Darkstalker, p.13
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       Darkstalker, p.13

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “The wearer?” Clearsight echoed, reading over his shoulder.

  “That way you can pass it down to one of our dragonets,” he said, smiling at her. “I mean, if I’m going to make a powerful animus-touched object like this, shouldn’t it be something that can be used forever?”

  “Very smart,” she said. He clasped the bracelet around her wrist and she held it up to watch the moonstones glow in the torchlight. She smiled at him. “I think Eclipse will love it, and she’ll need it the most.”

  He let out a little gasp of surprise. She’d never talked about their dragonets before — certainly never admitted that she knew what their names might be.

  “Are we definite on that name?” he said after a moment. “I was thinking Shadowhunter.”

  “That’s one of her big sisters,” Clearsight said, and laughed again at the look on his face. “Didn’t you know that already?”

  “Of course I did,” he said. “Eclipse, Shadowhunter, and Fierceclaws.”

  “No, no, no,” she said, laughing harder. “Fierceclaws? You definitely don’t win that argument.” She’d obviously spent a lot more time studying the timelines than he had.

  “We could name one after my mother,” Darkstalker suggested, a little shyly. “She’s pretty awesome. And Foeslayer’s a good name, isn’t it?”

  “It is,” Clearsight said with a smile. She had a weird feeling they did name a dragonet Foeslayer in some future timeline, but there were layers of reasons for it that felt sad and complicated to wrangle out.

  “Let’s make something else,” Darkstalker said, flicking his tail happily. He seized one of the blankets from his bed and wrote, Enchant this blanket to keep any dragon it covers at the exact perfect temperature. Grinning, he flung it over Clearsight’s shoulders.

  “Ooooo,” she said. She hadn’t even realized she was cold until the blanket’s magical warmth swept through her. “I have one! Can you enchant our boring history scroll to read to us?”

  “Of course!” he said. He dug his Ancient Wars of Pyrrhia scroll out of his pack and set it on the desk. Carefully he dipped a claw in the blue ink this time and wrote, Enchant this history scroll to read itself aloud whenever a dragon says, “Bore me to sleep!” and stop reading whenever someone says, “Spare me!”

  “You lunatic,” she said affectionately.

  “Ready?” He stole a corner of the blanket and curled up beside her with the history scroll in front of them. “Bore me to sleep!”

  “Ancient Wars of Pyrrhia,” the scroll droned. “Introduction. Every dragon knows the history of the Scorching and the tribal shifts and alignments that followed, but many may not realize that five hundred years later, the continent of Pyrrhia was in a state of constant warfare.”

  “Screaming scavengers,” Clearsight said. “It sounds just like Professor Truthfinder!”

  “So bored, but also very suspicious of all of us!” Darkstalker agreed.

  They were laughing so hard, they didn’t hear the front door open.

  They didn’t hear the clawsteps approaching.

  They didn’t notice the dragon in the doorway, staring at them and the speaking scroll, until he spoke in a thunderous, glacier-cracking voice.

  “What is going on in here?” snarled Prince Arctic.

  Darkstalker leaped to his feet and faced his father, lashing his tail. Clearsight grabbed the history scroll and whispered, “Spare me” at it. The droning voice stopped.

  A cold, menacing silence filled the entire house.

  “This is my room,” Darkstalker snapped. “You’re not welcome in here.”

  Arctic stepped inside. He seemed to be growing bigger as Clearsight stared at him. She’d never seen an IceWing up close before. She hadn’t realized that they actually radiated a chill from their scales, like a hissing, fanged glacier. His scales were polished white with hints of pale blue, but not as shiny as she’d expected. He looked sort of … scuffed, as though he needed to go roll in some snow to clean off.

  His eyes were the color of a cloudless sky; they were piercing but tired at the same time. She wondered if he had trouble sleeping this far away from his own kingdom, and on a schedule where everyone stayed awake all night and slept all day. He must miss the ice and snow. He must miss his family, his tribe, everything he’d grown up with. She couldn’t imagine being so far from home, surrounded by dragons who looked nothing like her.

