I ripped myself from a frightful dream, shielding my eyes against the light. Quentin sat on the bed opposite me. My heart raced, and my eyes darted about the room, breath coming in short gasps. I pressed a hand to my face and leaned back onto the pillow, eyes closed shut.
I nodded in answer.
"Must have been. You've been fitful most of the time I've watched."
I peeked an eye open, mild discomfort shooting through my head from the light. "You watched me all night?"
He shook his head. "No, I slept. Just less than you." He nodded at the window. "Woke up after night lifted. I never sleep well if it's not dark." He returned his gaze to me. "You fell asleep fast, but started thrashing about soon after that."
I nodded, taking in a deep breath. It felt good, so I did it again, flushing the negative feelings out when my lungs exhaled. My stomach growled a complaint about its current state. Quentin smiled and tossed a nutrient pack at me.
"They dropped those off after the night screen lifted. Base flavor, nothing too tasty." He nodded toward the door. "Cups in the lavatory, if you're thirsty."
I sat up, ripped into the nutrient pack, and consumed it in a rush. The squishy gel filled my stomach, and a sigh of relief escaped my lips as I leaned back against the wall, facing Quentin. He stared out the mottled glass that served as the room's only window while I looked about the quarters, pondering the predicament.
"Kind of nice for a prison."
Quentin grunted. "I don't think this is the prison side of the facility."
"Where are we?"
"Ostensibly, we're at a Colberran trading outpost near the shell's edge," he replied, frowning as he spoke. "In truth, we're in an outpost dominated by raiders and men that resemble warlords more than they do the politicians they pretend at being."
My heart dropped a bit as he spoke. Everyone in the outer provinces knew of this facility. Most went out of their way to avoid the entire province it resided in, and not just because it lay the furthest west one could go in the Outer Dominance sectors before hitting the Wilds.
"Arya," I whispered.
Quentin nodded. "An interesting name, that one. I think it's a derivative of an ancient word from before the Splitting." He smiled. "But my bet is you don't care about ancient history."
"Depends on the history."
Smiling, he continued speaking. "The word is different now, but I think it's a derivative of an ancient word used to describe a certain type of slave before the Splitting. Its origins are—"
"Where is my brother?" I interrupted before he could go on. "Have you seen him?"
He shifted on his bed, lips pressed together as he looked about the room. After several moments, he spoke.
"The one guard who delivered our breakfast is the only person who's come through that door since you pulled my hood off."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off. I'm just worried."
He shook his head. "Don't fret about it. I'd have just gone off on some historical tangent for who knows how long. You'd have interrupted me anyway."
"So, how do you know we're in Arya?"
He shrugged. "Easy. It's one of only two places on the shell where people aren't afraid of Seekers." He laughed. "Well, except for the Wilds, but no one lives there. Come to think of it, there are a lot of places that don't care for them. Still, only place I know that would employ raiders bold enough to capture and detain Seekers." He looked at me. "Plus, we weren't traveling that long, and I stayed awake for it. Arya is the only feasible place we could have reached in that time."
An involuntary shiver pulsed through me. "We hear tales of this place, warnings to keep us from wandering out too far in the desert. They say no one ever comes out of here free."
Quentin grimaced. "They also say they feed the people to the Wilds or toss them over the edge or-"
"-offer them up to dragons," I cut in, my thoughts shifting back to the events of the day before. I closed my eyes, taking deep breaths to push the memory from my mind.
Quentin, maybe sensing my need for a distraction, went on. "I've heard that, too. Nothing substantiated. Rumors, but no hard evidence."
"It's hard to have evidence when all the witnesses are either taken or offering the victims up," I muttered, opening my eyes to glare at him.
"True," he agreed. "I admit that thought occurred to me before I said it. Can't fault a guy for looking for the bright side."
I grimaced and stood, moving toward the lavatory. "The only bright side I see is coming from that window."
Quentin chuckled. "Not a morning person?"
A grunt seemed the best reply as I entered the lavatory. A few moments later, I exited to find him standing near the window, staring out. He turned to look at me and I looked away, feeling discomfort under his gaze.
"You seemed to be missing a sibling when we arrived last night," he said in a quiet voice, drawing a nod from me. "We found what was left of the speeders. We tried to get closer, sooner. Frankly, I was shocked when Suyef found your trail leaving the scene."
"You expected we'd all been taken." I sat down on the bed, staring at the far wall.
"That's usually what's left after such a raid."
He nodded. "No one and destruction, but yes, close enough."
I closed my eyes, pulling my legs up in front of me and hugging my knees to my head. Quentin got the message and stopped talking. It was impossible to hide from it, I know, but I was so tired of facing this. Would it ever end? Each and every one, gone, taken from me. My heart screamed for it to stop. All that life had left was Donovan, and even he lay locked away from me.
I heard movement and looked up to see Quentin settling back down opposite me. Noticing my gaze, he nodded at the window.
