Darkstalker, p.3
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       Darkstalker, p.3

           Tui T. Sutherland
 

  “Ours have to hatch in the moonlight,” Mother answered. “Stop scowling at me. It’s completely safe. NightWings have been doing this for hundreds of years.”

  There was a sharp, loud tap near his ear.

  “Don’t touch them!”

  A dizzying rush of motion, followed by warmth and stillness.

  “Why are they two different colors?” asked the voice he didn’t like, as loud and splintery and jagged as the tap had been. “Is it because of us? Maybe that one’s more of an IceWing?”

  “No,” she said. “Most NightWing eggs are black, but the ones that hatch under full moons turn silver like this. I don’t know why that one’s still black. They should hatch at the same time.”

  “Something is wrong with it,” he muttered.

  “Nothing,” said Mother, “is wrong with my dragonets.”

  The world tilted again, and he felt himself settling into a place that wouldn’t roll or shift so easily when he moved.

  Now he could sense something else — another heartbeat, slow and steady and very close by. He reached for her mind, but there was only peace and quiet there. None of the urgency to escape that he felt. He knew he didn’t have forever. Now, that’s what he had, only now.

  “We’re up too high,” grumbled the angry voice. “They could fall. This is a stupid tradition. We should have taken them back to the Ice Kingdom to hatch.”

  “So they could freeze the moment they came out?” Mother said acerbically.

  “They wouldn’t,” he growled. “They are half IceWing, remember.”

  “And your mother would have been so pleased to meet them,” she snapped. “At least my family won’t kill our dragonets on sight. They’ll help us protect them.”

  “Your family has nothing to complain about. I brought royal IceWing blood to their line.”

  Mother hissed dangerously. “I see. I’m so sorry about mixing it with my peasant NightWing blood.”

  A burst of violence, of bloody scales and frozen claws, flashed through the dragonet’s mind. His mother was in danger. Bad things were about to happen. But he could stop it. He just had to come out now.

  He pressed his talons hard against the walls around him, shoving and kicking and straining. A satisfying crack, and the sensation of something giving way beneath his back claws.

  “He’s coming, look.” It worked. They were both distracted from their anger, especially Mother, all her thoughts now on her dragonet, her mind shimmering with excitement.

  He tried to reach the quiet heartbeat again. If he’d had the words, he would have thought Come out with me! Just try! You have to fight!

  But he didn’t have those words yet, and she wasn’t listening in any case.

  “There’s a storm coming. Does that make a difference to your moon superstitions?”

  “I don’t think so, but it doesn’t matter. He’ll be out before it gets here. Look how strong he is.” A moment, a pulse where they almost shared the same emotion, and then she added, “They’re not superstitions, by the way. You don’t have to be a rhinoceros nostril just because you don’t understand something.”

  The danger flashed before him again. Time to fight harder. He dug in his claws and squirmed, pushing in every direction at once.

  The light, the light, the light wanted him out, wanted to run its talons over his wings, drip through his scales, fill him with silver power. He wanted that power, too, all of it, all of it.

  CRACK-CRACK-CRACK.

  The walls fell away.

  The moons poured in.

  Three silver eyes in the sky, huge and perfectly round, with darkness all around them. It felt as if they were sinking into his chest, melting into his eyes. He wanted to scoop them into his talons and swallow them whole.

  He was in a carved stone nest lined with black fur, at the peak of a sharp promontory. Another egg sat quietly in the nest, nearly camouflaged against the fur and the shadows.

  Below him stretched a vast landscape of caverns and ravines, glowing with firelight and echoing with the flutter of wings. It looked as though a giant dragon had raked the ground with her claws, digging secret canyons and caves into the rock all across the terrain, some of them stretching toward the starlit sea in the distance.

  After several heartbeats he realized there were two large dragons behind him, their wings drawn tight against the wind that buffeted them all. One was black as the night, one pale as the moons. He glanced down at his scales, but he didn’t have to see their color to know he belonged with the dark one. That was Mother. She sparked with anger from snout to tail, but there was immense room inside her for love, and she adored him already, heart and soul. He could feel it. It filled him like the moonlight did, setting the world quickly into understandable shapes in his head. He loved her, too, immediately and forever.

