Many thanks to Heike from Mareofa for coming up with this story idea!
I'm losing my mind.
There. I said it. Now maybe I can get back to some semblance of normality.
No, it's no good. I feel like I'll never be normal again. Half of me is missing.
Why didn't she take me? I would have gone with her, like I went to Escro. I've tried to see things through her eyes, but I think she's too far away.
It's to do with that damn female! Vinari's rider. She's the reason why Acheron left.
Trialan keeps telling me I shouldn't be so hard on Vinari. After all, her rider went too. Vinari's as alone as I am. But then, Trialan's just a clutchling. He's no older than Nrizali, and out of the same queen. And Nrizali's fetching of Vinari's rider is what started this whole mess. I really don't feel like hanging around any dragons that remind me of her. If I had the chance, I'd go back to Ozeo and wait. As it is, I'm stuck on Mallin with Nrizali-who's due to clutch anytime soon-Trialan and their respective riders. I'm not even sure what's so special about Trialan's, but Acheron wants me to take care of him. I seem to have let her down somehow before; I'm not about to do so again. I just wish I knew where she was.
I look around. From here I can see the cave where Alirtha and Narpen's cub Olissa is sleeping. I don't know much about the little one and I don't really want to know either. Besides, Alirtha and Narpen have made it abundantly clear that I'm not welcome on this island, and that they don't want me anywhere near their cub.
In that we're in total agreement. I want as little as possible to do with this pack.
I sigh. It's been three days since Acheron left and I still can't get these thoughts out of my mind. I'm damn sure I'd know if she was dead, wherever she happened to be. I've tried and tried to get some reply from her, but either she's not answering or she can't hear me. Rylaio's sitting with his back propped against Trialan. I swear, that clutchling is as fussy over him as a queen is over her eggs! Rylaio himself doesn't seem too bad; I can sort of see what attracted Acheron to him. He's much like she is. We met a long time ago, during the Holocaust, but according to Trialan, Rylaio's only just managed to remember his name, let alone me. He seemed to remember Acheron without too much trouble though. I'm thinking that maybe the two of them want to pick up where they left off.
Given how their cub Renul turned out, I'm also thinking that maybe that's not a good idea.
Alirtha comes out of the cave and crosses to Rylaio. She seems to feel some form of kinship with him; perhaps it's to do with the fact that they're-or they were-both Outsiders. And Rylaio doesn't seem to mind either.
"How's he doing?" Alirtha asks Trialan in a low voice, almost as if Rylaio's not there. It must be an Outsider thing; no SKAN would ever permit such an insult.
"He's doing fine," Rylaio answers with a slight grimace, "although he's not sure exactly who you are, why you helped him and why you're asking his dragon about him."
If dragons could smile, I think I would do. That's pretty much the kind of thing Acheron would say...after she knocked Alirtha to the other side of the island, of course.
Alirtha looks scandalised.
Rylaio cuts her off with a wave.
"Forget about it," he tells her, then frowns slightly. "Although I would be interested in knowing just who the hell you are. If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were a SKAN, but you sure as hell don't act like one."
Alirtha's hand, which has shot automatically to the place on her cheek where the i.t. would be if she was a SKAN, drops. Rylaio glances at it.
"Not because of that," he tells her. "Because of your behaviour." He shrugs. "I remember my time in Outside," he tells her casually, as if this is no big deal. "There were others who came in with me when Wiztliow was formed, but you most definitely weren't one of them. Who are you? How did you get in here?"
I snort contemptuously. Alirtha might not remember all the details of how she arrived-as she keeps saying-but I remember all too well. Her arrival pissed Acheron off for weeks and almost got a good few SKAN killed.
The two of them look at me and Alirtha shrinks back slightly. Good. I'd hate to think she was becoming used to me.
"Hrovl, let her alone," Rylaio tells me calmly, then turns back to Alirtha. "So who are you? I don't think we got introduced."
Alirtha shrugs slightly.
"My name's Alirtha. I'm Kaiya's daughter, or adopted daughter. And I really don't know how I got in here, okay?"
i do I say maliciously.
All three of them turn to look at me and I stretch my wings lazily. Acheron's not around, so I think I'll have some fun.
you ran away from your family I tell Alirtha, enjoying the look on both her and Rylaio's faces. somehow you found your way to the dragonring and from there into wiztliow.
"Ran away?" Rylaio echoes, then to everyone's surprise (mine included) he laughs. "I don't blame you," he tells Alirtha frankly. "When Acheron let me go, back in Kasarun, I returned in an hour or less."
I realise what he's thinking-that Alirtha specifically ran away to join SKAN-and snort again, this time in amusement.
so close and yet so far I tell him. If I had the right facial muscles, I'd be smirking right now.
"Hrovl, shut up!" Alirtha tells me. I blink, very slowly and deliberately, then take a step towards her.
"Don't piss him off," Rylaio warns Alirtha in a low voice. "Acheron's gone. He's not quite himself." He shakes his head. "I sometimes wonder whether I am," he mutters, not quite under his breath.
I doubt that, I think flatly, then spread my wings.
"Where are you going?" Rylaio asks. He seems a little worried at the thought of my leaving him here with Alirtha.
Tough. I've stuck it out here as long as I can. If I stay much longer, I'm going to end up ripping one of them apart.
Without answering, I take off and fly hard towards Halain. I'm pretty sure I can find Vinari there, and maybe I can get some answers while I'm at it.
Acheron and Talhi-Outside
Talhi looked around her, curiosity warring with fear.
"What is this place?" she wondered.
"You know that," Acheron said lightly. "It's Outside." She paused. "And the sooner we get to a lonil, the better. I'm not happy being out here in the open in broad daylight."
Talhi shook her head.
"I wonder what's been happening?"
"No idea," Acheron said brusquely, "but one thing I know only too well; most of the SKAN vanished into Wiztliow over a hundred years ago. They might not be here anymore."
Talhi sobered rapidly. It was a pretty terrifying realisation, to know that the SKAN in Wiztliow were probably the last of their kind.
"You really think..." she ventured.
"It's more than possible," Acheron said grimly. "Come on, we'd better keep moving."
The two of them made their way out of the DragonRing, heading towards the place that used to be Kasarun, their home.
"It's very quiet," Talhi said under her breath.
Acheron agreed. It was quiet. Too quiet.
"Keep your eyes open for the sign," she instructed Talhi in a low voice. The sign looked like nothing more than a piece of graffiti, but it was the symbol for SKAN. Once inside any signed walls, they would be safe, or at least, as safe as they could be.
"There." Talhi grabbed Acheron's arm and pointed. "Over there."
"An Outside lair marked with the SKAN sign. I don't like it. It could be a trap."
"Or it could be genuine. Either way, it smells pretty fresh. That proves that something of the SKAN survives."
Acheron hesitated, gnawing a thumbnail reflectively.
"Okay. But we better think this through. You go up, open the door-"
"Oh, thanks very much!" Talhi said sharply. "So if it's a trap, I get taken?"
"If I got taken, there'd be nothing you could do about it," Acheron pointed out crudely. "If you get taken, I can get you out. If I can't, I stand more chance on my own than you do. You go up to the front and I'll go in the back. If it is SKAN-whoever heard of SKAN living in a place like this?-there's nothing to worry about. If it's not, it makes sense to have a form of backup."
Talhi shook her head wryly.
"Fine. I'll go leap into the jaws of death and you go sit in the garden." She paused. "Just make sure you do get in," she added, all levity gone. "I was taken once before by Outside. I don't want to repeat the experience."
"I'll be there," Acheron assured her. "There's usually a way in, through a window if nothing else."
Talhi snorted. Outsiders seemed to have a fondness for windows, for some reason that no SKAN had been able to work out. In Talhi's experience, they also locked them, which seemed like a complete waste of time. After all, to a determined SKAN, a window was nothing but a hole in the wall.
Acheron slipped around the back, hugging the wall, the way she'd been taught so many years ago. Talhi hesitated, then walked up and opened the door. SKAN didn't bother knocking, as a rule.
There was the sound of an Outside cub screaming in fear and Talhi froze. Next second, she was rocked by a blow that seemed to come out of nowhere. The first thought that flashed through her mind was Acheron was right. It's a trap. Hard on the heels of that thought came another. Then why the hell am I still upright?
Straightening up, she looked around and stared at the tableau that met her eyes. In the main room, divided from the entrance by a grubby curtain that had been half yanked from its moorings, was a group of Outsiders. It looked like a family unit; three cubs-cjilltren, Talhi corrected herself, remembering the Outside word-of varying ages were cowering behind an adult female.
Mother? Talhi wondered, then sniffed the air and confirmed it. Yep. Mother.
A heavy set male pushed past the lure, holding a thick piece of wood that he made no further move to use. Clearly he'd expected to take her out with just one blow.
"Who are you?" Talhi asked, more curious than anything. She was fairly sure there was nothing to fear from this group; instead, they seemed to be more afraid of her than she had ever been of their kind.
"Besides sloppy," Acheron added from behind them, shaking her head. "Jeez. If you're going to hunt SKAN, you'd do better to remember we travel in pairs."
