He didn't know how long he'd been down there. Nights had blurred into weeks, weeks into months, possibly months into years until the only thing that mattered had been the pain and continuous torment he'd had to endure.
His name...what had been his name? In the earlier days, he'd had Arrala to keep him safe-and more importantly, sane-but Arrala was dead. He'd felt her death, her severing from his mind more keenly than anything his captor had been able to inflict on him.
No, that wasn't quite right. Close though.
Tentatively, he tried to stand. Legs that hadn't been used in decades collapsed under him and he swore-that was one thing he hadn't forgotten how to do. This was going to take a little longer than he'd first thought.
Almost. Not quite. But almost.
He tried his arms. They responded to his commands, but sluggishly, as if he was moving them through water.
Well, it would have to do.
At this point, a little voice spoke up in the back of his mind.
You couldn't climb that wall in the peak of health. How do you think you're going to do it in your current condition?
That was it. It wasn't his name, but somehow, that name was important. Losalri. Yes. Losalri.
The more pressing need for escape homed in on him. His captor had at least given him food and water, when he remembered.
But something inside him said he wasn't going to be seeing his captor again.
Pity. He'd have liked a rematch with him.
"Losalri," he mumbled incoherently. He still didn't know what was so vital about this person but he knew he had to get to her.
Yes. Her. Definitely a her.
He struggled to stand again and tripped, falling and hitting his head on the stone, going out cold...
...I don't understand half of what's being said-actually, to be perfectly honest, I don't understand any of what's being said. Let's see...Vasahree is in charge and that guy over there seems to disagree with whatever she wants. Or is that guy her equal?
Hell, it's no good. I haven't even learned their language yet, I'm not gonna be figuring out their social structure anytime soon. Vasahree seems to speak a little English though. Maybe she can enlighten me.
My god! Did I just see what I thought I saw? That guy's got to be almost twice as heavy as Vasahree, a lot stronger and she just...picked him up in one hand and threw him across the room!
"What's the matter, Outsider?" she asks me. I'd give anything to know how she went from her halting, fumbling sentences to being more fluent in English than I am. "They don't do that where you're from?"
I shake my head. I think I should play it very, very carefully with this SKAN...
...He jerked awake suddenly, disorientated. What was that? A dream or a memory? Or some confused mix of the two?
Did it matter? He had to get out. Find a SKAN, any SKAN, and see if he could find Losalri. Confused, he struggled to get to his feet for a third time, grabbed a handy protrusion of rock, and managed to stay upright, leaning against the wall and gasping for breath.
So far so good.
Now for the hard part.
Slowly, painfully, he inched his way up the side of the pit that had been his home and cell for decades. More than once he slipped and fell back to the ground, badly twisting his ankle at one point, but perservering until he was drenched in his own sweat.
He had no idea how long he was climbing for. All he was aware of was suddenly reaching up and finding no wall to support his searching hand.
Gritting his teeth together so hard it hurt, he hauled himself up, inch by painful inch, until he lay panting on the floor. He paused for a few minutes to try and regain some of his wind, then half staggered, half crawled along the passage, searching for the way out.
Alirtha ran one hand through her light brown hair and looked around critically.
"I dunno..." she said doubtfully.
Tahrinh rolled her eyes.
"You'd say that whatever I picked!" she said.
"No I wouldn't," Alirtha protested. "I'm just not sure that...um...chartreuse rivers is the most usual way, that's all. Maybe blue."
"Uh huh," Tahrinh said sceptically. "And if I put blue in, you'd just say it was too conventional."
"I think she's right." Narpen, Alirtha's mate, came up to stand behind her with his customary grin. "Chartreuse is kind of strange." His grin widened. "How about magenta?"
"You're as bad as each other!" Alirtha exclaimed. "Next you'll be wanting lava!"
Narpen shuddered dramatically.
"No thanks! Ozeo's all the lava I need."
