Chapter 10

Though the Tower floated high above the Blue Planet, time passed the same for the sky-bound travelers as for those far below. In what felt like a blink, the world turned from green to gold to white to green again. As the moons passed, things became more bearable for the residents of Zot.

Ben and Aur had become best friends. You’d hardly see one without seeing the other. They were also given more room to move around the Tower at their own leisure. Of course, there were still places that were off limits for them, but they weren’t forced to remain in their rooms exclusively.

Part of this was because Ben had stopped planning to run away. He seemed to trust Kip’s promise to make contact with his father, and stopped viewing his time in Zot as one of a prisoner. He embraced the knowledge and training that Kip provided, and the Athrylith opened the boy’s mind to all sorts of magic that the Mysidians would have been jealous to know existed.

For Aur, Kip gave the magical knowledge of learning to read. Once the letters began to make sense to his eyes, he began to devour books left and right, even challenging Ben’s learning desires. The boy recognized that a wide new world of fact and fiction was now open to him, and he didn’t waste the opportunity. Zot was filled with books to explore, most from the Blue Planet, and a few even in Lunar writing.

The boys also received physical training. While TsuMe would have been far better a choice, the Zot General didn’t have time to waste sparring and training children – so he said. Kip’s skills weren’t stellar when it came to battle, but what he did know, he taught the boys.

Aur took up the blade as if his hand was made to hold a sword. The skill and raw talent he displayed was a bit alarming to Kip. It was almost as if the boy was drawing on knowledge from some secret inner mind.

Ben, on the other hand, was growing taller, and was strongly built. His lanky size worked against him as he struggled to take up staff fighting and figure out how gangly teenage arms worked when it came to battle. Though it was obviously not his strong area, he always put his best efforts forward, and Kip applauded his dauntless determination to learn.

In their down time, Kip spun stories of the Lunarians and life on the world of Runne. At first, it was hard to sort through all the memories, especially the ones that hovered on the hazy vision of his lost family. He discovered as time went on, the stories were easier to tell, as if revisiting good memories was helping to heal things within him. Things he didn’t even know were broken until now.

As much as he hated to admit it, the two boys were also a healing influence for him. While they were not a replacement for his own wife and child, having people to care for, protect, and teach restored something within him he thought he left behind on Runne.

Maybe this was part of the reason why his guilt became stronger and stronger. As his own fatherly instincts grew, and he became attached to Ben and Aur, he became more sharply aware of the lies and the misleadings he had wrapped the children in.

That’s why I have to do this.

Kip monitored the Tower’s flight pattern, watching as it aligned with the nation of Mysidia. This was something he avoided to the best of his ability. He didn’t intend to break his promise to Ben, but putting it off also delayed the inevitable. The day he’d have to tell the boy that his family was dead.

I know this will hurt him, but he’s a good kid. He deserves the truth. And I’ve been a rotten rat to keep it from him.

The man readied his single-pod ship, slipping the flight goggles over his eyes. The engine hummed under his touch, and the desire to take to the winds filled his body with anticipation. He loved flying.

I just need more information before I approach him with it. It’s not good enough to tell him they’re gone. I know Ben. That’ll prompt him to want to go to the Blue Planet and find out what happened.

Locking down the security belt, he instructed the ship to launch. It responded with a burst of speed, the blue and green of the planet suddenly spiraling into his vision.

It was glorious!

For that one suspended moment, Kip forgot everything else except the feeling of flight.

Then, he saw the city of Mysidia come into view. Pulling himself together, he directed his path just a little beyond the human establishment, somewhere he could hide his ship and move undetected.

Luckily, almost everyone in the town wore strange robes and hats. Pulling his own hood over his head, Kip discovered that he could easily blend right in with the humans. He’d spent enough time among humans to know how to interact on the most basic levels. Though different humans from different places had different cultures, there was an overarching similarity about the race as a whole.

Using carefully sculpted questions, he began to put out feelers to find out where KluYa’s home once was, and information about the last time people last saw the Lunar. Responses were overwhelmingly concerned and confused.

It was over a year ago. He simply didn’t come to teach his normal class one day. No one knew what was wrong at the time. As days passed and none of his family came to the city, someone made a house call to his place, which was somewhat on the outskirts of Mysidia, nearer the ocean and forest.

They found the place burned and in shambles.

Kip reiterated in his thoughts as his path took him away from the human settlement, towards the Ya family home.

There was nothing subtle about it.

As far as people knew, KluYa had no enemies that would have acted in such a way. He was on friendly terms with important people in both Mysidia and Baron. His teaching was lauded in the school and his mechanical skills were appreciated in the ship yards.

No known reason for an attack. No known attacker.

The whole family just vanished including father, mother and two children.

Two children… I’ll have to ponder about that later.

The dirt path to the family home was growing over as the fringe of summer touched the balmy land. Kip saw the building from quite a ways away. A single black smudge in the middle of the green and blue. One water well sat forlornly out front, a broken rope dangling, no bucket in sight.

Kip couldn’t help but think how ordinary and human it all seemed. It was not a large house. It wasn’t lavish in any way. Just a tiny commoner cottage with a well, a garden and a free view of the ocean beyond.

Simple life. He kept himself under cover as best as possible.

Maybe that’s why it seemed all the more tragic as Kip’s boots met with the crunch of burned wood. The man balanced for a moment, testing to see if the structure would crumple under his weight. When it held, he cautiously poked his head inside.

Something still found him, though.

Nesting birds scattered from their roosts, leaving flying shadows capering over the buckling wood floors. Rain had come inside, causing just as much damage as the fire.

The humans seem to believe this was a wild animal attack. But what wild animal lights a fire?

Kip inspected some large claw marks along the side of a half-shattered dinner table. They didn’t look like normal animal marks. At least, not the kind of animals he knew from his studies of the Blue Planet. With all the specimens they gathered, he had a pretty working knowledge of the different creatures that lived there.

Things aren’t adding up.

