Book One-Outside

Acheron stepped into Kanil's place and looked around.
Nice. Very nice.
Kanil's mate, Liara, entered and did a double take when she saw Acheron there.
"Yes?" Acheron said mockingly.
"Is he..."
"Dead?" Acheron quipped, at the same time making a mental note to herself to move Liara out. Someone who was a hol fighter shouldn't be weak about the idea of death. It was common enough in the SKAN society, wasn't it? "Yes, of course he's dead," she said, her tone acidly sweet. "What did you expect?"
Liara didn't reply. The popular word on Acheron was that she was one mean bitch, although nobody knew anything about her. Her nocturnal lifestyle had given rise to her nickname-Losalri, meaning Dark One. There was great debate as to where exactly she came from. It was generally thought that Acheron wasn't her real name and had derived from some Outside word.
"This wasn't supposed to happen," Liara muttered under her breath. "Kanil was the greatest vasari in SKAN history. You should be dead by now, Acheron!"
"Kanil was the greatest vasari in SKAN history, yeah," Acheron answered. "Emphasize the 'was'."
Liara narrowed her eyes.
"So you're the new vasari, Acheron." The hol snorted contemptuously. "You won't last three days."
"Watch me."
The other SKAN female drew her lips back from her teeth.
"I'm going to see you taken by Outside, slut!" she hissed venomously.
"Are you?" said Acheron calmly. "We'll see."

Talhi pocketed her money and smiled. It had been a good night. Outsiders didn't know when they were being played for a sucker and when they weren't. And according to Mashingal, they didn't know when they were beaten either.
Thinking about fights led Talhi to wonder about Acheron and how she'd fared against Kanil. Talhi herself was a vasari lure and had been for some weeks now. The thought of having Acheron on the same level as her was...alarming, to put it mildly, despite the fact that Acheron wasn't a lure and as such wasn't allowed to attempt to govern Talhi's people for her.
She pushed open the door leading into Kanil's place. A familiar figure was standing and watching the windows for any sign of Outsiders.
Talhi was about to clear her throat when she stopped, realising that given how much Acheron hated Outsiders, and how tense she was on guard, there was a good chance that the Dark One would have a knife in Talhi's throat before she realised she'd made a mistake.
The figure turned. Although her face was blank, there was no mistaking the elation in her eyes.
"You did it, didn't you?" Talhi said.
"Did you think I wouldn't?" Acheron said.
"Is Kanil dead?"
"Of course he's dead! You know how these things work as well as I do, Talhi! It's good to see you again."
Talhi was about the closest thing Acheron had to a friend.
"You too. Listen, I shouldn't be saying this, but I heard from one of my sources that there's going to be an attack from Outside in about three hours time."
"Your 'sources', huh, Talhi?" Acheron said mildly.
"Well, yeah, most of 'em trade information if they don't have any money."
"Trade, huh, Talhi?"
This repetition made Talhi uneasy.
"Uh, yeah. See, if they want to-"
"I'm not interested in the ins and outs of your profession," Acheron interrupted. "What I am interested in is how reliable your 'sources' are, given that most of them are Outsiders."
"They traded the information fair and square, Acheron."
"Uh huh." Before the startled lure had a chance to react, Acheron crossed the space between them and snatched Talhi's knife out of its sheath. It was bloodstained.
"'Traded' the information, Talhi? 'Fair and square'?" Acheron mocked.
"Yes, well, so they needed a little encouragement. I never killed them, though."
"That's even worse. Dead SKAN don't talk, Talhi, and the same goes for Outsiders. You just injure 'em and they'll go straight to their own...uh...vasari."
"They don't call them that," Talhi said. "They call them something like kohpps."
"Means the same thing, though."
"And anyway, no Outsider would admit to doing business with a lure."
"Yeah, well, just be-why not?"
"Apparently it violates their rules. Doesn't matter whether the lure's one of them or one of us-they still aren't allowed to do it."
Acheron shook her head, trying to understand why.
"Weird," was all she said eventually.
"Yeah, well, they're a weird race," Talhi responded. "Give me my knife back."
Acheron handed the blade back over.
"Getting back to the original topic," she said, "what were you saying about an Outside attack?"
"They're going to come some time tonight. I don't know when exactly. What are you planning to do?"
Acheron frowned, tapping her teeth with a fingernail.
"Get all the non fighters hidden somewhere. I'll get on to Mashingal and see if he can't get his takers to join forces with us. We might be able to beat them back. What time is it?"
