For what seemed like a very long time, nobody said anything. Then Kaiya broke the silence in a weak voice.
"Rylaio?" she echoed disbelievingly. "'Losalri'? Vasari, what-"
"Get out of here," Acheron said hoarsely, not looking at either of them.
"It's our-" Tahrinh began.
"Out," Acheron snarled.
Alirtha was the first to leave, not after provoking Acheron any further. Narpen and Kaiya followed somewhat reluctantly, then Ingal and finally, shooting a filthy look at Acheron, Tahrinh.
"Who is that male?" Tahrinh demanded in a low voice.
"If what Acheron told me was true," Narpen said, in an equally low voice, "he's her mate."
"Her mate?!" Kaiya echoed, astounded. "You're telling me the Dark One has a mate??"
"That's what she said."
"She had a cub as well," Alirtha put in quietly, not sure if she should be saying any of this. Acheron hadn't actually sworn her to secrecy, but it did seem a little...indiscreet to-
"'Cub'?" Kaiya repeated, like the idea was somehow foreign to her.
if you're going to discuss my private life Acheron said coldly in their heads, then do it someplace else this male and i have business to attend to
Alirtha could see Narpen opening his mouth to make some kind of lewd comment about that and grabbed him by the wrist, practically throwing him towards Hvin.
"Hey, watch it!" Narpen protested. "I need that hand."
"What do you know about Rylaio?" Alirtha asked Kaiya quietly. The other female shrugged.
"Not much," she admitted. "You'd need to talk to someone who came in originally-someone with memories before Wiztliow." She paused. "Do you know where Ezir is?"
"I've been there once or twice to rest on a long flight," she answered. "It's nice, but just an empty island. Why?"
"Not empty," Kaiya corrected her. "A friend of mine lives there; Saelohka, her name is. She's pretty shy of strangers which is probably why you've never seen her. Saelohka's older than I am-old enough to remember Outside. If she doesn't know about Rylaio, she could probably point you in the direction of someone who does."
Alirtha turned to her silver.
"What do you think?" she asked.
i think it's worth a try after all acheron didn't seem like the kind to have a mate and i for one would like to find out more Nrizali answered.
"So are we going?" Narpen asked.
"I'm going," Alirtha said pointedly. "You're getting back to Mallin to keep an eye on Olissa."
"I thought it was the females who had to take care of the cubs," he complained goodnaturedly.
"And I'm sure Alirtha would if you'd let her near," Ingal murmured, not quite under his breath.
Alirtha shook her head wryly. Ingal had always seemed to be a little less ready to accept her as part of the pack, but he appeared to be mellowing a little towards her.
"C'mon, Nrizali," she said easily. "Let's head out."
The two of them took off, heading straight for Ezir.
When they got there, it was deserted. No surprises there.
"Saelohka?" Alirtha called tentatively. "Saelohka, I'd like to talk with you. Kaiya told me you were here."
There was movement to her left and a female stepped cautiously into the light. She had brown-black hair, dusky skin and dark brown eyes.
Alirtha caught sight of the scar on her face and froze.
Why the hell didn't Kaiya tell me she was a vasari? she thought furiously.
"Vasari Saelohka?" she ventured.
The female just looked at her expectantly.
"Um...my name's Alirtha. I was wondering if you could help me."
"Kaiya sent you?" Saelohka prompted.
"Kaiya told me you were here," Alirtha said evasively.
"And you're the Outside cub that she risked her life to save twelve years ago?" Saelohka pressed.
Alirtha's jaw dropped.
"It happened during a SKAN meeting," Saelohka said calmly. "One that was held here, about you actually."
"We didn't know who you were. You could have been the first wave of an attack," Saelohka explained. "So why have you come to see me?"
"Do you...know anything about a male called Rylaio?" Alirtha asked.
To her surprise, Saelohka laughed.