He reached down, lifting a plush toy in the shape of a purple chocobo. It was obviously a much loved toy before being left behind in the fire.

How is it that a whole family vanishes in the space of a day? Then, Ben ends up in Zot immediately afterwards – not a mention of it spoken to me.

Kip inspected the plush smile and the bead eyes.

How did Zemus know about this in time to intercept? Why does Ben view his time in Zot as a prisoner, and not as someone rescued from some attack?

The smell of charcoal filled his nose as he slowly scanned the room. There were far more questions here than answers.

I find it hard to believe Zemus was a passive force in all this. He seems far too eager to hold Ben in the Tower, for all his talk of nurturing a possible Sygnus.

A charred baby cradle sat under the far window, tugging at something in his chest.

Still, Zemus is stuck on the moon in cold sleep. It takes all his focus and energy to even communicate with us in the Tower. I just can’t see the connection.

That when a strange sensation filled his mind. A warning. The feeling of being followed and watched. Kip’s head jerked back, and though he couldn’t see much through the broken window pane, his mind could reach beyond what his eyes could view.

Humans?

Three of them. Unfamiliar humans, but humans who were obviously there for their own, coarse reasons.

One was a tall blond man, largely built, well-muscled, but with a vapid look to his eyes. Another man was far shorter, somewhat sickly complexion with strange reflective orange eyes. He had an almost unhuman feel to him, as if altered from something he was long ago. The third was a blonde woman, young and rather attractive. She was dressed mostly in yellows and browns, and held herself conservatively.

In his mind’s eye, he could hear them talking amongst themselves.

“Okay, Tane. You cover the back exit,” the sickly man said to the muscled one.

“Yeah,” the warrior answered.

“Valice and I will flush him out from the front and send him your way,” the man continued, indicating the woman. “Sound good to you?”

“Are you sure this is a smart idea, Rubin?” Valice asked the sickly man.

That girl…

Kip squinted, sensing more than seeing. He recognized her voice. She was one of the mages he talked to in town.

They must have trailed me here. What do they think they’re doing?

“That guy… when we saw him in town… he gave me a really weird feeling,” she continued, confirming Kip’s suspicions.

“Exactly why this is a good idea,” Rubin told her in a voice that bordered on impatience. Like explaining something to a child.

“Besides, did you get a load of his clothes?” Tane added. “He’s gotta have some cash stowed away somewhere!”

“You set your sights far too low, Tane,” the other man chided. Talking to amateurs.

“Why? What do you think he has?” Valice asked.

“I don’t know yet. But I sense this guy could lead us to something big,” Rubin responded with a rather scary gleam in his eye. “Why else would he come out here to the old Ya place?”

By now, Kip had his back pressed up against the wall, staff clutched between both hands.

Did your senses ever tell you that you spend far too much time talking and not enough time planning? Stupid human.

“Be careful, Tane,” the woman said with some concern.

The larger man was already moving to the back side of the house, “Let’s do this!”

As Tane snuck through the bushes in the back, Kip reached down to pick up a random book from the floor of the house.

You want to play games? Alright. I’ll bite. I won’t spoil your fun yet. In fact, how about I join in?

The tingle of magic grew heavy in the air. The other two were mages.

Rubin produced a strange, sickly-shaped staff, hung with orange beads and trinkets. As he moved his fingers, spider-web like streams of energy spun between them and his staff, drawing runic shapes.

The air itself came alive as Valice walked forward, lifted slightly off the ground. She commanded the wind, which grew visible with her power, glowing a light pale blue.

“Ready…” Rubin paused for a moment. Then he made a flourish with his staff, “GO!”

Magic leapt from the runic weavings. The woman swing a small scepter forward in unison, sending a blast of air that strengthened the golden light. Together, they burst through the front wall, shattering the doorframe and sending Kip leaping for the far end of the room.

There’s more power to them than I thought.

“He’s on the run! Close in now!”

Kip heard the sounds of running footsteps from outside. The front. The back. They were closing in on him.

His leap dropped him on top of the lop-sided table, where he balanced and waited. A large grin spread over his face as his opponents caught sight of him. Then, he clutched the book in his hand close to his chest, making the motion as visible and important as possible.

Kip turned towards the back door, which was now the only exit not blocked. Tane would be waiting to ambush him there, he knew. The other mercenaries watched with hopeful expectations. He could even feel their thoughts of victory as he appeared to be running right into their trap.

Simple minded.

The Lunar broke out of the back door at a full run. The large shadow of Tane’s waiting form leapt at him from one side, brandishing a heavy looking battle axe. The other two rushed from behind, positioning themselves around him in a circle.

“Give it up! We’ve got you surrounded!” Rubin demanded.

Oh really?

Kip played along, putting on a pretend-frightened face. “What do you want from me?”

“Everything you got,” Tane demanded, showing him the gleaming edge of his weapon.

“What makes you think I have anything?” Kip asked, once more holding the book close to his chest.

This time, they took note of it. Three pairs of eyes focused on the book, all coming to the conclusion that it must be something important.

“You’re way outnumbered. So just hand over the book,” Rubin finally said, voice cold and leveled.

“Not a chance!” Kip took a shuffling step back.

“Take it.” The man commanded.

That’s all the encouragement Tane needed to launch straight for the much smaller Lunar. Kip saw him coming and threw up his staff in defense. The blade crashed down on his weapon, the strength of the blow jolting through the mind mage’s entire body.

But the man was close enough for Kip to turn the tables.

A moment of concentration. Sparks forming at either end of his weapon, like a lightning rod conducting pure, raw energy. Kip channeled it forward, through his staff and directly into the metal of Tane’s axe.

The man froze in place, his hands locked on his weapon as the energy blasted through him. Then, Kip sent a second jolt, that knocked the bigger man backwards with all the care of a lightning strike.

“Tane! No!” the woman screamed. She obviously cared about the man.

The wind howled around her form as she focused it, sending several small strikes that left dents in the ground on Kip’s every side. Like arrows of wind. He dodged somewhat haphazardly, caught unaware by the strength of her elemental control.

