Darkstalker, p.23
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       Darkstalker, p.23

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  But before Listener could turn accusing eyes on Clearsight; before anyone could answer her question; before Clearsight could come up with a distraction, a dragon tore through the curtains, vaulted into the pavilion, and drove a spear into Darkstalker’s heart.

  What Fathom saw was a bolt of steel flashing past; he heard curtains rip and Listener screaming and ivory pieces cascading across the wood floor.

  No. Not again. Not again.

  He saw Darkstalker stagger back, looking stricken.

  I can’t lose anyone else.

  He saw Lionfish tackle the assassin, who roared and slashed at his face with iron-tipped claws. He leaped forward to help, but by the time he reached Lionfish’s side, the attacker was dead. The unfamiliar NightWing lay at his feet, his neck twisted in a horrible unnatural way.

  “Darkstalker?” Clearsight was still standing, frozen, reaching one talon toward her soulmate. “What — how — ?”

  Fathom took a step back from Lionfish and the dead dragon, and he saw the spear lying on the floor, and he saw that the polished wood was clean, and there was no blood, and then, finally, after all that, he saw that Darkstalker’s scales were smooth and unblemished, and his friend was completely unhurt.

  “That’s impossible!” Listener shrieked, nearly in hysterics. “He killed you! I saw it! He killed you!”

  Darkstalker spread his wings, revealing the glimmer of the ice scales underneath. “I guess he missed.”

  “He didn’t miss!” Listener backed away, pointing at Clearsight. “You saw it, too. Didn’t you? Didn’t you? That spear should have gone right into his heart.”

  “I —” Clearsight glanced at the gathering crowd, then at Darkstalker again. “I don’t know what I saw.”

  Listener roared with frustration, darted out of the pavilion, and shoved her way through the gathering crowd until it swallowed her up.

  “It’s nothing,” Darkstalker said. “Really,” he added to all the watching dragons. “This pathetic lizard tried to kill me and failed. Nothing to panic about.” He stepped over to examine the corpse at Lionfish’s feet. “I would like to know who this is, though.”

  “And why he tried to kill you,” Clearsight added.

  Darkstalker’s eyes slanted sideways at Lionfish for a moment. “Too bad he’s dead and can’t answer any questions.”

  Lionfish shrugged. “Sorry,” he said without a shred of actual repentance. He looked rather pleased that he’d finally had a chance to do some actual bodyguarding.

  “I don’t know him,” Clearsight said, edging away from the dead dragon. She looked at the far corner of the pavilion and frowned slightly, as if she’d expected to see someone there.

  Darkstalker turned to Whiteout and Thoughtful, who had rushed back over. “Do either of you know him?”

  “I do,” Thoughtful said. “By reputation, anyway. His name is Quickdeath and he was — well, you can guess.”

  “A killer for hire?” Clearsight said. “Are you saying somebody sent him to kill Darkstalker?”

  Darkstalker put one wing around her. “But he failed. See, I’m so fine. Don’t be scared.”

  “Don’t be — what if that somebody tries again?” Clearsight demanded. She touched her head. “I can’t see exactly … I feel like there are very bad things branching from here, but they’re all blurry. I don’t know how they fit together, or what comes from what.”

  “We’ll figure out who hired Quickdeath,” said Darkstalker. “That’s easy. And then we stop them from trying again.” His eyes went cold and hard, like onyx beads. “Trust me, that’ll be even easier.”

  Fathom had never seen his friend look so much like his grandfather. He shivered and sank onto one of the cushions, realizing that his wings were shaking. He had to keep it together, especially in front of all these NightWings. It seemed as though hundreds of them were emerging from the dark, pressing toward the edge of the pavilion to see what the commotion was. Everyone stared at Darkstalker, whispering to one another.

  How had he survived? What had stopped the spear?

  Lionfish poked Fathom. “We should get you back to the castle,” he said. “In case there’s a second attack.”

  “He wasn’t after me,” Fathom pointed out.

  “Maybe not this time,” he said, “but let’s get somewhere safe, just in case.”

