Darkstalker, p.14
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       Darkstalker, p.14

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  But the guard went to Current instead, taking the SeaWing gently by the wing and steering him out of the throne room.

  “Current has been a … guest … of the NightWing queen all this time,” Pearl said, watching him go. “And now she’s finally sent him back with a message, and an offer.”

  Uh-oh. His pulse throbbed ominously in his skull. Here it comes. The reason I was summoned.

  Pearl picked up a tablet and glanced down at the words as though she found it hard to meet Fathom’s eyes. “Apparently the NightWings suddenly have an animus of their own. Their very first.”

  “But —” Fathom started.

  “How?” she cut him off. “Remember the rumors about that IceWing prince who ran away with a NightWing? They must have been true. This animus is his son, a dragon named Darkstalker.”

  Another animus out there.

  Is he going to kill his entire family, too?

  “Apparently Current told Queen Vigilance all about Albatross and the massacre,” Pearl said. She frowned slightly. Fathom knew she’d been hoping to keep that a secret from the other tribes for a lot longer. “Queen Vigilance is, naturally, worried about whether her animus might go all homicidally crazy, too. She says he is apparently quite careless with his magic, no matter how often his father, the IceWing, warns him about the effects.”

  A twist of guilt and fear stabbed through Fathom’s chest.

  “We have to do something,” he cried. “Someone has to stop him!”

  “Agreed,” said Pearl, looking slightly taken aback at the urgency in his voice. “Someone is going to stop him. You.”

  Fathom glanced around at all the blue and green eyes that pinned him to the floor. “Me?”

  “We’re sending you to the Night Kingdom.” Pearl tapped the tablet neatly against the arm of her throne. “Queen Vigilance will shelter you and introduce you to this animus. You will tell him your sad story and teach him the error of his ways.”

  But nobody listens to me. Why would anyone listen to me?

  “And then the NightWings will be our new allies,” Pearl said, examining her claws. “Everyone wins.”

  Beside the queen, Indigo finally looked up and met Fathom’s eyes. “But,” she blurted, and Pearl shot a dangerous look at her.

  Indigo plowed on bravely. “But is it safe for — is it safe?” she asked the queen. “What if this is a NightWing trap to steal our animus, the way they stole the IceWing one?”

  “That story is nonsense,” Pearl said, already standing to leave the room. She paused to look down at Fathom. “Who would want an animus?”

  The cold, hard truth of that sank in for a moment.

  “Your Majesty,” Indigo said abruptly. Her claws dug into the wood of her spear. “I ask permission to accompany Prince Fathom to the Night Kingdom. As — as the head of his personal guard.”

  Fathom’s heart leaped and then immediately sank. With me? Indigo and me, together? It was what he wanted, desperately, but it was also too dangerous, and Pearl would never allow it.

  Pearl narrowed her eyes at Indigo. “Who says I’m sending any guards with him?”

  “Very amusing, my queen. I know you are too wise to send a powerful, magic member of the royal family to a faraway kingdom unguarded,” Indigo said. “All kinds of terrible things could happen to him. That other animus could kill him.”

  Fathom thought perhaps Pearl wouldn’t mind that at all. This was a convenient way to get rid of a dragon who made everyone uncomfortable … and if he never came back, well, problem solved forever.

  “Please, Your Majesty.” Indigo folded her wings and bowed respectfully. “It sounds like the NightWing animus could be a threat. I could assess the situation and report back to you. I am not afraid of his magic.”

  “She can save everyone from him!” called one of the queen’s advisors.

  “That’s true!” called another. “Send the Animus Slayer!”

  “She should be wherever there is danger from an animus dragon! She can stop him before he threatens our kingdom!”

  “Yeah! She can kill them both if she has to!”

  There was an awkward pause after that last shout. Fathom deliberately did not look around to see who’d said it. He knew enough of them were thinking it.

  Is that what Indigo’s thinking? That she might have to protect the world from me?

