Darkstalker, p.9
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       Darkstalker, p.9

           Tui T. Sutherland
 

  They huddled in the darkness.

  Fathom could feel Indigo’s breath on his face, his neck. He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but it seemed as though he could feel her heart racing as fast as his was. He knew he wasn’t imagining the trembling in her wings.

  Now that they’d stopped moving, they could hear the faraway screams.

  Indigo wrapped her front talons around Fathom’s and bowed her head.

  “Do you really think he would hurt me?” Fathom whispered. “We’re partners. He’s my grandfather.”

  “He had no problem killing his sister,” Indigo pointed out. “And you’re the only one he has any reason to be afraid of.”

  Because I’m special. Because of my magic, which I thought was so wonderful.

  “If we die —” he whispered.

  “Shhh. You’re not allowed to die,” she whispered back without looking up.

  “Do you think it’s true that animus dragons lose their souls?” Fathom said softly. “Is that why he’s doing this?”

  Her shoulders lifted and fell, and he could hear her unspoken thought: The question isn’t why … it’s how do we survive this?

  But he thought why? was kind of important, too.

  “Maybe I shouldn’t have run away,” he whispered.

  “Shhh,” she said again, clutching his talons tighter.

  He fell silent, listening.

  The screams had stopped.

  Somehow, that was worse.

  They waited for an eternity, frozen in the gathering dark.

  What is happening?

  A small bar of moonlight tipped in the window and inched across the floor toward them.

  Is everyone dead?

  Or did they stop him? Maybe Mother managed to talk to him. Maybe she calmed him down. Maybe everything’s all right now.

  Apart from the dead queen and murderous grandfather, that is.

  Fathom took shallow, quiet breaths, trying unsuccessfully to slow down his heart. He couldn’t put them together — the grandfather who’d joked with him about the throne design this morning and the dragon who’d held the bloody knife over his sister’s body.

  Creeeak.

  The softest of noises. It could be the wind shifting the walkway. It could be a turtle bumping into one of the columns below them.

  Or it could be talonsteps on the planks outside.

  Maybe it’s Mother, to tell us it’s safe to come out, Fathom thought desperately.

  But she wouldn’t approach so quietly, so carefully.

  Like a dragon hunting for his prey.

  Closer.

  And closer.

  One deliberate step at a time.

  I’m about to die, Fathom thought. His heart was trying to swim out of his body, thumping in his ears far louder than the steps on the boards outside.

  Please don’t kill Indigo, too.

  Maybe there’s still time for her to escape if I distract him. He has no reason to go after her. She means nothing to him.

  But he couldn’t get a message to his petrified muscles. He couldn’t move, could hardly even think as the talons stepped lightly into the pavilion.

  “Grandson.” The hiss slithered around the room like smoke. “Hiding like a nervous hermit crab. Interesting choice. One I should have expected, though, from such a little dragonet with such a limited imagination.”

  Albatross paced slowly closer. Indigo’s trembling stilled and she took a deep breath.

  “You may be wondering why you’re still alive,” Albatross said. “Especially when your entire family is dead.”

  No, Fathom thought, drums beating misery through his head. No. They can’t be. No.

  “You know I could easily kill you from a distance. It would barely take a thought. But you’ve been such a thorn in my side the last few years. Every chance she got — ‘I don’t really need you anymore. Perhaps Fathom will be better at this than you are. You’re so expendable now that I have a replacement. What a pathetic creature you are, little brother, with your tiny teeth and oddly colored scales. Fathom is so much more presentable than you are.’ ” Albatross growled in the back of his throat.

  “So, no, I couldn’t dispose of you from afar. That wouldn’t be satisfying at all. I want to see your face as you die.”

  The boat flew away from them as Albatross ripped it off the wall and flung it across the room. It landed with a crash that shook the whole pavilion.

  At the same moment, Indigo uncoiled and sprang at Albatross. Her front claws sank into his neck and her back claws dug at his chest, while her wings flared up to blind him.

