"You left," Rylaio said hoarsely.
Acheron whirled. She'd been pacing restlessly for the last ten minutes. Part of this was frustration, the other was fear.
You screwed up, a voice inside her kept whispering. You screwed up big time.
"Yes, I left! I thought you were dead! We all thought you were dead."
"You didn't check," Rylaio said flatly.
"I told you years ago-the living can't watch out for the dead. And I had good reason to believe you were dead."
"I'm not so easy to kill."
"You were swamped by a tidal wave of lava, Rylaio," Acheron pointed out. "No SKAN could survive that."
"I'm not a SKAN," Rylaio answered tonelessly. "You and I both know that. My name isn't Rylaio, it's Maak. I'm an Outsider."
"And an Outsider would have even less chance of survival," Acheron countered, not missing a beat. "If you'd seen me buried under lava, would you have bothered looking for me?" She paused, then sighed. "It was Renul, wasn't it?"
"I did warn you," Rylaio said. "You didn't believe me."
"I didn't understand you," Acheron corrected him. "There's never really been any history of that in our people."
"But there has been a lot of it in mine," Rylaio flashed. "I'm not a sufferer myself, but...I dunno, maybe I carry the genes for it or something. I don't even know what it's called. I just know my brother had it."
"'Brother'?" Acheron said curiously. "You never mentioned having a brother."
"You remember Djakk?"
"The one who was taken prisoner along with you?" Acheron said, with a slight smile at the memory of their first meeting.
"Yeah, him. He's my older brother. Right now he and the rest of my family are probably tearing the place apart looking for me."
There was a silence.
"Rylaio...do you have any idea how long you were on Escro?" Acheron said in the delicate tones used by someone who doesn't want the whole world to come crashing down around their ears.
"I lost track of time," Rylaio said, with a pointed glare at her.
"You bonded with a dragon, didn't you?"
yep me Trialan said happily.
"Yeah. Arrala. She's dead."
"Your lifespan will be...somewhat extended," Acheron said evasively.
"What do you mean?" Rylaio demanded. "Speak plainly for once, Losalri!"
"The creation happened one hundred and seventy years ago," Acheron said.
Rylaio stared at her incredulously. This was perhaps a little too plainly for his liking.
"One hundred and seventy years ago," he repeated slowly, like the idea was completely foreign to him. "So...I'm one hundred and eighty seven years old?" He shook his head. "I sure don't feel it."
"You don't look..." Acheron broke off, realising that with his scars and generally dishevelled appearance, Rylaio probably did.
"Oh thank you very much!" Rylaio said sarcastically. "Yes. I can see I was missed here."
"Aha! That's the touchy male I know; that's why I mated with you."
Rylaio sat up carefully, propping himself on his elbows. He examined his long, tangled hair with distaste.
"Shit, I need a haircut," he muttered irritably. "Got a knife?"
Acheron raised an eyebrow.
"Maybe you'd better let me do it. The shape you're in now, you'll probably take your own head off."
let me let me
Acheron hit Rylaio at chest height and bore him to the ground. Just above their heads, Trialan's tail blade slashed the air.
Rylaio stuck his head up cautiously.
damn missed Trialan said, sounding puzzled, as though such a thing had never happened to him before.
"Luckily," Acheron said dryly. "Trialan, I think you better back down."
oh go on let me try again pleeease
Rylaio shook his head firmly, his heart still thumping hard.
"No! I've had too many close encounters with death already. I don't want to end up being killed by my own dragon!"
Trialan looked as if he was going to try again anyway, but Hrovl's tail whipped across and wrapped around the younger dragon's throat.
rylaio's my rider Trialan protested, although he knew better than to struggle. One twitch of Hrovl's tail could break the cyan's neck like a dry twig.
and acheron's mine Hrovl said coldly. your tail nearly sliced her in half do you really think that i'm going to stand back and watch you do it again
"This looks like a pleasant scene. Mind if I intrude?"
yes Hrovl muttered, although Acheron was probably the only one who heard him.
What was this, Reunion from Hell day?? What was Talhi doing there?
A sudden thought occurred to Acheron and she spun around, shading her eyes. There was a brief flash that might just have been the sun on a silver hide.
Alirtha. Damn that Outsider bitch. Damn her all the way to hell. Just what did she think she was playing at??
"Um...I can leave if you want me to..." Talhi offered, somewhat apprehensively. "I just wanted to see if Alirtha was right."
"How the hell could she be wrong?" Acheron said hoarsely. "You really think there's more than one Acheron in Wiztliow?"