  “Yes,” Darkstalker interjected. “I’d like to get out of here as well.” He nudged Quickdeath’s body with one talon, frowning as though he were wondering whether he could do something useful with it. “Thoughtful, can you stay here and watch the body until we send someone from the queen’s guard to investigate?”

  “Sure,” said Thoughtful.

  “I’ll stay with him,” said Whiteout. “Protect him from angry spirits.”

  Thoughtful cast an uneasy glance at the ceiling, as if Quickdeath’s ghost might be hovering there with its claws outstretched.

  Half in a daze, Fathom followed Darkstalker and Clearsight out of the pavilion. The crowd of dragons fell back before them, most of them averting their eyes, others staring openly. A pair of small dragonets took one look at Darkstalker and fled with little shrieks of alarm.

  “What was that for?” Darkstalker muttered grumpily. “I’m the one that got attacked!”

  But Fathom understood; he, too, felt a layer of fear spreading underneath his worry for his friend. The more he thought about it, the more he couldn’t make the pieces fit. He was sure that spear had been aimed straight and true at Darkstalker’s heart. How could Quickdeath have missed so completely? And then why was the spear lying in front of Darkstalker, as if it had bounced off, instead of somewhere beyond him?

  A horrible suspicion was growing inside him. Darkstalker had used his magic again, somehow, even though Fathom had begged him not to.

  He eyed the pieces of jewelry the NightWing was wearing. Something that would protect you from any attack … he saw the appeal, of course. He had often wished he could make something like that for Indigo, before she left. But was it worth protecting someone on the outside, if doing so made yourself more dangerous on the inside?

  They flew back to Fathom’s room in the palace, where Lionfish went inside first to make sure it was safe. Wharf was somewhere down in the festival, probably blissfully unaware that he might have been useful tonight.

  “All clear,” Lionfish said, holding the door open.

  “You can go,” Darkstalker said to him brusquely. “Back to the festival or wherever.”

  Lionfish shook his head, his expression vaguely surprised. “I’m not supposed to leave Fathom alone,” he said. “Indigo’s orders.”

  “He won’t be alone,” said Darkstalker impatiently. “He’ll be with me. And if Indigo was so worried, she wouldn’t have flown off and left him, right?”

  Fathom winced.

  “Yeah,” Lionfish said slowly, as though he hadn’t thought of that before. “Good point.”

  “It’s all right, Lionfish,” Fathom said. “I’ll be safe with them.”

  Lionfish shrugged and left without any further argument.

  As soon as they were safely behind closed doors, Clearsight whirled on Darkstalker. “What did you do?” she demanded.

  “Um, survived a deadly assassination attempt?” Darkstalker said. “Hooray for me?”

  “Listener was right,” she said. “That spear hit you exactly in the heart. There’s no way you should have survived it.”

  “You sound awfully disappointed,” Darkstalker snapped back. “Is that why you didn’t warn me that was going to happen? Because you were hoping it would succeed?”

  Her face twisted in outrage. “You jerk,” she cried. “I don’t know everything, all right? Minor timelines sometimes become reality before I know it, especially if other — if someone is trying to surprise me. And I’m glad you’re not dead, but I want to know when you made yourself invulnerable and why you didn’t tell me about it!”

  Fathom crossed the room and started digging in his trunk as they argu
ed. There was something he had to know.

  “Isn’t the more important question who tried to kill me?” Darkstalker shouted. “Shouldn’t we all be like, wow, great idea, Darkstalker, we’re so glad you’re alive, now let’s get on with hunting down the actual bad dragon in this situation?”

  He turned toward Fathom with his wings spread wide, as if looking for reassurance, and found Fathom pointing the soul reader at him.

  “SERIOUSLY?” Darkstalker shouted. “I’m the good guy here! What is wrong with you?”

  “You shouldn’t have used your magic,” Fathom said, scrunching his eyes to fight back his tears. “That’s a huge spell, invulnerability. It could have tipped you over all by itself.” The hourglass was spinning slowly, slowly, white and black grains mingling and diverging. Please be good, Fathom prayed. Please please please don’t lose your soul.

