Book One-Ezir

Saelohka stretched herself and yawned. It had been a good day's sleep. Now she had the whole night in front of her. The possibilities were endless.
Beside her, Ozafor stretched his wings lazily. Saelohka ducked just in time to miss the customary jet of flame that he always exhaled when he yawned.
is it darkhour
yes why don't we go swimming

Ozafor looked at Saelohka with something fast approaching reproach.
you know dragons can't swim it puts the flames out
well please yourself but you know you'll enjoy it once you get there

Unlike other dragons, Ozafor not only didn't mind getting wet, he positively loved it. The only problem, he kept saying, was that when dragons swim it puts their flames out for a good few days.
anyway i can't afford to keep picking new leaves for a bed because you incinerate them as soon as i bring them in
Ozafor reared his head back. Instinct and several years training caused Saelohka to leap back out the way of the firejet.
see what i mean there you go again
you know dragons have to breathe fire just like you have to exhale toxic gases to prevent them doing harm to you

Saelohka paused. She had been a SKAN leader for three years and had also been among the most wanted in the Outside. She'd never been interested in Their way of life-but from what little she managed to pick up of Their lifestyle and lessons, she was fairly sure that carbon dioxide wasn't toxic. She opted for a change of subject.
hey you remember i told you about that voice
what voice oh yes that one well what about it
do you think some more of my people have found their way to the dragonring
possibly but i hope not because we're running low on eggs why do you humans need to reproduce so fast honestly there was that one who came over three moons ago who was he again
vinyi and he's one of my family so watch what you say about him
Saelohka, in the typical way of her particular line, had had an unusually active time when she was younger. She wasn't much good at counting or keeping track in Their fashion and she tended to give birth and then forget about it-but she was fairly sure Vinyi was her son.
well i could do with some human company hey i wonder if she'll come here
maybe you never know so are we going swimming or not
Saelohka laughed and stepped out of the cave into the cool night air. She looked up to where the moon was shining and then dived into the ocean. Ozafor followed her out. As he left, he took on shape-an immensely large and powerful dragon. He was mainly royal blue in color with gold-veined wings and claws. He opened his mouth and yawned again, revealing teeth the same colour as the talons on his feet. His golden eyes looked around and lighted on the far horizon.
what's that
Saelohka surfaced and followed his gaze.
what's what
a black dragon but a different kind to me almost like a wyrm
Ozafor sometimes found it hard to accept that there were other dragons out there. Wyrms were commonplace, you could hardly enter your cave without scaring a family of them off. Wyrms were the only things that Ozafor had to compare other animals with.
your eyes are keener than mine Saelohka transmitted, is there a rider
Ozafor looked hard, straining his eyes.
yes he answered finally, but she is not like you
what does she look like
she is the same shape as you but has black hair which is short and eyes which match the hair color she is thinner than you and about the same height

Saelohka looked worried.
can you find out her name
no she is blocking me and her dragon won't let me in either

The dragon in question started to slow down as it approached the three mile, oval shaped island of Ezir.
it's going to land it's going to land
Saelohka could almost taste Ozafor's excitement at meeting another dragon. She wasn't so sure. Unlike Ozafor, she had a nasty suspicion who the Rider of that particular dragon was, and if she was right, the tranquil life she and Ozafor had gotten used to here on Ezir was about to be violently disturbed for the first time in thirty years.


