Darkstalker, p.20
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       Darkstalker, p.20

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  “I don’t know,” she said. “In my vision, she was in the Kingdom of Sand — she was separated from the rest of her wing, and she was surrounded by IceWings, and Queen Diamond was there. But I don’t know when it was. It felt very soon, but I don’t know, I’m sorry.” Her wingbeats faltered and she shook her head. “Why didn’t I see it before? Something must have happened — it came out of nowhere. I’m sorry, Darkstalker.”

  “Don’t be,” he barked. “We’ll save her.”

  She didn’t answer, which felt like a spear through his heart. There must be a timeline where he saved her. What was the point of Clearsight’s visions if they couldn’t even keep safe the dragons they loved?

  “Mother was at home this morning,” he said. “She’s supposed to be home for the next three days. Let’s try there first. Maybe she hasn’t been sent out yet.”

  They soared south, diving toward the ravines. It was the middle of the night, and dragons were everywhere, filling the air with wingbeats. Darkstalker wished he could hurl them all out of his way.

  His front door was open, light spilling out across the canyon, but he couldn’t hear his parents fighting. Some other strange, unrecognizable noise was coming from his house. He landed and tumbled inside in one movement, catching himself just before he knocked over Whiteout.

  It was his sister making the noise; she was standing in the middle of their living room, her white wings spread wide, keening a weird kind of distress call at the ceiling. She sounded like a great alien bird, piercing and sad and maddening all at once.

  “WHAT IS WRONG WITH HER?” his father bellowed from the other side of the room. “SHE’S BEEN DOING THIS NONSTOP FOR AN HOUR!”

  All Darkstalker could get from Whiteout’s mind were flashes of silver that stabbed like poisonous needles, over and over again. He couldn’t block it out; could barely think in the same room as her.

  Clearsight flew to Whiteout’s side and wrapped her wings around her, forcing the shrieking dragon to fold and crumple until she was small again, buried in Clearsight’s chest, and the sound was muffled by Clearsight’s wings.

  “Shhh,” Clearsight murmured in her ear. “I know, I know, it’s awful, I know …”

  “Where’s Mother?” Darkstalker yelled at Arctic.

  “How should I know?” his father snapped back. Picked another stupid fight with me, as usual. Flew off in a huff around sunset, his mind grumbled.

  “Did she go back to the war zone?” Darkstalker demanded.

  “Why?” Arctic was suddenly alert from horns to tail, zeroing in on Clearsight. “Did you have a vision?”

  “Queen Diamond is going after her,” Darkstalker snarled. “We have to find her before your mother does.”

  “Diamond is miles away!” Arctic shouted after him as Darkstalker ran down the hall to his room. He slammed the door and pulled out his scroll. There wasn’t time for elegant, carefully constructed spells right now.

  He grabbed the first piece of paper he could find and laid it on top of the scroll, scrawling Enchant this paper to show me where Foeslayer is right now.

  A map blossomed in ink across the page: the Night Kingdom, the Kingdom of Sand, and the Ice Kingdom, with the positions of the troops marked in different colors: blue for IceWings, black for NightWings. And there, a small red dot, moving across the border into SandWing territory, aiming straight for an encampment of IceWings.

  Where is she going? Why is she leaving the Night Kingdom now, when she was supposed to be home for three more days?

  He looked around frantically and pounced on one of his silver armbands. Enchant this armband to protect F —

  He stopped. She already had something like this.

  Darkstalker rushed back into the living room and grabbed Clearsight’s shoulder. She jumped, startled out of the rocking motion she’d been doing with Whiteout. His sister looked up, tears streaming down her face.

  “Mother can’t be in danger,” Darkstalker said to them both. “Diamond can’t get to her, because she has the earring Father enchanted for her when they first met. It keeps Mother safe no matter the threat — right?” He turned to Arctic.

  And read the truth in the agonized fury on Arctic’s face, even before he heard it in his father’s mind.

  The fight.

  Foeslayer accused him of not caring about her or the troops, of being too cowardly to sacrifice anything to save her or her friends.

  Arctic had shouted back that she wasn’t exactly risking her own scales, since she knew nothing could hurt her as long as she wore the earring he gave her.

