Narpen looked around. There was no sign of Renul or his dragon. Or-which was more worrying-Alirtha.* * * * *
"I don't like this place," he muttered. "I disliked it enough last time I was here, and it's worse this time."
"Shut up, will you?" Acheron hissed. "If Renul doesn't yet know we've arrived, in Hrovl's name don't tip him off!"
"Sorry." Narpen tried to focus on the island. It was actually one of the more attractive places he'd been to. "This doesn't look like the work of an insane sadist. It's incredible!"
"Yeah," Acheron said sarcastically. "I'm sure hundreds of thousands of flies have thought exactly that before flying straight into the spider's web." She snorted contemptuously. "The trouble with most people like that is you can never tell. Appearances can be deceiving, or didn't you know that?"
"Yeah. But just look at those cliffs! They're amazing!"
Privately, Acheron had to admit she agreed. Constructed from fantastic colours bent into grotesque shapes, the cliffs towered high above Escro, dominating the island. They were either constructed from actual gems, or exceptionally good imitations. When hit by the evening sun, like they were now, the result was spectacular. Against the cliffs, one could easily pick out several black spaces.
The caves of Escro. The labyrinthian, twisting passages. The complete blackness. And worst of all, that prickly feeling of being watched.
"Let's get going," Narpen said quietly.
Acheron shook her head.
"No. Renul probably already knows that someone's come in this direction-but he doesn't know who and he doesn't yet know we've arrived. This is going to be damn hard as it is. We don't need to make things any easier for him. We'll wait until full dark."
The two SKAN waited for a long while before Acheron decided that it was as dark as it was ever going to get.
The moon had travelled a long way across the sky before they reached the first of the cliffs.
Narpen caught sight of movement out of the corner of his eye. A lone figure was silhouetted against the night sky, seemingly absorbed in a curious rock formation. He reached out and gripped Acheron's arm. She snarled and bared her teeth at him. Hastily, the syer removed his hand. Acheron regarded him coldly.
"I'd advise you to kill that particular habit," she said, her voice full of icy fury, "before it kills you."
Narpen indicated the stranger.
Is that him? he asked, in the complex body language and hand signals that the SKAN have developed over the years. Acheron glanced over and froze, motionless.
Yes, she signed, that's Renul.
Do you know what he's saying? Narpen signalled. I don't understand him.
Acheron listened and shuddered violently. Oh yes. She understood alright. She wished like hell she didn't.
"We have to be careful, Enarsi," Renul was saying. "We don't want any Outsiders here, do we, no we don't. What's that? Yes, of course I know who's here! We don't want her, do we? Kill her! Kill the Outsider! Kill all Outsiders!"
The Dark One was vaguely aware of her body reacting to the threat that Renul posed by dropping into fighting stance and by the way her lips drew back to expose the teeth. Beside her, she felt Narpen doing the same.
All SKAN have a violent aversion to insanity in any shape or form. It's about the only thing they'll run from without question.
Except retreat wasn't an option.
Not this time.
Narpen reached out to touch Acheron, noticed her aggressive posture and thought better of it, deciding that she may well turn on him.
"Hey," he said softly.
She twisted round to face him.
"I'm going out," Narpen said quietly. "I'm going to give that son of Outside a one-way ticket to oblivion."
Acheron gripped his wrist. Narpen fought down the initial urge to strike, partially because he knew that Acheron was a vasari, the highest of the high, and thus had the right to handle him in emergencies, but mostly through self preservation; if he struck her, there was a pretty good chance she'd strike him right back and she could strike a hell of a lot harder than him.
But it still pissed him off.
"Be careful," she warned, through bared teeth. "Renul's a hell of a lot more dangerous than he looks."
Narpen didn't reply, merely nodded. He moved out silently, approaching Renul from behind.
Acheron watched him move. He wasn't bad, Narpen. Stealthy, cautious. Briefly she wondered who had trained him, then shrugged. It didn't matter now.
Narpen managed to slip up right behind Renul and got two blows in before the startled vasari had time to react. Then he was flung away with tremendous force, hitting the ground hard, and Renul was on him, astride his chest, pinning the syer down with his weight.
"Come on!" he said. Spit shone on his teeth. Narpen saw his eyes roll white and knew that he was mad. "Come on!" Renul repeated, in a cracked voice.