  As she stared at him, a vision stabbed into her brain: Arctic holding one of Whiteout’s drawings of Foeslayer, half-frozen tears dripping from his eyes. She blinked, trying not to fall into the visions. This sometimes happened when she met a new dragon — especially a significant one with alarming futures. But here, in this room with these dragons, she wanted to draw as little attention to herself as possible.

  “Did you enchant that scroll to speak?” Arctic asked, staring down at his son.

  “Yes,” Darkstalker answered. He lifted his chin defiantly.

  “So.” Arctic exhaled a hint of frostbreath. “You’re an animus after all.”

  “I guess I am,” said Darkstalker.

  Clearsight could not imagine having a conversation with her parents that had so few words and so many giant unspoken feelings. She was very glad not to be a mind reader at this moment. She could just imagine the furious thoughts that were shoving and clawing up against one another in the air right now.

  The scroll! she remembered suddenly. Not the history scroll — the animus-touched one. The one with all of Darkstalker’s power in it. The one Arctic should definitely never, ever find out about.

  It was lying open on the desk, displaying Darkstalker’s enchantments in his jagged, messy handwriting.

  Arctic hadn’t noticed it yet. Clearsight took a sidling step toward the desk, then another when nobody even looked at her. The two male dragons seemed to be testing whether it was possible to freeze someone with just your eyeballs.

  “Have you not heard a word I’ve said,” growled Arctic, “about the dangers of using animus magic frivolously?”

  “I didn’t need to hear it,” said Darkstalker. “I can see it in every rotting spot on your soul. But you don’t have to worry about me; I’ll never be anything like you.”

  Clearsight winced. That seemed crueler than necessary.

  Another vision flashed through her mind: Arctic slashing the throat of a NightWing she didn’t know, with two IceWings lurking in the shadows behind him.

  That was … worrying.

  “I used my magic to keep your mother alive,” Arctic hissed. “I used it to help her escape the IceWings who wanted her dead. I have only ever used it out of necessity — never to make playthings to impress little girl dragons.” He shot a glare at Clearsight and she froze in front of the desk, hoping her wings were hiding the scroll well enough.

  “That’s not even true,” Darkstalker said heatedly. “I know what you made for Mother when you first met. She still wears that earring all the time.”

  Arctic hissed. “That’s different.”

  “Why?” said Darkstalker. “Because you and Mother have such a great love? One worth starting a war over?” He paused. “Wow, that is what you think.”

  A war, a war, a war, chimed inside Clearsight’s head, and she felt the spinning rush of visions descending on her. Not right now! she tried to command her power, but on they came.

  Foeslayer wielding a long spear, in the middle of a battle, IceWings and NightWings clashing over a desert sunrise.

  Arctic dying in a pool of royal-blue IceWing blood.

  Arctic leading Whiteout through a palace of ice, her wings shivering.

  Darkstalker with a spear through his chest, his eyes going blank.

  Arctic in Queen Vigilance’s display prison, screaming furiously through the bars.

  A squadron of NightWings following Arctic into battle against a sea of white dragons.

  Darkstalker writing in his scroll by firelight, writing as if his life depended on it.

  There was so much, so many
paths ahead, and most of them tending toward terrible violence. This lost IceWing had almost no chance at a peaceful future. Betrayed, betrayer, murdered, murderer; death and treason surrounded him with their vast wings, no matter what he did.

  Was that the price of his animus magic? Had he already lost too much of his soul to his power?

  Can I save him? Can anyone?

  “What’s wrong with her?” Arctic’s voice was not as harsh as she’d expected. He sounded actually concerned.

  Clearsight’s eyes opened, and she realized she was crouching with her talons pressed to her head and her wings folded around herself. Darkstalker was beside her, gently touching her back.

  “Are you all right?” he said. “What did you see?”

