We watched, helpless, as the dragons swooped in, snatching up victim after victim and streaking off to descend out of sight, prize in tow. Their claws wrapped around their victims, some grabbing two or three at a time. Here and there, one would miss, knocking a swath of prisoners to the ground. Other dragons dove in when that happened to grab as many immobilized prisoners as possible. A couple of victims, held by a foot or arm, didn't make it, plummeting to their deaths on the clear cells. I averted my eyes when that happened.
The beasts kept coming, flying low over the facility, until every prisoner was gone, snatched up. After the last prisoner was either captured or dead, one of the beasts flew by the tower, circling it. Long, lithe, with wide wings the same translucent color as its bod, the monster had a row of dagger-like protrusions jutting up along its spine. The beast and its companions looked identical to those in the flight that had attacked us the day before with one key difference: each of them wore red scales. The creature circled the tower once, letting out a cry we could hear through the glass. After that, it zoomed off toward the shell's edge, diving down after the rest.
The entire attack lasted mere moments, but, for me, it seemed like forever. All those people, just gone, taken, to who knew where.
I spun on Mortac, who sat facing his desk, hands steepled across his mouth.
"I didn't create this system," he whispered.
"You haven't stopped it," I countered.
He nodded. "It's not my place to. Some of us know when not to mess with things that work." He turned to look at me. "Especially things we don't understand." He looked past me into the sky. "I'll not pretend to understand why your people set this system up. I've seen stranger, but hardly anything as heartless as this."
"We didn't set this up," I whispered, shaking my head and blinking tears away. "We didn't know."
"We? Or you?"
"This isn't common knowledge," Quentin said. "We'd only heard rumors."
"Ignorance is not a defense," he said. "As citizens, it's your duty to know what your government, or their military arm, is doing." Mortac looked at Quentin, a frown on his face. "You're from this shell, wearing a Seeker cloak, and you didn't know this was going on?"
Quentin shook his head. "I wasn't born and raised here." He pointed at Suyef. "I've spent most of my life on his shell. The one time I came back here, my family stayed on the islands, off shell."
Mortac's eyes narrowed. "How did a Colberran come to be on the Nomad shell?"
"My parents were Expeditionary Force. They met on assignment there." Quentin pointed back out the window. "But, we're not discussing me. We're discussing that atrocity."
Mortac waved his hand at the window. "We don't even know what they do with them. I've tried to find out, but no one has any record of where they go or what they do with their victims. Your people don't even know where the dragons come from, save for legends."
"That doesn't mean we should just offer people up for them to be taken," Quentin yelled, pointing at Mortac. "You're in charge here. Stop it."
"I stop the offerings, and the Seekers will take over this facility, plain and simple."
Quentin barked a derisive laugh. "So you keep up the 'offerings' to save your hide."
"At least with the dragons, there's a chance they might live," Mortac whispered. "What do you think Seekers would do with so many prisoners? Keep them happy in some retirement facility somewhere?"
"You think you're offering them a better option by feeding them to the beasts?" Donovan asked.
"No one has ever seen a dragon eat a human," Suyef said. Every head turned to look at the man. "On either shell."
"What, are you some kind of dragon expert in disguise now, Suyef?" Quentin asked, turning his frown on his friend.
Suyef glared at him. "Don't loose your anger on at me. I'm just repeating a well-known fact."
"He's right," Mortac said, waving a hand at the nomad. "I've searched the database, and the one thing I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt is that there isn't a single account of a dragon eating a human. They just take them, and we don't know where."
"And you facilitate it," Quentin declared. "You're as bad as a war sympathizer."
Mortac's frown deepened, his face turning downward, eyes locked on Quentin. "We can't all be heroes. Some of us are Schindlers."
"Are what?" I asked, confused by the reference.
Mortac shook his head. "Never mind. The point is, we can't save them all."
"I don't see you saving any." Quentin pointed out to the cells. "Looks like you just offer up whatever happens to be in a row and rotate it around."
Mortac slammed his hand into the chair next to his leg and bolted up to face Quentin. "I'll not defend myself to a whining, sniveling, meddlesome brat who has a penchant for sticking his head into things that aren't his business and ruining whatever he tries to fix." He stepped close to Quentin, their eyes level. "Suffice it to say, I've worked hard to ensure only those that deserve it are offered to the dragons."
"How do you define ‘deserve’?" I asked, trying to diffuse another potential fight.
The two blinked and looked at me. Mortac shook his head and moved away from Quentin, who glared after the warden as he retreated.
"The actual criminals brought to us by the Seekers are put in the cells next up for offering. We shuffle them around constantly, and I do my best to make it look random so the raiders don't suspect what we're doing. I assure you, I place the most hardened criminals in the offering blocks first and only resort to the rest the raiders and Seekers bring in if the dragons return before we have another offering prepared. Hopefully, we can sell those off before that happens."
"So you offer up some and sell others into slavery?" Quentin asked, his voice cracking on the last word.
"A life enslaved is a life still alive," Mortac countered. He held up a hand to forestall Quentin. "I've managed to use the threat of the dragon raids to keep slavers from coming here. It's worked well, but every now and then I still have to hold an auction to keep the raiders and slavers from getting suspicious."
"Slavery is illegal in Colberra," Donovan stated. "So you aren't selling them to anyone on this shell."