Talhi opened her mouth to say that no, there couldn't be, thank the dragons, then had second, third and fourth thoughts about doing so. If she'd said such a thing back in Outside, Acheron would probably have laughed it off. But here in Wiztliow, things had changed a lot. Talhi had changed.
Acheron glanced at Hrovl.
hrovl will you please ask trialan to get rylaio back to hynacor i want to talk to this person alone
Hrovl gave her the draconic equivalent of a raised eyebrow, then relayed the message.
does that mean i can give him a haircut now Trialan asked, sounding excited.
"NO!" Acheron and Rylaio said in unison. The cyan subsided, sulking slightly. Rylaio shot Acheron a piercing glance.
"Go with Trialan," Acheron said quietly. "I'll be along later."
For a moment the male looked like he was going to protest, then nodded in agreement.
"Okay. But you better be there!"
Acheron recognised the banter in the tones and smiled.
"I'll be there," she said. "Now go on. Get outta here. Else I might lose you to the lure."
"Hmm..." Rylaio glanced at Talhi. "Yes...you might at that," he said seriously.
Trialan shoved his head under Rylaio's back and flipped him up, catching him halfway down and flying off with him.
"Hey, wait!" Acheron said.
leave it to a female to drag out a goodbye Trialan said playfully.
"You're going northeast. Hynacor's that way," Acheron said, either not hearing Trialan or ignoring him.
oh yeah i knew that Trialan said.
i'm sure Hrovl muttered darkly.
Acheron watched them leave until she was sure they were going the right way before turning back to Talhi.
"So," she said, striving for a casual tone, "where've you been hiding all this time?"
Talhi caught the tension in the voice that spoke of a forced tone and shook her head.
"It doesn't matter. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come."
"No, you shouldn't have come now," Acheron corrected her. "Didn't anyone ever tell you it's bad manners to walk in on a conversation between two mates?"
Talhi sucked in her breath sharply.
"It's true then," she said quietly. "You two are mates."
Acheron seemed slightly amused.
"What, did you think it was just a cubstory? Yeah, we're mates. What about it?"
"You mated with an Outsider," Talhi said flatly.
Acheron raised her eyebrows.
"That's rich coming from someone who used to mate with them every night on a regular basis."
"I got paid," Talhi retorted. "What's your excuse?"
"He's fit. He's attractive. He's one of us inside if not outside. Since when did a SKAN need any reasons other than that to mate with another?"
Talhi glanced away, hurriedly biting her lip. In almost two centuries, she'd pretty much forgotten Acheron's style of living.
"You know...the one who told me about you said you'd gone...solitary," she said carefully.
"Hmm." Acheron seemed to consider. "I did live on my own after Rylaio's 'death'. Maybe that's what they meant."
There was a silence, but a semi-comfortable one, not the tension of before.
"So...what do you think of Alirtha?" Acheron asked.
"Alirtha?" Talhi echoed, feeling a strange sense of deja vu. Standing around, discussing different SKAN with the fighter...well, it was almost as if the creation had never taken place and the two of them were back in Outside.
"Yeah, Alirtha. The one who went and found you."
"How do you-"
Acheron waved a languid hand.
"Please. First of all, I saw a silver dragon flying away behind you and Alirtha's the only SKAN I know with a silver. Secondly, she's the only one who worries enough to actually try and find you."
"She wanted to ask someone about Rylaio," Talhi said.
Acheron raised her eyebrows.
"Oh yes? Since when did a vasari answer to a cki about their choice of mate?"
"She's an Outsider," Talhi pointed out.
"So? She thinks-or likes to think-she's a SKAN. SKAN law dictates that SKAN follow SKAN law."
"There's precious little law now," Talhi retorted. "We've no need of it. The law was only there to protect us from Outsiders."
"Funny," Acheron said, the traces of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "I'd always thought it was the other way around."
There was a pause.
"Do you ever...miss it?" Talhi asked finally.
Acheron opened her mouth to say no, of course she didn't, then closed it again. That in itself was answer enough.
"There's no edge to the knife here," she admitted finally. It was a fighter's expression meaning that life had gotten dull.
Talhi snickered quietly.
"That's certainly not an expression we ever used much in Outside."
Acheron reflected on the harsh, almost military lifestyle the SKAN had experienced before coming into Wiztliow.
"What about the others from our pack?" Talhi asked suddenly. "Did any of them make it?"
"You have changed." SKAN didn't usually waste time asking about the health of the pack in general-if it was that bad, they usually knew about it.
Talhi dropped her gaze.
"I know," she answered. "I can't help it. Did any..." She paused. "Status?" she asked, the old word drawing a smile from the other vasari.