  The danger came from the white dragon. This was Father, some kind of partner to the dragon who cared. The newly hatched dragonet could hardly look at him without seeing a spiral of confusing flashes: pain, fury, screaming dragons, and blood, everywhere, blood. This white dragon had done something terrible that haunted him, and he might do worse someday. Father’s mind had patches of damp, rotten vileness all over it.

  The dragonet immediately wanted to turn him into a fireball and blow his ashes away. But inside Father, hidden under layers of ice, pulsed a small, warm ember of love for Mother. That was the thing that saved him.

  Wait and see, thought the dragonet. He did not understand yet that he could see the future. He had no idea what the flashes meant. He couldn’t follow the paths that were unfolding in his brain; cause and effect and consequences were all still beyond him. But in his mother’s mind he found the idea of hope, and in his father’s mind he traced the outline of something called patience.

  He could wait. There was much still to come between him and this father-shaped dragon.

  “Darkstalker,” said Mother. “Hello, darling.” She held out her talons and he climbed into them willingly, content to be closer to that warmth.

  “Darkstalker?” Father snorted. “You must be joking. That’s the creepiest name I’ve ever heard.”

  “It is not,” she snapped, and the dragonet bared his teeth in sympathy, but neither of them noticed. “The darkness is his prey. He chases back the dark, like a hero.”

  “Sounds more like he creeps through the dark. Like a stalker.”

  “Stop being horrible. It’s not up to you. In my kingdom, mothers choose their dragonets’ names.”

  “In my kingdom, the dragon with the highest rank in the family chooses the dragonets’ names and the queen must approve them.”

  “And of course you think your ‘rank’ is higher than mine,” she snarled. “But we’re not in your kingdom. My dragonets will never set foot in your frozen wasteland. We are here, whether you like it or not, and he is my son, and his name is Darkstalker.”

  Father’s eyes, like fragments of ice, studied Darkstalker’s every scale, and Darkstalker could feel the cold, congealing weight of Father’s resentment.

  “He looks every inch a NightWing,” Father growled. “Not a shred of me in him at all.”

  Suspicion, hatred, outrage flashing on both sides, but none of it spoken.

  “Fine,” said Father at last. “You can have your sinister little Darkstalker. But I want to name the other one.”

  Mother hesitated, glancing at the unhatched egg, which was still black. Darkstalker listened as her mind turned it over, already half detached. She wasn’t sure anyone would ever come out of that egg. She was ready to give all her love to Darkstalker, her perfect thrice-moonborn dragonet. All of it, and he was ready to take it.

  But Darkstalker knew his sister was in that egg. Alive, but not restless. Quiet. She didn’t care for the moons that had called him forth. She couldn’t hear them.

  Something tingled in his claws.

  He could change that.

  He could touch her egg and summon her. He knew it, somehow; he could see in his mind how her
egg would turn silver under his talons, how it would splinter and crack open as she scrambled out. He could see the beautiful, odd-looking dragonet that would come out, and he could see the moons sharing their power with her, too.

  Then they would be the same. She would be born under three moons as well. She would have the same power as him … and the same love from Mother.

  Which he already had to share with the undeserving ice monster across from him.

  No. This was his. All he had to do was nothing. His sister would come out in her own time, tomorrow when the moons were no longer full. Then he would be the only special one.

  “All right,” said Mother. “If that egg hatches, you can name the dragonet inside. Only … remember she has to grow up in the NightWing tribe. It’ll be hard enough — just, try to be kind, is all. Think of her future and how she’ll need to fit in.”

  Father nodded, seething internally at being instructed like a low-ranked dragonet in training.

  She’ll be all right, Darkstalker thought. A thousand futures dropped away before him as he made his first choice. Futures where his sister joined his quest for power; futures where she fought him and stopped him; futures where they were best friends; futures where one of them killed the other, or vice versa. As Darkstalker folded his talons together, choosing to keep them still for tonight, every possible future with a thrice-moonborn sister disappeared.