"About twenty past seven Outside time, why?"
"Outsiders are predictable when it comes to time. They'll leave at 'eight o'clock', or 'eight thirty' for something like this. It's always on the half hour, or failing that, the quarter hour. It would never occur to them to leave at 'twenty five past' or 'ten to' and it's about a half hour trek from their place."
The vasari stretched herself lazily.
"If I were you, Talhi, I'd get ready for an Outside invasion right now. And if I know Outsiders, they're going to be out to murder us."
A SKAN taker hovered outside the room, unsure of whether or not to enter. Acheron noticed the movement and turned, recognising him as Karnarl, a nas who, in her private opinion, had only made it that far because he was coupled with a rasur lure, Ishelha and the son of Kalira, a rasur fighter who had been one of the ones contesting for Kanil's leadership. Acheron had gotten there first.
"Mashingal wants to know what you plan to do with the two Outsiders, vasari," Karnarl said.
"Tell him I'll wait until they attack us," Acheron said dismissively.
Karnarl backed out of the room, not quite daring to turn his back on the Dark One. Once he judged himself out of sight, he broke into a sprint.
"Pity he's not as good at his job as Ishelha," Talhi said.
"Isn't it?" Acheron agreed. "Reduced to a courier at his standing."
Suddenly, the Dark One froze.
"'With the two Outsiders'? What the hell did that amateur mean, 'with the two Outsiders'?! Talhi..."
"Oh, like I know about what the takers get up to!" Talhi snapped. "Yeah, I really make a point of trying to run other people's packs for 'em! I have enough difficulty running my own!"
Acheron turned and bolted out the door after Karnarl and almost caught him before he entered Mashingal's place.
Damn! Damn, damn, damn!
Acheron stepped forward, only to find herself challenged by Weram, Mashingal's watcher.
"What do you want?"
The Dark One hesitated briefly before acting.
Very briefly.
By the time Weram had pulled himself out through the broken window and picked up his knife, Acheron was already concealed halfway up the stairs to wait for Mashingal to show himself.
She didn't have long to wait. Mashingal came out of a small door and started to head for the exit.
He never made it. Acheron erupted from out of hiding, launched herself at him and propelled him fast back through the door, only releasing him when his head hit the back wall.
"What the hell...?" Mashingal began.
"Shut up!" Acheron turned round, looking for signs of Outsiders.
Yeah. Two of them lying asleep on the floor. Well, they had been before Acheron's entrance had woken them up.
The Dark One turned back to Mashingal, eyes spitting fire.
"So Karnarl was right."
"Losalri, listen, I-"
"I don't want to hear it, Outsider!"
Mashingal had until then been pretty subservient, but Acheron's last insult roused his own temper. He lunged forward.
"Say that again!"
"Say what again, Outsider?"
Mashingal aimed a stab at her. It was clumsy and easily dodged, and the taker decided not to push his luck by trying again.
"Look, we can bargain with them, get the Outsiders to forget the attack..."
Something inside Acheron snapped and she backhanded the taker so hard he was carried nine feet across the room, only stopping then because he'd hit the wall.
"Bargain with them!? Forget the attack?! You've taken two Outsiders here completely unprovoked, held them here, and you expect to use them like us?! They aren't us, Mashingal! They're Outsiders! Don't you understand that?! If you try to bargain, they'll just kill you, me, all of us and take them anyway, plus those they don't kill! Is that your idea? Because if it is, I'm taking you straight to the gathering and accusing you of treason!"
"There's no gathering scheduled," Mashingal answered, his tone surly.
"I'll call one."
"You? You can't do that! Only the vasarin can-" Mashingal broke off abruptly as his brain caught up with his voice. "Kanil's dead, isn't he?"
"Why does everyone keep asking me that?" Acheron demanded. "For the last time, yes, Kanil is dead! I am the new vasari fighter! If anyone doesn't like that or doesn't believe me, I'll be more than happy to prove it! Now quit digressing."
"You'll call a gathering and have me accused of treason, will you? And what about you?"
Acheron narrowed her eyes.
"What in hell are you talking about?"
"The only reason you haven't stirred things up before now is that you're well aware of how much the vasarin have disapproved of your links with the lure Talhi. You accuse me of treason, and I'll accuse you of fraternizing outside your station."
"There's nothing illegal in consorting with lures," Acheron said tightly. "You know that. It's disapproved of, true, but nobody can do anything to me about it, which is more than can be said about your crime."
"I didn't take these Outsiders."
