by Sylvia Hiven
Out of Frozen Shadow
In my frozen world, sunshine had a forbidden name. Elysta.
I had turned away from all things that reminded me of her. I left my calling as a mount, for the weight of any other glider upon my back felt wrong. I fled the skies, taking refuge in the most remote of caverns, for the very daylight blazed her name into my mind each time it glinted upon my scales. Yes, I had run, and yes, I had hid, and neither were honorable deeds for one such as I—but only in cold darkness could I forget.
And now, sunshine had found its way back to me, and I remembered.
Bundled in furs stiff with ice, the girl that betrayed me had journeyed up the mountain to find my home. She looked chilled to the core, yet in the shadows where I had lived for so long, she dazzled before me like the sun itself.
“At last, Furias,” she said, her teeth clattering behind pale-blue lips. “After searching every hollow and crack in this cursed mountain, at last, I have found you.”
“You were unwise to come, Elysta,” I replied with hostility. “These mountains are treacherous, and they have no pity on the frailty of mankind.”
“I found your brethren in the lower caverns easily enough. I spoke to many of your kind, yet none knew of a crimson one living upon their mountain.” She eyed me curiously. “Now, I see why: the color of the mount is upon you no longer.”
“I am a temperer now.”
“Temperer?” She spoke the word with contempt. “Breeder, you mean.”
“Call it what you wish. Without temperers to birth hatchlings, there would be no mounts to fly you and the other gliders into war. Tempering is a noble task, and one I carry out with pride.”
I meant to sound confident, but in truth, I could not meet her gaze. I feared that one look from her would draw me into her arms again, and the mere touch of her would surely make me surrender my forgiveness. And I was not willing to forgive.
Elysta had been a glider—one of the best. Before my color had settled, and I had not yet chosen whether to join the mounts or temperers, I had seen her train on the fields. Her copper hair swirled about her face as she mastered every weapon she was handed, and as I saw her strike down opponent after opponent, I knew I had to be the one to protect her in the skies. By some miracle, when she came to choose her mount, her amber gaze had fallen onto me.
She was a fearsome warrior, reckless but always victorious. We out-flew any other glider pair, tumbling through the skies like one, and when we joined the gliding infantry, we were the sharpest thorn in the sides of the dark armies from the south. We reveled in our triumphs, whispering at night of the day when we would end the war together.
I loved her, and she loved me, of that I was certain; only while my love was eternal, hers was fleeting, and as tiny a burden she was upon my back when I carried her, she left me with a weight on my heart like lead when she forsake me for another. It still tore at my soul to know I had not been good enough.
“What happened to Brasmus?” I asked.
A shadow settled over her face. “He fell during the battle of Churel.”
At that I felt a sting of sadness. Even in the remote caverns of the temperers, the rumors of the campaigns trickled in. The battle of Churel had been devastating to our land. The beastly armies had attacked while their dark conjurers blackened the sun. Glider pairs fell out of the sky like rocks, for all mounts depended on the sun rays to bless them with both fire and flight. Without the glider infantry to protect the ground forces, the battle was lost.
“I am sorry,” I said. “Brasmus was a valiant mount.”
“Not as valiant as you, Furias. You were the most courageous of all. That is why I chose you.”
“You left me.”
“I was foolish.” She silenced for a moment. “Temperers have companions, I hear.” She spoke it lightly, but refusing to look at me, and I knew the question to come was a heavy one. “Do you—”
“Yes. Her name is Jalene.”
“Jalene.” The name of my tempering companion sounded so foreign when spoken from the lips of the girl I had loved. It was like two worlds that ought never to meet clashing together. “I see. And you have hatched many younglings together, I assume?”
“You know the gestation period for our kind. We are not like humans. We have tempered our first offspring for the past two years. The eggs are due to hatch any day.”
Elysta shook her head with impatience. “You used to breathe fire, Furias, given to you by the sun. You were committed to the flame the day you made your choice to become a mount. How can you temper an egg with cold, when you are a creature of fire?”
“Jalene believed I could change, and she taught me how to pull power from the snow storms. When I grow weak, she helps. The eggs are stable enough, if I put fire out of my heart and mind.”
“It is not natural.”
“It is how it is, Elysta. You left me no choice.”
She raised her chin. “Well, I wish to give you a new choice. You must know why I am here.”
“If Brasmus has fallen, you have no mount.”
“Sadly, yes. I am the commander of the glider infantry now, and I need the best.”
Before I could protest, she reached out and touched me. Her hand grazed my neck, caressing me in a way she had done so many times before. Memories came rushing back: the two of us soaring in the sky together, her chest pushed so close to me that her heart beat in rhythm with mine; pearls of water glimmering upon her skin as I watched over her when she bathed in the forest tarns; the scent of her hair as she lay curled next to me through the dark nights.