  “I’m … not sure,” she said. He looked disappointed, but it was true. All those visions couldn’t come true; she needed to study them to figure out what order they happened in, which ones were most likely, what were the turning points that led to each one. And how to stop them, or which timeline was the least awful. Whether there was any way to bring this IceWing back from the abyss that lay ahead of him.

  And save Darkstalker, her inner voice whispered, remembering the worst of the visions. She was quite sure she shouldn’t tell Darkstalker about that one. She wondered if he’d seen it himself — if he’d followed the path that led from his father to his own death, and whether that was part of why they hated each other so much.

  “You’re a seer?” Arctic said, squinting at her. “That looked like quite a vision. Got any prophecies to share?”

  She shook her head, but words were bubbling up from inside her, the kind she normally only wrote down. “Beware your two queens,” she whispered. Arctic jerked back, eyes wide. “Beware your own power. Your claws will betray you in your final hour.”

  She clamped her mouth shut. She hated prophecies like that — the kind that possessed you and confused everyone. The kind that Allknowing taught her students to imitate. If you asked Clearsight, no good could come of telling dragons vague cryptic things about the future, which they then tried to interpret and second-guess and fulfill and avoid.

  No. Without the portentous fancy talk, she could give everyone real information: details, an action plan, knowledge to steer them along the right path. She just needed to concentrate and figure it out.

  But Arctic’s mind was clearly already spinning through the possibilities, trying to guess what her words meant.

  “I need to write that down,” he said, starting toward the desk and Darkstalker’s scroll.

  “Not in here, that’s my homework,” Clearsight said in a rush. She swept the inkwell off the scroll and rolled it up, sliding it quickly into its case. “I should go. I’ll see you at school tomorrow, Darkstalker. Thanks for — thanks for studying with me.” She’d nearly said “thanks for the bracelet,” but she was sure he didn’t want his father to know about any other animus spells he’d cast.

  “Wait,” Darkstalker said as she slid his scroll into her bag. “I —”

  “Don’t worry,” she said, brushing his wing lightly with hers. “I’ll take care of our project.” She’d bring it back tomorrow, when it was safe.

  She backed hurriedly out the door, but Arctic didn’t seem to notice her nervousness, or anything suspicious about the scroll. He still looked dazed by the prophecy, muttering it over to himself and studying his claws with concern.

  As she flew away, Clearsight wondered if there was anything to her prophecy — anything she should worry about.

  “Beware your two queens; beware your own power.

  Your claws will betray you in your final hour.”

  At least it didn’t say anything about Darkstalker, she realized. But Arctic’s bound to be more worried about him now that he knows Darkstalker’s an animus.

  How had she been careless enough to let them be caught by Arctic?

  She should have known he’d come home early.

  She should have protected Darkstalker better.

  Except … now she could feel something in the shifting timelines. Something about today’s events would have ripple effects far into the future.

  Some of them terrible … but some of them good.

  Someone will be coming, whispered her seer voice.

  Was that one of the good things, or one of the terrible things?

  There’s only one way to find out, she thought. Well, two ways: I could wait and see what happens. Or I can go home and try to study them all.

  She caught an air current and dove into it, swooping home to her scrolls and her notes as fast as her wings could carry her.

  Fathom dragged his tail as he made his way through the halls to his sister’s throne room. A summons from the queen: this couldn’t be good.

  Over a year had passed since the massacre. A long, lonely year.

  He’d kept his promise; he’d stayed away from Indigo, although it made him feel like his wings had been cut off.

  It was hard to divide up his grief, when he had so many dragons to mourn — his cousins, his uncle, his queen, his parents most of all, but even his grandfather, or at least the grandfather he thought he knew.

  Losing Indigo, though … most days, that was the worst of all.

  As the dragon who stopped the massacre, Indigo was the hero of the Kingdom of the Sea. Pearl had kept her word: Indigo had been promoted to the queen’s honor guard immediately and assigned to the squadron that protected the queen herself, night and day. Pearl rarely let Indigo leave her side … which certainly made it easier for Fathom to avoid her.

