Talhi looked around quickly. She was shut in a small room with no window and no way out. Plus the fact that whatever they'd put on her leg was hurting like hell.
I'm in some really deep shit here.
She concentrated. Talhi had never developed her psychokinetic powers beyond the ability to persuade Outsiders to allow themselves to be seduced and even then, her looks alone had generally been enough. Now, however, she had to reach a SKAN, any SKAN. Hell, even Mashingal or Karnarl would do.
SKAN telepathy isn't a matter of someone thinking 'Hello' and someone else thinking 'Hello yourself'. It's simply a collection of emotions and images that are packed almost on top of each other, so a listening SKAN wouldn't understand what another was saying. They'd just understand what they meant. The images and emotions Talhi sent out were something akin to claustrophobia, curiosity, a hint of desperation and wistfulness coupled with an image of another SKAN.
hey can anyone hear me
There was no response. Talhi tried again, intensifying her desperation.
is there anyone out there
Still nothing. By this time Talhi could feel a headache coming on and knew from bitter experience that if she didn't stop now that headache would soon develop into a screaming migraine, but she had to keep going until she got a response.
There was the touch of a mind on her own.
are you there can you understand me
The answer, when it came, was in slightly strange but perfectly intelligible SKAN, albeit faint, as if coming from a great distance.
yes i understand
Talhi hesitated slightly. There was something about that voice, something that bore watching.
who are you
There was a long pause before the other SKAN answered.
mahddlin who are you
That was what was odd about that voice. It was Outside. Talhi lashed out mentally and felt it recoil from her in pain, then sent out the message again, seeking other SKAN.
can anyone hear this help me
The door started to open. Talhi tensed herself to leap for the exit, prepared herself to fight.
What she hadn't prepared herself for was the sight of a young Outsider stepping in through the door and leaving it open behind it. Talhi settled back out of combat position, more out of shock than anything else, and watched it cautiously. It came a few steps into the room, then stopped, obviously afraid.
Talhi switched into the Outside language. Since the encounter with the two Outsiders, she'd taken a few key phrases from the minds of other SKAN and had a better grasp of the tongue.
"What do you want?"
"I..." The Outsider said another word that Talhi, after considering, decided was some conjugation of the verb 'to think', probably the preterite. "I thought...perhaps...you want your knife." It held it out to her, handle first.
Talhi stared at it. Night vision gave her a far better image of the Outsider than the Outsider had of her, and that suited the lure just fine.
"Who are you?"
"Mahddlin. Who are you?"
Just like the conversation with the Outsider, except it was out loud.
"Tally, you stay quiet, okay? I want to open front door, so you leave this place."
Talhi drew her lips back from her teeth.
"You help me? Why?"
"I want to go with you. You want to leave, you leave with me."
"This is a trick," the vasari snarled. "You want to take more of us."
"No. I don't. I don't like what they do to you."
Talhi hesitated for a few seconds. She was being asked to trust an Outsider, to take that Outsider along with her and risk being accused of treason when she got back to her pack?
"You go with me?" she hissed suspiciously. "Why should I let you?"
"I tell you when we go."
"No. You tell me now."
She felt Mahddlin's mind touch her own, drawing a few words from it.
"I hate being Outside," she said in SKAN. Talhi narrowed her eyes.
The Outsider obeyed, and Talhi gripped its jaw and examined its face closely. There was something there...some kind of twisted scar, the sort that might be caused by removing a large birthmark.
Or an i.t.
Talhi released her and stepped back.
"Who are you really, cki?" she demanded.
The 'Outsider' shrugged slightly.
"I, um, was kinda hoping you could tell me that. See, I used to work for a taker vasari called Rylaio...you know him?"
Talhi shook her head, still trying to take in the child's abrupt change into SKAN.
"A taker?" she echoed, slightly dubiously. SKAN females were rarely takers...if any female SKAN showed an aptitude for combat, they were usually fighters.
"It was a test," the other explained. "They wanted to find out if a female could be a taker. I used to be in Narulsun-do you know where that is?"
Again Talhi shook her head.
"I'm from Kasarun."