"You really expect me to believe that?" Acheron sneered. "If you didn't take them, what are they doing here and who did take them?"
"They could probably tell us," Mashingal answered. He felt it was safe to risk standing up now.
"Can you speak their language?" Acheron asked pleasantly.
"No, can you?"
"You know the answer to that, Mashingal."
"I don't. I don't know anything about you, Losalri."
"Looks like you're in need of a translator, then." Acheron raised her voice. "Hey Karnarl! Quit cowering outside the room and come deliver your message!"
Mashingal whipped round.
Karnarl stepped in apologetically.
"Sorry. Liara asked me to tell you that she wants a rematch with you. Says she's going to avenge Kanil's death."
Acheron sighed in exasperation.
"Damn it all to hell, Karnarl, if a fully trained vasari couldn't beat me, what chance does a raw, semi trained hol have? Tell her she's lost her mind and as of this moment is now in isolation. No, cancel that. Tell her if she wants to fight, she should be at the front in the fight against the Outsiders. And ask Talhi to get down here; Mashingal wants her to translate."
Karnarl turned and left. Mashingal narrowed his eyes.
"Who the hell do you think you are, Acheron? Coming in here, ordering my pack around?"
"Never mind that now. I want to get to the bottom of this."
"It's not your place to do that, as you well know!"
"Wrong. It is my place to do that because it's always the fighters that have to get the takers and the lures out of the screwed up situations they find themselves in. As vasari of those fighters, I have the right to know anything to do with Outsiders that could endanger this place."
"Acheron, what's going on?" Talhi stepped inside, then noticed the Outsiders and skirted round the opposite wall, avoiding all contact with them.
"I want you to translate," Mashingal said. "Ask them who brought them here."
The lure turned towards the Outsiders, now fully awake and alert. One of them made a movement at Talhi that Mashingal was unable to interpret. Acheron, seeing Talhi's immediate reaction to it, grimaced.
"Dammit, Talhi, you're not working now! Just talk, okay?"
"Okay, okay." Talhi switched into the harsh, guttural language of the Outsiders.
"Do you to see who is being do this to pair of Outsiders?"
Acheron put a hand over her eyes and groaned.
"Talhi, who the hell taught you Outside?"
"It's standard training as a lure."
"Yeah? Well, if that's the best a vasari can do, I'd love to hear a cki sometime. Let me do it." Acheron turned, fumbling for words in the thick, awkward language of Outside.
"Did you see who did this to you?"
"No. All we saw was a..." One of the Outsiders went into a long explanation, most of which was too fast and technical for Acheron to follow.
"What did he say?" Mashingal demanded. Acheron ignored him, addressed the answer to Talhi.
"He didn't see who did it."
"What did he see?" Talhi asked.
"Something about someone dressed all in black. He wasn't very explicit about that."
Talhi bit back the comment about how she was sure that the Outsider had actually been very explicit and Acheron just hadn't understood what they'd said.
"What're they doing here?"
Acheron turned.
She broke off and turned back to Mashingal.
"Damn stupid question," she snapped. "Anyone can see they aren't here through choice."
"Who are they?"
Acheron turned and relayed the question.
"Okay...that one's supposed to be called Maak and the other one something like Djakk."
"Good luck pronouncing those," Talhi said, amused.
"Ha! Forget that; I've got a war to organise."
"Original catchphrase," Talhi murmured, as she and Acheron set off for Acheron's place, "but I can't see it ever catching on, somehow."
"What do you think they're doing here?" Acheron asked.
Talhi shrugged.
"Beats me. I've heard about presumptuous Outsiders taking others against their will."
"Yeah! Us!"
"No, I'm not talking about SKAN. I'm talking about other Outsiders."
Acheron frowned.
"I don't know! For money, I guess. They tell the Outsider's family that if they don't give the first Outsider a lot of money, then the first Outsider will kill the one they're holding."
"'Money'?" echoed Acheron. The concept was unknown among fighters.
"Yeah, little discs of decorated metal and intricately decorated pieces of paper. They go down and exchange them for food and things."
"I'll never understand that race," Acheron said dismissively. "C'mon, let's get-"
The explosion of an Outside weapon from nearby cut her short.

Mark turned to Jack as best he could.
"Where the hell are we?" he asked.
"Dunno," Jack answered. "Some place on the streets?"
"No shit," Mark said sarcastically. "Some ploy of the streeters, you think?"
"I don't think it was a streeter that took us," Jack mused. "He was too heavy-set."
"What, you think it's a frame-up?"
