scales are boring.” Nautilus shot back.

“Jokes on you, brother dear, we have the same scales.” Nix said triumphantly.

Nautilus grinned as she burst into giggles. It had been a while since he’d seen her this genuinely happy. There was a sparkle in her eyes, one that he hadn’t seen for years, not since before the ‘scandal’ between her and Tang. She looked younger when she was smiling.

“What’s got your scales shining?” He asked after she’d stopped laughing.

“Nothing.” Nix shrugged. “I. I don’t know why, but I have a feeling. It’s a good feeling. I feel like something good will happen soon.”

“Yeah?” Nautilus teased. “Where do you feel it? In your stomach?”

“In my heart.” Nix replied, with a degree of seriousness in her light-hearted tone.

“Oh, even more reliable.” Nautilus flicked his tail.

“Just wait, Nautilus.” Nix smiled contentedly. “Just wait, you’ll see. Something good is coming. Something really good.”

Nix’s certainty was infectious and Nautilus couldn’t help but let some part of him agree, pushing aside his worries and doubts about Blister, about the war and about the SandWings scouting out SeaWing territory.

With all the metaphorical storm clouds gathering on the horizon, it was only fair that the clouds had a silver lining.

Chapter Text

“Who’s that?” Woodnote asked suddenly, orange eyes gazing uncertainly at Avalanche.

“Who’s who?”

“That dragon by the entrance. With all the fancy armour, see?” Woodnote asked, stretching her neck higher to try and see over the sparring SkyWings.

Avalanche looked over to the entrance to the training room where a lone SkyWing guard in bronze and gold armour and a grave expression, head turning as his gaze swept the room. “You're observant. I didn’t notice him. That’s a high ranking guard, see the gold in his armour? He’d be here to deliver a message, or likely arrest some dragon.”

“Is he staring at us? Why?”

Avalanche hesitated. “He is. I . . . don’t know. He must be after someone from the younger sections. Maybe he’s here to talk to a commander, possibly Commander Squall. Maybe some dragon did something, displeased Queen Scarlet or something. Maybe . . . three moons, no.”

“What’s wrong?” Woodnote asked, bouncing on her paws excitedly.

“No, he hasn’t. Tell me he hasn’t.”

“Who hasn’t?” Woodnote asked.

Avalanche glanced back at the guard, to see he was stalking through the hall towards them, dragons parting as he past them Murmurs and gossip filled the room, speculation circling between commanders and soldiers alike. The guard prowled past Avalanche and Woodnote and the older dragon extended a wing instinctively to shelter the smaller, although there was no hint of fear in Woodnote’s eyes.

“You there, Commander Squall.” The guard stopped beside the commander. “I’m afraid I have grave news for you and your section.”

Avalanche felt her stomach drop to her claws.

“A soldier from your section, section eighteen-seven has been arrested.” The guard’s voice was low, Avalanche stretched her neck forwards so she could hear him. “His name is Talon. He committed treason.”

“Talon, what have you done?” Avalanche whispered. This couldn’t be happening, this had to be a dream. She knew Talon was upset, about a lot of things, the war, Hvitur, dragonets being placed into their section. But she hadn’t thought he’d do anything to warrant an arrest.

Kestrel had gone to find him, couldn’t Kestrel have tried to stop him? Maybe she hadn’t found him in time. Maybe . . . Avalanche remembered the tension between the two, but stopped the thoughts before they could work their way into her mind and make her question everything she knew about her best friend.

“You and your section are under suspicion for conspiring against the queen.” The SkyWing continued gravely. “Your training is cancelled. You are all expected in the arena for a trail. Commander, if you don’t mind a word?”

The guard turned and stalked away again, casting a distasteful look at Squall. Avalanche spun around to look at the rest of her section. They were all standing, jaws dropped, eyes wide.

“Talon? As in the quiet, tiny, little dragon in our section? He was arrested?” Windstorm asked. Breeze opened and closed his mouth a few times, but for once seemed to find himself unable to speak.

Commander Squall seemed to be more in a state of anger than of shock. “A disgrace! A dragonet from my section? I’ll be the shame of the kingdom! I’ll be demoted, I’ll be washing dishes for the rest of my life!”

“Avalanche,” Vulture asked, dull eyes on Avalanche. “Did ya know anything about what Talon was gonna do?”

“No.” Avalanche said, taken aback. “I knew he wouldn’t like dragonets being in this section, it being . . . you know, previously thought of as forbidden! But . . . I never thought . . .”

“What about Kestrel?” Vulture pressed. “Kestrel wouldn’ta done anythin’ like that, yeah?”

“No, no, Kestrel would never.” Avalanche shook her head. “You all know that as well as I do.”

“But we all thought we knew Talon was too shy to commit treason.” Slipstream pointed out.

“Section eighteen-seven!” Commander Squall seemed to have regained his usual demeanour. “Stay here, I will be back shortly. Then you shall be escorted to the arena.”

“Selfish as a SandWing.” Claret spat, watching the commander whisk out of sight. “He’s going to lie, frame some of us. He just wants to get his tail out of trouble. He doesn’t care about what this means for our section.”

“What . . . does this mean for the section?” Overcast asked quietly.

“Does that mean my and Overcast’s section too?” Woodnote butted in, looking way too excited for Avalanche’s taste.

“Ah, right, you’re still new to this.” Windstorm sighed. “Well, when a dragon in a section commits a crime, they’re obviously sent to the arena or to prison. But the rest of the section, depending on the nature of the crime, they get sent in for questioning. High ranking officials, or even the queen herself, will question you. Decide if you had anything to do with the crime. If you did, bye-bye for you. If not-”

“If not then, depending on your answers, you may stay in the section, you may be moved to another section. Or if you’re unlucky you could be demoted or sent to a far-off province.” Slipstream continued. “Or, on the contrary, if you’d been actively trying to stop the crime, you could be promoted. But none of us had anything to do with whatever Talon did, so we should be fine.”

Avalanche wasn’t so sure. In fact, from the eyes of the high-ranking officials, Avalanche was pretty sure that her being around Talon would be seen as conspiring with the enemy. And Kestrel, was Kestrel’s involvement enough to get her punished too? Avalanche swallowed, trying to get rid of the lump in her throat. She desperately hoped that there was some way out, some lie she could tell, not that she wanted to, to free Talon and protect Kestrel.

Did this mean that she and Talon would never see the ocean?

Chapter Text

Talon was glad he wasn’t afraid of heights. He stared up at the arena towers, stretching up like long claws scratching the sky. They looked even taller from down in the arena than they did from the grandstands.

Talon lowered his gaze to observe the seats, which were devoid of the crowds he usually associated them with. Only a few high-ranking dragons perched on the stands, peering down at him with varying degrees of distaste and disinterest. He supposed court trials weren’t nearly as thrilling as battles to the death.

Talon found the spot where he and Avalanche had watched Hvitur escape and there was the tunnel, leading away towards the library and the dragonflame tower.

“So,” Talon turned to look at one of the guards near him. “Am I getting a trail, or just being, you know, put up there on a tower or something?”

The guard didn’t answer. Talon felt some of his confidence ebb. It was too quiet, the sky devoid of clouds, the sand under his claws was too smooth, filing under his claws, scratching his scales. Talon glanced back to where Scarlet’s throne was. A large orange SkyWing that Talon decided was definitely Turbulence was sitting on the edge of the seats, staring down at him with disgust.

Turbulence’s head turned to somewhere to Talon’s left. He followed her gaze and saw his section walking slowly onto the sands of the arena. Avalanche caught Talon’s gaze and she stared at her claws, wings trembling. Beside her was Kestrel, their tails were intertwined supportively.

There was a hissing sound and the guards around Talon lowered into a bow. Talon looked up and saw Queen Scarlet emerge from a higher tunnel, wings spread elegantly. Talon’s section bowed too. Talon remained standing straight, staring Scarlet in the eyes as she made her way to her throne and saw down.

The dragons rose again, guards resuming their stiff stance. Turbulence lept down and landed on the arena floor with a spray of sand. “Queen Scarlet and other nobles, we have gathered here for a trail of one of our own soldiers, Talon of Section Eighteen-Seven, under the direction of Commander Squall. In the past few days there have been ongoing reports of Talon conspiring against the queen. Today, he admitted to being a traitor to the Kingdom of the Sky.”

Talon lifted his head defiantly, forcing himself to meet Scarlet’s amber eyes. He wasn’t going to bow down, not now, not after he had fully committed to this. He was ready to prove to anyone and everyone that he had defied Scarlet, followed the moral code imbedded in him.

“This trail, however, is not for Talon.” Turbulence continued. Talon’s eyes widened. He glanced across at his section, who were looking at each other nervously. Avalanche was staring at him again. He mouthed ‘I’m sorry’ to her.

Turbulence raised her wings. “This trail is for the remainder of Section Eighteen-Seven, excluding new recruits, Soldiers Woodnote and Overcast, who have not been in the castle long enough to be involved in Talon’s crimes. And excluding Soldier Kestrel, who has been a valuable informant during these past days.”

Avalanche let out a shocked yelp and pushed herself away from Kestrel with a look of disgust. The rest of the section muttered and stared. Kestrel hunched her wings slightly, although she still looked defiant. Talon watched in silence. He felt a strange sense of detachment from the events. His fate wasn’t going to change whether Kestrel had been spying on him for the queen or not. It had been his own decision that had led him here and that wasn’t going to be impacted by anything any of the other dragons in his section said.

“Soldiers Breeze, Vulture, Windstorm, Slipstream, Claret and Avalanche, please stand in an orderly manner. Soldiers Kestrel, Woodnote and Overcast, you may take a seat.” Turbulence instructed. The dragons did as commanded.

Talon watched as Kestrel and the two dragonets at the edge of the seats. Kestrel’s expression had become somewhat closed off. One of the dragonets was watching with enraptured excitement, the other with more caution. Talon turned to look at Avalanche, who was staring at Kestrel with a look of hurt in her eyes.

Then his gaze turned to Turbulence again as she started speaking. “Soldiers of Section Eighteen-Seven, you have one chance to come clean on anything you know about the recent treason committed by Talon. If you speak now, your punishment will be lessened. If you hold your tongue . . .” Turbulence’s expression turned dangerous. “You might just lose it.”

“We don’t know anything.” A red dragon from Talon’s section threw up his wings defiantly.

“Soldier . . .”

“Breeze.” The red SkyWing said.

“Soldier Breeze, if that is true, then how do you explain Soldier Kestrel’s involvement?” Turbulence said.

Breeze shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not her Commander, why should I be checking up on what she’s doing? She has her life, I have mine.”

“Very well. Did any of you know about Soldier Talon’s intentions?” Turbulence asked.

There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Finally someone said hesitantly, “Avalanche has been spending a lot of time with Talon lately.”

“That’s true.” Another chipped in. “Ever since the battle, Avalanche hasn’t been spending time with Kestrel and us, she’s been off somewhere with Talon.”

“I have noticed that.” A third nodded, flicking her pink-red wings carelessly.

All eyes went to Avalanche, who shrunk under their gazes. Talon watched as she glanced up at Kestrel, expression somewhere between confusion and fear. Avalanche looked over at Talon. The two locked eyes and Talon gave her a small smile and a nod. She smiled back in return, eyes saying, ‘sorry’. He shrugged, mouthing ‘it’s okay’.

“Soldier Avalanche.” Turbulence paced towards Avalanche, stopping where she could tower over her. “What has given you this sudden interest in Talon?”

Chapter Text

Nautilus felt a lot less confident in what the future held by the time he landed on the council level that afternoon. It was empty of all members other than Baiji, who was the elderly Council of Communication, and Undertow, the council of Justice. Undertow was lazing on the edge of the pavilion, tail hanging over the side, her eyes the only part of her that was moving as she watched Nautilus arrive. Baiji was sitting in his pool, claws tracing the small streams that ran between the pools and across the floor.

“Hello Nautilus.” Baiji greeted. “Fancy seeing you here.”

Nautilus smiled politely. “Hi Baiji, hi Undertow. What’re you two doing up here?”

“Nothing.” Undertow said, closing her eyes again. “I’m leading a trial soon, so for now I’m simply waiting. Her majesty, Queen Coral, will be here soon.”

“I’m merely keeping my niece company.” Baiji said, dark green eyes twinkling. “What brings you here?”

“There was an enemy patrol – three SandWings flying low over the water.” Nautilus said. “Threatened Marine’s hunting patrol. They’ve gone now, but a hunter mentioned it being the third attack recently. I thought it worth mentioning, as no one else seems inclined to report it.”

Undertow lept to her feet, nearly toppling off the level. She threw her wings out to steady herself, “Burn’s been sending SandWings to spy on us?”

“It seems so.” Nautilus said.

“We need to increase patrols!” Undertow said. “Uncle, you have to mention it at the next peace-meeting with Burn!”

“I do not know that there will be another. Now we are allied with Princess Blister.” Baiji said, raising his dull blue wings in a shrug. Nautilus watched the older SandWing carefully. Baiji had lived for decades, a long, long time. It was possible he had lived through other wars before.

“Baiji, I have to ask.” Nautilus said. “Do you think that it could be Blister who sent those SandWings?”

“No.” Undertow snarled. “That would be traitorous to our new alliance! She wouldn’t. That’s not just.”

“Undertow, dear, be calm.” Baiji said carefully. “It’s a fair question. In war, dragons are not fair, nor are they just. They use any means to get what they want. Infuriating, I know. Blister is smart. I believe she would think of sending dragons over, hoping we’d assume it was enemy SandWings from Burn. But there is only a miniscule chance that she would try that so soon after forming an alliance. She’d want to refrain from causing us to distrust her.”

Nautilus nodded reluctantly. What Baiji said made sense. “You’re right. I shouldn’t be so quick to distrust our allies. This patrol has an equal chance of being sent by Burn or Blaze.”

“Where’s all this talk about our enemies coming from?” A new voice said. The three counsellors looked around and saw King Gill, perching on the edge of the platform. Nautilus, Baiji and Undertow bowed quickly.

“Today while I was out with Marine’s hunting patrol, three SandWings of unknown alliance flew over the ocean where we were hunting.” Nautilus reported. “No dragons were harmed or followed to the best of my knowledge, but this is apparently the third time it’s happened recently and I thought it worth mentioning.”

“I see. I’ll make it a point of interest this evening at the council meeting.” Gill said. He turned to Undertow. “Are you ready to start the trial?”

“Where’s Queen Coral, with all due respect, sir?” The Council of Justice asked.

Gill smiled. “Finally some good news, Posidonia reported that our daughter was hatching. Coral is there. I would attend, but I understand that, in wars and situations like these, we always need someone running the kingdom.”

“Congratulations, your majesty.” Baiji said. Nautilus and Undertow murmured agreements.

“So you’re leading the trail with me since Queen Coral can’t?” Undertow guessed. “Right, well, whenever you’re ready, sir, the trail can start. No offense, but I feel we’ve kept them waiting.”

“Very well, let’s go.” Gill said. The two swept into the sky, circling out of sight.

Nautilus and Baiji remained quiet for several seconds, before Nautilus coughed and said. “Well, I’ve told King Gill about the attacks, so I’ll be going.”

He’d never spent much time with the elderly Council of Communications, although Nautilus knew the old Council of Publishing, Squid, had been good friends with him. Baiji made no move to stop Nautilus, just inclined his head and watched with disinterest as Nautilus walked to the edge of the platform and dove into the sky.

Nautilus could no longer see Nix on the lake surface, he assumed she’d returned to the hunter’s cave of the Summer Palace. It was mid-morning, yet there was an unusual lack of activity. Nautilus supposed news of the war had caused many higher-ranking SeaWings who partially resided in the Summer Palace to return to the Deep Sea Palace, and all the other dragons to hurry with their work in order to prepare for any attacks.

The pavilion was also mostly empty. There was Baiji on the council level, and a few levels below Gill and Undertow were leading the trail. But no other dragons were on the pavilion, except for a small, dark green dragonet on the library level.

Interested, Nautilus swooped down to the level, coming face to face with Whirlpool, who was poised over the long table containing Nautilus’ scroll, Current Affairs Within SeaWing Territory, claws nearly dripping with black ink.

As Nautilus landed on the pavilion, Whirlpool glanced up and his expression turned to panic, then to guilt. Nautilus strode over to Whirlpool’s side and gazed down at the messy, scrawled words that Whirlpool had added to the scroll.

Anger gripped his mind like claws. He’d warned Whirlpool before that he couldn’t update the scroll, but yet again he found his apprentice here. What was the meaning of Whirlpool’s blatant disregard for Nautilus? Nautilus intended to find out, once and for all.

Nautilus frowned down at the dragonet. “Explain.”

Chapter Text

Avalanche forced herself not to recoil under the glares of the dragons around her, both in her section and watching from the seating above. Avalanche had nothing to be ashamed of. She hadn’t been a traitor. She hadn’t. If Talon could walk up to the queen and tell her what he thought of her rule without fear, she could explain this without trembling.

“I, uh, I have only been a member of Section Eighteen-Seven for two years.” Avalanche started, wincing as she listened to her voice echo through the arena. It was so quiet, so pitiful. “But in those two years, not once have I been disloyal.”

“Get on with it.” Turbulence snarled.

“However.” Avalanche said quickly. “I did notice a small orange SkyWing in my section, one who stayed up late reading and re-reading scrolls. One that thought about the world in a way so different to anyone else around him. One who taught me to think about the world a little differently too.”

Avalanche looked over at Talon, who was grinning proudly, and smiled. “This dragon was Talon. For two years I watched him from a distance, too afraid to talk to him beyond quiet hellos or in training. But after the night of the battle, I finally worked up the courage to speak to him. At first, I thought he was a traitor because of the things he said. But there was something about him that I just couldn’t stay away from.”

Avalanche glanced up at the seating where Kestrel sat, staring down at her with a nervous expression. Avalanche looked away again, not willing to let her emotions get confused over Kestrel when she had to finish talking. “As I spent more time with him, I learnt how he thought. It was different. It was amazing. I was addicted. I . . . the reason I’ve been spending so much time around him is because I love him.”

Avalanche stared at her claws. “I love him and that isn’t going to change.”

“It’s true.” Kestrel stood up suddenly. “Please, your majesty, Avalanche would never commit treason. She’s as loyal as I am. It’s Talon who is the traitor.”

Avalanche felt claws digging into her stomach, she kept her gaze on her claws, counting the specks of sand that had fallen onto her scales. There was a long silence, a too-long silence.

“Very well.” Queen Scarlet said. “So this treason is the work of one crazed dragon.”

There was a murmur of reluctant nods from the section.

“Then it would be unfair to punish you for his action.” Scarlet decided. “In which case, you are all dismissed. Turbulence, take them back to their dormitory.”

The large orange SkyWing sauntered out of the arena and the section, with the exception of Talon, hurried after her. Kestrel, Overcast and Woodnote re-joined them as they reached the tunnel. Avalanche glanced over her shoulder to see Talon watching them go, expression conflicted. Then Avalanche entered the tunnel and Talon disappeared from her sight.

The trek back to the dorm was long and silent. Kestrel had filed in beside Avalanche, as she so often had done in the past, but Avalanche didn’t want to look at her friend, didn’t want to talk to her. Avalanche’s own thoughts were so jumbled and confused she didn’t think she could handle having to deal with Kestrel’s too. Because Kestrel had to have some reason for her actions. Avalanche’s best friend for two years wouldn’t turn Talon in for no reason.

Avalanche entered the dorm last, ready to fall onto her rock ledge and bury her head in her wings and pretend to sleep, ignoring the fact it was midday, instead of cry, but Kestrel stepped in front of her and took a deep breath. “Avalanche, look-”

“Kestrel, please, I don’t want to hear it. Not now.” Avalanche said, voice trembling. “I- I can’t do this now. We’ll talk . . . some other time, I promise. But . . .”

“Avalanche, look.” Kestrel said again. “I know you don’t agree with me, but Talon’s a bad dragon. I did what I had to do keep us both safe.”

Avalanche laughed bitterly. “And to think you’re the one that encouraged me to talk to him.”

“I didn’t know what he was like then.” Kestrel snarled.

“You’d known him for five years.”

“And you’ve known him for two.” Kestrel snapped back. “He was quiet, I didn’t know what he was like. But once it became clear what he was like, we couldn’t be around him. You couldn’t. It wasn’t safe.”

“It wasn’t safe? He was perfectly safe! He was smart, he wasn’t going to threaten anything, put anyone in danger!” Avalanche scraped her claws along the stone floor in frustration.

“He confronted Scarlet, he put everyone in danger.” Kestrel retorted.

“He learnt from his mistakes. Talon wasn’t going to do it again.” Avalanche cried. “I thought you cared about me.”

“I do.”

“I love him.” Avalanche said, voice horse, emotions threatening to leak through. “I love him and you- you- you told Queen Scarlet.”

“I’m not a traitor, Avalanche.” Kestrel glared. “Won’t you listen to me? I’m protecting us. I’m not a traitor, not to our section, not to our tribe, not to you.”

“Then why do I feel betrayed?” Avalanche whispered. Kestrel stopped, jaw open, brows scrunched. Avalanche suddenly became aware of the seven pairs of eyes on their argument.

She hunched her wings forwards. “I’m going out flying, I need time to think. Don’t look for me. Don’t, Kestrel. I need to be alone.”

Avalanche spun around and darted from the room, scales uncomfortably hot, prickling from the judgemental orange eyes. She had to get out, she had to clear her thoughts. She had to force herself to believe that had actually happened.

Kestrel’s snarl worked its way into Avalanche’s mind, echoing through her thoughts and making her wings itch. Avalanche wished she’d never come to the castle. Why did this happen? What had divided her two friends so far? Why was she trapped in the middle?

Chapter Text

Talon was honestly unimpressed. The pillars looked impressive from the ground and yes, they were high, but not high for a SkyWing. There was enough room for him to sit comfortably, enough for two dragons to sit without touching. Sure, he was chained to the rock, but that was comforting if anything.

The worst part was the metal wires that connected him to the other prisoners, forcing his large wings closed. To his left was a SandWing who was hunched over, wings shaking as she glanced periodically at him, clearly wondering what Talon must have done to be the only SkyWing imprisoned in the arena. To his right was an IceWing who stared at him unashamedly with pale blue eyes. It was always IceWings.

Talon offered the IceWing a small smile. The IceWing tilted their head in a questioning manner, mouthing something back at Talon. A question? Was the ice dragon asking what such a small SkyWing had done to get here. Steal from the queen? Murder a bunch of dragonets? Speak his mind?

Talon laughed to himself. Now that he knew how the rest of his life would go he couldn’t bring himself to be afraid. Perhaps when he was back on the arena floor facing another dragon the terror would kick in, but for now he couldn’t help but feel entirely disconnected with his current situation.

His mind was on Avalanche, really. On what she had said during the trial. That she had loved him. He knew, of course he knew. But hearing her say it in front of so many other dragons was something else. His scales felt warm and his heart felt like it was going to burst out of his chest at the thought.

Talon felt a sudden tug on his right wing he staggered towards the edge of his platform, digging in his claws to stop himself in time. He looked over at the IceWing, who pointed wordlessly up at the sky.

Talon looked up and saw Avalanche sweeping in a long slow circle over the arena. She caught his eye and he waved, flashing her a smile. She tried for a nervous one in return. Talon watched as she circled the arena once more, head darting side to side, then looking down to the guards on the arena sands, swarming like bright red ants below, but funnily enough never glancing up, then Avalanche spiralled downwards and landed on the edge of Talon’s pillar.

“Hey.” He said, grinning at her over his shoulder. He wished he could turn around, properly greet her, have her wings wrap around him, feel the comfort she brought with her.

“Hey stupid.” She said, sniffing a little.

“Don’t cry. I’m not scared.” Talon said. “I wanted to do it. Kestrel had nothing to do with it. I’m not going to die. Um, Queen Scarlet doesn’t hate you? Okay, I’ll stop guessing and let you talk.”

He laughed awkwardly, but the sound died and Talon winced as he realised he’d just made the moment worse.

Avalanche said quietly, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Talon said firmly. “I’ve chosen this myself. No one made me, not you, not Kestrel, not even the two dragonets.”

“Woodnote and Overcast.” Avalanche put in.

“Woodnote and Overcast.” Talon nodded. “Look after them.”

“Of course I will.” Avalanche said. She was quiet for a few seconds, then threw herself forwards, leaping over Talon and landing on the other side of the pillar, spinning and embracing him with her wings. “But it’s not fair.”

He listened to her heart beating in her chest as she sobbed into his shoulder. “Why? Why did this happen? Why to us?”

“Because we’re different, Avalanche. Because we want to make a difference.” Talon said. He hesitated, then said, “You know, dragons have escaped from the arena before, haven’t they? We know how, don’t we?”

“But you’re nowhere near as experienced as Hvitur.” Avalanche sniffed. “These are all dragons older than you, larger than you, you . . . you don’t have anything-”

“Except a voice. And that will have to do.” Talon said. “I’m not going out without a bang. Like . . . like a dragonflame cactus, this has all just been a fuse burning and soon, when I’m next down on those arena floors, I’ll give Scarlet one last thing to think about, then I’ll be gone. I’ll fly off into the sunset and live happily by the ocean.”

Talon was quiet as he listened to Avalanche take deep, gulping breaths. Her wings shook, sending tremors all through Talon’s body.

“I’d still follow you, if there was a chance that would happen.” Avalanche said finally.

“What do you mean, ‘if’? Don’t you believe me?” Talon asked.

“You don’t have to pretend.” Avalanche whispered. “I know what’s going to happen.”

“Yeah.” Talon said. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll escape and we’ll live happily by the sea, away from wars and queens and tribes.”

“Talon . . .”

“You don’t believe me?” Talon asked. “We’ll just have to see the hard way. How ‘bout this? If I don’t die, you have to come with me.”

“Alright.” Avalanche sighed.

“Avalanche, I promise, I understand how serious this is.” Talon said. “But you have to trust me, I think I can make it out alive. If I can get out of the arena, I know this palace as well as any of them, I can escape. I just have to convince myself I can do it, you know? Believing is half the battle already won.”

Avalanche lifted her head, “I don’t want you to die. I love you.”

Talon grinned, squirming out of Avalanche’s wings and gazing at her comfortingly. “Look, Avalanche, I promise I’ll make it out alive. I’m not going anywhere until we’re free.”

He paused, glancing around the arena, at all the dragons imprisoned on the towers. What was their stories? Did they have families who still missed them every day? He and Avalanche weren’t good enough. These dragons deserved freedom just as much as he did.

“Not until we’re all free.”

Chapter Text

Whirlpool didn’t meet Nautilus’ eyes as he spoke, just said quietly, “Nautilus, sir, I know you told me not to, but just now I bumped into Councillor Lagoon, who told me about all the updates in the Aquaculture and since you weren’t here, I thought it best to update the scroll so it can be referred to tonight at the council meeting.”

Nautilus stared down at the dragonet, unimpressed. The story was a blatant lie, that much was clear from Whirlpool’s lack of eye contact, not to mention the inconsistencies in his story. “Whirlpool, you know perfectly well that we don’t refer to the scroll during Counsel Meetings. It is for the Counsellors or Royal family to check what is happening in the Kingdom. On top of that, you know I updated the scroll yesterday, detailing the Aquaculture. I doubt anything has changed dramatically in that time seeing as Lagoon has not found and told me of anything. Now please step away from the scroll, you’re spilling ink everywhere.”

Whirlpool hung his head guiltily and stepped away from the scroll. “Sorry, Nautilus.”

“I’ll ask you once more, why were you planning on updating that scroll?” Nautilus asked.

“I just wanted to see if I could.” Whirlpool said. “I didn’t think you would find out.”

“Didn’t think I would find out? I would recognise your writing, Whirlpool.” Nautilus scolded.

“Sorry.” Whirlpool repeated.

Nautilus sighed. He didn’t have a clue what to do about Whirlpool’s constant misbehaviour. He couldn’t let the dragonet continually disobey his instructions without any repercussions for his actions. But Whirlpool was intelligent, that was the reason Nautilus had decided to take the dragonet in as his apprentice.

Nautilus would have to figure out a suitable punishment. He didn’t like it, but Whirlpool had to learn how to act properly.

“I’m not happy, Whirlpool.” Nautilus said.

“Sorry.”

“You aren’t to set foot on the library floor of the pavilion for the next two days. If any dragons sees so much as a claw touch the floor, you will be in big trouble, understand?” Nautilus’ heart clenched, seeing the shock and disappointment cross the dragonet’s face, but he stayed firm.

Remember why you’re doing this in the first place, he told himself.

Whirlpool nodded and bowed stiffly. “I understand, sir. I’ll be going now, sorry once again.”

He turned and darted across the library, claws leaving small, round dots of ink. Then the dark green dragonet threw himself into the air and soared up to one of the caves lining the walls of the Summer Palace. Nautilus watched him go in silence.

“You seem angry.”

Nautilus spun around, half expecting it to be Cuttlefish standing behind him, donning her usual amused expression. Instead he came face to face with his mother. Seashell approached him slowly, pale green wings glittering with water droplets. Her weathered face was devoid of emotions, as it usually was when she and Nautilus exchanged their clipped, professional conversations.

Nautilus dipped his wings in respect. “Mother.”

“Counsellor.” Seashell returned.

“What brings you here?” Nautilus asked.

“Job status?” Seashell asked. Nautilus wondered if he’d prefer it if his mother would at least pretend to care about him and not just his job and status.

“Stable as ever.” He returned. “How is the Deep Sea Palace?”

“No so pleasant after the news of the war. Dragons are afraid they will die.” Seashell regarded him coldly, as if the war was entirely his fault.

“Yes well, war tends to have that effect.” Nautilus said drily.

“Don’t use that tone.” Seashell chided. “You’ll never marry into the royal family if you act insolent and resentful.”

“Sorry, mother.” Nautilus amended.

“What are you doing to benefit our family, Nautilus?” Seashell asked, as if ‘their family’ wasn’t just her, Nautilus and Nix.

“Continuing with my job, creating alliances with the other council members, in particular the Counsellor of Spies and Secrets.” Nautilus reported, tone going flat and monotone as he spoke words that meant nothing to him. “I spoke with the king in private only yesterday, he seemed to think I was performing well.”

“Good, good.” Seashell smiled falsely, eyes still cold. “I’m so proud of you.”

“Thank you.” Nautilus said.

“So then, why did you look so mad?” Seashell asked.

“My possible apprentice, Whirlpool, has been troublesome lately.” Nautilus shrugged, hoping Seashell would end the questioning soon. “Nothing that can’t be dealt with.”

“I see.” Seashell said, nodding. “If he doesn’t step in line, I suggest having him scrub the palace walls clean of algae, that will put him in his place. Always worked with the soldiers.”

Nautilus watched his mother closely. At times like these, when she hinted at her former position as a Commander, it was as though she were a completely different dragon to the cold, emotionless dragon he interacted with so often. There was a hint of a commanding, yet lively and strong dragon underneath her aged scales.

“I have it under control, mother.” Nautilus dismissed.

“I’m sure you do.” Seashell said, nodding.

“If that’s all . . . ?” Nautilus asked.

“That’s all.” Seashell confirmed.

“Then I have one small request.” Nautilus murmured.

“What is it, dear?” Seashell asked, sounding more like the mother Nautilus had grown up with, before he earned his position as a councillor, before she had started training him to act royal so he could marry royal.

“I was wondering if you would mind speaking to Nix. She exists too, you know?” Nautilus said. Then, at Seashell’s blank stare, Nautilus added, a little forcefully, “Your daughter? Nix?”

“I know who Nix is, Nautilus.” Seashell snapped. “But that dragon is no daughter of mine. She failed me, time and time again.”

“Mother.” Nautilus frowned.

“You’re the only dragonet I have left, Nautilus.” Seashell snapped and Nautilus thought he heard desperation in her tone. “Don’t fail me.”

Then, without another word, his mother whipped around and dove of the counsel level, like in a flash of pale green lightening shooting through the sky, disappearing out of sight.

And therefor, Nautilus told himself, out of mind.

Chapter Text

Avalanche dragged her claws along the rock floor in a pathetic attempt to slow herself down. She didn’t want to return to the dorm, but the sun had started to dip towards the horizon and it was too much to ask for that she wouldn’t be spotted with Talon on his arena pillar. She just wished she didn’t have to confront the other members of her section, didn’t have to confront Kestrel. Avalanche paused at the doorway, taking a deep breath and listening.

There was the sound of low, indistinct voices, but Kestrel’s was not one of them. Before Avalanche could have a second thought about entering, she pushed through the doorway, almost treading on the tail of a dragon she definitely didn’t recognise.

He turned around to face her, expression tight. His small, red-gold scales seemed to glow in the weak torchlight, like he was a polished gemstone. His pale eyes were an odd yellow-orange colour. He was large, larger even then Avalanche and Kestrel, with a long, lean build. He was decent at flying, Avalanche could tell just by looking at his wings. But something about him felt off. Avalanche couldn’t place it, but him being here in this dingy little cave seemed entirely off.

“Hello. You must be Avalanche, I’ve heard a lot about you from our section-mates.” The new dragon said.

Our section-mates?” Avalanche demanded.

“Ah, of course, I haven’t introduced myself.” The new dragon smiled. “I’m Cinder, replacement of the late Soldier Talon.”

“Talon isn’t dead!” Avalanche almost yelled, growling and arching her neck instinctively.

“He’s as good as.” Claret said, watching Cinder with large eyes.

“No he’s not.” Avalanche snarled.

“They were right, you are quite the character.” Cinder said, looking amused.

Avalanche shoved her way past Cinder and scanned the room. Aside from Cinder and Claret, only Slipstream and Overcast remained in the room, Slipstream watching the scene unfold with cautious curiosity from the safety of their sleeping ledge, Overcast standing by the doorway, as if ready to make a run for it as soon as possible.

“Cinder came from the north, just like you, Avalanche.” Claret said, shaking her red-purple wings delicately.

“From Wingtip Forest Province?” Avalanche asked in surprise.

“Northern Isle.” Cinder corrected.

“How did you get here so fast?” Avalanche asked suspiciously. “They hadn’t been planning to arrest Talon for that long, surely.”

“No.” Cinder said. “I just happened to be in the castle and was placed here.”

“Your parents don’t care that you’re not going home?” Avalanche asked doubtfully.

“They don’t.” Cinder said firmly. “They were the ones who sent me here. Wanted me to learn how rough others have it, gain some worldly experience and whatnot. It was her most gracious majesty's idea to place me into a section of lowli- of soldiers like you.”

Avalanche scowled. “I see. I suppose you’re in relation to Duchess Heron?”

Slipstream and Claret gasped in surprise, as if it had been a great mystery. But with this dragon’s polished-gemstone look, uptight attitude and demeanour, let alone referring to her and her section as ‘lowlife’, was all but confirming it.

“Her son of eight years.” Cinder agreed.

Eight years, no wonder he was larger than Avalanche, he was older. Overcast made a small humming noise and murmured, “Does this happen often? Replaced section members?”

“No. It’s only ever happened once before this week.” Claret said.

“Oh.” Overcast murmured. He walked over to Avalanche’s side, stepping lightly and carefully, as if the floor would drop away underneath him. He stretched his neck up and whispered, “Do you think we can trust Cinder? Or is he a spy, like Kestrel?”

Avalanche blinked in surprise and examined the dragonet. The thought that Cinder wasn’t trustworthy hadn’t crossed her mind. She had just seen him as annoying and arrogant, not as a potential spy. But Overcast was right, if Cinder was sent by Queen Scarlet, he very well could be trying to find other 'disloyal' dragons. She shrugged her wings and murmured, “It’s possible. What do you think?”

Overcast simply shrugged and stepped back to the door, resuming his steady gaze out at the room.

“Where’s Kestrel?” Avalanche asked, scared to know the answer.

“She went off somewhere with Vulture.” Slipstream said. “She looked sad, more than anything else.”

“Oh.” Avalanche felt a twinge of guilt, despite her anger for Kestrel.

“Don’t apologise to her if you aren’t sorry.” Overcast said quietly. “If she messed up, then she should have to deal with the consequences.”

“But she didn’t!” Avalanche said. “She did what she thought was right. I just . . . Talon did what he thought was right, too. One of them was going to end up . . . better or worse off. And I am sorry, Kestrel’s my friend.”

Cinder was watching with amusement, looking down on them as if he were superior to their squabble. Avalanche growled in the back of her throat, he had no right to be so high and mighty.

“There are arena battles scheduled for tomorrow.” Claret said suddenly, tone light. “Do you think-”

“Yes.” Avalanche interrupted. “I think Queen Scarlet will want to get rid of him as soon as possible.”

Cinder chuckled. “Your section-mate really gave quite a speech. I was in the room at the time, you know?”

“No, I didn’t. And I don’t care.” Avalanche snapped.

“But he’s very scrawny.” Cinder continued. “I don’t think he’ll last a second down there. I wonder what her Majesty, Queen Scarlet, will put him up against. Whoever it is will tear him limb from limb. I’ve never seen an arena battle, let alone one with a SkyWing! Although it’s disappointing that we all already know he’ll be the first to die.”

Avalanche huffed a breath of smoke and stalked to her sleeping ledge, throwing herself down on it and covering her head with her wings. She had known Cinder for less than an hour and she already hated him. What right did he have to talk about Talon like that?

But despite Talon’s assurances he would be fine, Avalanche couldn’t help but think that Cinder was correct in this one regard. There was no way Talon would last more than a second in the arena.

Chapter Text

The sunset was no more than a smear of deep red on the horizon, like the sky was stained red with blood. Talon watched the light as it faded from the sky, leaving a deep, dark blue, speckled with stars. It felt to Talon like hundreds of silver eyes were watching him from above, twinkling with sympathetic light.

There was no wind, not even a slight breeze but despite the lowering temperatures of the night, Talon felt warm and fuzzy, as though his scales were practically humming. He could still practically feel Avalanche’s wings wrapped around him, her head on his back, her chest against his head, listening to her heart beat. In his mind’s eye he could see her, amber eyes glittering with laughter, smile wide and bright. He had made her smile like that.

Talon shook himself, trying to clear his mind. He was going to be placed in a fight to the death soon, he had to prepare, to think, to keep his mind clear. But all he could think about was Avalanche.

Talon closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The air smelt cold and fresh, with a slight hint of pine trees from outside the forest and a stronger smell of smoke from down near the base of the pillars, where, Talon had realised, there was a small building inhabited by guards who occasionally patrolled the arena and glanced up at the imprisoned dragons above.

“There he is, the traitor himself.”

Talon opened his eyes to see two SkyWings guards circling his pillar. The larger, a dragon with scales a shade of dark, ugly red like old blood, landed on the front of Talon’s pillar, forcing imprisoned dragon back. The guard loomed forwards, pushing Talon away until his back claws were scrabbling on the edge of the stone pillar. The other guard continued circling in the air, her dull orange scales looking more grey in the early morning light.

“What sort of MudWing-brained idea caused you to end up here?” The first guard asked, raising his large wings menacingly.

“You know, thinking for myself.” Talon did his best to make sure his voice wasn’t shaking, to make his tone uncaring. He wasn’t sure it worked.

“Lay off him, Glide.” The second guard said. “He’s just a dragonet.”

“Actually, I’m not.” Talon said, flicking his tail. “I’m seven.”

“You sure?” The first guard, Glide, chuckled. “You look puny enough to be a three year old dragonet.”

The second guard swooped past again. “You’re kidding me, you wanted me to fly up here to humiliate a dragonet? I’m sure being imprisoned and having to fight to the death in punishment enough without having to deal with your ugly MudWing-snout.”

Glide snarled. “Don’t tell me you aren’t curious about him? A SkyWing, imprisoned? That’s a pretty interesting thing.”

“He’s not a caged scavenger for you to gawk at.” The second guard said.

“He’s as good as.” The first said.

“I’m right here.” Talon said. “No need to talk about me like I’m not.”

“Ah, right, sorry.” The second guard said.

“Cloudburst, don’t be friendly with him. You’ll get attached and then you’ll be sad when he dies.” Glide chided.

“I’m not going to die.” Talon said. He wasn’t going to let anyone say that around him. If he allowed others to say it, he might start to believe it and if he didn’t believe he would make it, maybe he wouldn’t be able to escape.

“You sure about that? You look about as dangerous as a RainWing.” The first guard raised a brow.

“I’m not going to fight.” Talon said, puffing up his chest and trying to seem bigger than he was. He could only make it up to the first guard’s shoulders. “I’m going to escape.”

“No dragon has ever escaped the arena.”  Glide scoffed.

“Well . . .” Cloudburst mumbled as she swooped by.

“Aside from Hvitur, exactly.” Talon said, feeling a sense of excitement as he got to talk about Hvitur and freedom. “He escaped, so why can’t I?”

“Good luck with that, dragonet.” Glide chuckled. “If you so much as try, you’ll be thrown off the tallest tower.”

Then the guard launched himself into the air and soared down towards the arena floor. The second guard took his place. She was smaller than Glide, only a little bigger than Avalanche.

“Sorry about him. He’s a grumpy, old NightWing.” Cloudburst said cheerfully. “But you do know, you’re going to die in the arena?”

“I can’t fight, but I can talk.” Talon said. “I’ll talk my way out.”

“Ha, good luck. Dragons from other tribes can’t be reasoned with. That’s one thing I’ve learnt in my time as a guard.” Cloudburst said.

Talon shrugged. “Words burn brighter than dragon fire.”

“Who said that?” Cloudburst asked.

“Me.” Talon said. “I’m amazing.”

Cloudburst burst out laughing. “You’re funny. If you weren’t going to die, I’d offer to be your friend.”

“Thanks?” Talon asked.

“No problem.” The guard extended her wings again, preparing to take flight. “See you tomorrow, dragonet. You’d better have your words ready then, or fire will be what they remember you for, a tiny little crisp of a dragonet.”

Talon laughed and shook his head. “I’m not going to die.”

“You keep telling yourself that.” Cloudburst shrugged and, before Talon could protest, launched into the sky, circling the arena towers once, then spiralling back down to the arena sands and disappearing from sight.

Talon turned his gaze back to the sky. It had darkened into a deep black, the stars brighter than before. It was odd, being a prisoner in his own home. Talon laughed to himself. Odd was a funny choice in word to describe his situation.

The warm feeling of Avalanche’s wings returned, and Talon closed his eyes, smiling to himself as he remembered her eyes when she looked at him.

Chapter Text

Nautilus slid into his pool on the council level of the pavilion, glancing to right where Cuttlefish’s empty pool was. It had only been a day since the Council of Spies and Secrets had left. But now, here at the council meeting without her, Nautilus felt like something was different. For once, Nautilus wasn’t last – Marine, Undertow and the Council of Treasure, Pearl, were yet to arrive. Not to mention neither Queen Coral, nor King Gill.

“It’s the dragonets.” The Council of Dragonet Care, Posidonia, said nodding at the king and queen's empty pools. “Sunfish is down there now with the dragonets. They haven’t named the daughter yet, but the oldest son if called Fin.”

Nautilus nodded, although he wasn’t really listening. He glanced out and up to the roof of the summer palace, the stars glittering weakly through the leaf and vine covering. He wondered where his mother was now, if she had thought about what he’d told her. Had she even considered talking to Nix?

A shriek interrupted his thoughts. Nautilus lept to his feet, scrambling out of his pool along with the other councillors and rushed to the edge of the platform. Two SeaWings were flapping up from the water, scales flashing SANDWING SANDWING SANDWING.

They circled up to the council level and landed heavily on the floor. Nautilus recognised the dragons as Marine and Undertow.

“Undertow, dear, are you okay?” Baiji asked, rushing to his niece. Around the edges of the palace, more SeaWings were staring at them, eyes glittering from caves on the walls and from the lake itself.

“SandWings.” Undertow panted.

“Where?” Shark snarled. “Where were they?”

Marine waved a wing vaguely.

“Back off, back off, give them space.” Conch said, pale blue-pink scales shimmering in the glowing light of their still-flashing scales. The Council of Medicine examined the two from talons to tail then said quietly. “They’re fine. Just shaken up. Give them space.”

Undertow took a deep breath and said, “We left early. Coral, Gill, Sunfish and Pearl were with the dragonets. We were swimming close to the surface, skimming along a current that was taking us towards the Summer Palace.”

“We didn’t notice at first, we don’t know how long they followed us for.” Marine said, standing and stopping the flashing of her scales. “But we realised that there were two SandWings, flying high above, following us. I couldn’t tell who they were.”

“As cunning as NightWings.” Undertow muttered. “We managed to lose them and came straight here, but we don’t know how long they were following us for.”

Shark snarled. “The nerve of them! If I ever get my claws on Burn I will cut her into a hundred pieces!”