"We're not hunting you," the male said. Both SKAN could almost taste his fear.
"We wouldn't dream of it," his mate added, then shook her head. "Damn you!" she burst out abruptly. "What more do you want from us?"
Acheron blinked in honest confusion and shot a startled glance at Talhi, who shrugged helplessly.
"Who are you?" Acheron said, just as if the question had never been asked. Aggression was gradually giving way to a kind of wary interest.
The female sagged defeatedly.
Acheron raised her eyebrows. Ulnima yun was SKAN; the number thirty one. A quick glance at Talhi told her that her friend hadn't missed this either.
"Thirty One?" Acheron echoed. "That can't be your real name."
Talhi shook her head.
"I think we have a lot to find out about this place." She jerked a thumb towards the SKAN symbol, this time written in blood. "Do you know what that is?"
"The Sikuran," the female answered sullenly. "Everyone knows that."
"Every SKAN, maybe," Acheron agreed, "but I've never found an Outsider who could recognise it, much less name it. Just as I've never found an Outsider who can speak my language. And tell your cub to put down the knife. If I wanted you dead, you'd be dead. It so happens that I don't right now, but that could change pretty damn fast, if you follow my meaning." She paused. "So you can tell your cubs to stop panicking, and that includes the two hiding behind the curtain."
The two adults exchanged glances.
"How..." the female began.
"I saw their shadows," Acheron told them flatly. "A wonderful job of hiding," she added sarcastically. "No SKAN would have been so stupid."
"No SKAN ever needed to hide," the male retorted. Acheron raised a black eyebrow.
"What-" she began, but was cut off as the sound of voices came from outside, speaking in SKAN but too low for her to make out the exact words.
Talhi grabbed her and yanked her into a small room, shutting the door behind them.
Scouts? she signalled. Acheron frowned.
Maybe, she answered, but not particularly efficient ones, judging from the amount of noise they're making.
The door leading into the building was kicked open.
That's a bold one, Talhi signed. Acheron shook her head.
I don't like this. Something's seriously not right here.
Outside? Talhi queried, pointing at the door.
There was the sound of screaming from inside the other room. Both SKAN jerked involuntarily, then made for the door. It was kicked open just as they reached it, revealing a particularly heavy-set male SKAN. For a crazy moment, it seemed to the two females almost as if Mashingal had come back to life. The male had the same thick muscles, the same air of arrogance that came with supreme physical fitness. He looked like he could knock a hole through a brick wall with a minimum amount of effort.
"Who the hell are you?" Acheron demanded.
He raised a mocking eyebrow.
"I was about to ask you the same thing. Don't you know this place is taken?"
"'Taken'?" Talhi echoed, puzzled.
"That's what I said." The male looked at Acheron appraisingly. "Of course, perhaps we could come to some arrangement."
Acheron hit him, hard. By the time the obnoxious SKAN had slid to a halt on his back, some ten feet away, Acheron had entered the main room, knocked another male out through a window and broken the wrist of a third who'd attempted to grab her from behind. The fourth member of the group decided he wanted no part of this and dropped his knife, curling his fists at his throat in the traditional sign of surrender.
Acheron paid him no mind, focusing instead on the male who was staggering to his feet.
"Who are you?" she repeated flatly.
He glowered at her.
"You broke my friend's wrist."
"I'll break yours too in a minute. Maybe that'll teach you a little more respect, cki. Who are you?"
Acheron shook her head and whirled to face the young male who'd surrendered.
"What does this kelmashai call himself?"
"Rothdon, vasari," the male said, who was somewhat more intelligent than his companions and knew there was no point in pushing things too far.
"Rothdon, is it?" Acheron turned to the other SKAN. "So, 'Rothdon'," she added, making the name sound like an insult, "one more time. What are you doing here?"
Rothdon spat on the floor.
"I could ask you the same thing. Like I said, this place is taken."
"Taken, is it? Tell me your lonil."
"That's none of your business."
Acheron stretched out a hand to the side. A drawer flew open and a butcher knife sailed through the air into her grasp.
"You better believe I know how to use this," she said, her tone colder than ice. "Tell me your lonil. I will not ask again."
"Who do you think you are?" Rothdon demanded.
Behind Acheron, Talhi winced slightly. She'd had first hand experience of how the fighter dealt with insubordination, and if she hit Rothdon again, she might well break his neck.
"You call me vasari," Acheron said, her voice deadly quiet. "That's all you need to know."
"Vasari what?" Rothdon leaned against the wall, his very posture one of mocking arrogance. "You're not my vasari. You wouldn't be even if I had one."