"Hell no! Most streeters're unbalanced psychos anyway! They belong some place where they can't reach normal folk like us, or better yet, dead! Wish there was some way to get rid of 'em."
A single gunshot, followed a few seconds later by another, cracked out through the darkness outside. Mark raised an eyebrow.
"You may get that wish."

Talhi whipped round and bolted for the nearest place of safety, in this case, Mashingal's place. Acheron would have liked to bolt-but the first rule of fighting, ie, you never turn your back on an opponent-and that includes running away from them-held her in place.
There was another explosion from somewhere off to her right. Acheron pivoted slowly to face the direction of danger. A third explosion kicked up a few stones just behind her heel and she suppressed the urge to leap forward.
So that's their game, is it? They think they can drive me like some dumb animal?
Acheron narrowed her eyes. Nobody could be allowed that level of arrogant presumption.
Acheron didn't turn round, kept her eyes fixed ahead of her. Next to her, Kalira stood, facing the opposite direction. Between them, they should be able to cover all ground.
Acheron spoke to the Outsiders concealed in the shadows.
"You are not wanted here. Back off. Now."
The reply, coming from somewhere to the left, was fast and garbled and Acheron was only able to catch a word here and there.
"All" The voice paused, then repeated more slowly. "Come with us."
Acheron raised an eyebrow, the disdain and arrogance this movement gave her unfortunately lost on the Outsiders' poor night vision.
"Go with you? Join you?"
There was a pause, then the voice said simply, "Yes."
There was another, much longer pause, before the speaker answered her.
"I do not know why you should not. We can help you."
Beside her, Acheron felt Kalira stiffen, ready to leap with or without the vasari's permission.
"Not yet," Acheron told her. "This is just getting interesting." Switching back into the Outside language, she addressed the Outsider again.
"How can you help us?"
"Acheron!" Talhi's yell from a few hundred yards down the alley startled both SKAN and Outsiders. "Acheron, get out of there! It's a trick!"
"Go," Kalira said. "I'll make sure they don't follow."
Acheron hesitated for a few minutes, then darted down the alley, dodging past trashcans. An Outsider stepped out to block her path. The Dark One's nerves were already on edge and she was in no mood to be touched. She crouched slightly, then slammed both her feet into his chest. As they made contact, she encountered something hard and unyielding-but that made no difference to the force she struck him with. It simply meant that her blow left him still alive instead of crushing his ribs like she'd intended. No matter. He wasn't a threat to her now. She leapt neatly over him, then continued into Mashingal's place.
"Acheron!" Talhi appeared in a doorway.
"Talhi!" Acheron felt as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Only then did she admit to herself how afraid she'd been that Talhi hadn't made it. "What the hell's going on?"
"I don't know. Don't you remember anything about this kind of situation? You're the fighter!"
Acheron shook her head.
"The last Outside raid came ten years ago, when I was still a cki. Are there any non-fighters out there?"
Talhi shook her head.
"None of mine. I left them back at my place. Acheron, what are we going to do?!"
"Quit panicking, for one thing," Acheron snapped. Her tone cut through the fog of Talhi's near hysteria and the lure blinked a few times, then took a deep breath.
"How are you going to stop them?"
Acheron looked pointedly at the room where the two Outsiders were.
"No!" Talhi scrambled up to block her path. "You can't be serious!"
"Stand aside," Acheron said in a low voice. Talhi hesitated, weighing up her chances against Acheron, then stepped out of the way. Acheron took the stairs three at a time and entered the room. Both the Outsiders turned to watch her cautiously.
"You know why they attack?" Acheron demanded of them abruptly. "They want you?"
Djakk turned his head away sullenly, refusing to answer. Maak shook his head vehemently.
"No. They don't want us. They want you."
Acheron frowned.
"Why me?"
"Not you. All streeters."
"What are streeters?"
"Don't tell her anything, Maak," Djakk snapped. "They belong behind bars, or dead."
Acheron, who hadn't followed all of this but had followed enough to understand the gist of it, narrowed her eyes and took a step forward.
"No," Maak said quickly. "Please. Djakk is...sick. He does not know what he is saying. Streeters are what we call your people."
"They want my people?" Acheron persisted.
"Because they think you'll be better and safer with them than out here."
"Will you stop them?"
"No!" Djakk said instantly.
"Yes," Maak said, desperation creeping into his voice. "Just...let us go and we'll try to stop them."
"Try?" Acheron echoed. "You cannot stop them?"
"I don't know."