“We need to stop this.” Tempest said. “Is this the first time?”

Nautilus stared at Marine, who looked back. The Council of Hunting took a deep breath and said, “No. It’s happened at least three times before.”

“WHY DIDN’T YOU REPORT IT?” Shark yelled, surging forwards.

“Shark, Shark!” Conch rushed between him and Marine, spreading his wings and separating them. “Breathe, Shark. I’m as angry as you, but infighting will get us nowhere. Tomorrow, we will go to the Deep Sea Palace and we will talk about this and figure out a solution. But we need to be calm and we need all the council members, okay?”

“Fine.” Shark said, breathing heavily. “Yes, fine. As the dragon with the most royal blood present, I end this council meeting prematurely.”

No one stayed back to talk. Nautilus dove off the level as soon as Shark finished speaking, spiralling down towards the lake. He glided above the surface, landing on the beach by the hunter’s cave. There were many dragons still awake, laughing and talking, unaware of the danger that had befallen.

Nautilus peered inside, searching for Nix. A dragon near the front said in a voice like moonlight on water, “Hello, you’re a councillor, aren’t you?”

Nautilus nodded, watching her carefully. Her deep blue scales glittered in the moonlight as she stepped onto the beach with him.

“Nautilus.” Nautilus inclined his head.

“Stenella.” The SeaWing bowed slightly, wings tipping forwards. They were a lighter blue, almost a shimmering silver, light moonlight. “How may I be of assistance?”

“I’m looking for my sister, Nix.” Nautilus said.

“Ah, yes, I know Nix. I didn’t realise she had such an important brother. She never mentioned you, although we rarely exchange words.” Stenella mused. “Would you like to speak with her?”

“Yes, please.” Nautilus said.

“I’ll find her. Wait here.” Stenella turned and disappeared back into the cave. Nautilus waited in tense silence, before Stenella returned with Nix. The silvery dragon dipped her wings again, then turned and glided back into the hunting cave.

“Swim with me?” Nautilus offered. Nix nodded and the two waded into the lake. After a few minutes of silence, he recounted the events of the council meeting, or lack of, to his sister.

“That does sound serious.” Nix murmured. “But it isn’t your place to decide. There’s nothing you can do but wait.”

“I don’t think it’s Burn.” Nautilus said. “I think that it’s Blister who sent the SandWings.”

“What proof do you have?” Nix asked.

“None.” Nautilus muttered. “None whatsoever. But I’m right, I know I am.”

Nix laughed. “You sound like Shelly used to.”

Nautilus winced. “Sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologise every time we talk about them. They were family, there’s nothing wrong with remembering.” Nix whispered.

“But it always makes you and mother so sad.” Nautilus pointed out.

“Not always.” Nix said. “Remembering all my siblings being happy together makes me happy. But now isn’t the time to go into this, we have a war to think about.”

“Yes, right.” Nautilus agreed.

“Well, honestly, I would say we don’t even have that. I would say that all you need to worry about is getting some sleep so you can attend a council meeting in the morning.” Nix said.

Nautilus laughed a little. “Yes mum. Will do.”

“Don’t forget, something good’s coming. This is only temporary.”

“What proof do you have?” Nautilus mocked.

“None.” Nix laughed. “It’s just a feeling. But I know I’m right. You know it to.”

Nautilus smiled, but couldn't shake the feeling that he wasn't quite so sure.

Chapter Text

The sun was high in the sky, rays of sunlight reflecting off SkyWing scales, sparkling ruby and amber and gold dancing across the arena's sand floor. Avalanche edged her way around the crowd, searching for a spare seat. She didn’t want to. She didn’t want to be here. But she had to see Talon, one last time. She could see him now, far, far above, on his pillar. He was the only dragon with the bright scales of a SkyWing.

“There, down by the railing.” Woodnote said at Avalanche’s feet. She and Overcast had decided to tag along with Avalanche instead of the rest of their section, whom Avalanche had been pointedly avoiding, since, well, since Kestrel was there. And Talon's replacement. Cinder.

Avalanche looked to where Woodnote was pointing, and yes, there enough room for the her and the two dragonets. She nodded and pushed through the crowd until the three of them were sitting right at the bottom of the arena, hardly a dragon length from the sand that Avalanche knew would soon be tainted with blood.

“He’s going to die today, isn’t he?” Overcast murmured.

“Not helping.” Woodnote hissed. “Can’t you see she’s sad?”

“I’m fine. I trust Talon.” Avalanche’s voice was shaking.

Avalanche looked up towards where Queen Scarlet sat, somewhere to her left. As she watched, the queen raised her wings for silence. “SkyWings, are you ready for an morning of entertainment and bloodshed?”

Avalanche winced as the dragons around her roared and cheered. Far above, SkyWing guards swept from pillar to pillar, prisoners backing away from them as the guards neared their towers. Scarlet flicked her wings and the SkyWing guards separated into two groups, targeting Talon and a SandWing across from him.

The SandWing was a dry, pale yellow. She twisted and writhed as the guards grabbed her, flicking her tail in sporadic motions. As Avalanche watched, a guard brought smacked her head, dazing the SandWing. Talon stayed quiet, not quite limp, as he allowed the guards to drop him onto the arena floor.

Avalanche realised with a thrill of horror that their wings were bound, even on the arena floor. There was no way out, no way for Talon to escape.

“On the one talon, we have Arid of the SandWings, previously a supporter of Princess Blister.” Scarlet recited. Avalanche started, that was the SandWing who Hvitur had battled. An odd choice of opponent, although there was no question that she was stronger than Talon.

“And opposing her, a traitor to our Kingdom, Talon.” Scarlet announced.

Talon was standing still, head held high, wings slightly raised, expression grim. Arid watched Talon cautiously. Avalanche wondered what the SandWing was thinking. Was she remembering her battle against Hvitur? Was she wondering what Talon had done to end up imprisoned? Was she just trying to figure out the best way to kill him?

Avalanche looked away, back at Scarlet, who all but cheered, “Claws up, fire ready, FIGHT!”

Once again the guards lept away, flocking back to the arena pillars like vultures circling a soon to be dead dragon. But neither of the two dragons moved. Talon stayed where he was, perfectly still, staring at Arid with unblinking amber eyes. Arid stared back, crouched low to the floor, growling, but not moving.

“Fight!” The crowd called. “Fight, fight, fight, fight!”

Avalanche could hear called of ‘kill him’ and ‘rip the traitor to shreds’. But neither of the two moved. Finally, Talon raised his wings, best he could with the clips that bent them down painfully towards his body. “STOP!”

It fell silent, the dragons leaning forward to see what would happen, tension in every muscle. Talon stared at Arid. “I’m going to turn around and address Scarlet. You aren’t going to attack me are you?”

Arid slowly shook her head. Talon turned to the crowd and gave a wry smile. “Tell me if she makes a move towards me, will you?”

Then he turned to look directly at Queen Scarlet. “Scarlet. I’m having a strong sense of déjà vu here. You don’t learn, do you?”

“FIGHT!” Scarlet shrieked. “Why won’t you fight?”

“Don’t you know?” Talon asked. “I’m not going to fight. That’s what got me here in the first place – not fighting. A dumb decision to send me here if that’s the case, don’t you think?”

The crowd made a collective ‘ooh’ of interest.

“In fact, this has just given me a chance to address all of you.” Talon said. “So thank you for that, Scarlet. Now, SkyWings, I know I can’t change your mind, but I just want to talk. So let me talk, please.”

“Kill him!” Scarlet ordered.

“Don’t.” Talon said.

The guards snarled, the crowd whispered among themselves, but no one moved. In that moment, Avalanche realised, Talon had just as much power as Queen Scarlet, simply by acting as her equal.

“Now.” Talon said, addressing the crowd. “I know most of you must be wondering what I did to get here, or maybe the news spreads faster than I thought. Well, I stood up to Scarlet, much like this, really. Why? Well, that’s what I asked myself. I asked myself the question why. Why are we fighting in a pointless war?”

Talon shook his head, wings folding back to his sides so they were no longer contorted painfully. “I told her that. And I told her that forcing dragonets to fight in a war was wrong. Imagine if it was your dragonet who died? Would you wish death upon your dragonet?”

Several SkyWings shook their heads uncertainly.

“Why aren’t you doing anything? KILL HIM!” Scarlet roared.

Talon lifted his gaze to the guards. “I spoke to two guards last night when I was imprisoned on a pillar. One was, well, I’m not going to lie, one was a pretty cruel dragon. But the other, she was funny, interesting, she made me feel like I was still a dragon, not a prisoner. I don’t remember her name, don’t know her story. But I spent a little time with her and I got to know her and I know that she’s a dragon with reasons for doing what she’s doing. I mightn’t agree with imprisoning dragons, but I don’t want to kill her for not freeing me.”

“Avalanche.” Overcast hissed, nudging the older dragon. She glanced at him sharply, wondering why he was interrupting. He pointed behind Talon, where Arid the SandWing was slowly making her way towards Talon, tail raised so the poisonous barb glinted in the midday sun.

Chapter Text

Talon took a deep breath and continued, “And that guard is only one example. Why should dragons from other tribes be different? Surely they believe the same thing. Why are any of us any different from other dragons? What makes us better, what makes us right?”

The crowd remained silent. Talon scanned the dragons, seeing hopeful and agreeing expression, along with the occasional disgusted look. There were a few dragons whispering, pointing behind him towards where Arid was. Wait, that was closer than where Talon knew Arid had been. Talon spun around, ducking and rolling left as he did so, seeing a glint of yellow scales and gleaming fangs. A barbed tail swung into the sand, narrowly missing Talon. The crowd exploded, cheering and booing, noise merging into an overwhelming buzz of excitement.

He lept to his feet and scrambled backwards. “Wait!”

The SandWing’s black eyes fixed on him as she shook sand off her scales. She looked scared, desperate. Caged.

“Arid, this isn’t your only way to get out of the arena.” Talon said, remembering his promise from last night. “Remember Hvitur, the IceWing that escaped?”

Arid blinked and nodded.

“I’m going to do that too. Escape, I mean.” Talon’s voice had dropped to hardly more than a whisper, nearly inaudible over the crowd, yet he felt more confident in his plan now than ever before. “When the time comes, follow my lead, we’ll get out of here. I promise.”

Arid snarled. “Why would I believe you?”

“Because I don’t want to die either?” Talon offered. He stepped closer to Arid. The crowd fell silent at once, like a cloud had lowered over the arena, muffling the sound. “I don’t want to die and neither do you. Why don’t we not die together?”

He stepped closer, closer, closer still. She could easily lash out and stab him with her tail now, but she didn’t move.

“See?” Talon said. He turned to address the crowds again. “See? We aren’t so different. Arid and I are not in the same tribe, but we’re in the same situation. Arid, why are you here?”

Arid cleared her throat and said, “I stole money from a SkyWing guard in Decollate Oasis.”

Talon had no clue where that was, he imagined somewhere near the SandWing/SkyWing border, but he nodded. “And why was that?”

“I had to feed myself. And my brother.” Arid hissed through clenched teeth. “I had to get money.”

“See? She had to survive. She was trying to survive. Did she hurt any dragons?” Talon asked. Arid shook her head and Talon continued, “No. She did not. She simply was trying to survive. Just like all of us. This war is tearing us apart.”

Talon took a deep breath. “I’m almost done, I promise. There are just two more things I need to say, then I’ll stop wasting your time. First thing, this isn’t the end. Soon, I’m going to escape this arena and this castle and I’ll leave. But if you ever need me, if you ever need to find me, fly. Fly and find me. Don’t be afraid to leave. Don’t be afraid to do what’s right.”

He turned to survey the crowds, searching for a familiar face among the SkyWings. He couldn’t find her, couldn’t find Avalanche among the hundreds of dragons watching. Oh well. Maybe that was for the best. Because for the first time since starting to speak in front of all these dragons he felt inexplicably nervous.

“And the other thing I wanted to say is . . .” Talon took a shaking breath and pushed forwards. “Is for one particular dragon. Avalanche.”

There was a murmur through the crowd. A dragon yelled, “OVER HERE! SHE’S OVER HERE!”

Talon spun around and saw a bright red dragonet somewhere to the left of Scarlet, waving and bouncing up and down. And beside that dragonet, in the very front row, was Avalanche, leaning forwards anxiously.

He waved. “Hi!”

She waved back. Talon forced everything else out of his mind. It was just him and her. No other dragon mattered in that moment. Not Kestrel, not Scarlet, not Arid. That didn’t make Talon any less nervous.

“I just wanted to say, don’t be mad. Not at Kestrel, not at anyone. Oh, be mad at Scarlet for trying to kill me, that was really rude, but no one else. Revenge isn’t worth bloodshed. Do what makes you happy – stay, go, whatever you like. Be brave. Be yourself. And just in case we never speak again.”

Avalanche was leaning so far forwards it seemed impossible, she looked like she was about to fall right into the arena sands. This wasn’t how Talon had wanted to say this. He had wanted it to be against a beautiful star-speckled sky. He had wanted the sea far below, the moon far above, their scales glittering like fire in between. He had wanted a beautiful, cold breeze to carry their wings effortlessly through the sky. He had wanted the smell of rain and smoke.

He hadn’t wanted a scorching arena surrounded by dragons watching him for nothing more than entertainment. He hadn’t wanted the smell of blood, the feel of sand. He hadn’t wanted to be so, so far away from her when he told her. He had wanted the words to be a quiet, tentative whisper, not a shout for all the Kingdom to hear.

Talon turned completely to stare at Avalanche, taking a few steps closer. “Just in case we never speak again, I just want you to remember, I wasn’t sure, but I think . . . I think I love you!”

He closed his eyes as he said the words, waiting for the world to crash in around him, the palace to collapse, Scarlet to order his death to be long and slow, the guards to swoop in and tear him to pieces, the crowd to jeer and snarl.

Instead, the crowd cheered.

Chapter Text

The Deep Sea Palace was in a state of panic unlike anything Nautilus had seen before. Dragons rushed everywhere, carrying weapons, supplies, food, stone slates, anything and everything imaginable. Guards swam by in precise formations, scales flashing in sync.

Nautilus had travelled to the Deep Sea Palace along with the rest of the council members who had been in the Summer Palace. They were now in the Deep Sea Councel Meeting, a room atop a large tower with large open windows where you could see all the beauty of the Deep Sea Palace. Stones carved with titles of councillors were placed in a circle on the floor and the dragons of each respective title floated above the stones.

Wow. Lagoon, the council of Aquaculture, marvelled. The Princess’ arrival has really made everything chaotic.

Not to mention the war. Tempest added.

Shark flicked his wing in an irritated manner. Coral has always been quick to panic.

Well, a Princess is a big deal. Baiji put in. With only three dragons in your and Coral’s cluster, a Princess is no small event. I remember Coral’s mother was one of over a dozen princesses.

Before anyone else could add their views on the newest member of the royal family, Coral, Gill, Posidonia and Pearl entered the council room, all wearing matching exhausted but satisfied expressions.

Sunfish is with the dragonets. Posidonia flicked her tail down in the vague direction of the hatchery.

Have you thought of names, your majesties? Conch asked eagerly.

The daughter will be called Orca, after her great-aunt and her dark scales. Gill said. The council members nodded in approval.

Nix had told Nautilus that the practise of naming dragonets after their parents or other dragons held in high esteem was exclusive to the high-born dragons of the tribe, as other hunters didn’t do so. Nautilus still found the concept a little strange, it only made sense that SeaWings should honour their ancestors or elders and name dragonets after their parents or grandparents, or other older ancestors, but apparently that wasn’t the case.

And the sons are to be Gill, Fin and Swordfish. Gill continued. More nods of approval.

Enough of this, we have serious matters to discuss. Shark disrupted.

My dragonets are of most importance! I think the entire kingdom would benefit from the news of their well-being! Coral turned to snarl at Shark.

Your majesty, I think that in this case, Shark is correct. Tempest slid between the two siblings, doing her best to defuse the situation. This is a matter that threatens your dragonets too.

Coral and Gill blinked in shocked surprise, but after a shared look, nodded and listened.

Recently there have been reports of unidentified SandWings flying over the sea, particularly above common hunting grounds near the Summer Palace. Tempest explained calmly. Yesterday, as the messenger we sent would have told you, we were unable to conduct a council meeting. This was because on their way from the Deep Sea Palace, Marine and Undertow were followed by two unknown SeaWings.

Gill and Coral’s expressions showed matching shock.

Whose dragons? Which princess sent them? Coral asked.

We don’t know. Tempest said. We don’t know their loyalties. We think Burn.

Of course. Undertow agreed.

That would make sense. Posidonia’s forehead scrunched in worry. We must take extra precautions to protect the royal dragonets.

What an unfortunate time for dragonets to be born. Pearl’s wings drooped.

We can organise more frequent patrols, order them to capture any strange dragons sighted. Shark suggested. We can train more dragons.

Perhaps that’s what they want. Nautilus blurted out, before he could stop himself. Everyone’s eyes landed on him. Slowly, he continued. I’ve been thinking. If these SandWings were sent by Blister, it could be with the intent of making our alliance with her stronger. We assume they’re from Burn, we turn to Blister as she knows Burn well, then she manipulates us.

Gill regarded Nautilus. That could be correct. After all, what motivation would Burn have to send dragons to fly above us?

To follow us. Undertow bared her teeth. As they DID, I may add. To follow us, to learn where our palaces are.

We are divided. Coral said. So we will vote. And act upon the outcome of that vote.

There was a nod of confirmation among the councillors.

All dragons who believe the enemy SandWings were sent by Princess Blister? The SeaWing queen asked. Nautilus raised his wing. As did Gill. Slowly, Baiji and Pearl followed suit.

And all dragons who believe the enemy SandWings were sent by Princess Burn? Coral raised her wing. Undertow, Marine, Lagoon, Tempest, Shark, Conch and Posidonia raised their own wings in affirmation.

Very well. It is decided. Queen Coral decreed. We will act as though these enemy SandWings were sent by Burn.

And what course of action will we take? Conch asked.

Coral’s scales lit up to answer, but before a word could form, a new dragon burst into the council level with a flurry of bubbles. The SeaWing was nothing more than a dragonet, small mottled green scales glowing under the light of his flashing scales.

Make way, make way, urgent, message for the queen. Repeated a couple of times across his scales before the dragonet took a deep breath, composing himself and dulling his scales. He bowed low.

Rise. Coral commanded gently. The dragonet lifted his head.

You say you have a message? Coral asked.

Oh yes, yes I do. The dragonet nodded. I have a message. A very important one.

The dragonet held out a small stone tablet with. His claws shook as Coral took it from him and turned it over, examining it carefully. She blinked in surprise, then asked, Who is this from?

The dragonet took a deep breath, puffing his chest out importantly. From Princess Burn’s MudWing allies. The ones in the new shore settlement.

Chapter Text

Avalanche felt warmth spread through her chest, Talon’s words were echoing around her mind. He loved her, he loved her, he loved her. He felt the same way. She wanted to yell for joy, she wanted to leap down into the sand and hold him as close to her as she could, to ask if he really meant it. She wanted to hear those words a thousand times.

“I love you too.” She whispered, unable to stop the grin spreading across her face. “I love you too, Talon.”

“Avalanche, Avalanche! Look!” Woodnote poked Avalanche with her claw then pointed across the arena. The dragons were still applauding, Scarlet was screaming and there was Talon and Arid the SandWing, scrabbling up the side of the arena, wings still bound but looks of matching determination on their faces.

“They’re getting away!” Woodnote squealed.

A dragon at the top of the stands was reaching down, was hauling Talon up, shouting at him to run. But Talon stopped, turned and pulled up Arid after him. The SandWing snarled at the shocked and terrified expressions that the dragons around her were making, but at a word from Talon, the two were off, bolting through the crowd and up into the castle.

“AFTER THEM! DON’T JUST STAND THERE LIKE A USELESS PILE OF BIRD DROPPINGS!” Scarlet’s piercing yells could finally be heard over the crowd. “ARE YOU RAINWINGS OR SKYWINGS? FIND THEM AND KILL THEM!”

The guards were slow on the uptake, but a few of them swept down towards where Talon and Arid had disappeared. Others just stared at each other doubtfully and a few sat stationary, heads raised, ignoring the command entirely.

Avalanche stood up abruptly, turning and shoving her way through the crowds that remained. Most of the cheered had died, replaced by whispers that were quickly returning to shouts in efforts to be heard. She finally made it out of the crowds and into a tunnel. She lent on the wall and focused on her breathing. Talon was alive. He was on his way out of the arena, out of the castle. Free. But Avalanche would never see him again.

“Hey. You okay?” Overcast stuck his head into the tunnel, then pushed through, followed by Woodnote.

“Yeah. Yeah.” Avalanche nodded breathlessly. “Wow.”

“That was awesome!” Woodnote exclaimed, bouncing on her feet. “A lot less blood than I was expecting, but still AWESOME! And was that you? Like you that he was talking to? When he said he loved you?”

“Woodnote.” Overcast said, shooting her a look. Woodnote fell silent, glancing between him and Avalanche.

“Wow.” Avalanche said again. “That was . . . oh, three moons. What now?”

It was a rhetorical question, but Overcast didn’t seem to understand as he asked, “For you? For Talon? For our section?”

“For everyone. What happens within the kingdom now? Unlike Hvitur’s escape, this won’t stay inside the palace.” Avalanche started pacing. “A SkyWing soldier arrested? Same soldier stands up to Scarlet in a public place, in an arena battle, doesn’t fight, escapes and saves his opponent as well? Not good for the queen’s image.”

“Not good at all.” Overcast mused. “At least we all have something to tell our families when we go home.”

“Go home?” Avalanche asked hoarsely.

“Well, we’re only short-term replacements, right? Just until dragons your age, trained ones, can take my and Woodnote’s places?” Overcast asked uncertainly.

“No." Avalanche murmured.

"No?"

"No, you’re here forever.” Avalanche told him, not sure which of them were more shocked. “This is your life, your job, now. I didn’t realise you still had families.”

“Oh.” Overcast whispered. He and Woodnote stared at each other in silence.

It must be a lot to take in, Avalanche realised. All of this, everything that’s happened in the palace so far. It's all happening at once.

Avalanche was finding it hard to take in and she’d had two years of experience living in the palace.

“We should go back to our dorm.” Woodnote said quietly, glancing behind her. “I can see some dragons heading towards the tunnel here.”

Overcast and Avalanche nodded and set off through the palace in a shared state of shock and numbness. There was no one else in their dorm when they arrived. The two dragonets both walked to their separate sleeping ledges and curled up, Woodnote covering her head with her wings, body shaking, Overcast just staring limply at his tail.

“Sorry.” Avalanche whispered, although neither of the dragonets heard her. She didn’t know how long stood still in the doorway, but she only moved when Breeze arrived and shoved past her without a word. She stepped away from the door as the rest of their section trickled in. Cinder gave her a strange look, then whisked away before Avalanche could ask him as aggressively as she could what he was looking at. Kestrel stopped at Avalanche’s side, standing beside her as the rest of the dragons filed in. Avalanche stepped away a little, still wanting her distance from Kestrel.

She felt almost numb, unsure of how to proceed, what to do, what to say, almost doubting if she had remembered what had happened correctly.

“Well, he got what he wanted in the end.” Kestrel murmured. “Freedom. And a chance to stand up to the queen.”

“But it’s not how he wanted it.” Avalanche snapped. “He wanted to be listened to. He wanted the queen to listen, to change. He wanted to fly away with me.”

“Did he?” Kestrel asked.

“He loves me.” Avalanche said.

“Enough to stay and wait for you?” Kestrel asked.

“He couldn’t.”

“Would you have waited for him?”

“. . . Yes.”

“Maybe it isn’t what he wanted.” Kestrel murmured.

“But it’s what I wanted.” Avalanche snapped. “I wanted to fly away with him. I wanted to help him. I want to be with him now, wherever he is, even if it’s dangerous.

“I know, I know.” Kestrel murmured, leaning in to Avalanche. She didn’t push Kestrel away this time, just rested her head on her friend’s and sighed.

“I wanted to go with him.” Avalanche whispered. Why didn’t I?

Chapter Text

Talon pelted down the dimly lit tunnel, not stopping or looking back, but swinging blindly around corners and through caves held up with creaking wooden beams. Arid was right behind him, her breath warm on his tail as she ran after him. He couldn’t hear any guards close by, but he didn’t want to take any chances. He wanted to get as far away as he could.

Talon skidded around a corner and came face to face with solid rock. His legs locked, but he was moving too fast, he slammed painfully into the wall with a yelp. A second later and Arid smashed into him, forcing him against the wall again. She backed up quickly, glaring at the wall. Talon stepped back and breathed out a plume of fire, wincing in pain as he did so. It was a cave-in, judging by the boulders and rocks that had fallen in a misshapen mess to block the tunnel.

“What now?” Arid hissed. “I thought you knew the way out, SkyWing.”

“I just knew about these tunnels. I haven’t been a prisoner before, I didn’t need an escape route.” Talon shrugged his wings hopelessly.

“Everyone needs an escape route.” Arid scoffed.

“Maybe we can move the rocks.” Talon suggested.

“And cause a bigger cave-in that will squash us to death? Yeah right.” Arid rolled her black eyes, sitting down and curling her tail around her.

“If we’re careful, it could work. We just need enough room to get through.” Talon said. “We’ve gotten this far, I’m not giving up now.”

Arid sighed. “Yes, you are. If you’ve gotten this far, you’re not stupid enough to think that this is a good idea.”

Talon glanced back at her. She was staring at him defiantly, poisonous tail clinking against the rock floor as she swept it slowly back and forth. Talon sighed. “Alright. We’ll backtrack, find another way-”

“You don’t know how to escape.” Arid said, tail twitching. “Your plan is to wonder around aimlessly until you die. What about that Avalanche dragon? How will she feel when you die?”

Talon frowned. “I’m not going to die. I’m going to escape. I just need to find a route out. If Hvitur escaped using these tunnels, so can we.”

“Who’s to say he escaped using these tunnels?” Arid scoffed.

“Evidence. IceWing scales. Are you going to help, or just keep picking fights with me?”

Arid opened her mouth and shot a jet of flames into the air, brighter and hotter than Talon’s fire. He examined the cave in in the dimming firelight. A pile of dirt sat at the base of a boulder. Talon poked his claws into it. Soft dirt crumbled under the weight of his claws. He bent and sniffed it. The dirt smelt cool and damp, like air after a rainstorm.

“I think this cave-in must have been recent.” Talon decided. “The dirt smells fresh.”

Arid stared at him critically.

“You lived in a desert!” He defended himself. “I’ve lived here all my life, I think I know what fresh dirt smells like.”

“Alright, alright.” Arid flicked her tail. “So, new cave-in. Even worse. Even more unstable.”

Talon dragged his claws through the dirt thoughtfully. They snagged on something and he pulled his claws away, catching a glimpse of something glittering white as he did so. He blinked, then turned to Arid. “Did you see that?”

“See what?” Arid asked idly. “The rocks? Yes, I’ve seen them. A lot of them. There isn’t much else to see down here.”

“No, no, that flash of white. Almost like . . . a scale.” Talon dug his claws back into the pile of dirt and pulled out the thing his claws had been caught on. A small, white scale sat in his paw, round at one end and pointed at the other like an IceWing scale.

“Breathe some fire.” Talon urged.

Arid did so with no more complaints than a sceptical glare. The scale glittered in the firelight, brilliant white under the covering of dirt.

“That’s an IceWing scale.” Talon said.

“So it is.” Arid shrugged.

“It has to be Hvitur’s.” Talon said.

“I suppose it could be.” Arid agreed reluctantly.

“He came this way, he was here. Before the dirt fell on his scale.” Talon said, excitement growing, spreading to his wingtips, humming along every bone in his body.

“Or he just buried it to remove evidence.” Arid suggested.

“He would have hidden it better.” Talon dismissed. “I found it when I wasn’t even trying.”

“Because you stick your claws into piles of dirt like you’re a filthy MudWing.” Arid huffed in partial annoyance and partial amusement.

“Maybe he caused the cave in on his way out to stop any guards from following him.” Talon said.

“I’m sure. I’m sure he knew exactly how to cause a cave-in in a tunnel he was unfamiliar with.” Arid huffed. “And not to die from it, but to escape it.”

Talon sat down, still clutching the dragon scale in his claw.

“Maybe you're right.” He muttered.

“Maybe?”

“No need to rub it in though.” Talon said. He flopped down to the ground, covering his head with his wings. “We’ll think of something else. We just need a bit of time. I’ll find a way out of here.”

“Sure you will, dragonet.” Arid chuckled.

I got us this far. I’ll get us out of here. Talon thought to himself. He closed his eyes, Hvitur’s scale digging into the soft pad of his paw. Think, just think. I’ll find a way out of here. I’ve done it before, I can do it again.

Chapter Text

Nautilus curled his claws into the sand, watching it slid between his talons, then lifted his head to watch the sun setting. But instead of the usual backdrop of glittering sea, the sand rose to grass and trees and marshland, stretching out to the horizon before dropping off to a purple sky.

Mainland Pyrrhia. Nautilus had never thought it would be so big. The sea had always seemed so endless, islands dotting it like rare gemstones buried on the ocean floor, few and far between. But this landmass was enormous, stretching on and on forever. Nautilus had never felt so small, so insignificant.

Beside him, Baiji and Tempest exchanged another confused glance. The note from the SeaWing messenger had demanded a peace meeting with the MudWings. It specified that there were to be no more than three SeaWings scent to the mainland, to the beach just north of the SeaWing’s shore settlement, just before sunset.

And most strangely, one of those dragons were to be Nautilus. He’d been given more than a few suspicious glances at the news, but in the end Gill and Coral had decreed it best that he should accompany Baiji and Tempest to the meeting. So here he was, standing on mainland Pyrrhia, completely overwhelmed and terrified of how massive it was. Yes, he’d seen maps, but the real thing was nothing in comparison.

“So you really have no idea why you?” Tempest asked, looking at Nautilus suspiciously.

“None. I’ve never so much as seen a MudWing before, let alone spoken to one, outside of council meetings.” Nautilus shrugged his wings.

“Give him some peace.” Baiji chuckled. “I’m sure his mind is providing enough reasons for him to be afraid, he doesn’t need you as one of them.”

“I wouldn’t hurt him, but this all seems too odd for my liking. Most MudWings can’t even read.” Tempest scoffed. “What could they want with a Council of Publishing?”

“All will be made clear with time.” Baiji said contemplatively. The old dragon gave a heavy sigh and turned his gaze to the sky, which was devoid of any dragons.

Nautilus scanned the tree line. He spotted a single MudWing sitting in the shade of a tree, dark brown scales shimmering in the dappled light. The MudWing was staring right at Nautilus. He cleared his throat and Tempest turned to look at him.

“There’s a MudWing over at the tree line, near that boulder.” Nautilus said. Tempest followed his gaze, then nodded as she and the MudWing made eye contact.

“So there is.” The Councillor of War agreed.

The MudWing stood, clearly noticing it had been seen. It took a few steps forwards, almost reaching the edge of the shade, when Baiji said, “Forgive me if I’m wrong, but would I be right in thinking that those are the MudWings we are to meet with, flying up from the south?”

Nautilus turned to survey the sky in the direction Baiji had indicated, and sure enough he could see four MudWings winging towards them.

“That’s an unfair advantage in numbers.” Tempest snarled. “I didn’t think MudWings would be the type of dragon to play dirty.”

“This is diplomacy, not bloodshed.” Baiji said. “There should be nothing to worry about. Three high-ranking SeaWings, they wouldn’t kill us. Not if they want to maintain an alliance with us.”

Nautilus glanced back at where he’d seen the dark brown MudWing in the trees before. It was gone. The four MudWings circled them from the sky, before swooping down and landing with a spray of sand. The largest puffed up her chest, tilting her head to the side in a violent motion that Nautilus thought was comparable to seeing a dragon’s neck snapping.

“What’re you doin’ here?” The MudWing snarled in a heavy, unfamiliar accent.

“We been keepin’ an eye on y’three for a while now.” Another agreed, raising his wings and catching some of the remaining sunlight on his underscales, making them glow a bright dangerous amber. “You been ‘ere for a while, haven’t ya?”

“We were invited on official war business.” Tempest said. Nautilus marvelled at how even and steady she kept her voice.

A third MudWing huffed a sound that wasn’t quite a laugh. “What? Out ‘ere? That’s a joke. Y’bout as far away from the palace as you can get, SeaWings.”

“We were told to meet at sundown on the beach just north of the newly established SeaWing settlement.” Baiji said. He flicked his wing towards said settlement. “And there it is. And here we are.”

“Well, I’d say ya got the wrong place.” The first MudWing said. “Or you lying. Cause there ain’t no dragon ‘round here important enough to be meetin’ any dragons from another tribe on any business that ain’t criminal.”

Nautilus’ expression scrunched in confusion. He’d seen the note with his own eyes. There was no way that every dragon in the SeaWing council had read the note wrong. There had to be some explanation for this. Maybe the MudWing officials were running late, or maybe they had accidently written the wrong date, or maybe Tempest, Baiji and Nautilus were-

“Tricked.” Tempest snarled suddenly. “We were tricked.”

“Were ya now?” One of the MudWings hissed. “By whom? Cause it seems t’me like y’all’re the ones tresspassin’ on enemy land.”

“Enemy? We are allied in the war.” Baiji said. “So there should be no problem with us standing here, within five tail-lengths of our own territory?”

“Sounds like an excuse if ever I heard one.” The second MudWing said.

The first MudWing crouched low to the sand, narrowing her amber eyes. “So shall we tear these trespassers t’shreds?”

There was a crude laugh of affirmation from the other three dragons. Tempest snarled deep in her throat. Nautilus felt frozen to the spot. He’d had the bare minimum of required battle training in school, he had never intended on being a soldier or guard of any capacity. He was completely over his head against these larger, more muscular dragons. Baiji was baring his teeth, but the old dragon was even less use in a battle than Nautilus.

Nautilus saw the muscles tense in the largest MudWing, but before the brown dragon could spring forwards, anther voice rung across the sands, loud and clear, “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

Chapter Text

It was overcast. Of course it was. Avalanche sighed and let her poised wings fall to brush the stone floor. Although her wings itched to fly, she knew it would do nothing to clear her mind while the clouds were pressing in on the castle like giant wings smothering her. Avalanche longed to soar up into the night sky and be in that magical place between the ground and the stars, where she could see everything in every direct and simply be able to fly. But the covering of clouds made it impossible. She couldn't go above the clouds and out of sight, that would look suspicious to anyone who may be watching. But it felt too claustrophobic to stay beneath the thick grey clouds blocking the sun.

Instead, Avalanche watched the clouds slowly pulse with dull greys and blacks, not even the hint of the deep blue sky shining through. She wondered where Talon was now. He hadn’t been caught, Avalanche could tell by the endless SkyWings swooping about the palace walls that the hunt was still on.

However, unlike with Hvitur’s escape, the palace hadn’t been put on an official lockdown. Why, Avalanche had no idea. Perhaps the SkyWings themselves were forming their own sort of rebellion. They wouldn’t sit still and wait for the SkyWing prisoner to be caught, they would continue to clutter the palace and draw the attention of Queen Scarlet from finding Talon. Although Avalanche knew that was just wishful thinking.

“Fancy seeing you here.”

For a brief, wonderful moment, Avalanche tricked herself into believing that it was Talon who had spoken. But when she turned around, she came face to face with Overcast.

The dragonet gave her a slightly timid smile. “Hey. You mind some company?”

“No.” Avalanche turned to look at the clouds again. Overcast walked to her side, staring out the port-hole and up at the sky as well.

“I was born on a night like this one.” Overcast said quietly.

“That’s where you got the name, huh?” Avalanche asked.

Avalanche had quickly, and with some amount of relief, realised that the common custom of naming dragonets over occurrences or objects that happened upon the time and place of their hatching was, while not a strict tradition, a wide-spread popular method of naming dragonets throughout the Sky Kingdom. She also learnt that it made for some very interesting stories, an example of which being Commander Squall, who had been hatched somewhere east of the palace, in the middle of a violent storm that collapsed an entire wall of the fort he had hatched in.

“Yes.” Overcast agreed. “Pretty uninspired of my parents, don’t you think?”

“It could be worse.” Avalanche smiled wistfully. “I knew a SkyWing called Hill up north. Guess what he was hatched on top of?”

Overcast let out a snort of amusement, smoke curling into the night air. “What about you? I assume your hatching was interesting.”

“I was hatched on the same day as an avalanche collapsed my aunt’s home and killed her.” Avalanche shrugged her wings. “Why my parents wanted to be reminded of that joyous occasion, I have no clue.”

Another amused snort from Overcast. The two were silent for a while. Avalanche decided it was her turn to fill the night with conversation. “So, couldn’t sleep?”

“No.” Overcast said. “I . . . kept thinking about what you said. Are we really not going home?”

“You’re really not going home.” Avalanche nodded. “With me, I didn’t have any family left. I thought that you two would be the same.”

Overcast sighed. “I suppose I should have guessed it would be this way. But I came here to stop dwelling on my thoughts. So, although I could take an educated guess, tell me what’s nibbling your tail.”

“Talon.” Avalanche said. “This entire situation, really. Talon being gone, Kestrel . . . everything. I don’t know what to think, what to believe. I can’t be in the same room as Kestrel, but I want the comfort of the friend I’ve known for two years.”

“I’ve barely known you for two days, but I can still listen to you and offer help if you like.” Overcast said.

“Thanks.” Avalanche smiled slightly.

“I never actually met Talon, but from what I picked up on, he’s a bit like Woodnote.” Overcast said. “His heart is in the right place, but sometimes he needs to think about what he’s doing instead of just . . . doing it. But a better speaker. Woodnote couldn’t talk that well if she were being held above a pit of writhing rattlesnakes.”

“How long have you known Woodnote?” Avalanche asked quietly.

“We’ve known each other since we were kids. But it was only in the last week, since the battle, that we really became friends, as such. Having to fly here together, we got to know each other fast.” Overcast said. “She’s like the little sister I never had.”

The two lapsed back into silence. Avalanche wondered how different things would be if she had had a friend to be with when she had arrived. What would she feel towards Kestrel? Or towards Talon?

“I wouldn’t tell anyone if you left as well.” Overcast said.

“What? I couldn’t-” Avalanche cut herself off, shaking her head, then continued more calmly. “I wouldn’t know where to go. I wouldn’t want to go without Talon but I don’t know where to go to find him.”

“But you would go?” Overcast asked.

“Yes.” Avalanche said.

“You clearly aren’t loyal to Queen Scarlet.” Overcast said.

“I am. But . . . I’m more loyal to Talon.” Avalanche shook her head again. “Overcast, you’re a dragonet. You shouldn’t be making me question everything like this. You’re meant to be fluttering about and getting obsessed over shiny things.”

Overcast laughed. “What can I say? I’ve had to grow up fast.”

Avalanche knew what that meant. “I’m sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault.” Overcast shrugged his dull orange wings. “It’s the way life is.”

“It’s the way life is.” Avalanche agreed.

More silence filled the air. Avalanche listened to Overcast’s slow, quiet breaths. She felt almost sleepy.

“Go to bed.” Overcast said, as if sensing her tiredness. “You’ve had a rough week. Sleep it off. Things will be better in the morning.”

When did mere dragonets become so wise? Avalanche wondered. But she roused herself, shaking her wings and nodding in response to the smaller dragon’s suggestion. “Goodnight Overcast.”

“Goodnight Avalanche.” Overcast remained by the porthole as Avalanche turned and started her way down to the dormitory.

At the top of the staircase Avalanche heard the rush of wings and the click of claws on stone. She paused and glanced back. Overcast had leapt up and was now perched on the porthole, leaning out and staring up at the sky.

“Hey.” She said quietly, drawing Overcast’s attention. “Don’t stay up too late. You need sleep too.”

“Don’t worry about me.” He gave her a wry smile. “I never sleep anyway.”

Then he launched himself up into the sky, winging upwards till he disappeared into the clouds and out of sight.

Chapter Text

“Hey, SkyWing. Psst, wake up.”

Talon groaned and made a pathetic sound that was almost squawk.

“Come on, wake up. What are you, a RainWing?”

“I’m awake.” Talon mumbled, not opening his eyes. The rock under him was cold and uncomfortable, nothing like his sleeping ledge in his dormitory. The air was still, too. Not even the hint of a draft. Yet he didn’t want to open his eyes and be forced to deal with the humiliating defeat of not knowing how to escape a place he’d lived all his life.

“Get up, SkyWing, you’ll want to see this.” Arid’s voice hissed, with a tone of almost mischievous excitement unfamiliar to Talon.

He opened his eyes and blinked up at her. Her expression was almost gleeful. “Get up. I think I found a way out.”

“What?” Talon scrambled to his feet, tripping over his claws in his rush.

“Yep.” Arid said, smirking in a self-satisfied manner.

“You’re not kidding?”

“Would I joke about this?” Arid flicked her barbed tail. “Get a look of this.”

She stretched her neck up to the ceiling, nose pointing towards a point where the caved-in wall met the tunnel ceiling.

“I don’t see anything.” Talon mumbled.

“Stick your nose up there, I can smell fresh air.” Arid said.

Talon stretched his neck up, rearing onto his back legs to reach the cave roof. Where the cave-in met the tunnel’s roof, Talon could spy a small dark gap. There was the smell fresh air and the sound of wind whistling through a rock tunnel.

“Right?” Arid checked. Talon nodded.

“I’m thinking, if we clear enough space to fit through, we can escape.” Arid said.

“That’s assuming it’s a tunnel big enough to fit dragons like us.” Talon pointed out.

“Listen to the wind. That’s definitely big enough. We just need to clear space without causing a bigger cave in. This must be how that IceWing escaped.” The SandWing paused and flicked her tail. “That is, if he didn’t die.”

“You were the one that said clearing it was a bad idea!” Talon protested.

“Well, while you were snoring away, I had some time to think.” Arid shrugged cooly. “And I decided that if we don’t escape, I’ll starve to death eventually as we don’t know any ways out, or even back to the castle. So I may as well die trying.”

Talon nodded slowly. “So how do we do this?”

“I inspected the area, I think there’s a rock, see that medium sized one, there?” Arid pointed with a wing and Talon nodded as he focused on said stone. It was about the size of his head, half lodged in the rubble and almost obscuring their possible escape route from view.

Arid continued, “I’m thinking if we move that stone, then we can scrape away enough dirt for you to fit through. That’s a start.”

Talon nodded again. “But what about you? You’re larger than me and Hvitur.”

“One problem at a time, SkyWing.” Arid shrugged. “That seems to be your usual way of going about things.”

Talon huffed a puff of smoke, but turned to examine the rock again. He reared onto his back legs, grasping the stone in his paws and tugging experimentally. It shifted slightly, trains of dirt ran down Talon’s claws and fell to the ground.

“Careful SkyWing.” Arid hissed, stepping back.

Talon tugged again, harder. The rock slid slightly out of the cave-in, sending more dirt and a few pebbles clattering to the ground. Once more and he toppled backwards, rock falling with him. Dirt rained onto his scales. The rocks behind him creaked dangerously.

Talon hit the ground with a gasp of pain. The air was knocked out of him and he lay, stunned on the ground for a few moments. Teeth clamped around his neck, hauling him away and then dirt and stone was crashing down where he once was. Arid was hissing in alarm, shaking claws clattering on the ground.

Talon climbed to his feet, breath shaky. “You saved me.”

“Yeah, well.” Arid shrugged, still looking disgruntled. “Not everyone has their head so far in the sand they can’t get out of the way of falling rocks.”

Talon gave a shaky laugh and peered at the spot he knew their possible escape to be. The dirt and rocks had settled in a gentler slop, revealing the start of a gaping cavern upwards, which slowly narrowed into a thin tunnel. The fresh air that Arid had smelt was now a breeze blowing into the tunnel, bringing the smell of wind and pine.

“Looks like it may just be an escape route.” Arid grinned.

“Looks like it.” Talon agreed. “Who wants to go first?”

“It’s your territory, dragonet.” Arid said. “And your stupid decision.”

“Excuse me? This was your idea!”

“Getting us lost in the tunnels was not. I was following you.”

“Whatever.” Talon shook some loose dirt from his claws. “I’ll go first.”

Arid grinned smugly as Talon approached the cave-in. Slowly, carefully, he made his way towards the tunnel, tensing any time a rock trembled underfoot. But the dirt below him didn’t collapse and eventually he made it to the tunnel.

Glancing back, he saw the SandWing standing at the edge of the rubble, staring up at him with interest in her black eyes.

“See anything?” She called.

Talon shook his head.

“Seems like a good sign.” She joked.