“You are meant to be with me, Furias,” she whispered. “I need you. I know you feel that I betrayed you, but you have my word; I will never leave you again if you come with me now.”
It took all my strength to withdraw from her touch, and though I pulled away, she had already left her mark on me. The fire within me roared again, and it would not be extinguished.
“Please leave, Elysta,” I said.
Tears welled in her eyes, yet she spoke boldly. “Our troops are in the valley. We fly to the southern steppes to face the enemy when the sun has set. You always took care of me. I trust you will do it again.”
As she left the cavern, stepping into the ruthless embrace of winter, I cursed how well she knew me.
I did not know how to tell Jalene that something was about to change, but I did not need to. I could see in the bewildered grief upon my companion's face that she already knew.
“I felt you falter, my love,” she said as I came to her in the tempering chamber. “A fluctuation. You are upset.”
I sank down next to her in the burrow. She lay by our eggs, her tail curled around them. A thin mist hovered about her body as she pulled the chill from the storms outside and channeled it to protect our unhatched.
“I heard voices,” she said.
“Someone from your past?”
Her eyes narrowed, and she tilted her head. “Husband, I am no fool. I felt you let go of the storm and lose focus. That visitor was of sunlight and fire, and she made you smolder. She is your glider, is it not so?”
I felt I should insist that Elysta was not my glider anymore—that she was from a past that I had thrown off. But I also felt Jalene had opened a door for me, and I would be wise to step through it.
“She wishes for me to fly. I know not how I can refuse. We are losing the war against the black armies from across the sea; the mountains shall not be safe for much longer. I cannot stand the thought that we have tempered our hatchlings for this long, only to have them lost because of war.”
“This glider,” Jalene spoke. “You burn for her in more ways than one.”
It was not a question, so I saw no reason to cause her pain by answering. “I can stay connected to you,” I said. “The front lines are not far, one day's flight at the most. I shall not use fire, and I shall not let my thoughts stray from you or the eggs. But I have to help her.”
“And you will return?”
She straightened her slender neck and looked upon me with such compassion, I ached. “Then go with her, Furias. I will trust you.”
I could not help but think that she had more faith in me than I did.
It had been so long since my withdrawal from sunlight that I hardly recalled the way out from the chilled mountains. I felt as if the clouds protested my departure, hurling jagged clusters of ice to pierce my scales and freezing sleet upon my wings to stop me. I was leaving my consort behind, abandoning my responsibility, and the guilt churned deep inside me.
Still, I flew on, towards the sunlight and Elysta.
As I cut through the layers of mountain storms and soared over the last ridge towards the south, I felt as if I had gone back in time. The familiar sight of an army readying for battle appeared beneath me. Scales and armor from thousands of glider pairs glinted in the dusk, and further down the hill, countless riders and foot soldiers scurried about, preparing to fight. The size of the army was awe-inspiring, yet it was also alarming. This battle in which I was about to engage would surely be the most fateful one I had ever seen.
I tilted my wings and dipped towards the ground. Elysta had a way of drawing me to her, and I knew where to find her. Clad in battle garb, her red hair ablaze in the sunset, she was making the last adjustments on my plated armor. It looked exactly the same as when I had thrown it off in rage after seeing Elysta fly upon Bresmus toward our last battle.
“You kept my armor, all this time,” I said. “You must not have doubted that I would come back.”
“No, I did not doubt.” She looked up me with calm triumph twinkling in her beryl eyes. “You were always faithful, Furias.”
I let her come closer to strap the armor across my belly and sides. She placed the saddle upon my back, and tied fire globes with leather strings where she would be able to reach them easily and throw them at her targets. Her face was determined, yet her hands trembled.
“Thank you,” she said with subdued sincerity. “I could not ride an unfamiliar mount tomorrow. Not into this battle.”
“The dark armies have made much advance upon our land in the past few years.”
“Too much. Since they learned to choke the sun and take away flight from the mounts, they have pushed us north, battle after battle. Soon we will be standing with our backs against the temperers' mountains and there shall be no escape then. This is our last stand.”
“Why should tomorrow be different? Surely they will use the same tricks.”
“We dispatched scouts. We know the location of their magicians, and we will destroy them before the rest of our infantry takes flight. Without the conjurers jeopardizing our mounts, we stand a chance.” She gritted her teeth, tightening the last strap so roughly across my belly, it stung. “It is our destiny to stop this invasion.”
