They moved deeper into the cave, which branched off in multiple directions down small tunnels and on multiple levels. It was well lit and the temperature was cool but pleasant. Descending a staircase, they found themselves in an enormous vaulted chamber, through which ran a slender river.
"Amazing," said Kirya, her mouth gaping. The space was almost as bright as day, lit by strips of beaming light that ran the entire length of the ceiling. There were buildings within the chamber, and gardens full of herbs and fruits. Animals shuffled about inside a pen. Children ran between houses and adults were busy at work, as if an underground farm was the most ordinary thing in the world.
Akila noticed Tarn straining his neck to look up at the glowing strips. "They're made of active source, exposed from the rock and activated using the same process that powers everything else back in the city. They stay bright like that for years. The only drawback is that you can't turn them off, which is why all the dwellings down here have heavy shutters on the windows."
"Who lives down here?" Kirya asked, her eyes betraying her suspicions.
"Everyone, eventually," Akila said. "We all do our part, usually as infants. That's when we're most likely to show signs. Some of our scientists think that it's proximity to source which activates the affinity, while others think that it's the source itself which creates the affinity in the first place - perhaps through ingestion, or dust in the air."
Hatch had knelt down to run a hand through the water of the river. Standing up, he turned to Akila. "I still don't understand what this is all for. What are you looking for?"
"Not 'what'," Akila said, "but 'who'. We are looking for an heir. We have been looking for decades." She nodded reverently in Tarn's direction. "We hope that we have found what we've been searching for."
Tarn frowned. "Why are you looking for air?"
Kirya squeezed his arm. "Not air. She means someone to take over. Like I'm supposed to take over from my father when he stops being king."
"You mean when he dies?"
"That's right," said Kirya, her voice normal but sadness in her eyes. Tarn knew immediately that he'd said something wrong, but wasn't sure what.
"An heir?" asked Fenris. "To take over from Aera, do you mean?"
"She can pass her powers to another. That's how Aviar has survived these long centuries. Perhaps it would help to think of 'Aera' as a title, rather than a name?"
Galisai, who had been silent until that moment, clapped her hands. "You want to hand over the city to Tarn?"
Looking from one person to another, Tarn felt all eyes turn towards him. He raised his hands before him. "I don't think it's a good idea, either," he said.
"Wait a moment," Stefan said, always serious. "Is this how Kraisa has stuck around for so long? She's been passing on her powers?"
Akila's expression clouded. "No," she said, "not exactly. Although Kraisa and Aera share some similarities in their use of source, their methods are very different. Kraisa does not share or relinquish power: instead, she takes it from others in order to perpetuate her life."
Stefan nodded slowly. "How do you know this?"
"Know this?" Akila repeated, looking confused.
"If you've all been stuck on this side of the mountains for centuries, how do you know what Kraisa has been doing? Even if you have spies, or some way of getting messages in and out, nobody even knows who Kraisa is, right? Or where she's been this whole time?"
Akila indicated for them to follow and they ventured further into the chamber. "Aera has known Kraisa for a long time, before she was exiled from the valley. That is how we know of her methods. What she takes by force, Aera wishes to give voluntarily. Look."
They had reached a low, long building enclosed by a fence. Through windows could be seen rows of desks, at which sat young children. An adult stood at the front of the room, speaking words they couldn't hear.
"This is one of our schools," Akila explained. "We teach mathematics, engineering and other essential skills in addition to testing and training for source affinity. This phase of a citizen's life determines their family's placement when they return to the city."
"Placement?" Kirya queried.
"Within our society. It keeps things ordered, which is critical given our limited resources and space. Everyone is looked after, but only some rise up."
Tarn never knew how to ask the clever questions, which is why he left it to everyone else to think of what to say. He always enjoyed the answers but didn't know how to think of the question before being given the answer. Maybe he'd think of a clever question one day, rather than the silly questions that always made people look at him with a mixture of pity and amusement.
"That's how you ended up being a polyant, then?" Stefan asked.
"Correct. I did my years down here, living off the land, and proved my worth." She walked over to Tarn and put both her hands on his shoulders. "If you pass the tests," she said, "you will then have to make the biggest, most important decision of your life."
But I've already left the machine rooms by crawling through the tight, hot pipe, thought Tarn.
"Do you have the courage to take on Aera's powers, and lead this city, as we prepare to strike back against Kraisa and free Lagonia from her influence? Will you be the person chosen to change history?"
All Tarn wanted was a family, and people who he would feel safe to live alongside. Perhaps this was the best way to get it.
The question is, who are you going to trust? Thanks for reading! Votes, comments, coffees, shares, all very welcome. Find out more about my writing at simonkjones.com!
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The Mechanical Crown (complete novel!)Fantasy
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