  He hadn’t seen either of them in months, not even from a distance. He spent most of his time studying quietly in a back room of the Deep Palace, alone.

  He didn’t know what he was going to do with his life anymore.

  The three guards at the throne room door saw him coming and bristled dangerously, their spears at the ready, their teeth bared. That was pretty much the way most SeaWings reacted to him these days. He understood it. He couldn’t exactly produce his soul as evidence that he still had one.

  Fathom stopped several steps away from the guards and bowed his head. “Queen Pearl sent a message asking me to attend her in the throne room.”

  The guards conferred in suspicious murmurs, and then one of them whisked inside. A few minutes later, she came out again and beckoned to him.

  “All right,” she said. “Go on in. But we’re watching you, animus.”

  He nodded and slipped past the barricade of sharp points and unfriendly eyes.

  Pearl was on her throne, with another row of guards assembled across the room between him and her. Surely she knew that would do no good. If he went evil, he could kill her no matter what the guards did. He wouldn’t even have to be here, standing in front of her.

  But it was all part of the performance — reassuring the court that she was strong and safe and invulnerable. A show of force was what they needed to see.

  He had promised himself he wouldn’t do this, but his eyes darted around the room against his will, looking for deep purple-blue scales.

  And there she was, standing just behind his sister. Staring down at the spear in her talons. Ready to die for her queen.

  A tidal wave crashed over him, memories and longing and despair crushing the air out of his chest. He remembered claw painting with Indigo when they were tiny dragonets, dipping their talons in blue and gold paint and stomping on each other’s scrolls until she knocked him over and he ended up rolling gold scale patterns across their paintings, sticky and delighted with himself.

  He remembered the hours he’d spent carving that first dolphin for her, trying to get it just right. He remembered swimming and diving with her, filling out their fish journals until they’d seen every variety in the sea. He remembered how she teased him for taking their tutors so seriously.

  He remembered adjusting the pearls around her neck, the beat of her heart so close to his. He remembered holding her as he willed life back into her body, his tears falling
like rain on her battered scales.

  I’d do it again, he thought. Again and again, anything to save her. I’d give up my whole soul, let it crumble into darkness, if that’s what it took.

  Pearl was still right about him and Indigo, even after all this time apart.

  “Hello, brother,” Queen Pearl said, and he forced his eyes back to her. Her face was knowing, wary, as if putting him in the same room with Indigo was a test, and she was watching him fail it.

  “Your Majesty,” he said with a bow.

  “Look who’s come home to us,” she said, flicking her tail at a SeaWing coiled a few steps below the throne.

  It took Fathom a long moment to recognize him. The last time he’d seen his cousin Current, he’d been laughing and joking with the rest of the family. When he never reappeared after the massacre, everyone assumed he had been wounded and died somewhere out in the ocean.

  But here he was, alive — and yet this dragon was not the confident, easy-to-smile cousin Fathom remembered. This dragon was thin and shivered constantly, and he couldn’t look at Fathom without flinching away.

  “Current?” Fathom said.

  “I d-d-don’t — I don’t —” Current stammered.

  “Where have you been?” Fathom asked, worried. He took a step closer. The guards raised their spears and Current flinched so hard he nearly knocked himself over.

  “You’ll never guess,” said Pearl, and for a moment he heard his sister under the regal voice, excited to know a secret he didn’t.

  “Another kingdom?” he said.

  “The Night Kingdom,” she said.

  Fathom raised his eyebrows. That was about as far away as anyone could get from the Island Palace without turning into an icicle.

  But why had Current been gone for so long? He must have heard the news about the new queen of the SeaWings, even across the continent.

  “I d-don’t want to see him,” Current whispered, covering his eyes. “P-please don’t make me.”

  Pearl sighed. “All right. Take him away,” she said to one of the guards, and for an awful moment Fathom thought that was it — less than a minute of being in the same room with Indigo, as if to torment him before ripping her away again.

 
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