Darkstalker, p.10
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       Darkstalker, p.10

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  Clearsight saw Whiteout emerge from the group serenely, looking as though she didn’t realize someone was yelling at her. Behind her, three frustrated NightWings were scrambling to recover the marbles she’d scattered with her tail.

  “Can’t you use those weird eyes of yours?” one of them barked.

  “Or are IceWings blind as well as arrogant and vicious?” another snarled.

  And then Darkstalker was there, materializing beside his sister as though the shadows had unfolded him.

  “That was a little rude, don’t you think?” he said to the three marble players.

  They shuffled their feet nervously. “She ruined our game!” the biggest one blurted.

  “What a disaster,” Darkstalker said. “No wonder you had to resort to name-calling and bigotry.”

  Bewildered silence. Blinking.

  Darkstalker put one wing around his sister’s shoulders. “Whiteout, these dragons are upset because you knocked over their marbles when you walked through here.”

  “Oh,” she said. “I thought the marbles represented chaos theory and I was just another unpredictable whim of the universe.” Darkstalker gave her a look and she smiled sweetly at the three dragons. “I did not intend to disrupt your faith in controllable outcomes.”

  “That’s all right,” said the biggest one gruffly. “Sorry we yelled at you.”

  “Yeah,” said the other two. “Sorry.”

  “Did you?” said Whiteout. “Yell at me?”

  “Don’t worry about it,” said Darkstalker with a smile. He pointed to each of the players in turn. “She was cheating anyway, all he can think about is his crush on her sister, and he is thoroughly sick of both of them and wishes he knew anyone interesting. Have fun with your marbles, friends.”

  He turned and escorted Whiteout away, leaving the three dragons glaring at one another.

  Clearsight waited until they were passing her tree, then stepped into his path with her eyebrows raised. Whiteout went around her and kept going, but Darkstalker stopped with the most wonderful expression of delight, anxiety, and triumph she’d ever seen.

  “Very impressive,” she said.

  “What?” He gave her a charming grin. “What’d I do?”

  “I don’t know how you engineered it,” she said, “but, wow, you covered everything, didn’t you? Courage, check. Cares about his sister, check. Defending the vulnerable, standing up to bullies, making sure everyone apologizes neatly. With a little demonstration of power to show off your intelligence at the end, too. Did you pay those guys? Because that was just perfect.”

  “Do I know you?” he asked.

  She laughed despite herself, although she was fiercely trying not to. He just looked so wounded and so mischievous at the same time.

  “Oh, wait,” he said. “Did we meet on that fishing trip last month? No, hang on, I’ll remember. Aha! You’re on the queen’s Council of Ancient Elders, is that it?”

  “You goober,” she said, wrinkling her snout at him.

  “You’re the one taking all the romance out of this,” he said. “It’s supposed to go, ‘that was so brave, how you stood up for your sister like that!’ ‘Oh, that, what, no, it’s what any dragon would do.’ ‘No, no — you’re special. I can tell.’ ‘Not as special as you. There’s a magic about you that I’ve never found in any other dragon!’ ‘Why — why do I feel as though I’ve known you forever?’ ‘Because you have … and you will.’ Fireworks! True love and happiness for the rest of our lives!”

  “You didn’t prepare actual fireworks, did you?” she asked.

  “N-nooooo,” he said. “Not if you … hate fireworks?”

  “Hmm,” she said, squinting. “I see a terrible fire ravaging the school gardens …”

  “You do?” he said, sounding a little panicked. “When? Now? I — wait a second, you’re making that up.”

  She giggled. “Has anyone ever told you that you are a terrible seer?” she asked. “That whole fluttery drippy conversation sounded nothing like me.”

  “That’s a relief,” he said with an even bigger grin. “But couldn’t we let this be a tiny bit more romantic? I mean, it’s not every day that I meet my soulmate. Just this once, in fact. Right now.”

  Now, Clearsight thought. It’s true. It’s happening right now, the beginning of everything.