"Maybe a little lava pool would look good," Tahrinh said thoughtfully. "Over there, under the tayubak tree."
"Um, Tahrinh? I'm not exactly a botanist, but tayubak trees don't usually thrive next to molten lava. They like water."
"It'll make it," Tahrinh said confidently.
Alirtha lowered her voice and turned to Narpen.
"You realise what this means," she said.
"That your sister has no sense of decor?"
"No-well, that too. She's going to turn into Acheron if we're not careful."
Narpen gave another mock shudder.
"Urgh. If Tahrinh wants to make an island out of lava and dead rock, don't expect me to come visiting with you!"
Tahrinh was in the middle of creating her second island. So far, she'd gotten as far as the base. She and her mate Ingal had spent a long time arguing over the shape until Ingal had thrown up his hands in surrender and declared that if Tahrinh wanted an island that looked like a rude gesture when seen from above, Tahrinh could have an island that looked like a rude gesture when seen from above.
This had caused a lot of hasty reshaping on Tahrinh's part until the island was a nice, unprovocative rectangle. She'd added in grass and two rivers leading to a shaded lake, and was just trying to decide what color to make the water when Alirtha and Narpen had showed up.
"I am not making an island out of lava and dead rock," Tahrinh objected. "I'm just thinking about adding in a small lava pool and-"
"What in Astira's name...?" an astounded voice came from above. Ingal and Astira circled down, hovering a few feet above the ground.
"Is it safe to walk on?" Ingal wanted to know.
"It's just grass," Tahrinh said impatiently. "Course it's safe to walk on!"
"Grass is usually...how should I put this...?"
"Green?" Alirtha and Narpen offered at the same time.
"Yeah, that's it. Green. Not red. And especially not red with pink squiggles. This must've taken you all week to create!"
"I like it," Tahrinh said stubbornly. "It's different."
"...Oh, it's different alright," Ingal agreed fervently. "But when one of us is a redhead, this color scheme is, shall we say, a slightly poor choice."
Alirtha and Narpen both choked back snickers at this.
"I suppose you'd rather have boring old green?" Tahrinh challenged.
"Yeah, I would," Ingal said with one hundred per cent conviction.
Kaiya, Tahrinh and Alirtha's mother, circled round with Aryan and landed.
"What's the matter with you?" she demanded. "Have you gone colourblind or something?"
"Okay! Okay!" Tahrinh yelled as Narpen and Alirtha both creased up laughing. "Okay! We can be conventional if you want!"
She concentrated hard and gradually the shade of grass shifted to a vivid neon.
"Well, it's green," Tahrinh said defensively.
"I think that's the best you're gonna get," he offered to Ingal, who sighed.
"Okay. But I get to decorate the sleeping area."
With all the friendly bickering, none of them noticed the strange dragon land on the far side of the island.
His sense of smell was still good. Somewhere, he could smell fresh air.
For want of anything better to do, he proceeded with his lurching gait down the passage.
He was soon rewarded with the sight of daylight and quickened his pace. There might be a chance that Arrala was still alive.
The skeleton lying on the rocks gave him his answer. Arrala was dead, her body rotted away, the once powerful wings nothing more than bleached bones.
Enough. He had to find somewhere to hole up, rest, recover. Somewhere as far away from this hellhole as possible.
He managed to drag himself over to the water and half rolled, half fell in. The shock of the cold served to jerk some of his senses back into motion, and instinct took over, forcing him to swim.
Or at least, try to. He'd used up all his energy and more on the climb and now his limbs wouldn't respond.
Some sense of survival made him struggle to move his arms and legs, but he might as well have tried to move against a mountain for all the success he was having.
A slight touch of questioning flitted through his mind. Not his questioning. Irritating.
A stronger touch intruded on his senses, almost like when Arrala had been alive.
A slender, razor sharp cable wound itself around his waist and lifted him carefully out the water.
i said what are you doing
He twisted his head and looked up into the features of a small male dragon, which was such a vivid cyan that you could almost believe it would glow in the dark.
you don't honestly think you can swim all the way to another island do you
He didn't answer. Instead, he began to-
oh for the sake of my eggshell quit struggling i'm not going to drop you The cyan paused. and just where did you come from anyway
The male waved a vague hand in the direction of the island. He couldn't remember what it was called.
nice is that your island
He mumbled something that might have been a negative reply.
so you were trying to reach your island again the cyan said, sounding happy to have figured it out.
"I..." Was he? Was that what he had in mind?
It must have been. After all, if he found his island, he could probably find Losalri again.
"Who are you?" he managed to get out, the first words he'd spoken for several years.
i'm trialan at least according to sani who laid me so where is your island
He focused inwardly, trying to concentrate. Something said it should be possible for him to think...to communicate via telepathy.
do you know my name he tried, hoping Trialan could hear him.
The cyan sounded surprised.
why can't you remember
no the male answered tersely.
Trialan sent something that felt like a shrug.
well i can't help you i only know what you call yourself if you've lost your memory then there's nothing i can do He paused. do you know where you were going he asked.
no idea the other answered. where can you take me
With one casual flick of his tail, which was the 'cable', Trialan tossed him several feet into the air, then dived underneath just in time to catch him on his back.
anywhere you want the dragon answered confidently. if you've no idea where you're supposed to be why don't we check out my sibling's island they might be able to help
The male paused, then shrugged.
why not after all it's not like i have any ideas
The two of them set off. After they'd been flying an hour or so, Trialan noticed that the strange SKAN male was deep in the dreamless sleep of utter exhaustion and, with a feeling of regret, kept quiet until he'd landed on the island.
hey they've redecorated
The male mumbled something incoherent.
they have it used to be red here
Another mumble. With a sigh, Trialan lay down to wait for the stranger to wake up again. He wasn't sure why the two of them were bondmates, but it didn't seem he had a lot of choice in the matter.
"We both decorate the sleeping area!" Tahrinh protested. "I've got to live with it as well, you know."
"You did the island. I do the sleeping area," Ingal countered. "And besides, I don't really think that I'll get any sleep if you're given free rein on that part of the island. I'd swear that your 'grass' is luminous."
"There's nothing wrong with my grass!" Tahrinh flared up defensively.
"No," a laconic voice put in from behind, "not if it's supposed to double as a homing beacon for blind dragons."
Tahrinh glared at the newcomer hotly.
"How did you find this place?" she demanded.
"How could I miss it?" the vasari Acheron said dryly. "A rectangular island that's bright green with chartreuse rivers and you think I couldn't find it? I might be older than any of you but I'm not losing my sight yet. And just what is that?"
Tahrinh followed the older female's stare.
"It's a tayubak tree," she answered. "Serko likes to eat them."
not when they're that colour i don't the brown interspersed acidly.
"Why'd you come here, anyway?" Alirtha asked. She was still extremely wary of Acheron, despite the fact that the vasari had once helped save her life.
Acheron raised an eyebrow.
"That's a nice welcome, Alirtha. Hello to you too. And to answer your question, Hrovl wanted to know what kind of SKAN would make such a...ah...geometric island."
"The same SKAN who originally had an island shaped like this." Narpen flipped his fingers up into the handsign for tagoshai, then barely saw Acheron move as she slammed into him, sending him almost two dragonlengths across the island.
"Interesting," she said coolly, as though nothing had happened. Narpen picked himself up, felt around his face for damage.
Kaiya bit back a smile.
"Well...I'm not too sure what you expected, Narpen, but you-"
"Don't tell me I asked for it," Narpen ordered. "And yes, I'm fine thanks. Just a broken skull is all."
"You did ask for it," Acheron said languidly. "And think yourself lucky we're in Wiztliow...and on your turf. Otherwise, you'd most likely be dead."
Alirtha was the only one who was disturbed by this casual declaration.
"What does this sign-" she tried to imitate the handsign for tagoshai "-mean, anyway?"
Tahrinh snickered quietly and Acheron smiled thinly.
"Well, that sign means sandwich," she answered calmly. "If you mean this-" and she repeated the sign Narpen had used "-well, let's just say it's not the kind of gesture to go around using to friends."
"And how about enemies?" Alirtha wanted to know.
"Do you have any?" Acheron said, in tones that said she personally wouldn't believe it if she saw it flamed in the night sky.
"Not...as such," Alirtha admitted. She briefly debated with herself whether or not to tell Acheron that she considered the vasari herself to be the closest she had to an enemy, then had second, third and fourth thoughts about doing so.
"It doesn't matter," Acheron said dismissively. "If you don't have any now, just go round making that sign. Pretty soon you'll have more than you can count."
"Yeah...well..." Narpen said, still rubbing his jaw. "Alirtha can't count above one."
He went down for a second time in as many minutes as Alirtha matched him with a blow on the other side of his face. It was nowhere near as hard as Acheron's had been, but it was hard enough.
"Ow!" Narpen complained, putting a hand to his aching jaw. "What is it with females? I mean, is it me or are they waaay too sensitive?" he said, appealing to the one other male in several miles.
"You should know better than to go making signs like that at anyone," Ingal said placidly. "Particularly at the vasari," he added.
"It was just a joke!" Narpen protested.
"Not that sign," Ingal said with one hundred per cent conviction. "You know as well as I do that that sign is never meant as a joke."
"I was talking about what I said to Alirtha." Narpen glared at his mate, who suddenly became very interested in a bush that her silver queen Nrizali was stripping.
"I'd say her reaction was typically SKAN," Acheron said thinly.
"But what was the word for that sign?" Alirtha persisted curiously.
She became aware of a sudden, almost hostile silence.
"We don't say it," Kaiya explained finally. "Not unless we really, really mean it."
"It can't be that bad," Alirtha said. "I know your language as well as you do-"
"-Almost as well," Ingal said pointedly.
"Almost as well, then. One of the first words Tahrinh taught me was riniyo."
Tahrinh, the sudden recipient of a glare from her mother, squirmed.
"We were only cubs at the time," she protested feebly.
Acheron sniggered quietly.
"And to think I'd always had the impression you taught your cubs well, Kaiya," Narpen said, with a glint in his eye.
dragon alert Aryan said suddenly.
Everyone turned to look around.
"Where?" Tahrinh demanded. "Who is it?"
if i knew that i'd tell you, Aryan said, with a touch of sarcasm. and it's over there behind the rock i think
he's right Hvin, Narpen's white, said. i can smell it
Serko and Nrizali lifted their heads and sniffed the air.
him Nrizali said, in the kind of tone in which a person would say, 'Oh, it's you'.
"Him who?" Alirtha demanded.
his name's trialan he's our sibling Serko explained briefly.
the really bright blue one Nrizali elaborated. the wacked out loopy one
"Loopy?" Alirtha echoed. Her last encounter with a 'loopy' dragon had been Renul's black queen Enarsi and she was in no hurry to have another one.
yeah hah you think i'm a jokester you should see him Nrizali snorted.
Acheron stretched leisurely.
"Is he coming to you or are you expected to go to him?" she asked in a bored tone.
"Us?" Kaiya protested.
"This, Kaiya, as you so love to point out, isn't my turf," Acheron said, smiling unpleasantly. "Therefore any threats on this turf aren't my concern." Her smile broadened. "Well, don't just stand there," she said in a tone which said she was thoroughly enjoying their discomfiture. "Your guest probably wants to see you. You shouldn't keep him waiting."
Shooting a look at the vasari that said all too plainly that she wished it was a knife, Tahrinh turned to Ingal.