Mortac nodded. "Slave buyers all come from other shells, by way of the Nomad shell. This helps with stalling, as it takes time to organize such things." He held a finger up at Donovan. "But don't pretend this is possible without at least tacit government approval. Your leaders look the other way because they don't have time for Outer Dominance problems. It's been that way as long as I've been here."
A thought blossomed in the back of my mind and, with it, a bit of hope flared in my heart. I tried to pat it down, to squash it before it bloomed. My heart was tired of getting its hopes up just to be disappointed. Still, if there was a chance, I had to ask.
"How long have you been doing this?"
Mortac frowned, and his face scrunched in thought. "At least a decade."
"And do you keep records of all your prisoners?"
He nodded. "Seekers require it as a part of the agreement."
"Might I look at them?"
He stared at me a moment, then understanding crept across his face. "Ah, yes, I can assure you, they did not come through this facility."
"Not even a chance?" I asked, not giving thought at the time to the fact that he knew immediately who I was talking about.
"I promise you, they are not here," Mortac said, his voice soft. "I can also tell you they didn't make it to any of the other facilities, either."
"What are you talking about?" Donovan asked, looking between us.
"Your family members, my dear, stupid boy," Mortac said, rolling his eyes and smiling at me. "Is he always like this?"
I didn't answer, my mind contemplating what he'd just revealed. If my mother and sister hadn't come to a facility like this, that meant they were probably being held in the central provinces, like my father. If what Quentin said was true.
"Do you know of any facility they might take ill people to?"
Mortac's head cocked to one side. "What kind of illness are you thinking of?"
I described Jyen and my mother's symptoms each in turn. As he listened to my words, Mortac sighed and his shoulders sagged. When I finished, he sat down in his chair, head hanging.
"After all this time, we still haven't eliminated that disease," he whispered.
"Do you know something about it?" I asked, clinging, despite my best efforts, to a fragment of hope.
He nodded. "It's an ancient one, what your sister had. One I thought this world had moved on from." He looked each of us over, his features twisted in a frown. "It seems the authorities have just perfected how to hide its existence better than they once did."
Quentin and I shared looks, Quentin even shrugging. Mortac noticed and smiled.
"I understand your confusion. Suffice it to say I've had some experience with this disease." He turned a sad gaze to me. "Barring some unknown, miraculous cure I've yet to discover exists, and not for lack of trying on my part, I can assure you your sister is gone from us. As to your mother, she didn't come through my facility."
I nodded, feeling the blossom of hope that had bloomed in my heart wither and die. My hand sought out Donovan's, clinging to the one thing in which I had any faith left.
"How often do these dragons come?" Quentin asked, steering the discussion back to the event we'd just witnessed.
"There isn't a pattern save for they rarely ever come back soon after a visit. Sometimes, they'll not appear again for close to a cycle. Other times, they'll come back every few days."
"What happens when you don't have enough victims to offer up to them?"
Mortac grimaced. "They go in search of what they want."
"When was the last time you gave an offering to green dragons?" I asked, thinking back to the attack on us.
"Wait, you've seen green dragons?" Mortac asked, his voice tightening as he emphasized the color.
I nodded. "Just yesterday, a flight of them attacked Colvinra's Seekers. They took my younger brother."
Mortac covered his mouth with one hand, patting his face as he thought.
"And they took people? Anyone else, besides your brother?"
"All the Seekers, save for Colvinra, apparently," I answered.
His head cocked to one side as he stared at me. "What game is this?"
I frowned. "Game? This is my family we're talking about."
He nodded once. "This gets more curious the longer it goes. They left you," he whispered, folding his hands behind the small of his back. "What are they up to?"
"Who?" Quentin asked, but Mortac ignored him, pacing away from us around the room, eyes looking out the window toward the shell's edge. "Mortac, who are you talking about?"
The warden stopped and turned back to us, eyes focused elsewhere. "You're sure it was a green flight that attacked you?" I nodded, as did Donovan. "And, was there anything different about any of them?"
I frowned. "They were all different sizes, but otherwise they all looked the same."
"No, Micaela, remember that one that hovered over you," Donovan piped up, turning to look at me. "That one was much larger and had all that bone jutting back from its head."
"The Dragon Queen?" Mortac whispered to himself, his eyes focusing on me. A very confused look twisted his features as he stared at me. "She was there? Had you ever seen her before?" I shook my head. “So it could just have been a large dragon.” His eyes widened, and he looked around the room. "Still, it left you behind, and those creatures do not do anything without their queen telling them to do so.” He stared at me a moment longer, then shook his head, the confused look replaced with a smile. "Well, I can't explain her activity to anyone, but it does explain our earlier guest's interest in you."
"How does a dragon not taking me make me of interest to Colvinra? I mean, more than anyone else would be interested in why it happened? It doesn't appear to be that common a thing."
Mortac shook his head. "Survivors of dragon raids are virtually non-existent. When they want you, they take you." He held my gaze. "And this one left you behind. Fascinating."
"That still doesn't explain Colvinra's interest in her relating to the dragon," Quentin pointed out.
Mortac smiled. "It's simple. Our guest has an unhealthy fascination with that particular dragon, a grudge of sorts. If it indeed was the Queen you saw. Goes back a long ways, that grudge, I assure you. If she really was there, and she left you behind," he said, nodding at me, "then you're of value to her."
He smiled that same smile, a small thing darting across his lips and touching at his cheeks, eyes never leaving mine.
"And that makes you valuable to him."