The small island was calm and tranquil under the evening sky. It was quite small, and easy to see. There were no hills, or forests or other natural features. Just grass, with a few streams and a small pond.
Nrizali stretched out lazily in the sun, asleep. Beside her, Alirtha also stretched herself, then opened one eye. It wasn't time to get up yet, she knew, and the sun would probably give her a headache if she looked at it for too long-but she decided to risk it. She sat up and watched the sunset. The colours, shooting through the sky, was one of the best things she had ever seen.
is it time to eat yet
Alirtha turned with a halfsmile on her face.
"I didn't think you were awake."
i wasn't until you got up and can't we get some food now
"Okay, okay. Let's get some breakfast."
Nrizali stretched her wings and followed Alirtha down to the water's edge, where she busied herself with the reeds that grew there.
Since bonding with Nrizali, Alirtha had discovered she didn't need to eat. Nrizali's mental processes were so linked in with her own that one person (or dragon) ate for both of them.
It didn't really matter, though, thought Alirtha. I used to go for...for...
The thought process floundered. She knew there was a word. She just couldn't remember what it was.
I used to go for a week. Sometime, back in the past, she used to go for a week without eating.
Had she gotten hungry? She assumed she had. But she couldn't eat anything without....without....well, she couldn't or...
what are you going on about
Alirtha tried to swallow in a suddenly dry throat.
"Nothing-I..." Her voice trailed off. She was glad Nrizali had interrupted her when she had. She'd been having some disturbing dreams on this subject.
i'm bored do you want to go see serko
Alirtha grinned in spite of her nervousness.
"Sure, I could do with seeing Tahrinh again. It's been a few weeks."
okay so hop on
Alirtha climbed onto Nrizali's back and they took off for Daoret, where Tahrinh lived with Kaiya.
why are you so nervous about this you know we bonded
Alirtha tried to remember what it was that caused her discomfort when riding Nrizali. Something to do with a different place. A different person-another family...
No! Kaiya was her mother and Tahrinh was her sister. She'd been born on Daoret....hadn't she?
if it helps i can tell you what i know
when we bonded you didn't understand about skan or dragons you had just come to daoret
"So where'd I come from?"
i don't know nobody knows but there is one skan who might
i'll tell you after we've been to daoret
Alirtha sighed. She knew from past experience that arguing with Nrizali would only make the young queen more determined to have her own way in the matter.
They flew the rest of the way in relative silence. When they arrived on Daoret, there was no sign of Tahrinh or Kaiya.
"Anyone here?" Alirtha called.
Alirtha gasped and spun round. A young SKAN male about the same age as her leaned against a tree and smiled at her. His dragon, a small white not much bigger than Nrizali, stood nearby and watched Alirtha and the young male-but mostly Nrizali.
nrizali will you try and keep yourself under control for five minutes i've got enough to contend with
he is amazing
Alirtha came to and noticed he was looking at her with a little amusement.
"Are you looking for Kaiya?" he asked.
"Tahrinh's gone off with my cousin, Ingal. They should be back soon." He grinned easily. "You'd be Alirtha then, I guess."
"Uh, yes. And you?"
The grin became wider.
"Narpen, and my white's Hvin."
"I-this is Nrizali." Alirtha was getting slightly confused with openness like this. He wasn't supposed to be so friendly-SKAN males took what they wanted. Or did they? Was it part of that time she couldn't remember that made her think like that? Was it not SKAN males she was afraid of but...others? Was she-had she ever been in contact with...Outside?
She became vaguely aware that Narpen was saying something.
He grinned again.
"I said, what's bugging you? You just stand there, thinking."
Alirtha took a good look at him. He wasn't unattractive, now she noticed him. He had short, chestnut colored hair with mischievous brilliant blue eyes and a teasing smile. Alirtha thought of her own, dull brown hair and eyes and felt inadequate.
"Look, I-I have to go...now. I'll, uh, maybe see you around."
Narpen's eyes twinkled.
"I'll look forward to it."
Alirtha groaned inwardly.
Of all the times in the night to turn up, Tahrinh had to turn up just when I don't want her.
what's wrong i thought you wanted to see tahrinh
i do but i could have done without it now
She forced a smile.
"Hi, how's it going?"
Tahrinh grinned, bubbling with excitement.
"Great! Have you met Ingal?"
Alirtha's graceful nod in Ingal's general direction was the briefest courtesy permitted. Tahrinh frowned.
"Hey, something wrong?"
"I just keep having these really bad dreams."
"What kind of dreams?" Tahrinh was annoyed that Alirtha seemed unlikely to want to go exploring with her like they usually did-but no SKAN ever ignored a dream.
"Like...I'm in a small place with something like a cave surrounding me and there's no light."
"Good thing too," Tahrinh interrupted. "You know how vulnerable the sun makes you."
SKAN are not biologically nocturnal-but they've been used to living in a society where they would be hunted down and killed or abducted if anyone suspected who-or what-they truly were. An i.t. or rankscar tends to be a definite giveaway and so the SKAN learned to keep out of the sun and stick to the night, where a rankscar could be passed off as a line or shadow.
