Into a Trap
Panic filled me as I climbed over the rock face, looking for signs of my brother. I called out his name and heard Donovan doing the same. It did no good. There was no sign of him. I collapsed to my knees and felt a numbness growing inside me, overwhelming the slicing wound laid bare by my mother and sister leaving. It spread, filling me with a sense of nothingness. I hugged my arms tight to me and rocked, a few tears still falling despite my numbness. What lay around me became distant.
Donovan appeared, standing before me, mouth moving. I closed my eyes, trying to block him out. Hands grabbed me and shook me. A voice filled my ears, angry, saying something. I squeezed my eyes closed, placing my hands over my ears, closing myself off.
A stab of pain ripped across my face, jarring me back to reality. My eyes shot open to see Donovan shaking his palm.
"Micaela, don't do this," he whispered.
I touched a hand to my smarting cheek.
"You hit me?"
He nodded. "You weren't listening to me."
"You...you hit me?"
"I slapped you. Sorry, I didn't know what else to do." He looked down at the ground, flexing his hand as he shook it. "You were...closing off."
I stared at my brother, my cheek tingling from where his hand had hit me.
He nodded and sighed. "Yes, taken."
"They've all been taken," I whispered, images of my mother, sister, and father joining Maryn's face in my mind.
"Well, good riddance to the Seekers."
I shook my head, but kept silent. Donovan didn't notice and kept talking.
"We can't stay here," he said, trying to pull me to a standing position. "They might come back. The mounts are useless and we don't know how to operate them anyway. We'll have to walk."
I resisted his tugging, though he spoke the truth. "Where do we go? They'll just keep looking for us."
"I don't know, but we can't stay here. Now, get up. You’re too heavy for me to carry." With that, he let go and moved toward the ruined mounts. "I'll look for some supplies, but we need to get moving."
I turned my head to watch him. "Where are we?"
"Somewhere east of the settlement. I climbed up to that ridge to get a look around." He ducked behind one mount and reemerged holding a water pack. "The water pipe's out of sight, so we're pretty far from home." He paused to look at me. "We're pretty far from everywhere."
His words carried an implication. I pondered them for a moment as he continued his searching. This far out, the only thing we'd find were raiders. I shook my head and pushed myself up. Raiders wouldn't attack a Seeker convoy. A wave of dizziness struck, forcing me to pause, my eyes closed until it passed. When I opened them, the scene before me reminded me of one crucial fact. This wasn't a Seeker convoy anymore.
I rushed to help Donovan gather what supplies we could carry. We stuffed them into travel sacks, wrapped our long scarves over our heads and bodies, and set off into the desert. At first, we marched south, directly toward the shell's end, the high mountains at our back. The plan was to turn west and make our way along the edge back to our settlement. From what we knew, raiders stayed far from the mountains to avoid Seeker patrols. While we wanted to avoid both, Seeker patrols were more coordinated and prevalent. We could go months and not see hide or tail of a raider. If we spent one day traveling between the outlying settlements and the mountains, we would see a Seeker patrol.
So, to the edge we went, thinking ourselves clever. Donovan kept a wary eye behind us, convinced more Seekers would come searching. We didn't travel in a straight line, cutting back and forth across the landscape as best we could. At times, Donovan's instincts seemed dead on. There were moments when it felt like unseen eyes stared at our backs, or a glimpse of a shadow on the edge of my vision drew my gaze. When I looked, nothing was there. After a while, the feelings went away. The day grew long. Gel nutrient packs from the Seekers’ mounts gave us ample food, but our water supply would become a problem. How long we had, it was hard to tell. Our minds were preoccupied with our possible pursuit as well as our missing brother. At least, mine was. The wound grew larger, more raw. Another part of me ripped away. As we walked, I found myself moving closer to Donovan, drinking up his presence. The only thing left to me. Yes, I was very distracted, and so was my brother.
So much so, we didn't realize we were walking right into a trap.
That night, as we rested near the edge, a slight ridge to our backs, a low running gully cutting down the edge side providing us some shelter from the wind, my mind drifted, lost in quiet thought. The initial shock of losing yet another family member had begun to wear off. It's not that I was okay with it happening. Still, part of me accepted it. This was becoming my lot in life. As I sat there staring at the sky, the realization bloomed that part of me expected it. Glancing at Donovan, I wondered when he would leave. Part of me panicked at the thought, but another part accepted it. It was going to happen. The only questions were how and when.