  He saw them blink out, and although he didn’t know exactly what it meant, he felt somehow a tiny bit safer, a tiny bit bigger and stronger.

  Sorry, little sister, he thought, not in so many words, but with visions of his future cascading through his mind. This is my mother. Those are my full moons.

  This is my world now.

  A few days after the animus test, Albatross summoned Fathom for the first time. It was right in the middle of their geography lesson, and Fathom felt his stomach lift and drop and zigzag just like the lines of the canyons around the Deep Palace.

  Grandfather wants to see me? he echoed. Right now?

  He said to meet him at the sunset beach of the Island Palace, the messenger reported. Alone. The phosphorescent scales under his wings flashed, transmitting the words in the SeaWing underwater language, Aquatic. An eel swam by the window, peered in at the dragons, and then wriggled quickly away.

  Can’t Indigo come? Fathom asked, glancing at his friend. She was perched beside him on the pink coral ledge around the interior of the room, their talons anchoring them down while their wings drifted in the water. On her other side, Pearl was giving her tail a bored inspection.

  His sister glittered with coils of gemstones, long twisted ropes of pearls and opals and sapphires circling her torso and ankles. Indigo’s only adornment was a necklace woven from dark purple seaweed, which Fathom had made for her last week. He liked it because the color matched her eyes. He liked her because she wore it with delight even when she was surrounded by the sharp-eyed, bejeweled dragons of the Deep Palace.

  He didn’t want to leave the Deep Palace without Indigo. He rarely went anywhere without her; they’d been together almost since hatching. Her mother had been in Queen Lagoon’s army, where she’d become close friends with Fathom’s mother before she died. Indigo’s father curated the museum at the Island Palace and was quite happy to leave his only dragonet’s upbringing to the caretakers who’d been assigned to Fathom and Pearl. Indigo was the only dragon invited to every royal family gathering despite having not a drop of royal blood in her.

  Hang on, does Indigo want to come? Indigo said, poking his wing with hers. Perhaps someone with manners should try asking her. She might be extremely busy, you know. She reached out to tap the large terrain model of the kingdom that filled most of the room, and the tip of an underwater mountain broke off in her claws. Oops, she said with a guilty look at their frowning tutor. Never mind, I’m totally free.

  He specifically said “alone,” the messenger flashed with a shrug.

  I think you two can survive an afternoon’s separation, Pearl chimed in, rolling her eyes.

  Fathom knew that, but it felt so weird to have something he couldn’t share with his best friend. And he kept thinking of that seagull … although he knew it didn’t mean anything, and possibly he’d seen the whole thing wrong and maybe the bird had accidentally strangled itself. Right? It was possible. Wasn’t it?

  I agree with Pearl, said their tutor. Perhaps with you gone, Indigo will miraculously be able to focus on the geography of the Kingdom of the Sea.

  Indigo sighed a little whoosh of water around her snout. Not likely, she said sadly.

  Why are you acting like an indecisive jellyfish right now? Pearl demanded, glaring at Fathom. The scales flashing along her wings were brighter than they needed to be, and he blinked several times, trying to avoid a headache. You’re the chosen one or whatever. Go have special chosen-one bonding time with Grandfather.

  Yeah. Indigo nudged his wing again. Get excited! You’ve been waiting for this!

  She was right. Albatross had forbidden him to try any magic until their first session, and it felt as though Fathom’s claws had been trapped in sand the last few days. He knew they could do marvelous things and he wanted to set them free. He wanted to start playing with his power; he wanted to find out everything he could do. And for that he needed his grandfather, the only one in the tribe who understood how animus magic worked.

  All right — I’ll be back soon, he said. I think.

  Sure, if you’re not too special and magical to hang out with us anymore, Pearl said.

  Fathom gave her a sideways look, trying to figure out if she was mad at him. For what? Being an animus? There wasn’t much he could do about that.