The vasari drew her lips back from her teeth and started to pace, torn between training and sense. Finally, she turned back to him.
"How can I trust you?"
"We will come back after," Maak answered. "Let us go."
Acheron hesitated for a few minutes, then crouched down beside the Outsider and, using her knife, sliced through the ropes fastened around his wrists and ankles.
"Go then."
Maak got to his feet, staggered. Impatiently, Acheron grabbed his wrist and hauled him upright, shoved him towards the door.
"Uh...what about Djakk?" Maak asked.
"No. Djakk stays to make sure you do come back."
Maak shook his head.
"We both go or none of us goes."
Acheron unsheathed her knife again.
"If that is what you want, Maak."
Maak turned without another word and went down the stairs. Watching from the window, Acheron saw him leave the building and walk over to a group of Outsiders. There was the sound of raised voices and then one Outsider grabbed Maak and shoved him away from the building. Maak leapt aside, dodged, then dived back inside out of trouble. "Damn!" Acheron leapt out of the room and turned to Lixin, a syer fighter.
"Get everyone on the attack," she commanded. "Now!"
Lixin spun round and started spreading the word amongst the SKAN. Acheron turned only to find herself face to face with Mashingal.
"You're going to attack?" he said incredulously.
"Did you think it was a training exercise?" Acheron sneered. "Yeah, we're going to attack, taker. It's gone on too long. You can either join with us or cower in the building like the weaklings you are."
Given Mashingal's temperament, there was probably nothing that Acheron could have said that would have angered him more.
"'Weaklings', huh? Karnarl!"
The nas crossed the room to where the vasarin were arguing.
"Get all the takers ready to fight!"
"Uh, vasari, surely that's the fighters' job, not ours?"
"I said do it!"
Karnarl hesitated briefly, then turned and circulated among the takers, passing the word.
"We'll g-" Acheron began, before she was cut short by the scream that came from outside.
Talhi froze.
"That was Ishelha," she whispered.
"No!" Karnarl forgot all orders about getting ready to fight and made a break for the direction of the scream.
"Don't!" Maak, who had remained silent and unobserved throughout this, suddenly spoke out sharply. "That's just what they want you to do!"
Acheron rounded on him angrily.
"Why the hell should we listen to you?" she demanded, in fluent Outside quite different from her usual halting sentences.
Maak didn't flinch or back away from the angry vasari. Acheron had to give him that much credit for courage.
"Because I probably know more about Outside than all of you put together."
Karnarl, who had stopped at Maak's cry, made as if to run again. Acheron slammed into him, knocking him off his feet.
"Damn you, Losalri, let me up!"
Mashingal was over beside the pair in a moment.
"Let him up, Acheron. I'll handle him."
Acheron backed away. Mashingal grabbed Karnarl and half shoved, half threw him against the wall. Acheron noticed Maak's stunned expression and raised a disdainful eyebrow.
"They don't do that where you're from, Outsider?"
He shook his head, too shellshocked by such a casual display of strength to speak.
"Vasari!" Liara streaked into the room like an arrow. Acheron folded her arms calmly.
"Outsiders...they're coming! Here!" She caught sight of Maak and backed away, snarling.
"How many?" Acheron demanded.
"Too many!" Liara panted. "They're coming, Losalri. They're coming."
Acheron narrowed her eyes.
"Are you going to gibber like that, or are you going to actually start being useful?"
"Thirty. Armed with guns. After us. They took Meriya with them."
"It's a good thing Karnarl's unconscious," Acheron said briskly, "else you might just have sparked off a riot. Get ready to fight."
Maak extended his arm straight up into the air. Acheron stared at him.
"That means something in your society, Outsider?"
"Yeah. It means I want to say something."
Acheron shrugged.
"So say it."
"I can help you fight."
Acheron stared at him for a very long time.
"Say that again."
"I said, I can help you fight."
He shrugged. "Why not?"
"You make no sense. Why would an Outsider help a SKAN?"
"We aren't all out for your blood."
Acheron turned back to the assembled SKAN.
"This Outsider says he wants to help."
"Let him," Talhi said.
"You think so?"
"Sure," Liara supported. "They're not as good as us-but he'll know more about the Outsiders than-"

The sound of a gun being fired cut the brunette short even as it cut the hooker-(Tally?)-down. Mark pulled out his gun and started shooting at the one who had fired, only to find the weapon snatched away by that black-haired one that everyone seemed to refer to as Vasahree.
"No," she said, in a voice choked with anger. "Tally was my partner. I'll take this son of Outside."