  I don’t wear this for protection, she’d yelled. I wear it because I love you!

  You love my power, he’d yelled back. That’s all you ever loved. You wanted my magic and you got it. That’s why you came to the Ice Kingdom in the first place, isn’t it? You were looking for me. This was all a NightWing plan. It wasn’t ever about me. You didn’t ever love me. You came to steal my power.

  How dare you? she’d screamed. I love you more than anything. I wish you weren’t an animus. I wish you’d never had a shred of magic. I don’t want it; I don’t want anything to do with it!

  And then she’d taken off the earring

  and thrown it at him

  and flown away

  north

  to the Kingdom of Sand

  where Diamond was waiting for her.

  Darkstalker followed his father’s gaze to the corner, where his mother’s diamond earring glittered like the last stubborn icicle of winter.

  “She took off her earring,” he said, disbelieving. “And you let her fly away without it?”

  Arctic hissed and flicked his tail. “She was angry. She’ll be back for it soon, when she’s ready to admit that she needs it.”

  “No, she won’t,” Darkstalker shouted. “Do you know who hates Mother more than anyone else in the world? A certain mad queen who’s related to you, and who happens to be an animus.”

  Arctic was already shaking his head. “My mother wouldn’t use her magic against Foeslayer. She’s already used it once, for her gift to the tribe. The rule is she can never use it again.”

  “She’s making an exception for vengeance,” Darkstalker said. He turned to Clearsight. “It’s an enchantment, isn’t it? A spell that summons my mother to her. She probably put it in place years ago, but it could never work because the earring protected Foeslayer. But then Mother took off the earring — and now there’s nothing to protect her. That’s what changed so suddenly tonight; that’s what you didn’t see coming.” He glared at his father. “This is your fault,” he hissed.

  “Darkstalker,” Clearsight said. “Don’t … your sister …”

  Whiteout had buried her face in Clearsight’s neck and was starting to make the noise again; whirls of a sick hideous blue color were spiraling around and around in her mind.

  “I’ll fix it,” Darkstalker said. “I can save her.”

  He ran back to his room, trying to think. What did he have? What could he use?

  Could I do the same spell, summoning her back here? He had a feeling Diamond’s spell would be ironclad. Once she had her claws on Foeslayer, she was never going to let her go.

  Can I enchant the earring to fly to her, to reach her before she gets to the IceWings? No, looking at the map, there was no way it could get to her in time.

  Maybe I should just kill Diamond. I could send something to do that right now.

  He turned toward his trunk of weapons and found Clearsight standing in the doorway.

  “You can’t kill Queen Diamond,” she said.

  “I thought I was the mind reader around here,” he said. “And yes, I can, and it’s a great idea, too.” He threw open the trunk and started tossing out knives and daggers. Which one was his sharpest weapon? Which would be guaranteed to work?

  “You can’t,” Clearsight said again, “because her only heir is a niece who is far more ruthless and cunning than Queen Diamond is. Diamond is obsessed with Foeslayer and Arctic and
revenge, but at least there’s no timeline where she wipes out the whole NightWing tribe.”

  “The whole tribe?” Darkstalker said. He found a dagger with a satisfyingly wicked curve to it. “I think you’re exaggerating.”

  “No,” Clearsight said. “If Queen Diamond dies now, and Snowfox ascends to the throne, there are at least four highly probable futures involving a genocide that wipes out the NightWings. You can’t kill her right now, Darkstalker. Please believe me.”

  “But she’s going to kill my mother,” Darkstalker said. “Are you suggesting I let her get away with it?”

  Clearsight bowed her head. After a moment, she said, “Snowfox has a daughter. In seven years that dragonet will be ready to take over the tribe, and then both Diamond and Snowfox can meet an unfortunate end — any kind of horrible thing you want. But until then, the consequences … you have to look at the big picture. You have this same power; you must be able to see it, too.”

  She was right; he did see what she saw, but it was hard to care about a nebulous future vision of the tribe’s destruction while he was watching the small red dot, his mother, flying right into the heart of the IceWing camp.

  “It’s too late,” Clearsight whispered.