  From the look on Pearl’s face, he guessed the queen highly doubted Indigo would be able to pull that off. But she was also stuck. She couldn’t deny the Hero of the Massacre, the Animus Slayer, the one thing Indigo had ever asked for, not in front of her court.

  “I don’t need guards,” he forced himself to say. “I can go by myself.”

  Indigo gave him a wounded look and he felt like the lowest sea slug in the ocean.

  She drew herself up taller, tearing her eyes away from him. “With respect, Your Majesty,” she said. “Your animus should not be allowed to leave the kingdom unsupervised.”

  “Very well,” Pearl said, with an expression as though she’d just swallowed a spoiled oyster. “I will assign you two other guards, and you may accompany my brother to the Night Kingdom.”

  She turned with a flourish of her wings and swept out of the throne room, lashing her tail furiously. Perhaps it was a good time to travel halfway around the world from her, after all.

  And I’ll be with Indigo, he thought. I know I shouldn’t be happy about that. I should be terrified.

  Guards were moving forward to usher him out, but across the room he was able to catch and hold her gaze for a moment.

  He couldn’t read her face. Was she angry with him? Was she really going with him because she didn’t trust him?

  Or is she worried about this other animus?

  He realized with a surge of guilt that he was flying straight toward a new, unknown, potentially enormous danger … and he was dragging Indigo right along with him.

  The first invitation to the palace came two months after Arctic discovered Darkstalker was an animus.

  Darkstalker knew it was coming, and not because of any prophetic vision. He’d expected it ever since the night Arctic told Foeslayer everything, at dinner after Clearsight was gone. He’d been listening to Arctic wrestle with whether to tell anyone all evening. It actually made him like his father a tiny bit when Arctic finally decided he couldn’t bear to keep it from Foeslayer.

  “Did you know,” Arctic had said, stabbing his claws into the rabbit on the table, “that our son has been keeping a secret from us?”

  “I know he had a girl here today,” Foeslayer had responded. She smiled at Darkstalker. “What’s her name?”

  “Clearsight,” Darkstalker said, smiling back. “You’ll like her, Mother.” There was no need to hide her anymore. Arctic was too unnerved by her prophecy to bother her or try to ruin their relationship.

  “She’s exactly right,” Whiteout offered. “Definitely azure on the inside. I like the way she knits.”

  Darkstalker had no idea what that meant. He’d never once seen Clearsight knit. But the fact that his sister liked her was really all he needed to know.

  “So when do we get to meet her?” Foeslayer had asked, her eyes sparkling.

  “That is not the secret,” Arctic barked. “Pay attention. Darkstalker is an animus. He’s probably known for years without telling us. And he’s using his magic.”

  Foeslayer dropped her rabbit and stared at Darkstalker.

  “Magic brother,” Whiteout said thoughtfully. She reached across the table, lifted one of Darkstalker’s talons, and flipped it over, tracing the lines of the scales. “That’s all right; he’s not going to snow for a while.”

  “Thanks,” Darkstalker said with a grin, resisting the urge to hug her. He sensed new fear from both his parents, but nothing different in the starscape of Whiteout’s mind. He didn’t know what she was thinking, but he knew she loved him with all his weirdness, the same way he loved her.

  He shrugged at Foeslayer. “It’s not that big a deal.”<
br />
  “It rather is, actually,” she said. She rubbed her snout between her eyes. “Oh, Mother is going to be horribly pleased.”

  Darkstalker and Whiteout rarely saw their grandmother, who used to be one of Queen Vigilance’s closest advisors. She’d been demoted after the fiasco with Foeslayer and their diplomatic visit to the Ice Kingdom, even though the queen had officially pardoned Foeslayer. Grandmother had always looked down her snout at Foeslayer’s hybrid offspring, muttering about how the only way this mess could have been worth it was if one of them had at least turned out to be an animus.

  It’s going to be sort of beautiful, Darkstalker thought. Grandmother would have to admit that perhaps Foeslayer’s forbidden love wasn’t the biggest mistake any NightWing had ever made. Because if it brought animus blood to the NightWing tribe … surely that was worth a mere little war with the IceWings?