Talon could smell fresh air stronger than ever now. After who knew how long trapped underground in the dark, his wings ached to be in open air again, to fly in that breeze that smelt of pine trees and rain. He could almost hear the whisper of tree leaves above. He longed to be out in the open again, with those trees and that wind.

Without any more hesitation, Talon turned and plunged into the darkness beyond.

Chapter Text

The largest MudWing fell back, snarling slightly as she turned to stare at the tree line. The MudWing Nautilus had seen earlier stood at the edge of the sand, pale eyes glaring at the four MudWings.

“Crayfish?” The largest MudWing, Nardoo it seemed, asked. “What’cha doin’ out here?”

“I could ask the same of you four.” The new MudWing said, stepping down the beach towards them. “What happened to our deal? Do you have the information I want?”

Another of the MudWings shifted and glanced at the SeaWings. “Not in front of-”

“I wouldn’t worry about them, Coolibah.” Crayfish said.

“You never worry about anything.” Nardoo muttered.

“I never have reason to.” Crayfish shrugged elegantly. Now that she was closer, Nautilus could make out her short, thin horns, her long low build and her solid, dark brown colour. There was something in her way of speaking that was familiar to Nautilus, although her low, rough accented words were not.

“So do you have results?” Crayfish asked.

“We do not.” Nardoo said stiffly. “They mentioned something known as ‘Cliffside’, but other than that, we’ve come up blank.”

Crayfish hummed thoughtfully. “If I were you, I’d get back to searching. We wouldn’t want our queen hearing about your little habits, would we?”

“But these SeaWings-”

“I’ll deal with it.” Crayfish said.

The MudWings glanced at each other uncertainly, but eventually Nardoo barked a retreat and the four left without another word. Crayfish finally stopped in front of the three SeaWings and smiled brightly. “Long time, no see.”

“Crayfish, is that what you’re going by this time?” Baiji asked, chuckling as he watched the other MudWings hasty retreat.

“Well, I like to change it up.” The MudWing said.

“Hold up!” Tempest interrupted, making Nautilus almost collapse in relief. He was completely lost. He had no clue what was going on, he hadn’t since reaching mainland Pyrrhia.

“Hold up.” Tempest said again, glaring at Crayfish. “Who are you and how do you know Baiji? In fact, how did you-”

“Tempest, Tempest, slow down.” Crayfish lifted her wings. “You won’t get any answers if you don’t listen. And I can see Nautilus is just as lost as you are.”

Nautilus flinched as the MudWing said his name. He realised, with a jolt, that her voice had lost the rough MudWing-like accent and now sounded exactly like, “. . . Cuttlefish?”

“That’s me.” The dragon agreed.

“How?” Tempest demanded.

“Okay, let me explain without-”

“Three moons! About time you explain!” Tempest exploded.

“Without you interrupting.” Cuttlefish gave a frustrated look. “First things first. I was the one who sent the letter, I had to talk and you three seemed the best fit. I would usually invite Gill, but with his dragonets hatching, I think it was a wiser choice to invite you, Tempest. I also fancied a talk with Nautilus and as for Baiji, he’s as reliable as ever.”

“That explains why we’re here, but not why you’re a MudWing.” Tempest accused.

“Stars, are you ever going to let me talk?” Cuttlefish sighed. “It’s paint, ink. There is a type of stone that gives it colour. I simply painted my scales. It will come off. It’s that much easier to blend in as a MudWing on mainland. SeaWings aren’t uncommon, per say, but they certainly arouse . . . excitement at the very least.”

“And those four MudWings?” Nautilus asked, flicking his tail in the direction of the dragons who had long since disappeared from the sky.

“They come from Scorpion Den in SandWing territory.” Cuttlefish explained. “The war is a perfect time to infiltrate forbidden territory. They’ve returned to try and harvest as much gold as they can and sell it off to make more money. They believe I’m a high ranking MudWing official who happens to know their secret. They’ll do what I say because they believe I’ll turn them in. Now? I’m trying to find Blister’s location.”

“And they mentioned Cliffside. But where’s Cliffside? It’s not in SeaWing territory.” Nautilus mused.

Cuttlefish shrugged. “I don’t have a clue, but I’ll find out. Nautilus, would you mind if we had a word? Tempest, Baiji, if anyone approaches you, mention the name ‘Gambusia’ and they should leave you be.”

“Ahh, that’s the MudWing alias I recognise.” Baiji nodded.

Cuttlefish turned and began up the beach. Nautilus glanced at Tempest and Baiji, then quickly followed. When he caught up to Cuttlefish, she said, “How are you finding the mainland?”

“Overwhelming.” Nautilus said. “It’s so . . . massive.”

“That it is.” Cuttlefish agreed. “But do you like it?”

“No. There’s too much here. Everywhere you look, there are trees, mountains, swamps.” Nautilus said.

“But it’s beautiful.” Cuttlefish said. Unable to find a reply, Nautilus remained silent.

“So, are you only trying to find Blister?” He finally asked.

“No.” Cuttlefish said. “Never just one thing with me. Escaped IceWing here, missing SandWing informant there, unreliable SkyWing spy that I really need to stop talking to one day because he is the most inconsistent dragon I’ve ever met.”

“Sounds exciting.” Nautilus said, although his brain screamed, sounds terrifying.

He couldn’t even imagine being in a position like the one Cuttlefish put herself in willingly.

“Why did you need to talk to me?” Nautilus asked, thoughts once again jumping to a new line of questions.

“I wanted to ask if you’d gotten any further along in your path.” Cuttlefish said.

“What path?” Nautilus asked, scrunching his nose in confusement.

“I see that you haven’t. You’re the same dragon as ever.” Cuttlefish said.

“What are you on about?” Nautilus asked.

Cuttlefish opened her mouth to reply, but then stopped, staring out at the water. Nautilus followed her gaze and saw a SeaWing skimming through the water, making a beeline towards them. Cuttlefish darted to the shore, crouching low to the waves as the SeaWing scrambled into the shallows, purple scales glittering with water, chest heaving.

Cuttlefish nodded as the SeaWing glanced at Nautilus.

“There’s another SkyWing arena escape.” The purple dragon panted. “I heard from it from Summit, so it mightn’t be reliable, but either way, I came as fast as I could because this one is different.”

“How so?”

“There were two who escaped. A SandWing . . . and a SkyWing.”

Chapter Text

When Avalanche returned to her dormitory she realised that she and Overcast hadn’t been the only dragons awake. Cinder and Claret were standing by the entrance, whispering in hushed tones, and Kestrel was nowhere to be seen.

Cinder and Claret quieted as Avalanche entered.

“Look, I’m not going to spill any secrets you two have and if you’re talking about me, do it to my face.” She said, then without waiting for an answer, continued towards her sleeping ledge.

“Do you know where Kestrel is?” Claret asked, causing Avalanche to stop in her tracks.

“Not a clue.” Avalanche said quietly.

“Odd. She disappeared without so much as a word earlier. I assumed it was to go find you, but here you are.” Claret shook her wings slightly.

“Odd.” Cinder echoed.

“Didn’t you ask Vulture when he returned?” Avalanche asked, flicking a wing towards where the reddish brown SkyWing lay sprawled across his sleeping ledge.

Cinder snorted. “I of all dragons, would never talk to a lowlife like him.”

Claret nodded in agreement, as if she too were the dragonet of a duchess and not a commonplace SkyWing. Avalanche snarled in annoyance. “Vulture was born and raised in the same hatchery and wingery as every other SkyWing born in this palace – including Scarlet herself. There’s no reason to talk to one dragon over another here.”

Cinder drew himself up to his full height, glaring down at her with glittering yellow eyes. “It’s all about presentation, Avalanche.”

“Whatever.” Avalanche said. “I didn’t come back here to be lectured on why I should polish my scales or trim my talons, I-”

At the word ‘talon’, she couldn’t help but be reminded of Talon himself. She broke off, looking away and flicking her tail back and forth, somewhere between unsure and still annoyed.

“Don’t you two have anything better to do than gossip?” Avalanche spat, wanting to end the silence that had spread, thick and heavy, between them.

“I don’t, as a matter of fact. Nothing of interest ever happens up north.” Cinder shrugged his wings.

“Right.” Avalanche said. “Well, then. Talk somewhere else, because I’d really rather not fall asleep to the sound of crazy conspiracies about Talon or whatever else takes your fancy in discussion.”

She stormed over to her sleeping ledge and threw herself onto it, closing her eyes and covering her head with her wings.

Claret let out a small, huffy laugh. “I never knew you were so rude, Avalanche.”

Avalanche didn’t move as she replied, “And I never knew you were such a stuck-up IceWing.”

“Ooh, harsh.” Kestrel’s voice rumbled from outside the cave. There was the scrape of claws on stone and Avalanche shifted slightly and opened her eyes a crack to see Kestrel lumber into the room, regret etched in her expression.

Claret made a low hiss, then retreated to her ledge. Cinder tilted his wings diplomatically. “Kestrel.”

“Cinder.” Kestrel snarled, her dislike for the pompous orange dragon seemed larger than her dislike of Vulture.

Luckily, Cinder seemed to understand and quickly made his way to his sleeping ledge – Talon’s sleeping ledge. Old sleeping ledge. Avalanche snorted a puff of smoke and closed her eyes again. She heard Kestrel’s footsteps draw near, then a thump as her sort-of-still-friend-but-mostly-ex-friend sat down.

“So.” Kestrel stated. “Are you ready to talk now?”

“I’m asleep.” Avalanche said, although they both knew perfectly well that it was a lie.

“Right, well, if you were awake, I’d tell you I was sorry.” Kestrel said. “Both because Cinder is a poor replacement of Talon.”

Kestrel paused, as if to let Avalanche laugh, but Avalanche hadn’t found anything to laugh at. Or maybe it was just a chance to respond. But she didn’t.

“And because I didn’t want to hurt you.” Kestrel said. “I didn’t- I didn’t know what would happen. When Turbulence talked to me, she threatened me. She said that if I didn’t help, I would die, you would die, we would both be brutally murdered at the claws of Queen Scarlet. Fear is a powerful weapon, Avalanche. Maybe Talon could stand up to it, but I couldn’t. I was scared that you would die and I didn’t think about anything else.”

Avalanche stayed quiet.

“Of course, that’s what I’d say, if you were awake. And listening.” Kestrel said, tone trying to reclaim some kind of light-heartedness. “Obviously, you’re asleep. So talking to you now is pointless. But sometimes it’s easier to listen than to respond. And easier to talk to a sleeping dragon rather than a wake one.”

Avalanche’s mind was turmoil. She knew both Kestrel and Talon had been doing what they thought best, she knew that. But she hadn’t known just how much Kestrel had been controlled by threats. How much she may still be being controlled by threats.

But there was a difference between Talon and Kestrel, even if they were both acting as they believed to be right. A difference beyond Kestrel not acting for herself and Talon acting as himself, although that seemed somewhat similar to the thought pattern of a braindead RainWing.

Talon hadn’t lied to Avalanche. He’d been perfectly honest about his views and morals and stuck to them.

Kestrel had lied, she’d put Avalanche’s life above everything else, yes. But maybe Avalanche’s life didn’t deserve to be above everything else. Talon had put what was right above everything else, even his fear of Scarlet.

“Goodnight Avalanche.” Kestrel said quietly, then her footsteps padded away.

Avalanche shifted again, covering her snout with her paws and wishing sleep would come. But it wasn’t until long after Kestrel’s breathing had become the heavy sighs that meant she was sleeping, long after the torches that cast glowing golden light over the room finally dimmed and went out, that she fell asleep.

Chapter Text

“How long do you think we’ve been walking for?” Talon asked, squinting his eyes as he peered through the darkness ahead.

“No clue.” Arid murmured. “I’m not really the type of dragon to ask about underground places. Could be one hour, could be one day. Without the sun and stars overhead, I’m as good as lost.”

Talon made a hum of surprise. “What do SandWings need the sky for? That’s not really your territory, is it?”

Arid barked out a laugh. “SkyWings, so entitled. You think the entire sky belongs to you, do you? SandWings use it just as much, if not more. The desert, it’s hard to explain if you’ve never been there, but it’s massive and it’s featureless. Just sand dunes as far as the eye can see. And on top of that? They’re always changing, nothing ever stays the same. We use the stars to guide us, the stars are everything to SandWings.”

“Oh.” Talon breathed a plume of fire, peering ahead, but all he could see was rock walls pressing in from all directions, twisting and turning, but winding slowly upwards nonetheless.

“The star you need the most.” Arid continued. “Is the north star. That’s the one that never moves, but I don’t suppose you notice it.”

“No. I, uh, I’ve read scrolls about constellations and whatnot, but I’ve never been able to find them myself.” Talon said, hoping he didn’t sound completely stupid to the SandWing behind him.

“The north star isn’t a constellation, constellations move. The north star doesn’t. But as long as you can find it, you can find any other star.” Arid said. “I’d show you, but it’d be a waste, really. And, well, we’re deep underground. I’ll just say, if you ever end up in the desert, you need a guide. Some dragon to tell you right from left.”

“I’m planning on going to the ocean.” Talon said. “I wouldn’t worry about me being in SandWing territory any time soon.”

Arid shrugged. “Who knows? I was never planning to get caught in an arena, but sometimes you end up where you don’t expect.”

“What were you trying to do?” Talon asked. “And didn’t Scarlet say you were fighting for Blaze?”

“I wasn’t trying to fight for anyone. Scarlet didn’t fact check.” Arid said. “I lived in Decollate Oasis, not a particularly friendly place. Burn's soldiers invaded and it was join them or escape. I chose escape and ended up fleeing north with my sister. We found our way up to that town, I’m not sure what you SkyWings call it, but it’s the one that shares our boarders-”

“That's part of Spicula Island Province.” Talon interrupted.

Arid nodded carelessly. “Anyway, we found our way up to there and we lived by stealing, there was no way two dragons from Decollate Oasis would ever find honest work there. It was going fine, we were even considering returning home, when I was caught stealing from two SkyWing generals. By some twist of fate I had stolen something from an IceWing soldier that they took to mean I was allied with Blaze. They could have killed me, but for one reason or another, they took me back here.”

Talon was quiet, thinking about Arid’s story for a few moments. Then he asked, “Why did you tell me?”

“Because you asked.” Arid said.

“But why did you trust me enough to tell me in the first place?” Talon pressed.

“Because you saved my life, so I figure I can trust you. That’s how it works in the desert – it’s all about trust. Nothing worse than a traitor.” Arid said.

Talon laughed, a little bitterly.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean it in those terms.” Arid said. “But in the desert, your loyalty goes to your own first – whether that’s your family or your friends or whatever – and your queen second. I’d say you put your morals first, your queen second. That doesn’t make you a traitor in my eyes.”

“I don’t exactly mind Scarlet disliking me. It’s more that she forbids dragons from seeing the truth like that.” Talon said.

“Tell me, SkyWing, what’s your story? I know the tail-end, but what led up to that moment you were put on top of a tower in your own Kingdom’s prison?” Arid asked.

So Talon told her, from the moment he had pulled himself from the icy water in the battle against Blaze, to the moment he had been imprisoned.

He left out details, he left out his flight with Avalanche under the starlit sky where they talked about hopes and dreams. He left out the day they spent together after the battle. He left out when they danced at Scarlet’s party. Those moments weren’t for Arid, no matter what the SandWing thought of Talon. Those moments were for Talon and Avalanche and Talon wanted to keep them that way.

And when he finally finished, Arid let out a long, low whistle. “That’s quite an adventure.”

Talon laughed nervously, searching for a reply. Before he could find one, the stone underfoot changed to dirt and he stopped in surprise. Arid’s claws brushed his tail and she came to a teetering stop behind him.

“What is it?”

“Dirt. There’s dirt underfoot. That must mean we’re getting closer to the surface.” Talon said. He started again, picking up the pace, but no distant sunlight sparkled at the end of the tunnel. The smell of fresh air grew stronger and Talon could hear wind whispering through tree branches and crickets chirping.

And then suddenly he found two boulders forming a tight squeeze out into a cave and beyond that was a night sky full of stars that glittered like diamonds in the sky.

“We did it! I can see the sky!” He yelled in triumph.

Arid gave a whoop of celebration before stilling and hissing. “Be careful, we don’t know where we’ll turn out to be.”

Talon nodded and squeezed out between the gap in the boulders and rushed forwards to stand in the mouth of the cave. It was set low on a mountain, looking out over a valley of trees with a small creek bubbling through it. Talon couldn’t see or hear the palace, but he knew that didn’t necessarily mean that he and Arid were far from it.

The SandWing strode over to his side, grinning widely enough to split her face in two. “We did it. We escaped.”

“We really did.” Talon breathed. He looked down at his claws, feeling dizzy with elation. And there, lying at the mouth of the cave, were two small clamps, like the ones that still bound his and Arid’s wings, each with silver-scales and flesh still between their metal clamps. There was only once way those could have gotten here. Hvitur the IceWing must have escaped.

Talon thought he could collapse in relief.

Chapter Text

After the purple dragon’s revelation, Cuttlefish had told Nautilus to follow her and the three SeaWings had lept into the sky, soaring north. Nautilus felt his stomach roll as he sailed over forests, the unfamiliar sight of land below made his head spin.

“It’s quite a shock when you first see the mainland, isn’t it?” The purple dragonet said, falling back behind Cuttlefish to fly at the same speed as Nautilus.

He nodded, lost for words.

“I’m Bay.” The purple dragonet said. “And you’re Councillor Nautilus, so there’s no need to introduce yourself. I’m Cuttlefish’s apprentice.”

“Cuttlefish has an apprentice?” Nautilus managed to ask.

“Yes, she's my apprentice and informant.” Cuttlefish called back, flashing a grin over her shoulder. “Well, one of them.”

“As much as Cuttlefish can paint her scales, she can’t change herself entirely, or be in every place at once. We need informants in other tribes.” Bay explained.

“Where are we going now?” Nautilus asked. “And what about Tempest and Baiji?”

“They’ll be fine.” Cuttlefish said. “Baiji knows that if I’m not back by sunrise, to just return to the palace.”

“Right now we’re going to meet one of our informants.” Bay said eagerly.

“You can call them spies. That is what they are.” Cuttlefish said.

“Informants sounds cooler.” Bay huffed.

“Informants sounds snootier.” Cuttlefish shot back.

“Why have I never seen you before?” Nautilus asked.

“I’ve been mostly working around the outskirts of SeaWing territory.” Bay said. “Near SkyWing Kingdom so I can contact Summit – he’s a SkyWing in the palace – easily.”

“Why are you telling me this? Aren’t you meant to keep secrets?” Nautilus questioned.

“Cuttlefish trusts you so I can too.” Bay said, making a sudden sharp bank and swooping down towards a grove of trees. “Oh! This way!”

Cuttlefish and Nautilus followed Bay’s lead, swooping down and landing on the edge of a grove of trees. In the distance, Nautilus could see the sharp rise of mountains and, stationed on the side of one of those mountains like a strange, dangerous growth, a palace alight with dragon fire, SkyWings in their hundreds swooping over and around the palace.

“That’s Queen Scarlet’s palace.” Cuttlefish said, flicking a wing towards the structure. “I suppose it’s in such a state of mayhem because of the escaped dragons. Now, where’s Summit?”

Bay peered into the trees, then said, “He was by the creek when I left, he said something about going downstream to wait, so . . .”

She stepped cautiously into the woods, followed by Nautilus and Cuttlefish. The three dragons walked on in silence. Then the shape of a dragon became visible through the trees, a dragon thinner and taller than the familiar shapes of SeaWings. Orange scales glittered in the moonlight, a face with yellow eyes and a goofy grin watched them through the trees, with wings that were absolutely massive. The SkyWing looked to be about Nautilus’ age, perhaps a year or two older.

“Hi. I was wondering when you’d arrive, Cuttlefish. Ooh, and a new dragon. Hi, how are you? And who are you? I’m Summit!” The SkyWing said. His voice was higher pitched than a SeaWing’s and slid over the words differently to what Nautilus had expected.

“Nautilus.” Nautilus said. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Nautilus is a good friend of mine.” Cuttlefish said. “We can speak freely with him.”

Summit grinned and nodded. “So how much do you know? Pretty exciting, huh? Three escapees in a week! That’s one every other day! And a SkyWing, too!”

“Alright, Summit, start from the beginning with the SandWing and SkyWing.” Cuttlefish said.

“It started yesterday – today – is it midnight yet? Well, about midday yesterday.” Summit said, puffing out a plume of smoke in excitement. Nautilus exhaled sharply when he saw it, suddenly reminded of how dangerous other dragons were. Never in his life had he seen smoke, let alone fire at a close distance. And never had he seen another dragon create smoke.

Summit seemed not to notice Nautilus’ surprise as he kept on talking. “So, the day before that, the SkyWing in question had disobeyed the queen. I was outside the throne room at the time, guarding, so I heard it all and he did quite a number, not even calling her ‘queen’! So, naturally, she stuck him on a tower and scheduled a fight the next day.”

“What did he say, exactly?” Cuttlefish asked.

“Oh, you know I’m not good with exactlys.” Summit hummed. “It was something about being a traitor and how the war was pointless.”

Cuttlefish glanced at Nautilus with a look that Nautilus knew was significant, but was lost on the Councillor of Publishing.

“Anyway, next day was much more interesting.” Summit said. “He was put against a SandWing – ironically the one who the IceWing escaped from. Anyway, she was bigger, there was no chance the SkyWing would win. But then he just told the SandWing not to attack. He turned and started talking to the queen. Eventually, the SandWing did start to attack, but he told her not to. Then he kept talking to the queen. Then he yelled at some dragon that he loved her and everything went crazy. I couldn’t see where they were, but they escaped. Palace is, strictly speaking, on lockdown now. Everyone’s still searching.”

Cuttlefish nodded. “I see. Now, I need names and identities. Do you know the names of any of the dragons who escaped? Who they fought for? Any names at all?”

“The IceWing had some funny foreign name.” Summit said. “IceWings are always odd like that – keeping their old language alive. Had a ‘v’ in it. Um, the SandWing was called Arid, I think she was on Blaze’s side. And the SkyWing had a bird related name. Claws? . . . No, Talon, that was it. There hasn’t been any sign of him so he may well be dead.”

Cuttlefish began pacing, mumbling under her breath, brown-inked scales shimmering in the moonlight. Finally, she said, “Anything else of importance?”

“Can’t think of anything.” Summit shrugged his wings. “I can describe them for you?”

“In a moment.” Cuttlefish murmured. “Now . . . If I had escaped, I’d want to go to a place with all sorts of dragons, blend in, be anonymous. And if I were a SkyWing, where would I go?”

“That’s easy.” Summit scoffed. “Spicula Island Province – right on the border between SkyWings and SandWings – there’s all sorts there. Only thing is there’s battles and whatnot. Talon didn’t seem like the type of dragons to head straight to a place full of skirmishes.”

“Why? What are we planning?” Bay asked.

“We have to find him.” Cuttlefish said. “We’re going to talk to Talon.”

Chapter Text

“Avalanche. Avalanche, wake up.”

There were claws poking her side, a familiar voice telling her to get up, but Avalanche could have sworn she'd only just closed her eyes. She groaned and rolled over, not opening her eyes.

“Avalanche, this is important, please. I don’t know who else to talk to, I trust you the most, come on Avalanche.”

Avalanche opened her eyes, just a crack, and saw the shape of a dragon standing by her bed. With the torches all snuffed out, she couldn’t tell who it was. She knew it wasn’t Kestrel, the dragon was too small for that, she could tell that their scales were more orange then red, even in the dim lighting.

Small. A sudden thought crossed her mind. “Talon?”

“Um, no. Well, maybe, I think it might apply to him.” The other dragon said.

“Oh.” It wasn’t Talon. Avalanche blinked again.

“Come on, get up.” The dragon turned and darted to the doorway, quickly but silently. Avalanche heaved herself up and followed him, still feeling stiff from sleep, or lack thereof.

Out in the corridor, where the torches still glowed softly, she could see the dragonet of Overcast. He looked back at her, yellow eyes bright with excitement.

“Where are we going?” She asked.

“Where’s somewhere we won’t be overheard?” He asked.

“Library.” Avalanche answered. She couldn’t imagine any dragons being in the library at this time of the night, not when there was still a lockdown on the palace.

Overcast nodded. “Lead the way.”

Avalanche figured that the younger dragonet would explain when they got to the library, so she walked on in silence. Her mind wondered to Talon and where he may be at that exact moment. Deep underground in a cave system? Already away from the Sky Kingdom, flying free over new territory? Dead? Would she ever even see him again?

It had only been a day, less than, since she’d last seen him, but she missed him. She hated the uncertainty of what to do, of who she was, of if she was safe, of if anyone was safe with a war going on.

They entered the library. Unlike the rest of the palace, which was lit with torches all day and most of the night, the library’s only source of light came from the skylight in the roof. Without warm sunlight beaming into the room, it was dull, dark, grey.

Overcast walked into the centre of the room, starring up at the cloudy sky through the skylight, then looking at Avalanche. The older SkyWing walked closer, till the two were almost touching.

“Okay. I was flying about the edge of the castle.” Overcast recounted. “You know, checking out what all the patrols were doing. And I saw this one dragon fly out a window and away from the palace. He was maybe a few years older than you. He headed west, towards that grove of trees between here and the sea. He was there for a while, then I saw three more dragons fly over and land in the same clearing he landed in. Two SeaWings and a MudWing.”

Avalanche stared. “You saw spies?”

“I guess.” Overcast shrugged. “But, I trust you, so I wanted to ask, what do you think we should do?”

“They’re talking about Talon, they have to be.” Avalanche said. “That’s the biggest news in the Kingdom, I’m sure.

“But what side of the war are they on? Are they SeaWings and MudWings reporting to a SkyWing for Burn? Or is the SkyWing reporting to them on Blister’s behalf?” Overcast mused.

Avalanche hummed thoughtfully. “A long way from the Mud Kingdom and Sea Kingdom, aren’t they?"

“They have to be on our side, I think.” Overcast said. “Why else would they be risking going so close to the palace? Maybe they’re teaming up to look for Talon and bring him back.”

“Or maybe they work for Blister.” Avalanche countered. “And the SkyWing is a-”

Traitor. The word died on Avalanche’s tongue. She couldn’t say it, couldn’t bring herself to say it. Not after Talon. Talon wasn’t a traitor. So what was saying that the SkyWing in question was? Overcast looked at her sympathetically, but didn’t make a noise.

The two of them sat in silence until Overcast said slowly. “If you wanted to leave, tonight would be the night to go.”

“What do you mean?” Avalanche asked.

“It’s still chaos out there.” Overcast said. “No one would notice for . . . a while, I think. I mean, I overheard some dragon say training wouldn’t start for another couple of days. You could make it out of the kingdom by then. The castle is still on lockdown, so assuming you could get away without being seen, then, well, you’d be out.”

“I don’t know if I’m ready, Overcast.” Avalanche said. “I want to- to see Talon again. But what about Kestrel? What about you and Woodnote? You two are just dragonets, I can't leave you alone. I don’t know what’s out there. And I’m scared that . . . I don’t know what I’m scared of about it, but it scares me.”

“Not knowing.” Overcast agreed. “That can be the scariest thing of all. I’m sorry, maybe I was too eager, too forwards. I just thought you wanted it.”

“No, it’s okay. I don’t even know what I want, how can I expect you to?” Avalanche shook her head, then inspected the dragonet opposite her. “What about you? Do you want to leave?”

Overcast shook his head. “I wouldn’t go without Woodnote – she’s the only part of home I have left. And she’d never leave.”

“I’ll wait it out.” Avalanche said. “After all, if Talon does get caught, I would have left for nothing. Or, almost.”

Overcast nodded.

Avalanche shook herself, imagining all the worries and doubts flying off her like scattering raindrops.

“Now come on, I think we both need sleep.” Avalanche said, smiling again. “Whether you want to or not.”

Chapter Text

Talon watched in contemplative silence as Arid hissed in pain, stretching her wings against the tight confines of the clips that bent them painfully inwards.

“Arid, stop.” He said finally. “You won’t be able to fly with those on.”

“The IceWing did.” Arid hissed, but folded her wings back in defeat anyway.

“Hvitur only flew a few short wingbeats from the library to the tower. And that’s probably why he lost blood and scales. Because he was pushing against the clips.” Talon reasoned. "He could even have shredded his wings. Do you want to do that to your wings?"

“Well if we want to survive, we have to fly. A downed dragon is a dead dragon.” Arid hissed. “What do you suggest, SkyWing?”

“I don’t know. We could tear them off like Hvitur did.” Talon nudged the bloody clips at his feet. “But I think, let me have a look at yours, I may be able to figure something out.”

Arid sighed, but extended her wing towards Talon. He leaned closer and examined the shining metal. The clip was attached to a flexible metal rod that also attached to metal shackles around Arid’s front legs.

“Alright.” He said. “I think, if I manage to break this rod here, then we’ll be able to fly. If we had an IceWing we could use their serrated claws and cut through the metal properly.”

“Well we don’t.” Arid snapped. “So what do you suggest?”

Talon turned and paced in a tight circle. “We could try to cut through them with our claws.”

Arid swept her tail across the floor of the cave sending small splinters of rock rolling across the floor. “So close to freedom and yet so far.”

“I heard that scavenger claws can cut through dragon scales. Perhaps if we had a scavenger claw it could cut through the rods.” Talon mused.

“Well great, where are we supposed to find a scavenger?” Arid hissed.

“They like hiding in trees.” Talon glanced at the tree-lined valley beyond their cave. “If we found one down there, we could use its scavenger blade.”

“What? Find the creatures that killed Queen Oasis?” Arid hissed.

“Unless you have a better idea.” Talon said.

“The queen was more than three times your size, they’ll kill you in a heartbeat.” Arid protested.

“Well, if we’re found we’ll be killed anyway.” Talon shrugged. “I think we should just-”

“Raise your wings and hold still.” Arid said suddenly.

“What?”

“Raise your wings and hold still.” Arid repeated. "Dragon fire should be able to burn it."

Talon did as she asked, staring at her apprehensively. The SandWing walked over to stand opposite him, then breathed a plume of fire at the metal rod connecting his left wing and foreleg. Talon could hear the flames flickering, feel the heat along his scales. Then she lunged forwards and dragged her claws through the red-hot metal, hissing in pain.

The metal bent, moulded, then broke in two. Talon stretched his wing, blinking in surprise. Arid waved her claws through the air.

“You didn’t have to do that, we could have found a way that didn’t hurt you.” Talon said.

“Sometimes a quick fix is worth the short-term pain.” Arid shrugged. “It’s fine, SkyWing. So long as you return the favour.”

“Oh. Um. Okay.” Talon wasn’t sure about that. But he let Arid give the same fire-and-claws treatment to his right side and then inspected her metal clips again. Then she spread her wing as best she could, looking at him expectantly.

“I still feel like there’s a better way to do this.” Talon mumbled.

“Hurry up, or I’ll claw it off my own scales.” Arid hissed. “It doesn’t hurt as much as you think it does.”

Talon nodded shakily and breathed a plume of flames onto the metal rod. Then, quick as he could, lifted his claws to the metal, trying to cut through the rod. It was agonisingly hot and, while the rod bent, it didn’t seem inclined to break under his claws. Finally, finally, he managed to make the rod snap in two, then he lept back. It felt like the semi-melted metal had stuck to his claws, burning into his scales.

“You said it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would.” Talon complained as Arid stretched her wing in satisfaction.

“Yeah, it hurts more.” Arid agreed.

“You lied.”

“You weren’t going to do it if I didn’t.” Arid said. “Look, it was for the greater good.”

“What greater good?”

“Freedom.” Arid said. Talon hesitated, then nodded. The SandWing laughed. “What? Just like that, your mind is changed?”

“It is for freedom.” Talon said. “That’s what we both did all this for. I mean, compared to almost being brutally murdered for entertainment, I can withstand a bit of molten metal.”

“That’s the spirit.” Arid said, stretching her other wing. “Now, hurry up please, it’s a long flight back to the Kingdom of the Sand.”

Talon freed Arid’s other wing. The SandWing hissed in satisfaction, then turned to Talon. “This is where we say our goodbyes.”

“Oh.” Talon said. “Where are you going?”

“Home. I’ll make a pit stop at Sand Dollar – Spicl-whatsit Province – then if I can’t find Saltbush, I’ll return to Decollate Oasis.”

“Saltbush?”

“My sister.”

“But why return at all?” Talon asked.

“Because it’s my home.” Arid shrugged. “Where are you going? Sand Dollar could be a place to remain incognito. You could go that far with me.”

“I want to visit the ocean.” Talon said. “I’m going to go to SeaWing territory.”

“Brave move.” Arid smirked. “I wish you luck.”

“I’ll be fine, thanks.” Talon said.

“Well, I suppose this is goodbye.” Arid said. “But I owe you one. If we meet again somehow, sometimes, hold me to that. See ya round, Talon.”

Talon realised with a start that it was the first time Arid had said his name. But before he could respond, she was hurling herself out of the cave and away. Talon watched for a moment, until her shape was only distinguishable as a starless patch among the dark sky, then he own raised his wings and soared up into the night sky.

Chapter Text

“Excuse me?” Nautilus asked. “We’re just going to parade around enemy territory looking for their new most-wanted dragon?”

“No.” Cuttlefish said. “We’re going to use reason and logic to find where he would be.”

“Why?” Nautilus asked. “Why do we need to talk to him so desperately?”

“Because,” Cuttlefish looked up at the tree branches overhead, “I have a feeling that he’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.”

Bay and Summit glanced at each other, expressions holding just as much confusion as Nautilus felt.

Summit said slowly, “Well, if you want to find him, there’s a couple of SkyWings who I think would have a clue on where to look.”

“Yes?” Cuttlefish asked.

“The dragon who first claimed he was a traitor – before he did it himself.” Summit said. “A dragonet from his section, name was Kestrel, I remember because she was always talking with some dragon, right next to the doorway. She was spying on Talon for the queen. The other, her name I don’t recall, but I only know of her because Talon spoke to her, said he loved her. Don’t know who or where she is.”

Cuttlefish made a small, frustrated noise. “Your only two sources of information are a dragon you don’t know and one who’s completely loyal to Scarlet?”

Summit shrugged. “What information do you have?”

Bay asked, “How did he escape? Does anyone know?”

“He went back into the palace. No one saw him flying away, and trust me, dragons were scanning the skies pretty soon after he left.” Summit said. “So he either got away on foot, or he’s still in the castle.”

“And you don’t think there’s a chance he’ll go to, where did you say, Spicula Island Province?”

“Not one.” Summit said. “Well, maybe one. Never rule it out, but-”

Cuttlefish sighed. “Summit, you know the palace-”

“Lived there all my life, I should hope so.” The SkyWing interrupted.

“-do you know of any secret tunnels or escape routes?”

Summit flicked his tail thoughtfully. “Nah. None that would be of use for Talon. And he had that SandWing with him, remember? That’d be pretty noticeable. Oh, and their wings were bound. Of course.”

“Of course?” Nautilus asked.

“SkyWings bind their enemies’ wings when they put them in the arena.” Bay explained. “It’s to make sure they can’t escape. Well, it’s meant to, at least.”

Cuttlefish had gone silent, pacing back and forth, clearly in thought. As Nautilus watched, she turned to look at Summit. “Where’s Evening at the moment?”

Summit shrugged. “Left yesterday, went up to Spicula Island Province I think.”

Cuttlefish nodded once, then said. “Summit, I need you to find Kestrel or the other dragon, the one Talon mentioned. I need you to interview them, talk to them, find out all you can about Talon. Can I trust you to do that?”

“Is the sky blue?” Summit asked, puffing out his chest. “I’m a spy for a reason, Cuttlefish. When do you want me to go?”

“Now. As soon as you find something, go to the usual place you and Bay meet.” Cuttlefish said. “We’ll be there. Now go.”

The orange SkyWing grinned, tilted his wings in a goodbye, and leapt straight up, pushing through the tree branches overhead.

“Subtlety was never his strong point.” Cuttlefish murmured as the SkyWing broke through the top of the trees and circled them once, before arrowing back towards the palace.

“Why do you want to talk to him? Talon, I mean.” Bay asked, eyes gleaming with interest.

Cuttlefish looked at Nautilus. “I think that Nautilus would benefit from meeting him.”

“Why?” Nautilus asked. “Why do you seem to think I’m unhappy with my job or I need to do or meet someone? I don’t understand.”

“I don’t, either. It’s just . . . I have a hunch, Nautilus, that you’re going to do more than just . . . be a publisher.” Cuttlefish said. “Don’t you want to be more?”

“No.” Nautilus shook his head. “All I want is to be safe and happy.”

“Don’t you want the war to end?”

“Of course!”

“Then why don’t you do something?”

“What can I do?” Nautilus demanded.

“That’s what I’m helping you find out.” Cuttlefish grinned.

“Seriously, Cuttlefish. I’m just me. I’m no one special. I’m the last dragon who should be winning a war.” Nautilus said.

Cuttlefish was silent, but Nautilus didn’t feel like he’d won the argument. He felt more like he was a dragonet who’d finally exhausted the patience of his much wiser teacher. Bay, too, was quiet, scratching at the dirt floor of the forest with her claws.

Finally, purple dragonet said, “Should we, um, head to the usual spot?”

When neither Nautilus nor Cuttlefish spoke, Bay continued, “It’s not far, Nautilus, just northeast of here. It’s on that small peninsula, shaped like a dragon claw.”

“Yes, good idea.” Cuttlefish said finally.

Without further discussion, the three SeaWings walked in silence out of the trees. The mountains came into view again, along with the palace, still circled with dragon fire. There was no sign of Summit, but Nautilus wouldn’t be surprised if he was one of the far-off shapes sweeping over the palace walls.

Bay took flight first, spiralling up with Cuttlefish close behind her and Nautilus trailing after. The two moons visible in the sky were dipping towards the west and Nautilus estimated it was only an hour or two before dawn.

Nautilus glanced around to make sure that they weren’t being followed. At first glance, he saw nothing. But there was a subtle movement out of the corner of his eyes, a dragon flying with unsteady wingbeats, high above the mountain peaks, high above the altitude the SeaWings were flying.

“Cuttlefish.” He hissed. The brown-painted SeaWing’s head spun to face him, Nautilus pointed and her gaze fell on the SkyWing.

“Are we being followed?” Bay asked, swooping back around. “Or . . .”

“It’s odd to see a SkyWing flying alone at night. And with such unsteady wingbeats. As if his wings are stiff or injured, as if they'd previously been bound.” Cuttlefish mused. “Nautilus, Bay, I think we’ve found our dragon.”

Chapter Text

Despite telling Overcast that they should both get some sleep, Avalanche hadn’t been able to do more than close her eyes. Her mind kept replaying the events of the past day, over and over, but she still couldn’t decide how she felt, or even how to interpret the information.

Eventually, because she couldn’t bare to continue to lay there and think, she left the dormitory once again, doing her best not to wake the other dragonets as she fumbled through the cave and out into the corridor beyond.

It was empty, thankfully. Avalanche made her way past the other caves full of sleeping dragons and turned a sharp corner, then skidded to a halt, as she’d nearly bumped into another SkyWing. He looked to be several years older than Avalanche, with warm orange scales and a confident smirk on his face. Avalanche couldn’t fathom why he was here, he bore no scroll message.

“Are you lost?” She asked, somewhat rudely.

“No.” He smiled brightly. “I’m not. I’m looking for a dragonet called Kestrel. Do you know her?”

Avalanche huffed out a breath of smoke. “Yeah. She’s in my section. I guess you’re working with Turbulence to spy on ‘disloyal traitors’ then?”

Maybe she hadn’t gotten enough sleep. Maybe it was this entire stupid situation. Either way, she wasn’t feeling inclined to deal politely with this dragon opposite her.

The other SkyWing didn’t seem to take offence however, he merely laughed and said, “No. I’m just a guard.”

“Then what do you want to talk to her for? If you think she’d be interested in you, you’re delusional-”

“I wanted to talk about that escaped SkyWing.” He said, lowering his head. “Pretty exciting, huh? He was from your section, too. I suppose you knew all about it!”

“Yes. He was. His name is Talon.”  Avalanche said slowly. “But I’m not much inclined to gossip. Especially not after what happened.”

“You were close with him?” The other SkyWing’s eyes lit up.

“Yeah.” Avalanche shrugged. “What’s it to you?”

“Do you know the dragon he was talking to yesterday?” The SkyWing said. “In the arena? The one he said he loved?”

“Yes.” Avalanche said, loud and slow and as passive aggressive as she could manage. “I do. Because I am that dragon.”

Maybe it was a bad idea to tell an unknown SkyWing that, but Avalanche couldn’t care less. She’d had enough with spies and queens and hiding what you thought. If Talon could stand up to Scarlet, Avalanche could talk to this SkyWing however she wanted to.

The SkyWing’s eyes lit up. “That’s great! You’re exactly who I wanted to see! I’m Summit.”

“Why?” Avalanche asked bluntly.

“Are you and Talon . . . on the same page when it comes to thoughts about the queen and the war?” Summit asked.

“Yes.” Avalanche said. “Why?

“Great! We’re on the same side! Or at least, against the same enemies.” Summit brushed past Avalanche and made a turn, popping up on her other side and throwing a wing over her shoulder. “Come on, let’s go for a fly. We have a heap to discuss!”

“Um, no.” Avalanche said.

“Come on, what were you going to do otherwise? My bets are you weren’t sleeping.” Summit prompted, half pushing Avalanche along with his wing.

Avalanche really didn’t want to go flying with a strange, vague dragon she didn’t know. Especially when there was still definitely a chance that he was working for the queen. Or he was just completely crazy.

But on the flipside of that, if she did go with Summit, she wouldn’t have to confront Kestrel. And there was a slight chance that he was telling the truth.

“Alright. Fine.” She said.

“Great!” Summit grinned in delight. He led Avalanche through winding tunnels and stony corridors in a way that was definitely not the quickest way out of the castle.

“Why are we wandering all over the place?” Avalanche asked finally.

“To throw off anyone who may be watching.” Summit said. “But I think it’s worked, so, let’s go.”

He suddenly lurched sideways, leaping out a window and into the open sky beyond. Avalanche sighed and rolled her eyes, but followed, circling up into the overcast sky. There were still SkyWings surveying the palace, but they paid no attention to Avalanche and Summit as they swept along the outskirts of the palace, pretending to be scouting the land below.

“Okay.” Avalanche prompted. “I’ve let a weird dragon I don’t know fly me out here. What do you want to say?”

“Okay.” Summit said. “This is going to sound crazy, but I really need to find Talon. And not for Queen Scarlet.”

“Well, I can’t help.” Avalanche made to take a sharp bank and head back to get inside the palace and to her dormitory, but Summit intercepted, sweeping around her to block her off.

“Hear me out.” He said. “I’m working for another queen that isn’t Scarlet, well, for a dragon who works for that queen, but we don’t want to kill Talon. I’m pretty sure that the queen doesn’t know who Talon is. But for some reason the dragon I work for, the one who works for the queen, she wants to talk to Talon. She’s a really great dragon, I promise she doesn’t want to hurt him. So you have to tell me where Talon’s hiding-”

“First of all, that story did nothing to make me trust you more.” Avalanche said. “Second, I’m not lying, I can’t help you. I don’t know where he is. I can guess, but I really don’t know.”

“Anything?”

“I don’t know where he is now, I only know where he may have gone.” Avalanche said softly.

“Where?” Summit asked eagerly.

“Well, he went the same way as Hvitur. Through the mine tunnels.” Avalanche said. “At least, I think, based on how he thought. But, uh, who do you work for?”

“Queen Coral.” Summit said. “Or, more specifically, her Counsel of Spies and Secrets, Cuttlefish.”

Avalanche’s flight faltered. “Cuttlefish?”

Chapter Text

Talon saw them at once, it was pretty hard to miss the three bulky dragons that were clearly flying up to intercept him. They weren’t SkyWings, that much was clear, and he didn’t recognise them as SandWings or IceWings. Although he refused to look, except from the corner of his eyes, on the stupid hope that if he ignored them, they’d ignore him.

He thought they could be SeaWings, or maybe MudWings, one of them seemed to have dark scales that glinted brown, one was a blue-purple and one was a dull green, although it was difficult to see in the night’s darkness.

He managed to ignore them, right up until the brown one swept in front of him, blocking him from proceeding further.

“Hi, uh, I know you probably want to take me hostage or return me to Scarlet or something, but I’m in the middle of an escape, so can it wait?” Talon asked, without thinking.

The MudWing laughed. “You’re Talon, I take it?”

“Are you going to hand me in to an evil queen if I say yes?” Talon asked.

The brown dragon shook her head. “No, not on my agenda.”