Inky black against the night sky, Narpen saw a hand draw back, preparing for the deadly snakehead blow to the throat. He concentrated, jerked his head to the side. The hand struck the ground next to him.
Seemingly unperturbed, Renul calmly drew his hand back and prepared to strike again. Again Narpen dodged. Again the hand sent up a cloud of dust against his cheek.
From behind them came the distinct kching of a renari being prepared. Renul looked behind, momentarily startled. Narpen struggled underneath him-but Renul was heavy. Far heavier than any SKAN Narpen had ever fought in a training fight, and far heavier than his cousin Ingal had ever been or could ever hope to be.
Renul laughed wildly, insanely. Narpen increased his struggles.
Renul's face changed abruptly, became a snarl full of insane rage and he slammed Narpen's head against the rock again and again. A savage blow to the jaw almost made Narpen lose consciousness.
Then something flew through the air, hit Renul at full speed and knocked him off the syer. Acheron snapped onto her feet and watched Renul warily.
The other vasari hesitated, noticing Acheron's rankscar. The Dark One smiled.
There was no humour in that smile, Narpen remembered thinking afterwards. It was the kind of smile a snake might give just before it struck.
Fury twisted and contorted Renul's features.
"You!" he snarled. "You bitch!"
Acheron spared just enough time to glance over to Narpen.
"Go on. Go and find Alirtha. I'll see that he doesn't interfere."
The last glimpse Narpen had of Acheron was the two vasarin preparing for combat. He shuddered and darted into the caves, intent on finding Alirtha.
Alirtha looked around. She was lost. She'd come to Escro because it reminded her of the place in her dream-but now she was starting to wonder if she'd ever leave.
She whirled. Nobody was there.
"Alirtha, if you're there, say something!"
Narpen. What did he want with her?
Did it matter? She wanted to get out. She wanted to get out now.
"Narpen!" she yelled. "Narpen, I'm here!"
By the flickering light given off by the fire where Alirtha was (courtesy of Nrizali) she was able to see Narpen enter the cave. Relief exploded in her and she stepped towards him.
He backed away from her.
Alirtha froze, numb.
"Narpen?" she said tentatively.
He didn't reply, merely looked at her.
"Narpen, why..." She broke off. "You know, don't you?"
"Yeah, I know," Narpen answered shortly. "I know everything about you, Outsider."
Alirtha shook her head desperately.
"Don't what? You lied to me, Alirtha! You little bitch!"
Memories slammed into Alirtha's mind, unwelcome memories, filling her thoughts.
Don't say a word, you little bitch!
You asked for it, little slut!
Nobody really wanted you. Why do you bother living?
She screamed. Narpen, who had expected accusations, denial, anger, perhaps even an attack, had not expected this.
"Alirtha, what the hell...?"
"Don't touch me!" she screamed. "Don't come anywhere near me! I never did anything! I swear!"
"Don't you touch me!" She was almost hysterical. Narpen did the only thing he'd been trained to do. He stepped forward and slapped her across the face.
Unfortunately, he hadn't taken relative strength or weight into account. Alirtha was incredibly light and hadn't been trained to acceptance of violence like the SKAN. Consequently, Narpen's blow not only brought her back to her senses, but pitched her halfway across the cave and almost dislocated her jaw in the process.
By the fire, Nrizali flared up, screeching in rage. Crouched in a corner, Alirtha watched him distrustfully.
"Feel calmer now?" Narpen asked flatly.
She swallowed and nodded.
"Good. Then you won't mind telling me what the hell is going on?"
Alirtha licked dry lips.
"What's to tell? I'm an Outsider who stumbled across Wiztliow by accident ten years ago. I landed on Ozeo and Acheron kept me prisoner there until Kaiya saved me. I went to Daoret and bonded with Nrizali. I forgot about being Outside and always thought I was a normal SKAN; until you and Ingal came along, that is."
"Me?" Narpen echoed, irritated. "What did I do? And Ingal-who you only met briefly and who tried to kill me over you-couldn't have done anything."
"Ingal tried to...kill you?"
"Yeah. What's the matter, Outsider, they don't do that where you're from?"
"I don't know!" Alirtha insisted. "I don't remember. At least, I didn't," she added bitterly. "Not until Ingal started making those cracks about my i.t."