She’s one talented air mage!

He didn’t like it. But her magic was relentless. He didn’t have much of a choice. It was her or him.

Kip lifted one hand sending out a mind command. Unlike the people of Runne, he discovered that humans knew nothing of mind magery. While some may have had natural strengths and defenses, it was an area of magic humans didn’t even dare to dream of, much less understand.

That meant that humans were generally much weaker to his powers. Much easier to control.

Valice’s face turned ash-white as his mind closed around her own. She choked, struggling for air, and dropped her scepter at a single flick of his finger.

You belong to me now.

Her eyes widened, and he knew she heard his mind-speak.

“Valice?” Rubin took a step back, staring in awe. Kip could tell that the man had never seen anyone do something like this before.

The mind mage didn’t wait. Rubin’s defenses were down. Kip commanded his energies once more, slinging violet blasts of light at the other mage.

For all of his dumbfounded look, the human was fast to react and pull it together. Fingers spread, weaving a weak, but effective net of magic that shielded him from the incoming blasts. As the magics collided, Rubin was sent stumbling back against the wall of the house.

“Let my sister go!” Tane demanded.

Kip could sense his motion from behind. The warrior closed in, his weapon whistled through the air. The Lunar dodged, leaping to the side as the axe slammed down into the ground right where he once stood.

Thanks for playing. You were not a winner this time. Don’t try again soon!

He let the mind-speak echo around Valice a moment before he released her from his mind grip. She slumped right there, gasping for air and shivering all over. The normal responses to a mind mage’s forced control.

Kip sprinted away from the group, stifling his quipping laugh. To add to injury, he dropped the book in the grass, then vanished into the treeline.

“He’s getting away!”

“Forget him! We’ve got the book!”

A moment of silence as they scuffled for their treasure. Kip couldn’t help but send his mind vision to peek at the outcome of his plan.

They were eagerly crowded around Rubin, who opened the book with shaking hands and victorious smile.

“What is it?”

“Is it a treasure map?”

Then, the man’s face fell as his eyes skimmed over the title page. “It’s…”

“Marnie’s Happy Day at the Park!” Tane read the title out loud. Kip was honestly surprised the man could read at all.

“What?” Valice’s face also dropped at the sight of the worthless children’s book.

“Cool!” the big man seemed pleased with their find.

“Shut up!” Rubin snarled, smacking Tane with the book to accent his frustration. “We’ve been duped!”

Kip laughed all the way back to his ship.

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Chapter 11

“Zot Control, this is General Kip. I’m preparing for a landing,” the Lunar announced.

Not that there was any need for anyone on the Tower to do something to facilitate his landing. He just didn’t feel like getting shot down out of the sky for not announcing his approach. The Tower did have its defenses, mostly geared towards invaders of the mechanical types.

Humans were learning to use airships, after all. It wasn’t a risk they could afford to take.

Kip’s little pod ship was nothing like the gangly wooden airships the humans made. Maybe it was lack of human imagination, but they literally re-designed sailing ships, the kinds made for the water, and repurposed them into ships that sailed on air.

If it works, it works.

Kip’s ship was much different. It was small, sleek and made of metals that were not all found on the Blue Planet. Humans were only beginning to grasp the basics of machinery, so their interest in metal had mostly been in forging weapons. They had no idea the treasures their planets held in resources and materials alone.

Inside, the ship hummed with sleek screens, many colored buttons and a neat folding glass dome for the cockpit. Kip was especially proud of this innovation, and loved to listen to the soft sound of metal whispering over metal as the top folded back over his head.

The landing within the Tower was uneventful. Kip pulled off his goggles, dropped out of the cockpit and stretched his arms over his head as the pale light of Zot met his eyes.

After a moment, he turned to head back to his quarters. He needed time to think about all he discovered – the run-in with the mercs had side-tracked him from his original goal. He was no closer to solving the mystery of what happened to Ben’s family than before.

I don’t know what I’m going to tell him. I can’t keep putting this off, though. The boy is only going to think worse of me if I break his trust on this promise.

Kip didn’t have much time to ponder the situation before a sharp voice shouted his name. Turning, the mind mage saw the furious form of TsuMe glaring death and destruction in his direction.

At first, Kip wondered if he was busted for his unauthorized trip to the Blue Planet. On a second look, he saw that Alert had fixed itself to TsuMe’s shoulder, clutching with an expression that could be mistaken for adoration… if the bot wasn’t a machine.

“KIP!” TsuMe demanded. His whole rigid pose spoke of barely contained violence. “Get this thing off me before I blow it to bits!”

The Alert didn’t seem to notice. It continued to cling to the General’s shoulder, peeping happily.

It was so ridiculous that Kip couldn’t help but break into laughter. The laughter, however, was cut short when TsuMe snarled sharply.

“I MEAN IT!”

“Alright, alright.” The mind mage turned to the bot with a gentle tone. “Alert, shouldn’t you be on patrol right now?”

Alert just drooped with a heartbroken expression. It emitted something that sounded close to a human whimper.

“Come on, get back out there.”

The Alert turned to do as it was told, but not without tossing a last, longing look at the ruffled TsuMe. The warrior just acted as if nothing at all had happened.

Kip had never seen anything quite like it. He knew that the Alert was acting strangely since the last reboot, but signs of affection – very human-like affection – boggled his mind.

The machine was only designed to patrol and report. It shouldn’t have emotional capacities.

“Only you would make such a defective machine,” TsuMe grumbled at him.

“It’s not a defect, it’s a feature!” Kip responded cheerfully. “Besides, it was working perfectly until you zapped it.”

“Don’t blame me!” The warrior crossed his arms with a grouchy look. “You were supposed to fix it.”

“I did fix it! But you can’t send a jolt like that through the AI and expect it not to have a few bugs after the fact.”

Then came the accusation. “I bet you fixed it like that on purpose.”

“What? Me? Would I do something like that?” The mind mage just grinned innocently.

This earned Kip the famous TsuMe “whatever” face.

