Darkstalker, p.26
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       Darkstalker, p.26

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  The mountainous border of the Night Kingdom loomed up ahead. Darkstalker had enchanted his shield to allow himself, Whiteout, and Arctic to pass through safely. He wondered what would have happened if he’d left Arctic out of that equation. Would he have died on his way out of the kingdom?

  It didn’t matter. This path was going to be much more satisfying.

  Fathom’s anxiety intensified to a shrieking fever pitch as they swooped closer to the palace. Oh no, we shouldn’t enchant other dragons! Dragons aren’t objects! You can’t use them like puppets! Is my friend completely evil? There’s nothing we can do!

  He really needed to calm down. Darkstalker would put that priority high up on his list, once he was king. Something that would shift Fathom’s brain into a much quieter state; something that would take all that freaking out and stuff it away where Darkstalker didn’t have to listen to it all the time. He knew he could make Fathom a happier dragon. Honestly, he’d thought he could do that by getting rid of Indigo, but apparently that wasn’t enough. The self-loathing was too entrenched.

  No matter. It could be done, and it would be, soon.

  He looked over his shoulder for Clearsight, hoping to catch her eye and maybe find her smiling. Maybe a night of flying had given her enough time to think about why he’d done everything he was doing. Maybe she was a little closer to understanding him.

  But she flew with her head down, looking just as doubtful as ever.

  He flexed his talons irritably. Had anyone even noticed what he saved Whiteout from? What Arctic did to her was basically exactly what Darkstalker had done to him. It wasn’t quite as impressive — Arctic had enchanted the necklace, because like every other narrow-minded animus dragon, it had never occurred to him that he could enchant a living being. But he’d forced Whiteout to go with him; he’d erased her love for Darkstalker and her interest in Thoughtful; and worst of all, he’d used his magic to try to make her normal. Arctic had never loved Whiteout’s strange way of speaking. It made sense that when he tried to control her, he would start by taking that away.

  Darkstalker snarled angrily.

  This was what Arctic deserved.

  His friends would understand that eventually. They’d see that Darkstalker was right.

  The Great Diamond was below them, bustling with dragons shopping, dragons on their way to work, dragons going to the library or the museum or school. Dragons who didn’t have any idea what or who was important, or how the world was about to change.

  He twisted in the air to meet his father’s eyes. “You will land beside me and stand there quietly until I tell you what to do next.”

  Arctic’s eyes were blank, trapped. There was nothing he could do but obey.

  Darkstalker landed on the stage set up in the center of the plaza, where there were supposed to be concerts for the next few weeks, celebrating a series of upcoming hatching days in the royal family.

  The moons shone palely overhead, two of them almost full, one a needle-sharp sliver on a carpet of stars.

  Talons hit the stage behind him, thump thump thump. Fathom, Whiteout, Clearsight, with their beloved, frustrating, worried faces. And right beside him, Arctic, exactly as Darkstalker had always wanted him.

  Down below him, dragons turned to look up, their faces curious and wondering.

  “My friends,” Darkstalker called in a booming voice. My subjects, he thought. “You’re about to see something no dragons have ever seen before. Gather your families; everyone come watch! This is the most important day of your lives!”

  He sat down and waited as the square filled with dragons, murmurs passing from one to another, everyone wondering what he was going to do. Everyone’s eyes on him. Everyone finally about to see him for the dragon he really was: his power, his heroism, his intelligence and strength.

  After tonight, no one would ever insult him or underestimate him again.

  And no one would dare attack him, or hurt the dragons he loved.

  “Darkstalker,” Clearsight said from beside him, her wings brushing softly against his.

  “One last try, my love?” he said, smiling at her. He put one wing around her and she leaned into his side, twining her tail around his. She was warm and beautiful in the moonlight. She was the future he wanted, right there on the throne next to his.

  “Where’s Fathom?” he asked, noticing that the SeaWing’s worried thoughts weren’t weighing down his mind anymore. The rush of thoughts from the crowd below was swarming in, taking up all the space instead.

