Time passed in the Tower, though it was difficult for Aur to track the days. He tried to count the nights he spent there, but eventually gave up after the first moon passed. It didn’t help that he didn’t know any numbers higher than the number of fingers on his hands. He probably could have used toes, too, but by then, he had other things to capture his imagination.
His doubts and concerns for his new neighbor – that’s what Ben said you call someone who lives next door – faded to fast friendship over time. Not only was the white-haired boy genuine and friendly, but he was also clever and full of jokes and good humor. The only thing Aur didn’t like about his friend was Ben’s bouts of hot temper. Though Aur steered clear of these episode, the other boy never focused anger at him. Ben always saved that to unleash on Kip.
There was some sort of battle of wills going on behind their eyes, Aur came to realize. Kip played mind-games, Ben once told him. Ben was determined to beat Kip at his own game.
Aur always thought that games were supposed to be fun, not scary. But the games these two played usually ended up in frustration, cold silence or the occasional smell of burned books.
Today, Ben was busy sketching out another plan. This time it was an attempt to escape the Tower. And Aur was part of the plan. He even saw himself drawn out in the little map that Ben spread under his hands.
The white-haired boy explained it all to Aur, patiently answering any questions. He told Aur that he had an important part to play in all this. He was the holder of the pillow case.
“Okay, you think you got it?” Ben asked one last time with a clever grin.
Aur nodded. “I just use the pillow case. Right?”
“That’s it,” the other boy confirmed, pushing one of the high-backed chairs up next to the doorway. “It’s real easy. All you have to do is wait for me to give the signal.”
That did sound easy enough, Aur decided as he climbed up on the chair. Taking his position, as Ben called it. The boy crouched, the opening to the pillow case clutched firmly in his hands, which were sweating a bit from the excitement.
Aur knew what they were doing was against the rules. But with Ben there to encourage him, it felt exciting. Like a story from a book.
“I can hear him. He’s coming. Are you ready?” Ben whispered.
“Y-yes,” Aur whispered back, taking a cue that they should be quiet.
Then the door slid open with Kip’s usual “Hello, boys!” greeting. And everything became a blur after that.
The General took one step inside the room, his head swiveling around as if sensing the danger at the very last second. That didn’t stop Ben, though. The boy leapt forward, strands of glowing green light spreading from his hands, shouting, “NOW!”
That was Aur’s signal!
He also jumped forward, sweeping down with the pillowcase in both hands. He couldn’t believe how neatly the white cloth enveloped Kip’s surprised face, covering his head and shoulders and muffling his shouts.
“Silence!” Ben commanded with an edge of magic in his voice.
And Kip fell silent, though he continued to struggle against the two boys. He couldn’t do much with the case over his head and the green lines of magic energies looping around him like a magic rope.
“Alright!” Ben exclaimed with pride. “We caught Kip!”
“You didn’t hurt him, did you?” Aur asked with some concern.
The other boy shook his head, hoisting Kip up from under the man’s arms. Aur came over to help, lifting the man’s feet. Together, they carried him to the other side of Ben’s room, where the white-haired boy threw a sheet over him.
“No, I just made it so he can’t use his magic to follow us.” Then, he pointed. “The door’s open! Let’s go!”
Aur felt his heart pounding with excitement. He watched his friend dart out of the room, and followed, exclaiming, “It really worked!”
“Of course it did. We planned it perfectly!” Ben said, not looking back as he ran. “Now we just have to find the ship dock and we can fly out of here!”
“You know how to fly a ship?”
“I’m sure I can figure it out.”
That should have been the warning Aur needed to recognize the flaws in his friend’s plan. But he was too caught up in the moment, carried on his own flight of adrenaline. Too excited that they finally won. They finally beat Kip, and were on their way home!
Aur wasn’t sure how much time passed as they rushed through the dark, twisting halls. Their enthusiastic run dwindled to a jog, which soon turned into a breathless walk. Then a dragging slump. There was no sign of the ship docks, their final goal. In fact, Aur started to worry that his friend didn’t know where they were at all.
“Ben, I think we’ve been this way before.”
“How can you tell?”
“This was the hall that smelled really bad,” Aur complained.
“They all smell really bad to me,” Ben pointed out.
After a moment of silence, he asked, “You didn’t really know the way to the flight docks, did you?”
“I thought I did! We just must have taken a wrong turn,” Ben sounded a bit desperate. “I’m sure if we just keep walking, we’ll run into it sooner or later.”
Aur wasn’t sure they had that kind of time. “Do you think Kip has broken out of the spell yet?”
“I don’t know. That’s why we can’t wait around to find out.”
That’s when Aur felt it. The strange, prickling sensation of being watched. He also heard it. A tiny peeping sound, like electronic curiosity. A sound that was getting closer.
The boy paused, “Did you hear that?”
:Peep?: the sound asked, too.
Both boys paused, eyes widening. Whatever it was, it was right there, with them.
Aur shivered, afraid to look back over his shoulder.
Ben slowly turned around. Not wanting to be the coward, Aur turned around slowly, too. Something strange was staring at them.
It looked like a giant, hovering eyeball, encased in red and pink and white metal. It had fins along its back, like a fish, and two fin-like arms in front. It was hard to tell, because it almost seemed alive, but Aur thought it must have been a machine.
Both boys gave a shout of surprise, taken off guard by the strange contraption.
Oddly enough the eye-ball machine made a whirring noise that echoed their fear. Like it, too, was startled at their reaction.
The sound might have been funny if Aur wasn’t so afraid. It continued, echoing through the halls, which suddenly lit up with red search lights. Lights that pointed directly at the two boys.
:WHEET! WHEET! WHEET!:
“Oh no!” Ben exclaimed, looking around at the red lights.