Mark backed off, then turned away, leaving her in possession of the pistol. A single shot rang out and the killer went down even as Vasahree tossed him the gun back and turned her attention to another intruder. Mark caught it, a little dazed.
Vasahree knew she'd hit him even before he went down. She lifted me like I weighed next to nothing, that rough-looking guy threw that other right across the room and I saw Vasahree hit the first one hard enough to send him flying across the room straight into the wall! Christ Almighty! What are these SKAN?
"Hey you!"
Mark whirled to find one of his kind bearing down on one of theirs and hesitated briefly, then pulled out the gun and pointed it at the other's head.
"Freeze!" he yelled. It was his favourite line from police movies, and it worked. The other stopped, more out of shock than anything, giving the SKAN a chance to leap out of trouble.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?!" the unit controller said angrily. "These are-"
"Problem kids?" Mark suggested. "I've heard that one so many times. Used to believe it, until about ten minutes ago. Now, though, I don't think that the SKAN have the problem as much as we do."
The controller brought his sidearm around to aim at Mark and found it wrested from his grasp as the SKAN Mark had just saved attacked.

Acheron unsheathed her knife and struck out, feeling it bury itself in flesh and hearing the howl of pain from her opponent. There was an explosion from the other side of the room and she felt something slam into her leg with the force of a sledgehammer, taking her down. Lixin darted across the room and grabbed her, dragging her back, out of harm's way.
"Take your hands off me, syer!" Acheron snarled.
"What do you think you can do to fight Outsiders with only one leg, vasari?" Lixin retorted and continued pulling the Dark One out the door. Acheron blacked out halfway there and knew no more until she awoke a few hours later with a pounding headache and a dull throbbing in her leg.
The SKAN in the room (well, six SKAN and one Outsider, Acheron amended after catching sight of Maak) stopped their endless pacing and crossed over to her. Acheron recognised Karnarl, Liara and Ishelha plus two female and one male cki SKAN she didn't know. She took in the new rankscar on Ishelha's face and the memory of Talhi's death came back to her.
"Where're the Outsiders?" she demanded.
"We beat them back," Karnarl said, but there was no elation in his voice. For the first time, Acheron noted that the faces of the SKAN present all seemed haggard and drawn. No, scratch that, she told herself. They look scared as hell.
"What happened? Why did you come to see me?"
"As you-probably already know," Ishelha said thickly, "there were casualties."
Talhi. Dammit, why Talhi after all we've been through together?
"Tally is good," Maak said, in halting SKAN, almost as if reading Acheron's mind. "Not dead. Outside take."
Acheron pulled herself up violently.
"What? How do you know?"
Maak fumbled for words in SKAN, gave up and switched back into Outside.
"I heard a couple of people talking about her and saw them take her into a car. She was struggling pretty well then."
"And why did you come?" Acheron demanded, turning to the unmarked SKAN. "Who are you?"
One of the females stepped forward.
"My mate was killed three weeks ago," she said quietly, "by Outsiders. He-"
"Get to the point," Acheron muttered.
"Vasari, the Outsiders took our kids," Ishelha broke in. "They always took the females for some reason-nobody knows why. They took Meriya, as you know, and they took two others."
"Kalmynae," the cki murmured.
"Your daughter?"
"Yes, vasari."
"Who are you?"
"Ckiwah. I used to work as a searcher."
Acheron grunted, turned to the other two.
"And you?"
"Karintha," the female said. "This is my mate, Nirshol. Outsiders took our daughter as well-Shalenyi."
"Daughters," Acheron mused. "What is it with Outsiders and females? Are they underpopulated?"
Maak, when this had been relayed to him, shook his head violently.
"No. It's just...uh..." he hesitated. "Outside females tend to be thought of as weaker and more docile than the males by the males. So they think that a female SKAN will put up less of a fight than a male SKAN."
Acheron swung her legs around and got them underneath her, then pushed herself upright, balancing perfectly on one leg.
"Karnarl, get all the fighters you can assembled. Everyone else-lures, takers, searchers, all the other professions are to stay in a building. I don't want any crap about 'fraternizing outside of people's stations', either. You get to a building. If that building's full of lures and you're a taker, just live with it."
"What's going on?" Maak asked, only just beating Karnarl's identical query.
"This has gone far enough," Acheron said, her voice deadly quiet. "It's time for us to fight back. Tell the fighters that I want three young Outside females brought to the isolation building and held there until further notice."

Book Two