"What i.t.?" Narpen sneered. "As for Ingal, he came to Mallin shortly after I arrived and tried to tell me you were an Outsider. I fought for you then." He shook his head in disgust. "Damn, how stupid can a SKAN get?! Ingal and Acheron claimed you were Outside, Hvin said there was something odd about you, and Astira backed that up...just before she tried to dismember me! Turns out they were right, doesn't it, Outsider?"
Alirtha risked getting to her feet, keeping Nrizali between her and Narpen.
"Quit calling me Outsider!" she said, as sharply as she could. "I still have a name, Narpen. And as for lying, you lied to me as well!"
"You arrogant little..." Narpen began and then stopped. One sensation of anger overtook the first one. "I what?? Are you looking for trouble, Outsider!?"
"Well, I found you, didn't I," Alirtha retorted. "And you never told me you were a syer!"
Narpen's finger traced the scar reaching from his cheekbone to the corner of his jaw.
"Any SKAN would have known what this means," he said coldly.
"Narpen, Hvin told Nrizali you liked me. Why should things change now? Why should you hate me simply because I'm Outside?"
Narpen stopped the restless pacing he'd kept up since slapping Alirtha.
"Because you're Outside," he answered.
"Do you blame me for lying about it?" Alirtha demanded. "Why shouldn't I lie?"
"I don't hate you, Alirtha," Narpen muttered. "I don't even dislike you. It's just that-oh Hvin's egg, why couldn't you tell me this before?"
Alirtha skirted round Nrizali, keeping a good distance between the pair of them.
"If this is how you'd react, Narpen, I'm damn glad I didn't!"
"Look, I..." Narpen hesitated, all rage gone. "I do like you, Alirtha. I like you a lot; why do you think I came all the way to Escro for you?" He took a deep breath. This went against all his training and wasn't going to be easy to say. "I'll stick with you, Alirtha. Even if you are Outside. It's dangerous and if the others ever find out, we could both be accused of treason. But I'll stick with you."
"What about Acheron?" Alirtha wanted to know. "She knows more than anyone. All she has to do is tell Kalira or-"
She caught sight of the look on Narpen's face and fell silent.
"Alirtha, didn't you know?" he said quietly.
"Kalira's gone. Nobody knows where, but she has."
"You don't think she's..." Alirtha broke off.
"Huh? Alirtha, Kalira's only a hundred and sixty! She should be good for about another nine hundred years yet!"
"Yeah, you're right. I just thought...what are we going to do about Acheron, Narpen? She knows my history. She just has to...who's acting vasari now?"
"Does she hate Outsiders as much as you?"
"I guess. Why do you-oh. I get it."
"Can't we do something to Acheron? Incapacitate her or something?"
"Now you're starting to think like a SKAN, Alirtha! But don't you think that would be a little ungrateful since she's the one who let me get this far by keeping that vasari Renul occupied? She could be dead now for all we know and Renul..."
The merits of getting the hell off an island with an insane but highly trained fighter as soon as possible slammed into Narpen in the form of a vicious kick to the back. He collapsed on the ground and stared up wildly.
Renul looked back, grinning at nothing. Alirtha glanced from one to the other, in an agony of indecision.
Narpen flipped back, a trick he'd learned from Ingal and was on his feet, facing the vasari.
"Get out!" he yelled at Alirtha. "Get the hell out of here!"
Alirtha didn't-couldn't move.
Nrizali grabbed her Rider's arm and dragged her to another tunnel. Renul lifted his head to look at her. Alirtha took in the wild eyes, the vivid scar, the high laughter bubbling out of him, and fled, the crazy laughter echoing in her ears.
She didn't know how far she ran. She just kept going until she couldn't run any more.
don't give up Nrizali transmitted, i can smell fresh air just ahead
Alirtha continued with the strength born of terror, out of Escro and onto the rocks.
"Come on," she said, "let's get out of here!"
Nrizali took off and flew across the island. Before she got to the shoreline, the night seemed to explode and a black dragon appeared before her and barred the way off.
Narpen focused in, preparing for the next engagement. He had already taken some terrific blows to his ribs and thought at least two of them were cracked.
If Renul was fully healthy, the fight would have been over in a matter of seconds. But he wasn't. Several gashes over his torso and limbs marked the attacks from Acheron and slowly but surely, he was weakening.
If only I can keep alive until he collapses, Narpen thought, I could get out and leave him.
