Darkstalker, p.1
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       Darkstalker, p.1

           Tui T. Sutherland
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Darkstalker


  CONTENTS

  HALF TITLE PAGE

  TITLE PAGE

  DEDICATION

  MAP OF PYRRHIA

  A GUIDE TO THE DRAGONS OF PYRRHIA

  NIGHTWINGS

  SANDWINGS

  MUDWINGS

  SKYWINGS

  SEAWINGS

  ICEWINGS

  RAINWINGS

  PROLOGUE

  PART ONE

  CHAPTER 1

  CHAPTER 2

  CHAPTER 3

  CHAPTER 4

  CHAPTER 5

  CHAPTER 6

  CHAPTER 7

  CHAPTER 8

  CHAPTER 9

  CHAPTER 10

  CHAPTER 11

  CHAPTER 12

  CHAPTER 13

  CHAPTER 14

  PART TWO

  CHAPTER 15

  CHAPTER 16

  CHAPTER 17

  CHAPTER 18

  CHAPTER 19

  CHAPTER 20

  CHAPTER 21

  CHAPTER 22

  CHAPTER 23

  PART THREE

  CHAPTER 24

  CHAPTER 25

  CHAPTER 26

  CHAPTER 27

  CHAPTER 28

  CHAPTER 29

  CHAPTER 30

  CHAPTER 31

  CHAPTER 32

  CHAPTER 33

  EPILOGUE

  POST-EPILOGUE

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  ALSO AVAILABLE

  COPYRIGHT

  Description: Purplish-black scales and scattered silver scales on the underside of their wings, like a night sky full of stars; forked black tongues

  Abilities: Can breathe fire and disappear into dark shadows; some hatch with the power to read minds or see the future (or, very rarely, both)

  Queen: Queen Vigilance

  Known Animus Dragons: None

  Description: Pale gold or white scales the color of desert sand; poisonous barbed tail, forked black tongues

  Abilities: Can survive a long time without water, poison enemies with the tips of their tails like scorpions, bury themselves for camouflage in the desert sand, breathe fire

  Queen: Queen Scorpion

  Known Animus Dragons: Jerboa (whereabouts unknown)

  Description: Thick, armored brown scales, sometimes with amber and gold underscales; large, flat heads with nostrils on top of the snout

  Abilities: Can breathe fire (if warm enough), hold their breath for up to an hour, blend into large mud puddles; usually very strong

  Queen: Queen Crane

  Known Animus Dragons: None

  Description: Red-gold or orange scales, enormous wings

  Abilities: Powerful fighters and fliers; can breathe fire

  Queen: Queen Carmine

  Known Animus Dragons: None

  Description: Blue or green or aquamarine scales; webs between their claws; gills on their necks; glow-in-the-dark stripes on their tails/snouts/underbellies

  Abilities: Can breathe underwater, see in the dark, create huge waves with one splash of their powerful tails; excellent swimmers

  Queen: Queen Lagoon

  Known Animus Dragons: Albatross, brother to the queen

  Description: Silvery scales like the moon or pale blue like ice; ridged claws to grip the ice, forked blue tongues; tails narrow to a whip-thin end

  Abilities: Can withstand subzero temperatures and bright light;exhale a deadly freezing frostbreath

  Queen: Queen Diamond

  Known Animus Dragons: Queen Diamond and her son, Prince Arctic

  Description: Scales constantly shift colors, usually bright like birds of paradise; prehensile tails

  Abilities: Can camouflage their scales to blend into their surroundings; shoot a deadly venom from their fangs

  Queen: Queen Anaconda

  Known Animus Dragons: None

  ARCTIC

  “Prince Arctic?”

  A silvery white dragon poked her head around the door, tapping three times lightly on the ice wall. Arctic couldn’t remember her name, which was the kind of faux pas his mother was always yelling at him about. He was a prince; it was his duty to have all the noble dragons memorized along with their ranks so he could treat them according to exactly where they fit in the hierarchy.