"No point staring through that glass," he muttered, settling his cloak around his torso and gazing back at me. "Want to talk?"
I shrugged. Words, at that point, seemed like too much effort.
"Shall I talk instead? Occupy your mind?"
A small smile touched my lips. "The thought's appreciated, but I'm not sure it would help."
"Can't hurt to try?"
I shook my head, staring off to one side. "It won't bring them back." I looked down. "Any of them."
Quentin looked confused but said nothing.
"Maryn isn't the first of my family to be taken from us," I explained.
"Yes, your father, mother, and sister, if my memory serves."
I nodded. "It just keeps happening. Whether it's Seekers like you, dragons, or just raiders putting me in a different cell from my brother, something is always taking my family from me."
Quentin shifted, glancing down at his robe. "Look, I may be wearing this thing, but it's not what you think it is."
"Does it matter? Someone wearing that cloak took my parents and sister from me. Someone wearing that cloak tried to take the rest of us. It seems like every time I turn around, you Seekers are meddling in my family's affairs."
Quentin stopped shifting to look back up at me. "Or your family may just be meddling in the wrong kind of things and getting the wrong kind of attention."
I glared at the Seeker. "What's that supposed to mean? You think we brought this on ourselves?"
"Maybe," he said, shrugging and shaking his head. "I don't know. But you came to our attention, and we weren't even looking for you."
"You never did explain that one. What were you looking for that led you to us?"
Quentin glanced toward the door. "Let's leave that for a different conversation. Suffice it to say we were conducting our own search and found you."
I settled my chin on my knees and stared off to the side. Had my father's project been the cause of all this? Could he have brought the wrong kind of attention down on us by accident? I looked back at Quentin.
"You followed us when we left the tower."
He shook his head. "No, we went in a different direction. Questioners are not to be trifled with, even under the best of circumstances."
"So how did you find us?"
"Dragons aren't invisible. We saw them from a long way off and went to investigate."
"You went toward a bunch of raiding dragons?" I asked, not bothering to hide from my face my thoughts on that idea.
He shrugged. "Probably not the smartest move." He looked around the room. "Especially considering its unexpected end. Still, we took precautions, and the dragons never saw us."
"So, what did you do with your speeders?"
"We left them near where we found the other wrecked ones. Suyef prefers tracking on the ground to using Seeker technology when he has the choice. We weren't sure how far ahead of us you were or who you were, but your choice in direction gave us an idea." He spread his hands out before him. "We caught up to you just after the raiders got there. I'd hoped the robes would convince them to let you go."
"How'd that work out for you?" I asked, giving him a small smile that, to be honest, didn't touch me inside.
"Suyef would agree with you and said as much before we tried it. But we were out of ideas and didn’t have a way to keep up with you if turned out they did take you," he replied. "So, in a way, it worked perfectly."
I arched an eyebrow at him.
"From a certain point of view, I mean."
"Do you always insist on looking on the bright side of things?"
He nodded. "Usually. Especially in the face of those who don't."
"You must be quite popular among your friends," I retorted, snorting in laughter.
"Friends come and go." He frowned. "I think only Suyef would classify as a friend, and he finds my perspective to be...what was it he said? 'Naive.'"
"Sounds like the voice of reason, if you ask me." I rested my forehead on my knees, pressing my eyes closed. "We might just get along."
Quentin chuckled. "Don't hold your breath on that one. I haven't known him all that long, but he keeps most things to himself."
The conversation died after that. We discussed nothing of importance for nearly half the day, avoiding touchy subjects. Quentin seemed to be trying to get to know me without asking any questions that might touch on the subject of my family. I let him ask, my mind wandering from subject to subject, welcoming the distraction.
Sometime in the afternoon, the door slid open. We both looked up, eager for our next nutrient pack, but none came. Instead, a guard beckoned us out of the room.
"The warden wishes to see you."
The facility we marched through proved to be as lacking in decor as the quarters we had occupied the night before. Long hallways of white walls, silver carpeting, and dull, white lighting greeted our eyes when we left our room and turned right. We walked in silence past many closed doors down the hall as it curved to our right until we arrived at a circular room that looked like a hub. Another hallway exited off the opposite side from the one we came through, a large window stood to the left, and a single set of double doors to the right. Donovan and Suyef stood before the doors with another guard. I rushed over and hugged my brother. The doors slid open to reveal a small elevator, into which the four of us climbed, the doors closing behind us and leaving the guards there. We rode in silence as the lift rose up into the higher reaches of the facility. After a few moments, we felt it stop, and the doors opened.
A large room stood before us, massive windows that overlooked the desert for leagues in all directions forming the outer walls. Directly across from the lift sat a single desk with a large top and nothing on it. Sitting in a high-backed chair facing the lift sat a man I'd never seen before. He had thin, black hair that hung down, framing a gaunt-looking face. A sharply jutting nose swept down between two cold, gray eyes, and his lips pushed out slightly behind his hands, held folded in front of his mouth. He wore a silver robe and a single ring on his left ring finger. His eyes took us each in, stopping on me, holding my gaze. For a moment, I saw some kind of emotion flicker across his face, a twitch of his thin eyebrows, lips parting. His hard gaze returned and he waved us forward.