Ozafor followed the dragon's flight with his head excitedly.
where do you think they'll land
i don't know but if that's who i think it is we'd best not approach them let's wait until they come to us
because they don't like presumption
*sigh*okay we'll wait
great so you wanna keep swimming or what
Ozafor's only answer was to lift his tail and sweep it across the water, completely drenching Saelohka.
okay ozafor you've done it now hey hold still while i'm trying to soak you
Completely exhausted, the two made their way back to the cave three hours later to collapse into a dreamless sleep. Dreamless. Another bad sign, Saelohka mused as she lay there after awakening. She looked around the cave. No sign of their mystery visitor yet.
Saelohka jumped violently and stared wildly about the cave, then relaxed. The voice had come from outside the cave. And it was the final confirmation for her suspicions.
"I don't want you here," she said sharply.
No answer. Saelohka waited for about ten minutes before stepping outside and groaned when she saw the visitor. Tall, thin, black hair and eyes so piercing you couldn't look directly at them for more than a few minutes but if they looked at you it was impossible to get away. A dragon, smaller than Ozafor, black from horn to tail with rust colored eyes that looked red in most light. Saelohka cringed inwardly, feeling the first pangs of fear in thirty years as she looked at the newcomer. A name formed in her mind, one she'd tried to forget just like she'd tried to forget the person who stood in front of her now.
There was no welcome escape into forgetfulness now. The name leapt from her mind and attached itself firmly to the unwelcome visitor.
The Dark One.

Acheron's lips parted in a humorless smile.
"Now that you've remembered who I am, let's get down to business, shall we?"
"Why are you here?"
Acheron laughed at the tremor of fear in Saelohka's voice.
"An intelligent question. More intelligent than asking me where I came from, or telling me to get out. I presume you know that that isn't an option? But as to why I'm here, it isn't through choice, I assure you. No, look on this as a friendly visit."
"Friendly?" Saelohka echoed. "I'm surprised you know the word. You got some other reason."
Acheron shrugged.
"Please yourself. But since you mention it, there is one other reason. An Outsider came in through the DragonRing. I just thought you'd like to know."
Saelohka froze.
"You-you heard the intrusion as well, then?"
"It came to me last. I don't know who they are, or how many they are. I just know they're here, which I pass on to you for what it's worth. And if you want to tell the others, I'm sure they'd appreciate it."
"So you're getting me to be your courier, in other words."
"No. I'm not getting you to do anything. I'm just telling you that I'm going straight back to Ozeo and if you want the others to find out, you can tell them." Acheron turned to go, then turned back again. "Oh yes. We also need a meeting place. Ezir being far the most adaptable climate, we decided to come here."
Saelohka's jaw dropped. Acheron smiled, pleased at the reaction she'd caused.
"But how-I mean, why-who made this the place without my sayso?"
Acheron laughed unpleasantly.
"Your 'sayso' isn't needed here, Saelohka. The decision didn't come from me; it came from Kalira."
Saelohka tried to get a picture in her mind of the Leader and failed. Kalira was second in command only to Acheron herself, but since Acheron scorned the duties and responsibilities, Kalira had stepped in. The only time Acheron ever took over her post and actually made contact with the others was when there was absolutely no alternative.
Like now.
Saelohka sighed.
"Alright, when are they going to start arriving?"
"They've started."
"I said..."
Acheron shrugged again.
"Well, right here for example. Hrovl and I have just been talking and we decided there's no point in going back to Ozeo just to come straight back again. So we'll stay up in the mountain caves, if that's okay with you."
"Sure, we don't use them anyway. Just remember the rules for you!"
"Yeah, yeah," Acheron said dismissively. She grinned evilly. "No torture, no killing, no hunting, no spoiling and NO incinerating."
The grin disappeared from her face and she sighed. "You just don't know how to enjoy yourself do you?"
Saelohka felt herself get defensive.
"My place. My rules."
Acheron sighed again.
"Alright, alright."
She walked over to Hrovl and slid onto his back with the ease of long practice.
"See you soon."
The pair took off for the mountains. Saelohka sighed and tried to remember all she knew about Acheron.
She wasn't evil, as her title implied. They just called her the Dark One because she was never seen in daylight. It wasn't surprising that Acheron and Hrovl had bonded on sight. When they'd used the DragonRing to create the other dimension, each SKAN member had been entitled to create their own world. Saelohka had created Ezir as her form of paradise-lush valleys, waterfalls, caves and a beach. The mountains were just there for decoration-but they did come in handy for people like Acheron who wanted that 'home from home' feeling. Acheron had created Ozeo as her form of paradise-rocky mountains, precarious stepping stones, permanently shifting in a sea of lava. Acheron had other islands, of course-they'd split the islands between them until anyone should come and claim one. Saelohka didn't like to think what would happen if anyone took a fancy to Acheron's territory. SKAN members tended to be fiercely territorial and Acheron more than most. Oh, and Acheron hated Outsiders with a vengeance, ever since her entire pack (Lixin, Karintha, Ckiwah and Mashingal) had been killed by them. Outsiders had also killed Acheron's partner and lover, Rylaio.
what's going on
there's going to be a meeting of the skan but i don't know why
you're lyyiiinng
okay okay it's something to do with the outsider who came in but that's all acheron would tell me
acheron what's that
Saelohka groaned inwardly as she realised her mistake. She hadn't planned to let Ozafor know that Acheron and Hrovl had arrived just yet.
i think who would probably be a better way of phrasing it than what
wow is it that dragon
Saelohka gave a sigh.
yes ozafor it's the dragon
why didn't you wake me
don't worry you'll get your chance to meet the other dragons there's going to be at least fifteen of them here
fifteen wow
Saelohka had to remind herself forcefully that Ozafor was still very young and had only hatched fifty years ago. Saelohka had never managed to come to terms with Outsider ages. If one of them made it to a hundred, they thought it was amazing. Saelohka herself was one hundred and twenty seven and by SKAN standards, barely a teenager. Vaguely she wondered how old Acheron was. Older than her, that was for sure.
hey it's almost lighthour
i know the others should be arriving shortly
great will there be other dragons
Saelohka found herself wondering if she should have followed Acheron's example for once and taken Ozafor all round Wiztliow rather than keeping them both here. It might have shut him up and given her some peace. And, more importantly, it might have taught him the difference between somedragon like Kaiya's, (who was Saelohka's closest friend) and somedragon like Acheron's (who was nobody's friend and not too bothered about it either.) Then again, Acheron didn't really have any actual enemies, apart from Outsiders. She just treated everywhere she went as hers and was consequently more familiar with all the islands than anyone else.
With a kind of dull shock, Saelohka realised that she'd never seen any other island apart from Ezir and Ozeo, where the last SKAN meeting had been thirty years ago. Well, she decided, if she knew Kalira, that was due for a change.
Silhouetted against the breaking dawn, a lone dragon started to approach Ezir.


