Narpen looked around Mallin, searching for a sign of Alirtha or Nrizali. It looked like there had been a fight there, possibly between Alirtha and that other strange SKAN, whoever she was.
He jumped and spun round. Astira circled around and hovered a few feet above the island. Ingal half threw himself off the bronze queen and landed in front of Narpen.
"Narpen, thank the dragons I've found you! Alirtha's vanished!"
Narpen felt a cold hand grip his heart.
"Astira claimed that she received a transmission from Serko, Tahrinh's dragon! Apparently, there was some kinda fight here between Alirtha and some other SKAN, one that had been on Daoret about ten years ago. And from Serko's agitation when he spoke to Astira, I'd bet that he and/or Tahrinh had a run in with this SKAN and know something of what they're capable of."
Narpen stepped towards Ingal and gripped his arms. Ingal bared his teeth slightly at being handled so presumptuously and half hissed a warning but Narpen took no notice.
"This other SKAN...did they have a black dragon?"
"According to Serko. Take your hand off my arm."
Narpen glanced down, apparently only noticing at that moment what he was doing.
"Sorry." He released Ingal, who stepped away, watching him. Narpen backed away in the opposite direction in submission. After a few tense moments, Ingal relaxed. SKAN hate presumption in all shapes and forms and one of the worst presumptions in their language is to deliberately touch them anywhere without warning or without their consent. Such a heinous crime in their society makes acceptable grounds for a challenge.
"Did she say anything before she went?"
Ingal tried to remember.
"Yes, she said something about going back to where she remembers. That could be anywhere."
"Yeah-but I'd stake my dignity that she's gone to Escro. We were talking about it yesterday and she said her earliest memories were of being locked in a..." Narpen frowned, trying to remember exactly what Alirtha had said, "a 'winddaless rumm'? Something like-"
Ingal leapt back, lips drawn back over his teeth and hissed angrily.
"'Winddaless rumm'? That's Outside talk, Narpen, and you know it!"
Narpen's lips unconsciously lifted to reveal his own teeth at the implied insult to him and Alirtha.
"Yeah, I bet," he snarled. "I suppose you'll be telling me next that Alirtha's an Outsider, right cki?"
Ingal dropped into a semicrouch a split second before Narpen. The two SKAN males shifted about constantly, never keeping still.
This wasn't quite the lithe circling which preceded a fight but it wasn't too far off. It would just take one more insult from either male to spark the attack.
As it happened, it was Ingal who gave it.
"I may be a cki but at least I'm not some footlicking syer who sweettalked his way up the ladder by being the only son of the vasari Lixin and then was too cowardly to produce his own rankscar and then decided he'd mate with an Outsider who is an unmarked cki as well. Isn't that true, syer Narpen?"
Narpen's eyes narrowed into slits and, without warning, he attacked. It was a poorly timed assault and it only worked because Ingal had been caught completely off guard.
"You're never going to make it above kerj, you know that, Ingal?" He backed off and gathered himself ready for the next attack, breathing heavily. "You're never going to make it as a fighter, or a searcher." Narpen moved in closer, lowering his voice for the final insult. "The only purpose you could have is as a lure."
Ingal drew one arm back for a snakehead blow and leapt for the syer's throat, ready to kill for that last insult. Narpen dodged clumsily so the blow aimed for his neck hit his shoulder instead. He felt his right arm go numb and then he was down as Ingal slammed into him, taking him to the ground, rolling over and then on top of him, fingers curled into striking talons and biting painfully into Narpen's collarbone and his weight restricting the syer's breathing.
"You take back," Ingal hissed through bared teeth, "what you just said."
Narpen lunged for the throat, catching Ingal off balance. In an instant their positions were reversed. Narpen looked down at his cousin, eyes blazing with anger.
"Not until you take back what you said about Alirtha and my rank, cki."
"What about Alirtha?" Ingal spat. "She's an Outsider and an intruder and she can go to hell!"
Narpen slammed Ingal's head against the ground and increased his pressure on the other's throat.
