A Seeker Solution
To say I was shocked to see the Questioner standing there would be an understatement. I'd also be lying if I didn't say seeing him gave me a bit of hope. After all, if he managed to escape, Maryn may have also.
Colvinra stepped clear of the lift and made his way around the four of us to face Mortac. His eyes never left the warden's, who finally lost interest in me and watched the Questioner. Quentin and Suyef shifted to stand between us and the two men. The entire situation struck me as precarious.
"What do you want here?" Mortac asked, breaking the silence.
"Why, nothing more than to thank you," the Questioner said, smiling and pointing at the lot of us. "You've found our missing prisoners and even brought our two lost Seekers back for us. I'm here to collect them all."
"You lost a pair of Seekers?"
Colvinra chuckled. "They're a bit new and somehow got separated from their speeders. I suspect the dragons may have had a hand in that?" He looked at Suyef, eyebrows raised in question. Suyef nodded. "Ah, see? Pesky creatures, those foul beasts. Have you had many problems out this far?"
Mortac's eyes narrowed. "You know full well what goes on here."
"Yes, yes we do. Which is why I was sent to retrieve your most recent guests before anything questionable happened to them."
Mortac glanced over at us, then back at the Questioner. "And what would this lot have done to be of interest to the Seekers?"
"Tsk, tsk, you know you shouldn't meddle in Seeker affairs," Colvinra chided the warden. "It's bad enough you held two of them in detainment."
"We weren't in detainment," Quentin stated. "They put us in the facility's quarters."
Colvinra turned to look at Quentin.
"And were you free to move about?" Quentin shook his head. "Then, regardless of where you were put up for the night, you were detained. At least, that's how I see it, and what I say will suffice for how the Seekers will see this situation." He turned back to face Mortac. "So, the question that remains is how much Seeker involvement do you want in your little operation here?"
"You still didn't answer my question," Mortac whispered. "What do you want with the other two?"
Colvinra stepped nearer the warden. "That is Seeker business. Best you forgot you saw them."
"They are guests. I'll not have a Seeker, Questioner or no, marching into my facility and absconding with my visitors."
"Do you always lock your visitors up for the night?" Colvinra asked.
Mortac shrugged. "This isn't what I'd call a vacation resort. The doors were secured for their safety."
"Doesn't change the fact that you violated Colberran law by detaining two Seekers, however you spin it," Colvinra replied. "Nor does it change the fact that those two are Seeker property."
"I'm no one's property," Donovan growled.
The two men ignored him, still staring each other down. I could tell that, left unbridled, the testosterone in the room might lead to something ugly, so I decided to ask a question.
"Colvinra, where is my brother?" The two turned as one to look at me, the Questioner arching an eyebrow as he glanced at Donovan. "Not this one. Maryn, the younger one."
The Questioner shrugged. "Do I look like your brother's keeper?"
"I just thought if you escaped, you might have seen him," I muttered, holding the Questioner's gaze.
Colvinra nodded. "Ah, yes, well, I didn't escape from the dragons." He looked at Mortac. "No one escapes the clutches of those vile beasts, do they Mortac?"
The warden didn't answer. The little bit of hope that had blossomed when the Questioner had appeared faded away.
"If you didn't escape, how are you here now?" Donovan asked.
"We Seekers have more than one way to fight dragons," he answered, turning to face Mortac.
"If you could fight them, why didn't you?" I whispered.
The Questioner stopped and looked at me. "Because I didn't care to, not for someone as insignificant as your brother." I glowered at him, preparing to retort, but he turned back to Mortac. "Now, I'll be leaving with my prisoners and Seekers."
"No, you won't," Mortac stated, his voice resolute, jaw set.
"Need I remind you, Mortac, of your precarious situation here?" Colvinra pointed at Quentin and Suyef. "I'm sure with just a little effort, I could topple your control of this facility. We're taking them with us."
Quentin glanced at Suyef, who shrugged. "Don't include us in your fight."
Colvinra turned to look at Quentin. "Excuse me?"
"You two seem to have something between you," Quentin said, waving a hand back and forth between the pair. "Whatever it is, it's not Seeker business, in my book. Yours, Suyef?” The Nomad shook his head. “There you have it. He's not threatening these two here, so we’ll stay out of your fight."
Colvinra glowered at Quentin. "Do you require a reminder as to who is in charge here?"
"Him," Quentin said, pointing at Mortac. "This isn't a Seeker facility. Seekers ceded control of this place a long time ago, including extradition laws. Technically speaking, the only person here with any legal authority as recognized by the Colberran government is the warden."
