I slept little that night. The conversation with Quentin and Suyef died after his statement about the hospitals. I wasn't sure if he could be believed or not. The look on his face before he told me, however...that gave me pause. He seemed to dread telling me; he wore the look of a man come to tell you someone close to you has died. And that is what it felt like. The raw wound stabbed into my heart when Jyen had been taken and ripped anew when my mother left pulsed in my chest, aflame with sorrow long-thought buried. I did my best to hide it, so as not to wake my brothers. They seemed to sleep that night.
Quentin could tell his words bothered me. He tried twice to comfort me, but words failed him. I had nothing to offer him anyway. After a few attempts, he gave up and left the room. Suyef remained on guard the rest of the night. When the morning came and the door slid open, the two were gone. I looked for them as one of the other Seekers led us down. Colvinra, sitting at what had been our table with his cowl and hood removed, must have noticed.
“You'll not find your friends here," he growled, his voice sounding even gruffer in the morning. His nose hooked down to a sharp point and his lips were so thin they almost weren't there. "I've sent them off on their mission, where they belong."
The three of us huddled close and remained silent.
"Still not much of a talker, eh?" He sniffed and grimaced. "By the core, I can't stand the smell of you Edgers. I'll be glad to be done with the lot of you and back in the Central Dominance where we belong." He grinned, a wide, evil thing that made his face even more ghoulish than did his all-black eyes. "And from what I hear, soon you won't have much of a choice but to move to more civilized parts of the shell." His gaze locked on me, and the smile vanished. "Your father's bit of thievery notwithstanding, of course."
Donovan tensed next to me and I lay a hand on his shoulder. His muscles tightened under my touch, but, to my relief, he relaxed and remained silent.
"Still won't talk," he whispered, tapping a finger on the table. "Very well. Squad Leader, get them mounted. We leave when I finish eating."
The Squad Leader led us outside, where we found five of the elongated Seeker speeders waiting. I looked around once my eyes adjusted to the bright morning core-light, but saw no sign of Suyef, Quentin, or their speeders. The morning winds whipped my hair about, and I pulled my red body scarf up around my head, the long ends hanging down and shielding my body. Donovan and Maryn donned theirs as well, and we followed the Seekers over to the speeders. Up close, the machines looked impressive and frightening at the same time. Twice as long as I was tall, these had long seats to accommodate two riders. A Seeker mounted each bike, lying down and settling their chins onto a cushioned extension of the seat. We climbed aboard behind them, the grooves on each side for our legs making it so we had to lie on our captors, legs flung back on each side at a downward angle behind us, arms wrapped around their bodies.
I situated Maryn with his Seeker, strapping him in with a harness of sorts the Seeker offered me to ensure he was secure. After that, I made my way to my mount. Once situated, the six of us waited for several minutes before Colvinra and the Squad Leader emerged and mounted.
"We head east first," Colvinra called to the Seekers. "You know the dangers we face. If we are attacked by raiders, split and meet at the rendezvous point. Squad Leader and I will deal with them." He paused, staring off in the direction of the edge. "If it's anything else, hope your speeder is faster than it."
I glanced at Donovan, confused. He mouthed the words "anything else" to me, and I shrugged. My riding companion shifted to look over his shoulder at me.
"Keep a tight grip on my back. If you fall off, you'll die." His tone was flat and emotionless. "I'm not going to get in a wreck trying to save you, girl."
"Got it," I said, huddling close and getting a good grip on his torso.
Donovan appeared to receive his own instructions as he huddled closer to his Seeker, eyes determined.
"Move out," the Squad Leader ordered.
The speeders lifted off the ground and vaulted forward, slicing through the air with hardly a sound from the machines. The desert landscape flew past, the control station falling away behind us. Far off to my right stood the settlement, the edge several miles distant beyond that and to my left loomed the central mountains, dominating the shell. They hardly moved, despite the speed with which we soared past the terrain. Small shrubbery, stunted trees and the like, raced past, and rock formations that had stood far on the horizon from the settlement zipped past looking shorter and rounder than my memory recalled. Before long, we travelled past the familiar lands I'd once gotten myself lost in. Angling my head a bit brought the tall rock formation I'd visited twice before in sight. My mother’s token still lay there, and part of me wished there'd been time for one more trip to get it.
We rode for a few hours before the Questioner called a stop. We wolfed down a quick bit of nutrient gel and a swig of water from packs the Seekers offered us before remounting and heading off. I saw no sign of anyone for miles, but the Seekers still flew about like men expecting a surprise. They dodged back and forth, keeping to gullies and washes, staying away from ridges unless forced there. I craned my head in as many directions as possible but saw nothing. Who were we hiding from? Who would the Seekers be worried about? They were the preeminent power on the shell. If something scared them, it must be quite awful.