"I am not going to tell you again, cousin," he said harshly, his voice rising, "to take that back!"
Suddenly, hard claws bit into his sides and he was lifted into the air. He felt the hot breath of a dragon on his neck and twisted around, letting go of Ingal, to see Astira glaring down at him, eyes burning with hatred for the one who would kill her Rider.
There was an scream of rage from Hvin and the white dragon took to the air, talons extended, and dived for the bronze, cutting several gashes in her torso and hindlimbs. Astira hesitated in the process of ripping Narpen to pieces and swivelled her head to look at this new threat. Narpen stared wildly around, trying to locate his dragon, and finally saw him hovering just out of range.
"HVIN GET US OUT OF THIS!!!" he yelled. The white hesitated slightly, perhaps weighing his chances against the bronze queen, then swooped in and snatched Narpen out of Astira's grasp. The other dragon shrieked her fury at losing her prey and gave chase, streaking through the air towards them. Narpen panicked. He knew that there was no way his half grown Hvin could outfly a fully adult queen and knew there was only one thing to do.
"Let me go," he gasped to Hvin.
no way narpen she'll kill you
"I know. It's me she's after, not you. Let me go and then go find Alirtha on Escro for me." Narpen concentrated. His internal and external body temperatures rose until Hvin let out a squeal of pain and dropped him.
what the hell do you think you're playing at
i'm sorry i hurt you hvin but it was the only way
it was not the only way and now i have to
no hvin you are not to attempt to challenge astira just go like i asked you to please after all i can adjust my body temperatures so what i just did to you i can do to her as well
Hvin hesitated. It was only when Astira decided that this annoying semihatchling could be a nuisance when she was hunting his Rider so she might as well kill him now and be done with it and charged Hvin that the other dragon fled. Astira screamed her triumph and dived for Narpen.
She was almost upon him when the golden queen flamed her. Narpen didn't know who the hell this second queen was or where she'd come from-but he did know that he was very glad to see her. Astira backwinged, flying away from her opponent-but never taking her eyes off her.
Narpen heard Ingal, calling her away. With a great deal of reluctance that even Narpen felt, the bronze turned and glided towards her rider. Ingal swung between her wings and paused to look down at Narpen, who was too exhausted to say anything and just prayed that Ingal wouldn't attack again, and spoke formally.
"The next time we meet, cousin," he said coldly, "only one of us walks away."
Astira took off and the pair quickly vanished from sight. Narpen struggled to his feet. Despite being syer, he had never been involved in anything more dangerous than a training fight. All of a sudden, he'd had to fight for his life and would have lost if it hadn't been for that queen.
The queen! Was she still here?
Narpen looked around and caught sight of the gold dragon hovering a few feet away. He turned and executed a slightly clumsy yle, the highest symbol of gratitude and respect in SKAN society.
"My thanks, Great One. But why did you help me?"
i needed to talk to you about alirtha
"Alirtha?" Narpen straightened up, wary now. "What about Alirtha? And how do you know her?"
calm down i just thought you'd like to know that your white has found her and nrizali
Narpen sagged. He felt as if a great weight had been lifted from him.
"Thank the dragons. Where is she?"
she's heading through the water to escro but she isn't very fast and she can't breathe underwater so you should catch up with her easily
Narpen didn't pause to question why Alirtha shouldn't be able to breathe underwater when all other SKAN could; he just took a running jump and dived into the ocean.
The queen had been right. Alirtha couldn't swim very fast. After about half an hour of Narpen travelling at top speeds, he managed to catch up to her. She was obviously floundering and having difficulty keeping her head above water. Narpen surfaced a few yards away from her.
She turned and her eyes widened as she caught sight of him.
"Hey Alirtha, wait up!"
She stared, then shook her head numbly. The movement nearly sent her under. Narpen swam over to her and lifted her onto a rock. Alirtha sucked in her breath sharply and recoiled from his touch.
"Don't touch me!"
Narpen snatched his hands away.