  “Well, it didn’t,” Darkstalker snapped. “It so happens I enchanted my scales before I made the soul reader, so you’ll find that your little hourglass will give you the exact same result as last time. But thank you all so much for your faith in me.”

  The hourglass stopped. Fathom realized that Clearsight was studying it as intently as he was.

  If Darkstalker hadn’t used his magic since the last reading, it should show the same balance of white and black sand.

  Did it? Fathom blinked. He wasn’t sure. Was it just his imagination, or were there more white grains of sand this time than last time? Did the hourglass tilt a little more than before? Had the balance shifted slightly toward evil?

  Maybe he was being paranoid. It wasn’t a big difference, certainly. The black sand still outweighed the white sand.

  So why did Clearsight look troubled as well?

  “There,” Darkstalker said. “See? Now can we get on with tracking down my killer?”

  “Not with magic,” Fathom said quickly. “I know that’s what you’re thinking. Please, Darkstalker, we can find another way. You don’t need to spend your magic on this.”

  “It’s a tiny little spell,” Darkstalker said dismissively. “And then we’ll know for sure. Are you picturing us as stalwart detectives, following leads and interrogating suspects? I don’t have time for that, if we’re going to figure this out before he tries again.”

  “You think you already know who it was,” Clearsight said. She was pacing in front of the fireplace, her wings shaking.

  “Isn’t it obvious?” Darkstalker asked. “He’s wanted me dead since the moment I hatched.”

  Clearsight hesitated. Darkstalker’s expression, watching her, seemed to be waiting for something.

  “He was there,” she said finally. “I saw him.”

  “Who?” Fathom asked.

  “My father,” Darkstalker said. “I know, I heard his brain muttering.”

  “But — if he was there, why didn’t he come over to make sure you were all right?” Fathom said, feeling as if he was missing something. “Why didn’t he jump in to stop Quickdeath?” He felt a deep stab of the grief he usually kept buried. That’s what my father would have done.

  “Because he hired Quickdeath,” Darkstalker said. “You’re really slowing this conversation down, Fathom.”

  “Did you hear him think that?” Clearsight asked. “When you heard his thoughts — was there anything about the assassin or wanting you dead?”

  Darkstalker thought for a moment. “No more than usual. What I caught mostly had to do with my sister. Father hated the way she was looking at Thoughtful. He’s probably the one who needs to watch out for assassins next.”

  “So maybe it wasn’t Arctic,” Clearsight said. “Wouldn’t he be thinking about it, if he knew it was about to happen?”

  “Not necessarily.” Darkstalker plucked a stalk of bamboo from one of Fathom’s tall vases and started methodically shredding it. “Besides, I stopped listening to him after the first few grumbles.” He flung a piece of bamboo into the corner. “I’m sure it was him, but we can all be sure if I do a spell to find out.”

  “No!” Fathom cried. “Please don’t. Think about your soul. Clearsight, you agree with me, don’t you?”

  Clearsight looked between them for a moment, rubbing her forehead. “You should tell him about the scroll,” she said to Darkstalker.

  “Really?” He looked surprised. “You think that’s a good idea?”

  “I think it’s safe,” she said. “As far as I can tell, you show it to him in all of the good timelines.”

  “And the bad,” he pointed out.

  “He’s not the one who turns them bad,” she said quietly.

  Darkstalker scowled at her. “Your faith in me is so heartwarming.”

  While they argued, Fathom went to tuck the soul reader back in his trunk, and as he did, he saw a flicker of movement under his blankets.

  A small white tentacle lifted one corner, and small dark eyes peeked out at him.

  Blob!

  Fathom covered the little octopus quickly, although he wasn’t entirely sure why he was hiding him from his friends.

  Why is Blob still here?

  He knew that Indigo had flown away without most of her stuff — he’d guessed she was in a hurry to leave before he got back. But he’d always thought she’d taken Blob with her. If she hadn’t … what did that mean?

  Did she leave him as a message to me? To make sure I know she wants nothing more to do with me?

  That didn’t seem like something she would do. She loved Blob, didn’t she?