  “I told him to go back to the palace,” Clearsight said. “He’s seen enough violence in his life from dragons he trusted. He doesn’t need to see any more.”

  Darkstalker rolled his eyes. Clearsight was brilliant and empathetic, but sometimes she laid it on a little thick.

  “I think he’ll survive,” he said. “Hang on, wait, actually; I know he does. You can see it, too. I’m going to find him a nice NightWing to marry in a few years.”

  “I don’t like her,” Clearsight said. “Her laugh makes me itch.”

  “Well, there aren’t a lot of choices willing to both marry a SeaWing and never have dragonets,” Darkstalker pointed out. “If we change his mind about that last part, we have a few more options.”

  She shook her head, probably dwelling on some boring objections to what Darkstalker might mean by “change his mind.”

  “How can we be looking at the same futures,” she asked, “and see them so differently?”

  “I think I know,” he said. “You’re focused on the ones where I’m a terrible king who kills dragons for fun. I know those are there, but I’m not worried about them. That’s not me. I’m looking at the ones where we spread peace across the continents, unite the tribes under our rule, and raise the sweetest, funniest dragonets. You should focus on those, too.”

  “Eclipse,” she said sadly. “Shadowhunter.”

  “And Fierceclaws,” he said, hoping she would laugh. “Still pretty sure I’m going to win that fight. It’s a great name, you’ll see.”

  She didn’t respond. He reached down and lifted her chin so he could look into her eyes.

  “Trust me,” he said. “We have a wonderful future ahead of us. Just stay in the moment with me and you’ll see.”

  “What kind of wonderful future starts with bloodshed and queen-killing?” she asked. “Can’t we please —”

  “Enough,” he said, putting two claws over her mouth. “Stop doubting me. Watch and see: it’ll all be fine.”

  He turned back to the gathering crowd, which was now hundreds of dragons deep. He felt Clearsight step away from him and wrap her wings around herself, shaking. He’d fix that later. He knew they’d be happy together again, one day not too long from now, even if it required a little magic.

  “Thank you for coming!” he called to the crowd. “What a beautiful night! A perfect night to punish a traitor!” He swept one wing toward Arctic and a shocked whisper hissed through the audience. “First, let’s consider the evidence. Arctic, tell our listeners. Tell them what you were about to do, before I stopped you.”

  “I was going home,” Arctic roared, his voice set free again. “I’m not a traitor!”

  Darkstalker took a step closer to his father. He could hear the hubbub of curiosity boiling below. Why wasn’t the IceWing chained up? Why didn’t he fly away? Why was he just standing there, confessing?

  “Tell the truth,” Darkstalker said. “Tell them exactly what you were planning.”

  Arctic lashed his tail. “I was taking my daughter to Queen Diamond,” he growled. “I was going to offer her talons in marriage to whomever Diamond chose, so she could hatch some heirs for the throne who might have animus blood. I was going to live in an ice palace again, sleeping at night like a normal dragon. I was going to find out if Foeslayer is still alive. I was going to offer the IceWings a detailed map of the Night Kingdom and a way to get inside to destroy you all, in exchange for her life.”

  The NightWings stared at him, shock
ed into utter silence. From the stillness behind him on the stage, Darkstalker guessed that even Whiteout and Clearsight were stunned by the extent of Arctic’s villainy.

  Darkstalker shook his head regretfully. “You see,” he said to the crowd. “He admits it all. He would have wiped out our entire tribe without a shred of remorse. He is the worst dragon who has ever lived, and he deserves to die. Don’t you agree?”

  He raised his chin, listening to the hurricane of reactions in the minds below. Of course there were some wishy-washy responses, some dragons who thought this might be a trick, others who wondered where the queen was, and wasn’t punishing traitors up to her? (She was in the palace, he was sure, watching from one of the balconies.) But most of them agreed with him. This IceWing who looked like the enemies they’d been fighting for years — he’d been planning to kill them, just like his brethren had killed NightWing brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. They’d given him shelter, fought a war to protect him, and he had betrayed them!

  He DID have to die!

  “Kneel,” Darkstalker said to his father.