  And then perhaps she’d even have to be nice to her daughter once in a while. Darkstalker would enjoy watching that.

  “She’s going to eat her tongue,” Whiteout agreed.

  “Gross,” Darkstalker said, making a face at her. She giggled.

  “How do you propose we leash him?” Arctic asked Foeslayer. Darkstalker saw bubbling flashes of ideas in his mind — things he could enchant to keep his son under control.

  “Stop thinking what you’re thinking,” Darkstalker said quietly, dangerously.

  Arctic gave him a sharp look. “Stop listening to what I’m thinking.”

  “You can’t afford to use your magic again,” Darkstalker said. “It will destroy you. You’ll end up like that SeaWing. I know; I can see the holes in your soul.”

  There was a twist of genuine fear inside Arctic, which sort of surprised Darkstalker. Not only was Arctic more worried about his soul than Darkstalker had expected, but he also apparently believed that Darkstalker could see how close he was to turning evil.

  Across the table, Whiteout nodded. “I had an apple like that once,” she said ruefully.

  Foeslayer leaned toward Darkstalker. “If you can see the damage it’s done to your father,” she said, “doesn’t that frighten you? Doesn’t it make you want to be careful?”

  “I’m not damaged,” Arctic snarled, but internally he was counting all the times he’d used his magic. It must be the magic I used for our escape from the Ice Kingdom. Or the spell that keeps Mother’s magic from working on me. But those enchantments were necessary … Will I really go mad if I use my power again? I should do something to contain my son … but what if I turn evil and hurt Foeslayer?

  “Yes,” Darkstalker answered his mother. “Don’t worry, Mother. I am being careful.” He held out his talons. “There are no spots on my soul.”

  “Only stripes,” Whiteout said, and burst out laughing.

  Oh dear, Foeslayer thought, regarding her daughter with a puzzled expression. Why couldn’t either of my dragonets be the slightest bit ordinary?

  “Life’s more interesting this way, right?” said Darkstalker, and she smiled at him.

  On his other side, he could hear his father thinking venomous thoughts. Even after all these years among the NightWings, and despite his own son’s power, Arctic couldn’t seem to hide what he was thinking and didn’t even bother to try. I hate when they communicate like that, he thought in a dark grumble. I don’t get to know what she’s thinking, but he does? And she doesn’t care that he just invades her mind like that. NightWings and their horrible powers.

  “We should tell Queen Vigilance,” said Foeslayer. “Shouldn’t we?” She worried at the corner of the table. It’s the right thing to do, as a loyal NightWing (and to prove that I am a loyal NightWing, despite everyone’s suspicions) … but what will the queen do about it? Will she try to use my son? What might she ask him to do?

  “Let’s talk about that in private,” said Arctic.

  “Oh, good,” said Darkstalker. “No reason to involve me in that decision.”

  But he had dropped it, knowing they would decide to tell the queen. He didn’t mind if they did. He was ready for the whole tribe to know.

  Which didn’t take long, because Whiteout started mentioning it at school. Keeping secrets was not something she ever did. Darkstalker got the impression sometimes that she thought if she knew something, everybody must know it, like they all shared one mind.

  So she’d slide comments about his animus power into ordinary conversations, without seeming to notice how it blew up everybody’s brains. It was sort of fun to watch.

  Suddenly Darkstalker had throngs of new friends to choose from. Everyone treated Clearsight like she was royalty, or at least royalty-adjacent. His teachers were more cautious with their criticism, more likely to love his ideas. Nobody made fun of his sister anymore. And all the oldest dragons around him seemed to feel entitled to ask him thousands of nosy questions a day about his new power.

  He rather liked being the NightWing tribe’s first animus.

  Then the first invitation to the palace came, and Darkstalker met the queen in an awkward private meeting, where she assured him she was looking forward to hearing any ideas he had about how best to use his power. Perhaps against the IceWings. Hint, hint. He promised he would put a lot of thought into it, to make sure anything he made for her was worth the risk to his soul, and then they both thought about the SeaWing massacre for a minute, and then she quickly excused him.

