Shuffling from the tunnels they came, lines of dishevelled and men and boys, mostly young, their faces slack and eyes dull, skin caked with years of dirt and hair shorn such that they all looked the same. Tarn recognised himself in them; saw his life painted on each person, the crippling years of torment which had ground them into mute submission. Many of them would have been born to this and never known anything else. It struck him how peculiar the quirks of fate had needed to be for him to be the one to escape: him over all the others, succeeding where nobody else ever had. That achievement alone was unbelievable, yet here he was, returned and with an army in tow, possessed of such powers that he had never dreamt possible.
"What do we do?" asked Kirya. "They've blocked all the exits."
"They don't look all that tough," Tranton said, sword in hand.
Tarn pushed the blade with the back of his hand, forcing it to be lowered. "We cannot harm then," he said, scouring the homogenous faces for recognition, though knowing that the chances of identifying Fiffdee were slim.
"There's an awful lot of them, Tarn," Tranton said, "and they don't look like they're here to talk."
The workers converged, forming a wall of bodies that slowly grew and encircled them, while retaining some distance. Other than the scuffing of bare feet on the rough ground they made no noise.
Strolling casually along the line of workers, the vision of Aera leaned in close to each of them, waving a hand in front of their faces. She glanced back at Tarn. "She's stalling you," she said. "All she needs is time for the machine to get up to speed. If she can keep you occupied until then, it'll be too late."
The chamber buzzed with a haze of energy, emanating from the crowd of workers. "You can see it, can't you?" Aera said. "If I can see it, then you must be able to see it. We share the same eyes."
"Any suggestions?" Tranton prompted, his sword still extended, even while he held it low.
Tarn pointed at the haze above their heads. "They are linked to her," he said, "linked to Kraisa. Same as when you were, Kirya, although the connection seems weaker."
Peering in the direction he was pointing, Kirya shook her head. "How do you know?"
"It's because you were born here," Aera said, whispering in his ear. "You've breathed the fumes of this place, inhaled source your whole life. I'm surprised Kraisa didn't recruit an entire army of you."
Tarn shrugged. "It's complicated," he said.
"Can the link be broken?" Tranton asked, turning slowly as he assessed the situation, his face grim and set.
"I don't know," Tarn said.
Aera moved close to Kirya and peered into her eyes, as if trying to see inside her skull. "The link to Kirya was strong. They had a blood connection." She waved a hand at the gathered crowd. "This is different. She can't maintain this many connections easily. I would guess at this being proximity-based...get her far enough away, or distract her, and the link will be severed."
"Tarn?" Kirya asked, "are you still there?"
He glanced at her, again trying to ignore the ghost of Aera, which stood beside her smiling inanely. "There's a noise in my head," he said, still unwilling to reveal Aera's reappearance, for fear of them no longer trusting him to be himself. "I'll be fine. If we get Kraisa far away from them I think she won't be able to control them."
"Hold on a second," Tranton said, holding up a hand, "does that mean she's already here?"
There was a commotion at the edge of the chamber, as the crowd moved away from the tunnel's entrance. Then they remained perfectly still, as in the sudden hush the sound of heavy, crunching footsteps could be heard. From where they stood, Tarn could only just see over the heads of the workers, but that did not pose a problem as the imposing, black-clad figure entered the chamber, standing tall and a head-or-two higher than the workers.
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...