Alirtha shook her head.
"It's not ordinary darkness. It's just...have you ever been to the caves on Escro?"
Narpen had but the other two hadn't.
"Did you go right to the center?"
"Then you know how by the time you reach it, the turns and stalagmites and stalagtites have blocked out all light, and how you turn almost on a hairpin?"
"Yeah. I only stayed a few minutes before I got unnerved and had to get the hell out as fast as I could. There's nothing to hear, nothing to smell, nothing to see."
"It's like that, only colder. I'm just surrounded and there's no way out and then this person comes in. He's a full male but doesn't have any i.t. or rankscar..."
"Neither do you," Ingal broke in tactlessly.
Alirtha stopped and stared at him. Narpen narrowed his eyes.
"Just what are you insinuating?" he demanded.
"Don't look at me that way; someone had to say it."
Alirtha took a step back, away from them, heading towards Nrizali, then hesitated. Narpen noticed the movement.
"Hey, Alirtha, come back here."
It was only a playful statement and one not meant to be taken in any serious form. Unfortunately, given Alirtha's current state of mind, it was about the only thing that anyone could have said that would cause her to panic. She turned and bolted for her dragon. Nrizali, picking up on her Rider's fear and mental turmoil was already waiting for her. The silver took off and the pair were gone.
where are we going
i was hoping you could tell me i want to know who this mystery skan is that knows about me and i want to see them
no you don't alirtha trust me you really don't want to see this person and you really don't want to know about your past
Alirtha narrowed her eyes determinedly.
yes i do so where are they
alright alright she lives on an island called ozeo which is quite far from here
well we can rest on ezir so what are we waiting for let's go
Nrizali veered around until she was flying in a northeasterly direction. Alirtha leaned down over the glistening silver neck and watched the water below them. Unlike Outsiders, SKAN can breathe underwater as well as in air. There were, therefore, quite a few SKAN travelling through the water.
She must have fallen asleep because the next thing she knew, Nrizali was telling her that Ozeo was quite close now and it wasn't too late to turn back if Alirtha really wanted to.
is this ozeo
almost take a look down
Alirtha did as Nrizali suggested. Ozeo seemed to consist of hundreds of semiformed islands floating in a sea of lava. Every now and then an island would collapse, only to be reformed a few minutes later.
that looks like the main part
Nrizali folded her wings and dropped. Alirtha bit back a cry of terror. Nrizali loved to land this way-but several nights in front of a fire waiting to dry out marked the number of times she'd missed Mallin.
i wish you'd trust me that wasn't too bad was it
no Alirtha transmitted sarcastically but if you miss mallin and land in the ocean you just say oops and try again but when you're surrounded by a sea of molten rock you only get one chance
She slipped off Nrizali and looked around. The heat was stifling and almost painful if you got too close to the lava. She had a steadily growing bad feeling about this place, a feeling that something twisted and unnatural had taken place here that she'd been a part of.
A voice sounded from behind them.
"What do you want?"
Both Alirtha and Nrizali spun round. A black dragon was perched on the very edge of the rock. Standing by its side was a female SKAN who looked to be around one hundred and ninety and just starting to become a full adult. She had jet black hair that was cropped close to her skull and smoky grey eyes. She was slightly taller than most SKAN Alirtha had met and also a lot thinner. Alirtha noted the strong rasp in the female's voice and wondered how long it had been since she'd last spoken. The rankscar down the side of her face marked her as a vasari, or Leader. Given that Alirtha herself had no rankscar and was thus marked as a cki, or person without rank, courtesy was probably the best bet.
"Are you the only SKAN here, vasari?" Alirtha asked.
The stranger eyed her with a mixture of distaste and resentment.
"There's nobody here but us, then."
"No." The vasari's voice became a shade more threatening. "So, you've come back, have you?"
"I...Vasari, forgive me, but I don't understand."
The other raised an eyebrow disdainfully.
"No? Are you sure? You don't understand, or you don't remember? Which is it, cki?"
"I don't remember ever meeting you, vasari, but if we did meet, I am sorry for forgetting."
The vasari laughed, somewhat unpleasantly.
"Oh, very prettily said," she sneered. "Did Kaiya teach you manners, or did you just learn through observation? You know, there's something about you that's different, something that marks you as an Outsider, cki, you know that?"
Alirtha stiffened, partially through indignation at the implied insult-but mostly through fear that what this vasari said was true.
A singularly unpleasant smile spread across the latter's face.
"Good," she said softly. "You are remembering, aren't you, cki. I think if we carry on like this, by next week, you may just have remembered who I am."
"So we have met."
The smile broadened.
"Of course. It was ten years ago-ten years, what crappy memories Outsiders have-but we met. You came here, onto Ozeo. You'd found your way to Wiztliow by accident and it just so happened that you landed here, on the isolation rock. There was a meeting of the SKAN to decide what to do with you. During this time, Kaiya managed to rescue you-how is Kaiya, by the way? Is she still alive?"