He gave a wave in return, spinning away on one heel. “Well, let me get back to the co-op room and–”

“Hold on,” TsuMe stated in a no-nonsense tone. “Where have you been?”

Kip paused, trying not to let expression show on his face. It’s not as if what he did was wrong. He just didn’t want Zemus to know about his trip down to the Blue Planet, and especially the topic of his investigation. The mind mage didn’t know how much he could trust the other Lunar.

“You went down to the Blue Planet, didn’t you?” TsuMe said simply.

“Just a quick scouting mission.”

“Without the capture troops?”

“I was in town. I’m not going to bring those beasty things there.”

TsuMe fell silent. He was now giving the “not convinced” look. Kip could feel the sweat beading on his brows as he tried not to squirm under the dark, frightening gaze.

“What did you learn that made a solo trip to the Blue Planet worthwhile?” the warrior prodded, taking a different approach.

Kip took a different approach, too, trying to knock the conversation off the tracks. “Besides the fact that humans are overbearingly stupid sometimes?”

“That’s nothing new,” TsuMe agreed, taking the bait. “Why? What happened?”

“Oh, a group of them thought they could waylay me for whatever reason,” Kip answered, trying to keep it offhand.

Down the hall, he could hear the peeping of the scouting Alert as it returned to them. The mind mage’s attention remained focused on his exchange with TsuMe, trying to talk his way out of his situation.

“You’re kidding me. They tried to jump you? I hope you gave them a thrashing,” the warrior grumbled.

“Nah. I don’t thrash unless I have to. Unlike you.” Kip frowned.

He could hear the Alert’s peeps sounding louder.

“Your loss,” TsuMe shrugged. “It’s doing them a favor. Someone needs to teach the humans where their place in the solar system is.”

Kip felt the Alert tugging at his elbow in attempt to get his attention. Pushing that aside, he responded, “Something tells me you’re not too fond of humans.”

“They’re nothing but a bunch of ignorant knaves,” the warrior grimaced. “Their bodies have grown too big for their tiny little brains.”

Alert’s peeping was almost too loud to continue to ignore. When it didn’t earn Kip’s attention, the machine drifted to TsuMe, and tugged sharply on his coat sleeve.

The General turned with a looming leer that could melt even the most stout machine. He snarled, “Get off me before I turn you into scrap metal!”

The poor Alert recoiled in a stare of horror and fear. If it could cry, it might have burst into tears right there.

“Alert, didn’t I tell you to be on patrol?” Kip prompted with a sigh.

The single eye suddenly lit up with a warning red glow, the alarm sounding through the hallway.

:WHEET! WHEET! WHEET!:

TsuMe clapped his hands over his ears, snarling in pain, “Great! It’s broken again! Kip! Do something about this machine!”

But the mind mage was seeing something different. “What the… We’ve got some sort of incoming.”

Alert’s eye began to project images on the wall. Three flying shapes, moving towards the Tower. As he watched the approach, Kip could make it out – flying chocobos. Three of them. And three riders.

“I don’t believe it,” he muttered. “It’s those humans again.”

“I thought you said you took care of them? How did they find the tower?” TsuMe glared.

“I don’t know!” Kip stammered. Suddenly, the one little trip to the Blue Planet had turned into something much more dangerous.

“We’ve been undetected up until now. You and your little expeditions to the planet!” The General eyed him sharply. “All it takes is one human to go back and spill it to the rest of them.”

“I know. I know.”

“Master Zemus is going to be furious.”

“You’re going to enjoy that, aren’t you?” Kip sighed.

TsuMe paused for a moment, peering at him. Something in his eyes was different. They seemed lighter and gentler for just that moment. Then, his brows lowered.

“Actually, I’m going to enjoy thrashing some nosey humans,” the warrior said, balling his fist with a smirk. “What Zemus doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

Kip blinked in disbelief. The way that TsuMe always referred to Zemus as “Master” just left him to believe that the warrior reported to the dark mage.

This… is an unexpected turn. TsuMe is going to cover for me?

“As long as we capture the intruders, I don’t see why this has to be a big deal.”

“TsuMe…” Kip made a motion to offer his thanks. But it was cut short by the warrior’s usually gruff demeanor.

“Shaddap and get yourself in gear.” TsuMe was already going to his quarters, most likely to grab his weapon.

Chapter 12

The wind whipped through Valice’s hair, whistling exotic melodies that only she could hear. These songs brought her information, things that were sometimes beyond her own understanding. Like right now.

This whole thing is insane.

There they were, on the backs of flying chocobos, chasing after some strange flying machine that led the way to a huge floating tower in the sky. How something that large and unusual went unnoticed she couldn’t say. It seemed to form its own cloud coverage with a twisting of elemental energies. Or so the winds told her.

What power could keep something this big afloat? I don’t know of any air magic that’s this potent. 

Strange magic or not, Rubin was driven to track the unknown mage down. Whether it was greed or a matter of hurt pride, he refused to give up the chase. Even if that meant flying after the machine and infiltrating the tower in the sky.

Nothing but danger ahead, the wind told her.

I know. I know.

But they were in too deep.

Such had been the case since the day that she and Tane had fallen in with Rubin. The two of them had been on their own – just brother and sister – until that first hired heist. That led to another. Then another. Until they started travelling with the mage, committing acts that made it harder and harder to turn the clock back.

Lately, Rubin began acting more and more strange, and Valice began silently regretting their choice to ever have crossed paths with him. The pay had looked good at the time. But staying alive to use the money they earned was even better.

“Wow, look at the size of this place,” Tane noted with his usual astuteness. No one ever accused the warrior of having more than half a brain, but he was her brother, and Valice loved him dearly. “The tower sure looked a lot smaller when we were down there.”

“Of course it did,” Rubin muttered in a voice that only the wind caught. He didn’t even try to hide his disdain. “Idiot.”

Valice scowled deeply.

All the better reason to finish this last run, and then part ways.

No amount of money was worth hearing someone berate her brother.

“Rubin, is this a good idea?” she finally voiced, head craning back as the Tower grew larger and closer.

“Look at this place,” he didn’t even glance back to address her. “Can you imagine what we’re going to find inside?”

“A lot of trouble?”

“Think of the riches,” he tried to coax her, sensing her hesitation.

I’m thinking more of my own skin.

Tane interrupted them pointing towards an outside platform near a pillar of the tower, “I see that white-haired mage. He knows we followed.”

Rubin squinted, “Does he have any troops with him? Backup?”

“Not that I see.”

“He’s got at least one other person with him,” Valice said, repeating what the wind brought her. “They could have others hiding.”

Rubin was quiet for a moment, but every wing-beat brought them closer to the platform.

“What’s your plan?” she prompted.

“We should take them. It’s possible they haven’t alerted anyone yet,” the mage finally answered.

I doubt we’d be that lucky.

“There’s only two of them,” he added. “And we know what to expect from the white-hair. This time, his funny games won’t work on us.”

That seemed enough to convince Tane. The warrior gathered up his ax, and spurred his chocobo towards the platform before Valice could protest. “Alright! Let’s go!”

In a movement more lithe than one expected from a man his size, Tane swung his mount with a tilt and dropped down on the tower. His boots made a strange, hollow clang as they met with whatever metal formed the dais.

Valice dropped down next to her brother, readying her scepter. She fought back the feeling of anxious dread that whipped around her. The winds were warning.

“Who left a couple of runts on guard duty?” Tane commented as he sized up the two who stood watching their approach.

Neither of them moved, though they were both armed. The white-haired man now carried a staff adorned with two oddly-shaped spikes on either end. The other man was unlike any Valice had ever seen. At first, she wondered if he was a dark elf, due to his grey-ish skintone. But the dark hair, striped with one lock of blazing white, and the alien eyes spoke otherwise.

Despite his shorter stature, everything about this man was terrifying, and she didn’t know why.

This didn’t seem to register on Tane. He simply readied his weapon for battle.

“Runts?” the white-haired man echoed the warrior’s observation. For some reason, he glanced over at his frightening companion. “Oh boy… you just dug your own grave with that.”

The darker man stood posed, no expression on his face, one hand gripping a wicked scythed weapon that was taller than him. How he could even lift such a thing, much less use it in battle was beyond her.

He spoke in a language that she didn’t understand. The white-haired man apparently did, because he nodded and responded in the same language. There was a hint of electric energy building up around the dark scythe.

“Get him, Tane!” Rubin urged, not unlike an owner might command a dog.

Before Valice could feel too insulted by this, Tane leapt forward, axe lifted high above his head. With frightening speed and silence, the dark warrior launched to meet him, the huge scythe crackling with dangerous magics. Then, just at the crest of his attack, he vanished.

Tane’s face turned bewildered. But he didn’t have time to question.

The dark warrior was suddenly behind him, a shimmering of blue magic pulsing as he reappeared. He snarled something in that unknown language before bearing down on his opponent.

A gasp ripped from Valice’s mouth as she watched the huge black scythe slash Tane across the back. Blood flew everywhere, splattering across the metal platform and staining it red.

She heard herself yelling his name. She felt the wind gather between her hands. She had every intention on striking down the one who hurt her brother.

But then, the voice of the white-haired mage was all she could hear. The otherworldly language commanded, getting into her thoughts, stopping her actions. A sharp pain ripped through her mind, causing the winds to disperse. The only thing she could do was slam both palms over her ears, as if that could stop the weight of the power that invaded her head.

Rubin’s face had fallen pale as he watched from a distance, orange eyes wide in shock. It was the expression of one who saw his own doom looming before him.

“Help…” Valice croaked. She no longer had control of her body. She could only crumple to her knees as the grip on her mind grew, blotting out everything else in the world. “R..Rubin… help me!”

The mage recoiled, visibly frightened. He only hesitated one moment, staring at the slumped form of Tane, who labored to fight in a spreading pool of his own blood, and the fear-wracked face of the girl. Then he started to run.

“RUBIN!” Valice screamed at him.

He didn’t stop. He didn’t even turn around.

Somewhere in the twisting powers that held her mind, she could feel a ripple of disgust at Rubin’s actions. It came from the thoughts of the white-haired man.

-So, he’d just desert them.-

Valice felt the magics release her, but she was too tired to do anything but watch. To her surprise, the white-haired mage let her go, and now turned his ire on Rubin.

“Coward!” he commanded. A single word, with so much power.

The violet light spread from the white-haired man’s fingers, lashing around Rubin’s body in a mental snare. The other mage was then lifted off his feet, struggling aimlessly, caught in the web of a much stronger magic than he could fight.

“Augh! No! Let me go–” The plead ended in a choke as the violet tendrils wrapped around Rubin’s throat.

Valice weakly stared up, feeling the heat of almost-tears in her eyes. She watched in panic as her companion flailed about, nothing more than a rag-doll in the grip of this unknown, terrifying power. Even though Rubin tried to abandoned them, watching him writhe knowing there was nothing she could do to stop it was horrific.

Finally, the white-haired man judged that the mage had enough. To her surprise, he withdrew the violet tendrils, dropping Rubin roughly next to her. He was shaken, a little dazed, but still alive.

Tane, however, was in much worse shape. The dark warrior was relentless, lashing at the larger man with a punch that sent the merc spinning to the floor. This time, Tane did not get up.

“Call me short, will you,” the dark warrior spat with a self-satisfied smirk.

Valice found the strength to crawl to her brother, surprised that no one attempted to stop her. Maybe they knew how thoroughly their opponents were defeated. Looking over the wounds inflicted on Tane’s face, it was all she could do not to cry out in dismay.

What kind of demon-people are they? The power that they have…

She felt a shadow loom over her, and shuddered as she saw the dark warrior advancing. The way he gripped his weapon, he looked ready to come for another round.

“TsuMe, wait.” The white-haired mage caught the warrior’s shoulder. “You said we’d capture them. Alive.”

