Within the Tower, there was a Door.
A Door with a capital “D.”
Because it was marked as the “Forbidden Door.” It led to an area of the Tower that Ben and Aur were not allowed to enter. It was always heavily guarded by a patrol of centaurs who seemed to take their job seriously.
Of course, any Door to a forbidden area only called attention to it and whipped up the imagination of two bored boys. Could there be great magical artifacts beyond? Amazing technologies beyond belief? Perhaps a secret way to leave the Tower and return to the Blue Planet?
For the longest time, Ben studied the patterns of the guards outside of the Door. He carefully observed the passcodes used to open the door locks. Then, one day, he saw the chance to see what lay beyond.
“This is it,” Ben told Aur, who huddled behind him. They both peeked around the corner, watching the guards at the Door.
Today there were two of them, which led Aur to ask dubiously, “What makes you so sure?”
“Look, there’s a new guard on duty,” Ben reasoned, indicating his target of mischief. “He’s kinda small. I think we can take him if we needed to.”
“You think over six feet tall is small?”
“Well, he’s small-ER,” the boy corrected. “Besides, he won’t know the rules if he’s new. I’ll just go up there and order him to let me in!”
This seemed like a good plan at the moment. But it wasn’t to last.
Sounds of the guards talking drifted down the hall. The older one was instructing the newer one on what to expect and how to respond.
“Punch that passcode if there’s been a breach of security,” he instructed.
“Yessir,” the younger centaur responded dutifully.
“Oh, and no matter what you do… no matter what he says…” the older centaur paused before dropping the bomb. “Don’t let the Young Master through this door.”
“Ugh,” Ben breathed, feeling solidly thwarted.
“The Young Master?” the new guard echoed.
“Heh. You’ll see,” the older guard snorted as he turned and trotted away. “Later rookie.”
The younger centaur’s freckled face frowned, “My name is Rook. Not Rookie.”
“I guess that’s not going to work,” Aur noted, seeming more interested in going back to their room than exploring the unknown. “Now what are we going to do?”
Ben pondered for a moment before reassuring his friend, “I think I may have an idea.”
It took a while before Ben finally located the Alert. It was off moping somewhere on its patrol. By the expression in its mechanical eye, it was probably pining about TsuMe or something.
It was a strange little machine. But at least it didn’t chase them so much anymore.
Alert in sight. Begin Operation False Alarm.
At least, not unless they instigated a chase.
Ben suddenly jumped out from behind a corner, startling the Alert with a loud shout, “TAG! Alert is it!”
Alert paused, uttering a quizzical peep.
The boy stuck out his tongue playfully, “Alert can’t catch us!”
The machine blinked as Ben turned and sprinted down the hall, past where Aur was hiding.
Aur didn’t need any other encouragement to rush off after his friend. Much to Ben’s amusement, the Alert did just as he expected – it began to follow them, making trilling sounds of enjoyment.
“It’s working,” Aur noted under his breath.
“Lead Alert past this upcoming hallway,” he responded in a low voice. “I’m going to come back around and meet you from the other way. Got it?”
Ben leapt up into the air, summoning magics that he’d only seen TsuMe use before. Magics that allowed you to move through space almost instantly. It was an ability that he’d come to call a “Flicker.” Because that’s all you saw – someone flickering out of view. Or into view.
“Just keep running and don’t trip the Alertalarm!” Ben called as he vanished, leaving Aur to continue the game on his own.
As the white-haired boy reappeared some ways behind the two racing figures, he waited with held breath. Then, much to his relief, Alert continued following Aur, seeming not to realize Ben had disappeared.
Alright! Operation False Alarm is in full swing!
He pumped his fist, then began to follow the others at a distance. He wanted to be close enough to watch what was happening without Alert taking notice. They didn’t have very far to go – just up the hall – before they passed the place where the young Centaur, Rook, was standing guard next to the Door.
When Ben finally peered around the corner, Rook was weaving back and forth from hoof to hoof. His face shown with an expression of complete boredom.
We’ll fix that soon enough.
Making as much clamor as possible, Aur went racing by. The Alert continued to chase him, making chirping sounds of happiness. But the sound was enough to be suspicious to a new guard who didn’t know otherwise.
Instantly, Rook’s chin jerked up and his eyes widened as he focused on the running boy and Alert. Ben grit his teeth, watching and hoping that the guard would do as he planned. Sure enough, the centaur rounded about and galloped after the two, spear in hand, leaving the Door completely unguarded.
Ben ducked back until the clatter of hooves on metal grew distant, then he rushed to the door’s panel and peered at the multi-colored buttons. Taking a deep breath, he slowly keyed in the pattern that he’d memorized from watching Kip open and close doors in the Tower.
Let’s see if this code works…
The panel hummed a moment, as if trying to decide whether or not to allow him access. Then, a string of Lunar language popped up on the top screen, signaling success. The door clicked, ready to open. But before he went inside, he had to make sure that Aur wasn’t in too much trouble.
Ben located them just a few halls down, where Aur had accidentally ran into a dead end. The centaur loomed over him dangerously, his spear ready and drawn.
“Halt Intruder!” he commanded.
“I’m not an intruder,” Aur responded, spreading his hands as if to show his innocence.
“Oh, yeah?” Rook suddenly didn’t sound so official. “Prove it!”
That’s when Alert sprang to Aur’s defense. The machine generated a buzz of disapproval and shoved the guard’s spear to the side.
The centaur’s look of surprise was priceless. “Huh? Crazy robot. What are you doing?”
“Playing tag!” Aur informed him with a big smile.
Rook’s ruddy face paled a bit as he echoed, “Playing… tag…?”
Ben decided it was time enough to intervene. He shouted to his friends with a wave, “Hey, Aur! Come on! The Door is open!”
“Alright!” the other boy cheered, rushing past the stricken guard.
“Stop! You can’t go in there! Who do you think you are?”
Ben’s only answer was a big grinning raspberry.
The centaur’s look of sudden understanding was even more priceless. “The Young Master?”
The two boys and the Alert rushed down the hall ignoring the guard’s shouts. To Rook’s credit, he did follow and try to dissuade them.
“Young Master! Wait! It’s forbidden!”
Aur raced alongside his friend, panting slightly. “Ben, how did you know the passcode to the Door?”
“I’ve been watching the guards and Kip,” he explained with a grin. “I had a feeling he used the same code for every door.”
As they raced through the Door, the metal of the Tower transformed into something else. Something almost alien feeling. The walls that rose around them were no longer mechanical, but now a twisted metal-stone, like a cave.
“Whoa!” Ben paused, hesitating for the first time during the operation.
“What is this place?” Aur asked, lowering his voice by instinct.
The passage before them led deeper into the shadows. Along the walls, clusters of rainbow-faceted stones bloomed, the only light that he could see.
“I… don’t know.” Ben then leaned closer to one of the clusters, identifying the stone quietly. “I think it’s a Crystal.”
He could feel the energies within the strange stone. They capered in light and sound, captivating him. Calling to him. The boy swallowed as the sensation closed around him, gripping his thoughts, tingling in the back of his mind.
Before he realized it, Ben reached a hand towards the light of the Crystal. It was as if his hand was moving without his permission. When his fingers touched the cold surface, a jolt of energy rushed through him.
Immediately, he tried to pull away. But he couldn’t. His hand was fixed there, the magics of the stone rushing into his body.
Somewhere, very distant, he heard a voice. It seemed to be calling his name… just not the name that everyone else called him. It called him “Golbez.”
He gasped, as a hazy image of color and darkness fluttered through his mind. Patterns of violet, white and black. Something was out there. Something that felt dark and terrible. Full of hate. And it knew him. It knew his name.
Finally, he felt Aur’s concerned hand drop on his shoulder. With a shudder, the energy of the Crystal responded to the touch, scattering away and releasing Ben.
“Are you okay?” Aur asked with furrowed brows.
Ben nursed his hand. His fingers felt burned, but there was no sign of damage to his skin. “Yeah. I just saw…”
He didn’t know how to put it into words. The vision. The overwhelming darkness and hate. And how it had all recoiled at Aur’s single touch, as if driven away by his friend.
“Saw..?” Aur prompted him to continue.
Not wanting to concern anyone, Ben just shook his head. “Nevermind. It was nothing.”
By then, Rook had caught up with them and began nagging. A fitting activity for a horse-person.
“This is not good… not good… not good…!” he said, as if they couldn’t understand him the first time. “Please, Young Master. We shouldn’t be here. Just come out and I won’t breathe a word of this to anyone else!”
“No way,” Ben tried to regain his calm composure by folding his hands behind his head. He focused on how fun it was to befuddle a grown-up who couldn’t order him around. “This is all way too cool!”
Even Alert looked concerned as they strode deeper into the cavern. There were less crystals here and more darkness.
“Ben, I think we shouldn’t go any further without a light,” Aur suggested.
“Light?” Ben asked, flicking one finger up. A pulse of green magical energy sprang from it, proudly lighting the area around him. “That’s no problem!”
Their response to this was not at all what Ben expected. Their horrified expressions shot past him. Into the darkness behind him.
Ben suddenly realized they were not alone.