“Centaurs,” Kip grumbled to himself.
They seemed like a good idea at the time, back when the foundations of Zot were first being built. They were as intelligent as humans, with all the coordination – if not more—as any person. But they had the strength of their equine other half, which made them excellent for manual labor and defense.
It didn’t take much to convince them for their so-called loyalty. Wherever there was food, the centaur would follow. Still, just like any wild creature of the Blue Planet, they were crude, barbaric, and (to borrow a term from TsuMe) knavish.
I don’t know why we kept them around after the building was done.
Zemus suggested the brutes were good for basic defense and tower upkeep. Kip argued that Zemus wasn’t the one who had to horse-sit the herd every time the beasties need to go to the surface for their romping and hunting.
And the things that they’ll eat… ugh…
It was enough to convince him that they were more beast than men. Not that any of them cared a lick about Kip’s opinion. They only loosely listened to him because it was made plain that Kip was above them in the pecking order. If it wasn’t for that, the mind mage was sure that he’d end up murdered in his bed by one of the brutes some night.
If they have an attention span long enough to plan something like that.
Today, Kip came with his centaur troop to gather information and interesting specimens from the Blue Planet. While they hunted… or did whatever distasteful things centaur did. Because of that, the mind mage almost didn’t pay any mind to the herd’s excitement.
Not until he heard the word “human” cast about.
Furrowing his brow, he walked towards the ring of horse butts. They were all focused on something that held their interest, and with all the bulk hustling about, it was hard for Kip to make anything out.
What do they have there?
“Is it some sort of animal?”
“Of course not, you dolt. It’s a human Youngling.”
“Are humans on our specimen list?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Does that mean we can eats it?”
Nickering laughter rippled through the horse-butt circle.
“It’s it still alive?”
“It’s breathin, ain’t it?”
“We can fix that.”
Another round of guttural laughter.
Kip hoisted himself down from a log and addressed the group of brutes. Putting on his toughest act, he steeled his voice with a hint of mind magery. “Now, now. Clear out. You know the rules.”
One of the centaur snorted at him through the nose.
The mind mage cut the air with one hand. “No killing humans on scouting missions. Let it have some room.”
Grudgingly, the horse-butts dispersed, allowing Kip access to their discovery. There were mutters under their breaths, but they did as they were instructed.
In the middle of a clearing lay a human child. He couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven passes at the most. He was thin and somewhat small-built, with sandy-blond hair that reflected the dappled sunlight.
Kneeling down, Kip tapped his head with one finger, asking, “Hey. Can you hear me?”
The boy began to stir, giving a slight groan, “Uhnn…?”
“Ah, good. You’re still alive.”
The child slowly sat up, rubbing his eyes with one fist. He squinted around at the strangers that surrounded him with an expression of surprise more than fear.
“Where are you from, boy? Where are your parents?” Kip asked as kindly as he could.
He sat there for a moment, one brow furrowed before shaking his head. “I don’t know.”
One of the centaur barked a laugh. “He doesn’t know. That just means no one will miss him.”
Kip shot a dark look over one shoulder before turning back to the boy. “Does that mean you’re lost?”
“No, sir. I mean I don’t remember.”
“Don’t remember what?”
“Anything,” the boy said, voice cracking slightly.
The mind mage narrowed his eyes. Focusing on the boy’s thoughts, he could sense it – a whole lot of nothing. As if some cloth had come and wiped all his memories away.
“Very strange. I’ve never sensed this kind of amnesia before.” Kip got to his feet, musing half to himself. “There’s also no sign of a human settlement anywhere near here. Where did you come from?”
“He’s just a scrawny little thing,” one of the centaur noted. “Hardly make a snack for the Shadow Dragon.”
Kip watched the child shiver at the word “dragon.” He almost did the same. Why they kept such a ruthless beastie in Zot to begin with… well… that was one of Zemus’ things. He stayed out of it.
The mind mage lowered his brows, motioning at the chuckling centaur in a display of authority. “Enough! One more word out of any of you, and we’ll see if the dark serpent has a taste for horse meat!”
The boy watched in concern, “Please, sir, don’t feed me to the dragon!”
“Now, now. I wouldn’t do something like that,” Kip reassured him with a friendly grin. “Besides, kids give the Shadow Dragon heartburn anyhow. You really don’t want to see a dragon with heartburn.”
“You… promise?” Big, soulful, gold eyes stared up at the mind mage, seeking for any sign of safety and protection.
Kip swallowed, his own mind slipping backwards, to images of his son. Then, shaking himself out, he nodded, “I promise. You’ll be safe. Trust me.”
He stood on a moment of silent indecision. Zot was no place for children – certainly the Young Master and his temper tantrums were more than enough to deal with. But, if Kip left this boy here, days away from any human settlement, he would surely die just as quickly as he would in a dragon’s lair.
I can take him aboard, get him cleaned up, then drop him off at the next human settlement we find. As long as he doesn’t actually see our approach to the Tower, it shouldn’t be a big deal.
The centaur were already pawing the ground restlessly. If he didn’t maintain some illusion of control, the boy could still end up horse feed.
“Bring me a blindfold,” Kip turned towards the herd with a sharp glare.
“You don’t intend to bring that scrawny thing with us?” One of them frowned.
“Did I stutter?”
“No, sir!” Snapped one of the better behaved ones.
“I thought not. Do as you’re told and don’t ask questions,” Kip instructed taking the strip of cloth that one of the centaur offered. “Now, hold him.”
The boy looked terrified as the huge hands clamped around his arms, keeping him from running away.
Kip walked forward with a somber expression, showing the child the blindfold. “Part of protocol. It’ll be over soon.”
“Why not just kill him? Don’t need to go through all this trouble,” noted one centaur.
The mind mage cast around for the most authentic fib he could find. Then he spouted, “He may be of use to the Young Master.”
This got them to silent down. Any reference to the Young Master always did.
Gently, Kip tied the blindfold across the boy’s eyes, covering most of his face. Ensuring he could still breathe, he placed one hand on the child’s back, calming magics spreading from his fingertips.
That should keep him from crying or trying to run away.
“Let’s move,” Kip instructed, looking up at the sky in calculation. “The tower is due to shift at phase seven.”
The sound of many hoof beats echoed in his head as he led the boy forward. So many things to worry about. So many things that could go wrong. But none of it could show on his face. Any sign of weakness would be the opening the beasties needed.
On the Blue Planet, the boy’s life depended on Kip’s ability to appear to be in control. But, once they got to Zot, his command could not be questioned.