  What was this pounding in her chest? Joy, love, terror? She wanted to wrap her wings around him and never let go, and she also kind of wanted to set him on fire. She definitely wanted to fly away as fast as her wings would carry her, but she also wanted to keep having this conversation as long as dragonly possible; for the rest of eternity would be fine.

  She’d seen what might happen, but she’d never realized what it would feel like.

  Darkstalker suddenly leaned forward and took her front talons in his.

  “Don’t worry about the future,” he whispered intently. “Just be here, with me, in this moment, when we are both as happy as we’ve ever been in our whole lives so far.”

  She wanted to, she would have, but as their claws touched, she was suddenly spun into a hurricane of visions so brutal she thought her head would split open.

  Darkstalker, older, in the twisted crown, killing dragons from across the room with a flick of his claw.

  Darkstalker, close to the age he was now, holding out a scroll to her with a hopeful smile.

  A SeaWing screaming in pain.

  Her and Darkstalker, older again, wrestling with their six little dragonets in a noisy sprawling cliff house of their own.

  Darkstalker, collapsing in front of her as thunder rumbled.

  IceWing blood everywhere.

  A gift of sapphires.

  Sunset over a valley as she walked creakily on her ancient talons to rest beside him, on their porch, at peace.

  Opening the royal treasure room to bestow gifts on their grandchildren.

  Five NightWings writhing before the throne, screaming as they clawed out their own eyes.

  Betrayal woven into copper wires.

  A trip to the sea.

  A green dragon in tears.

  She spiraled finally back into herself and blinked, there again, back in the present. Where none of the terrible or wonderful things had happened yet.

  “Are you all right?” he asked.

  “You didn’t see all that?” She gently pulled her talons out of his grasp.

  “I will never invade your thoughts,” he said. “I promise. I’ll stay out of your mind, always.”

  That’s true … in some futures. Not all of them.

  “Thank you,” she said.

  “It’s not that bad, is it?” he asked, tilting his head. “Our future? I’ve seen mostly good things.”

  “No, it’s great,” she said, “depending on how much you like the average apocalypse.”

  He laughed, which confirmed that at least for now he was staying out of her head — because she hadn’t been joking.

  With another charming grin, he said, “I’m Darkstalker, by the way.”

  “Oh, I’m Tailbite,” she said. “You weren’t expecting someone else, were you?”

  He laughed and laughed and laughed, and in the sunlight of that laugh, she could almost stay in the present — in the moment of soulmates meeting, in the moment of falling in love.

  She could almost forget the violence, the lies, the danger … the blood and betrayal yet to come.

  The weather was perfect: rain poured from a grumbling, fire-breathing sky. The rivers at the bottom of the canyons swelled and roared and ate the walls, sending all the dragons who lived down there scrambling for higher ground. The wind was so fierce that it seemed to have been sent by vengeful IceWings to rip every NightWing out of the sky. It was veering quickly from a storm into a baby hurricane.

  Darkstalker had been waiting for a day like this. Surely even Clearsight wouldn’t expect him today.

  But as he swooped down to the ledge in front of her house, there she was, sitting out in the rain, waiting
for him. He hadn’t quite figured out all her expressions yet, but he thought this one might be her trying-not-to-laugh-at-him face.

  “Surprise!” he shouted, thumping down beside her.

  “Why are you crazy?” she said, raising her voice over the thunder. “Go home!”

  “And be trapped indoors with my squabbling parents all day?” he said. “No thanks! Let’s go to the sea!”

  “The sea will eat us alive if we go there today,” she protested.

  “I didn’t say in the sea.” He shook his wings, accomplishing nothing because he was still getting drenched. “I said to the sea.”

  “I’m not a dragon who goes flying in hurricanes!” she said. “Do you know how unpredictable they are? The smallest wind shift or one piece of debris spinning in the wrong direction, and suddenly you’re in a whole other timeline — or everyone else is, because you’re dead.”