I figured it out later that first day. As we cleared another ridge, darting down the other side into a long gully that ran away from the descending slope, my Seeker steered his mount near Donovan's. As I looked over check on him, a shadow crossed over the mounts. The Seekers both jolted, glancing back behind us. I looked the other direction, but saw nothing. Donovan cried out and looked up, his mouth hanging open. I followed his gaze to see, but the Seeker on my mount jerked his mount hard to the left. I tightened my grip on his torso as my stomach shifted the other direction and the muscles in my neck cramped up. He finished the turn, and I twisted to look up, the speeder slowing to a halt. Nothing was there save for the water shield high above our shell, the only thing between us and the cold of space. The Seeker turned our mount slowly as all six mounts moved away from each other before stopping, their riders scanning the horizon and the skies above.
"What was it?" I asked the Seeker, but he just held up a finger.
The next instant, something rose up from the edge. It loomed high in the sky, filling the horizon with its long neck and giant, translucent wings. Soon, more followed the first. I felt my stomach, just returned to its normal position, drop down farther as my jaw fell open.
A dragon raid.
Micaela paused at my signal.
"Had you never seen a dragon prior to this?"
She shook her head. "Not enough to remember. My father told us of a raid that occurred when Donovan and I were very young, probably 15 cycles before this one. I was only five, Donovan four. My brother seemed to recall it more than I, but more from what he heard than remembered. That's how he made up all those stories for Maryn." She paused, staring off to one side. A small smile crept onto her face. "He had our little brother convinced he was an expert on dragons. The two of them would have grand adventures in the desert battling the monsters of their imagination."
I held my tongue, not wanting to interrupt a moment of pleasant memories. All too soon, the smile faded and she glanced at me, a single eyebrow arching up.
"My guess is that this first encounter didn't go so well," I said.
She nodded, a slow motion that carried a perception of weight. "That's putting it mildly."
The Seekers scattered in every direction. Donovan's mount soared off toward the mountains in the north as my own split off the way we’d just come. I spun my head around to the left and saw Colvinra and the squad leader shooting off toward the edge and the dragons. A shadow drew my eyes up and made me forget about the Seekers.
A flight of dragons, greenish in the scales, spread out above us. Bodies long and lithe, with stunted arms and long sweeping tails, they flew on wings translucent green to match their scales. The beasts swept past us and turned in the air. Two bore down on us and forced my Seeker to turn the mount down the ridge as he tried to escape. Yellow-tinted bone structures jutted out above their eyes and swept back like hair frozen in place. Their golden yellow eyes did not blink as they flew past us, pulling up into the sky with a pump of their wings.
The Seeker downshifted his mount and pulled it hard to the left, pivoting away from the swooping attackers. The mount lurched forward, shooting back across the ridge as one of the dragons cried out, a shriek that sent shivers down my back. Our attackers pumped their wings to pull up and spin in magnificent form through the air to come after us. The mount jerking to the right drew my eyes forward to see a third dragon diving down at us from the left. The three creatures spread out, one above, two from the sides, and dropped down before our mount. My Seeker yanked back hard on his control handles as he eased off the accelerator, and our nose shot straight up. I gripped him as a sudden burst of energy shot the mount up into the air.
Down below us, one of the dragons twisted in the air to crash into the ground. Realization dawned as to what the Seeker had done. Using the gravity beams that kept the mount afloat, he had locked on to a dragon, and used it to pull and push the mount up this high. Before he could bring the nose down, the dragons streaking past below us executed sharp turns away from him, and he lost his anchors. He realized the danger and spun the mount around so now we faced straight down at the ground. What was left of my stomach exited the back of my body as we plummeted straight toward the shell below. At what seemed the last moment, the Seeker yanked hard on the controls, and power surged inside the mount, repelling us from the ground. We slowed our descent just above the ridge peak and hung there for an instant. The Seeker shifted the directional gravity beams in front and behind us and the mount shot away, back in the direction we'd come from.
Ahead, the other mounts, harried as well, streaked back toward each other. My Seeker tried to turn to the north only to find a smaller dragon swooping down toward him. He took the hint and fled back to the group. The Seekers brought their mounts into a large circle and kept moving around, never holding still. Without a signal, they all turned inward, crossing each other's paths at close range and resuming formation, circling. They kept doing this as the dragons surrounded us. All of the Seekers left their pulse guns in their holsters.
"Why are you doing this?" I asked as we crossed the circle in another shift.
"Makes it harder for them to single us out," he called, leaning hard to the left into a turn, me leaning close behind him. "So they can't grab us." He shrugged with his right shoulder. "Least, we think it does."
I got a look at Maryn as we crossed one more time, expecting him to be terrified. He laughed with delight, his mouth split open in a smile as he pointed up at the circling predators.
"Kid doesn't know what's happening, does he?" the Seeker asked.
I shook my head, then realized he couldn't see me. "No, he knows they exist, but to him, they're something out of a story." The creatures flew back and forth around us, gliding through the air with little movement from their wings. "We haven't had this kind of raid in this part of the shell since before he was born."
The Seeker grunted. "Been the same all across the edge, with one exception." He turned the mount into another crossing move. "That's why we came this way, hoping to stay away from that blasted raider city."
Shrieks echoed down from the dragons as they circled us. I couldn't tell if they were frustrated or just trying to unnerve us. They didn't seem confused by the Seekers' tactic as much as they seemed patient. Their eyes darted back and forth, sizing us up. Once or twice, a smaller one darted out, swooping over the circling mounts and screeching at us. Patient as they might be, this stalemate of sorts would not last, and the Seekers realized that. They started calling out to each other, seeking guidance. Colvinra and the squad leader barked out for silence when they did.
