Captive thoughts

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Tarn looked at his hands and saw unsheathed swords. In his fingers he saw knives, blades waiting to accidentally slice into something or somebody. The curve of his shoulders and the arch of his back were the frame and counterweight of a trebuchet, awaiting a payload. His mind was a cannon, loaded and with its fuse frozen in the moment of ignition.

He sat in the corner of the hold of the Mountain Breaker, flexing his fingers, opening and closing his palms, eyes closed, listening to the creaks and strains of the ship's frame, the footsteps on the deck overhead, the murmur of voices as its crew prepared for launch. Tarn was sat behind a row of stacked crates containing supplies and ammunition for the ship's weapons, away from the activity in the shipyard. They would be leaving soon enough and once the ship took to the skies there would be no turning back and no possibility of pause.

Time was what he needed: space in which to assemble himself and figure out who he was: prisoner, escapee, foolish boy, ancient god, saviour of the valley? He wished for none of those, wanting only to be at peace and to be left alone. Not wholly alone; he treasured those friendships which he had formed since leaving the machine rooms, just as he had felt lifted every time he had seen Fiffdee back when he was a slave to that endless cycle of control and machinery. He had found new friends but had been unable to appreciate their company, so consumed were they all by journeying and survival and the endless confusion of their tasks. He had anticipated little, expected nothing, of what may come after his escape from the machine rooms; if he had thought to imagine the possibilities, they would not have resembled the resultant truth.

He shook his head, trying to shake free from the sense that his mind was no longer his own. There was a layer of intelligence and insight, even down to the words he was now able to access, which felt an ill fit, as if he we wearing someone else's shoes. Which, of course, he was. He had never owned a pair of shoes in his life, and could not now recall from where he had acquired these.

Something tugged at the corner of his thoughts, calling for his attention, wanting to be noticed.

After the battle for Bruckin he had requested to be left out of what came next. The others could not understand, not having seen what had happened in the enemy camp, and not having to wrestle with the level of power he had stumbled into wielding, and insisted that he was essential if they were to defeat the true enemy. Kirya would hear nothing of it and had focused her every waking thought on Kraisa's defeat; she said it could not be accomplished without him. Even Tranton had taken him aside and explained that, while he didn't like it, the girl had a point. He'd promised that once it was all behind them, he and Tarn would be able to leave it all behind and find quieter lives - but first, there was work to be done.

Not that he wanted to abandon them - he would never consider such a thing. His fear was that his presence would put them more at risk than his absence. It was only the unexpected self-destruction of the Treydolain army which had prevented him from escalating his attacks: by the time he had arrived at the centre of Bruckin it had been all over. He had knelt aboard the deck of the command ship, cradling Fenris' head in his arms, Kirya beside him, both of them embracing each other and the dead man who had been mentor, father and leader. In that moment he had felt a crackling beneath the skin, an electric charge at the ends of his fingertips, which threatened to build and build until it flattened the city, but then he had felt Kirya's hand on his back and the pressure had subsided.

There was an itch, just out of reach, somewhere in the back of his mind. Perhaps more of a scratching than an itch: from the inside, out.

The others would be wondering where he was. He would have to get back to helping with preparations soon. Increasingly people looked to him to be their leader: the Avii survivors had directly replaced Aera with him, Bruckin's inhabitants regarded him as their chief rescuer, and the surrendered Treydolain soldiers looked up at him with fear in their eyes. He had done nothing except what he was told, felt no justification for the attention. Tarn wondered if there were a way back to anonymity; perhaps it would require leaving, crossing mountains and borders, straying into entirely new territory, just as Tranton had done. Could it be that the valley itself was the problem, and that as long as any of them stayed there it would continue to provided misery?

There was a throbbing pain in his head, behind his eyes. Sitting alone with his thoughts wasn't going to help, so Tarn stood up from where he was sat on the ground and took a deep breath. He would go find a task that would keep him occupied and focused, such that, for a while at least, he would not have to think about powers, principalities and his many problems.

As he wound his way back through the stacked crates and boxes, he became aware of somebody else nearby. Turning a corner he came upon a woman, tall, leaning back against the outer wall of the hold. Her appearance was more youthful than he remembered, her clothes stranger.

"You've been quite distracted," said Aera.

Tarn stood, dumbfounded, staring at the rejuvenated person before him. She looked at him and smiled sympathetically. "Don't worry," she continued, "I'm not really here. I'm an echo. A lingering thought. I crept out of that cocoon you left me in."

He moved closer, reached out, watched as his hand somehow occupied the same space as her. "You're really a very rude boy," she said. "I told you, I'm not here. Not physically." She stood tall and pointed a finger at his forehead. "But I'm most definitely here."

"I don't understand." Tarn felt as if he must have done something wrong, but was so far from comprehension that he was unable to know what it might have been.

"You say that," Aera said, eyes narrowing, "but you've acquitted yourself quite admirably. You partitioned me, then you severed Kraisa's link to her murderous daughter. During the battle you wielded your powers like someone who had been studying from birth. I've been watching."

In his periphery, at the far end of the hold, Tarn could see the crew moving back and forth, delivering boxes, climbing up and down to other decks. "Why are you here, now?"

"The battle took a toll on you, Tarn. You can't maintain that intensity of output without something giving way. A crack appeared in my cocoon, and so I began tapping away."

"What do we do now?"

Aera stretched her arms and walked in a slow circle around him. "We could make this difficult but I'm really not interested in that. Your raw power is impressive and I'm just a shadow of what I once was. But you should never have tried to imprison me."

There had been so little time to consider the consequences of his actions that Tarn had spared few thoughts for what had happened to Aera. Now that he was presented with the notion, he found himself horrified that he might have subjected anyone - even her - to captivity. "That was never my intention."

"No," she said, peering towards him as if trying to see behind his eyes, "no, it wasn't, was it? You have a good heart, Tarn. You should know that she will use that against you. She will use it to kill you."

"Kraisa?"

"Do not underestimate her. That's the mistake we all made."

There was motion from the stairs leading down from above. Kirya descended, looking this way and that, and spied Tarn. Calling his name, she approached with a skip in her step. "I've been looking for you," she shouted to him.

Tarn glanced from her to Aera, who lifted a finger to her lips. "Our little secret," she said, winking.


Thanks for reading! Arc 7 has begun - the final act of The Mechanical Crown. We're racing headlong towards the finale, everybody. Please do vote, comment and share!

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