“Well, then, yeah. That’s me.” Talon greeted. “Who are you and how do you know who I am?”

“Long story.” The MudWing said. “Let’s find a place to land and talk in more privacy.”

The brown dragon, who Talon guessed was the leader of the trio, swept down to a forest below and the two others followed, leaving Talon with no other choice but to dive down after them. They crashed through the trees and landed beside a stream, in a forest full of the chirping of crickets.

“Sorry for such a short introduction, but we’re all in enemy territory here.” The MudWing said, tilting her wings in greeting. “My name’s Crayfish. This is Baleen and Nautilus.”

The MudWing flicked her tail at each dragon as she spoke. The dull green dragon, Nautilus, gave the MudWing a strange look.

“Hi, nice to meet you.” Baleen said.

“Why are you here?” Talon asked.

“To find you.” Crayfish answered, flicking her brown wings. “I was told you were an escapee of Scarlet’s arena.”

“That’s true.” Talon said. “Um, but is that the only reason you’re here? Like, you aren’t spying on behalf of Blister or something?”

Baleen and Crayfish both shook their heads. Crayfish smiled at Talon and nudged Nautilus with a wing. “Talon, why don’t you tell us about yourself?”

“You clearly already know about me.” Talon said, unconvinced.

“As a favour.” Crayfish prompted. “Consider it a favour that I’ll repay.”

“Sure.” Talon wasn’t really sure. He didn’t know what to make of this situation, or if he could trust these dragons, but he didn’t have anything to loose, so he supposed he may as well talk to them. There was no point in lying. So he retold his adventure, and just like when he told Arid, he left out the parts with Avalanche whenever possible.

He saw Crayfish and Baleen watching with cold interest, but Nautilus kept glancing between Talon and the MudWing, brow scrunched. Finally, when Talon was done talking and Baleen had clapped politely, as if the past week or so had just been a made-up story. Nautilus said to Crayfish. “I still don’t understand.”

Crayfish just laughed lightly. “Don’t stress so much, Nautilus. I’m going to go catch us some fish, Baleen, come with me.”

Nautilus’ scowl deepened as he watched the other two walk away downstream. Talon offered the SeaWing a smile, taking in his appearance.

He looked a few years older than Talon, nine or ten maybe. His dull green scales were marked with elegant black swirls. He had a long, low build and a face lined with worry. He had odd, almost shiny patches on his scales that Talon figured were the places where they lit up. He'd read that SeaWing scales could do that. Nautilus’ emerald green eyes stared back at Talon’s.

“So, hi.” Talon said. “Nice to meet you?”

“You too.” Nautilus said, tone a mixture between diplomatic and cautious. “Sorry if I came off as rude earlier. Cu-Crayfish is just . . . a frustrating companion at times.”

Talon nodded. “It’s okay.”

“It’s been a long night, hasn’t it?” Nautilus murmured.

“I’ll say.” Talon agreed. He examined Nautilus’ dull green scales. “So, um, are you three exiled from your territories too? Sorry if I’m somehow intruding on private stuff, but I really can’t figure out why else you’d be here.”

“No.” Nautilus said, frowning defensively. “We are not exiled from our tribe.”

The SeaWing was quiet for a few seconds, then blurted out, “But that must have been harsh for you.”

Talon shrugged. “It was partially self-exile. I mean, there’s not anything I miss . . . other than Avalanche, oh, moons, she probably thinks I’m dead!”

Talon started pacing, thoughts on the dragon he had left behind. Was she okay? Had she been imprisoned after he'd mentioned her name? Had he sentenced her to death?

“Hey, don’t worry.” Nautilus smiled weakly. “I’m, uh, pretty sure that we can help you get any of your friends out or whatever.”

“She’s- she’s more than a friend.” Talon said, although he still wasn’t entirely sure what she meant to him. He had said he’d loved her, the words still echoed in his mind, but had he been caught in the moment, swept up in adrenaline?

He’d read somewhere that love was putting another dragon’s needs before your own. If that was the case, then he certainly wasn’t in love with Avalanche. When had he done anything with her needs in mind? Did he even know what she really wanted? She had said that she just wanted to be with him, but that was surely too simple of an answer.

Although he wanted to be with her too, to see her smile, to be the one to make her smile, to see her amber eyes light up when he talked and to fly beside her, wingbeats in time with hers.

Talon glanced at Nautilus, who looked sympathetic and understanding and yet still as though he were completely foreign to the situation.

“Avalanche is, um, she’s,” Talon hesitated, taking a deep breath. “She’s my best friend, even though I’ve only really known her for a week. She’s amazing and really talented and smart and pretty. I’m not sure if it’s love. It seems too short a time to know someone to call it love. But-”

“It’s okay if it is.” Nautilus said. “But it’s okay not to be sure.”

Talon stopped pacing and looked at Nautilus again. He had a far off look in his eyes, but as Talon’s gaze fell on him, he met Talon’s eyes.

“I may never have been in love.” Nautilus admitted. “But I’ve seen it’s effects – the best and worst of them. And if there’s one thing I’ve seen, it’s that love is unpredictable. Sometimes you think you know how you feel, sometimes you don’t have a clue. Sometimes it’s lovely and sometimes it’s painful. But in the end, you never know which one is right and which is wrong.”

“Why are you telling me?” Talon felt strangely comforted by the SeaWing’s words.

Nautilus shrugged. “You needed to hear it.”

Chapter Text

Nautilus watched a slow smile stretch over the SkyWing’s face and took the moment of silence to assess the SkyWing once again. He was small, a dragonet for sure. His scales were like a sunset on the ocean, warm orange with hints of soft gold. He had large wings, like Summit, only with his small frame, Talon’s wings looked even larger, almost out of place on him. His amber eyes had a wise glint that didn’t fit with his dragonet-like look, as if there was a much older dragon trapped within his scales.

“Thanks.” Talon said. “That means a lot, really.”

Nautilus shrugged. “It’s nothing.”

“Accept the gratitude would you?” Talon asked.

Nautilus chuckled and Talon started laughing as well, possibly in relief.

“You two are getting along better than I thought.” Cuttlefish’s voice bounced through the trees. Moments later, she appeared, the brown ink on her feet and the end of her tail washed off by the running water of the river. Bay was beside her, holding several fish and looking pleased with herself.

“Hi, you’re back.” Talon greeted, mood seemingly improved. “Are those fish? I’ve never had one before. Scarlet never liked the idea of SkyWings eating SeaWing food.”

“We are back.” Cuttlefish agreed. “And indeed, they are fish.”

“Do you eat them raw? Or cook them?” Talon asked. “Avalanche – she’s my friend – she said that you eat them raw, then again, you don’t have fire, so I suppose you can’t cook them anyway. Wow, imagine not having any fire. And I’m rambling. Sorry.”

Bay reached Nautilus’ side and dropped the fish. “I’ve eaten cooked fish before, doesn’t compare to having them raw.”

Cuttlefish stayed back a bit, watching with interest. Nautilus glanced at Bay and Talon. “Excuse me for a moment, I’d like a word with Cut-Crayfish.”

He wasn’t exactly sure why Bay and Cuttlefish were using false names, but not giving him one. Just like he wasn’t sure why Cuttlefish had insisted he meet Talon. But he wanted to find out. Nautilus walked to Cuttlefish’s side.

“What now?” Cuttlefish sighed, although her gaze was amused.

“I still don’t understand. I’ve met Talon, I don’t understand what it is you want me to know.” Nautilus hissed.

“Have you talked to Talon?” Cuttlefish asked.

“Yes.” Nautilus replied, perplexed.

“No, really talk to him, I mean. Do you know him?” Cuttlefish asked. “Understand why he does what he does?”

“Well, it would be impossible to know that on first glance.” Nautilus said.

“Really?” Cuttlefish asked.

“You can probably do it because you’ve been a spy for years. I’m just me, Cuttlefish.” Nautilus protested. “I don’t know what you’re expecting from me, but I can’t do or be that. I can’t leave my tribe and I definitely can’t be a spy, okay?”

“I’m not asking you to do anything. Especially not to be a spy.” Cuttlefish said.

Nautilus shook his head and turned away, walking back to Bay and Talon. Talon was recoiling, a half-eaten fish laying at his claws.

“You eat this?” He demanded, turning to look at Nautilus for confirmation.

Nautilus nodded, perplexed. “Yes. Why?”

“It’s . . . weird.” Talon said, poking at the raw fish at his claws. “It’s so slimy and cold.”

“What do you usually eat?” Nautilus asked, interested.

“Birds.” Talon said. “Mountain goats, sometimes other creatures, like mountain lions or whatnot, occasionally scavengers, if there’s a special occasion.”

Nautilus blinked, slightly surprised at the answer. Birds, he supposed, made sense. As did mountain goats. But did SkyWings actually go after creatures like mountain lions that could easily kill them? Maybe the stereotypes of SkyWings being brash and headstrong weren’t far off.

Bay hummed in agreement. “But they don’t taste as good as fish.”

Talon shook his head. “SeaWings are weird.”

“Says the dragon who eats scavengers.” Nautilus said.

“That was only once.” Talon said, making a face. “At a party. They’re considered a delicacy.”

“I’ve never seen one in the Sea Kingdom.” Nautilus shrugged his wings. “They aren’t aquatic animals.”

“That’s true.” Bay said.

“So, um, if you aren’t exiled from your tribe, why are you all here?” Talon asked suddenly, looking at Nautilus, then Bay, then finally squinting in the direction of Cuttlefish, who still stood half hidden by the shadows.

“Our job takes us all across Pyrrhia.” Bay said. “We’re messengers from the queen, we were on our way north, and west, when we heard a commotion from the Sky Kingdom and decided to stick around.”

The lies spilled off the SeaWing’s tongue as if she had said them thousands of times before. Maybe she had.

“And where do I factor in? It seemed you were looking for me?” Talon asked.

“Can’t dragons be interested in whatever drama is happening in their neighbouring kingdoms?” Cuttlefish asked with a dry smile.

“Interest is one thing. Finding me is a completely different thing.” Talon said. “Forgive me for thinking that I may not be able to trust you three, but even before my exile, there were dragons I couldn’t trust. Huh, maybe it should have occurred to me not to trust you earlier. Oops.”

“You think we’re working for Queen Scarlet?” Nautilus asked.

“I’m just saying there’s a definite possibility.” Talon shrugged.

Cuttlefish stretched her wings. “We aren’t. Do you really believe that Scarlet of all dragons would talk to ‘low-life’ dragons from other tribes? To find you? When there are all those dragons up there doing the same thing.”

She waved a wing in the direction of the SkyWing’s palace. Talon glanced between her and the fire-lit structure barely visible on the horizon.

“That makes sense.” Talon admitted. “But I still want to know about you. It’s a little unfair that I know nothing about you and you know everything about me, don’t you think?”

“That does make sense.” Bay said, voice quiet. “Crayfish?”

“Nautilus?” Cuttlefish’s pale eyes turned to Nautilus. Talon and Bay followed her gaze and all eyes were on Nautilus. For some reason, they’d decided it was his responsibility to speak, to tell Talon about himself, and about Bay and Cuttlefish.

For some reason, they wanted him to do it.

Chapter Text

“You know Cuttlefish?” Summit’s expression was pure shock.

“I- I do, well- did, I . . .” Avalanche took a deep breath, trying to order her whirling thoughts. “I knew, at least, my father knew a dragon called Cuttlefish. She was a kind of blue-grey colour, with pale eyes and pale underscales.”

“Yes. That’s her.” Summit said. “But, how?”

“I lived up north for the first five years of my life.” Avalanche mumbled. “He, when I was very young, my father, he would often meet a SeaWing called Cuttlefish. We never talked about her, outside of home, but sometimes he would go and meet her. Said they were friends, but not to talk about her to anyone because Duke Conifer didn’t like SkyWings being friends with dragons from other tribes.”

Summit’s expression was both suspicious and incredibly excited. “What was your father’s name?”

“Eagle.” Avalanche’s voice was quiet, almost a whisper.

She thought Summit might explode. He was practically humming with tension. “Eagle? Eagle? As in Eagle?”

“Look, I’ve met several dragons called Eagle, but-”

“Evening talks about Eagle all the time!” Summit said.

“Evening?” Avalanche asked.

“My friend.” Summit flicked his tail dismissively. “But I can’t believe this! You’re Eagle’s daughter. And now you’re here, talking to me! What a coincidence! Cuttlefish won’t believe this, come on!”

He swept in a circle around Avalanche and then sped off towards the forest. Avalanche glanced uncertainly back at the castle, but the temptation of answers and her lack of loyalty to Scarlet won out, along with the smallest bit of concern for this SkyWing who seemed rather . . . insane, if Avalanche was being honest.

So Avalanche turned and followed him, gliding through the air on long wingbeats. The overcast sky still pressed down on them, clouds reaching for their wings as they skimmed just below the cloud cover.

“I didn’t think it’d be this easy!” Summit said cheerfully as Avalanche caught up with him. “We may even be early!”

Avalanche tuned him out as they flew on at a speed that made her wings ache, but Summit didn’t slow down. A couple of times she glanced behind her, watching the palace shrink as the trees sprouted from the ground, the sound of crickets chirping echoing up through the still night air.

Avalanche wasn’t really sure how long they had been flying, time blurred into an indistinct mess, but it was still dark when Summit stopped, circling. Avalanche, who had been focusing on his tail and nothing else as she flew, threw her wings up to stop herself, but she still slammed into him and the two SkyWings fell through the air for a few tail-lengths, before regaining their balance.

Summit didn’t look mad, however, he just smiled all the more. “Okay, just down there, on that peninsula, that’s where we wait. I’m not sure how long it’ll take for Cuttlefish to arrive, could be any time – minutes, hours, days, months.”

“Peninsula?” Avalanche echoed. “Are we near the ocean?”

“Yeah.” Summit swept aside and the sea spread out in front of Avalanche, dark, glittering mass of waves and currents. Below them, the coastline dropped away in sharp cliffs and occasional gentle sandy beaches. A peninsula jutted out into the sea, a darker shape among the dark waters.

“I . . . wow.” Avalanche murmured. Talon would have loved to see it, endless freedom to fly and fly and fly. Nothing to worry about, just the waves and winds and your wings. “I haven’t seen the ocean in years.”

“It’s even better at day when you can see it.” Summit said, circling Avalanche smugly.

“So, um, you took me to the ocean?” Avalanche said. “Why?”

“This is where we wait for Cuttlefish.” Summit said.

“Where is this, exactly?” She asked, watching Summit, who was scanning the skies above.

“It’s that small, claw-shaped thing sticking into the sea, northeast of the palace.” Summit said. “The one between Kingdom Province and Wingtip Forest Province.”

Avalanche could vaguely remember a point on the maps of the Sky Kingdom that matched what the orange SkyWing was talking about.

She nodded. “When will Cuttlefish arrive?”

“It could be any time.” Summit said. “Like I said, minutes, hours, days. Not more than a week, I don’t think.”

“A week?” Avalanche demanded. “Won’t someone notice we’re gone?”

“Does anyone ever?” Summit asked. “I disappear for weeks at a time and no one notices.”

“But we didn’t report our absence and, and I’m me. With Kestrel and Talon in my section, I’m definitely under suspicion.” Avalanche hissed in irritation.

“Relax.” Summit said. “Come on, we have a hideout. Are you tired? You can sleep then.”

Avalanche hesitated. She was annoyed. But why? Hadn’t she been contemplating leaving anyway? And Summit certainly seemed interested in finding Talon. So perhaps staying with him for the time being was a good idea.

Not to mention she could learn more about her father and Cuttlefish.

Avalanche nodded. “Fine.”

Summit grinned in delight. “Okay, follow closely.”

Without giving Avalanche a chance to respond, Summit ducked into a tight spiral, racing towards the rocks. Avalanche followed, hastily, tucking her wings in close and diving for the peninsula below. They drew closer, but Summit showed no sign of stopping. He seemed to speed up, tucking his wings in as close to his body as he could.

Avalanche could now see what he was aiming for, a small hole in the rocks, only visible as a near perfectly round darker circle against the dark rocks. Maybe Summit was crazy. Avalanche didn’t think she could stop her dive in time to sweep away into the air and save herself from crashing into the rock. Was this it?

Well, that would certainly suck.

Summit dove into the hole in the rocks and was swallowed up by the darkness. Avalanche took a deep breath and followed, aiming for the tunnel and managing to fall into it. She didn’t have time to scream before cold water met her scales and icy cold water closed over her head.

Chapter Text

Talon watched Nautilus’ green eyes flit between Crayfish and Baleen.

“Why are you here, Nautilus?” Crayfish prompted, pale eyes gleaming with interest.

Talon shifted uncomfortably as those eyes focused on him.

“Well.” Nautilus said, then paused, eyes anywhere but on the other dragons. “I’m here because earlier, at sunset, Crayfish found me and asked me to come with her. She wanted me to meet you. Although I’m not really sure why.”

“You didn’t . . . all come here for the same reason?” Talon asked, not sure if he felt betrayed. Sure, the idea that these dragons may not be honest with him had crossed his mind, but he’d been in a whirlwind of events so much that he wouldn’t be really surprised if they had lied.

“I know I said we were messengers going north.” Baleen said. “But the truth’s a lot more complicated, really.”

Her scales lit up suddenly, blinding Talon with the sudden brightness. He turned away, squinting at the trees as they glowed with pulses of eerie lilac light. When the lilac light stopped it was replaced with flashes of alternating pale blue and green. Finally, everything was dark and Talon risked a look back at the other dragons.

The three were looking at him, Crayfish with an amused look on her face. Talon blinked the dots out of his eyes. “So, um, was that what SeaWing scales look like when they light up?”

Crayfish chuckled. “Yes. Quite the spectacle, aren’t they?”

“Um, so.” Nautilus shifted. “Talon. I’m not sure how much Ba-Baleen and Crayfish want to share, but I’m going to tell you about myself.” Nautilus shot a glare at the brown dragon beside him. “If only to get Crayfish off my tail.”

Talon nodded, focusing his attention on Nautilus. “Okay.”

“I’m a Council Member for Queen Coral.”

“What’s that?” Talon blurted out.

“SkyWings don’t have a council.” Crayfish said helpfully. “The royal family – well, the queen – makes all the decisions herself. There are Dukes and Duchesses, but they live outside the palace.”

“Ah. Well, then.” Nautilus said. “I’m basically, um, an honorary member of the royal family? I’m a dragon who helps to keep track of what is happening in the kingdom and make decisions with the queen.”

“That sounds important.” Talon said, although he still didn’t fully understand what Nautilus was talking about.

Nautilus nodded.

“But why?” Talon asked. “Why are you and Crayfish . . . friends? And why did she want you to be here? And what do I have to do with it?”

“Crayfish is . . .” Nautilus looked lost for words. “I met Crayfish, um, a while ago. She’s a . . . spy, working for the SeaWings.”

Talon blinked in surprise. “Oh.”

His mind was racing. Were they trying to get him to work for the SeaWings? For Blister? Wouldn’t that just be helping the war further? The opposite of what he wanted to do.

“I’m not trying to recruit you. Queen Coral doesn’t know I’m here, doing, well, all this.” Crayfish said, spreading her wings slightly to gesture to the Sky Kingdom around them.

“Why are you here doing . . . all this?” Talon asked.

“For Nautilus.” Crayfish said.

“But why?”

Talon had been about to ask that himself, the words were on the tip of his tongue, but someone else had said them before he could. Nautilus. The SeaWing was glaring at the brown dragon, irritation clear in his eyes.

Crayfish sighed heavily. “It’s . . . difficult to explain.”

“I’ve asked you so many times, Cuttlefish, and you never answer.” Nautilus was saying, voice raised in frustration.

“Um, maybe we should keep quiet.” Baleen suggested.

“Cuttlefish? Didn’t you say your name was Crayfish? Cuttlefish sounds like a . . . a SeaWing name.” Talon said.

Crayfish – or maybe it was Cuttlefish – sighed and said, “We should go somewhere more private to talk.”

Baleen nodded. “I know you probably don’t trust us, Talon, and Nautilus, I know you’re frustrated and neither of you really want to go somewhere private. But look how close we are to the SkyWing’s palace. If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that Queen Scarlet would want to have any or preferably all of our heads removed from our bodies. So with all of our best interests in heart, can we go somewhere else? Safer?”

Talon glanced at Nautilus, who sighed and nodded. Somehow, seeing Nautilus’ trust in Baleen and Crayfish/Cuttlefish was reassuring.

Talon nodded. “Okay.”

“And I suppose it’s no secret anymore, but my name is actually Cuttlefish. Yes, it’s a SeaWing name. That’s because I’m a SeaWing.” The brown dragon said.

“How?” Talon asked.

“Brown ink. It’s harmless to me, just turns my scales brown till it washes off.” Cuttlefish said, examining her brown claws. “And my apprentice, her name is Bay, not Baleen.”

“An easy mistake to make.” Bay grinned, shrugging her purplish scales.

Cuttlefish gave Nautilus a slightly irritated, slightly amused look. “Thank you for blowing our cover, Nautilus.”

Nautilus seemed to have the sense to at least look guilty.

Chapter Text

Nautilus could tell dawn would soon be spreading across the horizon as the group of dragons reached the coastline. The first hints of pale blue sky and yellow clouds painted the horizon. His wings were aching after the hours of flying without any pause or change of pace. Bay flew by his side. She looked less breathless than Nautilus, but he could still hear her heaving panting over the sound of his own.

In front of them, Cuttlefish flew, quietly but without pause. And Talon swept along beside her. Occasionally he would dive or spin in the air, sweeping along in the dawn light, seeming not at all tired by the long flight.

Cuttlefish suddenly came to a halt, hovering over a peninsula jutting out over the land, curled like a dragon’s claw. “Alright, this is where we wait for Summit and Avalanche.”

“Where?” Nautilus asked tiredly. “I don’t see anywhere hidden.”

“See that slightly darker patch in the rock?” Bay asked, flicking her tail vaguely downwards.

Nautilus nodded.

“That’s a hole in the rocks, full of water.” Cuttlefish said. “You swim down and there’s a hole in the rocks. Follow it and you’ll end up in a larger cavern that has air and space to sleep.”

Talon’s amber eyes grow as round and wide as the sun. “Wow! How did you find it?”

“I didn’t.” Cuttlefish said. “The dragon who did find it died a long time ago, and the secret was handed down through the years. But I suppose it was simply some curious young SeaWing.”

Talon nodded, awestruck. Nautilus glanced down at the hole in the rock far below them. It was close to the edge of the peninsula and, now during high tide, water from the waves sprayed up over the rock edge and into the hole. That would be how it was full of water, Nautilus figured.

“Alright, follow closely. I’ll go first, then Nautilus, Talon and finally Bay.” Cuttlefish said. “Bay, any dragons in sight?”

“Other than us? Nope.” Bay did a small circle in the air, scanning the skies as she swept about the other three dragons.

Cuttlefish nodded in satisfaction and dived down to the rock. Nautilus followed, hoping Cuttlefish knew what she was doing. The idea of slamming nose-first into the rock far below didn’t sound at all appealing. More deadly than anything.

Cuttlefish plunged into the circle in the rocks, followed by the splash of water and Nautilus could see brown ink gushing off her scales, clouding the water and turning it into a murky brown. Nautilus didn’t have time to think before he had arrowed straight into the water, blinking his eyes as the salt water enveloped his scales.

He hadn’t realised how much he had missed the feel of salt water on his scales, even though he’d been away from the ocean for less than a day.

Nautilus looked down and saw the pale blue glow of Cuttlefish’s scales, illuminating the rocks below for Talon. Nautilus lit his scales up to help. Then he swam deeper, following Cuttlefish to a gap in the rocks that wasn’t really all that far down. It dipped down, then quickly back up and opened into a large cavern. Nautilus blinked his eyes, peering about. The pool of water stretched about three winglengths across in an uneven circle. Beyond that, at the other end of the pool from where Nautilus and Cuttlefish floated, was a large stone patch, spotted with stalactites and stalagmites.

Two SkyWings were curled on the rocks, which surely had to be uncomfortable. One, Nautilus realised, was Summit. He lifted his head and gave Cuttlefish a grin. The other was slightly smaller than Summit, she was a dark red, with classical SkyWing-large wings and a long tail. She blinked an eye open, then lept to her feet, alarm clear in her defensive posture.

Cuttlefish was already climbing to the rocks at the other side of the pool. There was no sign of Talon surfacing behind them. Nautilus swam over to dry land and heaved himself up onto the rock, shaking his scales and splattering Summit and the red SkyWing with droplets of water.

“You’re early.” Cuttlefish said to Summit. “And this is the dragon we need? . . . you’re Eagle’s daughter.”

“You’re Cuttlefish.” The red SkyWing’s jaw dropped. “I- Summit said, but, I didn’t . . . how?”

“I’ll explain in a moment.” Cuttlefish said, looking surprised. Nautilus could hardly believe that the Council of Spies and Secrets had expressions other than smug.

“So,” Summit said, “did I do well?”

“I suppose.” Cuttlefish said. “But it doesn’t matter so much, because we’ve already found the dragon we’re looking for.”

“Talon?” The red SkyWing asked, eyes widening. “You found Talon? He’s okay? Is he okay?”

“He’s perfectly fine.” Cuttlefish assured him.

The SkyWing shook her head, as if she couldn’t believe what was happening.

“Who are you?” Nautilus asked, as politely as he could.

“Nautilus, this is Avalanche. Avalanche, Nautilus.” Cuttlefish said.

“And you to know each other?” Nautilus guessed.

“Knew.” Avalanche mumbled. “When I lived up north, I knew a dragon called Cuttlefish. Well, my father knew her. But, wow, you’re the same Cuttlefish and, you’re still alive.”

“Surprise.” Cuttlefish smiled. “You’re quite a lot bigger than when we last met.”

“It’s been four years, hasn’t it?” Avalanche shot back, but a grin was spreading across her face.

“And you’ve been living in the palace, hmm?” Cuttlefish asked conversationally. “The raucous little dragonet I knew would never be content in a stuffy palace.”

Avalanche shrugged. “Guess that explains why I’m here now.”

Cuttlefish nodded.

“So, forgive me for being rude and cutting this conversation short.” Avalanche said. “But where is Talon? Is he here with you two?”

As if in perfect answer to her question, spluttering and water splashing sounded and Talon surfaced, gasping for air and blinking salt water out of his eyes.

Chapter Text

Avalanche felt her body moving and before she knew what was happening, she was throwing herself into the air across the cavern, landing with a splash in the pool beside Talon, making him cough and splutter all over again.

Then his amber eyes focused on her and a smile lit up his face. “Avalanche! What are you doing here?”

“Some dumb dragon convinced me that he could find you.” Avalanche said. “Looks like he wasn’t lying, huh?”

Talon grinned, although his teeth were chattering. Avalanche bumped her wing against his body. “Come on, let’s get to dry land.”

“Good idea.” He agreed, splashing through the water beside Avalanche till he could heave himself up on the rock. Avalanche climbed up after him, shaking her wings and splattering the onlooking SeaWings and Summit with droplets of water.

Avalanche saw, out of the corner of her eye, another SeaWing pop up in the pool, dark scales glittering with water.

“Wow, quite the gathering, huh?” The new SeaWing said.

Avalanche draped a wing over Talon as he slotted in beside her, as if he’d been made to stand there.

“This is Bay.” Cuttlefish flicked a tail towards the SeaWing in the water. “Bay, this is Avalanche.”

Bay nodded. “Hi.”

Avalanche nodded, then turned her attention to Talon. “How in Pyrrhia did you manage to escape?”

“We ran down into the mines, me and Arid I mean.” Talon said. “And there was a dead-end, but we found a tunnel and it was how Hvitur escaped and we escaped and I was going to go to the ocean, but then I met up with these SeaWings and they took me here and you’re here too and wow. I’d tell you more, but I’m exhausted.”

Avalanche laughed. “Well, I got here because I couldn’t sleep and a weird SkyWing decided to kidnap me.”

“Hey!” Summit protested.

“His name’s Summit.” Avalanche filled in.

“He’s a spy, working for Queen Coral.” Cuttlefish added. “Well, technically for me, but, same difference.”

The third SeaWing, Nautilus, was watching with narrowed eyes, tail curled neatly over his talons.

“Spies.” Avalanche mumbled disbelievingly. Of course there would be spies, this was a war. But had Cuttlefish always been a spy? Had she been tricking Avalanche’s father? Or had her father been a spy too? Avalanche’s head was spinning.

“We have a lot to talk about.” Cuttlefish said. “Make yourself at home, well, as at home as you can be here.”

Avalanche laughed. “Truth be told, it’s just as homely as the dormitories in the palace. Less dragons, that’s for sure.”

“That’s true.” Talon said. “The rock shelves here look bigger than the in the palace too.”

“You sleep on . . . just rock?” Nautilus asked. “Isn’t that uncomfortable?”

“I guess.” Talon shrugged. “But it isn’t that bad really.”

Avalanche nodded. “You get used to it.”

Cuttlefish cleared her throat. “This is all off topic, Nautilus, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time to interrogate Talon and Avalanche. On a later date. We need clear things up, then we need to sleep. It’s been a long night for all of us, I’m sure.”

Avalanche nodded in agreement. Talon being here made her feel able to switch off the nervous thoughts. He was safe, he was alive, he was with her. They were together.

“I’ll keep this as quick as I can.” Cuttlefish said. “Yes, Avalanche, I’m a spy, working for Queen Coral and the SeaWings. When I knew you and your father, Eagle, I was also a spy. Eagle worked as a spy, much like Summit over there.”

Summit waved a wing, grinning brightly.

“Bay is my apprentice.” Cuttlefish said.

“And Nautilus is a Counsellor or something. He works for Queen Coral.” Talon said.

“Sounds important.” Avalanche said.

“That’s what I said!” Talon exclaimed.

The green SeaWing sighed, nose scrunching in either confusion or distaste.

“We were here to find Talon.” Cuttlefish continued.

“Why?” Avalanche asked.

Bay and Nautilus’ eyes both fell on Cuttlefish. Cuttlefish’s gaze fell to the pool. She watched the still water murmuring, “It seems important.”

“So you don’t want me to become a spy or anything.” Talon said. “Good. I don’t think I’d be a good spy. I’m not even a good soldier.”

“But you’re a brilliant speaker.” Avalanche said.

“True.” Talon puffed out his chest. “And anyway, if I was caught spying Scarlet would claw me up and then my face wouldn’t be pretty anymore.”

Avalanche laughed. “One dragon has his priorities straight.”

“And now that you’ve found him?” Summit asked.

Avalanche blinked in surprise. The idea that the other SkyWing mightn’t have a clue what they were doing hadn’t occurred to her. Cuttlefish continued staring at the pool of water.

“Cuttlefish?” Nautilus prompted.

“I’m not a NightWing, I can’t foresee the future.” Cuttlefish said, tone somewhere between regretful and agitated. She looked up at Nautilus and said, tone lighter. “Sorry. But would I be a good Council of Spies and Secrets if I let every dragon in Pyrrhia know of my plans?”

“I suppose not.” Nautilus said, narrowing his eyes at Cuttlefish.

Talon yawned, resting his head against Avalanche’s side. “Sorry. I haven’t slept much for a few days.”

Cuttlefish’s gaze turned to the small SkyWing. “Get some sleep. You can figure yourself out in the morning.”

Talon yawned again and nodded. He squirmed out from Avalanche’s wing and wandered across the cavern till he found a suitable patch on the rock floor, then curled up in a ball, tucking his tail under his nose.

Avalanche glanced between the SeaWings, Summit and Talon.

“You sleep too.” Cuttlefish said. “If we meant you any harm, we would have had plenty of time to kill you here and now.”

That was true, Avalanche figured. She made her way to near where Talon was curled and flopped down between two stalagmites. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the SeaWings shuffling about and Summit’s orange scales reflected in the pool as he leaned over the salt water.

Deciding there was no danger, Avalanche allowed her eyes to close and she finally welcomed sleep.

Chapter Text

“Talon.”

Claws were pressing his side, poking uncomfortably into his wings.

Talon, wake up.”

The claws made a small stab and Talon groaned, blinking his eyes open.

“Avalanche?” He mumbled.

“She’s here too. Wake up please.”

Talon yawned and got to his feet, shaking out his wings and nearly knocking the green SeaWing beside him over. Nautilus shot him an irritated look then said, “They’re gone.”

“What? Who?” Talon asked, still half asleep. He glanced around the cave and saw Avalanche sleeping between two stalagmites.

“Cuttlefish, Bay and Summit.” Nautilus said, forehead scrunching in worry.

“So? Maybe they had important spy stuff to do.” Talon suggested.

“But- but I- how am I meant to get home? This is your territory, not mine, I-”

“Hey, it’s not mine either anymore.” Talon said. “I’m exiled, remember? Apparently not wanting to kill dragons is a crime worthy of death. Ironic, huh?”

Nautilus’ expression fell further. “You’re right, I’m sorry, that was insensitive, I’m just worried. My home is so far away, my sister, my tribe, I don’t know. I’m just worried.”

“Hey, calm down.” Talon said. “I’m pretty sure we’re near the ocean. You can just swim south and find your SeaWing palace easy-peasy.”

Nautilus made a worried sound.

“Well, I’m going to wake Avalanche.” Talon decided. “She’ll be annoyed if she misses out on anything important.”

Talon walked over to Avalanche. Her tail was curled around one of the stalagmites. She looked happy in sleep. Talon felt sort of sorry that he had to wake her up.

“Avalanche.” He said, crouching by her side.

Her eyes shot open and she lept to her feet, wings raised and posture tense. Then she saw Talon and relaxed. “What’s going on?”

“Our spy friends are all gone.” Talon flicked his tail to the other side of the cave.

“Nautilus is still here.” Avalanche noted.

The green SeaWing regarded the two SkyWings. “Good morning. Or, well, I don’t know if it’s morning, but-”

“Why don’t we find out?” Talon asked. He was excited to see where they were in daylight. He’d never been far from the palace and this place was all the way at the ocean. The ocean! At last! And he was here with Avalanche!

That midnight flight that had seemed like it was ages ago surfaced in his mind, when he had told Avalanche he’d fly to the ocean and she had told him she’d follow him there. Fate had a funny way of working out.

Avalanche was gazing at Talon fondly as if she was also remembering that same night.

“Now?” Nautilus asked worriedly.

“Duh!” Talon said. “When else?”

Before waiting for an answer, he dashed to the salt water pool and lept in. It was as cold and uninviting as before, but he still splashed across to the far side of the cave, diving down and feeling out the small passage that led to the outside world.

After what felt like eternity, Talon thought his lungs would burst if he was underwater any longer, his surfaced. Above him, outside the small hole, was a patch of brilliant blue sky. Talon clawed his way up the rocks, unable to properly spread his wings.

He emerged on a long stretch of rock that curled in like a dragon’s claw. The stone underfoot was warm, the sun was high in the clear blue sky. There was a continued roaring in his ear. And there was the ocean, pounding against the rocks, a beautiful royal blue, spray dancing through the air, a massive, endless blue as far as the eye could see.

With the scape of claws, Avalanche heaved herself up beside Talon and gazed out at the water as well.

“It’s amazing.” Talon breathed.

“Everything you thought it would be?” Avalanche asked, nudging him gently.

“Let’s find out!” Talon lept into the air, spiralling upwards. Avalanche was close behind him. The two SkyWings shot through the sky, straight out to sea, diving and twirling and laughing. It was endless. There were no mountains, no trees, nothing but the blue above and below.

The air smelt fresher, free of the smoky sent that seemed to be imbedded in every stone of Scarlet’s palace. Salt water sprayed up, splashing the underside of Talon’s wings with sparkling silver droplets. He reached down and trailed a claw through the water. Then a dragon shoved into him and he crashed down into the water, closely followed by Avalanche, who was laughing even as a wave crashed over their heads.

Talon emerged, spluttering and disorientated.

“Spread your wings.” Avalanche’s voice advised. “And paddle, stay afloat.”

Talon did so, catching water under his wings and bobbing along with the waves. Talon blinked the water out of his eyes. Beside him, Avalanche was floating as well.

“What do you think?” Avalanche asked, amber eyes gleaming as if, when she looked at him, she saw a giant pile of treasure.

“It’s incredible.” Talon said breathlessly. “Avalanche, this is amazing!”

“Well, I can’t claim I brought you here, but-”

“It’s because of you that we ended up here.” Talon said breathlessly. “Without you, I’d never have had the courage to leave.”

The red SkyWing beamed at him. “I told you I’d follow you to the ends of Pyrrhia.”

That light as air feeling was creeping along Talon’s bones again. He wished  he could exist in this moment forever, wings spread beside Avalanche, just them and the sky and the ocean and nothing but yet everything.

Because the way Avalanche was looking at him was everything.

And the way Talon felt was everything.

“I think I meant it the first time.” Talon said, watching Avalanche’s eyes light up. “And I know I mean it now. Avalanche, I love you.”

Chapter Text

Nautilus watched the two SkyWings floating on the ocean’s surface with dull disinterest. Most of his attention was on his thoughts. Thoughts such as, Where am I? And, How do I get back? And most pressingly, Why did Cuttlefish leave me with two strange SkyWings and no way home?

Although it definitely seemed like the type of thing Cuttlefish would do. Nautilus sighed. He hoped that no one back in the Sea Kingdom was too worried about him. But he also hoped they were all insanely worried and were sending out search parties to find him. But if they did, what would they do to Talon and Avalanche? The two SkyWings didn’t deserve whatever injustice the SeaWings would force upon them just because they were on different sides of the war.

Had been on different sides of the war, Nautilus realised. Talon had been exiled. He was on no side of the war.

Nautilus shook his head. He should just leave, fly south along the coast until he found somewhere he recognised, then go home. It would take a day or so, but he’d get home, he’d get to see Nix again. He’d get to go back to being a publisher in the safety of the Summer Palace, never seeing or wondering about what was beyond the ocean’s metaphorical walls.

He looked at the two SkyWings splashing in the water again, bobbing with the waves. It was clear they had next to no experience properly swimming, but it didn’t seem to stop them from trying. Nautilus could hear their laughter bouncing across the water.

It made him think. If he had been a SkyWing, he would probably have stayed loyal to Queen Scarlet, no matter what. And he would never have seen the ocean. No wonder Talon and Avalanche seemed so ecstatic now. But . . . what was Nautilus missing out on? What would he never see if he never left the Sea Kingdom? Pyrrhia was so massive, what was there out there that would amaze and excite him in the way that the ocean amazed and excited Talon and Avalanche?

Was this how Cuttlefish saw mainland Pyrrhia? Not as something to be feared, but as something to be explored? How thrilling it must be to be the Councillor of Spies and Secrets, to travel all over Pyrrhia and see things that Nautilus could never dream of seeing and meet dragons from all different walks of life.

Nautilus shook his head again. He was being ridiculous. There was nowhere better than the Sea Kingdom. Everything Nautilus knew and loved was there. His family, his job, his queen. The palace was safe, familiar, comforting.

But Talon and Avalanche hadn’t felt that way about their kingdom. Although that surely was because they had an evil queen who wanted to kill them.

Nautilus stood, shaking out his wings. He knew of one way to clear his thoughts and keep his mind serene and calm. The green SeaWing leapt forwards, diving down into the blue water beneath and sinking below the surface. Bubbles cascaded around him as he swam deeper and further from the rocks behind him. He felt the familiar tug of currents on his wings and the feel of salt water on his scales and pricking his eyes. For a brief moment he let his thoughts wonder back to Cuttlefish and Bay and Summit. He guessed Summit would need to return to the Sky Kingdom, but where had Cuttlefish and Bay gone and why had they left him? Did something happen? Did Cuttlefish just decide she hated him for some reason? Was this all an elaborate prank that every SeaWing and SkyWing was in on?

Getting no answers, Nautilus let himself float to the surface. When he was above surface level, floating much more elegantly than either Talon or Avalanche, he glanced around for the two SkyWings. They were still splashing about in the water.

Talon caught his eye and waved a wing, beckoning Nautilus over. Then the small orange dragon fell sideways as a wave crashed over his head. Nautilus snorted, flicking his tail in amusement as Talon struggled to regain his balance. The SeaWing paddled over cautiously. He wasn’t entirely sure if he was interrupting.

“You live in this?” Talon asked breathlessly as Nautilus stopped by the SkyWings.

“Well, our palace is further south, it’s much more beautiful there. There are islands and beaches and whatnot.” Nautilus said.

“Wow.” Talon murmured.

“Is the water warmer?” Avalanche inquired. “Because even here it’s warmer than where I grew up.”

“Avalanche grew up in Wingtip Forest Province.” Talon added helpfully.

Nautilus had no clue where that was, but he nodded nonetheless. “Yes. It’s warmer.”

“Wow.” Talon breathed. “That’s awesome.”

Avalanche made an agreeing sound.

“What’s life like in the Sea Kingdom?” Talon asked, eyes wide.

Nautilus sighed. “Well, I spend most of my time in the Summer Palace-”

“There’s more than one palace?” Avalanche asked, eyes narrowed.

Nautilus debated how much he should tell the two. But then, they didn’t have anyone else to tell. “Two palaces. One above water, one below. The Summer Palace is above water. I spend a lot of time writing and editing scrolls. That’s what I’m in charge of – publishing.”

“What does your sister do?” Talon asked.

Nautilus was surprised that Talon remembered the one small remark that Nautilus had made the previous night. “Nix, my sister, she’s a hunter.”

“That’s quite a difference in jobs.” Avalanche said. “Would I be correct in guessing it’s similar to how SkyWing society works, where one is usually placed in their jobs at a young age based on their build. Those with big wings and large claws do the fighting, those with better eyesight do the hunting?”

“No.” Nautilus frowned. “Usually it’s about how high-up you’re born. If you’re born higher up in the ranking of class, you work with the queen more directly. Like a councillor.”

“But Nix isn’t a councillor?” Talon asked.

Nautilus sighed. “No.”

“Why?”

“She had an affair with a low ranked dragon.” Nautilus said. “The dragon was killed and Nix was demoted.”

Usually the story was met with shocked silence, on the off chance that it hadn’t been heard before, second-hand from a dragon who had never spoken to Nautilus or Nix at all. But Talon and Avalanche just nodded sympathetically, as if it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence at all. What horrors had they faced in the Kingdom of the Sky to make them think like that?

An uncomfortable silence spread across the trio.

Eager to break it, Nautilus blurted, “I’m going to catch some fish for breakfast.”

He dove underwater before the SkyWings could react.

Chapter Text

After the green shape of Nautilus’ scales had disappeared from Avalanche’s sight, she turned back to Talon. “That was gloomy.”

“Well, maybe he and his sister were close.” Talon mused.

“True.” Avalanche agreed.

“I think I’d like to go to the Bay of a Thousand Scales. I mean, when we leave here.” Talon said. “Can we go there? Please Avalanche?”

“Talon, I, uh.” Avalanche took a deep breath. “Technically, I’m not exiled.”

Talon’s breath caught in his throat. "What do you mean? You . . ."

“I left. I, I do want to go. I want to go with you. And I want to go to the Sea Kingdom and I want to explore Pyrrhia by your side. But, um, I want to say goodbye first.” Avalanche said.

“Say . . . goodbye. Like, to our section?” Talon asked.

“Yes.” Avalanche said.

“But, but what if-”

“I’ll be okay.” Avalanche said. She would just say goodbye then leave. She’d thank Overcast and wish Woodnote luck and accept Kestrel’s apology and maybe if she was lucky, she could claw Cinder in the face. She didn’t love her life in the palace, but she couldn’t just leave it. She owed a goodbye to the place that had been her home for the past two years.

“That makes it sound like you’ve already decided to go.” Talon said.

“I have.” Avalanche said, trying to sound more confident than she felt.

“When?” Talon asked.

“Just then.” Avalanche said.

“Why?”

“I told you.” Avalanche smiled. “I want to say goodbye.”

Talon looked conflicted, but then his expression caved. “When will you go?”

“After breakfast. I’ll arrive by sundown if I pace myself.” Avalanche mused. “I’ll say goodnight and I’ll meet you back here by morning. It’ll be fine.”

“What if you’re caught?”

“What if? I’m not an outcast so I won't be punished. Technically I can't even be caught.” Avalanche said.

Talon’s wings were shaking slightly.

“I’m not leaving you, I’m never leaving you again.” Avalanche said. “I just need to say goodbye. Wouldn’t you if you had the chance?”

“The only dragon to say goodbye to is you.” Talon said. “And you’re here.”

“One night, you won’t even notice I was gone.” Avalanche said, more to reassure herself than Talon. “I left without any form of clarity. I have dragons I want to say goodbye to.”

Nautilus’ head suddenly popped up, a fish clasped in his claws. He took in her and Talon’s serious expressions. “Sorry, bad timing?”

“It’s fine.” Avalanche said.

“Fine.” Talon echoed.

“I, um, caught a fish we can eat. I’ll be up on the peninsula if you’re hungry.” Nautilus turned tail and made a small dive, then arrowed up into the air with a small spray of water, flying towards the peninsula with stiff wingbeats. Talon turned to look at her. The wide, awestruck look in his eyes was gone, replaced by nervousness and caring.

He said, “I understand, I guess, why you want to go. But I . . . I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I won’t go now.” Avalanche said. “We’ll eat first, make our final decisions on a full stomach.”

Talon nodded, even though the decision had already been made. After a bit of helpless splashing, the two SkyWings managed to take off from the water and soar back to Nautilus. The SeaWing had been watching them approach, and he shuffled back as they landed, giving them access to the large, half-eaten fish lying at his feet. He looked like he was trying not to laugh.

Avalanche frowned at him. “What?”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He said quickly. “But you two just . . . aren’t good at swimming, or, um, taking off from the water.”

Avalanche rolled her eyes, but Talon just laughed. Avalanche thought it sounded a little forced.

“So, um, more fish.” The orange SkyWing said, looking unenthusiastic. He nudged his way under Avalanche’s wing and she wrapped it around him instinctively.

“Is fish really that bad?” Avalanche asked. “From what I remember, it wasn’t.”

“It’s just . . . slimy and weird.” Talon wrinkled his nose.

Avalanche laughed. “Mind if I take a bite, Nautilus?”

“I caught it to be eaten.” Nautilus shrugged.

Avalanche leaned forwards and took a mouthful of fish. It was sort of slimy and definitely not as nice as a mountain goat or bird, but it wasn’t horrible.

“Verdict?”

“Not that bad.” Avalanche said.

“Finally, someone has a proper idea of what food is supposed to taste like.” Nautilus laughed lightly.

“Nautilus.” Avalanche said. “Are you going to leave? And go back to the Sea Kingdom?”

“Well, yes, I live there.” Nautilus said. “I have to go back.”

“When are you planning on leaving?” Avalanche asked.

Nautilus hesitated. “I, um, why?”

“Would it be an inconvenience if you waited one more day?” Avalanche said. “Then left?”

“Why?”

“I want to say goodbye to my friends in the Sky Palace.” Avalanche said. “If I leave now, I can make it back by sunrise tomorrow. But Talon can’t come with because he’s exiled.”

“So Avalanche wants to know if you’ll stay with me for one more day.” Talon said, tone dull. “And then if you’ll fly with us down to the Sea Kingdom. We’ve decided that we want to go there. I mean, we’re technically not exiled from the Kingdom of the Sea. Officially. So. Yeah.”

Nautilus was quiet, eyes on his claws. Finally he said, “I suppose I could wait one more day.”

Avalanche grinned. “Thank you.”

Talon looked a little less unenthusiastic. He turned his amber eyes onto Avalanche. “That means you want to leave now?”

"Oh, I see, you have a replacement for me and you're not upset anymore." Avalanche teased. “I’ll be back before you know it, Talon.”

"That's not true!" Talon pushed himself out from under her wing, tail flicking anxiously. “Listen, be safe.”

“I will be.” She promised.

Avalanche stepped forwards and wrapped her wings around Talon. He returned the embrace, head resting against her shoulder. Then she stepped away from him and turned. “Goodbye Talon.”

“Bye Avalanche.” Talon said.

“It’s not a final goodbye. You left for a day and I was fine.” Avalanche glanced over her shoulder at Talon, who grinned. Then she spread her wings and lept into the air.

Chapter Text

Talon watched Avalanche until the red glint of her scales disappeared into the blue sky.

“So, um, what do you want to do today?” Nautilus asked.

“I don’t know.” Talon said, still staring at the sky. “If I was alone at the SkyWing Palace, I’d probably visit the library. But, well . . .”

“Library?” Nautilus’ voice held interest.

“We had a really big library. But barely any dragons ever visited it. No one has a habit of reading in the Palace, unless they’re some stuck-up IceWing with more time than they know what to do with.” Talon said.

Talon glanced at Nautilus, who raised an eye questioningly. “What does that make you?”

Talon laughed. “Do you have a library?”

“The Summer Palace has . . . well, I doubt it is similar to the SkyWing library, but we have a . . . room full of scrolls and ink and I suppose it doubles as a library.” Nautilus said. “All dragons in the SeaWing Kingdom read.”

Talon made a small humming noise.

“I’m sorry if this is insensitive.” Nautilus said slowly. “But how does your family feel about, um, you being exiled?”

Talon ran his claws over a groove in the rock. “Well, both my parents are dead and I don’t know about any siblings I may or may not have. My only ‘family’ was my section, and other than Avalanche, none of them really cared about me.”

“I’m sorry.” Nautilus said.

“Don’t be. I’m not trying to claim I have some kind of sob-story.” Talon shrugged. “I’m not sad about it at all.”

“Oh. That’s good.” Nautilus said.

“So, since you asked, then I assume I can too.” Talon said, turning to look at Nautilus. “What about your family? I know you have a sister, but . . .”

Nautilus looked almost anxious. Talon debated telling Nautilus to forget it, that it wasn’t important if it was going to upset the SeaWing so much, then the green dragon said, “Yes. Nix is my sister. My only other living family member is my mother. But Nix and I aren’t very close to her.”

“Oh. Are most SeaWing families close?” Talon asked.

“Yes.” Nautilus said.

“I’m sorry.” Talon said. He supposed it would be like losing section-members.

“But Avalanche seemed closer to her family.” Nautilus said suddenly.

“Oh, yes.” Talon nodded. “Avalanche grew up in the Wingtip Forest Province, north of here. Outside the palace, dragons live with their families. Her parents both died when she was five and, with Queen Oasis’ death, she was moved to the palace to become a soldier.”

Nautilus nodded.

Mentioning the dead SandWing queen had reminded Talon of the three princesses and the war. And how Nautilus and Talon would be enemies if Talon were still part of the tribe.

“Why Blister?” Talon asked. “Why do you support her?”

Nautilus looked at him with surprise. “Um . . .”

“It’s just, I think if there was a right choice, wouldn’t more dragons know? There wouldn’t be such an even split between tribes. Why is your tribe thinking about aligning itself with Blister?” Talon said.

Nautilus gazed at the ocean. “I can’t speak for my queen.”

“Surely you must have an opinion.” Talon said. “Everyone has an opinion. And who am I gonna tell anyway?”

Nautilus sighed. “Okay. Well, if I’m being honest, I’ve been wondering why the SeaWings are allied with Blister. Ever since she visited, which, granted has only been a couple of days, I’ve been wondering about it. It’s just . . . she’s so cold. When she spoke, she didn’t seem like she was a real dragon. She was cold and removed and . . . it was eerie.”

Talon took in that information, watching Nautilus. The SeaWing was shifting uncomfortably, not meeting Talon’s eyes. It was clear he was nervous about voicing his opinion.

“Hmm.” Talon said.

“But there are a lot of reasons to ally with her.” Nautilus said quickly.

“I’m not saying there aren’t, Nautilus.” Talon said. “But you don’t need to be scared of telling me you don’t think she should be the next queen of the SandWings.”

Nautilus offered a weak smile. “Thanks.”

Talon glanced back towards where he knew the palace to be, nervousness about Avalanche bubbling through him.

“Well, let’s forget about serious stuff right now.” Nautilus stood up, stretching. “I think it wouldn’t be a good idea to let you mope about and sulk all day, so let’s find something else distracting to do. Preferably something exhausting so you’ll sleep well and Avalanche will be back before you know it.”

The thought behind Nautilus’ offer made Talon smile.

“Alright.” He said, standing and flexing his wings. “What do you suggest?”

Nautilus hesitated, glancing at Talon uncertainly. Then he smiled nervously. “No offense, but your swimming abilities are beyond appalling.”

Talon laughed. “You aren’t wrong.”

“So how do you feel about learning to swim?” Nautilus asked.

Talon felt excitement course through his bones as the prospect. “Yes please!”

Chapter Text

Teaching Talon to swim, it turned out, was comparable to teaching one year old dragonets. The two had found a place where the cliffs gave way to a pebbly beach and Nautilus had begun to try and teach Talon to swim.

The orange dragon had told him that he’d only seen the ocean for the first time a week ago at the battle with the IceWings, where he’d plunged into the icy water trying to save an unknown IceWing’s life. When Talon recounted the experience, he’d looked so sad, so genuinely regretful, that Nautilus had felt sorrow for the IceWing he’d never met. But that still, icy-covered water was vastly different to the roaring ocean here.

Nautilus was perched on a tall rock that stuck out of the waves, watching Talon standing on the beach, amber eyes narrowed against the spray.

“Try again.” Nautilus said.

Talon sighed, claws curling on the pebbles under him.

“C’mon Talon. You . . . almost got it last time.” Nautilus encouraged.

“I almost drowned last time.” Talon protested.

“Last time, I promise.” Nautilus said. “We can move onto something else after this.”

It was late afternoon, Nautilus could see the sun barely just peeking over the cliffs that surrounded their little beach.

Talon sighed, shaking his wings and sending droplets of water raining down on the beach. “I don’t think I can do this.”

“I’ll show you one more time.” Nautilus said. “Then you can stop stalling and try not to look like a half-dead fish flopping through the water.”

Nautilus launched himself off the rock and swept down to the beach where Talon stood. He glanced at the smaller dragon. “I’ll go through it again. When the wave is about to break - wait, do you know what a breaking wave is?”

“Yes.” Talon nodded.

“Okay, just before it breaks, you dive down, under the wave.” Nautilus said. “Wings and legs tucked in close, head pointed forwards, stay low to the bottom of the water. You can feel the wave passing over you, then surface so you can breathe.”

Talon sighed, but nodded.

“I’ll show you again.” Nautilus said.

“I don’t think my wings tuck in well enough.” Talon said.

“Here, watch.” Nautilus ignored Talon’s ongoing complaints.

He waded into the water, to where the larger waves broke, every third of forth wave towering above Nautilus’ height. As the said wave approached, he glanced back to see if Talon was watching, then tucked in his wings and arrowed himself into the wave. He felt it break above him, tugging at his wings and tail, then the wave passed him by and he surfaced, turning back to Talon. “See?”

Talon rolled his eyes and yelled, “Show off.”

Nautilus glanced at the new wave forming behind him. Instead of diving under it, he spread his wings and let it take him into the shallows, where he waded back to Talon’s side. The orange dragon made an irritable hissing sound.

“Go on.” Nautilus said, shoving Talon with one wing.

Talon walked uncertainly into the water, wincing as cold ocean lapped at his underbelly. Nautilus watched as he reached the place where the waves broke and dove, one wing poking out a little too much. He was diving too early, Nautilus realised, as Talon tumbled forwards with the wave in a mess of claws and scales and wings. Finally, the SkyWing surfaced, spluttering and coughing indignantly.

Nautilus waded out to him. “You dove too early.”

“Shut up.” Talon coughed, retching in an attempt to rid his throat of the sea water he’d undoubtedly swallowed. “Can we have a break?”

“Fine.” Nautilus said. He led the way back to shore and the two dragons found perches on large boulders.

Talon shook his wings again, spraying Nautilus with water. “Why this? Diving is horrible.”

“You asked.” Nautilus said.

“I asked if you could teach me to swim. Like what we did earlier, paddling, floating, useful stuff.” Talon said.

Nautilus had managed to teach Talon to paddle, float and land in and take off from the water with varying levels of success. But diving under waves was most certainly what he proved to be worst at.

“Diving is useful.” Nautilus said. “All dragonets learn to dive under waves. Much easier to get out to sea when you can dive under waves rather than jump over them. Useful when it’s stormy, too, if you need to surface for some reason. And it’s just . . . fun.”

“How?” Talon looked almost outraged at the idea. “How in Pyrrhia is drowning yourself fun?”

“Well I’m sure you think flying is fun.” Nautilus said. “But for SeaWings, it’s only ever used as a way to get somewhere when you can’t swim.”

“Flying is fun.” Talon said. “All tribes agree on that. SeaWings are just weird.”

Nautilus laughed. “Have you looked at your reflection lately? I think SkyWings are the weird dragons here.”

“But Nautilus, it’s not fair. You get to spend all day laughing at me as I drown and you show off you fantastic swimming skills. And I don’t get anything out of it.” Talon complained, a small cloud of smoke steaming out his mouth and into the air. Nautilus’ snout wrinkled at the unfamiliar, unpleasant smell.

“Well, you learn to swim better.” Nautilus pointed out. “Don’t be such a dragonet.”

Talon made a pretend-frustrated huffing noise, more smoke pouring out his nose. “I am a dragonet.”

Nautilus sighed. “How about, since you embarrassed yourself with your pathetic swimming, you can try and teach me to fly and watch me fail to do anything at all spectacular?”

Talon brightened at that idea. “All right! Sounds like a deal.”

“Then we can go back to the hideout and sleep.” Nautilus said. “I don’t know about you, but I know my wings will be sore tomorrow. I can practically feel them aching already.”

The small, orange SkyWing nodded eagerly and lept off the rock and spiralled upwards into the cloud-speckled sky above.

Chapter Text

It was evening when Avalanche arrived. The patrols surrounding the palace in search for Talon were still fluttering around the walls with tired eyes, although there were a lot less of them than last night.

A pair of SkyWings swooped up to Avalanche as she approached.

The first, a dull orange dragon, said, “You haven’t seen the escaped prisoners, have you?”

“Or are you on their side?” The second growled.

“Glide.” The first guard hissed. “Be polite. She's probably just coming back from an external patrol, the queen sent one out earlier today so it only makes sense-”

“Alright, alright.” The second dragon flicked his dark red tail. “No need to be a NightWing know-it-all.”

“I do live in the castle.” Avalanche said, eager to stop the two dragons bickering. “But I haven’t seen Talon, not since the arena fight.”

“What were you doing outside the palace?” The second guard, Glide, hissed.

“I was taking a message for Queen Scarlet.” Avalanche said, puffing out her chest.

“What message?” Glide demanded.

“By the look of your armour – or lack thereof – you aren’t of a high enough rank to have access to that knowledge.” Avalanche said, raising an eyebrow.

“Glide, that’s true. If we want our job at the arena back, we need to obey the queen.” The second dragon said.

“The queen said don’t let any unauthorised dragons in.” Glide argued back.

“She is authorised.” Another dragon swept up beside the two, orange scales glimmering in the dusk light. “I overheard Queen Scarlet mention her return at dusk.”

Avalanche blinked in surprise, then she recognised the dragon she was talking to. “Summit!”

“Hey there Avery.” Summit greeted. Avalanche’s frowned at the false name, but she figured that it was part of being a spy. Or, well, trying not to be killed by a Queen who loved to do just that.

“Hm.” The orange guard seemed happy enough with this validation. “Good enough for me, Summit, you want to take her to Scarlet?”

Glide growled in frustration. “Fine, but if this goes wrong, I’m blaming you Cloudburst.”

Summit flashed Avalanche a smile and swept around the three dragons. “C’mon Avery, follow me.”

Avalanche made a helpless face at Glide and Cloudburst, then followed Summit, sighing in relief.

“You’re a fast flier.” Summit said as they glided in a loop vaguely towards the throne room.

“When did you get back?” She ignored the comment.

“Ah, about midday.” Summit said. “I left just before dawn, but I’m used to flying long distances.”

“Cuttlefish and Bay?”

“Already gone when I woke up.” Summit shrugged.

“Common occurrence?” Avalanche asked.

“Yeah.” Summit said. “Anyway, keep your voice down. We’re in the palace, remember? Now where am I escorting you to, Avery, messenger of the SkyWings?”

Avalanche sighed and rolled her eyes. “I can get there myself. I wanted to get back to my section, to say goodbye.”

“Hmm. We can do that.” Summit said. “Let’s see, dinner now, so if we want to get in undetected, now’s the time. I’ll help you escape if need be – swing by the outside of the throne room, I’ll be there.”

“Why aren’t you there now?”

“Oh, some rubbish about being late to my guard shift and there was already a dragon on my shift who should have been out searching. No one really believes we’ll catch the traitors who escapes.” Summit said easily, diving down through a tall window and into the palace. Avalanche followed.

“So how will you be by the throne room?” Avalanche asked.

“Just trust me, Avery.” Summit said, leading her down a long corridor that, judging by the view out the various tall windows, wound its way around the castle towards the Training Hall. The older SkyWing stopped when they reached a fork in the road.

“That way leads to-”

“The dorms, I know. I recognise the view out the windows.” Avalanche flicked her tail towards said windows.

“Yeah, well, swing by the throne room if you need a quick escape.” Summit shrugged.

“Doubt it.” Avalanche muttered, turning down the smaller corridor.

“Bye.” Summit called. “Good luck!”

Avalanche lifted a wing in goodbye, although she didn’t turn back to look at him. She hurried down the tunnel, the familiar smell of smoke filling her nose again. She hurried forwards, hoping not to be caught and questioned. The tunnel took a sharp turn and entrances to dormitories lined the stone, glowing torchlight spilling into the tunnel.

But it was devoid of the echoing noise of hundreds of dragons. With hundreds of days of practise, Avalanche found her section’s dormitory and slid inside. There was no one there, they were all still eating. Avalanche wandered over to her sleeping ledge, she’d been there less than a day ago, but it felt foreign and cold. Across the cavern, Talon’s old sleeping ledge had a soft fur blanket draped across it. The scrolls that he’d had scattered about had vanished, replaced by odd bits of treasure. Avalanche shook her head in disgust at the thought of Cinder.

Then she sat down to wait, curling her tail over her claws.

She hadn’t waited long when she heard the echoes of voices and claws tapping on stone as dragons began to trickle into their dormitories. She saw red and orange scales pass by the entrance of the tunnel, barely giving her a second glance. Then a couple of dragons entered, smaller and stockier than most dragons in the palace, one a brilliant pinkish red and the other a muted orange. As one, their faces turned to surprise, then one to joy and one to dread.

“Avalanche!” Woodnote squealed, bouncing on her feet. She rushed to Avalanche’s side. “Where were you? We thought something horrible had happened! I’m so glad you’re safe!”

“No, no. I’m fine.” Avalanche gave a reassuring grin. “Why? What happened?”

“I told them you were gone. This is bad. This is really bad.” Overcast mumbled. “Cinder’s going to kill you.”

Chapter Text

If Talon was sub-par when it came to swimming, Nautilus was equally lacking when it came to flight. The SeaWing could fly fine, but he just seemed to lack the sort of elegance that Talon had taken for granted as part of flying. Eventually, as the sun sank below the horizon, the two dragons called it a night and circled back to the peninsula. As they had been flying, Talon had caught three seagulls for dinner. He dropped the dead birds on the rock.

Nautilus was giving the seagulls a hungry look. Talon smiled brightly. “Would you like to try eating the SkyWing way?”

Nautilus gave Talon a nervous stare. "The SkyWing way?"

“Come on, you aren’t afraid of fire are you?” Talon urged.

“Um . . .” Nautilus mumbled.

Talon laughed in surprise. He’d never met a dragon afraid of fire before. Then again, he'd never met a dragon who couldn't breathe fire before. “Alright, step back.”

Nautilus backed up quickly, tripping over his claws and Talon breathed a plume of fire onto the birds. Warmth washed over Talon’s scales and the flickering light showed the nervousness in Nautilus’ worried expression and wrinkled forehead. Then the fire was gone and the darkness pressed in on them again. Talon was tempted to ask if the SeaWing would object to a fire, but a fire at night time wasn’t really a good idea, any SkyWings flying close by could see it, and see them.

“Want one?” Talon asked, gesturing to the now-scorched birds at his claws.

Nautilus was still eyeing him cautiously.

“It's not going to, y’know, spontaneously combust or anything.” Talon said, spreading his wings and fluttering them.

“Sorry, I just . . . can’t get used to the idea that you have fire.” Nautilus said. “It’s . . . so dangerous.”

“You’ve never seen fire before.” Talon stated.

Nautilus nodded. “Never up close. How do you control it?”

“You can just . . . feel it in you and it’s like . . . when you breathe, you aren’t aware of it, yeah?” Talon said.

“Yeah.”

“But when you’re underwater, you have to hold your breath. And you’re aware of it.” Talon continued.

Nautilus stared blankly.

“Okay, right, you're a SeaWing, bad example.” Talon mused. “Um, when you fly, you’re using your wings and you’re aware of it. I mean, I assume you are. I’m not. But-”

“Yes. I am.” Nautilus interrupted.

“Yeah. So, it’s like that.” Talon agreed. “You make the decision to breathe fire and you do it.”

Nautilus nodded.

“Want some birds now?” Talon asked.

“Sure.” Nautilus said. Talon pushed one towards the green dragon, watching him as he sniffed it cautiously.

“You want to cut it open, so that you don’t get a mouthful of feathers.” Talon advised. “It’s probably not cooked all that well, it’ll be all cold and raw in the centre, but just ask me if you want it properly cooked.”

Nautilus nodded, although Talon thought he didn’t look at all inclined to ask for more fire. Nautilus’ claws made a neat cut down the bird and he nibbled it cautiously.

“It’s warm.” He said. “And . . . weird. It’s a lot drier than I thought it’d be.”

“Yeah, well, it’s better than wet and slimy.” Talon said.

Nautilus shook his head in disbelief, rolling his eyes. Then he froze, eyes fixed on something over Talon’s head.

“Nautilus?” Talon asked, glancing up, but not seeing anything in the black on black sky.

“What in Pyrrhia . . .” Nautilus whispered.

“What is it?” Talon asked, still scanning the sky. He could see nothing but the darkness of the night, stretching away into the distance.

“This far north?” Nautilus whispered. “There aren’t any dragons here. Well, except for us.”

Talon gave up trying to find what Nautilus had seen. He poked to the SeaWing.

“What?” Nautilus hissed.

“What are you looking at?” Talon asked.

“Back in the Sea Kingdom.” Nautilus whispered, eyes still staring out beyond Talon, over the ocean somewhere. “There were SandWings who seemed to be . . . spying on us. Flying about trying to follow dragons to the location of the Summer Palace. And for some reason, I can see a SandWing flying about over the ocean up here. I don’t think they can see us, but . . .”

“That’s weird.” Talon said. “There’s nothing here in the Sky Kingdom either, everything interesting is at least half a day’s flight away.”

Nautilus hummed in agreement. “They . . . have something in their claws, I think it’s a stone or something . . . They dropped it into the water.”

Talon couldn’t see anything, couldn’t hear anything other than the crash of waves that was background noise really. He wished that he could see in the dark the way Nautilus could.

“They’re flying away.” Nautilus said. “The SandWing, they’re leaving.”

Talon hummed in surprise. Then a thought occurred to him. “We should see what the SandWing dropped!”

“What? Why?” Nautilus flared his wings in alarm.

“To see what it is and what the SandWing was doing so far north, duh.” Talon said. “There has to be a reason.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Come on, what’s the worst that could happen?” Talon saw Nautilus open his mouth to respond and said quickly. “Go have a look for it or I’ll set your wings on fire.”

Nautilus yelped. “Talon!”

Talon opened his mouth, letting the fire swell in his throat, along with a hissing, fire-is-coming sound.

“Okay, okay!” Nautilus shook his head. “This is bullying.”

“Go.” Talon urged.

Nautilus turned and walked hesitantly to the edge of the cliff. “I don’t know.”

“What are you so scared about?” Talon asked.

“The SandWing coming back?” Nautilus said. “Another dragon being there? Being killed or something?”

“Come on, if I can get out of the SkyWing palace without dying, you can go for a little swim.” Talon urged. “You’re a SeaWing.”

Maybe that’s the issue, Talon thought. From what he’d read, SeaWings were cautious, almost to the point of being cowardly at times. Nautilus sighed, then dove into the ocean, disappearing with a flash of green scales. Talon sat down to wait.

Chapter Text

Cold water met Nautilus scales, sending shivers through him as he sunk beneath the waves. He blinked, letting his eyes adjust to the new layers of darkness. He glanced up at the wavering image of the stars and moons above, far, far above the surface of the water.

He really didn’t want to do this. He didn’t see the appeal in the mystery. But . . . what if it was something, some knowledge, that could fall into the wrong dragon’s claws. If it was, and if Nautilus sat by and did nothing, then he supposed he’d feel guilty. Especially sitting there next to Talon, who had stood up to his queen, in front of thousands of dragons from his own tribe, because he believed it was wrong. Nautilus didn’t want Talon to think he was a coward.

Nautilus shook his head and sighed, watching the bubbles escape his mouth and float to the surface of the water. Enough stalling. He flicked his tail and shot off into the water. The current was against him. It wasn’t strong, but it was doing its best to sweep him north as he arrowed towards the place the SandWing had dropped whatever it had been holding.

Nautilus thought he had been underwater a while before he found the place where the SandWing had dropped their parcel. The water wasn’t deep, despite it being rather far out from the shore. Sand piled up in a vague island shape, slopes covered in sea grass. And on the long, curved top of the mound, a lump of dark brown stuck up over the waving mass of green.

Nautilus swam over and examined it cautiously. Upon inspection, it did seem to be a rock, with a large, round piece of wood tied to it with a rope. Odd. He reached out with one claw and cut the rope. The wood floated softly down towards to lay in the sea grass. He grabbed it. It was smooth and lighter than he'd expected. Nautilus thought he could feel something shifting inside it when he tilted it. Was it hollow, perhaps? The top looked almost as if it were made of a different piece of wood, it was hard to tell underwater, but the grain of the wood didn't match up. Maybe it was a lid and there was something inside.

Nautilus was tempted to try and prise it open then and there, before realising the ocean may damage whatever was inside. And what if some other SeaWing came along and found him? He turned quickly, clutching the wood to his chest, and swam away.

It took considerably less time to get back to Talon, who had been waiting eagerly on the edge of the peninsula, claws curled across the wet rocks atop the cliff, seemingly with no second thought to how easily he could slip and fall.

As Nautilus landed on the rocks behind him, the SkyWing lept up and scrambled to his side. “Did you find anything?”

Nautilus nodded, holding out the piece of hollow wood. “I’m not sure what it is. I think there might be something inside it.”

Talon took the tube from him, tilting it this way and that. Now that Nautilus wasn’t underwater, he could hear soft sliding noises and clinking metal as the wood tilted.

“Do you know how to open it?” Talon asked, bringing it to his eye level. “I can’t see it well enough in the dark.”

Nautilus took the tube back. “The top’s a lid. Maybe we can just try and force it open.”

He sat back and curled his claws between the different grains in the wood, cutting small grooves into it as he curled his claws and pulled harshly upwards. The lid popped out and hit the rocks at Nautilus’ feet with a soft thud.

“Well?” The orange dragon asked eagerly.

Nautilus tipped the rube upside down. A roll of yellowed scroll fell onto the damp rocks, along with a brown pouch on a drawstring that pulled it tight so that its contents couldn’t spill. Talon made to grab the paper, then glanced at Nautilus sheepishly. “I won’t be able to read it in this light.”

Nautilus took the scroll, opening it and peering at the six tiny letters scrawled across the expanse of paper with a blotchy, dark brown ink.

“What does it say?” Talon prompted.

“For your travels. Best of luck.” Nautilus said. “It’s Cuttlefish’s writing, I recognise it.”

Talon blinked, then grinned eagerly. “And the bag?”

Nautilus opened it, peering inside. “It’s full of gold coins. Stars, there must be nearly thirty in here!”

Talon’s eyes widened. “Thirty?”

“I think so.” Nautilus agreed.

“That’s so much.” Talon breathed.

“Take it.” Nautilus pulled the drawstring closed and tossed it to Talon, who caught it with fumbling claws.

“Really? Me? You’re just going to . . . give it away?” Talon asked, clutching the gold close to his chest.

“Sure.” Nautilus said. “It says it’s for your travels. You’ll need it more than me.”

“You . . . aren’t coming with us. Right.” Talon said. “I forgot.”

Nautilus felt his chest constrict. “I’ll fly south with you. But I have a life, a job, a family in the Kingdom of the Sea. I can’t just . . . throw it all away, you know?”

Talon nodded, not meeting Nautilus’ eyes. “Right. Of course.”

The orange dragon slipped the bag of coins over his head, letting it hang from his neck like a necklace. It thumped against his chest, jingling merrily.

Nautilus stood, stretching his wings. “It’s, um, been a long day. We should probably get some sleep.”

Talon nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I found a place while you were gone, there’s a little ditch near the edge of the forest, full of leaves. You may find it more comfortable than the rocks from last night, and I’d prefer not to have to swim any more than I have to.”

Nautilus nodded, offering Talon a smile. “Sure. Lead the way.”

Chapter Text

“Overcast, relax. I’m not back for long. I just wanted to say goodbye.” Avalanche comforted.

The dragonet shifted his weight from foot to foot. “I . . . should’ve waited before telling everyone.”

“You aren’t staying?” Woodnote’s face fell.

“No.” Avalanche said. “I’m running away, with Talon.”

“Shh!” Overcast hissed. “We’re still in the palace, for the queen’s sake, don’t go saying things like that now! Everyone else will be here any second.”

“Have I been replaced yet?” Avalanche asked curiously.

Woodnote shook her head.

“Not yet.” Overcast agreed.

Avalanche?” A new dragon stood in the doorway, jaw gaping open in surprise. “Overcast told us y’were leavin’. For good.”

“I am.” Avalanche said, meeting Vulture’s eyes. “I just came back to say goodbye.”

“To Kestrel?” Vulture asked.

“Yes.” Avalanche said.

“She’s . . . not in this section anymore.” Vulture said, shifting awkwardly.

“What?” Avalanche asked.

“She was promoted.” Overcast said. “For duties to the queen. We aren’t sure where she is.”

“Duties to the queen? For being a spy?” Avalanche asked incredulously.

Overcast shrugged.

“Where is she now?” Avalanche asked.

“She’s a Commander now, so she’s a level up from here.” Vulture flicked his wing towards the ceiling, towards where the sleeping caves for the commanders were.

“A Commander.” Avalanche echoed.

“Yeah. S’hilarious. She’s got a section of two year old dragonets.” Vulture said. "She yells at 'em all the time. She's constantly grumpy."

Avalanche shook her head, turning to pace the length of the room. She didn’t want to stay here. She wanted to go, to get out. She wanted to go back to Talon and the ocean and freedom and not worrying about stupid palace affairs.

Avalanche strode past Overcast and Woodnote and pushed past Vulture, who was still stood in the doorway, then came face to face with the unnaturally orange scales and stupid smug expression of Cinder.

“Well, look who decided to return.” Cinder sneered. Other soldiers stopped, glancing at them, a mass of red and orange wings and judgmental amber eyes like walls of fire trapping Avalanche in on all sides.

“What do you want, Cinder?” Avalanche demanded.

“I could ask the same of you.” Cinder replied, tilting his head sharply. “You’re the one who wasn’t going to return, weren’t you now?”

Avalanche hissed. “I don’t want any trouble. I’m leaving again anyway. So if you’d kindly move your pompous IceWing tail out of the way, I’ll leave your precious scales untouched.”

Cinder’s wings flared. “Excuse me?”

Avalanche tried to step around him, but he darted in front of her.

“What did you just say?” He demanded.

“I said move.” Avalanche said, puffing out her chest.

“Cinder, c’mon.” Vulture piped up from the doorway of their dorm. “You’re makin' a scene. No dragon wants to be the centre of gossip.”

“She’s going anyway, what’s the big deal?” Woodnote added, peeking out under Vulture’s wing.

Cinder snarled, but stepped back. “Fine.”

Avalanche shoved past him and pushed through the crowd of SkyWings, who had begun muttering and shifting, but parted when she walked by. Avalanche found herself instinctively heading towards the library, as if she would find Talon there with his nose in a scroll, or rambling about a new piece of evidence as to Hvitur’s whereabouts.

But he wasn’t. Avalanche entered the library, staring up at the single full moon visible through the skylight. There was always that method of escape, if she wasn’t in the mood to see Summit. It felt weird, the entire situation. Here she was, in a palace that she wasn’t officially exiled from, but she still felt like an outsider, more so than when she arrived two years ago. These dragons who had been her section mates where now . . . not.

She wasn’t one of them anymore. She shared the same scales, the same training, but she wasn’t one of them anymore. She didn’t belong. She didn’t want to belong with them. She wanted to belong with Talon, following him to the ends of Pyrrhia, not having to worry constantly about whether a queen would kill her for what she thought or said. She wanted freedom. The same freedom she felt with Talon.

“Avalanche?” A voice whispered.

Avalanche spun around. Kestrel was standing behind her, dark red scales glittering like gemstones in the moonlight. A bronze armband showed her new ranking as commander, CDR Kestrel engraved in the glinting metal.

“Kestrel.” Avalanche replied, as evenly as she could. She had almost spat the word ‘Commander’ at her friend – or . . . ex-friend? – but she didn’t think it’d be fair on Kestrel.

She did what she thought was right. Avalanche reminded herself.

“Where were you?” Kestrel accused. “I thought you’d . . . left. For good.”

“I’m going to.”  Avalanche said. “Talon and I, we’re leaving.”

“You have a home here.” Kestrel said.

“I want to go.” Avalanche said.

“You have a place.”

“You have to mindlessly obey Scarlet.” Avalanche said. “You aren’t free.”

“What about your section?” Kestrel said. “Your friends? What about us?”

Avalanche stared at her.

“Avalanche.” Kestrel said. “What about me? Why is it just . . . about Talon now?”

"It's not. It's about freedom, choice, the right thing to do."

"You're leaving me."

“You’ve chosen your path, I’ve chosen mine.” Avalanche said. “Think of it what you will, but you didn’t need to tell anyone about Talon. You didn’t need to get us exiled.”

“Us?” Kestrel flared her wings. “We don’t have to be enemies, we don’t have to be against each other.”

“You can’t change my mind, if that’s what you’re trying to do.” Avalanche stated.

“Avalanche-”

“I’m leaving now.” Avalanche said, spreading her wings. “Goodbye, Commander.”

Kestrel recoiled, but Avalanche didn’t waste time apologising. She shot up through the library and into the night sky beyond, wind whistling in her ears. It wasn’t the closure she’d been hoping to find when she returned, but maybe it was for the best. At least this way she’d have no second thoughts about wanting to return to the palace, to the safety of her section.

Avalanche turned north east and soared away, far above the guards, who seemed interested only in scanning the ground for a dragon who wasn’t there.

Chapter Text

Talon had woken up before dawn. His sleep had been restless at best. The ditch was soft and damp, nothing like the warm, dry rock he was used to sleeping on. And there was no Avalanche. With no distractions, his thoughts had circled back to her. Was she safe? Where was she? Was she on her way back?

When he’d first seen the sky lighten in the distance, he’d decided that there was no point even trying to sleep anymore and he’d just gotten up. He watched the day start from the edge of the trees. There were no clouds in the sky, and as a result dawn wasn’t so much a sunrise as it was the sky fading from dark blue to the shade of azure that signified the start of a new day.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Talon realised that if he didn’t want to, he’d never have to wake up before dawn again. There was no more of the oh-so-urgent battle training that usually stretched from dawn till midday every day without fail in the palace.

And now his thoughts were about Avalanche again. She had said she’d be back around dawn and he hoped she would be able to stay true to her word. Was this how she’d felt waiting for him while he and Arid had been stuck under the castle looking for a way to escape? Not knowing if he was even still alive? He wanted to apologise for all the worry he’d unknowingly put her through.

“You’re up early.”

Talon glanced over his shoulder to see Nautilus, half concealed by the trees, gazing at him with eyes still blurry from sleep.

Talon shrugged. “Normal time to wake up for a soldier in the SkyWing palace.”

Nautilus made a small humming noise of surprise. The SeaWing wandered to Talon’s side and stretched his wings, yawning. “We’re going home today?”

“Well, you’re going home.” Talon said. “Avalanche and I are going far away from ‘home’.”

Nautilus snorted in amusement. “Is she back yet?”

“Not yet.” Talon said, gazing at the peninsula that stretched ahead of them, devoid of life save for the struggling bushes and pale grass clinging to the rocks.

“She’ll be fine.” Nautilus said. Talon wished he could possess even half as much confidence as he heard in Nautilus’ voice.

“Yeah . . . I know.” Talon’s voice definitely showed how certain he was.

“Why don’t you go fly up and see if you can see her coming.” Nautilus said. “Catch some birds for breakfast or something.”

“You didn’t like the birds last night.” Talon pointed out.

“Well you don’t like fish.” Nautilus said, flicking his tail in what Talon thought might be amusement.

“Fine.” Talon shrugged. He spread his wings and sprung into the air, spiralling up into the cloudless sky above. Out to sea, seagulls floated on rolling blue waves. The sun glittered on the water, turning it silver. He spun around to face the forest, listening to the birdsong echoing up into the air. Talon could see the wings of birds flitting between the branches. And above them, gliding on long wingbeats, with scales that looked almost rosy in the early morning light, was Avalanche.

Talon let out a sound of joy and shot forwards. Avalanche’s eyes flickered up and saw him and she put on a burst of speed as well, the two nearly collided in mid-air, circling each other joyfully, bumping wings and letting out small laughs and exclamations of relief.

“You’re safe!” Talon said, swooping about Avalanche in a wide arch.

“I told you I would be.” She said, eyes tracking him, wings beating the air tiredly.

“You look exhausted.” Talon observed. Her tail was drooping and her amber eyes were bloodshot, eyelids drooping.

“I haven’t slept in twenty four hours.” She admitted.

Talon breathed out a cloud of worried smoke. “Go and land now, I’ll catch us some birds to eat.”

“Are you sure, I-”

“I’m sure.” Talon said. “You look like you could fall asleep mid-flight.”

Avalanche laughed.

“You know, SkyWings can fall asleep mid-flight.” Talon said. “On long flights could actually go into a half sleep state and they would still be able to fly. I think that they fly in the V-shape formation and the ones not in the lead just . . . fall asleep.”

“That’s awesome, Talon.” Avalanche yawned. “But I think I’d rather sleep on the ground.”

“Nautilus and I slept at the edge of the forest. There’s a ditch there full of leaves. No one would find you if you didn’t know where to look.”

“Thanks.” Avalanche said, smiling. She dipped her wings and ducked under Talon, heading towards the edge of the forest. Talon felt relief rush through his wings. He did a flip in the air, then realised he’d probably better get Avalanche something to eat. She hadn’t slept in twenty four hours and it might’ve been longer since she’d eaten.

He wheeled about and headed out of the ocean, eyeing the seagulls bobbing on the waves. Seeing a wave rise, then fall, then begin to rise again, he spotted his chance, diving down and snatching one of the birds as the wave reached its highest point. The nearby gulls squawked out of key and flocked to the air. Talon plucked a few more from the sky and then glided back to where Avalanche was now tucked into the ditch, visible only as a smear of red against the green and brown trees.

He landed neatly, then nearly tripped over a stray tree root as he stepped forwards. Avalanche’s head was resting on the side of the ditch and she opened one eye as Talon approached. He offered her a bird, which she gulped down gratefully, then closed her eyes again.

“G’night Talon.” She murmured, moving her head down into the ditch to rest on her claws.

“Sleep well, Avalanche.” Talon murmured, watching the rise and fall of the red dragon’s chest as her wings relaxed into sleep.

Chapter Text

They didn’t end up leaving until the afternoon. Nautilus spent the day pacing anxiously up and down the peninsula, wings raised for flight, eyes alert for any dragons that may happen upon their whereabouts. No one showed up.

Talon spent the morning circling through the air until Nautilus snapped at him to stop. He hadn’t meant to snap, but thoughts of dragons spotting the exiled SkyWing and then finding him and Avalanche and killing all three of them kept repeating themselves in his mind. So the SkyWing had spent the rest of the day either dozing on a tree branch by the ditch where Avalanche slept, or sitting in sullen silence, watching as Nautilus paced. But by the afternoon, Avalanche had woken up and had seen Nautilus’ restlessness and Talon’s boredom and had suggest they start flying and she could retell her story as they flew.

So they had. Nautilus took the lead, although he felt as though he were holding the SkyWings back, with their bigger wings they could surely take the lead, but they seemed to fit into place behind him, one on either side, gliding easily, only occasionally flapping their wings.

When they’d been flying for what Nautilus estimated to be an hour, and as his wings started to ache, Avalanche had swept up wordlessly to take the lead, Talon had shifted over to Avalanche’s left side and had called out for Nautilus to fly to Avalanche’s right. He did, and suddenly found the air parting seamlessly around him. He spread his wings and floated on the breeze. His surprise must’ve shown in his face, as Talon laughed and called, “You’ve never flown in a V-formation before?”

“No.” Nautilus called back.

Talon flapped his wings once, lazily. “Everyone does it at the Sky Kingdom. It’s . . . everything. It’s how to transport injured soldiers, how to fly long distances, it’s. So useful.”

“Huh.” Nautilus said. “It seems useful.”

“If you learn to flap your wings at the right time, it’ll be even easier.” Talon said. “Wait, wait, I’ll show you.”

The orange SkyWing was quiet for a few moments, then said, “Now.”

Nautilus flapped his wings and felt the air part around him as he glided on. “Woah.”

“Yeah.” Talon said, grinning. “It works much better with an entire section. We rotate through and we can fly for days at a time.”

“Have you? Or is that just theory?” Nautilus asked.

“Oh, we have.” Talon said. “We were exhausted, but we did it. It was part of the training course two years ago. We managed a day and a half before . . . uh, someone fell asleep.”

“Vulture.” Avalanche volunteered. “He fell asleep.”

“Right, him.” Talon nodded. “Older dragons can fly longer than we did.”

“And can sleep in flight, right Talon?” Avalanche twisted around to shoot the smaller SkyWing a teasing smile that he returned, rolling his eyes.

They flew on in silence for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, rotating every hour or so. He was flying faster than he thought possible, sweeping through the sky in formation. In the back of his mind he wondered if any other tribes used this V-shape formation to fly. He wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t, leave it to the SkyWings to figure out the most efficient ways to fly.

He wondered if Talon and Avalanche would mind him teaching this method of flight to the SeaWings. But even if they didn’t, the rest of the SkyWings probably would. And Nautilus would be questioned on how he learnt that flight method.

Maybe he’d leave the SkyWings their secret.

As the sun was setting, Nautilus caught sight of several small islands out to sea. The northern end of the Bay of a Thousand Scales. The water was a rosy pink, matching the red-stained sky above. The sun was sinking below the ocean’s waves, the last of its warmth reaching out to dance along the water and caress their wings. Nautilus’ wings were aching, but Talon and Avalanche didn’t seem inclined to stop.

“Not until we pass the Diamond Spray Delta.” Avalanche said, when Nautilus asked. “Then we know we’re out of SkyWing Territory.”

Nautilus wasn’t sure what the Diamond Spray Delta was, but he guessed it was along the border of the SkyWing and MudWing Kingdoms, if Talon and Avalanche were so insistent on flying south. The sun sank below the horizon, and the red sky faded to blue, darkening into night. Far ahead of them, Nautilus could see bright lights across the dark land.

“Dragon fire.” Talon said. “From MudWing camps. I read a scroll that said they light fires at night. We’re getting closer to the end of the Sky Kingdom.”

“Do you know any good places to stop?” Avalanche asked.

Nautilus glanced to the left, at the moonlit ocean. “There’s a small island, south west of the Summer Palace, that you could stay at. No dragons ever go there, but I’ve seen a small cave half way up a cliff. You could sleep there.”

“Direct route?” Talon asked.

“I’ll take the lead.” Nautilus sighed. He swooped forwards, overtaking Avalanche. The SkyWings fell into place behind him and he banked to the left, swooping down so the three were flying closer to the water.

Nautilus took them the long way around, hoping there’d be less of a chance he’d be spotted. He saw the flash of SeaWing scales occasionally, lighting up the water from far below, but no one came near the three dragons and after what felt like an eternity, Nautilus landed on the beach of a small island that, beyond the thin layer of sand, rose sharply into a moss-covered cliff.

Talon and Avalanche landed behind him, kicking up the sand and huffing small clouds of smoke.

Nautilus turned to see them gazing out at the ocean, wings brushing each other. He cleared his throat and they spun around, offering identical sheepish smiles.

“Welcome.” Nautilus spread his wings. “To the Kingdom of the Sea.”

Chapter Text

“There are a few rules I need to set before you get to comfortable.” Nautilus said. Shadowed by the silver moonlight, the SeaWing's expression was nothing short of grim. Avalanche squinted at him critically, wondering how serious he really was. He seemed serious most of the time, so she assumed now was no exception.

“First of all, no fire.” Nautilus said.

“What?” Avalanche spat instinctively. No fire meant no light, no warmth, no weapon to attack enemy dragons with. A SkyWing without fire was like an SeaWing in a desert - unimaginable. “None?”