“It may be your destiny, Elysta, but it is not mine,” I spoke. “I will fly you where you wish to go, and I will do my best to protect you. But I will not use fire, and when the battle is over, I shall return to Jalene.”
“You were the best fire breather I have ever seen; your flames could char a man from fifty feet away.” She touched my scales, which to my dismay shimmered from silvery white to red at her touch. “You are already changing color, away from the whiteness you forced upon yourself. Soon enough, you shall be crimson again, like the other mounts. You cannot deny what you are.”
I jerked away from her. “You destroyed who I was,” I snarled. “Now, stop with your tricks and your charm. You will not win me back. I am a temperer, fueled by the winter storms, and my heart is cold to you.”
As I drew further away from her, I knew I had spoken a lie, for my love for her flared brighter than ever.
We flew as soon as the first rays of light escaped from the horizon, the rest of the army trailing us.
Ascending into the sky when I left the frigid mountains had been frightening, as if I had been going against nature. But now, with Elysta straddling me and urging me on, I worried she was right when claiming I was denying my nature. My limbs, frozen stiff for so long, softened from the dawn winds. I stretched luxuriously, twirling around like a youngling. I felt as though for the first time in years, I was alive. I had to rein my joy in, reminding myself what was important.
Jalene. Do not forget her. She needs you to keep the connection.
The thought of my mate back in the mountains, struggling to keep her focus on our unhatched, effectively calmed my excitement. I tried to ignore the weight of Elysta upon my back and thought of Jalene instead. I felt myself brushing against her consciousness, cool and collected but too far away from me to hear her thoughts. She struggled already. If I lost the connection, she would not be able to stand alone, that I knew.
The sun teased behind the horizon. Ripples of gold and pink slashed the sky, tiny white stars salting the dark indigo far above. It was a beautiful sight, one that Elysta and I had shared many times before. Beneath, however, was a sight as unfamiliar as it was horrific.
“Look at what they have done.” Elysta leaned close to me, her voice full of disgust. “Look at how they are destroying us.”
The emerald valleys I had tried so hard to forget were gone, replaced with a charred steppe, void of life. Beyond I could see the sea, once blue and clear like Jalene's eyes but now it had turned, black and vile. Fear filled me. I could not allow this disease to spread further, to infect towards my mountains and climb its way to my home.
“Where is the enemy?” I asked, flexing my talons and pushing speed into my flight.
“Behind the next ridge. The magicians are in the green tents toward the south. Fly as close as you can and then dip. The others will follow, and we will drop the fire globes into their camp. But you must retreat immediately, for the flames are mighty and will surely consume us if we remain too low.”
She leaned close again—so close it felt as if she were melting into me. I knew how to read her body, and when her thighs tightened around me, I knew what she was asking. As the enemy forces came into view over the next hill, I veered downward, cutting through the sky. I felt Elysta snapping free the fire globes that were tied to my side.
“Closer!” she shouted.
I obeyed, tearing through the air towards the tents. The stench of the enemy—goblins and imps and other creatures so wretched, no name did them justice—rose from their sleeping masses, their odor so pungent that my eyes teared up. As Elysta hurled the fire globes past me, she screamed in anger and triumph.
The fire globes were powerful—more powerful than my fiercest breath ever had been. They exploded into the tents with a resounding rumble, and hungry flames reached up towards the sky, threatening to swallow us. Chased by the flames, I felt the fire licking my left wing, melting my scales and sending shocks of pain into my side. Still, I thrashed toward the sky with all my might, ignoring the agony. When I felt that we were at a safe distance, I evened out, hovering above the enemy camp.
Below, the tents were consumed by the fire. A few magicians emerged from the flames, brandishing their arms about and shrieking in pain as the fire ate through their flesh. In the rest of the camp, newly awakened goblins and trolls scurried around the ground like ants. Their confused screeching and the clatter of swords being unsheathed reached Elysta and me far above.
“The battle will be even now,” Elysta said, pointing towards the north. “Our troops are ready, and they will not lose upon the ground if we support them from the air.”
The rest of the glider infantry swarmed towards us, readying to take the battle stance to pound the enemy from the air, just as our ground troops spilled over the northern hills. We were surprising the enemy, and we stood a fair chance. There was hope, and I was excited to be a part of it.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw more gliders lining up in formation next to me. The mount that slid up immediately on my right, his scales glowing in the morning sun, made my heart stop its beat. I would recognize him anywhere. He looked stronger than ever, his wings slicing through the air and smoke hissing from his snout. The glider in his saddle, a slim woman with hair of shadowed mahogany, leaned close to him much like Elysta leaned close to me now.
It was Brasmus. He was not dead. He had left Elysta for another, just like she had left me.