"Oh...you don't know what it means, do you?" she said. Alirtha shook her head. "Ah, well...it refers to something nobody ever wanted but which-surprisingly-turned out to be pretty useful after all. It's not actually a SKAN name, more of a nickname." She paused. "And no, sorry, I've never heard of him. Why?"
"He's come to my sister's island. He seems to know Acheron from somewhere and Kaiya said I should ask you about him as you were old enough to remember being outside Wiztliow."
Saelohka's face darkened slightly at the mention of Acheron.
"Acheron was in a different pack," she answered tersely. "You'd do better finding someone from that pack."
"Who?" Alirtha wanted to know.
Saelohka regarded her keenly for a few minutes.
"I'm not sure she'll talk to you," she warned. "Like it or not, you're not a SKAN by birth, and she has very bad memories of Outsiders. But you can try. Do you know where Halain is?"
Alirtha shook her head.
"Losni? Kasun? Tyrich? Reldir?"
i know reldir Nrizali cut in quickly.
"Yes," Alirtha said. "I-we know where Reldir is."
"Good. Go to Reldir and head north for about seventy miles and you'll come to an island made completely of sand. That's Tyrich. Head northeast for another hundred and fifty miles and you'll come to Kasun, which is pretty much like Ezir," she added. "Finally, go due west for sixty five miles and you'll come to Losni, which is a combination of ice and forest. Quite nice actually. Halain is another fifteen miles north from there."
three hundred miles Nrizali said, stunned. i just hope we can rest on the way that's all
"Can we rest on any of those islands?" Alirtha wanted to know.
Saelohka thought for a few minutes.
"Hmm...let me think. Probably not on Reldir-that's where my ex-mate Tzersin lives. I wouldn't go close enough for him to spot your lack of i.t. if I were you. I'd just keep flying. The female on Tyrich, Shenal, will probably let you take a breather there. At least, she will if you can tell enough stories of islands she hasn't yet visited. I don't think anyone lives on Kasun-it's more a stopgap for travellers," she added. "That's one of the reasons it's so varied. Lashal, that's the male who lives on Losni-when he's not on Halain-is shy but he'll let you stay. And Halain's your destination, so you'll stop there anyway."
"What's the name of this SKAN?" Alirtha asked.
"Her name's Talhi, and I'll say this; if anyone at all knows about Acheron and this...Rylaio, it'll be her. She and Acheron were quite close friends before they came to Wiztliow."
are we going yet Nrizali said, sounding bored.
Alirtha turned back to Saelohka and saw the slight smile on the vasari's face.
"I'm guessing your queen's in a hurry," she said lightly.
damn right i am Nrizali said keenly.
"Yeah, she is," Alirtha answered, slightly embarrassed at Nrizali's lack of decorum. "Thanks for your help, vasari."
She slid onto Nrizali's back and the two of them set off for Reldir.
are you sure you know the way Alirtha said sceptically. They'd been flying for about two hours and there was no sign of other SKAN or islands.
of course i'm sure Nrizali answered testily. tzersin has a green i liked before i met hvin
i don't suppose you remembered what reldir actually looks like Alirtha transmitted.
mountains Nrizali said vaguely.
"Oh right," Alirtha said sarcastically. "Mountains. Well, that narrows it down to about, oh, say around one thousand seven hundred and three."
Nrizali shrugged slightly.
it's around here somewhere i know it
Alirtha glanced around and suddenly caught sight of a brown shape in the distance.
"Is that it?"
yeah that's reldir Nrizali said quickly. knew it the moment i saw it
"Uh huh. So what did Saelohka say? North for about seventy miles until Tyrich and then we can rest?"
what do you mean we i'm the one doing all the work all you have to do is sit there Nrizali said caustically.
Still bickering, the two of them started to head north.
An hour or so later, Alirtha had to admit, Saelohka might not be particularly social, but she did give good directions. A golden speck far below them had to be Tyrich.
sixty eight miles Nrizali said, sounding impressed. now let's go and have a rest or rather i'll rest and you can tell shenal stuff
Alirtha snorted. She had several talents, but storytelling wasn't one of them.
well i need a rest Nrizali repeated impatiently, folded her wings and dropped.