  It was stupid and frustrating and if his mother yelled at him about it one more time, he would seriously enchant something to freeze her mouth shut forever.

  Oooo. What a beautiful image. Queen Diamond with a chain of silver circles wound around her snout and frozen to her scales. He closed his eyes and imagined the blissful quiet.

  The dragon at his door shifted slightly, her claws making little scraping sounds to remind him she was there. What was she waiting for? Permission to give him a message? Or was she waiting for him to say her name — and if he didn’t, would she go scurrying back to the queen to report that he had failed again?

  Perhaps he should enchant a talisman to whisper in his ear whenever he needed to know something. Another tempting idea, but strictly against the rules of IceWing animus magic.

  Animus dragons are so rare; appreciate your gift and respect the limits the tribe has set. Never use your power frivolously. Never use it for yourself. This power is extremely dangerous. The tribe’s rules are there to protect you. Only the IceWings have figured out how to use animus magic safely.

  Save it all for your gifting ceremony. Use it only once in your life, to create a glorious gift to benefit the whole tribe, and then never again; that is the only way to be safe.

  Arctic shifted his shoulders, feeling stuck inside his scales. Rules, rules, and more rules: that was the IceWing way of life. Every direction he turned, every thought he had, was restricted by rules and limits and judgmental faces, particularly his mother’s. The rules about animus magic were just one more way to keep him trapped under her claws.

  “What is it?” he barked at the strange dragon. Annoyed face, try that. As if he were very busy and she’d interrupted him and that was why he was skipping the usual politic rituals. He was very busy, actually. The gifting ceremony was only three weeks away. It was bad enough that his mother had dragged him here, to their southernmost palace, near the ocean and the border with the Kingdom of Sand. She’d promised to leave him alone to work while she conducted whatever vital royal business required her presence. Everyone should know better than to disturb him right now.

  The messenger looked disappointed. Maybe he really was supposed to know who she was. “Your mother sent me to tell you that the NightWing delegation has arrived.”

  Aaarrrrgh. Not another boring diplomatic meeting.

  “I can’t possibly be expected to attend them,” he said, waving his claws at the translucent walls of his room. “I only have three more weeks to prepare.”

  “Well,” said the other IceWing, “she did mention that …”

  “But she doesn’t care,” he finished when she trailed off.

  The poor dragon looked profoundly uncomfortable, caught between a prince who outranked her and a queen who outranked everyone. Arctic sighed.

  “Very well,” he said, sweeping shards of ice aside with his tail. “I’m coming.”

  She stepped back with relief, and he realized that the silver chain around her neck had only one circle on it. Uh-oh. That meant she was ranked in the First Circle — how could he have forgotten a First Circle IceWing? First and Second Circle dragons usually lived in the queen’s ice palace alongside the royal family, and he was sure he’d memorized them all.

  Except for the nobles who lived in the outer three palaces …

  “Snowflake,” he blurted. He really was an idiot. This was the one his mother had chosen for him to marry. Respectable family, loyal, likely to have a daughter who could replace Queen Diamond one day, since
he had no sisters or aunts who might try for the throne. Snowflake was probably the real reason he’d been dragged on this trip.

  “Yes,” she said, dipping her head. She was pretty in that boring, glassy way his mother liked, but he had gotten absolutely no sense of her personality at their one prior meeting. He was a little afraid she might not have one.

  “Uh,” he said, following her down the frozen hall. There must be something we can talk about. “Have you ever seen a NightWing before?”

  “Only the one who came to the wall a few months ago to request this meeting.”

  “Do you know what they’re here for?”

  She shook her head. So. That was apparently the end of that conversation.

  Ooo, how about an animus-touched object that can make any dragon interesting. Skies above, now that would be useful.

  Don’t waste your gift! his mother’s voice echoed in his head. Blah blah blah! Careful consideration! Months of planning!

  Sometimes he got a strong feeling that she regretted her own animus gift to the tribe: the gift of healing, which was a set of narwhal horns that could heal frostbreath injuries. It helped when young IceWings played too roughly or when fights broke out within the tribe … but it certainly would be a much more useful gift if the horns could heal any injuries. He bet Queen Diamond wished she could reach back through time and fix that mistake.