"I...yes, she's alive."
"Pity. But anyway, Kaiya rescued you and took you to Daoret where you got friends with her daughter Tahrinh and bonded with your silver. You've been plagued by nightmares ever since then about where you lived before you came here. You're shunned by some SKAN because of your lack of i.t.-it's not lack of the rankscar, incidentally, no SKAN was ever shunned for lack of a rankscar and I know you've been wondering about that-and you don't know why because you have no memories of the time before you bonded."
"Stop it," Alirtha whispered.
"You wanted to know," the vasari said softly. "Isn't that why you came?"
"Last seen ten years ago at a meeting on Daoret between me and Kaiya, followed by a lengthy discussion as to whether or not to kill you." The vasari's voice changed abruptly to a snarl. "Remember, cki?"
Alirtha sank back, clutching at Nrizali for support. The vasari's lip curled in contempt.
"Pitiful. You'll never make it, you know that, cki? You were born an outcast, you'll live an outcast and you'll die an outcast. By the way, I shouldn't tell your silver to try rushing me if I were you, Alirtha...or do you still prefer to be called Chesska?"
Alirtha sagged onto the ground. The vasari's voice changed, became quiet but full of malicious triumph.
"Yes. So don't tell me you still don't know who I am."
Alirtha managed to drag herself to her feet, hanging onto Nrizali for support.
"Acheron," she said faintly. "The Hidden One."
Acheron laughed out loud. It wasn't a particularly pleasant sound.
"Not bad. I've never heard that title before. Who came up with it; Kaiya?"
"I-I don't know, vasari. I just..."
Acheron raised an eyebrow and smiled maliciously.
"Don't be so formal," she said, her voice acidly sweet. "Just call me Acheron."
"You seem nervous, Alirtha," Acheron said softly. "You couldn't possibly be afraid of me, could you?"
"Nrizali said you could-you could tell me who I really am and where I came from."
"Hmmmm," murmured Acheron, deliberately dragging out the suspense. She turned to the slim black dragon next to her. "What do you think, Hrovl? Can we tell this Outsider what we know?"
"I'm no Outsider!" Alirtha said furiously. "I'm as much a SKAN as you, Dark One!"
Acheron smiled without humour at the use of her old title.
"Ah, well, that's where you're wrong," she said unpleasantly. "See, you were never born here, Alirtha. You don't even belong here. I don't know where you were before-I just know you were running away. Interesting. Six years old at the time...now why should you run away, Alirtha?"
Alirtha shook her head vigorously, trying to clear it.
"I-I don't-that is, I can't-"
"You can't what? You can't say? That was what you said when you first arrived, wasn't it? I can speak your language, Alirtha; I just don't like to. Don't you remember our meeting on the isolation rock? Don't you remember how you pleaded with me not to hurt you?"
"I...would have thought...you must have...enjoyed that," Alirtha said with difficulty.
"Watching a pathetic, injured child beg me not to hurt them? No. I may be callous-but I find cowardice incredibly repulsive. I found it very difficult to overcome my distaste enough to talk to you..."
"Talk?" echoed Alirtha bitterly. "You interrogated me! What else do you know about my past, Acheron?"
The Dark One didn't answer. She appeared to be gazing intently at something behind Alirtha and Nrizali.
"Narpen and Hvin," Acheron said distantly. "I think you two know each other."
Alirtha whipped round. Narpen was standing behind her, bewildered.
"What are you two talking about?" he asked.
"Huh?" Alirtha stared at him.
Acheron stretched lazily.
"It's a sure sign of guilt," she said leisurely, "when I slip into your language and you don't even notice, Alirtha. Next time, don't bring your friend."
"'Next time'?" Alirtha said, deliberately switching back into the SKAN language. "What makes you think I'll be coming back here?"
"Your curiosity. You still want to know about what happened to you. You want to know about me. Most importantly, you want to know how this is going to affect your relationship with Narpen. You don't have our instincts, you know. Before you know it, you've misunderstood some signal he's put out and you're both separate again."
"Stop it!" Alirtha whispered.
Alirtha turned, shoved Narpen blindly out of the way and climbed onto Nrizali's back. The two of them took off and flew away as fast as was possible.
"Alirtha!" Narpen raised his voice after her. "Alirtha, wait!" He dashed over to Hvin and the two of them took off after Nrizali.
Alone once more on Ozeo, Acheron smiled to herself.
"I think we're in for some more fun, Hrovl. What do you think?"
you could be right
"Good. So shall we go and pay Alirtha a little visit on Mallin, hmm?" Acheron slipped onto Hrovl's back.
yeah maybe she's got something to hunt no offence or anything but I am getting so bored with just rocks and lava
"Yeah, good point. I could do with a change of scenery."
The two of them took off and flew in an opposite direction to the others, heading for Mallin to wait for Alirtha's return.