Colvinra took a step toward Quentin, a dangerous look on his face. "When we get back to a Seeker outpost, I swear I'll have you scouring a waste reclamation center for your insubordination before the day is up."
"We won't be going with you, sir," Suyef said, his voice quiet.
"You'd remain his prisoner?" Colvinra turned to glare at Suyef.
Quentin shrugged. "He hasn't made it clear what our status is here yet. You, on the other hand, have made it quite clear where we all stand."
Colvinra bristled at Quentin's words, and Mortac chuckled.
"He always knew how to push your buttons, my old friend, didn't he?" Mortac whispered, so quietly I almost didn't hear him.
I looked at him, confused, and he grinned at me with that familiar, knowing smile. I looked away, but the thought remained. This man seemed to be very familiar with Quentin and me.
"This isn't over, Mortac," Colvinra declared, shoving past Quentin and stepping near the lift. "For any of you."
With those words, the lift opened, and he stormed out.
"That one causes me more problems than I know what to do with," Mortac said, letting out a deep breath as his shoulders sagged.
"You've butted heads with him before?" Quentin asked, turning to face the Warden.
Mortac nodded. "More times than I care to recall." He looked at each of us, smiling again at me, then turned to face Suyef. "Of all the faces I'd hoped or expected to see here, yours was not on the list."
Suyef bowed his head but didn't say a word.
"Still on your quest, I see," Mortac said, glancing at Quentin. "This one's been a bad influence on you, I think."
Quentin frowned, looking at Suyef. "Am I missing something here?"
Suyef didn't answer. He just stood there, staring at the warden.
"Didn't he mention me?" Quentin shook his head, so Mortac continued. "I'm his uncle."
"He is your uncle?" Quentin asked, emphasizing the first word as he turned to look at Suyef.
Suyef nodded. "After a manner."
We waited for him to say more, but he didn't. Mortac chuckled.
"Still a man of few words, I see," the warden said, returning to his seat. "It's good to see this Colberran hasn't worn off on you too much."
Suyef turned to face Mortac. "I'd thank you to stay out of my business, Uncle."
The warden held up his hands. "I'll not stop you from your foolish quest." He looked at me. "Although, I'm curious what it has to do with these two."
I had that feeling again, that while he said “these two,” he meant me. That small smile danced on his lips, and I shook my head, turning my gaze to Suyef.
"Our involvement with them is unrelated to the quest you speak of. He and I are on a different mission. How they fit into the reason he and I are here remains to be seen," Suyef answered, crossing his arms over his chest.
Mortac spread his hands before him, shaking his head. "I know of your other mission. Will you not tell me how they are connected?"
"We don't know yet," Quentin interjected. "We're still searching, and our search includes them."
Mortac eyed Quentin for a moment, then glanced at Suyef. "You know my opinion of Colberrans."
Suyef shrugged. "I care little for your opinion, Uncle."
It struck me as an odd thing to say to a family member, but I could tell this wasn't a relationship either valued very much. I began to suspect the word had a very different meaning in his culture. The looks they gave each other bordered on distrust mixed with uncertainty, not what you’d find among close family relationships.
Mortac considered his nephew a moment longer then looked at Quentin. "Share what you have, and we'll see if these two are of any use."
"Yes, please do," I stated. "All this cryptic talk is annoying."
Quentin glanced at Suyef and held his hands out to either side, shrugging. "The thing is, we don't really know what we know yet." He pointed at me. "She, on the other hand, may have the answer."
Mortac followed his hand to me and stared. After a moment of silence that was just beginning to feel uncomfortable, he looked back at Quentin.
"I'll not risk her to you again," he whispered.
I looked at Quentin, who shrugged at me, shaking his head.
"I'm sorry, but have we met before?" he asked the warden.
Mortac shook his head, waving Quentin away. "No, no, I'm referring to what happened to her yesterday. You had her in your guard and let Colvinra get away with her. Look where that led you."
"Other than straight to you?" I asked.
"By way of a near-fatal dragon attack," Mortac retorted, favoring me with a grimace. "Not what I'd call first class delivery service."
"I'm sorry, I wasn't aware we were delivering her to you or anyone," Quentin said, anger flaring in his voice.
"Watch your tone, young man." The warden's voice was quiet, but firm, eyes locked on Quentin's. "For now, you are a guest of my facility. If you'd like, we can move you to the prisoner area." He nodded toward the window. "Of course, we're a bit overdue for our next visit, so you can imagine it's getting kind of full down there."
Curious, I stepped near the glass, moving around Mortac's desk. Donovan followed me, as did Quentin. Suyef stayed where he was.