When the next blow came, to his already injured ribcage, it was strong enough to lift him off his feet and slam him into the far wall. A few rocks fell on top of him.
That gave him an idea.
Alirtha stared at the dragon blocking their way. There was something familiar about it, like...like...
"Nrizali, wait!" she said to the queen, who was attempting to flame the black. "That's not Enarsi. That's Hrovl!"
hrovl enarsi what's the difference
"Would you let us pass?" Alirtha inquired, in a dignified manner.
Alirtha felt Hrovl's mind enter her own, and wasn't sure she liked the contact.
"Why not? We have to get off! If Renul finds us-"
Hrovl extended his wings and expelled a jet of fire from his mouth. It illuminated Nrizali, Alirtha and most of Escro.
It also illuminated the body of Acheron, lying motionless on the sand.
Narpen paused for breath. Behind him, he could hear Renul cursing and talking to his dragon. Above Narpen, there was a collection of large rocks. The syer waited until he heard Renul enter the passage, then leapt onto the ledge above him, settled behind the rocks.
Renul had obviously heard the noise and glanced up.
Narpen set his back against the wall and pushed.
"Oh no," Alirtha muttered. "Hrovl, what do you want me to do? She tried to kill me once. I don't particularly want to see her taking up her old hobby!"
you owe her one Hrovl said coldly. if it wasn't for her narpen would be dead
"Why? Why would the Dark One help me?"
how the hell should i know the black snapped. if you want to leave escro you'll take her with you and renul will come looking for us in a few hours so you really don't have time to discuss it
Alirtha looked around wildly. The first rays of the sun were starting to flow over the ocean.
"Alright!" she cried, "alright!"
Nrizali grudgingly started to fly back to the shore, silently protesting with every nerve. Alirtha slid off and ran over to where Acheron lay unmoving. She took hold of the vasari's wrist and started to pull.
The Dark One's eyes snapped open and she slammed her hand into Alirtha's ribs.
Or tried to, anyway. She gave up after the first attempt had had no effect due to weakness and settled for watching Alirtha warily.
"Yes. Me." Alirtha dragged the vasari to her feet. Hrovl slid underneath and supported his Rider's weight. Alirtha stepped back.
"You owe me some information, Acheron," she said coldly. "Did you think I would let you die before telling me what you know?"
A smile, very rusty from long disuse, flickered briefly across the Dark One's face.
"Yeah. Yeah, I did. To coin an Outside phrase, Alirtha..." Acheron coughed, a spasm that seemed to go on forever. "I didn't know you cared," she finished.
"Hmph!" Alirtha tossed her head in her best imitation of Tahrinh. "I don't. But you can go to Mallin if you like," she added.
Acheron shook her head wryly and managed a grin.
Renul looked up. Above him was him, that syer who traded with Outside and had an Outsider for a mate.
And Renul remembered his early training, one hundred and sixty years ago.
He knew exactly what to do with Outsiders.
The thought of killing this...this faker, this liar were the last ones he had before the world turned to an avalanche of cascading rocks. One opened up a fresh cut from the Outsider gained during their fight. Another, a larger one, cracked him on the ribs and he doubled over.
Above the vasari, Narpen saw his chance, placed both feet behind the largest rock, and shoved with all his remaining strength.
The sound of a snapping back echoed loudly in the empty caverns.
Outside, Narpen could hear Enarsi scream, time and time again as Renul's mind was abruptly cut off from her own. Then, just as suddenly as they'd started, the screams stopped. Narpen sighed with relief. As Renul had left the black queen's mind, so had all remnants of the vasari's madness and sadism. Enarsi would leave Escro and go around Wiztliow looking for someone else to bond with. As soon as she found someone, she would take on their personality. Renul would soon be forgotten, a dusty legend like Acheron.
Acheron...Narpen suddenly felt a sharp pang of guilt. Had she survived? Where was she?
The syer looked down, prayed it wasn't another challenge. He didn't think he could handle it.
Ingal stepped into the cavern.
"Narpen, what's been going on?"
"I..." Narpen slid off his ledge with extreme difficulty, nearly collapsing when he reached the stone floor and only saving himself by the reflexive clutch he made at Hvin. Once back on his feet, he made an effort to raise his head and look his cousin in the eye.
"Ingal, I'm sorry. You were right all along."