The dark warrior frowned with discontent, but stopped. He grumbled, “You’re always too soft. It’s going to get you in trouble one day.”

“Maybe so,” the other replied. “But that’s not today.”

Valice’s hands shook, smoothing the blood-soaked hair out of her brother’s eyes. She was no white mage, but she knew Tane needed medical help badly.

What are they going to do with us?

As if in response to her thought, the one called TsuMe threw a command over his shoulder. “Guard! Gather these knaves up.”

A larger armored centaur trotted out from a previously undisclosed spot. He was heavily armed and looked very battle-ready.

This caused her to shudder again.

They had guards and backup right here. They didn’t even need them…

“Bind them and toss them to the Dank,” the dark warrior instructed.

“Yes sir,” the centaur responded promptly.

“And try to see that they get there with all their limbs intact,” he said the guard, as if there was some previous situation that required a reminder.

“As you wish, sir.”

“Alert,” the white-haired man instructed a strange mechanical device. “Follow with surveillance.”

Valice felt the world she knew buckling inward. Her fingers were sticky with her brother’s thick blood. The only thing she could think of was saving him. But not a word dared cross her lips.

“I wouldn’t suggest trying to run away in this tower,” TsuMe advised, his dark eyes falling on her with grim pleasure. “It could prove fatal.”

She could only respond with a frightened stare. Then, the centaur’s large fist closed around her upper arm in a strong grip. Valice was powerless to do anything but be ushered into the Tower.

Chapter 13

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.

“Come on!”

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?”

“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.

Chapter 14

Ben watched the expression on his companions’ faces twist to one of horror as he lifted the magic light high above his head. The heated wind that brushed across his back hinted that it wasn’t his magic they were responding to.

The whole cave smelt of an animalistic must mixed with retching decay. For the first time, Ben could make out the haphazard shapes of what seemed to be remains of various creatures – nothing but bone, scraps of cloth and steel.

An unfamiliar hissing scrape filled his ears as something moved from the depth of the cavern behind him. Something large. The source of the heated wind.

Before the boy could turn to look, a large, powerful tendril of darkness lashed out of the shadows, wrapping around Ben’s body and lifting him from the ground with no effort. He shouted as he felt himself yanked, his stomach bottoming out from the sudden motion.

Distantly, he could hear Rook’s frightened shout of, “Dragon!”

That was the only warning he had before the huge creature lifted him, wrapped in the crushing coils of its tail, so that Ben could see it face to face. The boy had only heard stories of dragons on the Blue Planet. Some were vicious creatures who feasted on livestock and villagers. However, others were different, like the tales his father used to tell of the valiant creatures who once bore dragon knights on their backs and defended the people of Baron.

Ben didn’t know enough about dragons to tell what kind this one was.

It was very long and slender, somewhat like a snake, the scales smooth and glittering pitch black. Two long whiskers extended from either side of the creature’s muzzle, which was rather thin and delicately made. Though the dragon’s limbs were small for its body, they looked powerful, each tipped with black talons that could easily rend a boy from head to toe.

The yellow eyes glowed with a primal energy, pupils nothing but slits of white on gold. Though this dragon had no wings, it was chained to the ground with enchanted steel, as if it could fly through the power of its mind alone.

Ben winced back as the muzzle came close. The two slitted nostrils parted and the dragon sniffed him intently, like a curious puppy. Then, the voice of the dragon filled his mind. It was much younger sounding than Ben imagined it would be on first glance.

-You are the Tower’s Master.-

Not sure of what else to say, Ben just agreed, “Ah… that’s right!”

Maybe the dragon will do what I tell it to if it knows I’m the Master! It’s worth a try!

-You are nothing but a boy.-

His stomach fell.

Or… maybe not.

Then, to Ben’s surprise, the dragon’s voice hinted a sound of concern.

-What is Zemus thinking?-

Seeing that as long as the creature was talking, he wasn’t eating, Ben tried to capture the conversation, “Uh, Zemus? What’s that?”

-You do not know, then.-

“Know? Know what?” This was slowly turning from holding conversation to something more serious.

–It is just as well, I suppose,- the dragon didn’t answer. Instead, it continued with its puzzling talk. –So, this is the culmination of the lineage of Dreigiau.-

“Drei—what?” Ben furrowed his brow. He knew the word. It mean “dragon” in Lunar.

-You will come to understand in time,- the creature didn’t answer again. Instead, it did something unexpected. It gently uncoiled from Ben and placed him on the ground. –But for now, your companions are correct. You should not be here.-

That little voice of intelligent reason was shouting that Ben should run as far away from this strange dragon as he could. After all, the bones of less fortunate things lay littered as far as he could see within the chamber. This dragon was not harmless, no matter how polite it spoke.

That’s when the glow of blue chains caught his eye again. Chains that wrapped around the creature’s body and held it there, a prisoner like he once was.

“You’re locked up. Who did this?” Ben inquired, a sense of sympathy overcoming the voice of reason. This may have been a dragon, but it should be free to fly, not chained in the depths of the Tower. “I bet it was TsuMe, wasn’t it?”

The dragon’s ears flopped backwards as it gave a very person-ish expression of disdain. –The Marked one has no power over me.-

Ben wasn’t exactly sure what “Marked one” meant. He didn’t have time to ponder that before the dragon said something more curious.

-I am the Keeper of the Tower.-

“Ben,” Aur’s voice interrupted the conversation. “We should go now.”

“Just a second,” he responded. There were too many questions left unanswered. Ben wanted to understand it all. His eyes never left the dragon as he asked, “What’s a Keeper?”

Yet, again, the dragon didn’t answer. Instead, he mused to himself, -You are a brave boy, aren’t you? You have the spirit of your fathers before you.-

“You knew my father?” he asked, not hiding his interest.

-Know of him? ALL dragons know of him. He is the Ap’Dreigiau.-

“The what?” Ben choked a bit in surprise.

That’s  Lunar for “Son of the Dragon.”

-That is correct, Young Master,- the dragon responded to his thought.