"Please, it's rude to loiter on doorsteps," he said by way of greeting, his voice quiet but firm.
We stepped from the lift and the doors shut behind us. I looked to my left and saw that the windows continued all the way around behind the lift, which stood in a pillar at the room's center. To my right, the central mountains rose up in the distance, to my left the shell's edge.
"An impressive view, I agree," the room's occupant said, drawing my attention back to find him watching me. "I, too, find myself lost in it at times. It's a fascinating place, this world. Not what I expected to find."
I glanced at my companions, but none looked at me.
"I'd offer you a seat, but we have none," he continued speaking. "Please accept my apologies. I trust you found your quarters comfortable?"
He spoke to us all, but his eyes remained on me. I found myself shifting behind my brother and noticed Quentin had positioned himself just off my other side. When none of us answered, he spread his hands before him and smiled.
"I must also apologize for any rudeness my compatriots may have shown toward you. They tend to be simple in mind, if effective in action, for the tasks I give them."
"You expect us to believe you sent them looking for us?" Quentin asked.
The man shook his head, still not taking his eyes from me. "Ah, no. As good as my luck would seem to be, I can't claim to have that kind of foresight. No, these raiders, as I believe they are called by the shell's law-abiding residents, simply scour the land looking for any wayward souls that need some help finding their way back to more civilized parts of the shell."
"Help doing what?" I asked, stepping out from behind Donovan and bumping both him and Quentin. "You call that help? Capturing people and selling them, or worse?"
The man grimaced and finally looked away from me. "I can see my compatriots also lack any semblance of control over their tongues." He held up a hand to forestall any comment. "I'll not defend the practices these men have set up. They were that way when I came upon them. I've tried to temper their trade, but they prove to be rather persistent in this business they've established."
"You found them this way?" Quentin asked.
The man nodded. "This outpost has been here for centuries under the control of the raiders. To think I've been in control of them, if one can claim to have that kind of power out here, for that long is a bit absurd."
"That's not what I meant," Quentin retorted. "I meant when you came here, you found them doing this?"
"Oh, yes, they've been trading in people for centuries. I just stumbled upon their little project recently and saw an opportunity." He returned his gaze to me. "One that seems to have paid off."
Quentin and Donovan both shifted toward each other, shielding me from the man's gaze.
"You got eyes for my sister?" Donovan asked, and I could hear anger creeping into his voice.
The man behind the desk blinked and looked up at Donovan, quite possibly seeing him for the first time. He looked back and forth between us, and his eyes widened in amazement.
"The resemblance isn't...strong, but I could be convinced it exists," he said, more to himself than the rest of us. "Fascinating."
He had completely lost me, and I was about to state that when he shook his head and stood.
"Forgive me, where are my manners?" He stepped out from behind the desk, long robe swaying with the motion as it stretched to the floor. "My name is Mortac. I'm the warden of this facility." He stepped closer and stopped, standing before Quentin and Donovan, gazing down at me. "But, you knew that already, didn't you?"
I tried to pull my gaze from his, but couldn't. He stared at me, drinking me up. He acted familiar with me; that's the only way to describe it. Like he knew me from a previous meeting, and knew me well, if his behavior was any indication.
"Excuse me," Donovan said, stepping between us and breaking his gaze. "Would you care to explain yourself?"
Mortac smiled, a soft, tiny thing that barely touched his lips. "Dear boy, the full explanation would probably stagger you into stupidity, a state I suspect you're not far from."
Donovan bristled, stepping toward the man, fists clenched. "Now, see here-"
Quentin grabbed him and pulled him back, Suyef stepping forward to help.
"Settle down, Donovan," Quentin whispered.
"I don't take orders from you, Seeker," my brother hissed, shoving, attempting to extricate himself from Quentin and Suyef's clutches. "For all I know, you're working with him."
"To what end?" Quentin asked.
Donovan stopped dead. "Well, to kidnap us."
"And why would we do that?" Quentin asked, never taking his eyes from Donovan.
Mortac stood, a small smile creeping onto his face, eyes watching me. Donovan shuffled a bit, then looked down.
"I'm not really sure," he finally said.
"Which is precisely what he can tell us." Quentin turned to face the warden. "Unless you care to hit him and see if he'll cooperate."
Mortac raised his hands in a placating motion. "I assure you, as long as I am in charge of this facility, you are safe." He looked at me again. "All of you."
He said “all of” but, in my mind, I heard “especially,” and that made me even more uncomfortable. Who was this man and why did he act like he knew me? Before I could even ponder that question, an interruption arrived.
"Then, we'll just have to see how long you stay in control of the facility, won't we, Mortac," a familiar voice said from behind us.
We all turned to see Colvinra exiting the lift.