"Don't know it. But then-"
"Enough small talk," Talhi said sharply, her patience running low and her claustrophobia threatening to overwhelm her. "Are we leaving or not? What's your SKAN name?"
"Masilu. I think. I was taken a few years ago when I was very young-it's hard for me to remember."
"Do you know how to get out of here?" Talhi demanded.
"Oh yes, you just go through-"
"Good, then show me."
Masilu bridled slightly.
"For someone who needs me as much as you do, I'd be a little more respectful. Particularly in your position."
"Cki, my position is a vasari lure that is trapped in Outside, very little patience left trying to talk to a SKAN turned Outsider! For all your determined words, Masilu, or Mahddlin, or whatever you call yourself, you don't seem to have done much about getting out of here. If you don't want to for some incomprehensible reason, that's great, fine, but stand aside and let me get out of this hellhole!"
Something of Talhi's anger must have shown in her eyes as Masilu backed away.
"You're a vasari?"
"Yeah. A vasari who, incidentally, used to hang around with one of the best fighters in SKAN before getting taken, and who's picked up a few tricks from that fighter, and whose temper and patience is almost through."
"Okay, okay!" Masilu stepped through the door and led Talhi towards another door, which she quietly opened.
A loud bell started ringing. Talhi froze.
"The alarm," Masilu said, panic in her voice. "Go!"
Talhi needed no further urging. Even for a lure, she was fast and sprinted away across the grounds, heading for the main gates.
They swung shut before she could get through them. She hesitated. All SKAN have a small amount of training in all professions, no matter what their chosen one. Talhi's natural agility had seen her through the fight training. She just hoped she could remember how to tackle this.
Masilu caught up to her just as Talhi leapt. The leap was clumsy, only propelling her up eighteen inches.
But sometimes, Talhi thought as she seized the top of the gate in a death grip, eighteen inches is enough.
With, it has to be confessed, a certain amount of difficulty, Talhi managed to pull herself up and over the gate. She dropped and hit the ground running.
"You owe me, vasari!" Masilu screamed at her. Talhi whirled, caught in an agony of indecision. Masilu was attempting to follow her example but couldn't quite jump high enough to reach the top. The lure darted back to the gate and hung perilously over the top.
Something grabbed her wrist and yanked hard, almost pulling her over. She could see the Outsider's face close to hers, hear its loud breathing.
There was the sound of a knife flying through the air and burying itself in flesh. The Outsider's face contorted into a hideous grimace, then he crashed to the ground, dead.
Talhi turned. There was a small group of SKAN a few yards away. She hesitated, then grabbed Masilu's wrist and hoisted her up and over. They both dropped to the ground. The watching SKAN didn't move. Only a syer, a fighter by the looks of him, approached them.
"Thankyou," Talhi said sincerely.
"Lucky break, vasari," the fighter answered, dismissing her gratitude in the typical way of all SKAN. "Who are you?"
"Talhi, vasari lure from Kasarun. This is Masilu, cki taker from Narulsun. Yourself?"
"Kirshun. I'm a nas fighter from Losnir."
Talhi shook her head.
"This is a big problem. I don't suppose you've heard of Kasarun or Narulsun by any chance, have you?"
Kirshun shook his head.
"Sorry. Shenal might know something about it though; she's kind of a nomad who decided to settle with us. Hey Shenal!"
A young female detached herself from the pack and came up to them.
"Ever come across a place called Narulsun in your travels?" Kirshun asked, slightly sarcastically.
Shenal considered briefly, then shook her head.
"No, syer, can't say I have."
"How about Kasarun?"
"Why are you asking me this?"
"Because this vasari comes from Kasarun, that's why!"
"Kasarun," Shenal echoed quietly. "You're a long way from home, aren't you, vasari?"
Talhi felt fear grip her.
"What do you mean, kerj?"
"It's about two hundred miles north of here."
The lure stared.
"Two hundred miles," Shenal repeated. "At least."
"Forgive the presumption; but you'll never make it that far without help," Kirshun said. "Not with an injury like that."
Talhi nodded unwillingly.
"You're right. But where am I?"
"You're in Losnir. It isn't particularly well known for its SKAN; it's just a collection of small Outside places surrounded by plants."
