Darkstalker, p.4
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       Darkstalker, p.4

           Tui T. Sutherland

  Fathom had only seen a few animus-touched objects in action. The most striking was a conch shell that pulsed with light whenever someone lied. It was intended for the queen to use in interrogations and negotiations, but Lagoon let her family use it whenever they asked. That was how Manta had forced Indigo and Fathom to confess that they were the ones who put squid ink in everyone’s toothpaste (Indigo’s idea, of course, but Fathom accepted half the blame rather than run the risk of being separated from her).

  “You might be surprised,” Albatross said. “But as for me never dying, I am also in favor of that plan.” He smiled and dove into the ocean, and Fathom had to scramble to catch up to his grandfather’s powerful wing strokes.

  They swam for what seemed like a long time, and not in the direction of the Deep Palace. Where are we going? The islands in this direction were more scattered, with strong currents in between them. Golden sunlight filtered down through the water, illuminating the schools of brightly colored fish that darted by.

  Up ahead, Fathom saw the foundation of a large island rising from the ocean floor; all around it, gray boulders and tall spires of rock jutted out of the water. Albatross led the way to a wavering forest of orange-yellow kelp and swam straight into it. Fathom followed him through the sticky fronds to a tunnel in the cliff ahead of them.

  They swam into the tunnel, from light into darkness, and Fathom’s night vision kicked in so he could see every bend and twist in the rock as they went deeper. He was beginning to wonder if they were going to swim right through the island when, all of a sudden, they emerged into a wide open lake.

  Fathom popped his head out of the water beside his grandfather. They were in the heart of the island, surrounded on all sides by craggy, soaring cliffs. Up above them, cormorants wheeled about in a bright blue sky.

  In the center of the lake, a vast, strange shape was growing out of the water. It looked at first glance like a gigantic narwhal tusk, as if someone had taken four towering pillars of white stone and braided them together. Huge flat bubbles of stone grew out of the pillars at regular intervals. Fathom realized with a start that they were literally growing — expanding, inch by inch, as slow as a sea slug inching across the ocean floor.

  The whole thing was an amorphous, misshapen blob, a weird growth on the insides of the beautiful island.

  “Oh no,” he blurted. “What went wrong?”

  Albatross paused for a long moment, studying the shape, before answering. “What makes you think something is wrong?”

  “Um … I’m sorry,” Fathom stammered. “It’s — is it — supposed to look like that?”

  Albatross ducked his head under the water and came up with a smile on his face. “It’s not finished,” he said lightly. “It’s still growing into its final shape. I must admit, I didn’t think it would take so long. But when it’s done, trust me, it will be the pride of the Kingdom of the Sea.”

  “Oh, I’m sure it will!” Fathom’s mouth tumbled on ahead of him. “Everyone will love it! Because it’s a … the best possible … such a cool …” He trailed off, feeling like a sinking snail.

  “It’s a new palace, grandson,” said Albatross. He turned to swim to the nearest beach. “Entirely grown by animus power. I call it the Summer Palace — a place where royalty can escape to enjoy the warmest weather of the year.”

  Fathom blinked at the twisting, growing pavilion. He had a million questions, like Does Queen Lagoon know about this? and Would anyone really want to live here? and How will it know when to stop growing? and Doesn’t it feel kind of … creepy?

  But he didn’t want his grandfather to see him as unimaginative or full of doubts. He wanted to be an ideas kind of dragon, all energy and enthusiasm.

  He scrambled out of the lake beside his grandfather, feeling rough pebbles scrape his underbelly and tail. They both regarded the enchanted pavilion for a moment.

  “Here’s what it will look like when it’s finished,” Albatross said, opening a box on the beach beside him and pulling out a scroll. Fathom unrolled the drawing and let out a gasp.

  “This is beautiful,” he said. “It’s going to grow into this?”

  “That’s the plan,” said Albatross. “I check on it regularly, making adjustments and adding features. It’s been growing for more than seven years, so it shouldn’t be much longer.”

  “Seven years?” Fathom said, startled. His voice echoed too loudly around the cavern.

  “I enchanted it to grow carefully and precisely, like a tree,” said his grandfather proudly. “Anything faster and wilder could have damaged the ecosystem of the whole island.”

  Is that true? Fathom wondered. Or did he make a mistake with the original enchantment? Maybe he just told it to grow and didn’t specify how fast. I bet that would be really frustrating.

  “I have an idea,” he blurted.

  “Already?” said Albatross. “How … impressive.”

  “I mean,” Fathom said, “I don’t know if it’s a good idea. Or if it would work. Can you use animus magic on plants?”

  “Oh, yes,” said Albatross. “I’ve done that several times.”

  “Well,” Fathom said, getting excited, “I was thinking this Summer Palace would be more secure if it was hidden from above. Don’t you think? Because right now, any dragon flying overhead can see it. But you could enchant the greenery up there to grow together and create a canopy, couldn’t you? Shielding the palace from the sky? But still letting in sunlight through the leaves?”

  His grandfather tilted his head back to study the roof of the cavern. “Yes,” he said slowly. “Yes, that could definitely work. What a clever idea, grandson.”

  Fathom’s wings felt as if they might float off into the sky. “Can I do it?” he asked excitedly. “Can I do it right now?”

  “Hold on,” said Albatross, taking the scroll of detailed palace sketches. He set it carefully back in the box and cleared his throat. “I — I have to warn you about something.”

  Fathom shifted impatiently on his talons. His life was full of lectures and warnings. Don’t offend the elders of the royal family. Don’t eat until everyone else has been served. Be careful of sharks until you’re full-grown and can eat them. Never explore the deepest trenches alone. The lecture he got the most often but still didn’t understand was from the queen, who seemed compelled to inform him at every family gathering that he shouldn’t get “too attached” to Indigo, whatever that meant.

  “The first lesson of being an animus,” said Albatross, looking into Fathom’s eyes, “is that you must always be careful. Remember this is powerful, powerful magic. It can go wrong very easily. It’s so powerful that you can do almost anything, except bring a dragon back from the dead.”

  Fathom managed not to look at the weird shape growing in slow motion behind him. “I’ll be careful,” he promised quickly. “I won’t do anything wrong.”

  “I know,” Albatross said, patting Fathom’s shoulder. “You’re very fortunate. I didn’t have anyone to guide me.” He hesitated again. “Do you know the story of my first animus spell?”

  Fathom shook his head, shivering with excitement. He’d always wondered how Albatross discovered his power. “Was it amazing?” he asked. “Do you still have the first object you enchanted? Can I see it? Did you feel like the biggest, most incredible dragon in the whole ocean? Did you want to enchant absolutely everything else around you right away?”

  Albatross sighed and swept his tail in an arc across the sand until it drifted into the water. “Maybe you’re too young to hear this.”

  “I’m not!” Fathom protested. “I really want to know. Please tell me.”

  “It was an accident,” his grandfather said. “Remember that. I had no idea it would work. I didn’t know I had this power — I barely knew such power existed, and we all thought it was only in stories. Also, I was very young. Younger than you are now.”

  There was a long pause. I’m not that young, Fathom thought. I already know lots of things.

“It was an empty clamshell,” Albatross said in a rush. “You know — the kind where the two halves are still connected, but hollow inside. A big one, but nothing extraordinary. I was playing with it on the sunrise beach, pretending it was a dragon mouth that was chasing the crabs and seagulls.”

  This was beyond Fathom’s imaginative skills. He couldn’t begin to picture his stately, intimidating grandfather scampering around with a toy.

  “And then my sisters came down to see what I was doing.” Albatross’s voice kept getting quieter, and his eyes turned to the water as if the scene in his mind were reflected there. “Lagoon and Sapphire. Our mother was still queen back then — it was years before either of them would be old enough to challenge her. But they were both bigger than me, and they started to tease me. They said my scales were a weird color, that my tail was a funny shape, that my teeth were too small, and I swam like a feeble old duck. Normal brother-sister teasing, but it made me so angry. So very, very angry.”