In the next instant, the dragons struck. Half their number swooped down into the circling mounts with such speed the Seekers had no time to react. With terrifying results, the dragons crashed down into the speeding mounts. A dragon collided with the front of our mount, and I found myself soaring through the air, head down, cloak sweeping about me. My body slammed against something squishy and slid to the ground. The wind was knocked from my lungs; I gasped for air as momentum carried my body away from the dragon it had collided with. As I came to a halt, air raced into my lungs, and they gulped it up. I shook my head to clear my vision and looked about.
Nothing except dragons remained airborne, including those that attacked us having taken off again. One dragon dove down from above and a Seeker struggled in its claws when it took off, his useless pulse gun falling to land near me. I pushed myself up and ran toward the carnage of Seeker mounts, still unable to see either of my brothers. A Seeker leapt over his downed mount and ran toward me, waving his arms and screaming.
"Get back!" he yelled. "Run!"
"No!" I ran right past him, ducking under his arms, eyes searching for my brothers.
I heard the screech an instant later and did the only thing possible: collapsed to the ground and curled into a ball. The Seeker vanished in the grasp of another dragon, a piece of his cloak tearing free and falling to the earth near me.
Just past the falling cloth, a Seeker clung to Maryn, arm around his neck and a pulse gun pointing up at the screeching beasts. Something happened inside me. Something clicked, like an emotion I'd never felt before kicking in. A thought filled my head and burned itself into my memory. "That's my baby brother. Let him go!" I'm not sure if I said it out loud, but I heard it in my head, and it moved me to action. Searching around for something I could use, my eyes locked on the only thing nearby: the pulse gun dropped by the other Seeker.
I lunged for it as the Seeker moved with Maryn toward me, eyes and pulse gun trained above. I grasped the weapon in my hand and pointed it at his exposed back. As I pulled the trigger, unleashing the massive air pulse the gun generated into him, another thought filled my head. "Don't you ever touch my brother again!" The pulse hit him square in the back, knocking him forward. The force of the blast sent Maryn tumbling to one side. With him clear, I took aim and fired again. And again. And again. Pulse after pulse poured into the tumbling form of the Seeker, knocking him farther and farther away. Maryn crawled away toward a large rock, but I didn't relent. He had to pay. They all did. The others were out of my reach, all the ones that took my mother, my sister, and my father, but I had this one, and he would pay. I fired again and sent the limp Seeker crashing over a rock. He fell partially from sight, and all the rage, all the emotion, everything, just poured out of me like air from a balloon. I fell to a knee, one hand gripping the pulse gun. The cool metal calmed me, giving me something to focus on. Dragons. Dragons were the problem now.
Maryn peeked out from behind the rock. I moved toward him, keeping a wary eye on the sky, pulse gun gripped in my hand. I weaved around rocks and found myself in an open stretch leading to Maryn’s hiding spot. How had he made it that far out? I pushed the thought down, gripped my body scarf in one hand and the pulse gun in the other, and sprinted the last few meters to the rock.
Just as I neared it, something flew into my peripheral vision. One of the larger dragons, golden claws extended, dove toward me. It moved with such speed, there was no way to make it to safety. I pushed my feet out farther behind me and dove to the ground.
Right when the claws should have struck, a resounding crash echoed above me. I landed unharmed behind the rock and rolled to find Maryn tucked under an outcropping, screaming his lungs out. Pain burst up my side from what I suspected would become a glorious bruise on my hip. I hobbled toward Maryn and looked for the attacking dragon. What greeted me made me stop dead in my tracks.
There, hovering over us, flew the largest dragon yet. The creature was green from head to tail, a bright, emerald green shining in the core-light. What made it stand out even more? It dwarfed every other dragon present, its wingspan easily half again longer than those of the rest. Above and swooping back from its head, it had a reddish-gold bone structure that looked like hair swept in the wind, flowing down its neck to merge with giant ridged scales jutting high from its spine.
It hovered over us and bellowed a cry at the other dragons. After that, it turned its head to look at me. Eyes deep as a pool of gold with a vertical slit of black like that of a cat stared back at me. I looked up, mesmerized for a moment as the beast hovered. It lowered itself to the ground, wings beating to keep it in place just over me. The creature's body neared, pushing me backward onto the ground, my eyes still locked on the beast's, my head craning to look at the head beyond mine. A moment later, the dragon took off and flew away. I pushed myself up to watch its flight. As it left, the other green beasts, scattered by the arrival of the larger dragon, vanished out of sight in the distance. The beautiful creature held my awe-struck gaze until it dove down, out of sight below the shell's edge.
Only then did my eyes fall back on the scene before me. The Seeker's mounts lay in ruins tossed about, and I saw no sign of their owners. My heart began to race as my eyes sought after signs of my other brother. Movement to one side drew my eyes and a sigh of relief as Donovan peeked out from behind another rock. I grinned and looked down at the outcropping where Maryn had hidden.
He was gone.