  “It’s not,” said Darkstalker. “I’ll get her back. It might take a while, but I’ll figure it out.” He just had to find the right spell, the perfect spell.

  Whiteout squeezed past Clearsight and came over to Darkstalker, throwing her arms around his chest. He sank to the floor, holding his sister tightly. Their wings folded around them, black over white over black like overlapping leaves.

  “The hole is too big,” Whiteout whispered. “We’re going to fall into it forever.”

  “Not forever,” Darkstalker promised. “We’ll see her again.”

  Whiteout thought about that for a moment, tears sliding down her snout and trickling over Darkstalker’s scales. “Only one of us will,” she said. “Depending on who loses the future.”

  Darkstalker shivered. If that was Whiteout’s version of a prophecy, he didn’t want to walk into the dark corners of it and try to figure it out.

  But there was one thing he knew, clearly and surely, here in the present.

  Mother was gone.

  And it was all Arctic’s fault.

  Clearsight was in the palace library when Queen Vigilance hunted her down shortly after sunrise, five days after losing Foeslayer.

  “What are you doing?” the queen asked, eyeing the piles of scrolls on the table beside Clearsight.

  “I’m looking for clues about how animus power works,” Clearsight said wearily. “There’s so much we don’t know. Can one animus spell override another? Is there anything animus magic can’t do? Do different spells affect their souls in different ways, or are they always the same? But all the scrolls are about IceWings, and it sounds like they’ve always restricted their magic so much that no one’s had a chance to find out anything. I mean, of course no one wants to run experiments on animus dragons, even if you had more than one at a time for comparison, to see who goes evil first. So it’s all anecdotal, and …” She trailed off, realizing that there was a strange glint in the queen’s eyes.

  “We have more than one,” the queen said. “We have three.”

  Arctic, Darkstalker, Fathom: an IceWing, a NightWing, and a SeaWing. Was the power any different in different tribes? Clearsight wondered.

  “But Fathom won’t use his power,” she pointed out, “and Arctic shouldn’t.”

  The queen paced slowly over to the window, narrowing her eyes at the pale pink sky and the rising sun. A twittering sparrow hopped from vine to vine outside, coming to rest for a moment, unwisely, on the windowsill. Queen Vigilance snatched it up and crunched it between her jaws in one bite.

  “With three animus dragons,” she said, turning to Clearsight, “why haven’t I won this war yet?” She picked a small brown feather out of her teeth, glowering.

  “Oh,” Clearsight stammered. “It’s — well, it’s complicated — there are so many consequences — and spells can go wrong, especially with a war scenario where it’s all so chaotic. It’s kind of an unspoken rule that tribes don’t use animus magic in war, isn’t it? Because if we use animus magic, then they might retaliate with animus magic, and then it gets … well, really bad …” So bad her brain was already starting to hurt, tracing the possibilities.

  Queen Vigilance picked up a scroll and hurled it at the door with a loud thump. Immediately one of her guards poked his head inside.

  “Yes, Your Majesty?” he said.

  “Bring me Darkstalker,” she ordered.

  Clearsight twisted her front talons together. “I’m not sure this is a good idea,” she said. “I haven’t — I didn’t calculate animus magic into my predictions for the next year — it’ll throw everything off.”

  The queen selected one of the blank scrolls from the rack behind the librarian’s desk. She swept all the history scrolls off the table in front of Clearsight and slapped the blank scroll in front of her.

  “Start calculating,” she hissed.

  “Y-yes, all right,” Clearsight said, sitting down. Visions were already crowding in, trying to fill the space of these new ripples, new timelines unrolling. There were too many new futures all of a sudden, ones she’d never even glimpsed before. Some of them wrapped back around to link up with previous visions — Darkstalker in the crown, or them with their dragonets — but some of them spilled out into awful new directions.

  Never let the queen find out about Darkstalker’s scroll — that was the first, most obvious lesson of her visions. If Vigilance ever discovered it, she’d have Darkstalker killed (if she could … it wouldn’t be easy, Clearsight could see hints of that) and then she’d use it herself, and like Snowfox, Queen Vigilance also had no problem with wiping out entire tribes. A continent ruled entirely by NightWings would be fine with her.