Acheron entered the cave and slung her belongings on the floor. "Well, that's that done. I've planted the rumour, now all we have to do is wait and see what kinda response we get."
do you think she suspects
"Who, Saelohka?" Acheron laughed out loud. "The Trusting One? That's a good one, Hrovl. No, she wouldn't even begin to think about it. We got her and that..." Acheron spat downwind, "Outsider exactly where we want 'em."
i take it she's still on ozeo
"Who? The Outsider? No worries there, Hrovl, she's still on the island alright. Assuming she knows she can't get across the lava-better, of course, if she doesn't and she dies-she'll be stuck there on the isolation rock until we decide to get her."
you know acheron i've never worked out why you designed that isolation rock i mean all the skan bonded with dragons didn't they
"Yeah, true, but the Outsiders didn't. So she's either trapped or dead and either way she's no threat to us."
Acheron didn't transmit to Hrovl unless she didn't want anyone to hear what she was saying. Hrovl didn't seem to mind this and it had become routine.
was she ever a threat
Acheron stared at him.
"What, her? No chance, you know that. She's too young to be able to fight, even if she knew how."
don't you think she needs to eat soon
Acheron shook her head.
"I think you've gotten soft. She's an Outsider, Hrovl! Who cares whether she needs to eat now, in two hours time, in two days time or if she's already dead of starvation now!"
No response. Acheron threw up her hands in disgust.
"Alright! Alright! You wanna take her some food, you go ahead. But go and take it from Saelohka's stores, not ours. I'm not about to waste good food on an Outside child!"
please yourself but i'm sure she could tell us what's going on if we tried to talk to her
Acheron snorted.
"Go ahead, Hrovl. Whether she'll understand you is another matter, of course."
Hrovl gave his version of a shrug, indicating that he didn't really care whether the Outside child understood him or not and flew out the cave. Acheron settled down on the rocky surface and sighed. The Outside child was starting to be more of a problem than she'd first anticipated. Everything about them was wrong. They never learned to fight, they relied on little discs of metal and intricately decorated pieces of paper to survive and their language...! Acheron frowned, trying to get her tongue around the alien name of the Outsider.
Jiskha? Jezkha? Chesska?
Yeah, Chesska sounded about right. Acheron rolled over and lay down on her side, satisfied. And none of the others knew about this...Chesska. Acheron hadn't even known about her until she'd dropped onto Ozeo, unconscious. Acheron had gotten Hrovl and the two of them had taken the Outsider onto the isolation rock and just left her there until she'd recovered a few hours later for questioning-which wasn't much of a success given that she couldn't actually understand what they were saying. And now Hrovl wanted to feed her, of all insane things! What did he want her for, a pet? Acheron sniggered. Well, maybe they could have a little fun with her...if that bitch Saelohka and her friend Kaiya didn't step in for her, of course. Yeah, it was probably better if they didn't find out just how much Acheron knew about this particular Outsider.
Anyway, she didn't matter. She was only Outside, after all.

* * * * *

Aryan landed neatly on Ezir and Kaiya slipped off, glad to stretch her legs.
not bad i think your friend saelohka got the best island he transmitted wryly. Kaiya laughed. She was in high spirits. Not only was she equipped with an excuse to finally get Aryan off their island of Daoret, but she was going to see Saelohka again. For her, life couldn't be better.
"Hello Kaiya," Acheron said clearly from behind her.
But, Kaiya amended, it could be a hell of a lot worse.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded. Acheron laughed.
"That's nice. It's been how long since we saw each other? Thirty years? And that's the kinda greeting I get?"
"You hate this kind of social gathering. I'm amazed Kalira could get you to come!"
Acheron shrugged.
"Kalira didn't get me to do anything. I just wanted to hear about this Outsider."
Kaiya froze.
"What Outsider?" she said shakily. Acheron smiled unpleasantly.
"Don't you know? There's been talk of an Outsider who's just entered our world. Never seen her, myself-but I heard from Diran that she's hellbent on our destruction, heavily armed. That's why he ain't here. He had a run in with her and landed on Ozeo, badly injured and asked me to tell you that he won't be coming."
Kaiya, who was looking paler by the minute, needed all her willpower to stop herself from a fit of hysterics.
"I-I'll go and, uh, see what Saelohka knows," she said faintly.
Acheron laughed softly.
"Be my guest. If she does manage to turf out anything else, you will let me know, won't you."
Kaiya left without bothering to reply, under the annoying impression that Acheron knew more about this Outsider than she was letting on.
Kaiya was right, of course. She just didn't know how right.

Acheron went in search of Hrovl and finally found him in a cave not far from hers. She congratulated herself on that last piece of deception. Now any SKAN looking for the Outsider would be looking for a heavily armed, violence bent maniac instead of the pathetic abused wretch who she was holding captive on Ozeo. And if anyone did find Chesska, there was no way they could prove that Acheron was responsible for holding her there.
"Well? Did you take her some food?"
yes she didn't seem to know what to do with it so i showed her
Acheron frowned. She wasn't sure about Outside ages, any more than Saelohka was-but she was fairly sure that if someone that age didn't know how to eat, they wouldn't be that age.
"Weird," was all she said. "Oh well. Guess we'd better be getting along to that meeting."
what'll happen if they find out about chesska
"Oh, they'll find out. Hopefully when she's dead of starvation and it's too late-but they'll find out. I don't care about that. All I care about is making sure they don't find out how she's linked in to me."
you think she'll talk
Acheron stopped. The idea obviously hadn't occurred to her.
"It's possible-but not that probable," she said. "After all, she can't speak our language and we can't speak hers, so even if someone does get to her, she won't be able to grass on us. C'mon, we'd better go or we'll be late."


Kaiya sat on the beach, looking out at the ocean. Acheron's story of an Outsider being there made sense-it was the only reason why a SKAN meeting would be called so quickly-but something about it didn't quite ring true. She wasn't sure what, but there was a continuous little doubt at the back of her mind. A continuous little doubt called Aryan, who had insisted that Acheron had been lying about the Outsider being 'heavily armed' and 'hellbent on our destruction'. However, there was something about Acheron that didn't encourage you to question her-probably her known tendency towards sadism. And Liara had said about nobody knowing exactly who this Outsider was supposed to be-but the two most popular rumours were that it was an enraged male whose spouse had been killed by a SKAN and had vowed vengeance, (rumour courtesy of Acheron) and the other rumour was that it was a very young female Outsider who'd been on the run from something, was badly injured and had taken refuge on one of the islands (that rumour was courtesy of Acheron as well)
i'm telling you she's lying,
Aryan transmitted.
how do you know
what do you mean
how i just know
okay so acheron's exact words were 'she's hellbent on

Kaiya sat bolt upright and stared into space as a new idea jolted through her and shook her to her core.
How had Acheron known the Outsider was a female? There was no general term like an Outsider will say 'he' or 'him' if they didn't know. In the SKAN it was 'they' or 'them', which meant Acheron had seen this Outsider. If the Outsider had really been hellbent on the destruction of the SKAN, Acheron would have killed them on sight and there would have been no need for the meeting because Acheron would have told Kalira and left it to her to tell the others. So the Outsider was still here and alive and presumably was the young female that Acheron had started the rumour about.
Kaiya groaned. Oh yes, her initial hunch had been accurate alright. Acheron did know more about this Outsider than she was letting on. A lot more. And no doubt this Outsider was a prisoner on Ozeo, awaiting the same fate that had befallen every other Outsider who had entered Wiztliow, namely the classic game of cat and mouse with Acheron, although Kaiya doubted Acheron would want to play yet. No. Far better to wait until the Outsider was fully recovered before hunting them down, wasn't it?
With a shock, Kaiya realised she was trembling. It was one thing to hunt Outside adults-but a child... No, Acheron had definitely overstepped the line this time. Oh, the child was alive now, no doubt about that. Alive on the isolation rock and waiting for her injuries to heal. Although Acheron had a tendency towards sadism, she wasn't actually sadistic. That is, she wouldn't torture and mutilate everyone she saw unless she was actually fighting or hunting them. The Outsider would be nothing if not unharmed. Besides, not even Acheron could take advantage of someone who was trapped and injured.
Kaiya stood up, determination in her eyes.
The red dragon unfolded his wings and stretched them lazily.
at last i thought you'd never finish
Kaiya vaulted onto his neck and slid down to her customary place between the wings.
"We have to go to Ozeo," she said firmly.
Aryan twisted his head round to stare at her.
what why have you forgotten we have a meeting here
"The Outsider isn't here, Aryan. She's on Ozeo, on the isolation rock, thanks to Acheron. We need to get her and bring her here."
um pardon me kaiya but she's an outsider and you're a skan
"I know. It doesn't make it any easier and there's a risk I'm gonna end up accused of treason and then I'll be the one on that isolation rock-but I have to try. She's very young, Aryan. If I don't get to her soon, she'll die unpleasantly and painfully without a helping hand from Acheron. We don't have much time. The meeting will have finished in three hours-and I don't know how much longer Acheron is prepared to wait before her sadism gets the better of her. So we have to go to Ozeo now. We'll get the Outsider and take her to the hidden island."
there's just one thing
what if acheron's got the outsider prisoner on her hidden island
Kaiya froze.
"I never thought of that. But we have to be able to say we tried. Let's go."
Aryan spread his wings and the two of them winged their way off Ezir, skimming low over the water to avoid detection, and began the long flight to Ozeo.

Book Two