  Arctic knelt, and the crowd whispered again. How did Darkstalker make him do that? Without any guards or weapons standing by?

  “Admit that I am the greatest animus of all time,” Darkstalker hissed.

  “You are the greatest animus of all time,” Arctic choked out.

  Darkstalker spread his wings toward the audience. “Tell them there is no more powerful dragon than me.”

  “There is no more powerful dragon than you.”

  “Now say you wish you had been a better father.”

  Arctic let out an incredulous, startled laugh. “I do wish I’d been a better father,” he said. “If I were, I would have strangled you the moment you hatched.”

  “Cut out your tongue,” Darkstalker said coldly.

  Arctic’s eyes became round holes of horror as he reached up to his mouth, pulled out his long blue forked tongue, and sliced it off with his own claws.

  Darkstalker could feel the waves of terror rolling off the watching NightWings, making him stronger and stronger. Yes. Fear me. Respect me. See me.

  “Now.” Darkstalker leaned toward Arctic, his claws gouging into the wood of the stage. “Take your talons, rip open your stomach, and show us all what you’re really like on the inside. Pour out your life on this stage.”

  It took a long time, and it was messy, and at the end of it, when Arctic was definitely dead, Darkstalker did not feel nearly as happy as he’d expected.

  But he’d done what he needed to do, and the crowd reaction was exactly what he was hoping for. Now he would go kill the queen — quickly this time, get it over with, no need for more theatrics. And then he’d be king, the first king in the history of Pyrrhia, and there would be peace and prosperity and happiness, because now he and everyone he loved was safe forever.

  He turned around wearily. He needed the warmth of Clearsight’s wings right now.

  Whiteout was standing alone on the stage behind him. Her eyes were closed, and tears were running down her face, leaving little puddles on the stage. Her white wings lay askew at her sides like broken leaves. He felt a stab of guilt — but he shouldn’t; he had saved her from a terrible fate.

  “Where is Clearsight?” he asked. “When did she leave?”

  Was she trying to make a point, missing his moment of triumph?

  Or … a vision flashed in his head, a warning, and he scrabbled for the bag slung across his chest. It couldn’t be true. She wouldn’t —

  His scroll was missing.

  She must have taken it when she was hugging him, whispering to him about their dragonets.

  How DARE SHE.

  “Clearsight has your scroll,” Whiteout whispered without opening her eyes. Behind her, Darkstalker saw Thoughtful pushing through the crowd, coming toward her with worried eyes. Good, yes; Thoughtful could take care of Whiteout while Darkstalker dealt with Clearsight. “She said to tell you she’ll meet you at Agate Mountain.”

  Darkstalker growled under his breath. He couldn’t kill the queen without his scroll — well, perhaps he could. Vigilance certainly couldn’t kill him. But he wanted to do it quickly, with magic. And he didn’t trust what Clearsight might do, now that she had his power in her talons.

  I can’t trust her.

  The realization was swift and startling. Of all the dragons in the world, he thought he’d been sure of her, at least.

  He threw himself into the air, fuming.

  Maybe the future was going to be a little different than he’d planned after all.

  Maybe there would be no queen on the throne beside him.

  Clearsight’s heart thudded with terror as she crept off the stage into the crowd, leaving Darkstalker’s grand scene in the middle of Arctic’s confession. The black leather case crumpled around the scroll as she clutched it under her wings.

  She couldn’t save Arctic. The next few minutes were inevitable, and terrible, and far too horribly clear in her mind already. Blue IceWing blood everywhere. No, he was lost … and now she had to save Fathom, and Indigo, and maybe the queen, and the whole rest of Pyrrhia, if she could.

  It was a slim chance, and it only might work because she could thread the possibilities and read the ripples better than Darkstalker could. He was distracted by his vengeance and his horror show, and she’d spent the entire flight home untangling the one frail thread of hope until she knew what she had to do.

  As she ducked through the crowd, avoiding all the looks and whispers, she ran directly into a set of familiar talons.

  “Clearsight!” Listener whispered, grabbing her shoulders. “What. Is. HAPPENING.”