  “It is virtually impossible for us to die today,” said Darkstalker. “It would be a waste of lots of very melodramatic prophecies if we did. Why are you even arguing about this? You know that we go and it’s wonderful.”

  “On the contrary,” she said. “I see this really awesome future where I go back inside and drink tea by the fire and read a scroll about funny scavenger antics for the rest of the day and also, by the way, stay completely dry. That one is definitely winning right now.” She saw the expression on his face and relented a little. “We could go tomorrow, when the sun will be shining.”

  “But then there will be dragons everywhere,” he said. “Today the beach is all ours!”

  Clearsight gave a little shiver, and although he was trying not to listen, something fluttered through her mind: a whisper, an echo, his own voice shouting, “It’s all ours! The whole kingdom is ours!”

  He rested his wing against hers, dripping scales sliding across one another. “Come back,” he said softly. “Be here now.”

  She took a deep breath and looked into his eyes. “I am,” she said. “I’m here. All right, fine, let’s go drown there before we drown here.” She glanced back at the door and he wondered if she was trying to get out of there so he wouldn’t meet her parents. He was occasionally hurt by that idea, but then, he didn’t want her to meet his parents either. He didn’t want his father’s scornful eyes anywhere near this one happy thing in his life.

  They dove into the storm, battered by raindrops as big as oranges and wind that howled as though kingdoms were falling under its claws. Clearsight was not the best flier, which perhaps he should have thought about, but she didn’t complain, even in her mind. He let himself sneak into her thoughts a little bit while they flew, since they couldn’t keep up a conversation through the rain anyway.

  Tick tick tick tick flip flip flip flip. Her brain never stopped. She was constantly running scenarios, tracing paths forward into different futures. Darkstalker had thought he was pretty good at this himself — he could see not just the most plausible future, but a few alternates where things were different. But she had thousands of strands gathered in her mind, weaving and interweaving and knotting and tangling.

  He regretted promising to stay out; it was fascinating in there.

  It also meant she could easily skip him onto a timeline he hadn’t seen coming. She changed one small thing, and their entire meeting was different. She twitched the future like a long tail, keeping him off balance. It was fun. Maybe it wouldn’t always be fun, but it was for now.

  More than all that: she knew him. She knew he wasn’t just a hybrid mistake with loud, fighting parents and a strange sister. She knew he was hers; she knew he was gifted beyond any other dragon in the world; and she knew he was going to do such amazing things that he changed the face of Pyrrhia forever.

  Not that she was impressed by any of that. But he kind of liked that about her, too. He’d have enough worshippers, one day.

  They reached the edge of the cliffs and suddenly soared into empty space; the land dropped away sharply below them, veering down to a long rocky beach. Which, at present, was being pounded by waves taller than they were.

  “Looks fun down there!” Clearsight shouted to Darkstalker.

  “All right, yes,” he shouted back. “This isn’t quite what I was picturing.”

  She smiled and flickered away, soaring south along the coastline. He followed her, battling to keep his wings straight as the wind kept trying to knock him into the cliffs on his right.

  Just as he was starting to wonder if she was punishing him by keeping them out in this weather, she dipped one of her wings and soared down toward the beach. He realized she was aiming for an enormous cave mouth that faced the ocean. Normally it might have had several feet of beach between the opening and the sea, but today it was flooded up to the front door.

  They swooped inside, into a world of emerald green and vaulted ceilings. Phosphorescent moss clung to the rocks and walls and stalactites, giving the cave an eerie glow that was matched by the chandeliers of glowworms up above. Water dripped softly here and there, and a rivulet ran through the cave, connecting some of the tide pools and circumventing others.

  The wind shrieked outside, but it could only reach its thin tendrils in to try and grab at them. The farther back they went in the cave, the warmer and quieter it was.

  Clearsight landed on a tilted ledge of rock above a tide pool full of elongated starfish and anemones the color of sunrise.

  “How did you know about this place?” Darkstalker asked, settling beside her.