Ben turned quickly voicing the matter, “You can hear mind-thought, too?”

The creature chuckled, -It is a natural thing.-

Maybe for dragons… but not for most people.

If the dragon heard that, he didn’t respond.

That’s when Rook interjected, “Young Master, the big, scary, nasty-looking dragon is right. We should be leaving now.”

Ben turned with a frown, the words tumbling out of his mouth before he realized it.
“I’m not leaving him all chained up like this!”

Aur gave him a look of shock. Rook’s face just contorted to one of subtle depression.

It was the dragon’s turn to sound surprised. –Young Master… you don’t mean to free me, do you?-

“Of course I do. Why?” Ben crossed his arms trying to look tough and capable.

-I am the Keeper of the Tower. This is where I must remain until the day of the Rite of Passage.-

“I don’t know what all that means, but I think it’s wrong to leave anyone locked up in a dark cave,” the boy said.

The dragon seemed taken aback, and did not speak for a moment. When it did, it chose its words slowly, self-lessly. –I am not exactly a creature that deserves the pity of others.-

For some reason, that statement only made Ben all the more certain of his choice. “Oh? And why not?”

-I am a beast of shadows and darkness.-

“You don’t seem so bad to me.”

It’s true. The dragon had not once tried to harm him or any of his friends. Nor had it spoken with anything but riddles and distant concern. Shadows and darkness aside, it obviously was not choosing to be a beast of destruction and war.

“Do you have a name?” Ben asked. It was much easier to connect to something with a name.

-I am known simply as the Shadow Dragon.-

“Shadow it is, then! Don’t worry, Shadow. I’m gonna bust you out of here!” the boy responded cheerfully. Then he squinted a bit, “And… hold on… if  you’re a dragon, can you fly?”

-Indeed,- Shadow responded, seeming more curious than convinced.

“Then, how about we make a deal?”

The dragon’s head tilted slightly. Shadow was listening.

“If I set you free, you will fly Aur and I back to my home in Mysidia,” Ben bargained.

Shadow took a moment to ponder this. Then, the dragon responded slowly, -It is against my purpose for being here. However, a freedom for a freedom is a fair exchange. I agree.-

“Great!” the boy gave a great big smirk back to where Aur was watching all this unfold with awe.

After his initial wave of confidence, Ben realized he then had to make good on his words. Shadow was chained to what looked like a cave-like rock structure, but it was tall for a boy of his size to reach. Of course, the dragon could have helped him, but that defeated the concept of working to set him free.

Besides, I don’t know what kind of enchantment was cast on those chains. I won’t be able to break them until I do.

Whatever it was, it was strong enough to hold a dragon of Shadow’s size. Ben didn’t let that put him off, though. He grabbed the stone and slowly began climbing, thankful that the area closest to the dragon wasn’t littered with bones or anything more grotesque. He was really trying hard not to think about that.

Hand over hand he pulled himself up, until he was within reach of the nearest chain. It was driven down into the stone in a strange way – as if it was fused to be part of the stone itself. Sucking in his breath, Ben reached one hand out towards the chain.

That’s when it happened.

He should have expected the chains to be trapped. He should have known there was more magic hidden within the chamber than just crystals and dragons. Or, maybe, it was because of the overwhelming presence of these larger magics that the runes went unnoticed.

The area was protected by a runic ward meant to keep people like himself from reaching the dragon. Even Shadow seemed surprised about the light that sprang up along the floor, quickly spreading under the boy’s feet.

“What!” Rook exclaimed, reeling back as the glow shot along the stone throughout the room.

“Ben! Watch out!” Aur shouted.

That’s the last thing he heard as the ground melted out from underneath him. Just like that, they were all falling deeper into the darkness of the forbidden areas of the Tower.

 

Chapter 15

“Golbez…” a voice said his name.

It wasn’t the name that most people called him. That would be his middle name, Benjamin.

But Golbez.

His first name.

The name no one used. The name that he now realized was from his father’s Lunar heritage.

It was kinda awkward to introduce yourself to other kids as “Golbez.” Think of all the different things they could do to that name to make fun of it.

“Ben” was much simpler. “Ben” sounded human.

Even though you’re not human.

He now understood why he was Ben and not Golbez. But he still didn’t understand why his father had never told him.

“Golbez…” the voice said again. It had a lilting accent. One that was familiar to him.

“Dad? Is that you?” the boy asked. Looking up, he realized he was sitting, curled up next to his bed in the room in Zot.

A fuzzy moment ago, he had been in the great cavern with the Shadow dragon and his friends. They’d triggered a rune trap. They fell.

And now, I’m here. How does that work?

“Hello, Golbez,” the voice said again. It was a gentle voice, with a level tone. One that softly commanded attention. A dangerous voice.

“Eh… no! You’re not my father!” Ben frowned, pushing himself backwards on his palms as he got a good look at the figure in the shadows.

He wasn’t a tall man. But something about him seemed large and intimidating, even though the man had not moved an inch. The boy squinted, his sight blurring and contorting the man’s shape. Something like shadows moved under his skin. His eyes burned red, reflecting from his glasses, which he slowly pushed up with one finger.

“Are you still waiting for him?” the man asked, his voice smooth as death.

“Dad will come for me when he finds out where I am,” Ben responded. He didn’t want to tell this man these things. But he couldn’t stop himself from speaking.

“Are you certain?” the man asked.

The boy felt the voice twisting something in his mind. Even though he struggled against it, suddenly, he felt doubt. A doubt that had not existed before.

“It’s been so long now. Maybe your father has forgotten you.”

It was as if those words spoke these things into reality. A terrible reality where Ben was all alone. Forgotten. Unwanted. Abandoned.

“No!” The boy continued to struggle. His words were weak to his ears, but he wished they had the power to make reality, too. “My dad wouldn’t just forget about me!”

The man took a step forward. He was dressed in a long, violet robe. A multi-colored sash strapped across his waist and dangled in front. His hair was long and pulled back in a single tail behind him.