  “What would you give the tribe?” he asked Snowflake. “If you were an animus, I mean, and had to come up with a gift?”

  “Oh,” she said, fidgeting her wings in little flippy waves. “I don’t know.”

  “Well, think about it,” he said. “I’d really like to know.”

  “All right,” she said. They kept walking through the halls of the palace, which were smaller and more cramped than the ones at home, with odd little mismatched ice carvings everywhere — here a polar bear, there a wolf, there a screaming scavenger, here a lumpy owl. There was no consistency, no sense of an artistic vision, and everything was too close to him. It made Arctic want to smash through the walls just so he could see the sky.

  About a minute later, Snowflake said, “Sorry, I can’t think of anything.”

  Arctic couldn’t hide the irritation that flashed across his face. “Really think about it,” he said. “Tell me tomorrow, or whenever you come up with something.”

  She gave him a look that, to his surprise, was nearly as irritated as his own. “Seems like kind of a waste of my time,” she said. “Unless you’re having trouble coming up with an idea for yours.”

  “No, no,” he said quickly. “Of course I already have a plan.” Well, Mother has a plan. Which is why I am trying to come up with a better one.

  She didn’t ask what it was. Instead she stopped at one of the flight ledges and nodded down at the dome below them. In the gathering dusk, it glowed from within like firelit marble, covering most of the plain between the palace and the ocean. Snow dusted the outside and the ground all around it; more crystalline flakes were falling softly from the sky.

  The ocean itself was gouged with streaks of orange and gold as the sun set on the distant western horizon. Dragon wings sliced the air like darting bats as hunters dove to catch dinner in the sea for the welcome banquet tonight.

  Arctic and Snowflake flew down to the entrance of the guest dome. Inside, he knew, it would be warmer than he liked, heated by the bodies of the fire-breathing NightWings and also by the gift of diplomacy. (Created by an animus named Penguin about fifty years ago, chatted his overstuffed brain. He had studied every animus gift in careful detail, trying to come up with something new and original for his own. Which was perhaps why he didn’t have room in his brain for the faces of dragons he barely knew.)

  The dome itself was not an animus gift, though; these blocks of ice had been carved by ordinary IceWing talons. It must have taken ages, and he wasn’t entirely convinced that it wouldn’t all melt on top of some fire-breathing guests one day.

  Maybe I could improve the dome as my gift, he thought. An indestructible welcome dome for any allies or guests from other tribes. He dismissed the thought almost as soon as he had it. It was derivative and not nearly as impressive as he wanted it to be. He wanted his gift to be one that IceWings would marvel about for centuries after he was gone — something like Frostbite’s gift of light.

  They landed with a crunch on the snow, but just as they were about to enter the tunnel into the dome, a dragon came charging out.

  “Sorry!” she cried breathlessly as she narrowly avoided knocking them over. “I just needed to be outside for a moment. Look at that sunset! Great kingdoms, it is freezing out here! I might literally die! But obviously I can’t go back inside and miss this sunset. I can handle a little cold, right? If I just … keep … moving …” She began stamping furiously in a circle around them, whacking herself with her wings.

  She was a NightWing — the first NightWing Arctic had ever seen. He’d known she would be black, but he hadn’t expected the underscales of dark green on her chest or the silver scales that glittered here and there across the underside of her wings. Her eyes, too, seemed a little closer to dark green than to black, and they caught his without any fear. Her wings snapped with energy and he felt his own wings responding, lifting as though he might suddenly take off and touch the moons.

  “I’ll meet you inside,” he said to Snowflake.

  She paused, giving the NightWing a disapproving look.

  “You can tell my mother I’m coming,” he suggested. “Better hurry. She doesn’t like to wait.”

  Snowflake’s forehead wrinkled into that irritated expression again, and she turned to whisk down the tunnel without even a bow or ritual farewell.