  “Fathom?” Darkstalker said behind him. “I’m trying to tell you something totally momentous over here. It’ll change your life, trust me.”

  Fathom turned to his friend with a smile, but his heart was starting to whisper anxiously.

  Why did Indigo decide to leave without Blob?

  Was there something else going on?

  Is there something I’m missing … and how can I find out what it is?

  The sun was sliding cold yellow claws over the eastern horizon as Darkstalker flew home from the palace. Below him, the detritus of the festival was being swept away by a busy flurry of worker dragons. Soon only the paper lanterns and the gleaming shapes of the glass sculptures would remain. He spotted one dragon industriously scrubbing out the game pavilion, even though Quickdeath had died bloodlessly and his body had been removed.

  Darkstalker beat his wings to rise higher, as close to the sun as he could manage.

  His talk with Fathom had not gone exactly as he’d imagined.

  He’d expected a little more excitement — a little more gratitude. He’d expected that Fathom would be thrilled to find a way to use his powers without damaging the soul he worried so much about. He’d rather expected Fathom to make his very own animus scroll right then and there.

  But instead his friend had remained stubbornly unconvinced. “It could still be affecting you,” he argued. Darkstalker could see the images piling up in Fathom’s mind: Albatross stabbing the queen, the dead bodies of his parents, the blood everywhere. Every time Fathom thought about animus powers, that was straight where his mind went — massacres and devastation and the loss of nearly your entire family.

  Not only that, but tonight his mind was suddenly occupied with the mystery of some kind of octopus. Fathom’s thoughts were all Indigo, Indigo, Indigo again, just when they’d been starting to get interesting. He spent more of their conversation thinking about her than focusing on the wonderful news Darkstalker was telling him. And as he often did, he forgot to even worry about Darkstalker reading his mind.

  Finally Fathom had rubbed his eyes, shaking his head fiercely. “Nobody knows exactly how animus magic works. The only safe option is to avoid using it at all.”

  “Why would we have this power if we’re never supposed to use it?” Darkstalker had shouted in frustration, which was when Clearsight had decided it was time for everyone to go home and get some sleep.

  Whatever. If Fathom doesn’t want to listen to reason, that’s his problem.

  My problem is that
someone tried to kill me tonight.

  He set his jaw grimly. There were plenty of future timelines where Arctic tried to kill him — but not many where he succeeded.

  Still, there were a few, even with Darkstalker’s invulnerability. Now that Arctic surely knew about that, he’d have to plan his next attack on Darkstalker more carefully … maybe even use his own magic. Arctic, in fact, might be the only dragon in the kingdom who could actually kill Darkstalker.

  He should have used his power to do it right the first time.

  So why didn’t he?

  Because he didn’t want anyone to know it was him who killed me. Right?

  Darkstalker soared down toward his front door, which was just starting to turn from gray to red as the light of the sun reached it. All the flowers in their miniature hanging gardens were dead. No one had gone anywhere near them since losing Mother.

  He pushed open the door and found Whiteout lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling with her wings flopped out to either side of her. She was wearing one of the trinkets from the festival, a black rope necklace with a golden glass seashell pendant, turning it between her claws. He wondered if Thoughtful had bought it for her.

  “Good morning,” he said, nudging his sister’s tail affectionately. “Dreaming of your new admirer?”

  “Thoughtful,” she said, a statement rather than a question. “Yes and no. I do like him.”

  “Do you want me to try to foresee what will happen with you two?” Darkstalker asked. He still wasn’t as good at this as Clearsight — he tended to see the most probable outcomes, and everything else was usually muddled by random events and small deviations. Perhaps if he had a lot of time to devote to studying all the futures, the way she did, he’d be able to follow them more clearly. But who had that kind of time, or that kind of focus? He’d have to be trapped underground for months with nothing else to do.

  “No, thank you,” said Whiteout, which was such an ordinary response that Darkstalker peered at her curiously.

  “Are you all right?” he asked, touching her neck. It didn’t feel warmer than it should.

  “I feel funny,” she said. “All my words are coming out wrong.”

 
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