  “Fathom, get out of here!” she screamed.

  She’s going to die for me.

  Albatross roared, a sound of pure rage and hatred.

  She’s going to die.

  Fathom would never, never let that happen.

  He was on his feet suddenly, stretching one talon toward the ceiling. He couldn’t touch them, but he felt power surging through his claws and he leaned into it.

  “Spears!” he shouted. “Kill my grandfather!”

  The fishing spears wrenched themselves off the wall and shot toward Albatross.

  “No!” Albatross yelled. “Spears —”

  Indigo seized his snout, smothering his words, and bit down hard on his ear.

  A spear smashed into Albatross’s back. He grabbed the pearls around Indigo’s neck and twisted as she let go of him with a strangled yelp of pain. One of his claws sliced across her neck as the second spear slammed into his side.

  Both dragons collapsed to the floor.

  Blood seeped over gray scales, pale blue scales, indigo scales, all across their wings, all over everything.

  Fathom’s talons were deep in blood.

  “Indigo,” he cried. Sobs rose from his chest, threatening to tear out his ribs. “Indigo.” He slipped and slid through the blood over to her body and pulled her free from the weight of Albatross. His grandfather’s dark eyes glared sightlessly up at the moons. The spears had done their work well. He was gone.

  But Indigo was not. There were bruises all along her throat and a gash that bubbled horribly below her jaw, but her eyes were open, and they saw him. He cradled her head gently, taking her talon when she reached for him.

  “Such an idiot,” she whispered, wincing as the effort made the gash bleed harder.

  “Yes, you are,” he said through his tears, and she managed a smile.

  “Told you you weren’t allowed to die,” she said. Her eyes drifted shut.

  “Yeah,” he said, “well, neither are you.”

  He wrapped his claws around the pearls and whispered, “Heal this dragon and save her life. Please. Please. Please save her life.”

  He could feel the struggling, slow flutter of her pulse under his claws; he felt it jump, pause, and then start to beat stronger and steadier.

  The pearls glowed warmly for a moment, like little fire-breathing roses.

  And then the bruises faded away. The gash in her neck closed up, scales knitting back together. So did the deep lacerations along her side, which he hadn’t even been paying attention to.

  Time passed, and then Indigo took a long, shuddering breath and opened her eyes.

  He helped her sit up and threw his wings around her.

  She didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. They were both crying too hard to talk at this point anyway.

  Fathom knew he would have paid any price to save her life.

  But he also knew she must be wondering the same thing he was.

  Was the price a piece of his soul?

  Would his power slowly turn him evil?

  Was every spell he cast bringing him a step closer … to becoming like Albatross?

  Clearsight was relieved when Allknowing finally released them and she was able to find her way to Room 3A. It turned out to be a beautiful classroom — airy and full of light, with plants and little water features everywhere. The teacher showed her around and Clearsight’s anxiety gradually
began to fade.

  “These are our pet scavengers,” said the teacher, beaming as she patted the top of a large glass cage. “Two females. They’re quite fierce, so don’t stick your talons in the cage, just to be safe. We rotate whose turn it is to feed them, and we’re doing a yearlong study of their behavior. They’re not just adorable; they’re also quite fascinating.”

  The two little creatures in the piles of grass inside didn’t look fascinating; they looked asleep. Clearsight wondered what they ate.

  “A lot of fruit,” said a dragon hovering nearby, “nuts, seeds, and sometimes bits of meat if we roast it for them.”

  “Oh, Listener,” the teacher said. “Would you take care of our new student for the rest of the day?”

  “Sure,” Listener said, brightening. She was large for three years old, with curves that suggested she was a very successful hunter. And she had the mind reading silver scales beside her eyes.

  Uh-oh, Clearsight thought. A mind reader. That’s just what I need.

  The other dragon glanced down at her claws, her wings drooping slightly.

  “I’m sorry,” Clearsight said quickly. “I’m just not used to mind readers. I don’t know how to shield my thoughts or only think nice things or anything. I’ll probably think lots of horrible stuff and you’ll end up hating me really fast. Or lots of crazy things and then you’ll think I’m crazy.”

  “I already know you’re crazy,” Listener said with a small laugh. “When you walked in, you looked around the classroom and immediately categorized every student into ‘safe to be friends with’ and ‘doomed if I talk to them.’ What is that about? And just checking — I’m not in the doomed camp, am I?”

  “Not as far as I can see,” Clearsight said. In fact, most of the paths involving Listener were a lot warmer than the paths without her, with more laughing. This friendship would definitely be a turn toward the right future. As long as they avoided that fight about Clearsight’s timeline scrolls, and that other fight about Darkstalker, and, oh dear, all the fights about Listener’s crushes on various —

  “By the Scorching, all right, all right!” Listener cried, flinging up her wings. “You’re one of those! I’ll stay as far out of your brain as I can, I promise. I don’t want to know anything about my future.”

  “Nothing?” Clearsight asked curiously. “Even if it meant I could stop you from —”

  “Nothing!” Listener yelped. She pressed her front talons to her ears. “Don’t you dare!”

  How completely strange, Clearsight thought, blinking at her new friend. “But why?” she asked. “I could change your future and make it better.”

  “My family is superstitious about seers,” Listener said, cautiously lowering her talons. “We’d rather be surprised by life than know too much.”

  This was such a bewildering and unfamiliar concept that Clearsight fell silent, staring at the scavengers. One of them was waking up, yawning and stretching and rubbing the cloud of dark hair on its little head.

  “I have a secret plan,” Listener whispered. “Maybe you know that already.”

  Clearsight shook her head. That is, she knew of a few crazy Listener plans that might lie ahead, but she wasn’t sure which specific one might be bubbling up right now.

  “I’m going to free the scavengers one day.” Listener glanced furtively over her shoulder, but the teacher was busy reviewing another student’s journal on the far side of the room. “As soon as I figure out the best way to do it.”

  “Why?” Clearsight asked.

  “Because they’re sad,” Listener said simply. “I can feel it. They don’t like being trapped in here. They like being together, but they would rather be free.”

  “You can feel it?” Clearsight echoed, tipping her head. “Like — real emotions?”

  Listener nodded. “Small and muddled but very powerful. I feel it all the time when I’m in here. Poor little things.”

  The awake scavenger tripped over the sleeping scavenger on the way to the water dish, and the sleeping one woke up with a lot of loud squeaking noises. Clearsight watched them stomp around squeaking back and forth, just as if they were having an actual conversation. Then there was a pause, and after a moment the first scavenger brought over a piece of apple to share.

  “That looked like a peace offering,” Clearsight said.

  “Exactly! That was exactly her feeling,” Listener said. “Their feelings are crazy similar to ours. I need to ask some other mind readers if they’ve noticed it, too. Or maybe there are scrolls about it in the library. I don’t think we’ve had many captive ones before, so maybe I’m making an awesome new discovery.”

  “I’ll help you,” Clearsight said impulsively. “Free them, I mean. Whenever you’re ready, I’ll help.” This was something completely separate from her confusing, tangled-up future. This was something she could do just for herself. Because she’d made a friend, and nobody was going to die as a result.

  Hopefully. Not along most of the paths anyway. Maybe she should study those two vague dark possibilities a little more carefully …

  She was about to ask for a scroll to take notes on when Listener grinned sideways at her and flicked her tail. Clearsight felt a burst of weird bubbles in her chest. What was that?

  Happiness?

  Maybe her dad was right. Maybe they weren’t all completely doomed after all.

  “Uh-oh,” said Listener. “Here comes Weirdout.”

  Clearsight turned, trying to imagine who would give their dragonet such a strange name, and saw Darkstalker’s sister walking toward them. Her startling pale blue eyes were fixed on Clearsight.