  But more invitations followed, one after another. Dinner parties, tea with the queen, hunting weekends, races and tournaments and games — everything he and Foeslayer had been carefully excluded from for years, even after Arctic became a fixture of court life. Queen Vigilance was more interested in what his power could give her than frightened of what might happen to him. She wanted him close to her, dependent on her, and Darkstalker liked going so he could study her and see how palace life worked.

  The only problem was that Clearsight refused to go with him to any of the royal gatherings. He kept telling her that other dragons brought guests. He could certainly bring his soulmate with him. But she wanted to be invited to the palace on her own merits — by doing something to help the tribe and catch the queen’s attention herself, not by slipping in on another dragon’s arm.

  There wasn’t much he could do to change her mind. But his foresight said it wouldn’t be much longer; he’d had a vision of the two of them at the palace that he was sure would happen soon. And in the meanwhile, he just had to put up with a LOT of boring court conversations.

  There was something different about this latest invitation, though. As he moved around his room, getting ready, he felt a weird spark of anticipation zapping through him.

  A welcoming party. That’s all it had said. Welcoming who?

  Darkstalker had looked into the immediate future and seen a cluster of SeaWings, which was surprising. But he didn’t linger on it. Studying the future was Clearsight’s obsession, not his. He knew how quickly and easily the future could change, so trying to keep track of all the possibilities was a waste of his time. He accepted the visions that burst into his head, since those were usually warnings. And sometimes he looked ahead to the futures where he and Clearsight were married with their own dragonets. A future without Arctic — that was the promise his gift of foresight gave him.

  He took an earring out of his jewelry chest — silver, designed to look like a snake twining down his ear. This one was enchanted to make everyone who met him think he was exceptionally handsome and charming. Clearsight had made him promise to never wear it around her.

  “I like seeing you the way you really are,” she’d said.

  “Which is not exceptionally handsome and charming?” he asked, half joking, half offended.

  “Just handsome enough,” she had said, “with a head that still fits through doors. Also, I don’t like watching other dragons fawn over you.”

  “Jealous?” he’d asked with a grin.

  “No, it’s just … creepy,” she’d answered, not joking at all.

  Well, she wouldn
t be there tonight, and he should try to make a good impression on whoever was being welcomed, surely.

  The other accessory he chose for the evening was a tail band, the latest fashion trend. His wound around his tail five times and was also silver, like his earring, and carved to look like dragon scales. It was a bit heavier than he liked and he also thought tail bands looked sort of ridiculous. But this one had a particularly useful enchantment on it, so, although it was unwieldy, it was nonetheless a good idea to wear it.

  “Are you still primping?” Arctic demanded, shoving his head into Darkstalker’s room. “The queen will not be pleased if we’re late.” He was one to talk about primping: his moon-white scales were set off by necklaces of black jet and bright green emeralds, and matching rings glittered on a few of his claws.

  “You can go ahead without me,” Darkstalker said, trying not to show how much that would please him. They rarely attended the same court events if they could avoid it. But in this case they had both been expressly commanded to attend.

  “I’ll wait,” Arctic said with a heavy sigh. Need to make sure he gets there, his brain muttered. Important night. Can’t be late. One of the conditions was that we must not embarrass her in front of the SeaWings. Or else she’ll send them back, or kill them, or whatever she plans to do.

  Hmm, Darkstalker thought to himself. That was mysterious. But if the fate of the SeaWings might depend on his punctuality, he supposed he could hurry himself up.

  Foeslayer was waiting for them by the door, wearing emeralds and white moonstones that complemented his father’s black gemstones — a trick they often played with their jewelry. It gave them the illusion of matching, of fitting perfectly together. Foeslayer reached out and adjusted one of Arctic’s chains, her talons drifting lightly down his neck.

  It’ll be all right, she thought. Arctic’s idea is clever. It’s just what Darkstalker needs.

  “Me?” Darkstalker said to her, suddenly suspicious. “What do I need?”

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