  And he wasn’t sorry. Their whole life, his sister was always “the one who might be queen someday.” She had special diplomacy classes, extra policy sessions with the queen, private lessons to improve her handwriting (which was terrible), even advanced etiquette courses (those he was fine with missing). Wasn’t that enough specialness for her?

  Whereas he could never rule the tribe … but now he had magic.

  His wings felt as if they had an extra current underneath them, shooting him along as he flew through the water to the Island Palace. He took all his strange little whispery feelings of dread and squashed them flat. He was special. He wasn’t just another SeaWing prince, destined to lead a wing of the queen’s army, sitting through normal lessons, on track for an ordinary dragon’s life.

  He had power, and he could use it to do something amazing.

  Exactly what that would be, he wasn’t sure yet. He’d been trying to think of some good ideas so he could show Albatross what a smart, thoughtful dragon he was.

  The Island Palace was an elegant, sprawling complex of pavilions and courtyards, rooms and terraces, gardens and walkways that covered an entire island at the heart of the Kingdom of the Sea. Several of the walkways led to pavilions over the water, with glass floors so the dragons could have the sea at their talons at all times. Carvings of pale pink sea horses and bone-white dolphins dotted the gardens. Iridescent-blue paua shells gleamed in wave patterns, with white foam made from inlaid pearl, all along the polished wooden walls.

  This was where Queen Lagoon entertained visitors from other tribes with elaborate feasts and entertainments that went on for days. This was also where the regular royal family gathering happened once a month, so Fathom had his own bungalow there, which he shared with Indigo and Pearl.

  There were two main beaches used for palace events. The sunrise beach was the one dragons went to for tranquility or quiet conversation, for peace and quiet and solitude. So Fathom was surprised that Albatross had summoned him to the sunset beach instead, where parties often began that could last all night long. Royal weddings usually took place on this beach, including the one five years ago between his own parents, Manta and Reef.

  But in the middle of the day, with the sun high above them, it was deserted. Albatross stood alone on the white sand, watching with his od
d dark eyes as Fathom swam up to the beach. Waves clawed and pounced at his feet, eating away the sand below him, but Albatross didn’t seem to notice he was sinking.

  “Hello, Grandson,” he said, spreading his wings as wide as his smile. “Do you feel powerful today? Ready to do some magic?”

  “Yes!” Fathom said.

  “Let’s see those claws,” said Albatross. Fathom held out his front talons and Albatross inspected them, one side and then the other, as though he were selecting a pair of precisely matched emeralds.

  “Hmmm, yes, very interesting,” Albatross said. “This talon definitely has more power than that one.”

  “It does?” Fathom said with awe, stretching it out so the sunlight shone through the webs between his claws.

  “Oh, clearly,” said Albatross. “Can’t you tell?”

  Fathom nodded thoughtfully. “I — yes — of course, it’s more — more tingly, like —” He caught the mischievous expression on his grandfather’s face. “Wait a minute. You’re messing with me!”

  Albatross laughed a warm, fish-smelling laugh. “I couldn’t resist. I’ve never had a fellow animus to tease before. This is going to be fun, isn’t it? Finding out what your magic can do?”

  Fathom nodded, beaming. His grandfather had never been so jovial with him before. Albatross was always too busy, too untouchable, spending all his time on Queen Lagoon’s projects. He’d been a kind but distant presence all of Fathom’s life.

  “All right, then,” said Albatross, splashing into the sea. “Let’s go.”

  “Go where?” Fathom asked. He’d been picturing a training session on the beach, maybe with more coconuts, or in one of the shaded courtyards while servants brought them mango drinks and platters of shrimp.

  “My sister wants me to show you my most top secret project,” said Albatross. He tossed his head carelessly and winked at Fathom. “In case I die and you need to finish it, I suppose.”

  “Oh no,” Fathom protested. “Never do that! I could never make something as amazing as what you’ve made.” But as he said it, he wondered if it was true. Would his creations be as brilliant as his grandfather’s one day? Would he eventually be as beloved and respected and important as Albatross?

 
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