“None. SeaWings don’t have fire, if they see any they’ll be instantly suspicious.” Nautilus said non-apologetically.

“Alright.” Talon said, seeming not to have any problem with it. Why on earth was such a smart dragon also so incredibly stupid?

“Alright.” Avalanche echoed reluctantly, because how could she say no to the wide-eyed, pleading look Talon gave her?

“If you see any dragons, don’t let them see you.” Nautilus continued. Avalanche was a little amused by the air of authority he was trying to put into his voice, he was much too soft-spoken for her to take him seriously. “There are SeaWings and SandWings all over the Kingdom during the day time. Don’t go flying, don’t go far from this island. You may be seen, caught, tortured and killed. I don't know if you like the sound of that, but I definitely do not.”

“Torture and death. Sounds fun.” Avalanche rolled her eyes.

“Been there, done that.” Talon agreed. “Well, not killed part. But still. Not a fan of being captured and tortured.”

“Good.” Nautilus said. “If any dragons do approach you, don’t mention me. I’ll be in huge trouble if it’s known I let two SkyWings into the Kingdom, whether they’re exiled or not.”

That seemed like the exact type of thing to expect from a SeaWing, something selfish and cowardice. That was the exact thought Talon wouldn't like Avalanche having, however, so she just nodded along to what Nautilus said and pretended it didn't get on her nerves. She'd sacrificed her world for Talon and Nautilus could hardly even give them a place to sleep? That seemed completely unfair.

“There’s a small cave about half way up this cliff.” Nautilus said, nodding at the rock wall. “I thought you two could stay there, at least for a while. And I’ll come visit as soon as I can get away again, although it may be a few days, seeing as  . . . all this happened.”

Avalanche shrugged unapologetically. Talon laughed and tilted his wings in gratidute towards the SeaWing, "Thank you."

“I’ll leave you two to it.” Nautilus said, offering a smile in return.

Avalanche nodded, then because it was probably polite, added, “Thank you. For all the help.”

“It was nothing.” Nautilus said. “I really didn’t do anything. It was Cuttlefish.”

“You stuck around. You didn’t have to.” Avalanche pointed out, even though she knew she was making excuses that she didn't really believe in. Well, surely Talon would appreciate it. “You’re helping us now even though it could get you in trouble.”

An odd expression crossed Nautilus face and he shrugged uneasily. “It’s what any dragon would have done.”

“Not any SkyWing.” Talon said honestly, although that only seemed to more uncomfortable.

“I’ll, um. I’ll go now.” The SeaWing said. “Like I said, I’ll be back in a few days, once everything’s normal in the Summer Palace.” Nautilus turned and waded into the ocean. He glanced back, smiling, although the wrinkles in his forehead gave away how anxious he really was. “You’ll be fine.”

“We’ve escaped once, we can do it again need be.” Talon said, waving his wings dismissively, as if it was that easy.

“Now get lost.” Avalanche added. “All your worry is doing my head in.”

Nautilus nodded once, then dove forwards, disappearing underwater.

“Show off.” Talon muttered. “Could’ve just flown back.”

He’s probably happy to swim.” Avalanche poked Talon's chest. “Now how about we find this cave and try and fix up our sleep schedules?”

“How are you still tired?” Talon asked, but took to the air anyway. Avalanche leapt after him and the two circled the rocky cliff that rose before them, searching for the darker black on black that would signify a cave. Avalanche found it first. She let out a cry of triumph and swept into the crack in the rock, Talon close behind. Said cave wasn’t really much of a cave, just a place where the rock had splintered and formed a sort of spikey alcove in the cliff face. Above them, the rock narrowed until it reached the top of the cliff, revealing a thin patch of open sky.

“I hope it doesn’t rain.” Avalanche murmured, staring at the star-speckled blue above.

There was a muffled agreement from Talon and Avalanche looked over to see him scrabbling across the alcove, poking his snout into small holes in the rock. Avalanche hopped across the stalagmites until she found a place large enough to rest, which she gratefully tucked herself into. Instantly, and without invitation, Talon clambered over and squeezed in beside her, his scales pressed against hers, sending warm shivers through her spines. His head was resting in the curve of her neck, his smaller shape tucked perfectly against her body as if he’d been made to fit there. Avalanche draped her wing over him and he sighed happily. She would never have been able to be this close to Talon in the Sky Kingdom. She would never have known how perfectly he fit next to her. This is what she would have missed out on if she’d stayed.

She was so glad she hadn’t.

“Good night Avalanche.” Talon said.

“Good night Talon.” Avalanche replied.

“I’m glad it was you.” Talon mumbled, voice heavy with the sleep threatening to drag both SkyWings into unconsciousness.

“Me too.” Avalanche said, then laughed. “Self-centred as that may sound.”

“I wouldn’t want it to be anyone else.” Talon said, curling his tail around hers.

“You done being soppy and romantic?” Avalanche demanded, as if Talon's words hadn't made her body feel as though it were burning up with dragon fire.

“You love it.”

“Do I?”

“You love me.”

“So arrogant.”

“You do.

“I do," Avalanche admitted, grinning to herself

“If it helps, I love you too.” Talon said casually.

Avalanche poked him with one of her claws, still pretending she hated it. “You sound like one of those sickly-sweet SeaWing love stories.”

"Wait- you read those?" Talon demanded, poking her with his own claws in return.

"Gross, no," Avalanche laughed, changing the topic, “Now go to sleep, weirdo.”

“You’re mean to me.”

“Does it sound like I care?”

“Shut up.” Talon whined.

“And I’m the mean one?” Avalanche snorted.

“Whatever.”

“Just get some sleep.” Avalanche said.

“Alright.” Talon sighed and Avalanche could feel his chest pressed closer against hers again. “Good night.”

“Good night.” Avalanche replied softly, closing her eyes and smiling. “Sweet dreams.”

Chapter Text

The sun had risen by the time Talon woke up. He could only tell because of the brilliant ruby red it turned Avalanche’s scales. The two were still pressed together, as if trying to merge their two separate bodies into one and the same. That light-as-air feeling was creeping along Talon’s wings again and it made him smile to himself. Laying there beside Avalanche, Talon felt complete in a way he’d never held before. It didn’t really matter where he went, as long as Avalanche was by his side.

Avalanche sighed and shifted in her sleep, one wing draping limply across Talon. Talon yawned and blinked hard to wake himself up properly. As much as he wanted to lay there forever, he wanted to have his first proper look at the Sea Kingdom even more. He squirmed slightly, making Avalanche sigh slightly and open one eye.

“Morning.” Talon said brightly.

“Good morning.” Avalanche mumbled, sounding as though she didn't think it was a good morning at all.

“I’m going to go have a look at the ocean, want to come with?” Talon asked. He didn’t wait to see Avalanche’s response, instead climbing up over the rocks and out to the mouth of the cave they had slept in. The sun was visible, a ball of brilliant yellow fire blazing in the cool blue of the sky.

And the ocean. The ocean spread out forever beyond them, royal blue waves peaked with silver-white foam. Islands dotted the sea, stretching out of the ocean in beautifully bright hues of green and pale yellow. Birds circled overhead and fish lept out of the water, imitating dragon flight for fleeting seconds before falling back to the safety of the water below.

Talon spread his wings. A small breeze caught under them, smelling of salt and sand and something he thought might be coconuts.

“Avalanche!” He called, turning back to the larger SkyWing, who was clambering over the rocks towards him. “Can we eat coconuts?”

“Knock yourself out.” Avalanche grumbled, still sounding grumpy and asleep. “But why would you want to eat them?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Talon asked, fluttering his wings excitedly.

“What are you, a RainWing?” Avalanche scoffed, reaching Talon’s side and bumping his wing with hers jokingly.

Talon snorted indignantly and lept from the rocks, gliding in long, slow circles down to the beach. In the light of the day, Talon could actually see their new island home. The beach was thin, quickly replaced by a forest of coconut trees and other plants that Talon didn’t recognise. The vegetation continued on for a few dragon-lengths, then was replaced with steep rock, reaching up towards the sky and ending in a point like a tooth. Their cave was about three quarters of the way up the rock. It was shaped like a teardrop, thicker at the bottom and stretching up thinly towards the top of the cliff. As Talon gazed up at his and Avalanche’s new home, the red SkyWing swept from the cave and down to the beach next to him.

“So.” Avalanche said. “The Kingdom of the Sea. What you wanted?”

“It’s a bit early to come to any conclusions,” Talon mused, “but it’s pretty awesome so far!”

Avalanche nodded. Her tone was marvelling, “There’s so much freedom.”

Talon nodded. “And we can choose when and what to eat! No more scheduled meal-times!”

“Speaking of.” Avalanche agreed. “What do you want to eat? Other than coconuts, you weirdo RainWing.”

“We can’t fly.” Talon remembered Nautilus' warning. “We could try fishing?”

“I’m not very good at it,” Avalanche said, grimacing.

“Neither am I.” Talon said. “But we could try.”

“Have you ever tried before?”

“No.”

“Do you even like fish?”

Talon wrinkled his snout, recalling the cold, wet, slimy taste of fish. On second thought, he was not eager to eat that any time soon. “Not really.”

“Well, we can start with coconuts. Maybe there’re some animals in the forest back there.” Avalanche mused.

“How about we separate, meet back here in about an hour and see who caught more!” Talon suggested.

“It won’t be you.” Avalanche scoffed, flicking her tail and sending sand flying.

“Says who! I’ve caught a heap of birds in the last few days.” Talon protested, stomping his foot.

“Not bad for a soldier. But you’ve had minimal hunting experience.” Avalanche puffed out her chest. “When I was a dragonet up north, I was hunting for myself.”

“And your parents had nothing to do with it?” Talon asked innocently.

Avalanche glared indignantly. “Of course not! The very idea! I caught everything I ate myself!” Then she burst out laughing. “Alright, alright. Maybe they helped a little.”

“But what do you say?” Talon asked eagerly. “Meet me back here in an hour and if you’re really better than me, you’ll have more prey.”

“Fine.” Avalanche said, amber eyes glinting. “And just to make it easier for you, you can take this side of the island, I’ll go to the far side.”

Talon flexed his wings. “Challenge accepted!”

“Challenge accepted.” Avalanche agreed, lowering her head to bump her nose against Talon. Talon definitely did not make a surprised squawking noise as his cheeks heated up. He just hadn't been expecting it.

“See you hear in an hour.” He said, coughing and trying to cover up how flustered he was. Judging by the look Avalanche gave him, he didn't do a very good job. It wasn't his fault he'd never liked anyone before in the way he liked her! Stupid Avalanche with her ability to make Talon feel feelings.

The two SkyWings turned in opposite directions, and disappeared separately into the undergrowth.

Chapter Text

Nautilus?”

Nautilus blinked open one eye and saw the blurry shape of a small, dark green SeaWing standing over him. His mind was still in the events of last night, of settling in Talon and Avalanche, before flying back to the Summer Palace, seeing no sign of any other dragons and flying up to his cave, exhaustion tugging at every bone in his body, then falling into a dreamless sleep. Three moons, were Talon and Avalanche alright now?

“Sorry, sir, I meant no disrespect, I certainly didn’t mean to wake you up, but I- I didn’t expect to see you back here so soon, sir!”

“Whirlpool?” Nautilus yawned and sat up, blinking to clear his sight.

“Yes, sir?”

“Why are you in my cave?” Nautilus asked.

“I-I came to fetch Queen Coral a new ink stone, sir, I knew you had spares from last time I was here.” Whirlpool said.

Nautilus shook his head to clear it. “Why does her Majesty need an ink stone?”

“To write a letter to the land settlements, and MudWing drama and things.” Whirlpool’s eyes stayed fixed on the ground near his claws. His tail flicked anxiously.

“I suppose I should have reported in but I only returned late last night.” Nautilus mused aloud. “I’ll go see her now. She’s on the library level?”

“Yes, sir, she is.” Whirlpool fluttered his wings anxiously.

“Lead the way, Whirlpool.” Nautilus said. His doubts about the young SeaWing hadn’t been forgotten. He still remembered the strange behaviour of his apprentice.

Whirlpool nodded sharply and spun around to take Nautilus to Queen Coral. The two SkyWings swept through the air towards the pavilion. Nautilus could see bright sunlight shimmering in the reflection of the Summer Palace’s lake, forcing its way past the covering of leaves and vines above.

Again, he wondered how Talon and Avalanche were, if the SkyWings had stayed safe, were smart enough to stay safe. Then he dismissed the thoughts as he and Whirlpool arrived in the library level of the Summer Palace. There were more important things to worry about. Like what was happening there and now

“Your majesty.” Whirlpool instantly tucked himself into a bow and Nautilus followed suit, inclining his head, shifting his wings, muscles moving automatically from thousands of years of practise.

“Whirlpool, have you gotten the ink- oh! Nautilus! You’ve returned! Stand up, both of you.” Queen Coral rushed over.

Nautilus stood up, taking a moment listening to the clinking of pearls on scales as the queen moved as he collected his thoughts. He started, “Your majesty, I am sorry for my absence. Cuttlefish-”

“Yes, Tempest and Baiji told me she’d taken you off somewhere. I wasn’t worried!” Coral assured him.

“Oh, well, okay. I'm glad for it, Your Majesty.” Nautilus said awkwardly. He supposed that should have been expected.

“And Whirlpool, dear, aren’t you glad! You won’t need to fill in as Councillor of Publishing anymore.” Coral chattered, oblivious to Nautilus' blatant discomfort.

“Yes, your majesty, I’m thrilled.” Whirlpool said, looking sour.

“He’s done a marvellous job, Nautilus!” Coral said. “If you ever do disappear for you, you’ll have left your position in good talons.”

Nautilus was reminded again of the SkyWings he had let in and hidden in the Sea Kingdom. There was no doubt that if they were found out he would disappear at once. Probably in some horrible, painful way. In the clarity of daylight, everything that had happened since he left the Summer Palace seemed to be one long, awful joke, and Nautilus was the punchline. He shifted guiltily. “I’m glad I’ve trained him so well.”

“Nautilus, I trust you can finish this letter to the land settlements? Whirlpool can fill you in.” Coral said. “I must return to the Deep Sea Palace, my dragonets are all alone with Sunfish and I’m so worried about little Orca.”

“I missed the naming ceremony.” Nautilus realised, still half in his thoughts and not really caring about Coral's dragonets as much as Coral cared about them.

“I’m sorry, Nautilus, we can talk more at tonight’s council meeting, I simply must go.” Coral swept off of the pavilion, diving down to the lake in an elegant flash of scales and pearls.

Nautilus turned to Whirlpool, who was staring at the place where Coral had disappeared beneath the water’s surface.

“So, what’s this letter about?” He inquired, when his apprentice didn't speak.

“Where were you? Why were you gone? Why did you come back?” Whirlpool demanded, spinning about to glare at Nautilus suspiciously. “Queen Coral may not care, but I do.”

“Cuttlefish dragged me off up the coast to the north of our territory, something about top secret and urgent missions.” Nautilus half-lied uneasily. “I can’t tell you more, sorry.”

Whirlpool stalked across the library to the table where a roll of paper lay, pinned down by rough carvings of starfishes. Nautilus followed and peered over the dragonet’s shoulder at the writing. It spouted off some nonsense about SeaWings and MudWings and an offer to send someone – Nautilus thought the scribbled name was Baiji’s – to talk with MudWings about negotiating.

“So what’s this?” He asked.

“Like Queen Coral said.” Whirlpool said. “It’s about negotiating. There’s been some trouble at the shore settlements, a small group of MudWings who keep causing trouble. This is my first draft for a letter to them telling them that we’re willing to talk it out.”

“I see.” Nautilus hummed. “Well, I can see a few issues. Here, you’ve spelt negotiate wrong, it’s spelt with an ‘i-a’, not an ‘e-a’. And here, your writing is rather unintelligible. Also, you use words that are far too complicated for MudWings to understand. They're less literate than us. Always keep in mind who your letter is addressed to.”

Whirlpool scowled. “Queen Coral liked it.”

Nautilus sighed, wishing he could breathe a cloud of smoke the way SkyWings could. It seemed a great way to show his irritation. Had Whirlpool always been this troublesome? “I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just telling you how to make it better.”

“You only said the bad stuff.” Whirlpool scoffed.

Nautilus shook his head in disbelief. “I’m gone three days and you’re acting like you know so much more than me?”

“Why are you always such a know-it-all NightWing?” Whirlpool asked.

Nautilus took a deep, calming breath. He was the older dragon, and he had the responsibility to act that way. The SkyWings may have been more carefree when it came to general demeanour, but SeaWings certainly weren't. Nautilus had a job to fulfil after all. “I'm sorry. It’s been a long few days for me, and for you also I’m sure. Let’s just put this disagreement behind us and finish this scroll.”

“Alright.” Whirlpool still looked irritated.

“Do you mind fetching that ink stone? I think you forgot.” Nautilus said, flicking a wing to point back towards his cave.

“Fine.” Whirlpool repeated, then flounced across the pavilion and flung himself into the air, indignance oozing out of his every scale the entire time.

What on earth had Nautilus done to make Whirlpool dislike him so much?

Chapter Text

Avalanche had seen several lizards, a snake and half a dozen birds, but hadn’t managed to catch anything. Hunting on the island was different to anything she’d done before. It was difficult. She felt small, contained, the foliage was damp and pressed uncomfortable against her scales. Her steps created horrible wet squelching sounds, catching mud and moss between her scales.

Hunting in forests in the Sky Kingdom was different. There was more room, tall trees, dry land, massive open skies. It was more open than this.

After failing yet again to catch a lizard that escaped under a fallen tree branch and into a hole in the ground, Avalanche stormed out of the undergrowth in frustration. She wasn’t a bad hunter. She knew that. Give her a flock of birds and a clear sky and she’d catch every single one. But this hot, wet undergrowth, where the chirping of insects drilled into her skull, was downright impossible. She sighed as she reached the sand of the beach again, feeling it shift and squeak under her claws, clinging to the damp moss still caught in between her claws. Avalanche could feel several leaves stuck to her scales. Sighing, she waded into the water to wash herself off.

The waves lapped at her feet, but weren’t anything like the massive forces of water that pounded the coast in the northern parts of the Kingdom of the Sky. The water was warmer, too. But unlike the forest, it was a nice warmer. It was still cool against her scales, just not frigidly icy cold like up north. Avalanche turned her eyes instinctively towards the sky. It was a brighter blue, too. Everything here was . . . different. Not good or bad, just different.

She was glad Talon loved this place though. Seeing him so happy made it worth the sticky, hot, damp forests and difficult hunting conditions. Avalanche tracked a couple of birds winging across the sky, although she knew she couldn't fly up to catch them without risking being seen by nosy SeaWings. She wondered if Talon was having any more luck hunting. The dark specks of a couple more birds appeared on the horizon. Avalanche gazed at them distractedly as they grew closer. Probably not, Talon wasn’t much of a hunter. He could fare well enough to survive, but these conditions would surely prove difficult for him, too.

The shapes grew closer and Avalanche realised with a thrill of horror that they weren’t birds. Those were the steady beats of dragon wings. But the colour wasn’t the blues or greens or even purples of SeaWings. A pair of SandWings were sailing towards the island, dark eyes scanning the sea below, wings beating in even motions, dangerous barbed tails flicking as if longing to sink into a dragon’s flesh.

What in Pyrrhia were they doing here? Were they Blister’s dragons? What was going on? Well, no matter whose side of the war the SandWings were on, it wouldn’t end well if they saw Avalanche. She backed up quickly, spinning around and darting back to the cover of the undergrowth.

Her brilliant red scales felt like a giant sign stating Hey look! A SkyWing! She plunged deeper into the forest, until the undergrowth above was so thick she could hardly see any blue above. It was dim in the forest, dark and ominous and horrible. Even the birds and insects had gone silent, as if sensing Avalanche’s alarm. The only sound was her own breath as she heaved in gasps of air.

And like always when she was in mortal danger, instead of focusing on said danger, her mind decided to focus on Talon.

After all, he had no idea there were enemy SandWings here, circling the island. He had no clue that he was in danger. And Avalance had no clue where he was or if he was safe. Three moons, Avalanche shouldn’t have agreed to split up. She should have known there would still be danger, still be enemy dragons lurking around every corner.

Avalanche took a couple of gulps of hot, damp air, trying to calm her nerves. She couldn’t do anything if she was panicking. When her breath had evened out and her shaking wings had stilled, Avalanche began creeping through the undergrowth, slowly as she could, eyes scanning for any sign of Talon’s orange scales, ears straining to hear either Talon’s claws or, worse, SandWing wingbeats.

There was nothing. Avalanche wasn’t sure how far around the island she had gone. She didn’t know where she was now. The entire island had gone silent and still it seemed, waiting for something, some outcome that Avalanche knew wouldn’t end well.

Avalanche paused at a place where the sunlight forced its way through the leafy cover and glimmered across her red scales. She glanced up quickly. Nothing. Avalanche slid on quickly, preying she hadn’t been seen. She wanted to yell, to call out to Talon, but even more than that, she didn’t want to be caught. Maybe the SandWings would pass by overhead. Maybe shewas panicking for nothing. Maybe this was nothing more than a false alarm.

The uneven, coarse sound of wingbeats that could belong only to a dragon met her ears. Then there was the far-off squeak of sand as the SandWings landed. Avalanche wanted nothing more than to disappear, but she wasn’t a coward. She was a SkyWing. SkyWings weren’t cowards. So Avalanche crept forwards, recoiling at the sounds of her scales slithering over leaves and rocks and damp soil.

She tucked her wings close to her body and crouched so low her stomach scraped the ground, slipping forwards towards the SandWings as quietly as she could. The leaves overhead grew sparser, more sunlight filtered through. Avalanche could see the edge of the undergrowth now, the glimmer of the ocean beyond the trees. And the two hulking shapes of SandWings. Avalanche bit her tongue to stop her breath from being heard by the SandWings.

She darted forwards to the cover of several large bushes with long, drooping leaves and bright red-gold flowers shaped like bursts of flame.

“Well?” She heard the voice of one of the SandWings, hissing over the words, voice crackling like fire. “You still think we’ll find what we’re looking for?”

Chapter Text

Talon’s breath caught in his throat. He dug his claws deeper into the earth beneath him, tucking his tail in closer to him. The roots of the tree pressed uncomfortably against his scales and he closed his eyes, wishing he knew where Avalanche was. He hadn’t know this would happen. If he had, if he had known that two SandWings would land on their island, he wouldn’t have suggested separating at all. He hoped Avalanche was safe, was hidden. Of course she had to be, she was one of the smartest dragons Talon knew. Smart enough to be hidden long before Talon himself had managed to duck into the cover of the tree he now huddled under.

There was the shuffling of claws against sand.

Well?” The first voice demanded, hoarse and dry.

“Patience, Torrid.” Another voice replied, as smooth and deadly as a snake's hiss. “Give me a moment to look about.”

Displeased grumbling. More footsteps shuffling across sand.

“See here, Torrid?” The second SandWing continued silkily. “Footprints. There are dragons here.”

“SeaWings?” The first dragon, Torrid, demanded eagerly. “How many? Enough to have an idea of-”

“No.” The second voice interrupted. “No, not SeaWings. Fascinating, they seem to be SkyWing prints. See, the longer shape, the distribution of weight, less even than a SeaWing’s. No webs between their claws either. And judging by the size, they can’t be more than eight years old. And they’re fresh from this morning, you can see the tide usually comes up to here, and the footprints go all the way down towards the ocean.”

“How many?” Torrid demanded.

“I’d say two.” The second voice answered.

“But what are SkyWings doing out here?”

“Now you’re asking the right questions.” There was a sick sort of enjoyment in the tone of the second dragon, as if this were a thrilling mystery. Maybe, maybe, if it weren't his and Avalanche's lives on the line, Talon could understand where she was coming from. “It could be anything, couldn’t it?”

“Well?” Torrid snarled. “What is it? You must have some clue.”

There was the sound of more footsteps, drawing closer. Talon held his breath, closing his eyes tighter in the hope he wouldn’t be seen, he couldn’t be, he couldn’t be caught after everything that had happened.

“So are there SeaWings here or not?” Torrid growled.

The footsteps stopped. The second dragon's voice was so close that Talon could almost hear the clicking of her teeth. “No. This isn’t their hidden palace.”

“We should move on.” Torrid’s voice commanded.

The dragon hesitated, Talon saw the glitter of pale gold scales through a gap in the leaves. “Hmm.”

“Queen Blister commanded us to find the hidden SeaWing Palace, nothing more, nothing less.” Torrid's voice was crackling like dragon fire. Talon could almost hear the anxious undertone, the worry that this second dragon was questioning whatever authority Torrid held over her.

Still, the second SandWing remained indecisive, “And you think she’d have no interest in enemy dragons in our territory?”

“Report it when we get back.” Torrid scoffed. “Let’s go.”

“Very well.” The second dragon didn't bother to disguise her simmering irritation. The sound of wings unfurling and the two SandWings were taking off, flapping into the air and away. Talon stayed still as the sound of wingbeats faded. He opened his eyes, watching sunlight dance on the forest floor in front of him, not wanting to move in case this was all a trap.

“Talon?” That was Avalanche’s voice, echoing softly through the trees.

“Avalanche?” Talon called back, but stayed where he was.

“Where are you?” Avalanche’s voice grew louder, stronger.

“Safe.” Talon said, because that was all that mattered.

“Oh, thank the stars.” Avalanche replied, voice growing stronger. “I think it’s safe, I saw them flying away.”

“Yeah.” Talon agreed hoarsely, then cleared his throat and tried again. “Yes. Let’s go to the beach.”

He stood, stretching his wings and pushing his way out to the beach. Avalanche was emerging from the undergrowth a bit to his left. Several long green leaves were stuck to her back, crinkled and broken. A fiery red flower clung to her head, propped between her horn and ear. She scanned the sky carefully, before looking over to Talon.

“Nice look.” Avalanche laughed.

Talon glanced down and saw his own underbelly was covered in dirt and round yellow leaves. “An excuse to go swimming?”

“Absolutely.”

The two SkyWings crossed the beach and waded into the water. The waves lapped playfully at their tails and tugged at the ends of their wings.

“So, those SandWings.” Talon prompted. "You heard it?"

“They were looking for the SeaWing’s Palace.” Avalanche agreed.

“But they work for Princess Blister.” Talon said. “Who is allied with the SeaWings already.”

“Even the SeaWing’s allies don’t know where they live.” Avalanche marvelled, squinting out at the silver-tipped waves that spread across the horizon in every direction. "Fascinating."

“Would you trust Blister into your home though?” Talon asked.

Avalanche hummed thoughtfully. She waded out a little further and stuck her head under the water. The flower fell from her head and floated across the sea's surface. Talon watched her come up, gasping for air and shaking her head, sending droplets scattering through the air like shards of glittering ice.

“I didn’t much like the sound of those SandWings.” Avalanche continued, glancing about again as if expecting the two SandWings to drop out of the sky in a flash of fangs. She was right to worry, though. Torrid had sounded as though she were blindly loyal to Blister, not a good thing as far as Talon was concerned. And the other dragon had sounded even worse, smarter and more dangerous.

“I think we should move island.” Avalanche said. “I don’t like the idea of those SandWings coming back to find any SkyWings in the area. Considering we're the only SkyWings in the area.”

Talon nodded. “We should ask Nautilus when he come back.”

He unfurled his wings and let them float over the gentle waves. “I can’t believe the war is happening here too. Out here of all places, a days's flight away from the Sky Palace and at least three days flight from the edge of the Kingdom of Sand. How can all this bloodshed touch somewhere so beautiful?”

“It won’t last forever.” Avalanche said. “It can’t last forever.”

Talon nodded glumly. “But it will end in the death of two of the SandWing princesses. And who knows how many other dragons will die in that process.”

Avalanche sighed, “But there’s nothing we can do. We’re nothing more than two traitorous SkyWing dragonets, every dragon in Pyrrhia is an enemy.”

Talon sighed. “I know. I just wish there was something we could do to stop all this.”

Avalanche waded back to Talon and wrapped a wing over him. “It’s not your job to stop this war. It’s not our business at all. We’re free from it, and maybe that’s enough.”

Talon nodded. But what about the other dragons who had been affected by the war? Nautilus and the SeaWings? What about that poor IceWing that had died under his claws in the battle so many days ago? What about Hvitur? What about Arid? What about all the SkyWings still trapped in the Sky Kingdom fighting over another's tribe's queen, a queen they had never met?

Didn’t they deserve freedom too?

Chapter Text

A Council Meeting had never felt so foreign. Not even his first meeting, as a nervous seven-year-old dragonet who couldn’t stop his claw from shaking, had Nautilus felt so out of place. The placid familiarity of the Sea Kingdom, and its distant, detached SeaWings, were so removed from the rest of Pyrrhia, no wonder Cuttlefish felt so uncomfortable.

After seeing more of the continent, after seeing beyond the invisible borders of his kingdom, this Council Meeting felt insignificant, felt like a dragonet playing with her dolls, creating imaginary tea parties for imaginary issues. For the first time it really occurred to Nautilus that there was a war, that there were decisions with actual consequences, decisions that could determine a dragon's life. How could he just sit here and talk about writing as if it were on the same level?

Nautilus was all too aware of the missing spot where Cuttlefish should’ve sat beside him. On his other side was the Communication pool, where Baiji would soon be seated.

Already, Queen Coral, King Gill, Shark, Tempest, Lagoon, Conch, Pearl and Posidonia were seated in their pools. They’d given him friendly greetings and ‘welcome back’s and that was that. Tempest had tried for a joke about Cuttlefish and addle-headed dragons but Nautilus had been too distracted by his own thoughts to laugh.

Small talk about dragonets drifted between the council members. With a rush of wings, two more dragons arrived. Baiji and Undertow slipped into their respective pools. Baiji turned to Nautilus, giving him a smile.

“Good to see you safely returned.” The elderly Council of Communication greeted.

“Good to be back.” Nautilus said, but the words felt hollow in his mouth.

“You’ll be pleased to know that Whirlpool stepped up in your absence and performed admirably.” Baiji went on.

“So I’ve heard.” Nautilus agreed. Although he didn’t know if ‘pleased’ was the word he’d use.

“You’ve trained him well.” Baiji said.

Nautilus nodded politely, but didn’t continue the conversation. Small talk felt meaningless now. A waste of time, like everything so far had been. Nothing he said or did, nothing he'd ever said or did, impacted anything in the rest of Pyrrhia. He glanced around the Council. The other members of the Council had arrived, and the only empty pool was Cuttlefish’s.

Queen Coral cleared her throat. “Let the Council Meeting commence. Posidonia, how is my daughter?”

“Orca is doing well, your majesty.” Posidonia said. “As you surely know, from your time spent with her this morning. As for your sons, they are developing at an equally rapid rate. Sunfish told me they were . . .”

Nautilus found his mind simply couldn’t concentrate. As attention and discussion moved topic to topic around the circle, Nautilus could think only of flying north, of colder seas, of forests and far-off mountains, or orange and red dragons who flew as though they owned the sky, or how those dragons were now in the very same Kingdom as Nautilus.

“Nautilus?”

Nautilus blinked and shook his head slightly. “S-sorry?”

“Are you going to report?” Queen Coral asked expectantly.

Nautilus’ mind was blank, he couldn’t think of a single thing to report on. “Your majesty, I- I don’t think I’m able to report. I’ve been back for a single day and I’m afraid that my mind has been absent for most of that time. I’m sorry.”

The words felt too formal, almost artificial in his mouth. But he wasn't so disconnected from reality that he couldn't see the disappointment and scorn in the eyes of the other council members.

“Perhaps we should have invited Whirlpool instead.” Marine joked, flashing Nautilus an inviting grin.

“Perhaps.” Nautilus said thickly.

“Such a young dragon, yet such a smart one.” Baiji murmured.

“It’s okay Nautilus, it’s understandable that your mind would be elsewhere after spending time on mainland.” Conch, Councillor of Healing, called across the circle. “When something unexpected happens it takes a few days to sink in.”

Gill nodded. “Indeed, you are excused.”

Coral hummed in agreement and moved on, as if Nautilus and his input really was altogether insignificant, “Baiji, report.”

And just like that, the council moved on with their queen. The part Nautilus played felt insignificant. He hadn’t fulfilled what he was supposed to and it wasn’t even a big deal. He could have probably spewed out some nonsense about the letter Whirlpool had written and the sections he’d re-read from the updated Current Affairs of the SeaWings. But in the moment, his mind had been blank as an empty scroll.

Maybe Whirlpool would have been better suited to attending this council meeting. Was his apprentice really better at the job then him? But Nautilus had been a councillor for three years, longer than Whirlpool had even been alive.

Wait. A dragonet wasn’t able to become an apprentice councillor until they were four. Whirlpool was only two. Sure, he was large for his age, large enough to pass as four, but . . . hadn’t Nautilus mentioned that he had only been considering Whirlpool as an apprentice when the dragonet reached the right age? How had Whirlpool filled in for Nautilus if he wasn’t yet four years old? Surely an older dragonet would’ve been available. How did that happen? It wasn’t like Queen Coral or King Gill to make such a mistake. How had Whirlpool been mistaken as a four year old dragonet?

Nautilus could only find one solution, a solution that made him irritated, but . . . almost scared about Whirlpool. The SeaWing dragonet had lied about his age. And if Whirlpool had lied about that, combined with the past lies, the strange behaviour, turning up at weird times . . . what else had Whirlpool lied about? And why? What was the younger dragonet planning? What was he doing?

And how long till he did something else?

Nautilus cleared his throat, ignoring the look Pearl shot him as he interrupted her.

“Yes, Nautilus?” Queen Coral’s expression showed slight irritation.

“I feel ill,” He lied. “Can I please be excused early?”

“Of course.” Coral’s annoyance turned to concern. “Go to your cave, rest. I’ll send Conch to check on you after the meeting ends.”

“Thank you your majesty.” Nautilus inclined his head in a quick bow and hurried to the edge of the pavilion. His gaze swept quickly across the palace, scanning for Whirlpool’s dark green scales, but he didn’t see them among the greens and blues and purples of the other SeaWings.

Shaking his head, Nautilus took off, gliding towards his cave, because what else could he do? Maybe, maybe, there was an off chance that Whirlpool was there. Or perhaps Nautilus could find a servant and tell her to find Whirlpool for him.

He had to get to the bottom of this.

Chapter Text

Avalanche scraped her talons across the sand, head lifted to watch the last rays of sunlight cast beams of colour across the evening sky. She and Talon had spent the day waiting for Nautilus to return, watching as the sun rose into the azure blue above, and sunk towards the ocean once again. No dragons had appeared on the horizon. No SandWings, and no SeaWings.

"Maybe he's busy," Avalanche offered, as Talon sighed yet again. She doubted it, she doubted the SeaWing would return at all. He was home, after all, and he had no reason to associate with two exiled SkyWings. But she knew Talon still had a flame of hope that he would see the green dragon again, so she pretended she did too.

"Maybe," Talon echoed. Avalanche knew he was worried. About the SandWings, maybe, or about something more, something bigger and grander and more dangerous. But he didn't speak, so she didn't ask.

Instead, she turned her gaze further upwards, to watch the first glittering stars glimmer against their deep blue backdrop. She wrapped a wind around Talon's shoulders and said, "Do you remember flying together, back home?"

"Mmm," Talon agreed.

"That was the first time we really spoke."

"That was hardly a week ago. And so much has changed," Talon said doubtfully. Avalanche didn't like that tone of voice, it made her nervous. What if Talon thought that everything was happening too fast? That Avalanche would want to go back to the Sky Kingdom? What if she did, eventually? What if she and Talon didn't work out? Maybe she had been too fast to judge.

Avalanche wouldn't - couldn't - entertain that possibility, "But we're here. And we're together."

"Yeah," Talon murmured.

A few moments of silence passed between them, and Avalanche heard Talon's claws worrying against the sand, shifting the grains aside in a desperate search for something to hold onto.

"Nautilus will come back," Avalanche told him, with more certainty than she felt. He needed to hear it.

"Yeah," Talon said again.

"The stars look different from here," Avalanche said, hoping that this change of topic would breathe some life back into the smaller SkyWing. "Do you know if the constellations are the same?"

"Dunno," Talon said, "But I read that no tribes have the same constellations. You know that one that looks like a storm cloud? In the Kingdom of Sand they say it looks like a scorpion."

"Those are the weird little insects with the barbed tails, like tiny wingless SandWings, yeah?" Avalanche checked.

"Scorpions? Yeah, that's them," Talon agreed. He shuffled slightly closer to Avalanche. She could feel his scales against hers, and the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. Talon's head was tilted towards the sky too, "SandWings are big on constellations, according to scrolls. That's how they find their way in the desert. I mean, otherwise there's just nothing, it's like- like an ocean of sand."

Avalanche had never thought much of the desert. Sand was nothing special. But the way Talon described it caused an itch in her wings, a longing to fly and fly until she reached that ocean of sand, she wanted to glide over the crested dunes and see it all.

The last light had faded from the sky, leaving only eerie blue light that would soon fade into darkness. Even as Avalanche watched, more stars shimmered into existence. One of the moons was visible far overhead, a full silver circle like a giant dragon's eye watching over them.

"The sky's still just as beautiful all over Pyrrhia," Avalanche said.

Talon hummed in agreement, then said, "Avalanche?"

"Yeah?"

"Is what we have . . ." Talon trailed off, then took a deep breath and said in a rush, "Is it love? I- I like you, a lot. But it hasn't even been two weeks since we first properly met, it all just seems too fast to be love. I want it to be, of course, I mean, you're funny and kind and awesome, and you followed me out into exile, but-"

"You're rambling again," Avalanche pointed out, nudging him with her shoulder.

"It's just-"

"Talon," Avalanche interrupted, "Maybe what we have isn't love. Maybe it is. Maybe we just don't know. And that's okay, that's all okay. I don't regret leaving, Talon. I mean, if I stayed would I ever have seen this?" She waved one wing out at the rolling waves ahead of her, then continued, "It doesn't matter what we have, because we're happy now. That's what matters. We're safe and happy, and we'll figure it all out. Don't overthink it, okay?"

"But-"

"But nothing," Avalanche said, shifting her wing up to cover Talon's head.

He squirmed uncomfortable, "Hey! Get off! You're heavy!"

"You know," Avalanche said, lifting her wing slightly and peering at the grumpy orange dragon underneath, "I can practically feel all the anxious thoughts bubbling away in your mind."

"Shut up, no you can't."

"I totally can. They're buzzing like a nest of wasps."

"Oh, thanks," Talon said. "Nice to know you think of me as a wasp."

"A nest of wasps!" Avalanche corrected, grinning. "And not only can I feel them, I can hear them too!"

Talon huffed out a breath of smoke and rolled his eyes. "Can not!"

Avalanche made her voice go high in a poor imitation of Talon's worrying, "Oh, what if Avalanche doesn't like me and put herself into exile because she's an adrenaline junkie! What if Nautilus betrays us? He's the exact type of malicious evil SeaWing to do that, I know he is! What if Queen Scarlet swoops out of the sky and kills me right now! Oh, oh what if Burn, Blister and Blaze all decide to fight right here and now and everyone dies!"

Talon made an indignant noise in the back of his throat and flicked Avalanche's wings off his shoulders, "You're mean."

"Oh no!" Avalanche continued, "Avalanche really doesn't like me! She ran away from her tribe for the sole reason of bullying me!"

Talon rammed his shoulder against hers, sending Avalanche tumbling onto the sand, gasping in surprise from the sudden impact.

"And you think I'm mean?" She asked, grinning ear to ear. A sudden thought occurred to her, "Hey! It's late!"

"It's only just past sunset," Talon corrected.

"And you know what that means?"

"It's the perfect time to worry about things?"

"No. It's the perfect time to fly!" Avalanche said enthusiastically. "Nautilus said SeaWings are mostly asleep at night, and we didn't even during the day."

Talon shook his wings as if to dislodge all the nervous thoughts he'd been having. "Alright, fine."

Avalanche leapt into the air, "Yes! Let's go!"

Talon's laughter met her ears as she soared upwards into the starlight sky.

Chapter Text

By the time Talon caught up to Avalanche, the larger SkyWing was gliding in a long circle around their island. Talon fell into place beside her, their wingtips almost touching as they flew. The moonlight glittered on Avalanche’s scales, turning her a glittering maroon, the same colour that spread across the clouds before a rose red dawn.

“We can’t go far.” Avalanche said regretfully. “Not in enemy territory.”

Her wings twitched for a moment, and Talon knew that despite her words, she longed to soar limitlessly across the sky until her wings gave out. Talon considered saying something stupid and sappy, like how it didn’t matter how far they flew, as long as he had her by his side. But when he opened his mouth, the only words he could find were, “This is good.”

“This.” Avalanche echoed softly. “What do you mean by this?”

That was a tough question, considering Talon wasn’t sure what he meant by ‘this’. This as in the small area that they could fly in long, slow loops around? This as in the SeaWing territory, so far away from their ex-tribe? This as in their island? This as in him and Avalanche? This as in this one single moment in time, in the night where everything was beautiful and glittery and still and calm?

“This.” Talon said finally, gesturing vaguely to everything around them. “All of this.”

Avalanche laughed at his answer, but nodded, “This is good. We made it.”

"I told you I would make it to the ocean." Talon paused to look at his and Avalanche's wavering reflections, almost non-existent in the moonlight, as if a breath of wind would whisk them away. "I just didn't think it would be this soon."

"I told you I would follow you," Avalanche added.

"And here we are," Talon concluded, looking back up to Avalanche. She was staring ahead as if he wasn't even there, but with an undeniable smile on her face. "Was it worth it?"

Avalanche didn't even hesitate, "Completely. I wouldn't change a thing."

Wouldn't change a thing was a big claim. Talon would have liked to have changed a lot of things. Primarily that first battle. It had caused him to meet Avalanche, and it had caused him to eventually escape, but it had killed so many dragons. That IceWing, the one he hadn't saved, and all the other IceWings. And even the dragons who hadn't been killed, but had instead been taken back as prisoners, like Hvitur. Speaking of which, "Where do you think Hvitur is?"

Avalanche's smile became a small frown and she hummed thoughtfully. "The IceWing? No idea. Probably back in the Ice Kingdom, feasting on penguins and looking at his reflection in the ice and doing whatever other pompous things IceWings do."

Talon laughed, "I hope so."

"I'm sure of it, Talon," Avalanche said. "If he managed to escape in complete enemy territory, he must have more than a block of ice for brains. And if he isn't completely braindead, he'd head straight back home."

What Avalanche was saying made sense. Talon liked the idea of Hvitur having a happy ending, making it home to safety and to his family in the Kingdom of Ice. Maybe Arid had made it back to her sister, too. They both deserved happy endings.

"It'd be nice if every dragon got one," He blurted out.

"Every dragon got what?" Avalanche asked.

"A happy ending," Talon said. "Like Hvitur and Arid. If all the prisoners in Scarlet's castle could escape the arena, if all the SandWings got a queen, if there was no war whatsoever and everyone could just be happy like before."

Avalanche was silent for a long time. Then she said softly, "That's not quite a realistic dream, Talon."

"What's the point of dreaming if it is?" Talon shot back. "But the war has to end some day. It can't last forever."

"That day is not today."

"You're right," Talon mused. "But that also doesn't mean that it's a day that is years and years away. What if we could do something to stop it?"

"What can we do?" Avalanche shook her head. "Talon, we've been over this. Waltzing into palaces and telling queens things they don't like to hear doesn't exactly work. Take Scarlet for example."

"Scarlet isn't every queen in Pyrrhia," Talon protested. "What if Nautilus spoke to Queen Coral? The SeaWings aren't officially part of the war yet, it isn't too late for them to remain uninvolved. The same goes for the MudWings! It's only the SandWings, IceWings and SkyWings who have been involved in claw-to-claw battle."

"The SeaWings and MudWings are both allies with Blister," Avalanche pointed out. "Blister is a very convincing dragon, from what I've heard. She wouldn't ally herself with dragons she didn't believe would have her back."

That was a good point. Talon sighed, "You're right. I have to think about this more. There has to be something we can do."

"Maybe just surviving is enough for now," Avalanche proposed. "It certainly hasn't been very easy this far."

"But we have done it," Talon said, grinning at Avalanche.

The other SkyWing nodded, and tilted her wings downwards to swoop closer to the ocean, "Yes, so let's keep up our perfect record of not dying. If that works out, maybe then we think about helping other dragons."

Talon followed, reaching out a claw and feeling the water park for him. He stared down at the mass of glittering blue-black water, dotted with stars that mirrored the sky above.

"You think NightWings look like this?" Avalanche asked. "Blue and black and silver and beautiful?"