For his part, Donovan put on a good face, but underneath he was angry. He held his tongue, for once, but a storm boiled under the surface. As the night shield fell, he grew restless, pacing back and forth and grabbing rocks and flinging them toward the edge. This close, the night shield added an eerie effect to the air. Emanating from the citadel at the center of our shell, the shield gave us the illusion of night in a world of perpetual core-light. Here, the night screen dimmed the light, but I could still see the brightness from the core reaching up past the rocks that formed the end of our shell.
"Why did you leave Mother's necklace on that pile of rocks?" Donovan asked, his voice cutting through the silent night air.
I looked up, a bit confused. "I don't know. It seemed the right thing to do."
He stood, a rock in hand, eyes on the vast sky before us. "We found it. On one of our little excursions. Maryn thought he'd found some lost treasure. You'd have enjoyed the story he made up to explain how it got there." He dropped the rock and turned to look at me. "He wouldn't let me leave it." Something hung from his other hand, dangling in the night winds. "I made him give it to me for safe-keeping. I managed to distract him enough the rest of the day that he didn't tell you." He looked away, shifting back and forth on his feet.
"I miss her," I whispered. Donovan nodded. "Keep it."
He looked back at me, eyebrows raised. "I know how important it is to you. That's why I found it odd you'd leave it there."
I shifted, tucking my legs against my chest and staring out into the night sky. "You need it more than I do."
He sighed and tucked the necklace back into his pocket. He grabbed the rock he had dropped and flung it toward the edge. We remained silent after that, memories keeping me company. I didn't want to be silent, but at that moment words felt like they would just make me lose it. I cursed the Seekers, the Central Dominance, and my father for his water project. Myself for continuing it. Why hadn't I just left it alone? They might never have come looking for us. Maryn might still be with us. Had Father just let it be, he might never have been arrested. I buried my face in my arms and began to weep. Donovan kept grabbing his rocks, flinging them as far as he could. I could hear the anger as he grunted with each throw. It matched the sorrow filling me inside.
We were so focused on ourselves—Donovan on his pacing and rock throwing, me on contemplating my life—we never heard the raiders approach.
"Drop the rock," a voice said from right behind us.
I started and jumped up, spinning to see who had spoken. A man in clothes one might see anywhere in the Outer Dominances—non-descript colors, flowing body scarf, and a hood—stood there. The only thing that stood out was his eye patch and once-broken nose. He held a pulse gun trained on Donovan, nodding at my brother to drop the rock he held. My sibling did so and, as he did, more raiders appeared in the night as fast as the dragons had earlier that day. When they did, I remember thinking it a good thing the thought to pull my own pulse gun from my pack hadn't occurred to me. They were a motley bunch of gashed faces, torn, non-descript clothing, and pulse guns. A few were missing teeth, and one had a hole in his cheek I didn't care to contemplate too much.
"Well, well, ya two do make an odd pair to be getting such attention," the first man said. "First, ya get all tangled up in Seekers. Then ya escape a dragon raid. And now ya manage to elude more Seekers."
I glanced at Donovan, arching one eyebrow. He shrugged and stared at the man.
"Too bad for them we found ya first, eh, Seekers?" he asked, calling over his shoulder.
I looked up to see more men appearing over the top of the ridge. Other raiders came into view, pulse guns out and trained on two men walking among them. I stared in shock at who stood there.
Quentin and Suyef.
"Well, Seeker?" the raider asked. "Are these the two ya're after?"
Quentin nodded. "My thanks for finding them. Now, if you turn them over to our custody, we'll be sure to not mention you in our report."
The raider burst out laughing, joined by most of his crew. "Word of a Seeker is about as good as what ya get from a psychic: means different things to different people." He stopped laughing, his face going hard. "Except when a Seeker threatens ya." He turned to look at Quentin. "Ya wouldn't be threatening us, now would ya?"
Quentin held up both hands. "No one is threatening anyone here. We'll just take these two and be gone."
"And what do Seekers want with a couple of Edgers?"
"That's Seeker business," Quentin replied, stepping forward. "They can hardly be of good value to you."
The raider waved a hand at Donovan. "He'll fetch a hefty load of cash, healthy one like him." He grinned lasciviously at me. "Her, well, ya can imagine what we'll sell her for."