"Mashingal, Lixin, Karintha and Ckiwah are dead. Ishelha-your successor," she added with a deadpan face, "-her cub Olari, Hanea, Reni and Weram were all taken by Outside. I know Mirac and Durali made it in, and so did Kalmynae-mostly thanks to those two. Other than that, I don't know. Oh wait-Liara managed to get here a few weeks after the others. She was taken by Outside but she managed to escape, and brought three cubs with her. They weren't from our pack though; I'd never seen any of them before."
"Yes, come to think of it, that is strange, isn't it?"
"No shit!" Talhi said fervently. "I remember Liara. When you became vasari, she was out for your blood." She thought, trying to remember the names of any other SKAN she'd known. "What about Karnarl?" she asked.
"Damn stupid male! He stayed behind to try and help Ishelha."
"Ah." Talhi fell silent. She had to admit, Karnarl had been one of the less adept SKAN. He'd run from any fight, was too nervous of hurting someone to be a taker, and was too noisy to be a raider or a scout. Males usually didn't work as lures, but if Karnarl had, Talhi had no doubts that he'd be as bad at that job as he was at the others. He'd been the mate of Ishelha-for some strange reason that even Acheron and Talhi had given up trying to fathom-and usually worked as a messenger and errand runner. The rest of the pack had tolerated him because it was easier than sending their own workers from one side of the lonil to the other.
"Mirac and Durali made it?" Talhi said, more to break the silence than anything.
"Yeah. I can't honestly say I'm surprised. Those two are probably the best SKAN I've seen in all my time as vasari...or any other rank, come to that," Acheron added.
"Then where did Alirtha come from?" Talhi said. "She's an Outsider, she's a young Outsider, and yet she bonded. I don't understand."
"Neither do I," Acheron said unexpectedly. "Alirtha found her way in through the DragonRing some twelve years ago. A female named Kaiya adopted her, and she found a mate-Narpen. Recently she had a cub."
Talhi fell silent. When she spoke her voice was respectful.
"Now...don't take this the wrong way or anything," she said carefully, "but are you sure that Outside and SKAN blood are designed to mix? Remember what happened with Renul?"
"How could I forget?" Acheron muttered. "And they aren't my pack, Talhi. Kaiya's made that quite clear, on numerous occasions."
"Yes..." Talhi said, sounding like she was still choosing her words with extreme caution, "but...well, if Alirtha could get in here, so could other Outsiders."
"It's been almost two hundred years," Acheron said calmly. "If one of the SKAN who knew about the DragonRing told the Outsiders, we'd have had visitors long before now. Both those SKAN and any Outsiders they might have told have been dead for about a hundred and fifty years."
"I-I never...it doesn't seem that long."
"Yeah, time flies when you're near immortal," Acheron said casually. "There is something that's...intriguing me, though."
"Something else?" Talhi muttered, not quite under her breath.
"Kalira-you remember Kalira?-she made it through as well."
"I'm not surprised," Talhi answered candidly. "Everyone knows the contest for Kanil's title was only really between the two of you. If you hadn't killed Kanil and made vasari, Kalira would have done."
"She's gone missing," Acheron said bluntly. "Nobody's seen her, or heard from her for the last few years. At first I just assumed she'd gone exploring and decided not to come back. But now..."
Talhi finished the sentence.
"You think that she's left Wiztliow."
"I think it's more than possible. It's peaceful, Talhi, but we're not a peaceful race."
"We used to be," Talhi murmured. "Before Tirani."
"Yeah...well...Tirani was five hundred years ago," Acheron answered tersely. "And she was the only one."
"The only one," Talhi echoed coldly. "Tell that to the pack at Losnir, why don't you?"
"Losnir?" Acheron echoed. The name was unknown to her.
"That's where I ended up, after being taken. It's some two hundred miles south of Kasarun. I only escaped thanks to a cub. A cub that turned out to be a double agent. Masilu, her name was."
"What happened to her?"
Talhi gave a kind of one-shoulder shrug.
"Ah, I let Shenal have her." She raised one elegant copper eyebrow. "I didn't even know you fighters were aware of moves like those, much less taught them."
"Shenal killed her?"
"Not at first. At first she...well, never mind. Masilu's dead now, and that's all that really matters. But she betrayed the lonil to the Outsiders. Most of them died. The few that managed to escape...well, they fled underground."
"And just how did you escape?" Acheron said, eyeing the lure narrowly.
"I'd tried to go back to Kasarun. Narral-that was the vasari fighter-sent an olix to guide me to the next region. We only just got out in time."
"Hmm." Acheron thought for a few minutes. "Do you ever wonder what's happening out there?" she asked curiously.