"Ew, NightWings are gross," Talon protested. "All conniving and evil."

"But beautiful, if they do look like the night sky."

"Not as beautiful as you."

"You sap!" Avalanche scoffed, although she was grinning ear to ear. "You're the gross one. All this affection."

Talon laughed, then laughed more as Avalanche shot him a grumpy look.

"That's not even funny," she said.

"I thought it was hilarious," Talon said. "You're hilarious. And beautiful and talented and amazing."

"Such flattery. Don't stop."

But their island was reaching up out of the water and towards the star-spangled sky ahead of them, and Avalanche was already shifting her wings and getting ready to land in their cavern. They weaved through the stalactites until they found their resting spot from the previous night. Avalanche curled herself around Talon, her warmth seeping into his scales. It was as though they had been made to fit together like this.

"Good night Avalanche," Talon said contentedly.

"Good night Talon." Avalanche replied.

He could feel her heartbeat thumping against his scales, an even ongoing beat. Lying there, tails curled together, listening to Avalanche’s breathing and feeling her heart beat against his chest, sleep had never come easier.

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you’re okay now?” Conch asked. The Council of Healing was perched on the edge of Nautilus' cave, watching Nautilus carefully as he paced up and down. Moonlight reflected off Conch's pastel scales and glittered on the walls of the cavern, dazzlingly bright despite the softness of colour of the silver-pink glow.

Nautilus' head still drowned in thoughts of Whirlpool and the idea traitorous behaviour and worries about Talon and Avalanche, but he managed a strained smile as he replied, “Yes, yes, of course.”

“No fever?” Conch asked, looking at Nautilus thoughtfully.

“No," Nautilus dismissed.

“A cough?”

“No.”

“Feeling weak or tired?”

“No.”

“Aching?”

Nautilus’ wings were feeling sore, but that was just the excess of flying in the past few days. “I’m not sick, Conch. I felt ill for just a moment, I’m fine now.”

Still, Conch pressed on, “Nausea?”

No.”

The Council of Healing shrugged his wings. “I'm just being cautious. SeaWings visiting mainland Pyrrhia for the first time sometimes come down with illness, it’s contagious – when I was five there was an outbreak of disease that spread across the entire kingdom because a SeaWing had come into contact with SkyWings who had had said disease. SkyWings were immune, but the same couldn't be said for SeaWings, unfortunately.”

Nautilus’ stomach rolled. Talon and Avalanche, did they have some kind of sickness? Did Nautilus have to add ‘killing-all-SeaWings-via-disease’ to his list of things to worry about?

“You didn’t come into contact with any dragons from other tribes, did you?” Conch asked, then instantly answered his own question. “Oh, MudWings! Tempest said you met a few MudWings. Did they touch you?”

“No,” Nautilus said truthfully. He still didn't mention the SkyWings.

“Well, you should should be safe, after all, it’s been a few days.” Conch mused, nodding. “But tell me if something feels off, anything at all.”

“Yes. I will, but I assure you that I’m completely okay.” Nautilus said. “Well, aching because of all the flying, but I can sleep it off-”

“Oh, no, don’t worry about that!” Conch seemed downright relieved to have something he could treat. “I can help with that. Where are you feeling sore?”

Nautilus sat down, stretching his wings, examining the black spiral pattern on them as if expecting to see a physical wound. “Mainly my wings, you know, from flying.”

“Okay, okay, stay right here.” Conch said eagerly. “I’ll be right back.”

The pale SeaWing turned and soared up, away from the cave. Nautilus watched him go, frowning. He really wanted to find Whirlpool, to ask what exactly had been going on, to demand answers as to why had Whirlpool lied about his age. But Whirlpool could be anywhere and Nautilus’ mind was already so full of worries and exhaustion and who knew how Conch would react if he returned and Nautilus was gone. So Nautilus sat still until Conch swept back into the cave, clutching a ceramic jug with turquoise wave and little pink seashells decorating its exterior, and a small stone tablet with a single line of bold writing on it. Instructions, maybe? The Council of Healing landed heavily by Nautilus’, setting the jug down carefully.

“Alright, so, I have a cream made of a herb called arnica and some fresh water. I’m going to massage it onto your scales where it’s sore and that should help ease the pains.” Conch explained.

“Sounds great.” Nautilus forced himself to say. He couldn't help be a bit taken aback by how much Conch enjoyed his role as healer. Had Nautilus ever enjoyed being Council of Publishing quite that much? He knew he enjoyed reading, and writing, and he had enjoyed working directly under the queen. But he wasn't sure if he'd ever had the same dedication and duty that Conch seemed to have.

The pale SeaWing blinked and held out the stone tablet. “Um, a dragonet caught me outside and told me to give this to you. She said it’s important.”

“Right.” Nautilus took the stone slate and scanned the writing.

Midday tomorrow, Flounder Island.

“What’s it say?” Conch asked absently, prising off the lid of his ceramic jar.

“Just something about re-inking.” Nautilus lied, tightening his grip on the stone. Flounder Island was where he had left Talon and Avalanche. That meant someone knew they were there, someone knew Nautilus knew they were there, someone was going to go to that island tomorrow at midday, someone wanted Nautilus there tomorrow at midday. “Who gave you this message, Conch?”

“Hmm.” Conch was dipping his claws into the jar. “A dragonet, looked about six. She had dark scales, blueish purplish colour. Um . . . I hadn’t seen her before, which is odd. She mustn’t be from the Palaces, maybe she’s been living in the shore settlements for a few years, yes, that’s probably why I don’t recognise her.”

“Did she say anything to you?” Nautilus asked. By that description, it sounded like Bay. It could be, it would make sense that somehow, somehow, Cuttlefish and Bay had discovered Talon and Avalanche’s location. It was hardly a stretch of the imagination that a dragon in charge of spies and secrets would know all the secrets in her own territory.

“Wings open.” Conch hopped over Nautilus’ tail to stand behind him, claws covered in the arnica cream. Nautilus opened his wings obediently, shivering as the cold ointment was pressed against his scales. “Hmm, no. She just said, ‘give this to Nautilus, it’s important, thanks’. I didn’t read it, don’t worry.”

Nautilus nodded, running a claw across the stone and rereading the message.

“Stay still please.” Conch said pleasantly, beginning to massage the ointment into Nautilus’ shoulder. “You’re very stiff, this cream will be much more effective if you just relax.”

Nautilus forced his shoulders down, taking a deep breath. Conch rubbed small, precise circles onto Nautilus’ wings.

“You should rest tonight, take it easy.” Conch said. “The aching may get worse tomorrow, so you can come see me if you need, or you can try floating down in the lake for a while. Salt water is good for sore muscles. Probably a SeaWing thing, hmm?”

“Yes, probably.” Nautilus agreed, not really listening. His thoughts were preoccupied with the message that Bay had sent to him. Clearly, it would have to do with Talon and Avalanche. The fact that she’d asked to meet on Flounder Island was too big a coincidence not to be. But why? Where Talon and Avalanche in danger? They couldn’t be, not in immediate danger anyway, or else Bay wouldn’t be so content to wait till the next day.

Nautilus thought briefly of Whirlpool and how he needed to find out what the dragonet was up to. But Talon and Avalanche were more important, they could get killed if something went wrong and, well, Nautilus had no way of contacting Bay to tell her if he wanted to reschedule the meeting. Whirlpool would have to wait. What damage could the dragonet do now that Nautilus was back in SeaWing territory? And what damaged had he really done? He’d lied, but he hadn’t tried to kill someone or anything.

Yes, Whirlpool could wait. Nautilus would get a good night’s sleep to please Conch, then go find out what Bay and Cuttlefish wanted. He could see if Talon and Avalanche were settling in okay. Having a plan in mind made Nautilus feel that little bit safer, like everything would somehow be okay.

Chapter Text

Avalanche woke with dawn, a habit formed in her days of training that she hadn't shaken off yet. Outside, the sky was slowly turning pale blue, and down on the beach were two dragons, silent and still, eyes scanning the sky above. A SeaWing and a SandWing. She scrambled to wake up Talon without alerting the two strange dragons on the island.

"What should we do?" Talon wondered once he'd woken up and taken in the sight of the two dragons.

Avalanche squinted, attempting to get a closer look at the dragons. It was hard to tell from a distance, but the SeaWing's purple-blue scales looked familiar. "I think . . . I think that the SeaWing may be Bay - you know, Cuttlefish's apprentice?"

“Yeah, I remember.” Talon nodded. “Let’s go say hi?”

“Do you think it’s safe?” Avalanche asked softly. If they were wrong and the SeaWing wasn't Bay, approaching the two dragons could end very, very badly for her and Talon. It would absolutely suck if they had gone this far only to be killed by mistaking who that SeaWing was.

“Only one way to find out.” Talon shrugged his wings carelessly and, before Avalanche could protest, he leapt up and soared out of the cave. Avalanche had no choice but to follow quickly, spiralling down to the beach and landing only seconds after Talon.

Now that Avalanche was closer, she could see that the pruple-blue SeaWing was Bay, sitting side-by-side with a peculiar looking SandWing. The off-white dragon was a stark difference to Bay, with long legs and horns, a slim tail, narrowed black eyes and a withdrawn air about her. Strangest of all was the ridge that reached from her head, along her back and down her tail. The pale membrane was covered in black, long swirls and star-like dots, like an inversed galaxy.

“It’s called a tattoo, SkyWing.” The SandWing snapped in response to Avalanche’s lingering gaze. “Haven’t you ever seen one before?”

“No, actually.” Talon said cheerfully, as if he were oblivious to the way the SandWing radiated hostility. “I’ve read about them, though.”

Avalanche had read about tattoos as well. Only SandWings would be vain enough to decorate their bodies permanently with ink.

“Hmph,” the SandWing snorted, seemingly not impressed.

“Hello Bay,” Avalanche greeted. “What are you doing here?”

She was a little nervous that it wouldn't be for any good reason. Maybe their safety was compromised - by SeaWings, or by SandWings, or maybe the SkyWings knew where they were already - or maybe Nautilus had been found to be protecting so-called enemy dragons.

“From what I've heard, you seem to have a SandWing problem on your claws.” Bay said, then nodded towards the SandWing. “According to Scorpion, it was all Torrid was talking about – ‘we didn’t find what we were looking for, but I’m telling you, there are SkyWings out there’.”

“It wasn’t even her find to begin with.” Scorpion made a contemptuous noise in the back of her throat.

“You work for Blister.” Talon stated. Avalanche felt her shoulders tensing. Blister was just as much an enemy now as she had been when Avalanche was a soldier.

“Yes,” Scorpion agreed. “But Blister isn't the only dragon to whom I have loyalties.”

“You’re a spy.” Avalanche realised.

“Oh, shout it a little louder, I don’t think the dragons on the Lost Continent heard you.” Scorpion muttered. “But yes, SkyWing. I am a spy.”

“Sorry.” Avalanche said, watching the way the SandWing’s tail swept in a menacing arc, barbed tip glinting in the morning sunlight.

“So, your SandWing problem,” Bay said quickly, quite clearly in an attempt to defuse the situation. “The immediate solution would be to move to another island.”

“And quickly,” Scorpion said. “Blister isn’t going to let two enemy dragons float about like dead seaweed in her ally’s kingdom.”

Avalanche scowled, but bit back her response. She didn't want to upset the SandWing, and she and Talon did need to avoid detection, which they were currently doing a very poor job of. The bright red scales didn't help.

“Nautilus is meeting us at midday,” Bay said, turning her gaze to the sky again. “So that he knows where you move to. Cuttlefish thinks he’d freak out of you guys just disappeared.”

Avalanche glanced up at the sky as well. The sun was beaming down at them from a cloudless sky, steadily rising away from the horizon. Still, it would be several hours until midday.

Scorpion’s eyes had fixed on the pouch of coins around Talon’s neck, “Good to see you received Cuttlefish’s gift.”

You were the SandWing Nautilus saw?” Avalanche demanded incredulously.

Scorpion nodded, looking uninterested despite being the one who bought up the conversation topic. Avalanche frowned slightly, claws curling into the ground. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Scorpion, if Cuttlefish thought she was trustworthy, then that should be good enough, but something about the SandWing made her seem . . . above it all. As if just having more experience in Pyrrhia made her better somehow.

“A small favour for Cuttlefish, I was in the area.” Scorpion said, flicking her barbed tail.

“So, wait, if the SeaWings and Blister are allies – why are you working for Cuttlefish?” Talon asked. Avalanche hadn't caught onto that contradiction, but now that Talon mentioned it, it was interesting.

“Well,” Scorpion yawned, displaying sharp, white teeth. “I was working with Cuttlefish even before Queen Oasis’ death. I just so happen to support Blister and the stars aligned for me. I get to catch my prey and eat it.”

“Convenient,” Avalanche muttered.

“Frankly, Queen Oasis' death was very inconvenient,” Scorpion said. “I was going to get my wings tattooed to match, but then we had to up and leave the palace.”

That seemed like an awfully trivial thing, compared to this war. Then Bay laughed and Scorpion’s expression shifted to a pleased, slightly smug look. Avalanche realised that the SandWing had been joking.

“So why isn’t Cuttlefish meeting us here?” Avalanche asked.

“More important things to do?” Bay waving a wing questioningly, despite being the one most likely to know where the older SeaWing was.

“Avalanche,” Scorpion said, voice soft as though she was afraid to be heard. “Bay said that you were Eagle’s son.”

“Yeah, that’s me.” Avalanche felt slightly put-off. Was that how every dragon who didn’t want to kill her would talk about her? As if she was only someone important because of her father?

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Scorpion bowed her head sombrely. “Eagle was one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and one of the best dragons I’ve ever known.”

Avalanche had not been expecting that. She tilted her wings forwards and bowed her head in return. To think that the death of her father had had such an impact on so many dragons she herself didn't know. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“You have his ears.” Scorpion said, straightening up and making a hissing sound that Avalanche realised was laughter.

“Um, okay?”

“It’s a good thing. He had excellent hearing – for a SkyWing.”

“Thanks?”

“Don’t mention it.”

Avalanche made a weird noise she wasn’t really sure the meaning of, because it wasn’t a question and it wasn’t an affirmation.

“I look forwards to working with you in the future,” Scorpion's face took on that smug look again, the moment was gone.

Avalanche frowned. “Um, you won’t be wor-”

The sand dragon turned to Talon, flicking her barbed tail. “Talon, a word if you don’t mind.”

Talon glanced at Avalanche. “Yeah sure? What did you want to say to us?”

“Alone, idiot,” the SandWing spat, then cleared her throat and said, "Nothing against you, Avalanche, but some conversations are supposed to be private."

"Anything you can say to me, you can say to Avalanche," Talon insisted.

Scorpion’s tail swept through the sand again with a dry hissing sound. It was a very convincing argument, in Avalanche's opinion.

“Alone it is.” Talon gave a helpless look at Avalanche and stood up.

Scorpion smiled grimly. “Don’t worry, we won’t go far.”

Chapter Text

Talon forced himself to focus on small things, like the glint of sunlight on the water or the squeak of the sand underfoot, and not on the fact that he was walking away from Avalanche side by side with a SandWing who was twice his size and had a poisonous barb on her tail that could easily kill him with just a scratch.

As she walked, Scorpion swiped her tail along the sand, causing their footprints to vanish from the sand. When they were out of earshot and Bay and Avalanche looked more like purple and red blocks, Scorpion came to a stop and turned to look at him with her glittering black eyes.

“SkyWing,” She hissed over the word. “I haven’t gotten any answers from Bay or Cuttlefish so I’m going to ask you now. You are exiled. You are no longer allied to Burn, or Scarlet, or anyone. But . . . are you working for Cuttlefish?”

“What?” Talon’s nose scrunched. The idea of working for a dragon who worked for a queen who could easily be part of the war was not appealing in the slightest. “No, what gave you that idea?”

“She’s taking an extraordinary amount of interest in you,” Scorpion said. “Seeking you out the night of your capture, helping you escape, checking up on you now. It seems odd, unless there was something she could gain from it.”

Talon shrugged. “She hasn’t asked about working for her and if she did I’d say no. I don’t support Blister.”

Scorpion bared her teeth, “You may not, but I do, so watch your tongue SkyWing, else I may be tempted to cut it out.”

“So a difference of opinion means I’m not allowed to speak my mind?” Talon asked incredulously. “I’ll say what I think, thank you very much. I didn’t let Queen Scarlet scare me to silence, don’t think I’ll let some unimportant SandWing.”

He’d be lying if he said that the look on Scorpion’s face wasn’t at all satisfying.

“Well.” The sand dragon hissed finally. “I can’t say I’m surprised. Everyone always said SkyWings are brash – headstrong to a fault. Maybe Eagle was mild-tempered, but you certainly are not.”

“Better to speak the truth than to cling to words you don’t believe and be miserable.”

“Oh SkyWing, sometimes the truth makes you just as miserable.”

“I have a name. It’s Talon.”

Scorpion shrugged elegantly and shook her head slightly, the tattooed ridge rippling, galaxies shifting down her back. “Well, your . . . friend looks rather anxious to see your safe return, so I won’t keep you any longer. I'm sorry to hear that we won't be working with each other in the future.”

Talon glanced back down the beach and saw Avalanche peering nervously in his direction. He waved a wing at her and she returned the gesture.

“One more question,” Talon said quickly, although Scorpion was already turning away.

“Yes?”

“How did you become a spy for Cuttlefish?”

The sand dragon peered down at him curiously, “Someone asked me nicely.”

“So you just said yes?”

“I was young and foolish.” Scorpion said. “I didn’t calculate the risks properly and, well, it’s too late to say no now.”

“Oh.”

“If,” Scorpion hesitated, then blurted out, “If Cuttlefish, or anyone does ask you to do them a favour, consider the risk. Consider the future. Where will you be one, five, ten years from then? And the dragons you care about? Where will they be? If the answer is dead? Don’t risk it.”

“Why? Why not risk it anyway?”

“Sometimes the risk reaps results that the reward can’t repay. I’m telling you this now, so don’t go and learn it the hard way, SkyWing.” Scorpion said. She shook herself “Come on. Let’s get back to Bay and Avalanche.”

Talon followed Scorpion back up the beach to the other dragons. Avalanche was pacing nervously and Bay was sprawled across the beach, wings spread, soaking up the sunlight.

“Nautilus is running late,” Bay said, eyes glancing up to the sky again.

“Palace dragons.” Scorpion muttered. "Always think that everything runs to their schedule."

“No, from what Cuttlefish says Nautilus isn’t often late.” Bay mused. “Maybe something happened.”

“Give him five minutes or so,” Scorpion said.

That reminded Talon of why Bay and Scorpion were here in the first place. Which reminded him, “Yesterday, the SandWings mentioned, um, why are the SandWings trying to find the SeaWing Palace?”

What?” Bay asked, alarmed. She scrambled to her feet, spraying sand across Talon's claws. “They’re what?”

Scorpion suddenly looked uncomfortable. She shifted her weight and stared out at the empty sky, “I’m not.”

“But- but there are SandWings – Blister’s SandWings – our allies – who are trying to find our palace?” Bay asked.

Scorpion sighed. “It’s not a big deal. It’s just a palace. Knowing where it is doesn’t make us any more likely to attack. Take the SkyWing palace for example.”

“SkyWings have hundreds more dragons than SeaWings,” Bay snapped. “They have the dragons to fight against attackers. Us SeaWings only agreed to fight with your dragons because we thought you'd be honourable, like us!”

Scorpion’s barbed tail flicked upwards sharply, poised to strike.

“Hey, stop fighting.” Talon threw his wings up. “Talk this out, talk. Am I the dragonet here? Because it doesn't feel like it.”

Bay sighed and forced out a, “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Scorpion agreed. “Perhaps I should be apologising for not telling you earlier. But it certainly isn’t easy, balancing my alliance with you SeaWings and my loyalty to Princess Blister.”

“We’ll talk about it in detail later.” Bay decided. “It’s not what we came here today for.”

“You’re right.”

An uncomfortable silence fell upon the four dragons.

“So, um, what’s Blister like?” Talon asked, hoping he could find a way to end the quiet, “From what I've read, I've heard she's smart.”

“Yes.” Scorpion said. “She is. Why?”

“It was kind of awkward when no one was talking? So I asked a question?”

Avalanche laughed slightly, rolling her eyes. She cuffed Talon affectionally over the shoulders. “If you're worried about your secrets being spilled, Scorpion, we aren’t going to tell anyone. Who would we tell?”

Scorpion ruffled her wings indignantly, “Well, yes, Princess Blister is intelligent. She has the best interests of the kingdom at heart.”

“Oh?” Talon prompted. “What interests?”

All the scrolls he’d read had described the SandWing princess as evil. According to scrolls, Burn was the only correct choice, Burn was strong and brave and fierce and Blister was cowardly and sly and manipulative. Of course the slimy, cowardly SeaWings would ally themselves with her.

“She wants territory for the SandWings. She was treasure to make us richer. She wants to end the war.” Scorpion said.

“Didn’t she start the war?” Avalanche asked.

“With the best of intentions. She knew she couldn’t become queen if it came down to one-on-one combat with Burn.” Scorpion said, hissing over the words. “And she couldn’t allow a dragon as cruel and vicious and bloodthirsty as Burn take the throne.”

“So you would never allow another SandWing to become queen of the kingdom?” Talon asked.

“The idea never crossed my mind.” Scorpion said it with a sickening sense of finality, a tone Talon had heard before when SkyWings talked of Burn. A tone that meant they would never be convinced otherwise as long as Scarlet and Burn were alive. A tone that made it impossible to even try and end a war, because they couldn’t ever be reasoned with.

Chapter Text

Nautilus spent the morning pacing along the mouth of his cave afraid that, if he were to go find Whirlpool and confront the dragonet, he’d lose track of time and keep Talon, Avalanche, Bay and Cuttlefish waiting, but knowing it was much too early to leave for the island. 

Wait until midday, he kept telling himself, be patient.

When he finally deemed the sun to be high enough in the sky, he swooped towards the exit, only to have a dragon soar upwards and block his path, green wings spread to reveal elegant black swirls.

“Nix!” Nautilus cried, surprised. He hadn't seen his sister in days, having had lost track of time and his usual schedule since leaving the palace.

“Nautilus.” Nix returned agitatedly, swooping in a tight circle around her. “Where were you? Why didn’t you come see me when you got back?”

Nautilus hesitated, indecisive on whether to tell her, or to keep the SkyWings' secret. “It’s . . . a long story, Nix.”

“Try me.”

Nix had a gleam in her eye, one that said she wouldn’t be taking ‘no’ for an answer anytime soon. She would never believe whatever lie Nautilus tried to come up with. He was probably better off telling her the truth.

“Okay,” He said finally. “Outside. Come on.”

Nix led the way down into the lake and through the tunnel. With her ahead of him, Nautilus somehow felt less afraid of the tunnel walls collapsing in on him. They emerged into the ocean and Nix let Nautilus lead her away from the palace, till they were floating about halfway between the Summer Palace and Flounder Island, where Nautilus had left Talon and Avalanche. It was nearing midday, but Nautilus explained everything to Nix, from the moment he’d left the palace to the moment he returned, leaving nothing out. Nix’s eyes grew wider and wider, but she didn’t interrupt him once.

When he finished, he looked at her anxiously. “So, um . . . that’s . . . what happened.”

“You . . . hid two enemy SkyWings in our territory?”

“Well, yes?” Nautilus said. “I, uh, was actually on my way to check on them now.”

Nix blinked her emerald green eyes once, as if waiting for him to admit it was all just a joke.

“Don’t you have anything to say?” Nautilus asked. Because it wasn't a joke.

“And I thought your life was exciting before.” Nix’s face broke out into a smile. “Can I come with you and meet them?”

“You don’t care I let enemy dragons into our kingdom?” Nautilus demanded. "Two ex-soldiers who you don't know and possibly can't trust?"

“Do you really think I’m worried about two dragons who don’t want to kill anyone?” Nix asked. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go! I've never met a SkyWing before. What are they like?”

Nix led the rest of the way to Flounder Island. It was definitely past midday when the two SeaWings waded out of the ocean. There were four dragons on the beach, a SeaWing, two SkyWings and a SandWing.

The SeaWing was Bay, laying on the beach with her dark purple-blue wings spread, soaking up the sunlight. Talon and Avalanche sat side-by-side, tails intertwined. The SandWing sat upright, dark eyes boring into Nix and Nautilus as they walked onto the sand. She was tall and thin, with long limbs and weird black markings down the ridge along her back.

“Hi Nautilus!” Talon greeted, leaping to his feet excitedly. “You brought a friend.”

“This is my sister, Nix.” Nautilus said. “Nix, this is Cuttlefish’s apprentice, Bay. The tall SkyWing is Avalanche and the little one is Talon.”

“Hey!” Talon protested. “I’m not that much smaller than Bay.”

Nix giggled.

“Scorpion.” The SandWing said, stretching her neck to display the dark markings. “And before you ask, the black stuff along my ridge is a tattoo. Yes, very exotic, very artsy, I know you SeaWings fall over each other to see something like it.”

Nautilus’ nose scrunched. That was rude. He wasn’t sure he liked this SandWing. Nix broke the tension with a polite, “Nice to meet you all.”

“Likewise,” Bay said cheerfully.

“I’ve never seen SkyWings before.” Nix said, admiring the red and orange dragons. “You’re so much taller than I expected.”

Nautilus looked to Bay. “Why are we here?”

“Talon and Avalanche are having a little SandWing problem,” Bay began.

“Oh dear, we know all about those.” Nix said.

Nautilus nodded in agreement, remembering the reports of SandWings following council members, and his own experience with the sand dragons. “They’ve been following us. It’s pretty creepy.”

“Well, the only want to find out where you live.” Talon said dryly.

Scorpion and Avalanche snorted, but Nautilus didn’t find it all that funny. Enemy dragons were following them because they want to know where the palace was? That was a serious threat, Nautilus should really think about reporting it at the next council meeting.

“A couple of SandWings landed on this island and recognised SkyWing footsteps.” Bay continued. “Scorpion says they’re planning on returning tonight, so we’re going to go take Talon and Avalanche to a different island.”

“How does Scorpion know? And can we trust her?” Nautilus asked. He hadn't met the SandWing before, and he wasn't exactly going to put all his faith in a stranger.

Scorpion’s barbed tail flicked sharply along the sand. “Of course you can trust me!”

“Scorpion is like Summit, a spy working for us SeaWings.” Bay said. “We can trust her, Cuttlefish trusts her.”

“So does she know who’s sending the SandWings?” Nix asked. It wasn’t an accusation, it was a genuine question, but Scorpion hissed as if Nix had raked her claws across the sand dragon’s snout.

“That’s something we have to discuss,” Bay said. “But not now.”

“Where are we going now?” Talon asked, staring out at the ocean as if he longed to explore every metre of it.

“It needs to be somewhere the SeaWings wouldn’t go. And somewhere the SandWings wouldn’t think to look.” Scorpion said reasonably. "Maybe somewhere well out of the way, and located at a distance from our island with Princess Blister."

Bay had a hesitant look on her face, as though an internal war was playing out inside her mind. Finally, with all eyes on her, she said, “Well, I can . . . I can think of one place . . .”

Nautilus glanced at Nix, who had seemingly reached the same conclusion. There was one island that would keep SeaWings from it more effectively than even the threat of enemy SkyWings.

“You can’t be thinking of Albatross Island,” Nautilus breathed, stomach rolling in horror. She couldn't really be considering sending them to a place full of so much horror and bloodshed.

Bay picked at the sand on her tail, “. . . no dragons would think to look there . . .”

“Because it’s haunted!” Nautilus spat.

“Even the SandWings know that island is off limits,” Scorpion said. “That place is serious bad news, you can’t send them there, Bay.”

“Albatross Island.” Talon said. “That sounds really familiar. And really bad.”

“Albatross Island was named after an ancient SeaWing animus, Albatross.” Nix said softly.

The two SkyWings glanced at each other and something passed between them.

Talon shot to his feet, wings raised and teeth bared, "Albatross? As in the one that killed Princess Sunset? That Albatross?"

“You named an island after that dragon?” Avalanche’s jaw was hanging open in horror.

“And it’s haunted?” Talon demanded incredulously. “That’s where you want us to go?”

Chapter Text

Bay’s expression dropped.

Avalanche felt a touch guilty at dismissing the SeaWing's ideas with such instant dislike, but thinking that sending two SkyWings to an island where a SkyWing princess had been killed by SeaWing royalty was . . . tactless, to say the least. Especially since Talon had made it clear that he and Avalanche weren't interested in war, at all.

“Right,” Bay said tightly. “I forgot about the murder of Princess Sunset.”

“There were a lot of other dragons who died,” Nix volunteered. "A lot of SeaWings. It wasn't a targeted attack on your princess."

“But.” Bay said, regaining her bravado. “I’m pretty sure that it isn’t actually haunted. That’s just a myth.”

“It is a good hiding place.” Scorpion said, although even the SandWing looked unconvinced. “Not even SandWings would go there.”

“But for good reason.” Nautilus protested. Avalanche would believe that Nautilus believed the island was haunted, even though ghosts didn't exist. SeaWings were the wishy-washy type of dragon to believe that dead spirits could actually manifest and . . . what? Spook you? Ghosts were nothing more than a dragonet-tale.

“Where else would you suggest?” Bay asked, shaking sand off her wings and not meeting anyone's eyes.

Avalanche glanced uncertainly at Talon. The smaller SkyWing didn’t look nearly as scared as the SeaWings. Avalanche wasn’t scared either, but the idea didn’t sit well with her. Animus dragons were definitely forbidden. They were bad news. That had been proved all throughout history. So staying in a place so ingrained with animas magic that it leaked from the island like blood form a wound sounded less than ideal. Who was to say there wasn't still traces of magic in the island? After all, there must be a reason the SeaWings avoided it. Other than that they were cowardly jellyfish-like blobs of dragons.

“I think it’s worth a try.” Talon said after a long pause. “How bad can it be? It’s been years since Albatross died. And . . . there have been worse animus dragons throughout history.”

“Yes, exactly,” Bay nodded, seeming to Avalanche to be more than a little desperate.

Nautilus ran his claws through the sand, “But . . .”

His wings were shaking slightly, Avalanche was right in thinking that he was more afraid than he was letting on.

“Look, it’s just an island. I’ve been there before. It’s creepy, sure, but not haunted.” Bay said. She sighed heavily and added, “How about we solve this the SeaWing way. We can vote. Should Talon and Avalanhce move to Albatross Island where they'll have immediate safety? Or should they stay here until we can move them somewhere else?”

Nautilus and Nix nodded instantly, the idea seeming perfectly sensible to them. Avalanche frowned. A vote? Why? Shouldn't Talon and Avalanche have the only say in it, since it was their lives at risk? But it may also be Nautilus', and Bay's and Nix's, if they were found hiding what appeared to be enemy soldiers in their territory.

“Have you two ever voted before?” Bay asked softly.

Avalanche shook her head, still watching the SeaWings sceptically.

“Well, just raise your wing at the option you like best, okay?”

The SkyWings nodded. Avalanche didn’t really know what option she liked better. She did want to get away from that SandWings who had sounded more than a little inclined to kill her, but to Albatross Island? The place where Albatross had murdered Princess Sunset? Surely there were better options.

“All in favour of finding a different island for Talon and Avalanche to stay at?” Bay asked.

Nautilus and Nix both raised their wings at once.

“All in favour of moving Talon and Avalanche to Albatross Island?”

Scorpion and Bay raised their wings. Avalanche and Talon exchanged a glance, then both lifted a wing. Nautilus looked a little ill, but resigned.

“Right, well, Albatross Island it is,” Bay said. Avalanche thought that she didn't seem nearly as happy as should be expected. Maybe Bay wasn't entirely convinced that the island wasn't haunted. Stupid SeaWings. “It’s really not that bad – the remains of the Island Palace are still there, so you’ll have somewhere to sleep at least.”

“Right. It won’t be that bad.” Avalanche said, grinning. "I've always wanted to sleep in the nice parts of a palace."

“Honestly, you SeaWings are a walking bundle of nerves.” Scorpion scoffed. “The most terrifying part will be trying not to get caught as we heard our little squadron of mismatched dragons to Albatross Island.”

Bay glanced over at Avalanche and Talon and nodded. “A SandWing, two SkyWings and three SeaWings, one of whom is a high-profile council member. Not the best combo.”

“We could skirt around the coast, bordering the Mud Kingdom.” Nautilus said hesitantly. “That’s what Avalanche, Talon and I did when I bought them here. Although it was night then.”

“The SeaWings rarely go so far west. Not even hunting parties stray too far from the palace if they can avoid it,” Nix agreed. “As long as we stay clear of the shore settlements we won't be seen.”

Scorpion pitched in, “Blister never sends us far west in SeaWing territory.”

“And if we run into any MudWings we can lie and saw that we found SkyWing spies that we’re taking to Queen Coral.” Bay agreed.

"If there's one thing I love, it's being held captive," Talon rolled his eyes and nudged Avalanche's wing.

Scorpion puffed an amused cloud of smoke, “Well then, let’s go.”

They flew in silence, Bay in the lead and Nautilus and Nix at the end. They didn’t use the V-formation from before, just glided in a chaotic group north, towards the Diamond Spray Delta. They didn’t see any other dragons – no SeaWings, no MudWings, no SandWings, no SkyWings – but Avalanche couldn’t help but wonder what state the Kingdom of the Sky was in.

Were they still looking for Talon? Were they looking for Avalanche now too? Were Overcast and Woodnote okay? What was Kestrel doing? What was happening with the rest of her ex-section? Had they found replacements for her already? Avalanche even spent a brief moment wondering if Summit was okay.

It was about mid-afternoon when they arrived at Albatross Island. At first, it looked like a regular island, overgrown with jungle-like plants, long beaches, glittering blue waves pounding against the pale sand. But as they drew closer, Avalanche couldn't help notice that there was something different about the island. Between the tall trees and clinging vines there were hints of an ancient building, rotting wood and aging stone and glimmers of shining gemstones imbedded in moss-covered statues. The very sun felt colder the closer to the shore they flew.

The group landed one of the island's two beaches, the one that the sun still shone down onto.

“So this is where the infamous Royal SeaWing Massacre took place.” Scorpion said, curling her tail around her back legs and looking around as if the island was a particularly interesting museum exhibit and not the site of the death of so many members of royalty.

“This is it,” Bay’s voice trembled almost inaudibly.

“Come on, it’s been nearly two thousand years since then.” Nix said softly, perhaps trying to convince herself, or Nautilus, that it was safe.

Bay glanced up at the sky. “It’s getting late, I should go. Places to be, dragons to meet, spying to do. I’ll come back if something happens.”

“I should leave as well.” Scorpion said. “Torrid will be quite annoyed if I return empty-clawed from my hunting trip. Goodbye SkyWings, I’m sure this won’t be the last we see of each other.”

“See you Bay, goodbye Scorpion.” Talon said.

“Bye.” Avalanche smiled, dipping her head at the two spies.

“Farewell.” Nix added. Nautilus just nodded tightly.

Scorpion lifted into the air, scales shimmering in the sunlight, flying south without looking back. Bay waded into the ocean, glancing back once, before disappearing under the waves, leaving Nautilus, Nix, Talon and Avalanche alone on the island.

Chapter Text

Standing in the warm afternoon sunlight on a beach in the middle of the ocean, Talon really thought that everyone was exaggerating about Albatross Island. At first he had hated the idea of sleeping somewhere that had been a site of so much bloodshed, and also represented a breaching of peace between the SkyWings and SeaWings, but the island was nothing short of beautiful. Everything in the Kingdom of the Sea was.

Talon turned to look up at the greenery covering the island and catching sight of his own shadow stretching towards the plant-covered ruins. When no one spoke, he asked, "Should we explore, or just keep standing here?"

That was perhaps the wrong thing to ask. Nautilus shuffled slightly back towards the ocean, as if expecting an ancient ghost-animus to burst out of the undergrowth and stab them all. "I don't think that's a good idea. There are a lot of things that could go wrong, some not even related to this place's history. The ruins are old, and-"

"He's nervous," Nix supplied, nudging her brother's wing sympathetically. "I admit that the idea of exploring Albatross Island doesn't sit well with me either. Perhaps at a later date, when it isn't getting dark. After all, SkyWings can't see well at night, can they?"

"No," Talon admitted. He wasn't bothered about that, that was what fire was for.

Avalanche had seemingly been thinking the same thing, "Still no fire, I assume?"

Nautilus nodded firmly, "Still no fire. There's so much you could set on fire here."

"Are the SandWings allowed fire?" Avalanche asked curiously. Talon wondered if it really was just surface-level curiosity, or if there was something more behind it. Was she trying to figure out something? Did it have to do with Scorpion? Talon wasn't sure if he trusted Scorpion, and he hoped Avalanche was on the same page.

"Well, yes," Nautilus answered, "But they are our allies. We know where they are, what they're doing, what they're planning. We can monitor their movements and see any damage caused by fire. Your fire on the other claw could potentially attract SandWings to your location. I'm quite sure you moved here to avoid that."

"I hope Cuttlefish is right in thinking we can trust Scorpion," Avalanche murmured, twisting her head to stare in the direction the SandWing had flown off in.

Talon stretched his wings upwards, then looked out at the setting sun. "Are you two going to stay the night?"

He sort of hoped the answer would be a yes. He liked the idea of spending more time with the SeaWings. They were kind, and funny, and nothing like what he had been told SeaWings would be like.

"No," Nix said apologetically. "Dragons would get suspicious."

"Talons and tails!" Nautilus said suddenly. "Nix, we have to go, I'm going to miss my Council Meeting!"

"Oh dear," Nix said, looking equally worried as her brother. Their foreheads both scrunched in the same way, eyes narrowing and claws worrying against the sand. "You're right. We need to get going."

Still, Nautilus dipped his head graciously, "Talon, Avalanche."

"Goodbye," Nix said, waving a wing while Nautilus was already wading into the ocean. "It was lovely to meet you two."

"You too," Avalanche smiled, although Talon knew that she thought the pleasantries were a waste of time. The two SeaWings disappeared under the waves as if they'd never been on the beach in the first place. Talon turned to Avalanche, "So I know Nix and Nautilus didn't want to explore the island, but do you have any such qualms?"

Avalanche laughed, "Well, I don't think we've done anything stupid or life-risking in a few days now."

"That's a yes?"

"That's a yes. Who knows, maybe we'll find some cool animus-touched items there?"

Talon shuddered, "Haven't you read any of the legends? Don't touch anything if it's enchanted!"

"And here I was thinking you wanted to explore."

"I want to explore, not die," Talon protested, which was quite a reasonable desire in his opinion. Before Avalanche could tease him any further he spun around with a spray of sand and darted up towards the rotting wooden planks and vine-covered buildings. Avalanche followed and came to a stop beside Talon as he was reaching out to poke at a moss-covered wall. It creaked ominously, threatening to give way if he pushed it too hard.

"There's a doorway just up there," Avalanche flicked her tail towards the jungle. There was a gap in the wood that was too evenly placed to be anything but a doorway of sorts, half-hidden behind a cluster of bright blue flowers. Talon didn't wait for Avalanche, he leapt up onto a log, digging in his claws to avoid losing his balance, then pushed through the undergrowth to the doorway. Behind him he heard Avalanche forcing her way through the foliage.

Talon poked his entire head inside the doorway. It was dark, and quiet. Aside from the slow drip of water, the only sound was that of small creatures scuttling away. When nothing bit his head off, Talon stepped further inside, listening to the creak of the floorboards under foot. He could feel Avalanche's warmth as she pressed in close behind him, her breath ghosting on his wings.

"Lovely place to spend the night," Talon quipped, squinting through the darkness. "I can't see anything."

"Well, it is dark," Avalanche muttered.

"Really? I didn't notice?" Talon wasn't used to the dark. In the palace, there was always fire and warmth, always lit torches and shining stars and harsh sunlight. There was never a moment when it was completely dark and quiet like it was here. Still, he continued forwards, wings spread to feel the walls on either side of them. It was a corridor of sorts. Suddenly the uneven wooden plank floor gave way to something smooth and cold.

"Talon," Avalanche breathed, "look down."

The floor was clear, shining slightly, and showing that under their claws was water, glittering with reflected sunlight.

"Is this . . . glass?" Talon fumbled with the unfamiliar word, tapping his claws against the see through floor. "I've read about this. SandWings make it."

"It's like the air is holding us," Avalanche said. "How has this lasted two thousand years?"

Talon continued more cautiously, half expecting the floor to give way under him and send them both crashing down to the water below. It didn't and they rounded a corner. Talon paused again, taking in the new scene. Spears tipped with sharp sea-shells were scattered haphazardly across the corridor, between two long, hollow wooden structures on either wall. In the middle of the corridor, the clear floor was stained an ugly, dark red. A red that Talon had seen more than enough times.

"That's blood," Avalanche muttered.

"Yeah," Talon hissed softly. It smelt old and stale, and Talon couldn't help but think it could be from one of the dragons who had died in the massacre years ago. "I wonder what happened here."

"You don't think it could be from a dragon who died in the massacre?" Avalanche asked, wrapping one wing around Talon. He leaned into her, still staring at the blood.

"Probably."

"Do you think it could be from . . . y'know . . . Albatross?" Avalanche whispered the last word, as if the blood could hear them. Talon didn't believe in ghosts, he didn't think two thousand year old blood could hear them and manifest into its previous owner (was that the right term when thinking about blood? Talon wasn't sure), but staring at the bones he did feel a sense of unease creeping through his bones. Avalanche continued, "I was told that Albatross was stabbed with a spear."

"It could be him," Talon agreed.

"My father told me stories about him when I was a dragonet. I never knew where he got them from, since they had so much more detail than any scrolls did," Avalanche said softly. She was watching the corridor unblinkingly, amber eyes dark in the reflection of the fading sunlight. "I think now, maybe Cuttlefish told him, and he told me."

"Maybe we've had enough exploring," Talon said. "We should find somewhere to sleep."

"Mmm," Avalanche hummed in agreement.

They turned away from the blood-stained corridor, both willing to let whatever scene they had disrupted stay untouched in the backs of their minds.

Chapter Text

When Nautilus returned to his sleeping cave in the Summer Palace, he found that it was already occupied. A small, green dragonet was perched by the mouth of the cave, tail curled neatly over his talons and scales still gleaming with water droplets. Nautilus narrowed his eyes, but bowed his head to greet Whirlpool.

Whirlpool cleared his throat self-importantly, "Mr Nautilus, where were you all day?"

"What are you doing here?" Nautilus didn't bother with pleasantries. He had more important things to worry about, and Whirlpool was not a dragon who he was willing to extend so much respect for anymore. The afternoon's events had washed Whirlpool from his mind like footsteps by the tide, but now when he was facing the dragonet, all his suspicions about Whirlpool lying came rushing back.

"I was waiting for you to return, sir," Whirlpool said, voice slick and smooth. "I was worried that you were missing, uh, permanently this time."

That was not a legitamate worry. Nautilus was sure of it, there was no way that Whirlpool held any real concern for Nautilus' wellbeing. Could it have possibly been a threat?

"I'm fine, Whirlpool. Thank you for your concern," Nautilus said tartly. The cave was stuffy, or maybe it was just Nautilus' head. The space felt full of clouds, all the politics and bowing and scraping and secret intentions that surrounded the SeaWing Palace were fogging his thoughts, making it hard to know what was fact and what was desperate paranoia. Nautilus had felt so much lighter, so much more free, with Nix and Talon and Avalanche that afternoon.

"Oh, yes sir, I see that," Whirlpool nodded attentively, then stood up and turned to leave.

"Before you go, Whirlpool," Nautilus interrupted, spreading a wing to block the smaller dragon's path.

"Yes, sir?" Whirlpool's claws were tight on the lip of the cave.

"You are three and a half years old, correct?" Nautilus knew it was correct.

"Yes, sir, you know that."

"You are not yet officially my apprentice, are you?"

"No, sir."

"And so, during my impromptu absence, I would not have had any dragon to fill in for me at council meetings, yes?"

"Yes."

"So then why," Nautilus asked, "Were you attending said council meetings in my place? And why did no dragon question your authority to be there?"

Whirlpool gaped at Nautilus, looking like a fish out of water. Had he somehow thought that Nautilus would not find out? Whirlpool spluttered, "I- I, Mr Nautilus, sir, they didn't ask for authority. I'm almost four, I easily pass for a four year old, I'm practically your apprentice as is."

"Be that as it may, you had no permission to attend meetings where highly important and secretive matters are discussed," Nautilus pressed on.

"I took, um, I had the initiative to attend the meetings, in case something important was discussed, something you needed to be made aware of," Whirlpool said, gaining confidence as he spoke. "Queen Coral was pleased, Queen Coral was proud of me. You're never proud of me."