  Normal teasing? Fathom wondered. Is that what other brothers and sisters are like? He didn’t always get along with Pearl, but she never followed him around just to be mean for no reason. And his older cousins simply ignored him, politely uninterested in his stories or Indigo’s games.

  No one in his family had ever made him really angry, that he could remember. Wait — Queen Lagoon, once, when she ordered Indigo to go deep-sea fishing at night because the palace had run out of her favorite snack. Fathom’s mother had stopped Indigo and gone herself, and Lagoon had rolled her eyes and muttered something about coddling the lower class. Fathom didn’t know what it meant, but he knew he didn’t like the way the queen looked down her snout at Indigo. It made him feel all roary and snarly inside.

  Angry like that? Was that what Albatross had felt?

  “Sapphire tried to grab the clamshell out of my talons. ‘What have you got here?’” Grandfather’s voice went high and mocking, imitating his sister. Great-Aunt Sapphire — Fathom had heard her name before, but he’d never met her. She’d never attended a royal family dinner. He didn’t actually know if she was dead or alive or where she lived.

  A sinking feeling swept through his stomach. He suddenly didn’t want to hear the rest of this story at all. But there was no stopping his grandfather now.

  Albatross’s claws curled into the sand, his gaze anchored on a spot over Fathom’s shoulder. “‘That’s mine!’ I yelled. ‘Oh, is this your precious treasure?’ Sapphire cooed, peeling my talons off it easily. ‘Everything you have will be mine when I’m queen, you know. Even stupid beach trash like this.’” Albatross took a deep breath.

  “I don’t know why I spoke to the shell next instead of her — maybe because I’d been pretending it was real, or maybe because of some animus instinct curled up inside me. But I did. I squeezed the edge of it that I still held and I shouted, ‘Bite her! Bite all her claws off!’ and then I let go.”

  Fathom’s jaw fell open in shock. Albatross finally looked at him again and winced.

  “I know. You are lucky that your talent was discovered in a much less gruesome way,” he said, touching his chest absently, as if remembering the pain. “It took several days for all the blood to wash away from the beach. Sapphire, of course, could never be queen after that — a dragon with no claws cannot hunt or fight, and as for swimming … well, who looks like a feeble old duck now.” He barked a dry laugh. “She went a little mad, I’m afraid. Now she is kept on an island far away from everyone else, tended by two very well-paid servants. Lagoon visits her occasionally, but I never have. I assume Sapphire would prefer never to see me again.”

  He sighed.

  Fathom looked down at his own talons, subdued. He’d been thinking of all the bright, shiny, amazing things he could do now. But what if one of his great ideas turned out all horrible and dark? What if he made a mistake and hurt someone?

  I won’t, a voice whispered inside him. I’ll be careful and smart. Smarter than Grandfather.

  “I’m not telling you this to scare you,” said Albatross. “But you needed to know so that you’ll understand my rules — mine and the queen’s. You must listen to me. You must never use your magic unless I am there to supervise you. You must consider every spell carefully for weeks before you cast it, and you must run them all by me first. I know you feel powerful now — I understand that better than anyone. But you are also dangerous.”

  “All right,” Fathom said. “I know. I understand. I promise to be careful and all of that stuff. Can we try some magic now?” He twitched his wings hopefully.

  Albatross rubbed his forehead. “I suppose enchanting a few plants wouldn’t hurt.”

  “YES!” Fathom shouted. “Thank you, thank you!” He shot into the air, arrowing toward the sky above them.

  A few moments later, he burst into the open sky, soaring over the circle made by the top of the cliffs, with the lake and the Summer Palace far below him. The heat of the sun was startling after the cool temperature inside the island — but even more startling than that was the yelp that came from a patch of foliage near the edge of the cliff top. He twisted in the air to squint at the shrubbery as his grandfather appeared beside him.

  “A spy?” Albatross said, his brow darkening. He flicked one claw sharply, and the entire bush tore free from the dirt and hurled itself into the sea.

  Exposed underneath it was a small, very anxious-looking purplish-blue dragonet.