  Clearsight shook her head. “I can’t … I can’t explain.”

  “I can!” Listener said. “Your boyfriend is a psycho, just like I always thought!” She finally noticed the tracks of tears on Clearsight’s snout and leaned in to wipe them away. “Oh, moonbeam, you’ll be all right.”

  “No,” Clearsight said. She seized one of her friend’s talons in hers. “Listener, this is important. Remember when you told me that you did want to know the future if it meant saving your family’s lives? If something really, really bad was about to happen?”

  Listener fell back, a look of dawning fear on her face. “What’s going to happen, Clearsight?”

  “I don’t know, exactly,” Clearsight said. But if her plan failed, and Darkstalker returned, even stronger and more furious than before, without her to hold him back anymore … it was all destruction and death and nothing but darkness from there. “But it’s really bad. Please, Listener, if you’ve ever believed anything I’ve said, do this for me. Find my parents, gather your family, and leave the Night Kingdom. Fly as far and as fast as you can. Take them somewhere safe where … where no one will ever find them.”

  She was suddenly aware that other dragons were listening, that she had the attention of several frightened faces.

  “And the queen?” Listener asked.

  “If you can get to her,” Clearsight said, “tell her to escape, too. I’ll give you all as much time as I can, but I don’t know if my plan will work.” Will he come after me? Will he kill the queen first? Will I survive what I’m about to do?

  “Clearsight —” Listener started, reaching for her.

  Clearsight threw her wings around her friend, hugging her fiercely. “Thank you for being you,” she whispered in her ear. “I hope your life is everything it should be.”

  Then she pulled herself away and shoved through the crowd, ducking under long necks and wings until she was far enough from the stage to take flight for the palace.

  Fathom was waiting in his room, where she’d told him to go, pacing back and forth and twisting his talons together.

  “Did he suspect anything?” he asked as she swooped in over the balcony.

  “Not yet,” she said. “We have to keep you away from him until it’s done, or he’ll hear something in your thoughts.” She pulled out the scroll. “He
re.”

  “I don’t want to touch that,” he said, backing away.

  “We have to. We have to use it to make something that will stop him,” she said. She brushed a tear out of her eye. There was no time for crying, none.

  “Not with his scroll,” Fathom said, shaking his head. “It could be enchanted to signal him whenever someone else uses it. Or it might kill anyone else who tries to write in it. Or he might know, somehow, every spell that’s written in it. We can’t use that.”

  “I don’t think he was that devious when he first made this,” Clearsight said with a stab of sorrow for that dragon Darkstalker had been, that day when everything had looked so bright up ahead. “But you’re right, he might have added it later. We have to risk it, though.”

  Fathom put one talon over hers, stopping her. “I’ll do it. I’ll use my own power.”

  “Your oath,” Clearsight said. “You can’t —”

  “I have to,” he said. “It’s the only way. This is just like my grandfather … I’m the only one who can.”

  The timeline thread trembled in Clearsight’s mind and she steadied herself on it, focusing as hard as she could. “Quickly, then. Remember, he’s invulnerable and immortal now.”

  “I know,” he said. “I think I know what to do, but I need something to enchant. You can’t take anything with you.” Fathom’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Or else he’ll know … he’ll guess … if he suspects …”

  “I know,” Clearsight whispered back. Her breath caught on a sob. “He might kill me.” That future was horribly clear, real behind her eyes even as her mind refused to believe it. She wrestled the bracelet off her arm. Moonstones and copper wire, his gift to protect her — the one she’d known would be important one day. “Use this. But make sure it keeps the enchantment it already has, too.”

  Fathom turned the bracelet over in his claws, tears brimming in his eyes. “Are we really doing this?” he asked. “Shouldn’t we use the soul reader on him first, to make sure he’s as far gone as we think?”

  “We don’t have time, and he’s left us no choice,” she said. “It only gets worse from here, Fathom. There are some futures that aren’t completely terrible, but there are many more that are too frightening to risk. This could be the last moment we have where we’re both free and thinking for ourselves. It’s our only chance to stop him.”

 
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