  She looked at him in confusion, and he saw the shift happening behind her eyes as she overlaid the present and the future and tried to make them fit.

  “From the visions,” she said. “We came — come — we will come here a lot. Maybe.” She shook her head. “I thought you brought me here on our first trip to the sea — I mean, today — but if you didn’t know about it, then I can’t explain it. It’s like a loop in the timelines that can’t be pulled free.” She worried at a piece of algae that was coming off the boulder underneath her.

  “Hey,” he said, brushing her wing. “It doesn’t matter. We’re here now, and it’s great, that’s all that counts.”

  What if I messed something up? she thought. What if I jumped ahead and skipped over something important? What if we’re not supposed to be here yet, and this changes something?

  Darkstalker came within a heartbeat of answering her before he remembered he wasn’t supposed to be reading her mind. He snapped his jaw shut, trying to pull back. It was hard not to just leave his mind open, listening to everything both spoken and unspoken. But he’d practiced blocking out his father enough; he should be able to do the same for the dragon he loved. Was going to love, eventually. Was starting to love, he was pretty sure.

  “Can I ask you something nosy?” she said after a moment.

  “Ominous,” he said with a grin.

  “Well, you and Whiteout are the only hybrids I’ve ever met,” she said, “so I have no idea if this is a rude question. Tell me if it is and I’ll shut up, all right?”

  “You can ask me anything,” he said.

  “It’s just … you don’t seem like a hybrid,” she said. “You look like all the other NightWings. Is any part of you IceWing?”

  “Oh,” he said. “That question. My father asks me that every day, but much less politely, don’t worry.” He extended his wings fully and pointed. On the inside, along the edge where his wing membranes met his back, a long row of silver-white scales marked the seam on either side of his body. “Ironically,” he said, “these are a lot easier to hide from other dragons than the identity of my father.”

  Clearsight reached out and ran one claw lightly along the ridge of IceWing scales. It tickled, and he bit his tongue trying not to laugh.

  “Whoa,” she said. “They even feel cold.”

  “I know,” he said. “It’s weird.” He hesitated. “There’s … one other thing I inherited from my father. I’m an animus.”

  “Right,” she said. “I know that. Obviously.”<
br />
  Of course she did. “No one else knows that yet,” he said.

  “No one? You haven’t cast any spells?” she said, her eyes wide. “In four years?”

  He peeked again and saw a ripple of hope jump across her mind. She was impressed; she trusted him a little more.

  “Just one, to make sure I could,” he said. “I suspected I was an animus, from my visions of the future and this sense I had, but I needed to know. The Ice Kingdom has a test for anyone who might have inherited animus powers — I gave myself sort of a modified version.”

  “Didn’t your father test you?” Clearsight asked.

  “He did, but I deliberately failed it,” Darkstalker explained. “I didn’t want him getting any ideas about controlling me while I was still too young to defend myself. He’s suspicious, though. The incessant drumbeat in my house is all about being careful with animus magic.” Darkstalker hunched his shoulders and folded his wings back in. “Basically from the moment we could hear, my father has lectured my sister and me about what the magic means, what it can do to us, how we have to be SO careful or absolutely TERRIBLE things will happen.” He rolled his eyes.

  “But he’s right,” Clearsight said earnestly. “Can’t you —”

  “No, no,” Darkstalker snapped. He knew she didn’t like the way he was frowning, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Never, never tell me that my father is right about anything. Not if you care about me.”

  “I do,” Clearsight said. “I just … I’ve seen those absolutely terrible things, you know.”

  “In my future?” he asked, startled.

  “In ours,” she answered. “Haven’t you?”

  “I didn’t look carefully much further than meeting you,” he confessed. “I knew that now was when everything would start to get better. That I’d be … well, I’d be happy, finally.” He grinned sheepishly at her.

  Clearsight twined her tail with his and leaned into his shoulder. “This version of you is the sweetest,” she said.

  “I think it’s worth noting,” he said, “that this is actually the only existing version of me.”

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