Donovan growled, moving between the raider and me. I grabbed at his shoulders to calm him, but hid myself from the raider's wandering eyes behind my brother.
"What, ya have something to say?" the raider asked, staring at my brother, nostrils flaring.
"Donovan," I whispered, "don't."
My brother's fist clenched, and he stopped moving forward. He didn't take his eyes off the lead raider, however.
"Don't need ya to look pretty for someone to pay." The raider waved a hand about his head. "If ya feel like expressing yaself again, my boys will gladly have a 'talk' with ya."
All the raiders chuckled, several tossing some jibes in. Donovan looked at them all and shook his head, stepping back from the lead raider and looking down.
"See, Seeker, provincials know thar place." The leader turned to look at Quentin. "Thanks to you lot for that bit."
"We'll pay you for the pair," Quentin said. "As soon as we get near an outpost, we can have the currency transferred."
The leader barked another laugh. "Yah, and a squad of Seekers to carry it, no doubt." He spat to the side. "That's what I think of that idea."
Quentin looked over at me, and I could see his mind working even at this distance. I shook my head and shrugged. He frowned and looked at Suyef, who stood ignoring everything and everyone around him.
"The way I see it, Seeker," the leader continued, "not much of a trade here."
"If you won't sell them to us, we'll be on our way then."
The leader laughed and nodded at his men, who, as one, turned their pulse guns on the pair.
"Oh, I don't think so."
"You can't possibly think we'll go quietly," Quentin scoffed at the leader, but Suyef laid a hand on his shoulder and shook his head once.
"I don't think even two Seekers'd stand up to this many pulse guns at once." The leader shook his head. "No, see, we can't have ya going back to yar Seeker friends and telling them about us. Leads to problems our employer likes to avoid."
"If ya're lucky, ya might meet him. He's a particular distaste for Seekers." The leader chuckled. "S'not a meeting I'd be eager for."
He barked a few orders, and his men hustled the four of us together. The raiders gagged the two Seekers, but left my brother and me unmolested. We kept quiet, nevertheless, as we waited. Older, dilapidated speeder mounts appeared from the surrounding area, but I saw no sign of Quentin and Suyef’s mounts. Clearly, the leader hoped to find them, as he kept sending his men out to search.
After almost a chron, exasperated as his men set off in a new direction, the leader came over and removed the gag from Quentin's mouth. "Where're they hidden?"
Quentin shrugged. "Somewhere inconvenient for you."
"Mind your tongue, Seeker," the leader growled, nostrils flaring. "Remember, I don't need ya to look pretty for the selling."
"I doubt you'll fetch any price for a Seeker," Quentin replied, shrugging. "No one will take the risk."
The leader knelt down to be eye level with Quentin. "No one said they had to know where ya came from, either.” He reached up and grabbed Quentin's cloak below his neck in a fist, pulling him closer. "Now, where're those mounts?"
"I told you already. Somewhere inconvenient."
The leader scowled, shoving Quentin back and standing up as another raider rushed over to replace the gag. The leader moved a short distance away and stopped, staring off into the night. On a whim, I stood up and walked over to him, drawing a disinterested eye.
"I assume you tracked us most of the day?" He nodded. "Did you witness what happened earlier?" Another silent nod. "Did you happen to track anyone else that got away from the attack?"
The leader gazed at me for a moment, eyes narrowed. Finally, he shook his head.
"People don't usually come outta such things," he whispered. "We stayed away in hopes they'd ignore us. We went closer after the beasts left to see if anything was salvageable."
"That's when you saw us," I said.
He nodded. "I'll not lie and say I wasn't stunned. Like I said, no one walks away from such things." He stared at me for a moment. "Why'd they leave ya? I'd wager that makes ya even more valuable to my employer."
I shrugged and returned to my seat. Donovan and Quentin both shot questioning glances at me, but I ignored them. Huddling close to my brother, knees gathered to my chest, my mind got lost in thoughts about my younger brother. Still, part of me couldn't help but ask myself the same question, pondering the possible answers. Why had the dragons left us? Why take everyone else, including Maryn, and leave the two of us behind? No answers came, and a little more of the hope inside me withered and died.
I set my stylus down, massaging my writing hand as Micaela stood and stretched. Even that she managed to do with a grace that filled me jealousy.
"So you contend the Queen left you for a purpose?" I asked.
She glanced over at me. "I never said it was the Queen."