Confusion flooded me and I lost my balance, tipping my injured wing to the left. Elysta fell against my neck, nearly sliding off my back. “What is the matter, Furias?” she cried out. “Fly, you fool!”
I roared, my emotions overtaking me further, weakening my already faltering left wing. “Brasmus—he is not dead. You lied to me!”
“It was the only way you would agree to come. I had to find a replacement, or I could never have carried out my task.”
“You swore you would not betray me again! You swore, Elysta!”
Above, the morning sun still shone, but my world had turned black at her words. No magician could have extinguished my power more effectively: my grief felt like lead weights tied upon my legs, and I slipped out of the sky, tumbling toward the ground.
Elysta shrieked as we fell, and when we crashed amidst fighting troops, she was thrown out of the saddle and hurled across the dirt many feet away. My back cracked against the ground, my charred wing twisting beneath my body. Stinking goblins were upon me with their black spears and cleavers, eager to tear me apart. I rose upon my hind legs, snapping about, catching one by the arm and feeling his flesh burst between my jaws. Elysta cried out next to me. She was still alive, but her arm was broken and blood trickled into her eyes, painting crimson streaks across her features. A large troll stood over her, his mace raised high in the air, readying to crush her.
I furiously shook the goblins away, raking through their leather armor with my claws and spurting their reeking blood. I freed myself long enough to turn toward Elysta, but she was still too far away; within the next second, the goblins would be upon me again and she would be dead by the hand of the troll.
I had no choice.
Taking a deep breath, losing all touch with the mountain storms and Jalene, I turned to the sun above and embraced its power. I felt the familiar force gather in my chest, churning in my throat, eager to explode.
Jalene, forgive me.
Hot, white fire, burning with the might of fury and love combined, erupted from my snout and engulfed the troll, blistering his flesh in a flash. He let out a bellow, dropped his mace, and staggered backward. It was long enough for Elysta to find her sword at her side and spring to her feet.
The goblins clambered upon me again. Howling in triumph in their dirty tongue, they skewered their spears beneath my armor. Their blades ripped through my scales, snapping tendons and severing muscles, and the pain felled me to my knees.
“Elysta!” I called out in despair.
She met my gaze. Fear riddled her face, and despite what I had just done for her, she did not come to my aid. Instead, she turned and fled.
Seeing her red hair disappear in the chaos of fighting men and beasts, I let myself fall to the ground. As the world faded away in agony and shadow, I wished that I would never wake up again.
But ruthlessly, the world returned.
I lay upon a blanket in a tent, surrounded by wounded, mounts and gliders alike. Pain still fizzed through me, my burned wing aching. I looked down to survey my body. I had been carefully taken care of, bandages covering my limbs, but what caught my eye was not the damage I had taken but rather, the color of my scales.
Indeed, Elysta had left me, betraying me again, but my betrayal was worse. The color of the sun mount was upon me, painted by the blood of my companion and our hatchlings. The connection had been broken. I was crimson.
I rose and limped into the sunshine outside. There was a hum of triumph in the camp, gliders and mounts congratulating each other on their victory, but I could feel no happiness in our success; all I felt was emptiness.
In the throng of celebrating gliders, a familiar figure with coppery hair was hoisted upon the shoulders of her comrades. Her left arm lay in a sling, and her cheeks were smudged with enemy blood, but she smiled and laughed as she celebrated with the others. Brasmus was next to her, his gaze fastened upon her with newborn admiration.
With a heavy heart, I turned to the north. I pushed my thoughts aimlessly, trying to sense Jalene beyond the mountains. I felt a storm thundering above the peaks, but it would not let my mind through to my cavern. Jalene was gone, her consciousness silent; still, I knew I had to return home.
Elysta had left her celebrating comrades and stood beside me. As her eyes somberly searched mine, she looked no longer like a warrior, but as a shamed child wanting approval.
“The battle has been won,” she said. “I cannot thank you enough. You fought bravely; everybody noticed.”
The poison did not stay out of my voice as I glanced in Brasmus' direction. He watched us closely, his gaze caressing Elysta with admiration and piercing me with suspicion. His mahogany-haired glider was nowhere to be found. It seemed Elysta had not just won one battle, but two.
And I... I had lost everything.
“Well, I am glad that you will have your glory, Elysta,” I spoke, “for it cost me dearly, as I am sure you realize.”
“I know. Your wing.” She was no fool, and she surely knew that was not what I meant, but she pretended admirably. “I searched the battlefield for you for hours, terrified when I could not find you.”
“Had you not left me at the mercy of the beasts, you would not have had to search.”
She reached out for me, undoubtedly to try and embrace me into submission once again like she had done in the cave. But I would not have it.