"I know," he said casually, "but who gives a damn about that now? Alirtha sent me here to look for you. She came to Haren in a real state and claimed you were fighting some mad SKAN."
"Yeah. She would."
"So where is this SKAN?"
"You're..." Narpen coughed, "...almost standing on him."
Ingal jumped and leapt back.
"We should get out of here," he said uneasily (no SKAN likes being in the same room as a dead SKAN) "We should get out of here now."
"Yeah. C'mon Hvin." Narpen leaned on his white for support and hobbled over to his cousin. "Let's go home."
Ingal shook his head.
"Was that cliché, or what?"
"Yeah. You know, I've always wanted to say that," Narpen answered, "but now I have, you're right. It did sound pretty damn stupid.
"Hey Alirtha, welcome back!"
Tahrinh bounded across the grass.
"Alirtha, where have you been?" Kaiya demanded. "What-oh no! Not her again. Not here."
Acheron, already recovering, raised one hand.
"Relax, Kaiya. I've no intention of staying."
"I'm glad to hear it," Kaiya retorted.
Something snapped in Alirtha and she covered the ground between the two of them incredibly fast, grabbing Kaiya by the shoulders.
"Kaiya, what the hell are you talking about?! Acheron saved my life, what are you saying, get rid of her?! Is that all the gratitude you can show!?"
"Huh?" Kaiya, slightly dazed by the rough handling, stared at her adopted daughter. "Alirtha, she damn near killed you ten years ago!"
"So what's ten years?" Ingal stepped across from where Astira had landed unnoticed to face Kaiya.
"Yeah," Narpen added from where he lay sprawled on the ground after getting off Hvin, lacking any shred of SKAN dignity. "And she saved my life too."
"But what's in it for her?" she wanted to know.
"I care," Kaiya said sharply.
Alirtha paused, switched tactics.
"You didn't tell me Kalira had gone missing," she said.
"What?" Tahrinh stared at her mother. "Kaiya, what's she talking about?"
"So Kalira's missing," Kaiya said irritably. "So what?"
"How good a vasari is Alania? Honestly."
"Better than some," Kaiya answered, "but she has no idea of how to fight. She worked as a lure in Outside."
"Are you asking me to be a replacement?" Acheron demanded.
"No!" Kaiya said instantly.
"Yes!" said Alirtha, Ingal and Narpen at the same time.
"Don't know," said Tahrinh.
Acheron turned to Tahrinh.
"You're outvoted, it seems. Kaiya?"
Kaiya regarded the Dark One suspiciously.
"What guarantee do I have that you won't abuse your power?"
"I never abused it in the past," Acheron said coldly, "so don't think I'm going to start now."
"Alright," Kaiya said heavily. "But you're on probation, Acheron!"
"Considering I greatly outrank you, Kaiya, I don't think I have to dignify that with an answer."
"You still owe me that information," Alirtha reminded Acheron two weeks later.
"What information? Oh, that." The Dark One sniggered. "I'm surprised you haven't already figured it out. Still, a deal's a deal. What do you want to know?"
"Did I say anything on Ozeo?"
Acheron's face suddenly split into a very un-Acheronic like grin.
"Yeah. You said a hell of a lot on Ozeo, and most of it wasn't complimentary. From what I could make out, you'd run away from your home and were looking for a place to hide. You stumbled onto the DragonRing and started to touch the stones-don't ask me why, Alirtha, I don't know-and the last one you touched-mine-dumped you straight into Ozeo. You know the rest."
"I think so. Acheron?"
"Did you-" Alirtha hesitated slightly.
"Out with it."
"Narpen and I...well, we...you know." She flushed with shy pride. "I'm carrying his child."
Acheron stared at her.
"And I was just wondering," Alirtha went on, "if you ever had any kids, and could you tell me something about...um...what to expect..." Her voice trailed off.
"Yeah." Acheron answered shortly. "I had kids. A son. He was the son of Rylaio, the mate I took from Outside. Unfortunately, due to a genetic problem-something of Rylaio's, apparently it was a family problem of his-my son displayed some pretty disturbing characteristics. He made vasari-that's the influence of my family coming in-but wasn't too good. He preferred fighting with his emotions and not his brain. Eventually, he was exiled to his own island to stay there."
"What was his name?" Alirtha asked, purely out of curiosity.
Acheron was silent for a few minutes. Then she said: