Kalira looked around the assembled SKAN.
"Is everyone here?" she asked.
"Yeah, yeah, just get on with it, will you?" Acheron snapped. Kalira stared at her, which was like taking on a porcupine at an archery tournament. Acheron could outstare a snake.
"Wait a minute," Saelohka said. "Where's Kaiya?"
Acheron froze. She suddenly had a damn good idea where Kaiya was and if she was right, then Acheron would be in for a hell of a lot of trouble once Kaiya got back.
If she got back...
"I'll go look for her," Acheron said quickly, before anyone else had a chance to volunteer, and set off at a jogtrot towards where the dragons were.
Hrovl looked up at Acheron, irritated. He'd been making some noticeable progress with one of the queens, namely Tereni's dragon, Nrensa and wasn't too pleased at being interrupted.
"Hrovl, we have to get back to Ozeo now."
can't it wait nrensa wants me to go on a mating flight with her
Acheron gritted her teeth. That was the major problem with Hrovl-he was fine on his own but put him with other dragons and he had only one thing on his mind.
"I'll let you go on all the goddamn mating flights you want if you'll just get me back to Ozeo as fast as you can!" she hissed. "Kaiya's gone there to get that Outsider. We have to stop her from getting back or we're history!"
oh alright come on then
Acheron slipped onto Hrovl's neck and the two of them took off for Ozeo in a last-ditch attempt to prevent Kaiya and the Outsider returning to Ezir.
Kaiya looked around at Ozeo, stunned. Barely solid rocks formed natural archways and paths through the lava which would occasionally rise up just enough to swallow a section of the path, which would be reformed a few minutes later. There were several large islands where the land was raised above the lava-obviously the main part of Ozeo. She wasn't entirely sure where ocean had ended and lava had begun-but somewhere it obviously had as there was nothing but lava to be seen in all directions. She shook her head. Ozeo might be Acheron's idea of paradise-but it was more Kaiya's idea of hell.
"Can you see anything?" she asked Aryan.
what exactly am i supposed to be looking for
"The isolation rock. I've never seen it myself-it's something Acheron added on after the last SKAN meeting."
well i can't see anything like that and ozeo's too big to search
With a shock, Kaiya realised Aryan was right. All her attentions had been focused on getting to Ozeo and the Outsider, without worrying how to find the rock itself. And Ozeo was bigger than Ezir. A lot bigger.
wait what's that
"What?! Where?" Kaiya leaned over Aryan's neck trying to see and almost fell into the lava. Aryan stretched out a wing just in time to catch her.
careful you were almost in then
"What can you see?" Kaiya demanded. She had to admit, it wasn't just her 'maternal' instincts that drew her towards this Outsider-but curiosity as well. She'd been too young to remember any Outsiders before the SKAN had chosen her to go into Wiztliow-but Acheron and Kalira could. Kalira had just been informative and factual when asked about the Outsiders-as she frequently was by the younger SKAN-but Acheron liked to embellish her stories and was consequently far more popular among the young ones who wanted to hear about them. Kaiya remembered idolising Acheron when she was younger and following her everywhere just to hear about Outside.
Come to think about it, how old was Acheron? If she remembered the Outsiders sufficiently to recount her stories the way she did, she had to be at least a hundred and sixty. She told stories of how the Outsiders abducted children to live in Their society, how They liked to hunt the adult SKAN down like animals and how They were unable to fight and would kill from a distance.
"I wonder if this is such a good idea," she muttered to herself.
it's quite a large rock with a human-like shape in the middle curled up into a ball
Yes, it was young alright. If their maturity rate was similar to the SKAN's, only very young ones curled up to reabsorb their own body heat. And if it was so young, it probably wasn't too much of a threat.
do you want me to land there
Kaiya hesitated. It wasn't that she was nervous, it was just that Acheron had quite a warped sense of humour when it came to booby traps and dealing with intruders.
"Alright. But carefully! I don't want to be swamped by a tidal wave."
Aryan went down slowly, ready to fly out the way at any sign of danger. Kaiya strained her eyes and finally made out a small SKAN like animal asleep on the island. Asleep....or dead.
Aryan landed on the isolation rock and Kaiya half dismounted, half fell off in her eagerness to find out what an Outsider looked like.
Acheron and Hrovl flew across the ocean to Ozeo, as fast as they could go. Suddenly Hrovl pulled up short, almost sending Acheron into the water.
there's a dragon there we're too late
"What? Is it Aryan?"
yes i think so but it doesn't really matter it's landing on the isolation rock
Acheron narrowed her eyes. Kaiya had overstepped her authority, approached her island and was now landing on the rock to take her prisoner back to Ezir.
Acheron lay down full length on Hrovl's back and concentrated. There was no excuse for presumption of that kind. Kaiya had pushed her just too far and had to be taught a lesson.
The resultant tidal wave of lava completely immersed Ozeo and the island sank beneath the lava. Acheron and Hrovl turned and started the long journey back to Ezir, well satisfied.
Kaiya approached the sleeping Outsider cautiously. It looked unarmed and comparitively harmless. It had obviously been injured in a fight somewhere-not with Acheron, that was for sure, or it wouldn't be alive-and was resting before it tried anything else. Kaiya reached out and hesitantly turned it over. She gasped, stunned by the similarity between this Outsider and her own race. Apart from their lack of rankscars and identifying tattoos, Kaiya could almost have passed herself off as one of their kind.
The Outsider suddenly opened its eyes and stared her full in the face. Kaiya leapt back, startled and watched it warily. It scrambled backwards away from her and also watched her apprehensively. Kaiya tilted her head on one side. This was obviously a very young Outsider, and afraid of presuming too much. It smelled a little like a SKAN but there was a different scent to it. Kaiya had never smelled it before-but she knew what it was. She supposed anybody would. It was the strong stench of fear.
Why? I don't want to hurt it, can't it understand that?
It couldn't. It said something in its own language and then was quiet. Irritating.
Briefly, Kaiya wondered how intelligent it was. She indicated herself.
It frowned, then shook its head. Kaiya gestured towards it and looked expectant. It tilted its head, then seemed to understand. It pointed at itself and said its own name.
It frowned, then lifted and dropped its shoulders and nodded. Kaiya took this to mean that it wasn't exactly its name-but it was close enough. It paused, then indicated Kaiya.
Kaiya looked pleased. Obviously it was more intelligent than she'd given it credit for.
The sound of a rumble interrupted her thoughts. Kaiya froze. She knew that sound, had heard it once before thirty years ago.
Acheron knew they were there. And she wasn't too pleased at the thought of losing her latest toy or at the thought of the Outsider being brought back to Ezir.
There was only one thing for Kaiya and Chesska now.
Above them, Aryan saw what was going on and started to descend slowly, mindful of sudden lava eruptions. Kaiya looked up and saw him. She beckoned to the Outsider.
"Chesska, we have to go."
Chesska frowned, not understanding. Aryan landed on the island which was rapidly becoming unstable. Kaiya racked her brains desperately for some way to make her point understood, then indicated Chesska and then Aryan. Chesska looked up at Aryan and then took a step back. Kaiya repeated the motions, more urgently this time. She then elaborated by climbing on board Aryan's neck and gesturing towards Chesska again and holding out a hand to help it up. Chesska looked right and then left, then screamed. Kaiya followed its gaze and felt sick. The lava was starting to rise up-and Kaiya knew only too well what the end result would be.
A fifteen foot wall of lava which would immerse anything and everything in its path.
Neither Chesska nor Kaiya would stand a chance. Desperately, Kaiya reached out for the Outsider, who looked at the lava, then at Aryan and seemed to make its decision. It stretched out its hand towards Kaiya, who tried but couldn't quite reach it. Kaiya leaned over as much as she dared. The ends of their fingers brushed. Kaiya gripped Aryan's neck ridge with one hand, prayed to anyone that might be listening, and lowered herself right over. Chesska hesitated, then grabbed Kaiya's hand and was lifted up over Aryan's neck. Aryan took off, flying in front of the wave which had started to move before finally putting on an extra burst of speed and pulling clear. Kaiya, who was holding Chesska with one hand and Aryan's neck plates with the other, looked down disbelievingly.
"We made it," she said wonderingly. Nobody had ever escaped Acheron's snare once it was set. Kaiya decided to keep clear of Ozeo and Acheron for a very long time. The Dark One had never liked Kaiya and was probably only waiting for a chance to kill her-she would be even more enthusiastic about the project if she ever discovered that Kaiya had taken the Outsider off Ozeo and escaped her most effective form of intruder control.
Chesska looked up at Kaiya curiously. At least, Kaiya assumed it was curious. It wasn't hostile, that was for certain.
can you ask it to stop holding on so tightly
oh yeah sure i don't even know how to say hello much less let go
well can't you do something its pinching me
head for daoret i don't think it's that far and i'll see what i can do
aren't you going to take it back to ezir
well not yet i'd rather know it was somewhere where acheron couldn't get to it easily then maybe we can try to communicate
okay but tell it to stop pinching me
Kaiya looked down at Chesska.
"Let go," she said. Chesska frowned, seemingly uncomprehending. Kaiya reached over to Chesska's hand and eased it off. It looked up at her in some confusion. With an inward sigh, Kaiya repositioned Chesska's hand to somewhere more comfortable for Aryan.
down a bit
maybe you'd like to try and make her understand
Kaiya finally managed to loosen Chesska's hold.
glad i could be of service Kaiya transmitted, with the closest approximation of sarcasm she could get. Chesska looked down with something approaching amazement. With some amount of surprise, Kaiya realised that Chesska had probably never seen a dragon before, let alone ridden on one.
Kaiya looked at Chesska, who indicated Aryan. Kaiya shook her head.
Kaiya nodded firmly.
Aryan chuckled inside her head.
quite intelligent by the looks of things i wonder if it's male or female
well if acheron got it right then it's a female but i'm not sure
but if it's female wouldn't it have learned to fight
i don't know remember that it's an outsider and they're different to us hey how much longer 'til we reach daoret
we're almost there can't you see it
Kaiya peered into the approaching darkness and thought she could just about make out the shape of Daoret. She sighed in relief. It had been a long day. Now all she had to do is work out a way to get to Saelohka and the others without Acheron finding out.
Chesska sighed beside her, most likely bored. Kaiya didn't blame it. It was fine to be riding your own dragon-but not to ride somebody else's. They weren't exactly the most comfortable form of transport if you weren't used to them and if you couldn't hold a conversation with them, there was really no point.
right so do you want me to just drop it in the sea Aryan's transmission came over, sounding slightly offended.
"Huh? No, just take us both to Daoret, if that's okay."
Aryan turned his head to look at her.
just out of interest this wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that sani's just had a clutch of eggs in the cave kaiya now would it
Kaiya had the grace to look away.
kaiya she's an outsider there's no way she'll bond with a dragon
"Yes, I know, but we can't tell for sure, Aryan."
and don't forget there'll be other skan there as well who want to bond don't you think you'll end up being accused of treason if you bring this young outsider into their midst Aryan paused, and then added if they let her live of course
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Kaiya asked. "There's the meeting on Ezir. Every SKAN's gonna be there. There will be no more bonding until the end of the meeting. However, there are thirty nine eggs that are due to hatch in a few hours and you can't tell me that out of those thirty nine eggs there isn't one who won't turn tail at the sight of this Outsider."
Aryan sighed. The movement caused Kaiya and Chesska to slip sideways violently.
"Hey watch it, you nearly had us off then!"
well i think you've gotten soft and i wish you luck still if you want to try it then we'll try it
They landed at Daoret ten minutes later. Kaiya slid off easily and reached up to help Chesska down. The Outsider seemed a little more at ease here-perhaps because it was similar to its own world. Just as Kaiya was about to try and explain about bonding to it, there was a cry of "Kaiya!" and Tahrinh, Kaiya's offspring, came bounding through the trees to meet her. Behind her, trying to keep up, came a small brown dragon.
"Kaiya guess what! Sani's clutch hatched and I bonded with the first drag-hey, what's that?"
Tahrinh was looking curiously at Chesska, all enthusiasm put on hold. Kaiya suppressed a smile. Tahrinh was an extrovert, no doubt about that. She still acted like she'd just been born. Everything was new to her and bore repeated investigation by smell, touch, sight and sound. Her curiosity had landed her in trouble several times, but she still kept going back and looking at things. Chesska was a newcomer and not one of the SKAN and therefore a cause for extreme curiosity.
Kaiya indicated the Outsider.
"It calls itself Chesska. I found it on Ozeo, where it'd been subjected to some of Acheron's, ah, hospitality."
Tahrinh, who had never had a run in with Acheron or Hrovl, didn't really understand what Kaiya meant.
"Where's its i.t.? And its rankscar?"
"It doesn't have one. It..." Kaiya hesitated before saying the final word. "It's an Outsider."
She held her breath, dreading Tahrinh's reaction.
"Wow! A real live Outsider? Can it bond with a dragon? How'd it get in here? Is it gonna stay here with us?"
Kaiya blinked. This wasn't the reaction she'd been expecting at all.
"Oh go on, Kaiya, it gets kinda lonely here. Please can it stay?"
"Well, there is the communication problem to deal with..." Kaiya began.
"I'll teach it to talk!" Tahrinh volunteered.
Kaiya shook her head with a fond smile.
"Tahrinh, you haven't got the patience to teach anyone how to walk! Anyway, it can talk. It just talks a different language to us."
"Wow! So if I teach it our language, you think it'll teach me its own?"
"Why would you want to learn?"
"Well, then we could talk so you couldn't understand, see, and we could..." Tahrinh abruptly broke off. "Um, I mean, that is...well, I'm, uh, curious. Yeah, that's it. Curious."
"Alright, alright. You wanna teach it, you teach it. And if you get a minute, you might find out if it's male or female. What were you saying about Sani just then?"
"Well, her clutch just hatched and I bonded with the first dragon!" Tahrinh indicated the hatchling that was curled up by her feet asleep, obviously fed up with waiting for its rider. "This is Serko."
"Are there any others there?"
"Oh yeah, loads! Why, do you think Chesska could bond with one?"
"I hope so! Then we could go flying together and raise our dragons together and-oh Kaiya, couldn't it?"
"It's got to be worth a try," she said. "Go on then. You try and explain to Chesska what bonding is. Aryan and I have got to get back to Ezir."
She turned and walked over to Aryan, who stretched himself. Kaiya paused, then turned back to Chesska, who had followed her.
"Stay here." She accompanied the words with the appropriate body language-but it didn't really understand until Tahrinh came over and pulled it away.
"C'mon! Let's go see the dragons!"
Chesska seemed to suddenly understand and relaxed. It went off with Tahrinh without so much as a backward glance at Kaiya. Kaiya smiled. Maybe Tahrinh's direct 'let's play and have fun' methods were what was needed to take care of Chesska. She sighed. Tahrinh and Chesska might have fun together-but Kaiya was not looking forward to the return flight to Ezir.
Not at all.
With another sigh, she mounted Aryan and the two of them started the long journey back to Ezir and Saelohka.