They hit the water head first, continuing down for some minutes before Nrizali finally managed to pull up and onto the sand of Tyrich.
"That was quite a landing," someone said, amused. Alirtha looked up and her eyes met a pair of light blue eyes. The speaker was small and light, with white blond hair and tanned skin.
"Shenal?" Alirtha said.
"Yeah, I'm Shenal, and somewhere around is Vivisha," the female answered, looking around.
A male dragon the same color as the sand raised his head sleepily then lowered it again and closed his eyes.
"So what are you doing here?" Shenal asked. "I don't get many visitors."
"I'm on my way to Halain. I came to see Talhi."
"Talhi?" Shenal echoed sharply.
"You know her?" Alirtha said eagerly.
"Yeah, I know Talhi. She joined our pack briefly before we came into Wiztliow."
"So she's really on Halain?"
"She was last time I checked," Shenal said. "Of course, that was about fifty years ago. But Talhi was never one to move unless she had to." She regarded Alirtha. "Now just why are you interested in Talhi?"
Briefly Alirtha explained what had happened. When she had finished, Shenal was frowning slightly.
"I've never heard of Rylaio," she admitted. "I know Acheron's name of course, what SKAN doesn't? But...well, you'd do better asking Talhi herself. I agree with Saelohka that if anyone knows, it'll be her."
Alirtha thanked her and she and Nrizali took off again, heading for the more varied climate of Kasun.
By the time they neared it, Alirtha was almost asleep. Nrizali thought briefly about dunking her in the water to wake her up, then relented and settled into the forest instead.
When Alirtha woke up, it had gotten dark and Nrizali was taking advantage of this to admire how much the moon and stars made her hide glisten.
oh you're finally awake are you she said, turning to look at Alirtha.
"Yeah," Alirtha answered with a slight smile. "Sorry to spoil your preening but we should get going."
Nrizali stretched and yawned widely.
okay okay so how far are we going now
"Only another sixty five miles," Alirtha said absently.
only that's your idea of only maybe this time you can fly and i'll ride
"Look, the sooner we get there, the sooner we can get back to Hvin, right?"
Nrizali sighed irritably.
right okay hop on
Alirtha caught the slight taint of humor in the queen's words and realised she was joking. With a wry shake of her head, she remounted.
so which direction we going in Nrizali wanted to know.
"West, as if you didn't know," Alirtha answered flippantly. Nrizali's memory and sense of direction were both far better than her own.
Refreshed, the pair of them made good time, covering the distance between Kasun and Losni in just under an hour.
wow Nrizali said. will you look at that
Alirtha glanced down. What looked like a silver white jewel with patches of dark green was set in the ocean.
saelohka was right it is nice Nrizali said, no doubt thinking how her own color would be complemented by the ice.
The two of them landed on a small glacier and Alirtha looked around, searching for Lashal.
"Lashal?" she called.
No response. Alirtha half climbed, half slid down the glacier onto the ground and started walking cautiously into the forest.
She hadn't been going for very long when someone-or something-slammed hard into her from behind, sending her flying into a tree. Nrizali struck out and a few seconds later, a dark green dragon had a grip on her neck.
Alirtha became aware of a blade at her throat.
"Who are you?" her attacker demanded.
"I-my name's Alirtha. I came to see Talhi."
This seemed to be the right thing to say. At any rate, the blade was withdrawn slowly, and Alirtha noticed the dark green had released Nrizali.
"I'm sorry," the male said, not sounding particularly sorry. "You just reminded me of someone, that's all."
"Are you Lashal?"
"Yeah, that's me. How'd you know my name?"
"Saelohka told me. She was the one who told me how to find Talhi."
Lashal looked a little more wary.
"And why would you want to find Talhi?"
"I have to talk to her. It's about Acheron. I heard that they were friends. Is Talhi on Halain?"