  I suppose that’s what I deserve, he thought, since I didn’t give her the greeting her rank requires. He stared after her for a moment, trying to imagine what it would be like to be married to Snowflake. Maybe she does have a personality: repressed fury. Or maybe she’s as unexcited about this match as I am. I’m not sure how to improve that situation. I mean, I am a prince; if she marries me, she could hatch the next queen. What more could she want?

  “Who stuck an icicle up her snout?” asked the NightWing. She started jumping up and down in place, grinning at him.

  “I’m afraid that was me, probably,” he said. “It took me far too long to remember her name.”

  “So?” said the black dragon. “I forget names all the time.”

  “Well, I’m not supposed to forget anyone’s,” he said. “Also, we’re kind of engaged to be married.”

  The NightWing started laughing so hard she had to sit down, which immediately made her leap up again with a yelp, shaking snow off her tail.

  “Are you all right?” he asked.

  “Just c-c-cold,” she said, stamping her feet again. “All right, I’m on her side. That’s pretty terrible. You’re the worst.”

  “I’m not the worst!” he protested. “We’ve only met once! I barely know her! Also, she is extremely unmemorable!”

  “Seriously the worst!” she cried, laughing again. “That poor dragon! I am completely telling her not to marry you. I pity whoever gets tricked into that. You’ll be like, ‘Happy fortieth anniversary … what’s your name again?’ and she’ll be all, ‘It’s our FIFTIETH, you slime weasel, and my name is you’re sleeping on an iceberg tonight.’”

  “I promise I would remember that name,” he said. “Sticks in the brain a bit better than Snowflake.”

  “And what’s your name?” she asked. “Or I can keep calling you slime weasel, although I suspect that might get me kicked off the peacekeeping committee.”

  “My name is Arctic. Prince Arctic.”

  “Oh, fancy,” she said. “I guess I shouldn’t bother telling you mine, since you’ll forget it in the next five minutes anyway.”

  “I promise I won’t,” he protested.

  “Oh, you only forget your girlfriends’ names?” she joked. “Or future family members?”

  “I remember any
dragon who seems likely to change my life,” he said.

  “That’s not me!” she cried, looking genuinely startled. “I’m under strict orders not to do any damage or break any ice palaces or corrupt any IceWings or change any lives. Then again, I’m pretty sure I’ve never followed an order in my life, so … you know, watch your back, ice palaces.”

  Never followed an order in her life! Arctic blinked at her, enchanted and mystified. How was that possible? Life was nothing but a series of orders; if you didn’t follow them, wouldn’t you get lost or drop to the bottom of the rankings or be thrown out of your tribe? Imagine disobeying an order — any order. Where would I even start?

  “AAAAAAAH, why is it SO COLD?” The NightWing leaped into the air and started doing vigorous somersaults.

  “Because this is the Ice Kingdom,” he said, standing back out of her way. “It’s true, though, our climate is one of our best-guarded secrets.”

  “Oh, he’s a wise guy, too,” she said, righting herself and landing again. “Do you have any useful skills, or maybe an extra one of those magic bracelets that keeps your guests from freezing?”

  “That’s the gift of diplomacy,” he said. “It keeps our guests warm and helps them travel safely over the Great Ice Cliff. The tribe only has three bracelets — are there more than three of you?” he asked, surprised.

  “I’m the fourth,” she said. “My mother and I are sharing her bracelet; there was some back and forth silliness to get over your cliff. I probably should have asked for it before I came outside.”

  “We could go inside,” he said reluctantly. Inside there would be other dragons, infinitely more boring dragons, not to mention his mother, and probably a new set of rules about appeasing Snowflake, staying away from NightWings, and generally acting more like an obedient puddle. “Or we could stay to watch the rest of the sunset …”

  “The sunset is great,” she said, “but honestly I had to come out here because my mother is driving me crazy.”

  He couldn’t control the smile that split his face like ice cracking. It seemed possible that he would never be able to stop smiling at her. He’d never heard an IceWing say anything like that about his or her parents; it was beyond forbidden to complain or talk back or criticize your elders in any fashion.

 
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