“No,” I said tiredly. “Not this time. I've let you rule me enough.”
A tiny crinkle appeared between her eyebrows. “We rule together, Furias. We always did, don't you remember? We belong with one another.”
For the last time, I met her gaze and held it in an iron grip. “I do not know where I belong, Elysta. But I know I do not belong with you.”
She stared at me for a few moments, and I expected her to protest—to launch yet another offensive of charm and manipulation. She did not. Instead, the pained expression on her face fluttered away and was replaced with indifference.
“As you wish.” She shrugged. “There are others.”
She turned and walked away, her red hair blazing in the sun.
For that girl, I had sacrificed all.
And all the while, I had thought she was the reckless one.
As I flew into the furious storms around my mountain and icy spears crashed against me, slicing into my already broken limbs, I knew the mountain was punishing me for my treachery. Indeed, I was blind and deaf to the fate of my mate and our unhatched, but in my heart, I too knew the consequences of what I had done.
I will resign to you soon enough, cursed mountain. Just let me bury my wife.
I landed upon the ledge outside my cavern at midnight. I stumbled out of the winds and with a heavy heart, walked toward the tempering chamber. I had heard of others losing their connection, and the horrible sight that had met those that discovered a failed tempering: thawed chambers, temperers rotted from the inside, eggs burst open. I was certain that what I would come upon was a lukewarm chamber with life spilled all over the cavern floor.
But the cavern was not thawed, and its tempered state was not lost. Instead, it was palace of ice and crystal.
Frost laced the walls of the cavern, and trails of ice snaked into the ceiling like shimmering veins of the mountain. The very air was ice. In the midst, covered by snow to her shoulder and frozen still, lay Jalene. The cold came from her—flurries danced from her body as if she were winter herself.
Her eyes slid open, and her azure gaze met mine. “Furias,” she whispered, whirls of smoke twirling from her frozen snout.
I stepped closer, not believing my eyes. “Jalene,” I said. “You are still alive.”
“Tempered and whole.”
I approached, embarrassed at the color of my scales. I knew she had felt my betrayal, but now I was marked by it. “I lost the connection. I breathed fire.”
“The eggs should be broken. You ought to be dead.”
She nuzzled against me, but I felt a courteous restraint from her—as if she was allowing me to be close to her rather than wanting it for her own sake.
“A companion does not abandon you, not even in the darkest of moments, Furias. I thought you would remain true, so I fought. Even when you gave in to the fire, and I knew your mind was not with me, I still fought. And without you, I managed.”
In her eyes I saw the same hurt betrayal that Elysta undoubtedly had seen in mine. “Forgive me,” I said.
Jalene spoke with great love, and great firmness. “I will forgive you. But you will not temper in this cave any longer. This is not where you belong.”
For a moment, I wanted to protest—borrow tricks from Elysta and charm my way back into the tempering burrow—but at the same time I felt a relief at her words.
Relief, and fear.
“I may not belong with the temperers,” I said. “But I do not belong with the mounts, either.”
Jalene curled her tail closer around the eggs. “You will not find your answer here, Furias.”
Suddenly, the cave felt much colder than the storm outside.
“If I leave, will you manage on your own?”
“Some of us are better off in solitude.”
Her words could have had a harsh edge to them—she certainly had a fair reason to show anger—but there was a softness in her voice, and I knew she was not only speaking about herself. She was speaking about me, too, and she was right: I had not mended after Elysta, and a broken mount did no temperer make. What sort of father would I make to the hatchlings, if I were not fully committed to them, and to Jalene?
Even my scales which faded rapidly from the crimson hue of the mounts knew this, for they would not recommit to the sparkly white of the temperers. Instead, they remained a colorless shade of nothing—a mark I had never heard of before, but one I knew instinctively to be the symbol of one who is lost.
There was just one choice. I had to leave.
“I am sorry that I hurt you. Perhaps you will stand stronger alone when you do not have to make up for my weaknesses.” I bowed my neck to her. “Goodbye, Jalene.”
She did not contradict me, nor did she implore me to stay. She simply looked at me with her azure eyes.
I withdrew from the chamber, returning to the cave entrance. Outside, the winter storm was quelled. The wind no longer gusted around the mountainside, and where the thick blanket of clouds had pressed down upon me, now glowed a soft dawn sky.
I did not belong in frozen shadow, nor was I a creature of fire, and no longer did I straddle those two worlds that had always torn me in half. I should have felt lost, all my paths closed off and my choices taken away. I had nowhere to go.
But as I launched off the cavern ledge and into an approaching morning that painted my colorless scales gold, I felt freer than ever.