I frowned at her. "There's only one dragon in the world that fits the size you described. Especially among the greens."
"True, but I never said it was her. You shouldn't jump to conclusions."
I dipped my head. "My apologies."
"That said, it looked like her," Micaela said, a small smirk darting across her lips. "At least, it did to my untrained eye. As to whether or not it was, you’ll have to ask her. Regardless, they acted on her direction, I’ve no doubt of that. And yes, I suspect she had them leave us on purpose."
She shrugged. "Why does the Queen do what she does?"
"For the good of all her people," I replied without hesitation.
Micaela nodded once. "A very apt description. And, has she ever deviated from that pattern? To your knowledge?" I shook my head. "So, I stand by the statement: she did it on purpose."
"So, you know where Maryn is then?"
"We're getting ahead of the story."
I held up a hand to forestall her continuing. "Come now, High One." Her glare stalled me. "My apologies. Micaela. Come now, you can tell me that much, yes?"
She stared at me for a moment before nodding once. "I do know where he is."
I smiled. "Good, he's alive then. So there's hope."
The look that filled her eyes all but drained the good feeling I felt at discovering Maryn's fate. She stared at me, those eyes a deep, sorrowful pool of pain and loss. In that moment, it was very clear that this woman was not to be buoyed by such good news.
As if reading my mind, Micaela said, "Don't let my inability to see the joy in a small thing such as this put out the light you felt." She looked down at the table. "I long for the days when the little things made me happy."
I kept my eyes on her for a few long moments. After a brief silence, she nodded and resumed her seat. "Where were we?"
The leader gave up his search for the Seeker mounts after what seemed half the night. With the four of us strapped on behind some of the raiders, the group set off into the darkness, traveling along the shell's edge. The dim light made it impossible to see, but somehow the raider piloting our mount knew where to go, dodging in and out of gullies, rocky formations, and along ridges that rose up along the way. It was hard to tell our speed, but it felt fast. I saw nothing that could give me even a frame of reference and so gave up, closing my eyes and leaning in tight to the raider's back.
At some point, I fell asleep, as the next thing my mind registered was the ropes being removed and something pulling me forcefully from the mount. I tried to blink my eyes open, but someone shoved a hood over my head, blocking my sight. A rope appeared in my hand and someone barked instructions not to let go. A tug on the rope pulled me into a walk and a trance of sightless walking and listening for any sign of where we were. Not much light peeked in through the fabric or up from around my neck, so it was still night. Once or twice, my ears caught murmurs from people as we passed them but nothing more. The surface we walked on was smooth, at least, free of rocks or steps. For that, I remember being grateful.
After a blind march that went on for quite a while, I collided with a halted figure and came to a stop. Someone came and took my hands from the rope, guiding me off to one side. With a jerk, the hood yanked clear, and dim light filled my eyes. I blinked away pain in my head and looked around. A room lacking any decor greeted me, the walls a solid gray and a single small window with thick-paned glass set in the wall opposite the door. Two beds stood on either side, more shelves than beds, really, jutting out from the wall with a sleeping pad set atop and a pillow and folded blanket set at each end. To my left stood a door marked "Lavatory," which led to a small cubby. To my right, another was marked "Changing Room." Someone pushed me forward into the quarters, and I looked over my shoulder as one of the raiders led someone else in, head still covered. A jerk of the hood and the raider left Quentin standing with me. The door slid shut behind him, his hands bound together in front of him, a gag still in his mouth. I stepped close and removed the gag.
"Thanks," he muttered, working his jaw a bit. "Sparse living quarters, I see."
I glanced up at him while untying his hands. He looked around with those bright blue eyes before settling them on me. I looked back at my work and finished freeing him.
"Why put me with you?" I asked, moving to one bed and sitting.
He shrugged. "Not enough space to put everyone in separate rooms?"
"Why not put me with my brother?"
"Keep you separated from a friend." He shook his head. "I'm just guessing, here. They might not even know you two are related. I'm shocked we're not all in cells or at least separate rooms. Could really be any reason."
I sighed, lying down on the bed. Exhaustion struck me hard. Something fell over me like a warm cloak, and I cuddled it close, rolling onto my stomach. Only then did I notice Quentin moving away from the bed. A glance over my shoulder revealed a blanket across my back.
"Thanks," I murmured, drifting off to what every ounce of me hoped would be a dreamless sleep.