Chapter 8

As Kip led the boys through the halls of the Tower, they marveled at the mechanical structure. The hums. The lights. The beeps. The colors. Now that they weren’t running and scared, they could actually take it all in and be amazed.

Kip would be lying if he didn’t admit he was just a little proud at their reactions. He didn’t work with too many creatures that had a sense of wonder for his creations. Children, however, are naturally curious, and quickly pick up on the amazing, calling it for what it is.

The way to the healing quarters wasn’t long. Every now and then, Kip felt the metallic body of the alert prototype shudder under his arm. Once he was there, he could check out the damage that was done.

Hopefully it was just a shutdown due to the energy surge. TsuMe really should know better than to do what he did.

Chances were, TsuMe probably thought he was doing the boys a favor. It was his way of establishing authority where he thought there wasn’t enough. By making them fear and obey him, he could prevent them from stumbling into more dangerous things in the Tower.

Of course, Kip didn’t agree with Tsu’s parenting philosophy. But what was done was done.

I doubt Ben will forget that lesson, if nothing else. And it gave me the handhold I’ve been looking for to establish myself as a friendly influence.

Kip paused at the doorway, entering his pattern password. The door shifted open, an unexpected bundle of fur and fangs waiting for him on the other side.

Hinge.

Kip backed away as the little creature bristled and growled, stalking towards him on stiff legs. Every silver hair on its body was upright, puffing it up larger than it really was. Kip didn’t need the warning to leave the thing alone. He had no love of animals.

“Arg! Go bite yourself, you little beastie!” he exclaimed, waving a hand to scare it away. “I don’t have time for this today!”

Hinge responded with more growling and stalking.

“What is that?” one of the boys asked.

“I don’t know!” the other answered.

At the sound of the new voices, Hinge paused and looked past Kip’s prone ankles. The dark, beady eyes fell on Ben, who suddenly became its newest target.

Ben saw this too, taking an uncertain step back. “…Hi…?”

Hinge gave what sounded like a squee of pleasure, leaping straight for the boy.

Ben let out a yelp, followed with, “Don’t bite me, please!”

There was no fear of that. Nothing but strange adoration reflected in the creature’s eyes. It nuzzled up against the boy’s chest with a chirping sound.

A little girl’s giggle followed from the other side of the door, “Don’t worry. He likes you. I bet a lot of animals do.”

Both boys turned their attention away from the creature to the girl. Well, she was less of a girl and more of an elfling, really.

Kip didn’t know much about the elves that lived on the Blue Planet. There were normal elves and there were dark elves. They tended to keep to themselves in the forests for the most part, though there was some indication that KluYa may have had dealings with the dark elves at certain points.

Her name was Sapling. Or, at least, that’s the nickname that Kip gave to her when she refused to tell him her true name. Something about names having power. He understood that to some extent. Even he changed his name when he woke up on the Blue Planet.

She looked a lot like a human child in stature. But that’s where the similarities ended. Her skin had a porcelain green sheen to it, as if she was so delicate she could break under the slightest pressure. Her hair fell around her shoulders, framing her face in the colors of nature – green and blue. Her ears were long and pointed, poking out from behind the green locks. Somewhat like the animal creatures, she often expressed emotion through the position of her ears, which captivated Kip whenever he saw it.

Right now, she seemed no different from any little girl who was meeting a new play mate for the first time.

“Sapling, dear. Call off your little beastie, will you?” Kip suggested.

“Okay!” she agreed cheerfully. Then she called to the weasely creature in a sing-songy voice, “Tul! Tul Hinge!”

Its ears pricked at the words. It instantly turned, bounding away from the surprised boys to dart back into the room from where it came.

This room was decorated in all manner of naturalistic patterns. Greens and golds of trees and grass projected from the walls and floor. While it was far from being the real thing, it was the best he could do to try and make a place Sapling could feel at home in.

“I have a patient for you today. He’s got a bit of a bloody nose,” Kip told her. “You think you can handle it?”

“Oooh, let me see!” Sapling crooned, leaning closer to Ben.

He jerked back from her in surprise.

“Aww, that’s not too bad,” she reassured him. Then she grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the green room. “Come in and I can fix you up.”

Once Ben got his feet under him, he asked, “Wait. Who are you?”

“Relax. This is Sapling,” Kip answered, following the children into the room. He cleared away a space on one of the tables and placed the alert down for diagnostics. “She’s the Tower’s healer.”

“That’s right. So hold still,” she instructed as she pointed one slender finger at Ben’s nose.

The boy stared at the finger crosseyed, but was forced to close both eyes as a glowing light spread from her touch. The blood stopped, and Ben began to poke at his nose in awe.

Kip placed a connector against the smoking side of the alert prototype and waited.

“That didn’t hurt at all, did it?” Sapling asked the boy.

“Nooo!” Ben exclaimed.

“Wow! It’s gone, just like that,” Aur confirmed.

“Of course. That’s what white magic does,” she said with a hint of pride in her voice. She obviously liked all the attention. It didn’t hurt that they were both two rather cute boys, either.

“Does everyone around here have magic?” Aur asked, pressing his index fingers together in an uncertain motion.