“What is it?” Aur asked, shaken.
The other boy grabbed his arm and started to run. “We’ve gotta move! That’s an alert! It’s going to tell everyone where we are!”
They started to run, but it wasn’t much good. The alert was following them, wheeting up a storm and setting off all the red lights on every hall they passed. The sound was piercing, ripping through Aur’s head, and he covered one ear with his free hand.
“Ben! Make it stop!”
“I can’t,” the boy told him. “It’s part of the Tower’s security system!”
They were so frantic in their attempt to escape the sound and the light, they didn’t even realize they were running right past the door to Ben’s room again. Until they saw Kip’s confused face pop through the doorway.
The General took one look at the chaos unfolding in the hall and called, “Boys! Wait!”
Of course, this caused just the opposite.
“It’s Kip!” Aur exclaimed. “What do we do now?”
“Keep running!” Ben shouted over the sound of the alarms. And that’s what they did.
Kip took up the chase, every now and then shouting something they couldn’t hear over the alert. This could have gone on forever – or until the boys ran out of breath – except Ben turned the corner and stopped in surprise.
A dark form flickered, appearing in front of them from nowhere. He was dressed in a long blue coat, dark eyes glaring at them, frightening black voids under wild dark hair. All except for one shock of white that seemed out of place, almost glowing in the blue energies that surrounded the man.
He was more than imposing. He was terrible. Aur felt Ben stiffen and take a step back as an irrational fear tightened his chest.
“That’s enough,” the man’s voice was low. It demanded respect and earned what it demanded.
Ben gathered his courage and balled one fist, seeming somehow much smaller than the dark-eyed man, even though they were nearly the same height. His voice fought to hold back the quaver. “Move! You’re not stopping me!”
Aur wanted to shout a warning. But it happened too fast.
“I said ENOUGH!” The man’s hand flicked out, the energies condensing around him into a single furious beam. It leapt from his fingers straight into Ben’s body, which curled and recoiled as the lightning blasted through him.
“Ben!” Aur shouted, too afraid to move.
The little alert machine also got caught in the crossfire, taking the lightning blast. It gave a garbled wheet-sound before smoke erupted from behind its eyeball screen. Then it shuddered and fell to the ground with a clunk.
The man stood tall over the boy’s shaking form. Ben was alive, but stunned, struggling to push himself up on his hands.
“So, the little ingrate whelp needs to be taught his place.” The cold voice intoned. It almost sounded as if the man would enjoy such a thing.
Ben didn’t respond. He was coughing, still shaking all over.
Aur felt himself moving forward, intercepting, even though he knew the danger the dark man’s power presented. He knelt next to his friend, supporting Ben’s shoulders with one hand. Then he turned his golden eyes up at the man. As soon as he did, something happened.
The man’s face changed from anger and frustration to a look of surprise. He took a slow step back, as if he couldn’t believe what he saw when he looked into Aur’s face.
The boy didn’t know what it meant. He was just glad the man wasn’t intent on putting people in places anymore.
That’s when Kip suddenly arrived. Without any thought for himself or any fear of the dark man, he stuck himself in front of the boys, spreading his arms defensively. Protecting them.
“TsuMe! Stop this! They’re only children!”
Even though they put a pillow over his head. Even though Ben made him silent and roped him up in green magic. Despite the arguments and the burned books.
Kip protected them.
Ben watched it all with surprised, wide eyes.
For a moment, the dark man – TsuMe – didn’t seem to know how to respond. When he did, it was dismissal.
“The whelp should consider himself lucky. There are worse things than me to meet in this Tower.” He turned and walked away, muttering to Ben as he did. “You aren’t master of this place yet, kid. Just remember that.”
Ben didn’t say anything. He just continued to watch in stunned silence. Aur could tell that he’d never seen anyone use magic in that way before. Magic that hurt someone else on purpose.
When TsuMe was finally gone, Kip turned to look back at them. His face was surprisingly not angry. In fact, it seemed more concerned.
“We’re in big trouble, aren’t we?” Aur whispered, more to Ben than to Kip.
“I dunno.” It was the first thing Ben said. That’s when Aur noticed the boy’s nose was bleeding.
Instead of yelling or reprimanding them, Kip fished around in the front of his coat and pulled out a small white cloth. Then he kneeled next to Ben and wiped the boy’s nose, giving the cloth to him. “Put pressure on it, just like that. Tilt your head back. That’ll stop the bleeding. Good.”
Ben did what he was told in silence. So Kip filled it with unusual conversation.
“Don’t mind TsuMe. He’s just a bit grouchy and overdramatic sometimes. He’s right that the Tower has dangerous things, and what you did today could have put you in harm’s way,” then he paused, looking unhappy. “But he didn’t have to go and do this.”
Then he sighed.
“Come with me. We’ll get some ice for your nose. Get it feeling better.”
Ben slowly got to his feet. Aur couldn’t tell if he was going to argue with Kip like he usually did, or if the bolt from TsuMe had shaken all the fight out of him.
Kip was already on about the next thing, which happened to be the broken shell of the eyeball machine.
“Alert!” He reached down to touch the smoking metal. “And I just got this thing up and running again, too! Ah well.”
Kip hoisted the Alert under one arm, then turned to look back to the uncertain faces of the two boys. “Are you coming?”
Aur looked at Ben for his answer. Ben just looked unsure about the whole thing. Getting a scolding would be less confusing than getting ice for his bleeding nose.
Finally, Ben made up his mind. He turned towards Kip and answered, “Yeah.”
So, Kip led the way through Tower halls that were unfamiliar to them, but that he seemed to know without hesitation. Aur didn’t know where they were going, but anywhere had to be safer than a place where the dark man, TsuMe, could be hiding.