The dust was unlike anything he'd ever seen. It hung in the air, immobile, thick and threatening, so dense that it parted when Tranton moved through it and closed together in his wake. He wore several layers of cloth over his face, bound tightly behind his head just below his ears, with only his eyes uncovered. He squinted against the scratching of the air, as floating particles clogged his tears and left streaks of grey and white all down his coat and through his hair. The survivors resembled ghosts, their skin and clothes covered with a film of the fine material; the remains of their fallen city. He was outside the caves, standing on the edge of the crater. It was the middle of the day but the light was dimmed almost to nothing by the filter of cloud and dust and smoke: it reminded him of an eclipse he'd witnessed, two decades ago, while sailing the Winfast Gap - the ocean had been blanketed in shadow, the sky gone to black. Back then, the sun had returned after only ten minutes; this was a week after Aviar had been destroyed and the sky remained hidden. He held a rope, looped through his belt, which was his only hope of finding his way back to the cave entrance, with visibility reduced to only half a dozen feet.
There was an anticipatory silence, interrupted only by rumblings of thunder from within the crater. Bolts of lightning would momentarily illuminate the edges of enormous, broken structures in the distance. They were the exposed bones of the city; a ribcage reaching up in memory of its former body.
He breathed shallowly, slowly, deliberately, attempting to reduce his intake of the filthy air. Going outside wasn't advised but he'd made a point of doing it each day. Observing the devastation seemed somehow important. Tranton had a notion that one day he would have to account for what had happened here, and wanted to recall the details accurately. The quiet hung over the hidden landscape, with even the wind absent and cowed. It was a forsaken place. Looking up, grimacing beneath his facemask, Tranton remembered the gleaming spires of the floating city on its impossible island. The crumbled remains that lay in the crater were a stark reminder of that impossibility; testament to the city's long overdue collision with the real world.
Departing the Headland had been with the intent of leaving behind responsibility and unwanted memories. Instead he had forged new ones and found himself tied once again to people who needed him. Everywhere he went, no matter how hard he tried to set himself apart, he would relentlessly pull others into his orbit. And now, matters were worse. He couldn't leave if he wanted to - crossing the Barrier Mountains had been a partly-calculated risk, and it was evident that leaving the ruins of Aviar on his own, whether he travelled back across the mountains or out into the desolate wastes, would be a fatal mistake.
Turning away from the shattered remains of Aviar, he pulled on the rope and trudged his way through the ash - thick as fresh snowfall, and deepening all the time - back towards the cave. The rope was all that guided him, with even the darker line of the crater's edge fading into the mists, until he was surrounded only by grey: an empty featurelessness which was total and uncompromising. Taking a step required unusual concentration, to avoid losing one's balance. Starved of reference points, with his feet disappearing into the murk, it was hard to know which way was up. He followed the thick rope, hand-over-hand, until the entrance to the caves loomed ahead, a shadow in the distance which slowly formed into the rocky hood that concealed the underground dwellings.
The caves had not been built with the intent of housing the entire surviving population of Aviar and thus were overflowing. The unlucky - those who had evacuated last from the falling city - were camped just inside the entrance, their tents covered with a thick layer of detritus. Each morning they had to dig themselves out from under a new wave of ash, blown in by the night storms. There were some attempts in motion to set up a rota, to ensure that nobody had to remain near the entrance for more than a day or two, but enforcing that was proving almost impossible. Those already inside the shelter of the deeper caves were reluctant to give up their spaces.
Nothing was working. Events had revealed to the former inhabitants of Aviar that their vaunted source affinity had relied heavily on the presence of Aera herself; after whatever had happened in the Spire, their discs refused to fly, doors malfunctioned, machines designed to supply food and water were seizing up and they were burning source at an alarming rate simply to heat and light the caves. The Avians - or Avii, as they insisted on being called and which Tranton found impossible to remember - had balked at the prospect of reverting to using source as a combustible fuel, until the temperature had begun to drop and the water began to run dry. Galisai, Stefan and Hatch had led the efforts to repurpose what they had, leaving Tranton to wonder whether all Bruckin-born possessed an innate ability to construct a furnace and harness its heat for power.
They'd taken Tarn and put him in a separate chamber under constant guard, refusing to allow any visitors including him or Fenris. Tranton had only vague understanding of what the locals thought had happened on the Spire and he didn't believe it; but it was evident that they believed it, which made the situation dangerous and fragile. Other than the momentary relief during Aviar's fall, which had allowed thousands more to escape its destruction, Tranton guessed that Tarn remained unconscious. How long that would remain the case seemed entirely unknown - there was nobody old enough to remember the last time this had happened, and mutterings in the camp suggested that it had not gone as it was supposed to. Regardless of the facts, they believed that Aera and Tarn were somehow connected, despite her body being crushed under hundreds of thousands of tonnes of broken city. Until Tarn chose to wake up, that situation wasn't going to change.
Kirya had been left alone, with Fenris tending to her in a corner of the camp near the furthest wall of the cave. She remained comatose, except for daily fits which prompted blood to leak from her nose and eyes. For the moment Eris had agreed to keep quiet about what he'd seen in the Spire, for fear of spreading panic and worsening the already calamitous situation. If Tranton knew anything about people, he knew that Eris' silence wouldn't last forever.
The truth was that after hearing the story from Eris' mouth - a day after the fall, when he'd regained a small amount of composure - Tranton had considered sliding his blade into Kirya's chest himself. She was unconscious and wouldn't have felt a thing. If Eris' account was accurate, then she could not be trusted and posed a continuing threat; on the other hand, Tranton still refused to accept that the world possessed the kind of power the Avians spoke of so confidently. He had seen the floating city - stepped on its streets - but the notion of ancient gods and forces beyond human control left him numb and wishing for normalcy. He'd seen the enormous turbines drilled into the underside of Aviar, helping it remain aloft, and clung to that as a scientific explanation, even as he was inexorably forced to reconsider his understanding of the world, day-by-day.
Tranton was in a new world now, darker and less rational, filled with unknowns and a depth of suffering he'd never witnessed. For the first time, he wished to be back in the Headland. If he'd never left, if he'd simply remained and carried on as a merchant of the seas, then none of this might have happened. It was his venturing into the mountains that had led, one unfortunate event at a time, to this devastation. He'd been avoiding that realisation for the longest time, staving off the admittance of involvement and responsibility. With each attempt to shrug off the world and his place in it, instead he'd tied himself yet tighter to the mast.
Now they were adrift, with no recourse or promise for the future. The roof of the cave pressed down upon his nerves. Everything relied on what happened next with the body of the boy that lay on a slab elsewhere in the caves; and who, precisely, resided within it.
YOU ARE READING
The Mechanical CrownFantasy
An explorer, a princess, a slave and a sword. A belief that the world can be better. The Mechanical Crown is an epic adventure full of intrigue, mystery and romance. When Tranton Seldon becomes the first to cross the mountains in hundreds of years...