The diagnostic readout came back, indicating the machine wasn’t as busted up as it first appeared. Maybe just needed to reboot and flush out the excess energies that jolted the CPU.

“A lot of people do,” Sapling answered. “It’s actually quite typical.”

“Even Mr. Kip?” the boy asked.

“Me?” The man paused, surprised at two things – that the boy called him Mr. Kip and that the boy was curious to hear personal information about him. Only, this wasn’t the kind of information he usually liked to share. He knew that Sapling didn’t understand his hesitation, and would answer the question. He just hoped she wouldn’t answer it too specifically.

“He’s not a healer,” Sapling almost laughed as she pointed. “He’s an Athrylith.”

Kip wanted to sink down on his chair right there. The last hope he had was that the word wouldn’t mean anything to the children.

“Ath…rill… what?” Aur looked puzzled.

Ben did not. Instead, he quickly translated, “A mind mage!”

“You’re familiar with the term?” Kip was trying to keep it cool, despite his blown cover. In the world he came from, mind mages were sometimes treated like dangerous wild animals. Something to be captured and controlled.

“Mind mages are really powerful,” Ben expanded with a look of alarm. “They can do stuff like make illusions, sense thoughts and feeling of other people. Some can even control other people’s minds.”

Now, Aur was also staring at him in alarm.

“That’s simplifying things a little bit, but…” Kip tried to skirt around the accusations.

“It’s true, though.” Ben pressured.

“Sometimes. It varies from mage to mage.”

“Don’t worry. Kip’s a nice Athrylith,” Sapling vouched, even offering Kip a hug to prove it. “He takes care of me and Hinge.”

“Oh really?” Ben sounded skeptical. “Then why are you here in this Tower? Where are your parents?”

“Parents?” Sapling echoed.

“Now, now. She’s an Elfling. She’s a lot older than she looks,” Kip clarified.

“I’m 73 turns old, to be exact!” the girl spread her hands proudly announcing her age like children do.

Ben and Aur just looked very pale. “No way.”

“Her kind are long lived,” Kip turned his attention back to jiggling the insides of the alert prototype. He was getting a response as some of the internal systems were coming back online. “They grow up much more slowly than humans do.”

“But you do have parents, right?” the boy asked, puzzling through it.

“Well, yes,” she answered.

“Don’t you want to go back to them?”

“Ben,” Kip glanced up from his work with a warning note.

The boy only peered back at him with a curious frown.

“Her clan was attacked by a group of renegade dark elves,” Kip explained. “When I found her on a scouting mission, she was running for her life.”

“If I go back to the forest, they’ll hunt me down,” Saplings ears drooped. “So, for now, Kip keeps me safe here. It’s fine. I’m not sure where to go yet.”

“Really?” Ben blinked, as if he couldn’t believe the truth he was hearing.

“So there!” Kip tried not to sound too triumphant, but knew he was failing. “You still believe I’m such a bad guy?”

“Well…” the boy began. But he didn’t have time to continue over the sound of the proto alert booting back up.

:Wheeee….:

Kip turned around to watch it, a wide grin crossing his face. “Ah, there we go!”

It sputtered and rocked, finally righting itself on its bottom. As the single red eye focused on Kip, it responded with a strange sense of emotion – something Kip hadn’t programmed into the simple machine.

It clung to him, as if looking for comfort.

Interested in the response, Kip patted it, reassuringly. “Poor little Alert. Did TsuMe scare you?”

It gave an electronic whimper, the single eye expressing trauma.

The two boys just watched the whole thing unfold with wierded out looks.

“TsuMe is just a big bully!” Sapling stated with both hands planted on her hips.

“Now, now. He’s not that bad. He’s just a grouch because no one will be his friend,” Kip told her.

“No one wants to be his friend because he’s a big grouch!”

Kip gave a quipping laugh at that circle of logic. “Fair enough.”

“TsuMe doesn’t like me,” Ben said after a moment. For some reason, this seemed to trouble the boy.

“Nonsense,” the man answered. “He likes you a lot.”

“How can you say that?”

“Because he’s given you a nifty nickname,” Kip said. He could see that joke went right over the boy’s head. “TsuMe just has a hard time showing people that he likes them. He does it in odd ways.”

“Like hitting people with lightning.”

“You’d be surprised,” the man grinned, then waved his hand. “If he has any sense, he’d better like you. You are the young Master, after all.”

“Whaaa?” Sapling turned around with wide eyes at that statement. She stared at Ben a moment, before grabbing his hand and shaking it. “You’re the young Master? No one told me!”

“Well, I…” Ben gave into the motion sheepishly. Like he always did when someone reminded him of his position.

“It’s an honor to meet you!”

That’s when the difficult question was voiced. Kip wasn’t surprised it came from Aur, who seemed to observe and put things together very quickly.

“Mr. Kip,” the boy said. “Why is Ben the Master? And what does it have to do with this Tower?”

The mind mage froze, peering at the children. They peered back at him, especially Ben, with an air of expectation. “Ah, well. That’s a long story.”

“I want to hear it,” Ben said in a tone that wouldn’t be denied.

“Me, too,” Aur backed him up.

Kip realized he didn’t have a way out of it this time.

Perhaps a little truth is in order now.

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