  “She’s four,” Listener whispered, “but she’s with us because whenever someone asks her what two plus two is, she says something like ‘Archaeology?’ or ‘Lavender?’ and no one knows what to do with her.”

  “I thought her name was Whiteout,” Clearsight stammered.

  “Yes,” whispered Listener, “but she’s super weird.”

  “Hi,” Whiteout said to Clearsight. She stopped in front of her and stood very still, and Clearsight got the strange feeling that Whiteout was already gathering more information about her than Listener had been able to, even after reading her mind.

  “Hello,” Clearsight answered.

  “Are you the dragon my brother’s been waiting for?”

  The question hung in the air for a moment as Clearsight debated all the possible answers to it. Lying, she could see, would set them off on a bad path. Whiteout trusted either completely or not at all. And it might be very important — life or death important, although Clearsight wasn’t sure exactly why yet — for Whiteout to trust her. Claws of prophecy squeezed her heart, and she could give only one possible answer.

  “Yes,” she admitted.

  “Good,” said Whiteout. “I’m glad you’re finally here.” She dipped her snout toward Clearsight and moved off to work on a puzzle that was spread across a long table in the corner.

  “See?” Listener said when she was out of earshot. “Weird.”

  “I think she’s …” Clearsight hesitated, not sure how to sum up Whiteout, especially when almost everything she knew about her hadn’t actually happened yet. “Interesting,” she finished.

  “It’s possible to be both,” Listener said with a shrug. “So what was that about? Darkstalker? You know him?”

  “No — not yet,” Clearsight admitted.

  “He’s intense,” Listener offered. “Maybe the smartest dragon in the history of the NightWings. You know he hatched under three full moons? He can read minds and see the future. It’s a little unsettling. He has a total vibe of knowing way too much about everyone.”

  It suddenly occurred to Clearsight to wonder why Darkstalker hadn’t been in the seer training class. Maybe he was smarter than me, and met Allknowing first, and realized that she’s terrible, so he’s still pretending he hasn’t found the class yet. Or he doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s a good enough seer to have found it already.
r />   He’s been keeping all his powers pretty quiet so far. I wish I couldn’t see so many good AND bad reasons for that.

  Listener was peering at her curiously. Clearsight had to shut down this line of thought before she revealed too much by accident. She glanced around the classroom. “When do we sit down and start learning?”

  Her new friend laughed. “That’s not how it works. There are stations all around the classroom and you’re allowed to work on whatever interests you. Then we come together for a group discussion before free outdoor time. There’s a schedule on the wall over there.”

  Huh, Clearsight thought. If I can work on anything I want — that means I could keep doing my timeline scrolls.

  Wait — nope. There was a very uncomfortable trip to Truthfinder’s office with her parents in that future. Better stick to what the other dragons were doing.

  She did her best to act normal, but as the school night went on, Clearsight found it harder and harder to breathe through the pounding of her heart.

  I can’t put it off any longer.

  I’m meeting him soon. Very soon.

  But I’m doing it on my terms.

  The teacher released them into the courtyard when the moons were high in the sky, giving them two hours to hunt, play, or practice flying, whatever they chose to do.

  Clearsight stopped in the shadow of a tall pine tree, watching the wings that swirled around her. Dragons called out greetings to one another, tossed pinecones, checked their reflections in puddles. A few settled at outdoor tables to study together; others launched races around the upper branches. One dragonet was trying to convince his friend to try something called a pomegranate.

  Everyone seemed happy. No one seemed to know that a very momentous thing was about to happen.

  But where was Darkstalker?

  Maybe he was angry that she’d avoided him that morning; maybe he’d gone off hunting and decided he didn’t want to meet her after all.

  There was one future where that happened. It wasn’t a good one.

  “Hey!” a voice shouted from one of the clusters of dragonets. “Watch where you’re walking!”

 
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