"I'm sorry. You just looked like you were having difficulties, that's all." His tone was deliberately bland for this sentence, then it abruptly lost all its coolness. "Hvin's egg, Alirtha, what happened to you?" He took in the savage gashes across her body. "Is that female responsible?"
She shook her head, then moved as if to slide off the rock.
"Oh no you don't!" Hvin, responding to a silent message from Narpen, hovered just over Alirtha and picked her up lightly in his claws.
A flying quicksilver fury slammed into him at high velocity. Surprise caused the white to drop Alirtha and he backwinged frantically and Nrizali flew across just in time to catch her Rider. The two of them started travelling again, just about as hard as they could go. Narpen scrambled up onto the rock.
"Hvin, come on, we gotta go!"
The white dragon didn't move. He seemed to be staring at something beyond Narpen's line of vision. Warned, the syer turned just in time to find himself face to face with the vasari he'd met briefly on Ozeo. He struggled to pull himself to his feet.
"Who the hell are you?" he demanded.
The stranger raised one dark eyebrow.
"That's something I'm not used to hearing, syer. It makes a pleasant change for me."
"That's not answering my question."
"Ah." The tall female smiled thinly. "You think you can blackmail me like one of your subordinates, syer Narpen? I'm afraid not." She turned to address her dragon, deliberately ignoring him.
"How about it, Hrovl? Should we talk to him?"
There was a brief pause whilst the slender black dragon answered. His Rider laughed, a low unpleasant sound that sent a chill down Narpen's spine.
"I like it." She turned back to him. "Well, Narpen, it appears that Hrovl has taken a slight fancy to you."
"What's your name, vasari? What do they call you?"
She laughed again.
"My given name is Acheron, Narpen. What others actually call me is another matter."
"I-" Narpen broke off. "You?! You're the Hidden One?"
Acheron raised an eyebrow.
"Did you attack Alirtha?"
The Dark One stared at him.
"Did I what? What are you talking about?"
"Someone slashed her up. It looked like the kind of marks made by a rerani." Narpen shifted his gaze meaningfully to the thick metallic bracelet adorning the vasari's wrist.
Acheron curled her lip scornfully.
"Oh? And you think I did it?"
"You hate Alirtha for some reason. I wouldn't put it past you, Acheron. Ingal told me about Serko mentioning something to do with a black dragon and someone they'd had a run in with before."
"And now you think I've met this Serko?"
Narpen tried to shift his gaze and found he couldn't. Acheron's eyes were burning into him.
"I-admit-I don't know-why-you should-have done," he said, forcing the words out. "But those slashes were made by a rerani and it turns out that the mystery Leader on a legendary island hates Alirtha and that this mystery Leader has a black dragon and a rerani! What am I supposed to think?"
"A black dragon?" Acheron demanded.
"Yeah. Like I said, yours is the only one I've seen."
"But it's not the only one in Wiztliow," Acheron murmured, almost to herself.
"What do you mean?"
Acheron stared at him coldly.
"I advise you to think seriously about the word 'vasari'," she said icily. "I tend to take things like that seriously."
"I apologise, vasari." Narpen said stiffly.
If Acheron noticed the deliberate stress placed on her title, she chose not to comment.
"That's better," she said softly. "Now listen. Alirtha won't let me anywhere near her and Nrizali can outfly Hrovl. But she'll listen to you. Go to Escro and try to persuade her to get out of those caves and away from the island as fast as possible. Take her to Neral. I'll meet you there."
"Vasari, what's going on? If you didn't attack Alirtha, who did?"
"I'll tell you as we go."
"We?" Narpen echoed.
Acheron glanced at him.
"Syer Narpen," she said sharply, "what Ingal said about you on Daoret may have been unpleasant, but that doesn't make it untrue. You're in one hell of a mess already, you're obsessed with Alirtha which isn't the best condition for a fight, and aside from that little skirmish with your cousin, you've never had any experience in fighting. I admit it's been a few years since I've been called on to fight-but I can beat you any time, and I'm the only one who can beat this SKAN. I'm coming to Escro with you."