"Yeah," Lashal said reluctantly. "Yeah, she's on Halain." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "That way."
Taking this to be a dismissal, Alirtha and Nrizali headed on for the last part of their journey.
"Talhi?" Alirtha called.
Alirtha jumped and spun round, coming face to face with a female SKAN about the same age as Acheron, and possibly one of the most beautiful females Alirtha had ever seen-tall and slender, with fine copper colored hair, high cheekbones and crystal blue eyes.
"I...may I talk with you?" Alirtha faltered, not quite sure how to proceed.
"You already are," Talhi said with a hint of amusement in her tone.
"Do you know who Rylaio is?"
Talhi's jaw dropped.
"Ry-Rylaio? Rylaio is-was-an Outsider. He was part of Acheron's pack for a time. Why?"
"He turned up on my sister's island," Alirtha explained. "Acheron seemed a little taken aback to see him."
"Yeah...everyone thought Rylaio was dead," Talhi said. "Including Acheron. I'm sure she was 'a little taken aback' when he mysteriously showed up."
"There's something else," Alirtha said. "He called Acheron something like...Losalri."
Talhi was silent for a few minutes.
"Maybe we'd better talk about this sitting down," she said finally. "It might take a while."
Alirtha obligingly followed Talhi over to a warm rock and the two of them seated themselves.
"There are very few SKAN who know that Acheron used to be called Losalri," Talhi said. "Acheron was Rylaio's nickname for her. I'm not too sure how it came about. When Rylaio supposedly died, Losalri changed her name to Acheron and she's been known as that ever since."
"Saelohka said the two of you used to be friends," Alirtha put in, more thinking out loud than anything.
"Yeah...we did. But something happened...I got taken by Outside, and it was only the help of a local SKAN pack that saved me. They sent me into Wiztliow and I never heard anything from Acheron again. I didn't even know if she'd survived. I did hear her name mentioned a few times here-I heard she'd gone bad."
"Not bad as such," Alirtha said reflectively. "More...kind of solitary."
Talhi smiled, a little sadly, Alirtha thought.
"Yeah...Losalri never did have many friends. I'm not too sure how the pair of us ended up being friends-I guess these things just happen."
"So...is it true that Rylaio was Acheron's mate?" Alirtha wanted to know.
Talhi stared at her.
"Where did you hear that??" she demanded, then shrugged without waiting for an answer. "Well, I don't know if it's true, but I'd say if Acheron had taken a mate, it would most likely have been Rylaio." She stretched leisurely. "Now, my turn for a few questions; first of all, why did you come over to my island just to ask me about Rylaio?"
"I was curious," Alirtha answered, slightly evasively. "And everyone who I asked said you were the only one who'd know anything about him. Acheron didn't look like she was going to talk to anyone."
"Acheron wouldn't," Talhi answered with one hundred per cent conviction. "There's a saying among fighters-if you're hurt, you take the pain alone because no one's gonna share it. I guess you could say that's always been her motto." She paused. "Besides, it sounds like it was a pretty delicate situation between the pair of them. But I'm still not one hundred per cent sure why you flew...well, however far you flew, just to ask me who Rylaio was."
There was an awkward silence. Then Talhi spoke again.
"But then, you didn't come all this way just for one question, did you?"
Alirtha considered denying Talhi's implication, then had second thoughts.
"No," she answered frankly. "I came because...well..."
"You were concerned about her," Talhi put in. "You thought maybe I could do something to get through to her." She smiled. "For an Outsider, you seem pretty genuine."
better not let acheron hear you say that Nrizali put in mischievously.
"Nrizali!" Alirtha said sharply, embarrassment flooding her cheeks.
Talhi shrugged slightly.
"You should have heard Vinari's comments," she said easily. "And as to Acheron...I'm not sure there's anything that can be done. If she doesn't want to talk, she'd be insulted if we tried to persuade her. If she does-which is highly unlikely, I might add-then it won't matter who's around." She paused. "But whatever happens, I think it would be better if we let Acheron and Rylaio talk things out together."