"You don't have a vasari?" Acheron queried softly. It was a little like watching two cats, Talhi thought. Violence would definitely be happening in the near future, but for the minute, they were content to play with each other.
"What do we need 'em for? All they do is tell people what to do."
"Oh really? And these-" Acheron waved a hand at the rest of the pack "-these SKAN all did what they did of their own free will, did they? Where are you from?"
"I thought you said you weren't going to ask again."
Talhi barely saw Acheron move. Rothdon certainly didn't have time to dodge as the fighter hurled herself against him, lifting him one handed by the throat, the knife just pricking his groin.
"One last try," the vasari said softly.
"Ferith lonil, two miles north of here, no guards posted between sunrise and sunset," Rothdon said, so quickly that it took a couple of seconds for Acheron to make sense of the sentence. When she got it, she smiled, an expression that had nothing to do with humour, and released the male.
"Pathetic. Not only do you give away the location, you give away the security measures as well."
Rothdon massaged his throat irritably.
"Like I said, you're not my vasari."
"Lucky for you." Acheron spun on her heel, effectively dismissing the male, and levelled a finger at the young male who'd first surrendered. He leaned away from it as if it was a gun. "Now you-who are you?"
"Karlid, then. You stay here with us." Acheron glanced around. "The rest of you can get out of here, or I'll stop breaking wrists and start on spines. Is that understood?"
"Yes, vasari." Karlid was the only one to respond.
Acheron raised an eyebrow.
"Are you the only one with a voice, cki?"
"So it seems," Karlid replied, then ducked his head respectfully.
"Well." Acheron rocked back and forth on her heels. "Seems we've reached a bit of an impasse, then, since I'm not going to let any of you go without being sure you've learned today's lesson." She raised her eyebrows. "Does anyone get what I mean by this?"
"Vasari," one of the males mumbled, more concerned with his broken wrist than with the fighter.
"Finally, someone else with more than muscle between the ears. Out. Now."
The male darted out, cradling his wrist. Acheron looked around the group.
"Do any of you have something to add to this?"
One by one, they followed suit, until only Karlid and Rothdon were left.
"Well?" Acheron said to the male.
Rothdon shook his head.
"Do you think you can just waltz in here and take this territory over? This is mine. Don't you get that?"
"Enough," Acheron told him, her eyes flashing fire. "You wanted to know who I am. Fine. I am the vasari Losalri, also known as Acheron or the Dark One." Acheron noticed the nervous flicker in both males' eyes. "You've heard of me?"
"I...yes, vasari." It was Karlid who spoke.
"Really? What have you heard?"
"Just legends, vasari, nothing more."
"Legends!" Rothdon spat. "Empty cubstories, more like!"
Acheron lunged, pinning him against the wall for a second time. This time the knife was pressed against his throat.
"Does this look like a cubstory to you?" she said, her voice deathly quiet.
Rothdon struggled uselessly for a few minutes, then abruptly went limp.
"What did you do?" Talhi whispered, awed.
"Cut off his air supply," she said, like it was no big deal. "He'll come round in a few minutes. When he does, hopefully he'll be a little more respectful."
"See what I mean?" Acheron said lightly, then reached down, grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked Rothdon upright. "On your feet, cki! Now!"
Rothdon stretched up, trying to ease the pain in his scalp.
"What, you don't like this?" Acheron said, smiling coldly. "Maybe that'll teach you not to have hair like a lure in future. If you knew the first thing about security, I wouldn't be able to do this to you."
"You can't do this!" Rothdon protested, in defiance of current evidence.
"Do you want another nap?" Acheron asked him pleasantly.
"Vasari," Rothdon muttered. Acheron raised an eyebrow.
"What did you say? I didn't quite hear." She twisted her wrist once, causing Rothdon to gasp in pain.
"Close enough, though next time try not to breathe so heavily. It makes you sound like you want to mate." Acheron let her gaze travel slowly downwards. "Of course, that would explain a hell of a lot," she added.
Rothdon opened his mouth to protest, then closed it again.
"Well done," Acheron said softly. "Looks like I was wrong. There are brains in there after all." She released him. "Now why don't you use them again and get out of here," she said. It wasn't a question.
The male looked like he was going to argue, then apparently thought better of it and stalked out the room.
Acheron turned to face the Outsiders, who had remained silent through this dialogue, watching with frightened expressions.
Like ckin seeing their first punishment, Acheron thought wryly. She extended a hand and a chair flew into it. The fighter rested one leg on it, leaning on her raised knee.
"Right," she said calmly. "What the hell is going on??"