Darkstalker, p.19
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       Darkstalker, p.19

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  She lifted off into the sky, steering around the clouds, keeping the sun bright in her eyes.

  Don’t look down.

  Don’t chase the storm.

  Don’t let the dark visions win.

  Weeks passed in a blur that got happier and happier each day. After a year of cold silences and unfriendly looks and solitude, Fathom suddenly found himself wrapped in warmth and attention. Darkstalker and Clearsight weren’t afraid of him or his magic. More than that, they seemed to actually like him. They sought him out every day, taking him flying and hunting, sharing scrolls and secrets about the royal court. They made him laugh. They made him forget, for hours at a time, what he’d been through and what he’d had to do.

  He never forgot his mission, though. He still watched Darkstalker constantly for signs that he was using his magic … or about to turn evil. One evening he found the soul reader on his desk with a note that said:

  By all the shining moons, your brain is driving me crazy. Here, you keep this, use it on me whenever you want, and STOP WORRYING SO MUCH.

  “SO suspicious,” Indigo said when he showed the note to her. “He’s probably enchanted the thing to show you that he’s always good, no matter what he does. Or worse, maybe it has a spell on it to make you trust him more every time you touch it.”

  “Aren’t you paranoid and clever,” Darkstalker said, sailing in over the balcony. “We’re lucky you’re not an animus, with ideas like that.”

  Indigo froze, trying to put on her blank bodyguard face, and Fathom stepped between them in a hurry. “Thank you,” he said to Darkstalker. “You really don’t mind if I keep it?”

  “I’ve used it on my father already,” Darkstalker said, folding his wings. “He’s almost as bad as I thought, but not all the way evil yet. I might need to borrow it back to show my mother one day, but she’s got enough to deal with in the war right now. So you hang on to it for me, if it makes you feel better.”

  Fathom tipped the telescope toward Darkstalker and checked — the same levels of black and white sand as before.

  “See? Totally not evil,” Darkstalker said with a grin. “Let’s go bother Clearsight!”

  Fathom followed him out into the hallway with Indigo behind them. “She said she had to work today, remember?”

  “Queen Vigilance wants her to work every day,” Darkstalker said, rolling his eyes. “She’s already quit school to do this full time. It’s not good for her. Flying and hunting and swimming with me is what’s good for her.” He narrowed his eyes at Indigo. “Do your other two bodyguards do anything useful? It seems like this one is the only one who’s ever on duty.”

  Fathom flinched. He wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding how important Indigo was to him; she really did go with him everywhere. But that was partly because neither of them trusted Wharf or Lionfish and partly because none of the other NightWings ever seemed to notice who Fathom was with, anyway. Of course Darkstalker would, though.

  “Um, well … Indigo is the strongest,” Fathom stammered awkwardly. “The other two haven’t exactly, um, adjusted to the sleep cycle around here.” That was actually rather true. Wharf and Lionfish were often sleeping during the NightWings’ waking hours.

  “Well, you’re lucky you’ve got this one,” Darkstalker said, with a hint of something like amusement in his voice. “She seems to be very good at her job.”

  Fathom glanced at Indigo. Her expression was troubled, but she didn’t say anything.

  They rapped on Clearsight’s door and heard a clatter of things falling as talons thumped toward the door. Finally she poked her head out and gave Darkstalker a stern look.

  “I knew it was you,” she said.

  “REALLY?” Darkstalker said with a gasp. “It’s like you can PREDICT THE FUTURE!”

  “You are not distracting me today!” she cried. “Go away! The queen wants a full report on the next year of IceWing maneuvers by tomorrow morning!”

  Darkstalker bundled past her into the room, sweeping Fathom along with him. The floor, as usual, was covered with scrolls, as was every available surface. Fathom could recognize Clearsight’s handwriting at a glance now; it seemed as if she’d filled a hundred scrolls with her densely packed notes since she’d moved into the palace.

  “Great kingdoms,” Indigo said, startled, from the doorway. She looked down at her claws as if she didn’t know where she could possibly put them in this erupting volcano of paper.