In the distance, I spied what had to be the Wilds, an uncontrolled region on the Colberran shell where the weather control systems didn't work and no human settlement had ever survived. Long in the past, when the shells were still orbiting close together, Colberran history spoke of a collision with another shell that sheared away an entire section of this shell and left a swath of the outer provinces mangled and ruined. That land had resisted all attempts at resettling and the authorities walled it off to keep the shell's residents from wandering in to it.
Swirling clouds of fog, an almost unseen phenomenon on the outer edge of the shell, obscured most of my vision. It clung to the ground and rose up a few hundred feet. The fog ended in an invisible wall a short distance from the edge of the facility, an energy shield holding it in place. Tales of what lay beyond those energy walls were many and varied, each more fantastical then the rest. Far off, just in sight above the fog, I could spy the tops of jagged rock formations, the only sign of the damage the shell collision had caused visible from here.
Tearing my eyes from the awesome sight beyond, I looked down to the facility. The Ancient construct of the main tower jumped out at once as it was a uniform look throughout the shell. Building with tall, white, swooping lines and elegant curves, Ancient no doubt meant their structures to be a beautiful sight. It did nothing for me. At the foot of this tall structure, a series of more modern looking buildings, each uniform in height with drab brown walls and no windows, encircled the tower. A few guards stood atop towers spaced along the outer edge of the roofs of those structures. Just beyond the taller buildings, rows and rows of concentric circles extended outward to the edge of the facility several hundred feet from the central structures. Upon closer examination, I saw that each row held small cells with people inside them, the rows snug up against each other. Walkways extended out, forming bridges from the central structures to the wall on the exterior of the complex. Every cell held at least two people, some many more.
"As you can see, our prison is full to capacity, hence your cushy quarters last night," Mortac said, moving to stand between Quentin and myself. "On top of that, I felt it wouldn't be too wise to keep a pair of Seekers out among the general population."
Quentin chuckled. "I'll bet Colvinra would have a fit if he heard you suggest that."
"Oh, I didn't keep you from there for fear of the likes of him." Mortac's gaze never left the cells below. "I did it to keep the prisoners safe." He looked up at Quentin. "Can't imagine there are very many fans of the Seekers down there. What do you think might happen if one dropped in for an extended visit? Your reputation aside, I'd wager a few would take a shot or two at you before the night was up." He returned his gaze to the cells. "I'd also wager you'd make them pay for that decision. So, as I said, it was for their own good." He glanced over at me, the small smile back. "Mostly."
My gaze returned to the prison. "Where did they all come from?"
Mortac sighed. "My colleagues here have been at this for quite some time, but even they are not as efficient as this facility would make them seem."
I looked back up at him, but he didn't continue, eyes locked on me, waiting. Quentin stepped away from the glass, moving past me to stand near Donovan. As he did, he whispered one sentence to me.
"Seeker hospitals don't exist."
Mortac glanced at him, then back at me, keeping silent. Looking down at the people, realization blossomed in my mind.
"Those are all the people the Seekers take?" Mortac smiled in answer. "They all come here?"
He shook his head. "This facility is one of four in the outer provinces. There's another just on the other side of the Wild zone to the west, and, if you go east the other way around the shell, you'll encounter two more, although those have been shut down." He raised a single finger. "This is the one for this district and the abutting interior districts."
"What happens to them here?" I whispered, my mind dreading the possible answers.
At that moment, a chime went off, a single bell ringing three times and echoing in the room. Mortac closed his eyes and sighed.
"I'm afraid you won't like that answer," he whispered, nodding toward the window before turning to sit down.
Confused, I moved closer to the glass, Quentin and Donovan moving to either side. Even Suyef stepped near for a better view. At first, we saw nothing. Below, the guards all began moving, descending from the towers. The walkways retracted from above the prison cells as the guards moved off. Once they cleared, the tops of the three outermost cells opened, and the floors elevated to form a single solid row. The opened tops jutting up retracted, giving the occupants, now pushed up onto the roof of the cells, freedom to move. As one, they bolted, fleeing toward the central structure along the tops of the interior cells. Through the glass we could hear nothing, but I could see them screaming, arms held up toward the tower, a look of pleading on their faces. I glanced at Quentin, but he kept his eyes below, his jaw clenched, hands tightened into fists at his side.
A shadow moving across the window caught my eye, and I turned back to the sight below. My heart froze as my gaze shifted to the shell's edge in search of whatever had moved past the window. There, ascending from below, came a flight of dragons. They hovered in the air for a moment, then dove, attacking the fleeing prisoners.