Nautilus growled, "This isn't about my behaviour, Whirlpool. You lied to every dragon in the kingdom and went behind my back to attend meetings you should not have attended."

Whirlpool's dark eyes had a sudden gleam. His voice was snide and oily again as he asked, "Mr Nautilus, sir, what about your lying and your going behind dragons' backs?"

"What in Pyrrhia are you talking about?" Nautilus asked. His voice was quiet, but so was the cave and his question bounced off the walls again and again. Whirlpool couldn't possibly know about the SkyWings, could he?

Whirlpool lifted his head and held eye contact with Nautilus, "Do you expect me to believe you didn't have any contact with dragons from other tribes while you and Ms Cuttlefish were absent? And where were you today? You never told me. Is it because you were visiting enemy dragons again?"

"Whirlpool, making unfounded accusations can get you in very deep trouble-"

"Not as much trouble as conspiring against the queen with dragons from other tribes."

"I have done no such thing," Nautilus insisted. "Whirlpool, I have been lenient of your behaviour recently. However, I will not allow you to continue to lie about yourself, and about me. You are not fit to be my apprentice when you turn four, or ever. You are forbidden from working as an apprentice or helper for as long as I am Councillor of Publishing. Is that understood?"

Whirlpool was still for a long moment. Then he nodded shallowly, dark eyes narrowing, "Perfectly."

"Then?"

"Then I won't take any of your time," Whirlpool ducked under Nautilus' wing and flopped off the cave, down towards the lake. Nautilus watched him for a few moments, before turning away.

He had just fired his would-be apprentice. That meant even more work for Nautilus going forwards. He certainly wouldn't have time to visit his SkyWing friends if he was in charge of all publishing duties. Despite everything he did wrong, Whirlpool was an effective worker. Had firing him really been the right call? Or had it been a decision based on temporary annoyance and exhaustion?

Nautilus flopped down on the soft bedding at the back of his cave and covered his eyes with his wings. What had he done to warrant all the trouble that came his way? Was it really so wrong of him just to have wanted to be Council of Publishing, no strings attached, no spies or hidden SkyWings? What had he done to cause everything to change in such a short amount of time? Was it visiting mainland Pyrrhia? Or was it before then? Perhaps the night he had spoken to Cuttlefish on the beach? Or maybe the first time he'd ever spoken to Cuttlefish, back when he was an apprentice himself? Maybe he'd just been born cursed.

Maybe it ran in the family. Nix would probably say it did, with the bad luck she'd faced.

Nautilus shifted slightly, unable to get comfortable. His scales itched. He knew he should be trying to sleep, or at least form a plan for what he would do the next morning. He should find a new dragon to take on as an apprentice. He should keep working, keep being productive. He shouldn't keep visiting Talon and Avalanche. Maybe Nix could do it in his place. He would miss them, though. With Talon and Avalanche he wasn't being constantly judged, or having pressure to behave in certain ways. He was just himself, and that was enough for the SkyWings.

Despite the fact that he should be working tomorrow, Nautilus decided that, after a night's sleep, he'd throw caution to the wind and visit Talon and Avalanche again. Whirlpool and his job be damned.

Chapter Text

The sunrise was still smearing soft pink across the horizon when the SeaWing scrambled out of the water, scales dripping and eyes drooping. Avalanche looked up wearily from the patch of sand where she and Talon had spent the night, in the shade of the ruins they'd explored, only to come face to face with Nautilus.

"Is something wrong?" She asked the SandWing wearily. He wouldn't arrive so early for no reason, would he?

"No," Nautilus said, eyes darting about cagily. "I just fancied a visit."

Okay, something was definitely wrong.

"You look exhausted," Talon noted, then yawned and rested his head on Avalanche's shoulder.

Nautilus sighed and nodded, "Things . . . aren't ideal at the Summer Palace."

Ah, there it was. Avalanche knew from experience that high-ranking officials got frustrated and fed-up all the time, complaining about the intricacies of their job, and paperwork, and moons knew what else. She also knew that they often liked to take it out on low ranked dragonet soldiers, but Nautilus didn't seem like that type of dragon.

"How is Nix?" Talon asked kindly.

"Fine, good. I haven't seen her since last night, but, but nothing could've changed since then, right?" Nautilus said, his wings tensing as if he was ready to turn and swim back to the Summer Palace to check.

Avalanche puzzled over what to say. She simultaneously wanted to know what was wrong but didn't want to pry, and more than anything she wanted to comfort the SeaWing. That was a sentence she never thought she would think, let alone think sincerely. But before Avalanche could find a way to put it, Talon said inelegantly, "You're upset. Why?"

Classic Talon. Avalanche thwacked a wing against him and hissed, "Way to put it bluntly."

Nautilus flopped down on the beach with a spray of sand, "There's this dragonet I wanted to make my apprentice, for my job. He's smart, but not exactly loyal. He accused me of conspiring against the tribe - which I would never do - and hiding enemy dragons - which, granted, I am doing - but I basically fired him. But again, I'm worried he might do something to Nix, or me. He's not exactly trustworthy."

"That, uh, sucks," Avalanche said, attempting sympathy. She didn't know much about SeaWings or how their palace operated. When her father had known Cuttlefish, the older SeaWing had never mentioned anything at all. Although Nautilus seemed to value both his job and his sister in the same way a SkyWing valued their section and defending their tribe, or the same way SandWings valued anything shiny, or IceWings valued being IceWings. Meaning, Nautilus valued his sister and job a lot.

"It's fine," Nautilus said, looking as though it was not at all fine, "It'll all work out fine."

"Hmm," Avalanche hummed thoughtfully. She searched for a subject to distract Nautilus with, but Talon beat her to it.

"How many SeaWings are there? In your tribe?" He asked.

Nautilus looked a little taken aback by the question, tilting his head and considering the question, "I can't exactly reveal that, but I'm sure our population is much less than the SkyWings."

"Come on," Talon wheedled, "Who would we tell? I'm just interested, you know, about everything. You'd be surprised how little information we have in our libraries. I couldn't actually tell you how many SkyWings are in the Kingdom."

Nautilus' voice was brittle, "There are less than five hundred of us in the palaces. And less than a thousand total."

Avalanche's jaw dropped, "That's so few."

Nautilus ran his claws through the sand, "It's a big ocean, there's a lot of hazards. Storms, sharks, riptides, I heard of a dragon whose brother was killed by a giant squid."

His tone was light but there was something dark and haunted in his eyes. Avalanche had a feeling that some of the things he listed he'd had personal experience with.

"In the palace, there's a breeding program for soldiers," Avalanche tested cautiously. She doubted the SeaWings would have such a thing.

Nautilus' surprised expression confirmed it, "You . . . force dragons to mate?"

"Well, no," Avalanche said hesitantly. Yes, she thought uncomfortably, "Usually dragons want to. Soldiers get to mate only during the breeding program, too busy fighting the rest of the time."

"How's it done in the Sky Kingdom?" Talon protested.

"Well, there are certainly no, ahem, breeding programs," Nautilus spat out the words like they had a bad taste. "Dragons are allowed the autonomy of choosing who they marry and when or if they have dragonets."

Avalanche nodded, "That's usual for dragons who aren't soldiers. Soldiers just have very rigorous standards and routines and, uh, I guess it is a little messed up, but . . ."

"I can just imagine," Nautilus said frowning, "I'm glad I'm not a soldier, let alone a SkyWing soldier."

"Oh, no," Talon said earnestly, "It's one of the better jobs you could be picked for. You get free food, you don't have to worry about losing your job - only your head. That was a joke. Sort of."

Avalanche laughed, but Nautilus didn't seem to find it funny.

"And plus, you have the honour of fighting for your queen," Talon sounded a lot less enthusiastic about that part.

"There are also opportunities," Avalanche joined in pitching the career path. "You can be promoted and gain a lot of control and influence by moving up the rankings."

For a moment Kestrel lingered in Avalanche's mind.

"But if dragons aren't born into the role of a soldier, how do you chose in SeaWing territory who joins your army?" Talon asked.

Nautilus cleared his throat self-importantly. Avalanche guessed that the SeaWing was jumping at the chance to talk about his own experiences, and to show of how much better his tribe was. Stuck up SeaWing, but at least he was nice about it. "Dragonets are schooled-"

"School?" Avalanche interrupted. The word was foreign to Avalanche, and although Talon seemed to recognise it, it certainly wasn't a SkyWing thing.

"You don't know what school is?" Nautilus asked incredulously.

"No?"

"Oh, well," Nautilus took a deep breath, "It's basic education. You know the sorts, reading, writing, mathematics, survival, history, aquatic. Every dragon in the Sea Kingdom goes to school."

Avalanche nodded, "Rich dragonets have private tutors, and we're all taught to read and write and survive in basic soldier training."

"Dragonets go to school when they're seven," Nautilus continued, "Outside of school, they have programs to work or train in areas which interest them and form connections with other dragons who work in those areas. They get a proper job when they graduate."

“Wow, school sounds awesome.” Talon breathed.

Nautilus shrugged his shoulders roughly, “Dragonets usually hate it.”

“Are you kidding? You get to learn things all day?” Talon leapt to his feet, spraying sand over Avalanche’s claws. She shook the grains of sand off, watching Talon’s excitement with amusement. Nautilus nodded, looking a little perplexed at the smaller SkyWing's excitement. Out at sea, something strange coloured and oddly dragon shaped glistened in the sunlight.

A slow, creeping feeling of unease oozed through Avalanche’s scales, making her feel shivery and cold.

“Avalanche?” Nautilus murmured, catching onto her discomfort.

“I . . . think something . . .” She murmured, staring out at sea. The dragon-shaped-thing had disapeared, sunk below the waves. In the sky there was nothing, not even a cloud. Definitely no dragons.

Talon tilted his head to the side, also scanning their surroundings. He somehow seemed to know exactly what she was thinking without her having to say it. “You think something . . . or someone . . . is watching us?”

Chapter Text

As far as Talon could see, there were no dragons nearby. There wasn't so much as a flash of scales in the sky, no tiny speck that would grow into a dragon hovering on the horizon. But Talon didn't doubt Avalanche's intuition, and his mind was overcompensating with the a creeping, perverted sense of being watched. He wondered briefly is he'd been too quick to dismiss animus curses. He wasn't sure how much he believed in magic, but even if it was real, and was equally unlucky, it surely wouldn't last hundreds of years.

The feeling of being watched creepy, but not supernatural.

Nautilus glanced around uneasily, “Are you sure? There’s nothing that would suggest, is there?”

Talon nodded, unable to explain how he was certain. Perhaps it something bred from a lifetime of being a soldier, trained to always be alert and know when you’re in danger. It sounded stupid, arrogant even, but it was the only thing he could come up with. That, or he and Avalanche were sharing the same delusion.

“Perhaps it’s nothing,” Talon tried to reason. “There’s nothing in the skies, nothing in the forest.”

When Talon finished, Nautilus' eyes widened and spun around.

“Nautilus?” Talon asked. There was nothing visible whatsoever. Was it a weird SeaWing thing? Being able to see things other dragons couldn't? Doubtful. And also unfair. 

“The ocean,” Nautilus spat, then cursed under his breath. "There's nothing in the skies, because they're not in the skies."

“Oh, yes, why didn't we think of that? Because there are always dragons watching us from underwater,” Avalanche snapped.

“We’re in SeaWing territory!” Nautilus said. “SeaWings can, well, breathe underwater.”

Talon felt his heart drop to the tip of his tail. Of course. Of course, of course, of course. It had completely slipped his mind that there may be watching eyes from below the ocean surface.

“That's . . .” Nautilus mumbled, then shook his head and ran his claws anxiously through the sand. “Yes, there are SeaWings watching.”

“How many?” Avalanche asked, flexing her claws.

“Is it Bay? Cuttlefish?” Talon asked hopefully. It was a long shot, but he didn't want it to be enemy dragons, he didn't want to fight.

“Very unfortunately, no.” Nautilus said, then flexed his wings and let his scale light up into luminescent green.

Talon stared into the waves but saw nothing. No flashing scales in return, no tooth or tail of the SeaWings apparently watching from the deep.

“I’ve invited them up onto the beach.” Nautilus sounded less confident with each word.

“Is that a good idea?” Avalanche asked.

“No,” Nautilus said, “But maybe we can talk our way out of it.”

Slowly, a head emerged above the waves, small and dark green. Talon heard Nautilus growl slightly as a dark green SeaWing dragonet climbed out of the ocean, shaking his wings, looking both guilty and triumphant. Another two dragonets, also shades of deep green, climbed out of the ocean, followed by full grown dragon, larger even than Avalanche.

“Well, well, well,” The full grown dragon snarled as she emerged from the ocean like their own personal tidal wave, come to wreck them and leave them out to dry on the shore. “Not quite what I expected from a counsellor.”

The first dragonet sat down and curled his tail around his talons, oozing contempt. “I told you, mother, I told you.”

“Whirlpool . . .” Nautilus said. "Why am I not surprised?"

“You aren’t even trying to hide it.” The full-grown dragonet hissed, and lashed her tail across the sand. “Conspiring with SkyWings. Not what I expected from you, Nautilus.”

“Stalking a counsellor, however, is just what I expected from you, Maelstrom.” Nautilus said. That was blunt, and not the approach Talon would have went with. But then again, he himself had talked back to Queen Scarlet just days before so he wasn't one to talk about being rude.

“Conspiring with SkyWings,” Whirlpool echoed. “Conspiring with Queen Scarlet.”

“Well,” Talon couldn’t help but correct her. Scarlet had made herself very clear in denouncing Talon, and Talon was inclined to return the favour. “We aren’t fans of her either.”

Avalanche stepped on Talon’s tail, in the sensitive part, giving the message ‘hey, idiot, shut up’ very clearly. Talon yelped in pain and glared at her silently. He was only trying to help, wasn't distancing them from Scarlet helpful?

“Woah,” One of the other green dragonets breathed, “He sounds funny, doesn’t he sound funny, Hydro?”

“You’re an idiot.” Hydro replied, sounding just as snooty as Whirlpool. “Of course he sounds funny. He’s a SkyWing.”

“To be fair,” Avalanche drawled. “I think you sound funny.”

“Rude. But what would one expect from SkyWings?” Whirlpool chimed in on his siblings' conversation.

"Arrogant and presumptuous," Avalanche said, "but what would one expect from SeaWings? Oh, do tell me if you don't understand me, but I supposed you were a know-it-all based on the way your head is too big for your shoulders."

Talon would laugh, if he wasn’t so nervous.

Whirlpool scowled furiously and hissed to his siblings, "My head isn't that big, is it?"

“And on Albatross Island, too?” Maelstrom hissed. The way she was glaring at Avalanche made Talon wish he was back in the SkyWing arena all over again. If animus magic was real and Maelstrom had it, Talon had no doubt she would curse Avalanche and all her descendants forever.

A shiver ran through the smallest dragonet and Hydro poked her ribs and said, “Don’t be a kelp head, it’s not haunted.”

“What do you have to say for yourself?” Maelstrom asked, hissing over the words like a snake.

“I’m not- I’m not disloyal.” Nautilus gasped for words and looked at Talon and Avalanche for backup.

“He’s not technically conspiring with Queen Scarlet,” Avalanche chimed in. "My idiot companion was right about that."

"I'm not an idiot companion," Talon muttered, "I like to think I'm the main character."

"I like to let you think that," Avalanche smirked.

“She sounds even funnier.” The smallest dragonet said, gasping like a fish out of water. "Why does she sound so funny?"

“Mae, please be quiet.” Whirlpool said. “The big dragons are talking about important things, not that you’d understand.”

“Hey! I’m only three hours younger than you.” Mae bit back.

Talon glanced at Avalanche, who was trying and failing to hide a smile. It was surprising how even evil dragonets could defuse the hostility of the situation. Talon could remember similar fights breaking out between his section, Kestrel and ... the others. Whose names he really should have learnt. Oops. On Talon's other side, Nautilus looked like he wanted to sink into the sand and disappear.

“This is treachery.” Maelstrom shook her wings, sending glistening drops of water through the air. Her wingspan was the length of Talon's body, which was not a good sign.

“Wow, never heard that one before,” Talon couldn't help but whisper to Avalanche, feeling pleased at the smirk she gave him in return.

“Nautilus, you are under arrest for conspiring against Queen Coral. You, and your SkyWing friends had better come back to the palace peacefully. We don’t need more bloodshed.” Maelstrom said. Beside her, Whirlpool looked disappointed, as if bloodshed was a good thing and anyone normal would want it.

“Talon, Avalanche,” Nautilus said, turning to stare pleadingly at Talon, “Listen to me. Fly. Don’t look back, just fly. I can handle everything else.”

“Trying to save your little allies?” Maelstrom hissed, but she was glancing at their wings nervously, shifting her weight. Who did she want more? Nautilus, or two enemy SkyWings? Talon and Avalanche could easily outfly her, or any of her dragonets. They were SkyWings, they could outfly anyone. And that was what Nautilus was thinking. He was going to sacrifice himself for them. Which was decidedly Not Cool. Talon was supposed to be the self-sacrificing one.

“Talon,” Avalanche spread her wings. "He's right. We need to go, now."

Talon followed Avalanche's lead, leaping into the air and beating his wings as hard as he could, taking himself further and further from Albatross Island. He didn't look back, there was nothing left to look back to.

Chapter Text

Nautilus stood in the Summer Palace's pavilion, the lone subject of speculation to an assortment of dragons who Nautilus least wanted to grace the presence of. Directly in front of him, perched on their thrones, was Queen Coral and King Gill. Fanning out on either side was Prince Shark, Councillor Undertow, Whirlpool and his mother, Nix, Seashell and Cuttlefish. Never before had Nautilus dreamed he would be confronted by such a strange mix of dragons. He wished he hadn't had to come face to face with all of them at once.

Cuttlefish wouldn't meet Nautilus' eyes, her expression remained far away and her eyes blank. Nautilus wondered if she felt guilty, since she had encouraged Nautilus to befriend the SkyWings. Or had it all been intentional on her part?

"Your Majesties," Undertow started, stepping forwards to stand beside Nautilus. The Councillor of Justice didn't spare him a look as she bowed to the king and queen. "Councillors, esteemed guests and ... others."

That was directed at Nix, everyone knew it. Nautilus felt a sea serpent twist in his stomach, the constant disrespect his sister faced never failed to sicken him. Nix, however, didn't even blink.

Undertow continued solemnly, "We have gathered to discuss an accusation of the highest severity. Councillor Nautilus of the SeaWings was accused of treason by esteemed veteran Maelstrom of the SeaWings."

Gasps and murmurs rippled across the pavilion. Nautilus could sense Seashell's disappointment without even glancing at his mother. On the other side of the room, Cuttlefish's distant expression had traded itself in for one of boredom.

"Nautilus, is this true?" King Gill asked sternly.

"You think any dragon would willingly admit to treason?" Shark barked out a laugh.

"Shark, quiet," Queen Coral commanded, then addressed Nautilus directly, "Well?"

Nautilus took a deep breath and hoped his voice didn't shake, "I did not commit treason. I have never, and would never dream of, committing treason. I was indeed socialising with two SkyWing dragonets, however-"

"We don't need a however," Maelstrom interrupted harshly, stepping forwards to tower over the smaller dragons. "He was caught with SkyWing enemies. He admits it!"

"Hold up, hold up," Undertow flapped her wings anxiously, "Let Nautilus defend himself."

Nautilus dipped his head in thanks, but Undertow wasn't paying attention. Nautilus said, "However the two SkyWings in question have been exiled from the Kingdom of the Sky. Their names are Talon and Avalanche and they hold no alliance to any queen, and certainly no alliance to Queen Scarlet."

Queen Coral turned to look at the Council of Spies and Secrets, "Cuttlefish, what have you heard of this?"

"By all accounts, these two dragonets are Talon and Avalanche," Cuttlefish drawled, "Previously soldiers for Queen Scarlet. Talon escaped the SkyWing arena after being accused of treason and Avalanche left of her own accord."

"So one of these dragons was previously involved in treason!" Maelstrom hissed, "Nautilus was plotting with them to plan treason of his own!"

"I'm curious to know why Nautilus was with these SkyWings to begin with," Shark growled, flexing his claws as if he were waiting for the chance to leap forwards and tear them into Nautilus. Nautilus glanced at Cuttlefish, who stared back passively.

He blurted out, "I met them on mainland Pyrrhia after they had been exiled. They're not bad dragons."

Undertow cut in severely, "Weren't you with Cuttlefish throughout your entire visit to mainland Pyrrhia?"

"I myself was summoned north by an informant in the Sky Kingdom," Cuttlefish answered curtly. Her tone left no room for doubt. "Nautilus came with. There we met with the informant and discussed the escapee SkyWing, Talon. We did cross paths with Talon and Avalanche, and neither seemed to hold any more loyalty to Queen Scarlet than us SeaWings do."

Nautius opened his mouth to agree, when a glimmering purple dragonet landed heavily on the middle of the pavilion, sides heaving and wings dripping sea water.

"Bay," Cuttlefish stepped forwards, shaking off the tartness and distance that she'd been carrying herself with the entire trial. Nautilus watched with narrowed eyes as she stepped forwards to her apprentice. Odd, had she just been distracted by her thoughts? Or was something more going on here? "Bay, what news?"

"SandWings," Bay heaved, "Near Flounder Island, heading up towards the Summer Palace."

"What?" Shark bit out, leaping forwards, only for Cuttlefish to wave him away with a wing.

"This is urgent," she implored, turning to Queen Coral. "Nautilus' trial will have to wait."

Queen Coral nodded, "Of course, we can't have our tribe's safety threatened like this. For now let's have Nautilus, um, safely removed."

"Locked away," Cuttlefish added, "In the Deep Sea Palace."

"Yes," Shark spat, "Perfect place for a traitor to rot."

Nautilus felt cold claws running down his back. Locked away? In a prison? Him? He wasn't supposed to be locked away, he was a councillor. This couldn't be happening, the justice system wouldn't allow it, would they?

Queen Coral nodded, standing and spreading her wings, "Of course."

King Gill followed suit, "Nautilus, this is for your own safety too. Some dragons may think it fun to take justice into their own claws. You understand, don't you?"

"Yes, sir," Nautilus said, even as his throat was closing up. He couldn't disobey his queen or king.

Seashell spoke up, "One moment. I'd like a word with Nautilus, privately."

"Of course," Queen Coral said, then murmured to Bay, "Come, tell us what you can."

Undertow lingered, "I'll escort Nautilus to his cell."

The queen was the first to leave the pavilion, followed by Gill, Shark and Bay, who swooped upwards towards the council level of the pavilion. Cuttlefish stayed for a moment, looking as if she wanted to say something, but then turned and disappeared. Maelstrom and Whirlpool both shot lasting glares at Nautilus, then left, winging away to lower levels of the pavilion. Undertow hovered by the far end of the pavilion, back turned. Whether she still had respect for Nautilus or not, the Council of Justice still clearly respected his mother.

Seashell turned to Nix. “What are you still doing here?”

“I’m your daughter, and Nautilus’ brother,” Nix said, not making eye contact. “I want to stay here. Please.”

“What did you want to say to me, Seashell?” Nautilus interrupted curtly. He wasn't going to wait for his mother to insult Nix.

Seashell scowled and cleared her throat, turning back to him, “If it is decided that you are a traitor to our tribe, to our queen, and to me, then let me assure you that I will not hesitate to agree to your punishment.”

“What?” Nautilus asked. He had known his mother to be harsh and demanding, but he didn't think she'd turn on her only remaining son so quickly.

“If you are not loyal to the SeaWings, you do not deserve to be a SeaWing.” Seashell enunciated . “Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes.” Nautilus said. “But first Nix, then me? If you didn't want dragonets it would've been easier not to have them then to go through the trouble of exiling.”

“Nautilus, don't.” Nix murmured.

“If you are guilty.” Seashell stepped in close, waving Nix away. She bent down and stared Nautilus in the eye. He saw his own reflection in her pupil, he looked like nothing more than a tiny dragonet. “If you are found guilty, Nautilus, then I will have no son. I will have no dragonets. And you will be entirely alone.”

Chapter Text

Avalanche could feel a headache working up from the base of her skull. From stress, maybe, or exhaustion, or perhaps just spending so long caught between the glare of the sun and its sparkling reflection on the ocean below. She had Talon had spent long hours flying, feeling lost, floating across the sky without destination. They didn't know where to go. They didn't know where was safe. Not even the ocean was safe anymore. Avalanche didn't understand how something so beautiful could hide something so treacherous. Especially considering that she and Talon didn't even have a tribe to betray. Why were SeaWings so incessant about the evils of SkyWings? SkyWings were loyal soldiers - mostly - it was completely illogical to hate a dragon for obeying orders.

On the horizon, a dull, damp red sunset stained the sky. The last daylight glittered pathetically off her scales, making Avalanche's bright red a murky maroon. Despite the fact that she and Talon had been flying since sunrise, the idea of landing didn’t sound appealing to Avalanche. Land didn’t seem safe anymore.

“We should sleep.” Talon said finally, although he didn't look any more happy about the prospect of landing.

“I know.” Avalanche agreed. She hesitated for a moment, then proposed, “Maybe when the sun disappears.”

Talon swung his head around to look at the sun, and Avalanche followed his gaze. It hunched on the horizon like an ever-watching yellow eye, daring them to land and become vulnerable again.

“Yeah, when it's too dark to keep flying,” Talon agreed.

Avalanche twisted to stare down at the sea again. A few islands spotted the ocean, dark blots on a darker ocean. They had skirted around the northern isles of the Bay of a Thousand Scales, heading further away from the Kingdom of the Sky. To the north and east, there was nothing but endless, empty expanses of water, glimmering with the silver reflections of the moon. Behind them, west and south, was muted reds and oranges, the last reaches of the sunlight stretching its claws out to try and draw them back.

"I think we should turn back to Albatross Island," Talon proposed, angling his wings to sweep in a large circle and head back the way they'd came.

"Why?" Avalanche asked, thinking of the potential danger of SeaWings.

"I didn't take you as one to shy away from danger, Avalanche," Talon attempted to sound playful, but exhaustion seeped through his words. "But think about it, by now they would've searched Albatross Island and deemed to clear of SkyWings, and moved on. They wouldn't think we'd return."

Avalanche swooped in a circle and dove down closer to the ocean. Talon followed her lead. As they skimmed over the waves, Avalanche pretended not to notice that the water took on a dark, ugly red, similar to the colour the ocean had been after the battle with the IceWings. The white-peaked waves reminded her of the cracked ice, the frigid water dredged with waterlogged bodies that slowly sunk below the surface. She could have easily been one of those bodies. Talon or Kestrel could easily have been one of those bodies. How lucky they'd been to have only two of their section killed.

Poor Sparrow, poor Pinion. Avalanche hadn't had the time to spare them thought, not in the frayed mess of emotions and happenings that made up the weeks after the battle. Avalanche closed her eyes for a moment in a silent prayer. Almost none of the soldiers from that battle had had the proper rituals, it had been impossible to retrieve the bodies and leave them to open air, but Avalanche hoped that her section had done the best it could and that Sparrow and Pinion had made it to the other side.

"Home sweet home," Talon's voice interrupted her thoughts.

Avalanche opened her eyes again to see Albatross Island looming up ahead. She followed Talon down to one of the beaches and landed with a heavy spray of sand. Her legs buckled under the sudden need to carry her weight, and her wings instantly began to ache. She flopped down on the soft sand, thoroughly exhausted.

"Tired?" Talon asked, stretching his wings gingerly before folding them up.

"Beyond belief," Avalanche answered.

Talon nodded sympathetically. He curled up beside her, tail intertwined with hers, and tilted his head to look up at the night sky. "Today sucked."

"Yep."

"I hope Nautilus is okay."

"Me too."

The conversation felt empty, hollow. Avalanche didn't really know what to say, or if words could properly fill the space that this latest tragedy had created. Even outside the Kingdom of the Sky, betrayal followed them like a rain cloud.

"He's not a bad dragon," Talon said, "He's not a traitor."

"It's not me you need to convince."

"I know."

Avalanche closed her eyes again, allowing herself to relax into the sand. The sound of the island at night was soothing, the lapping of waves and the chirping of distant insects reminding her of her younger years before the palace. She sighed, "It's okay. It's all going to be okay."

"I know."

"I was talking to myself," Avalanche opened one eye to frown at Talon. "Don't be rude, stop interrupting."

"Ah, sorry."

"It's fine. I suppose I can forgive you."

The two laughed, maybe at just how horrible this entire situation was. There sure wasn’t anything else to laugh about.

"Can we wait a few days?" Talon asked quietly.

"Of course," Avalanche agreed, lifting one heavy wing to nudge Talon's side. "But you know Nautilus isn't coming back."

"I know. But- but still. Just in case," Talon insisted.

Avalanche opened her eyes again. Talon wasn’t looking up at the stars anymore, he was gazing at her, she could see the gleam of his eyes reflected in the moonlight. She opened up one of her wings and he curled up beside her, slotting in perfectly, as if he’d been made to fit there.

“At least we still have each other.” Avalanche murmured.

“Are you a NightWing? Because that was exactly what I was thinking.” Talon said, resting his head on her chest her chest.

“Ugh. If you compare me with one of those stuffy-nosed worms again, I will push you off this island.” Avalanche said. Talon laughed slightly. Avalanche stretched out, curling on her side on the sand, Talon still pressed against her. She could feel his heart beating against her chest, even, calming, soothing.

“It’ll be okay.” She murmured, one last time.

“It’ll be okay.” Talon agreed. “They won’t catch us. We’re too smart.”

“Too good at flying.” Avalanche yawned.

“Too good at flying.” Talon echoed.

Avalanche closed her eyes and let herself enjoy the safety of their embrace.

Chapter Text

Talon awoke to sharp claws poking into his side, not firm enough to tear into his soft underbelly, but enough to hurt. He grumbled and closed his eyes more firmly. Whatever Avalanche had to tell him could wait, right?

“Get up, SkyWing.”

Okay, that wasn’t Avalanche. Talon opened his eyes reluctantly to stare up at Scorpion. The SandWing was looking disdainful, almost appalled, that Talon had been asleep.

“What are you doing here?” Talon asked, yawning and sitting up, too tired be intimidated by the glowering SandWing.

“I’m asking the same of you,” Scorpion hissed, her tail swishing across the sand with horrible hissing sounds. “What happened?”

Talon raised his wings to shield Avalanche from Scorpion's glare. The larger SkyWing slept on peacefully behind him.

"Some SeaWings found us out and took Nautilus to court," Talon explained briefly.

"So you decided to do a fly-by of the entire Bay of a Thousand Scales, just in case someone missed the memo?" Scorpion snorted a puff of smoke. "I'd bet good gold every dragon in the kingdom saw you two parading about. What happened to staying hidden? Did someone replace your brain with a MudWing's?"

“So what if dragons see us?” Talon asked bluntly, stretching his neck up to try and be eye to eye with Scorpion. It was difficult to be loud and assertive when everyone you met was taller than you. “The SeaWings already know we're here.”

“Arrogant SkyWing,” Scorpion hissed distastefully. “If I can find you, so could anyone else. Torrid, Princess Blister, Mi-”

“Did they?” Talon interrupted, suddenly nervous. He'd completely forgotten that it wasn't only SeaWings who inhabited the isles of the Sea Kingdom. Their allies, the SandWings, also lurked out of sight in the undergrowth of islands. Unlike SeaWings, SandWings were malicious and played dirty. With SandWings nearby, Talon wouldn't be surprised to wake up with his throat slit. “Did anyone see us?”

“I did,” Scorpion said. Duh, Talon thought. For once, though, he held his tongue.

“Besides you.”

“Well, naturally everyone knows you're in the area by now. They don't know where to find you, only I know that,” Scorpion looked awfully pleased with herself, but quickly sobered. “Still, others could find you, easily. Too easily. You have to leave.”

“We were going to change islands in a couple of days.”

“No, I mean leave. Get out. Out of the kingdom. Go somewhere else and lay low.”

“But what about Nautilus? We can't leave him!”

“He should have known the risks. He should have been more careful.” Scorpion shrugged ruthlessly. “He bought it upon himself, really.”

Talon shook his head stubbornly. “Even so, it isn’t fair to leave him. Birds of a feather stick together and so on.”

“Stupid SkyWing,” Scorpion scoffed. “You know nothing about the world and how it truly works. You need to look after yourself, first and foremost. Self-preservation is vital if you aren’t part of a united tribe. Even before loyalty to your friends.”

“Well, that sounds exactly like what a selfish SandWing would say.” Talon blurted out, then realised that that definitely wasn’t a good thing to say.

Scorpion made a hissing sound. It took Talon a few moments to realise she was laughing.

“Um? Is that how you usually react when someone insults you?” Talon asked.

“I’ve heard worse.” Scorpion hummed. “What could a measly little SkyWing say to offend me?”

“Thanks.” Talon muttered.

“Anyway, as I was saying – you need to go. As soon as possible.” Scorpion shook her neck, making the black swirls on her spine quiver and vibrate hypnotically.

“Again, what about Nautilus?”

“Do you think he’ll be found guilty?” Scorpion asked, looking unimpressed.

“Yes.”

“Exactly.” The SandWing nodded. “Do you know what happens to criminals?”

Talon felt guilt creep along his bones. He knew what happened to criminals. He'd been one himself, accused of the exact same thing. “They die.”

Scorpion shook her head. “And even if he's found innocent, you'll never see him again. He’s as good as dead.”

“We could rescue him.” Talon suggested.

“You don’t know where the Palace is.” Scorpion said. “And he could be in the Deep Sea Palace anyway.”

“You can tell us where it is.” Talon said.

“What makes you think I’d know?” Scorpion rolled her eyes and stood up, shaking out her wings. Clearly she didn't think Talon's question was even worth considering. “I have to go. I’ve wasted enough time on you two. Unlike Nautilus, one of my top priorities is not being caught.”

“Wait,” Talon said quickly. “What about Bay and Cuttlefish? You could tell them and they could rescue Nautilus?”

“Bay and Cuttlefish work for Queen Coral, if you haven’t noticed. Friendship only gets you so far.”

“At least you get to see further than you would if all you’ve got is blind loyalty.” Talon shot back.

“What’s the point in seeing the view if you never reach it?” Scorpion spread her wings. “Did you check the island before landing?”

“Yes? Why?”

“Maybe give it another look.” Scorpion suggested, although there was nothing vindictive in her tone. “Goodbye, SkyWing. I hope we don’t meet again, for both our sakes.”

Without giving Talon time to reply, Scorpion lifted into the sky, winging away like a pale ghost in the darkness of the night. Talon stared after her until she melted into the sky. He looked back at Avalanche, still sleeping soundly, then glanced at the sky. With their pale scales, he’d see any SandWings coming from a mile away. Talon stretched his own wings. He just wanted to check, to make sure no dragons had hidden themselves on the island while he and Avalanche had been gone. It was unlikely, after all, they’d’ve shown themselves by now, surely. But still . . . if Scorpion was hinting at something, Talon wanted to know what.

He took to the air, flying up till he had a good view of the island and surrounding waters. He couldn’t see anything, nothing except Avalanche’s darker shape in the pale sand. He spun in a slow circle, eyes straining for anything. As he spun to face north, something shiny blinded him, something that wasn’t one of the moons on the water. He squinted, dipping down towards the other beach on the island, trying to focus on the shiny white shape. Talon dove closer to investigate, landing on the beach beside the decidedly dragon-shaped lump of white scales. An IceWing, judging by all the spines.

And not just any IceWing, Talon realised, with growing excitement, it was the Hvitur.

Chapter Text

Nautilus was entirely convinced that the Summer Palace's prison was worse than the Deep Sea Palace's. Nautilus had never seen either, but he'd caught glimpses of spluttering electricity, and had seen limp, waterlogged corpses being hauled out of the caves. He had heard the place was full of electric eels, and before the hurricane, his older brother had told him that the eels were twice as long as a dragon. Nautilus was doubtful now, but there was still a small dragonet in his mind that quivered in fear at the thought of eels.

Thankfully, Undertow was taking him to the Deep Sea Palace, where the prison comprised of a corridor of windowless rooms and locked doors, with only two guards standing stationary at the start of the passageway.

It's okay. Undertow said, althought she didn't meet Nautilus' eyes. The justice system will find the truth.

That was not a comforting thought.

I didn’t commit treason. Nautilus replied, as truthfully as he could. I wouldn’t.

Would he?

No, of course not. He’d never be as brave as Talon was, never be able to stand up for what was right in the way Talon was, if he had to make that choice.

Your hearing will be tomorrow. Undertow told him, then more sympathetically, You'll be okay, so long as you've been honest.

That’s good. Nautilus said. He had been being honest. Although the truth was barely better than the lies Whirlpool made up.

Undertow nodded shortly, ushered Nautilus into a cell and let the heavy lock click into place behind him. The water was colder here, near the bottom of the Deep Sea Palace. It was quiet, it always was underwater. Nautilus sighed and swam down to the bottom of his cell to curl into a ball. May as well try to sleep, he decided, there wasn't much else to do.

But he couldn't settle. It was cold, uncomfortable, and quiet. It was nothing like his cave in the Summer Palace, it was nothing like what he was used to. Nautilus closed his eyes. Not so much as a stray current tugged at his tail. Everything was deathly still. Nautilus watched the back of his eyes and drifted in and out of consciousness, waiting for the hours to pass.

He was slipping into sleep once more when the glowing of scales crept through the crack under the door. Then again, brighter and brighter. Whatever conversation was happening outside, it was becoming more of an argument. Everything went dark, then the door swung open.

In the doorway, Bay grinned at him with sharp teeth. Come on, up you get. Not much time. Follow me.

Without waiting for an answer, she spun about and raced down the corridor. Nautilus hurried after her, trying to get his stiff wings moving. They zipped upwards through the Deep Sea Palace, out a window and towards the water's surface. The two took to the air, soaring upwards into a star-filled night towards the moons themselves. Bay levelled out and started flying north, not so much as looking to see if Nautilus was following. Nautilus flapped his wings desperately to keep up.

"What's happening?" He yelled.

"You're escaping!" Bay shouted in return.

"From what?"

Bay slowed slightly, casting Nautilus a disappointed look. "From the Sea Kingdom, RainWing brain."

"But-"

“Whirlpool and Maelstrom were planning to fake evidence," Bay told him, "You would've stayed in that cell for the rest of your life."

“Yes.” Bay slowed slightly, enough for Nautilus to catch up. “From the Sea Kingdom.”

“What?”

“So we brokke you out,” Bay continued. “We’re going to meet up with Talon and Avalanche. You all need to go west, to SandWing Territory. There’s a place there, Scorpion Den, it’s chaos, but it’s safe for all types of dragons-”

“Wait, what? You can't really expect me to leave-

“You can't expect anyone to let you stay-”

“You can’t just break me out of jail and-”

“Too late,” Bay banked sharply and spun to face Nautilus, hovering mid-air. “It’s a tough world out there. Truth isn't always important. We've given you a second chance, don't tell me you're too much of a coward to take it.”

That couldn’t be right, Nautilus had always been loyal to Queen Coral. Surely Whirlpool wouldn't go so far as to falsify information, surely no one would believe it . . .

“But I can’t just leave!" Nautilus protested again. "What about Nix? I'm all she has."

Bay's expression softened, "We'll tell her."

"I, I can't just leave my entire world-"

“The palace isn't the world. The world is out here, away from all of those stuffy, restricting rules.” Bay said, sweeping her wing from horizon to horizon. “You saw it, didn’t you?”

“I . . . but . . .” Nautilus had seen it, he'd felt it. He had felt restless after returning to the Summer Palace. He had taken any chance to escape and go back to Avalanche and Talon. But he didn’t think he was ready to leave forever.

“Nautilus.” Bay said. “I get this is hard. But please, let’s just get to safety first, okay? We can think about it all then. Cuttlefish is distracting the guards, but she didn’t specify how long she would be doing that for, so it’s best to get out fast.”

Nautilus glanced behind him. There was no one, not in the water, not out of it. But that could change in the blink of an eye. This safety was only temporary. He looked back at Bay, and nodded. The two SeaWings continued north, up and away, away from the palace, away from his job, his queen, his life, his home, away from everything Nautilus had known.

Towards Talon and Avalanche. Towards a new beginning. Towards freedom. And, just possibly, towards the start of something bigger than Nautilus could imagine.

Chapter Text

It was dawn. Shimmering golds and yellows danced across the ocean and warmed the horizon. The first of the morning sun sent beams of light dancing across Avalanche's scales, turning them to fire. She sat on the sand, Talon slotted under her wing, head on her chest, watching the break of a new day.

Further down the beach, just above the tideline, Hvitur the IceWing lay unconscious and lucky to be alive. His wings were torn and ripped to the point where flight was impossible. The SkyWing guards must've caught him, Avalanche knew that ripping a dragons wings to shreds and letting them fall was a particularly nasty punishment, reserved for the worst criminals. Hvitur was lucky to have been over the ocean when he was dropped, the tides must have carried him here. The ice dragon was yet to wake, but Talon was optimistic, so Avalanche decided she would be too.

Beyond Hvitur, in the shallows, three SeaWing sat, wings hunched and expressions grim. Nautilus, Cuttlefish and Bay had swept in long before dawn with the news that Nautilus was self-exiled, and soon to be formally exiled. They hadn't seemed inclined to offer any more explanations so Avalanche and Talon had left them to talk amongst themselves. 

So Avalanche and Talon sat on the sand and watched the yellow and gold clouds give way to the stunning blue of the morning sky.

Finally, Talon asked, "What do you think?"

Avalanche's thoughts had been nothing but chaos for days. She didn't know what she thought about anything that had happened.

She answered anyway, "I think that you're good at keeping promises."

"Huh?"

“Well, you said you’d go to the sea. Here you are.”

“In that case, you’re better at it. You said you’d follow me and that's a much bigger risk to take.”

Avalanche smiled, still watching the sky, “It was worth the risk.”

"Oh good, I'd hate for you to fly all this way for nothing," Talon quipped.

Avalanche flicked her tail to send sand spraying up over his claws, "On the other claw, I can't stand the smart-mouthed SkyWing who I'm stuck with."

Talon jumped to his feet to shake the sand off his claws, glowering at her, "You know, if you keep complimenting me my head won't fit on my shoulders."

“I was just teasing.” Avalanche assured him, twining her tail around his. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” Talon said, sitting down beside her once more. A serious look crept across his face, one Avalanche recognised as him being deep in thought.

"Go on, spit it out," She said.

"If you were to go back and re-live these past few days, would you change anything?" He asked.

Avalanche thought of flying with Talon, of the dance, of running away and finding him on the outskirts of the kingdom, of seeing the ocean and meeting Nautilus, of being absolutely and completely free.

"Nothing."

"Really?"

“Well. Maybe I’d’ve tried to leave everything on a better note with Kestrel. She kind of hates me now.” Avalanche admitted.

“I’d plan a much cooler escape.” Talon decided.

“What? Escaping with your scales intact wasn’t good enough?”

“Not enough explosions.”

Avalanche laughed.

“On a serious note," Talon said, clawing at the sand beneath his talons. "I was thinking that maybe if I’d worded my speech to Scarlet better, then maybe I could have convinced her.”

“I don’t think so. Scarlet isn’t the kind of dragon who listens to words.”

“Well, maybe not Queen Scarlet. But maybe if I have a good enough pitch, I could convince other dragons. Like, I don’t know . . . Queen Moorhen? Or Queen Glacier?” Talon suggested. “Or, maybe not queens, but . . . there must be dragons out there that can be convinced that this war is wrong. Maybe some don’t even need to be convinced. Maybe a lot of dragons hate the war, but don’t think they have an escape. And so maybe we can do something about that, give them that escape.”

“Like, form a movement? An organised rebellion?” Avalanche asked.

“Yeah.” Talon nodded. “We could call it, um . . . TalonWings!”

“TalonWings?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s a little egotistical.”

“The name’s a work in progress.”

“I can tell.”

“But,” Talon said seriously, “do you think it’s a good idea?”

“Yeah. I think so.” Avalanche said. “I think there's a lot of dragons out there who need us.”

“Do you think Nautilus and Hvitur need us? Do you think they'll join us?” Talon asked.

“Nautilus, yes. I mean, what other choice does he have now? Hvitur? Well, we really don't know him.”

"But maybe he'll join us."

"Maybe he will."

Talon left his head rest against Avalanche's chest once again. Above them, the sky was a pale, fragile blue, the sun low in the sky, a trail of glimmering light leading from their beach on Albatross Island out to the horizon, inviting them out, towards an endless sky of possibilities. And Avalanche was happy.