  “Indigo!” Fathom cried. “What are you doing here?”

  “Making sure you’re all right,” she said. She sat up, squaring her shoulders. “Sorry, Albatross, sir. I didn’t mean to spy on you. I only followed Fathom to watch out for him.”

  “That’s perfectly silly,” Fathom said. He swept down to land beside her. “You don’t need to keep an eye on me. What do you think you’re going to stop me from doing? You cause a lot more trouble than I do.”

  “Do not!” Indigo protested. “When have I ever caused trouble?”

  “Well, you’re certainly in trouble,” Albatross interjected. “The queen won’t be pleased that you’ve seen her most secret project.”

  Indigo raised her chin defiantly.

  “But since you’re here anyway,” Fathom said, “you can watch me do my first real spell! With plants! I have this great idea about plants and things!”

  “Actually,” Albatross said. “I’m getting tired. I think we should swim back to the Island Palace now.”

  “What?” Fathom cried, his wings drooping. “Just one vine? Please?”

  “There will be plenty of time for you to practice magic, youngster,” Albatross said firmly. “But I am a wizened old dragon and you’ve surely been taught something about respecting your elders. It’s time to go.”

  Fathom didn’t dare argue with him, although his scales felt as if they were seething with frustration. Nobody spoke, not even Indigo, all the way back to the Island Palace. Albatross landed on the beach in the orange light of the sunset.

  “Good session today, grandson,” he said to Fathom, tapping his wing lightly with his own. “I can see that you are full of promise. We’ll make an excellent team, you and I.” He glanced briefly at Indigo, who was dripping quietly onto the sand beside Fathom, close enough that Fathom could feel the heat of her body all along his scales. “Just remember what I told you about being careful. Now good night, both of you. I’ll see you soon, Fathom.”

  He slipped away in the direction of the frangipane garden. As soon as he was gone, Fathom stamped his foot in the sand and blew all the air out of his lungs.

  “Good session?” he cried. “We didn’t even do anything! He just talked and talked!”

  “Yeah, but has he ever talked to you that much before?” Indigo asked. “Wasn’t that still pretty great?”

  “No,” Fathom grumbled. “I wanted to enchant something. I thought he was going to let me practice.”

  “Maybe it was my fault,” Indigo suggested, her face falling. “Maybe he didn’t want you to practice in front of me.”
  “I don’t think that’s it.” Fathom sat down and started sweeping sand into a castle mound with his tail. “He was acting weird about it even before you got there. Doesn’t he remember what it’s like to be excited about something?”

  “Old dragons,” Indigo said, shaking her head as though they were just too hopeless. She added a few rose-colored seashells to his castle. “Do you — um, do you think the queen is going to yell at me? Or … or make me stop being friends with you?”

  “She could never do that,” Fathom said firmly. “I’d enchant her face to shut up first.”

  Indigo giggled, but he could see that she was still worried. Maybe Queen Lagoon had been saying mean, divisive things to her, too, behind his back.

  Fathom twisted around and found a piece of bleached-white driftwood on the beach behind him. He held it up, grinning at Indigo.

  “Don’t you dare,” Indigo said, guessing what he was about to do, as she often did. “He told you not to use your power without his approval! You have no idea what you’re doing!”

  “I do, too,” he said. “One tiny spell won’t hurt anything. I just have to make sure I don’t say something stupid.” He clasped his talons around the driftwood. “I enchant this wood to carve itself into the shape of a gentle little octopus.”

  He set it down on the sand between them and watched with amazed elation as small curls began peeling off the edges of the wood, and then bigger wedges, and then slowly a perfect head emerged, followed by eight sculpted tentacles.

  Several minutes later, it was done. The little white octopus was about the size of a full-grown dragon’s foot, with cheerfully flippy tentacles and a mischievous expression. Fathom picked it up and dusted off the sand.

  It was the most perfect carving Fathom had ever seen; it matched exactly the vision he’d had in his head. That never happened when he tried to carve things with his claws.

  “For you,” he said, handing it to Indigo.

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