"Rylaio seemed pretty badly hurt," Alirtha said unwillingly. "I don't know that Ozeo would be the best place to-"
"And you think that Acheron, the most powerful SKAN in Wiztliow-and some might say in Outside as well-would be content with just one island, do you? My guess is she'll hole up with Rylaio in Nihasur. That was actually Rylaio's island...I guess it still is, kind of. If she doesn't go to Nihasur, she'll go to Hynacor."
"Acheron's the most powerful SKAN in Wiztliow?" Alirtha echoed incredulously.
"If she chose to, she could blast Halain into so many small rocks and dust particles. Of course, the further away she gets from her own turf, the less powerful she is."
"But if she could destroy an island that's more than three hundred miles away..." Alirtha began, dazed.
"Exactly," Talhi agreed. "For some reason, unlike the other SKAN, Acheron retained her full powers when she entered Wiztliow. That's one reason she was strong enough to change the water around Ozeo to lava."
"Why did she do that?" Alirtha wanted to know. "I mean, lava is hardly the most...welcoming sight."
"Acheron is hardly the most welcoming SKAN," Talhi pointed out. "I don't know why lava...maybe she wanted to make a point. Maybe she wanted to show how powerful she was. Or maybe she just liked the heat."
"I saw her after the fight with Renul," Alirtha protested. "She was almost dead."
"Being powerful doesn't make you invulnerable," Talhi said calmly. "And if it was Renul she was fighting, she'd have had her work cut out right from the start. She trained him herself; he was almost as good as she was."
"Almost?" Alirtha echoed. "He beat the hell out of her."
"Not before she gave him several lasting-and slowly fatal-wounds, I'll bet," was Talhi's answer. "Renul was good, but he was also insane. And insane SKAN, and Outsiders if it comes to that, often have very little thought for self-preservation."
"'The black island with many sparkle stones'," Alirtha said suddenly.
Talhi eyed her, slightly warily.
"When Rylaio's dragon Trialan appeared, he said something about the black island with many sparkle stones," Alirtha answered. "He must've meant Escro. Maybe Renul-no, that's impossible."
"Maybe Renul what? Maybe Renul held Rylaio captive in Escro and faked his death? Is that what you were thinking?"
"Yes," Alirtha admitted. "But Renul couldn't've."
"Why not?" Talhi said comfortably. "He was Acheron's cub. I imagine he'd have had plenty of his own power."
"Everyone says Renul was insane. I met him. I know he was insane."
"And 'everyone' is right," Talhi agreed. "But where 'everyone' screws up is assuming 'insane' means the same thing as 'stupid'. Renul could easily have faked Rylaio's death."
"To stop Acheron looking for him?" Talhi suggested. "Acheron has next to no real friends, but she'll risk everything for the friends she does have."
then why didn't she save you when you were taken by outside Nrizali said insolently.
"Nrizali!" Alirtha flushed. "I'm sorry, she's not usually this rude."
"It's a fair question," Talhi said lazily. "And in answer to it, Acheron knows and knew better than anybody that there's a fine line between the desirable and the conceivably attainable. She had no idea where to look. If she went out herself the lonil would have been thrown into chaos. If she sent others, she'd have been drastically understaffed. She did the only thing she could-she ignored it."
are we going Nrizali wanted to know.
Talhi raised her eyebrows.
"You'll pardon the presumption, I'm sure, but I'd guess your queen is coming into season."
yes and i want to find hvin
"Hvin's on Mallin," Alirtha said. "You'll have to wait until we get back there."
Talhi rose to her feet.
"Maybe I will come with you after all," she said lightly. "I could do with a change of scenery. Vinari!"
Alirtha looked around, confused, then her jaw dropped as a lithe queen arose from where she'd been lying unnoticed. Her hide was a kind of amber, almost translucent, with silver horns and claws. Her eyes were a vivid emerald green.
"Now," Talhi said, turning to Alirtha as she mounted, "just where is your island?"