"Take a look around you, vasari."
Talhi did so. There was more grass than she'd seen in a lifetime, and several trees and shrubs dotted here and there about the landscape.
A strange cry rang out through the night, making her jump.
"What was that?"
"Only an owl," Kirshun said dismissively.
"Oh." Talhi had heard of owls and places like this-Kasarun had been home to a number of nomadic SKAN for a while-but she never thought she'd have to be in one. She'd both been born and brought up in a large city and had never stepped outside her area.
"We should be getting back," Kirshun said. "It'll be light soon."
Talhi nodded and the pack set off, with her bringing up the rear.
"Would I be allowed to go back to Kasarun anytime soon?" she asked.
Kirshun shook his head.
"I'm not authorised to answer that, vasari. You'd be better off asking our own vasarin that."
"I don't know what's so complicated about this," Acheron said sharply. "Look, Liara, tell the Outsider that he'll get his cub back when we get ours back."
The hol sighed irritably.
"I have, vasari. Three times so far. He just doesn't want to know. Whenever I tell him, he says that he-and I quote-'do not believe that you streeters have any sense of morality and you have no idea of how to look after a khidd'."
"What's a khidd?" said Karintha.
Acheron raised an eyebrow pointedly in Maak's direction.
"It's what Outsiders call their offspring, vasahree."
Acheron turned back to Karintha.
"Why don't we let the Outsider talk to this one?" Liara asked. "He could probably find out in a night what we couldn't in a year."
"Why not?" said Maak, in bad SKAN.
"Why not indeed," agreed Acheron, deliberately speaking in Outside. It was bad enough that this male had to attach himself to them, without trying to ingratiate himself into their society as well.
Maak went red, stood up and walked out without another word.
Acheron sent the other SKAN out and settled down to wait.
"So you're asking me to give you an escort to Kasarun, is that it?"
It was three weeks after Talhi's arrival in Losnir, and she felt just about ready to start the long trek home. The vasarin-including Talhi-had gathered together to decide what the best course of action would be.
Narral, who was the vasari fighter of Losnir, leaned casually against a wall and regarded the lure quietly.
"Yes," Talhi answered shortly. "But not all the way. Just until I get into another SKAN region."
"I see," Narral said calmly. "So you plan to run from region to region just like that? What about the Outsiders? They'll be looking twice as hard for you now."
Talhi raised her chin defiantly.
"I can handle the Outsiders," she said coldly. "We learned to take care of ourselves in Kasurun."
"That may be," said Narral immovably, "but you're running an unnecessary risk, and what's more, you're putting whoever you travel with in danger."
"Isn't it the responsibility of the current vasari in the area to deal with any nomads or ex-captives?" Talhi countered, her temper rising. Acheron would never have been this blind. "Isn't it the responsibility of that vasari to make sure that the other SKAN gets out of their region safely? If you were in my position and in Kasurun, wouldn't you expect such a courtesy?"
Narral had no answer to that.
"I guess so," he said ungraciously.
"So are you going to help us or not?" the lure demanded.
Narral stood upright.
"'Us'? What do you mean, 'us'? There was only one of you that was brought in."
"That can't be right. There was a cki with me-"
"A whole pack, actually," Narral interrupted.
Talhi narrowed her eyes.
"Are you going to stand there gibbering, or are you actually going to start being useful?" she demanded, in a passable imitation of Acheron.
All the assembled SKAN and those within earshot suddenly went poker-faced. Narral stared hard at her.
"I'd watch that mouth of yours, lure," he said coldly, "before it lands you in too much trouble."
"You wouldn't be so presumptuous if the Kasurun vasari was here," Talhi retorted.
"Indeed?" Narral folded his arms and watched her stonily. "And just who is he, this vasari?"
"Her name's Losalri," Talhi answered, deliberately stressing the female pronoun.
"'Losalri'?" echoed Narral. "I don't know any Losalri. Who is this...this Dark One?"
"She calls herself Acheron," Talhi elaborated. "Does that name mean anything to you?"
"Not really, no," Narral said bluntly.
Talhi smiled suddenly.
"You should meet her. Maybe I'll introduce you-after the little round of Death or Glory, of course."
