All it takes

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"Get out."

"No." Tarn ignored the command. He was not there to take orders.

"Once the tracking completes and the coordinates are synchronised, you're all going to be pulled through with me."

He knew he was working against time, that every second was critical. Distantly, beyond the bounds of the mindscape, he could sense the machine still building its power, deep below ground, it cycles increasing continuously - but to what point? He had to assume that whatever was going to happen was going to happen imminently.

They stood atop the parapet at the edge of the palace roof terrace, the aviary intact and beautiful in the centre. The sky was a warm orange-blue as the sun dipped towards the mountain horizon. Birds hovered, immobile, in the sky. The valley stretched out around them in every direction. Everything was stopped. Tarn couldn't imagine anybody seeing this, knowing this, and not being satisfied.

"What is it to be then?" Kraisa asked, stood next to him, no longer clad in armour and wearing instead plain clothes of a commoner. "You're going to try to take my power as well, is that it? Combine mine and Aera's powers?"

"No." He knew it didn't work like that. Knew it wasn't that simple. As with so many things, he didn't know where the knowledge came from, but it was there, sometimes surfacing at the right moment, other times not.

"This rebellion of yours should never have existed," she said. "I should have killed Aera when I had the chance."

"Instead, you banished me," Aera said, stepping out from behind Tarn in a manner which made no physical sense - but they were in the mindscape, where sense was a secondary consideration.

"He let you out of your cage, then? You must have been weaker than I'd realised, to let him overwhelm you like that."

Tarn took a step, off the parapet and out into space. He floated quite easily, as if standing on an entirely solid surface. The outer wall of the palace dropped away to the mesa, which in turn descended to the city far below.

"He dislikes cages," Aera said, the both of them talking as if he wasn't present. "The door was left open a crack. Not entirely by accident, I suspect."

"And you got him out of the machine rooms?"

Aera laughed. "Oh, no," she said, "that was a happy accident. A feedback loop. Sloppy networking on my part. It seems I inspired him entirely by accident. The explorer, though: I made him a path."

Turning his attention away from them, Tarn looked to the mountains, proud and impossible and indomitable. From here they looked very different than down on the valley floor. It occurred to him that the valley itself was not dissimilar to the shape of a battered crown, still proud though misshapen.

Then they were gone from the rooftop, instead finding themselves in a chamber within the palace. Kraisa lay on a bed, feverish - no, not Kraisa. Queen Anja. Another, younger girl sat beside her, dressed as a maid. She held her hands to the Queen's temples.

"This is you," he said, looking back at Kraisa.

"Her in another time," Aera confirmed. "Her previous body; one of many she's stolen over the years."

Kraisa snorted derisively. "Your 'humane' approach is hardly better. Getting their misguided permission before locking them away."

"This is when you did it," Tarn said. "Is she still in there? Like Aera was still in me? Kirya's real mother?"

"I'm her real mother," Kraisa snapped. "I raised her. My blood is in her blood." she took a breath, either unable or unwilling to conceal the truth any further. She glanced at Aera. "We don't have the same longevity system. Mine is based on reskinning. On my world empty vessels are bred specifically for that purpose. Here, I had to improvise."

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