  “You have to tell Vigilance that an entire year of information is impossible,” Darkstalker said to Clearsight. “Especially when you’re dealing with a whole tribe, an unpredictable queen, and all the little ridiculous things that can go wrong in a war.”

  “They’re not little or ridiculous when hundreds of lives are at stake,” Clearsight said, pressing her talons against her eyes. “And Queen Diamond isn’t completely unpredictable; she just changes her mind a lot. Besides, this is important — I helped us win the skirmish at sea last week, and I made sure the army avoided that ambush in the cactus mazes. But every time I’m right, Queen Vigilance wants more details. How many dragons in this location exactly; what time of day will they attack precisely —”

  “How many grains of sand in the next sandstorm,” Darkstalker finished. “You’re going to lose your mind, trying to track all of this. Come flying with us,” he wheedled. “It’ll clear your head.”

  “I can’t clear my head!” Clearsight protested. “I need it full of information! This information! Important information! In three months there might be a dawn attack on one of our supply routes! Quick, pass me that scroll.” She reached for an inkwell and nearly spilled it on one of the maps of the Kingdom of Sand.

  Darkstalker gave her the scroll she’d pointed to, waded through the paper, and flung open the window. Moonlight poured in, along with the smell of the distant ocean and the sound of dragons singing far below in the Great Diamond.

  “You are coming flying with us,” he said, “because I have made you a present, and because there’s a pack of delicious wolves running through the forests of Borderland Mountain, and because tomorrow is your hatching day, so Queen Vigilance can snort a bucket of worms for all I care.”

  “Tomorrow’s your hatching day?” Fathom said to Clearsight. “How old will you be?”

  “Oh,” she said, touching her head. The black ink on her claws matched the black of her scales. “I guess it is. Five. Wow, I can’t believe I’m only five years old.” She blinked at the scrolls, as if she’d lived several more lifetimes through her visions.

  “Clearsight’s hatching day: the best thing that’s ever happened in the history of the world!” Darkstalker cried. He swept Clearsight off her feet and spun her around, scattering scrolls everywhere. “Let’s celebrate! Let’s fly!” He tossed her out the window and she caught the wind with her wings, laughing breathlessly.

  “You loon!” she shouted at him, swooping around in a circle. “What am I supposed to tell the queen?”

  “That I love you and she can talk to me if she has any concerns,” Darkstalker proclaimed. “Come on, Fathom!”

  “Me?” Fathom said. “You really want me to come? Wouldn’t you rather —”

  “Shh!” Darkstalker knocked on Fathom’s head and tugged him toward the window. “Enough with the self-doubt! You’re our friend, and the present is partly for you, so let’s go, let’s go!” He leaped into the sky and barreled into Clearsight, tumbling through the sky with her.

  Fathom climbed onto the windowsill and watched them wistfully for a moment. They made it look so easy, being happy and in love. They never seemed to worry about all the reasons to stay apart. They were sure they’d have dragonets one day — Clearsight even thought one of them might be an animus, but she didn’t care. Darkstalker wasn’t afraid of what he might do with his power for her, and she didn’t seem to be afraid for his soul.

  Which had to mean something, since she could see the future.

  Maybe … maybe Darkstalker was right, and Fathom should sto
p worrying so much, too.

  He looked over his shoulder at Indigo. She had her head down, reading one of the scrolls on the floor.

  With a sudden rush of horror, Fathom remembered the look on Albatross’s face as he strangled Indigo. He remembered the gleaming madness in his grandfather’s eyes and the trail of blood that had led from the pavilion back to the scene of the massacre.

  No, he thought, his heart pounding. I’m right to worry. Darkstalker should worry more. That’s what I’m here to tell him, if I can figure out how to make him listen.

  He took off into the air, following his friends. They were racing around the clouds now, blowing puffs of smoke at each other. He could hear Clearsight’s laughter echoing through the sky.

  He wished he could at least treat Indigo like a friend in front of them … but she didn’t want him to. She agreed that it was safer if everyone thought she was just his bodyguard, and so that was how she acted, trailing after them silently wherever they went.

  Tonight Darkstalker led them into a forest that swept along the lower reaches of the mountain, beyond the palace. He and Clearsight each caught a wolf and then landed beside a lake so Fathom could catch a fish and join them. Darkstalker built a fire and pulled a feast out of the bag slung over his shoulder: giant tomatoes, roasted nuts, something he called “cheese” that Fathom had never had before, bear paws, camel jerky, and several mystery fruits he’d bought from a traveling RainWing peddler at the market.

  “I’ve had this one before,” Clearsight said, poking a small fuzzy brown sphere. “It’s called a kiwi and it’s all tingly in your mouth. Ooo, don’t eat that one with the purple spots; it’ll make your breath smell like vultures for a week.”

  “How do you know that?” Fathom asked. “A vision?”

  “Experience,” she said, pointing significantly at Darkstalker. “I can’t believe you bought it again, after last time!”

  He laughed, flicking her with his tail. “I forgot what it looked like! Anyway, I seem to remember it was deliciously worth it.”

  “For you, maybe, but not for me!” she protested. “You can have it if you promise to stay far away from me for the next week. Actually, considering how much work I have to do, sure, go ahead.”

  Darkstalker picked up the offending fruit and threw it in the lake. “There,” he said. “Now some poor unsuspecting fish will probably have a terrible first date because of you.”

  “Thank you, handsome.” Clearsight laughed, poking him gently with her tail.

  “Time for presents?” Darkstalker said. “Yay absolutely yes?”

  “I don’t have anything for you,” Fathom said. “I’m sorry.”

  “It’s totally fine,” Clearsight said. “Darkstalker’s being dramatic. I don’t need presents.”

  “Wait — maybe — hang on.” Fathom jumped up and hurried into the trees. Indigo was pacing outside the circle of firelight, peering into the shadows and scanning the sky. She stopped as he went past her and watched him paw the ground.

  “Are you all right?” he asked her.

  “Sure,” she said quietly, glancing back at the two NightWings. “I’m just … worrying. I feel like something bad’s about to happen.”

  “You should join us,” he said, lowering his voice to match hers. I wish you could. I wish this could be normal, that we could be like them.

  She shook her head. “I should keep watch.”

  If anyone attacks us, Darkstalker would probably use his magic to protect us, Fathom thought. It’s bad that I find that a little comforting.

  He found what he’d been looking for: a piece of wood just the right size and shape. He took it over to show Indigo, standing close enough to feel her wings almost brush his.

  “Remember the dolphin?” he said.

  “The beluga?” she corrected him with a small smile. “I brought it with me.”

  “And … Blob?” he asked. The octopus had vanished from their bungalow along with Indigo and all her things, but he’d never seen it with her, even here. He was sort of afraid Pearl might have done something to it.

  “I have Blob, too,” she said softly. “I keep him hidden. I didn’t want to remind anyone … what you can do.”

  “Right.” Of course, he thought bitterly. Because what I can do is so terrible, even when it’s just an innocent pet octopus.

  He saw Darkstalker turn to look for him and stepped away from Indigo quickly, hurrying back over to the fire.

  “What are you doing?” Darkstalker asked, peering at the wood.

  “You’ll see,” Fathom said, starting to slice and carve it with his claws. It was softer than the wood he normally worked with, but he thought it would turn out all right.

  “Falling stars,” Clearsight said in an awestruck voice. “Look how fast you can do that.”

  “Lots of practice,” he said with a shrug. Lots of time on my own with nothing else to do.

  Swiftly it started to form a shape between his talons, as if a tiny dragon were trying to hatch right out of the wood. He whittled the tiny claws, smoothed a lashing tail at the end, and dug out sharp spikes all along the dragon’s back.

  “I’ve never made a NightWing before,” he said apologetically.

  “Wow,” said Clearsight. “I love it.” She held out her talons and he gently set the finished dragon in the curve of her claws. “It looks just like my friend Listener, doesn’t it, Darkstalker?”

  Darkstalker tilted his head at the little carving. “Can you make me one of those?” he asked. “I mean, not right now, whenever you get a chance. I want a SeaWing.”

  “Yeah, absolutely,” Fathom said, feeling warmly pleased. He loved making things, but no one at home wanted anything from him anymore. It was kind of thrilling to have friends he could give his presents to again. He glanced around at Indigo, but she wasn’t looking their way.

  “Well,” Darkstalker said, “it seems a little unfair that I have to follow that. But hopefully you guys will think this is amazing anyway. Fathom, don’t freak out. It was just a little tiny spell.”

  Fathom’s heart sank as Darkstalker fumbled with his bag. “You used your magic again?”

  “Ta-da!” Darkstalker said, opening his talons. Three sapphires glittered in the firelight, shining like captured blue stars. “One for each of us.” He passed one to Clearsight. When Fathom didn’t reach for his, Darkstalker tossed it at him so Fathom had to jump to catch it.

  The sapphire was cool and heavy and didn’t seem to radiate particular menace, but Fathom felt dizzily ill looking at it. How could Darkstalker have done another spell after everything Fathom had told him?

  “I said don’t freak out.” Darkstalker batted at Fathom’s wing. “You just read my soul, remember?” That was true, Fathom realized. And the balance of sand hadn’t changed even a tiny bit, as far as he could tell. Didn’t every spell tilt an animus a bit closer to evil? Or were some spells safe? Or was Darkstalker’s soul reader enchanted to give the wrong results, as Indigo had guessed?

  “Shh,” Darkstalker said, tapping Fathom’s skull again. “Listen. I call these dreamvisitors.” He held his own out toward the flames, turning it so they could see all the facets of the gemstone. “You can use it to walk in the dreams of any sleeping dragon you know or have ever seen. This way we can be together even when we’re asleep. I can visit either of you in your dreams, or you can visit me. You can even step into the dreams of someone all the way across the continent, if you want to. Although I highly doubt anyone else is having dreams as interesting as ours.” He beamed at Clearsight. “Happy hatching day.”

  “It’s beautiful,” she said, leaning over to hug him. “Isn’t it, Fathom? And now we have something that’s just ours, the three of us. Because we’re best friends.”

  Best friends.

  Wasn’t it a small miracle for him to have best friends, after everything that had happened?

  He studied the sapphire again, trying to remember the last time someone had given him a present or included him in a group
just because they liked him. Was it two years ago, when Indigo made him a mango shrimp cake for turning five? His sixth hatching day, last year, back in the Kingdom of the Sea, had come and gone without anyone saying anything about it. He was pretty sure no one had even spoken to him that day.

  He looked over at Indigo again, and this time she was looking his way. She was staring at the sapphire, her face a mask of worry and fear that mirrored his own.

  I wish I could just take this and be happy, he thought with a sigh.

  But he should refuse it; he should give it back, along with another lecture about why this was too dangerous and another useless heartfelt plea for Darkstalker to stop using his power.

  He leaned forward, but before he could start, Clearsight suddenly grabbed Darkstalker’s talons and jumped to her feet. The flames seemed to flare in her eyes, and she stared into the fire, trembling.

  “What is it?” Darkstalker shook her talons and pulled her face toward him. “What did you see?”

  “It’s your mother,” she said. “Darkstalker, it’s Foeslayer! She’s in danger — Queen Diamond — there’s a plan — we have to find her.” Her words scrambled over one another, throwing themselves frantically out into the night, and her wings whooshed open. “We have to find her and stop her or everything is going to go awful, it’s awful what happens to her. Oh no, and then to everyone.” She was crying now. Fathom had never seen her cry; he’d never seen a vision slam into her so hard before.

  “We’ll save her,” Darkstalker said grimly. “Fathom, can you find your way back to the palace on your own?”

  Fathom nodded, and a moment later Darkstalker and Clearsight were aloft, winging their way toward the moons, toward Foeslayer and whatever calamity they had to prevent.

  It wasn’t until they were gone, swallowed by the darkness, that he realized he was still clutching the dreamvisitor in his claws.

  “Where is she now?” Darkstalker called to Clearsight as they arrowed into the sky.

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