"Okay, let's go."
"Now I'm coming?" Ingal wanted to know. "Who said I was coming?"
"If I'm going, you're coming," Tahrinh said, with perhaps a little more emphasis than coherence.
"Looks like she's got you," Narpen said, grinning broadly.
Ingal turned with a smile of his own.
"Don't think you're getting off so lightly, cousin," he said sweetly. "You're in this pack, so you're coming too."
The grin vanished from Narpen's face.
"Oh, for Hrovl's sake," Acheron snapped. "One dragon, no older than either of these two-" she indicated Serko and Nrizali "-against five dragons, one of them fully adult and the other an adolescent? Who would you bet on?"
There was silence.
"I guess it won't hurt to look," Kaiya said finally.
"So go look," Acheron said sharply.
Reluctantly, the five of them moved towards the newcomer.
what do you think Hrovl wanted to know.
i think they're making a big fuss over nothing Acheron answered easily. after all we get plenty of dragons turning up on nihasur
Nihasur was one of Acheron and Hrovl's other islands. Unlike Ozeo, however, Nihasur was comprised of thick forest, so thick that the branches formed a roof over your head. Walking down a path on Nihasur was like walking through an underground tunnel that was overgrown with all types of plantlife.
true Hrovl agreed. so why didn't you tell them
what and spoil the fun she said with a mental snicker.
"Vasari!" Narpen's voice came from the direction of the dragon. He sounded panicked.
Acheron grimaced. Couldn't this pack deal with one thing, one simple thing, without running to her for help?
"You coming?" she asked Hrovl.
meaning you want a ride i suppose Hrovl said with what felt like a mental raise of the eyebrows.
Acheron shrugged casually, like it was no big deal.
"Well...if you're offering..." she said lightly.
Hrovl turned broadside and lowered his shoulder.
sure hop on
Acheron did so, settling herself between the powerful wings. Hrovl took off, skimming low over the surface of the island.
well look at that i'd say trialan found himself a bondmate
Acheron glanced over, curious.
"Let's go say hello," she said quietly.
Knowing full well that when Acheron met strangers for the first time and wasn't sure of their intentions, 'hello' could often turn into quite a terminal 'goodbye', Hrovl flew down obligingly, setting down beside Trialan.
The brilliant colored male turned an amber eye on the black.
ssh he's asleep he ordered sternly.
"Who's asleep?" Acheron said calmly.
he doesn't know his name Trialan said, but he comes from the black island with many sparkle stones
"'The black island with many sparkle stones'," Narpen repeated slowly. "Okaaay."
Acheron reached out towards the male. Long, matted hair straggled down his back, and the parts of him that were visible under the dirt were viciously scarred.
"Is there...something wrong with his skin?" Alirtha said tentatively.
Narpen had been about to ask that same question. The male's skin was a kind of golden color, golden with a slight hint of yellow.
Acheron started to turn the male over. Trialan hissed and tried to snap at her hand but Hrovl brought one foreleg over and casually flattened the smaller dragon into the ground.
Acheron took hold of the stranger by the shoulder and rolled him over, then jerked her hand away as if it had been stung.
what is it Hrovl demanded.
"I don't think the question is what," Kaiya said, staring at Acheron. It was the first time she had ever seen the vasari display any hint of real emotion. "I think the question is who."
Acheron reached out a hand. It was obvious to the onlookers that she was trying to keep it from trembling-and succeeding too.
Carefully, almost as if he might explode at her touch, Acheron rested two fingers in the male's throat, hunting for a pulse.
His hand shot up and grabbed her arm and both Hrovl and Acheron hissed a warning.
The male's eyes snapped open and he stared at the vasari like he couldn't believe what he was seeing.
"...Losalri?" he said, his voice dry and rasping, as if he hadn't spoken for some time.
Acheron hesitated, then nodded once.
"Yeah. It's me, Rylaio. It's me."