There was a long, long silence. You could have heard a pin drop.
Lure's blood, Talhi thought, stricken. I just invoked the Death or Glory challenge! Not even Acheron would use that lightly.
After a pause Narral said, "I really don't think there's any call for that."
"Please yourself," Talhi said, her calmness covering the intense relief she felt. She'd been wondering what the hell she'd do if Narral had accepted the challenge.
"Don't get me wrong," Talhi continued. "I don't get what I want by threats and extortions. I'm not a cowardly SKAN. But I am a desperate one."
Narral started to pace. In several ways, he reminded Talhi of Acheron.
"I send an escort, then you get the hell out?" he demanded.
"Very well. Then get out of this region before you bring the whole of Outside down onto us."
He sent her with a young olix named Lashal.
"This was not the idea," Acheron fumed. "I told that Outsider to talk to him, not show him straight up to me!"
"You, uh, don't think you offended him...?" Olari said. Olari was a young fighter who should have left the training ground months ago, and would have, if it wasn't for his constant presumption and complete disregard of rules-in particular, his tendency to leave the cki grounds as and when he felt like it. This time, though, his syer, Rusiel, had gotten fed up with reprimanding him and sent him straight to the top; ie, to Acheron herself.
Acheron put down the brick she'd grabbed in the heat of her anger.
"Offence? Cki, 'offence' has nothing to do with disobeying orders! And speaking of which, your syer tells me you were found outside cki grounds again! What the hell do you think you're playing at?!"
Olari shrugged and didn't answer.
"You could be a damn good fighter if you'd lose your presumption," Acheron said angrily. "As it is, even Ishelha would be hard pushed to find you work."
"Oh, and I suppose you never broke a rule in your life?" Olari sneered.
Acheron narrowed her eyes until they were nothing more than grey slits, whilst at the same time remembering a few excursions she had made in the first two or three ranks away from the training grounds.
"Of course I have, what SKAN hasn't?" she snapped. "But I never made vasari by breaking the rules."
"You can't have been too smart then," Olari said.
Acheron stared at him. Olari could see her lips moving silently and barely had time to dodge the brick that she hurled in his direction. As it was, the missile that had been aimed for his head struck his collarbone as he jumped. There was an audible crack.
"You missed," he said through teeth gritted with the pain.
"I never miss," Acheron said coldly. "Except at will."
Before Olari had time to blink, she slammed into him and shoved him hard against the wall.
"Now you listen to me," she snarled. "I've got three Outside cubs in the holding rooms and I'm going to have to confront their enraged parents, my partner has been taken by Outside and for all I know, she's probably dead, I have to deal with a male Outsider who fancies himself a SKAN, I need to organise a way of beating back the next Outside attack before too long...!" (Karnarl stepped into the room. "Not now; later!" Acheron barked, diverting her ire for a minute. Karnarl hurriedly ducked back outside. Unlike Olari, he knew something about the Losalri.) "...I need to get rid of Maak before he does too much damage and I need to do something about his friend who's still in Mashingal's place." She lowered her voice. "What I don't need," she hissed, "is for some raw, unseasoned cki to be sent up here every hour for the same damn offence by the same damn SKAN. Talking to you is like trying to knock down a brick wall by slamming my head against it; it's hard work, probably futile and it gives me a headache! Now are you going to get rid of that presumptuous attitude?"
"Vasari," Olari murmured. He sounded dazed. Acheron in full spate often had that effect on SKAN.
"Good." Acheron paused for a minute. "You're relocated to the beginning area."
"If you act like some arrogant, self-righteous cki just arrived, I'll treat you like one. Get out of my sight."
Olari didn't move. Acheron had to give him credit for courage. Credit for brains, no. But he was no coward.
"What about the bribery?" he muttered.
Acheron paused momentarily.
"There're a few olixin who've used their rations and general knowledge of goings-on to persuade the higher ranking to allow them a rankscar in exchange for those things. Bribery occurs in any profession, vasari, but particularly in ours."
Acheron had to concede the point; she'd gotten to be syer in precisely the same way.
"I'll look into it," she snapped. "Now get out before I throw you out."
Olari obeyed without further comment.