"Sometimes," Talhi admitted. "Like you said, there's no edge to the knife here."
Vinari stirred suddenly and let out a low, musical trill. Both SKAN glanced over at her.
"Are you thinking what I think you're thinking?" Acheron said finally.
Talhi had the grace not to look the other vasari directly in the eye.
"We ought to find out what happened to Kalira," she said evasively.
"Yes, we ought," Acheron said simply. It looked like it was going to be one of those conversations.
"After all...things might have changed..." Talhi said casually.
"They might have done," Acheron agreed.
"Maybe there are no more Outsiders."
"Maybe," Acheron said. "I doubt it," she added, "but maybe."
Talhi's eyes caught the fighter's and held them.
"There's only one way to find out," she said quietly.
"You were in a hurry, weren't you?" Narpen said to Alirtha. "I don't think I've ever seen you fly so fast!"
what do you mean you've never seen her fly so fast all she does is sit there Nrizali retorted.
"Hvin's by the tayubak grove," Narpen told her with a gleam in his eye.
really oh great thanks Nrizali took off and skimmed straight for the grove, where the SKAN could just about make out the white form of her mate.
"You know she'll clutch soon," Narpen said quietly.
"I hope so. She's been getting more and more antsy lately. A real volatile dragon!"
Narpen raised his eyebrows.
"Kind of like her rider," he said teasingly. Alirtha feigned indignation and swatted away the hand he raised to her cheek.
"I like that! I fly all the way across Wiztliow, come back, and that's all the welcome home I get??" She snorted. "Maybe I'll go stay with Tzersin. Saelohka doesn't seem to want him anymore."
Narpen chuckled dryly.
"Love, you wouldn't last five minutes with Tzersin. He was in my uncle's pack-I knew him briefly before Ingal and I split away on our own. Where did you go, anyway? Did you find out about this...Rylaio?" Narpen's lips quirked in a smile as he said the name.
"They were mated," Alirtha said, deliberately drawing out the suspense. "They...still are, I suppose. I found an old friend of Acheron's and brought her back to Tahrinh's island."
Narpen winced slightly.
"Just how did our resident vasari take that?" he asked, only half joking.
"I don't know," Alirtha told him flatly. "If you think I'm going to stick around to find out, you have got another think coming to you very fast indeed!"
Narpen threw up his hands in mock surrender.
"I give up! What is it with you females?? Sometimes I think us poor little males aren't really wanted around here."
"Poor-!" Alirtha whacked him playfully on the arm. Narpen drew away, features locked in a mock scowl.
"See? See!?" He sighed loudly. "Man, this SKAN hierarchy gets to you after a while."
"Oh, you! You know full well neither gender is superior to the other." Alirtha shrugged. "Females are just better than you, that's all."
Narpen opened his mouth to say who knew what, when a firejet hit the ground between them, causing both to jump away.
"What do you think you're doing here?" Narpen demanded of Hrovl.
Narpen opened his mouth to say that if she had, then good riddance to her, then caught sight of the near-murderous expression on Hrovl's features and had second, third and fourth thoughts about doing so.
"What's that to do with us?" Alirtha asked, in a voice that sounded a lot braver than she felt.
what's it to do with you Hrovl snapped. what's it to do with you i'll tell you what it's to do with you you brought that other skan female to the island didn't you
"Yes," Alirtha said, subtly moving around so she stood between Hrovl and the cave where her and Narpen's cub, Olissa, was sleeping.
shortly afterwards the other female's dragon came to ozeo and said her rider had sent her there Hrovl said coldly. we went to look for her and acheron but there was no sign of them
"I don't think that female could have taken Acheron anywhere Acheron didn't want to go," Narpen said carefully. "In fact, I'm sure of it."
does that matter all i care about is finding her again
Both SKAN looked at each other, then turned to look at the black, who showed no signs of backing down.
"That's it?" Talhi said.
"That's it," Acheron agreed. "I put in a gate back to Outside in case we ever needed to throw anyone out." She paused. "Never thought I'd be throwing myself out, though," she admitted.
"Are you sure...we should do this?" Talhi asked cautiously.
"I'm not sure of much anymore," Acheron said candidly. "But I do want a little more excitement than I've found so far. And besides," she added, "maybe we can find some more to bring through."
The two vasarin looked at the gate. It was nearly impossible to see unless you knew it was there-it was almost like a heat haze. There was the faintest suggestion of the rich, varied smells of Outside.
"What about the dragons?" Talhi said.
"We'll come back soon. I'm pretty sure they can manage without us for a day or two."
The gateway hung in the air, silently tempting, beckoning them to jump into a new world.