  Wingbeats sounded outside, and Clearsight looked up to see Darkstalker swoop by the window. Her heart jumped — happy to see him, terrified about what might happen next.

  A few moments later, he came in through the giant double doors of the library, already smiling at the queen.

  That smile — it was new, and Clearsight didn’t like it. It was an “everything’s fine” smile. It was a “bad things can’t happen to me, and so I won’t let them happen” smile. And Queen Vigilance might not realize it, but it was a “better not stand in my way while I arrange the world the way I want it” smile.

  Clearsight knew that there were only three dragons Darkstalker loved: herself, Whiteout, and his mother, Foeslayer. She thought Fathom might be on the list, too, either now or one day, but she wasn’t entirely sure. Sometimes she worried that Darkstalker was friends with him only because Clearsight thought they should be.

  But he truly loved Foeslayer, and losing her … she knew he must be furious, and devastated, and broken into a thousand pieces on the inside. It scared her that he could hide it so well.

  “Darkstalker,” said the queen. “Unfortunate about your mother.”

  “Yes,” he agreed. “Very unfortunate.”

  “That was always Diamond’s first demand,” Queen Vigilance said, studying him. “She wanted Foeslayer, and Arctic, and you and your sister.”

  He bowed his head slightly. “Thank you for not giving us to her.”

  “Well,” she said. “I had my reasons.” She left a significant pause.

  “You were hoping to use our animus magic yourself,” Darkstalker filled in pleasantly. “And you feel that you’ve been very patient. And you think now would be a good time for some return on your investment. What did you have in mind?”

  Queen Vigilance held herself very still, as if she had just discovered Darkstalker could read her mind and was trying not to show how surprised she was. She thought she was better at shielding her thoughts, Clearsight guessed. She didn’t realize Darkstalker’s powers were so strong.

  “Hmm,” the queen said slowly. “I’d li
ke to hear your ideas.”

  “Oh, I have a few,” Darkstalker said with a jaunty smile. “Clearsight, darling, may I?” He crossed to her table, slid the blank scroll over to his side, and started sketching. “Let’s see. Clearsight warned me that killing Queen Diamond at this point could lead to the destruction of the entire NightWing tribe. But what if we get them first? Imagine if I could take a stick, any ordinary stick, and say ‘I enchant this stick so that the moment I break it, every IceWing in Pyrrhia will keel over, dead.’” He tapped the scroll, where he’d drawn a thin line snapped in half, a dozen bleeding corpses all around it.

  Clearsight stared at him in horror. Vigilance’s eyes were shining. “You can do that?” the queen whispered greedily. “It’s that simple?”

  “I’m not sure,” Darkstalker said with a shrug. “No one’s ever tried to wipe out an entire tribe with one spell before, as far as we know.” He shot one of his new unsettling smiles at Clearsight.

  “But that spell would kill you,” Clearsight said. “You’re part IceWing. And your father, and your sister.”

  “We could include exceptions, I’m sure,” he said.

  “You can’t wipe out an entire tribe,” she said, more firmly. “There are hundreds, maybe thousands of innocent IceWings. Think of all the little dragonets who aren’t part of this war. You’re not a dragonet-killer, Darkstalker.” I didn’t think you were an anyone-killer, actually. Not now, not the version of you I thought I knew and could safely love. But maybe I’m wrong … “Not to mention what it would do to your soul.”

  He gave her an ironic look — a “you know perfectly well it won’t affect my soul” look. She felt a twist of fear in her stomach. She’d thought putting his magic in the scroll would protect him — but if he wasn’t worried about his soul, did that mean there was nothing to hold him back?

  “Those little dragonets will grow up to be part of this war,” he pointed out, “unless we stop them. And isn’t tribal genocide exactly what you foresee them doing to us?”

  “No!” she said. “Only if things go very, very wrong, and we won’t let that happen!” She turned to the queen. “Killing all the IceWings would turn the other tribes against you. It makes things worse, I know it does.” Worse by Clearsight’s definitions anyway. She didn’t have to tell Vigilance about the futures where an IceWing genocide led to the NightWings ruling the whole continent.

 
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