But all Ben could see were those terrible, red eyes. They spread a crimson glow on the back of the man’s glasses.

“Perhaps he thinks you are dead. Or that you ran away, never to come home again,” the man said.

It made sense. Ben had been gone for so long. Why would anyone be looking for him still?

“By now, I’d think you’d be a clever boy and have realized your father is not going to come.”

Ben choked, “But…”

“Your father knew how dangerous the dark creatures were. The one that chased you that day,” the voice burrowed deeper and deeper into his mind. “The ones who captured you. Who brought you to the Tower.”

This man could see into his past. He knew things that he shouldn’t.

“He knew how dangerous they were, yet he sent you to Baron alone.”

“Dad didn’t mean for this to happen!” Ben protested. That was something he did believe. That was something pure and true. He knew his father loved him…

“Why didn’t he come to protect you?”

“He stayed behind to fight!” the boy responded.

“Are you certain?”

Just three little words. That’s all it took to turn what he believed inside out. And yet, the man continued.

“Just the fact that this Tower exists proves that there are many secrets your father kept from you.”

Ben took a ragged breath, clamping his hands on either side of his head as if he could keep the darkness from getting inside. It wasn’t working. His voice was small and shaky as he tried to deny, “No… it wasn’t… like that!”

The man turned away. The burning red eyes no longer held Ben’s gaze. But the man had left something behind. Ben could feel it, like shadows moving under his own skin.

“Think about it,” the voice told him. “Think about it hard, child.”

Shadows shifted, making way for the man as he walked away. The room was replaced with a void of nothing. The darkness was vast as the oceans from home, like a great rip-tide that pulled him.

There was no one there to keep him from drowning.

Father was not going to come.

But in the midst of the overwhelming loneliness, he heard another voice. This one called his name, too.

But this one called him “Ben.”

With a heaving jolt, the boy opened his eyes. He saw Aur’s worried face hovering above him.

It was a dream…?

A nightmare. Just a terrible vision.

But where did it come from?

Even though he was awake now, Ben still felt as if there were shadows crawling under his skin.

Chapter 16

Aur could see that there was something wrong with Ben. He just didn’t know what it was. It was the worst possible time for something to be wrong, too. Because everything else was going wrong around them.

The boy knew he had come to rely on his friend’s wit and skill a little too much. So much, indeed, that he’d foregone his own common sense and followed Ben into situations like this. While it wasn’t a bad thing to have met the Shadow Dragon and seen what was beyond the forbidden door, Aur wasn’t sure how they were going to get out of what they’d stepped into.

“Ben? Are you awake?” he asked, gently shaking his friend’s shoulder.

“I… where…?” the other boy stared around at them, as if not knowing who they were at first. The fall they’d taken had been pretty far, but Aur had never seen Ben look so disoriented before.

“Finally,” Rook glanced back with concern. He tried to cover it with a slight snort. “The Tower could collapse and he’d sleep through it.”

“What happened?” Ben rubbed his head, blinking around.

Aur explained, “We fell through a pit in the floor… and now I think we’re in jail.”

This seemed to wake the other boy up. He gritted his teeth and exclaimed, “Jail? But we’re too young to go to jail!”

“Yeaaaaah…” Rook sniffled.

Ben must have been feeling a little better, because his quick wit was returning. He looked over at the centaur and demanded, “Hey, don’t you have the keys to the jail or something?”

“What me?”

“You’re a guard, aren’t you?” Aur seconded.

“Yeah, but I don’t have access to this area,” Rook explained.

“No keys?”

When both boys groaned in unison, the centaur apologized. “Sorry?”

“So, what are we going to do?” Aur asked, hoping that would start a constructive conversation on where to go next.

This is not what happened. Instead, Rooks tail puffed out and he began to pace the floor.

“What if no one ever finds us here?” he yammered. “We’ll starve to death! We’ll DIE!”

“Uh…” Ben made a motion to calm the creature. It didn’t work.

“I told you not to go into that room! But, nooooo!”

“Hey, uh…”

“No one listens to Rook!” the centaur dramatically slumped over on his hindquarters, “Darkness! Doom! DEATH!”

Leaving the guard to his panic, Ben was already inspecting the lock on the jail door. Slowly, the boy lifted his hand, and he channeled a static green zap of magic energy into the key hole.

“Why did I sign up for the army?” Rook continued to lament. “Momma always told me not to! Why didn’t I listen? I could be frolicking in the fields…”

Aur’s head turned as he heard the sharp click of the lock opening.

The centaur didn’t notice anything but the sound of his own voice. “Gonna die in jail… and it’s not even an enemy’s jail, either! How embarrassing!”

“Hey. Rook,” Ben attempted to interrupt.

“I’ll never be able to show my face in–”

“The door’s open,” the boy pushed the jail door outward to prove it was true.

“What?” Rook’s eyes widened as he turned, and his tail bushed out a second time.

His freckled face flooded with relief and joy. One big hand reached forward and clomped around Ben’s smaller hand, shaking the boy with a strength the centaur didn’t seem to realize.

“Young Master… you’ve saved us!” he exclaimed, quickly changing his tune. “I am your most loyal and willing soldier! I stand in awe of your vast power!”

“Uh, sure,” was all Ben could jitter as his entire body was shaken up and down. Once he regained possession of his hand again, he frowned with determination. “How about we get out of here and talk about the other stuff later?”

“Great idea!” Rook had become a yes-man. “The Master is so brilliant!”

Aur wasn’t so sure. And though he didn’t want to put doubt into determination, too many of Ben’s ideas had fallen flat that day. “If we can figure which way is out of here…”

Peeking out of the cell, Ben turned and motioned to them before walking forward. Everything was quiet there, aside from the distant sound of dripping.

It was impossible to tell what direction was what. Everything felt like a labyrinth of non-descript walls and corridors. One hall led to another that looked just like it.

Some of the walls had jail doors embedded, just like the one they’d fallen into. Aur could only wonder why the Tower needed jails. After all, most of the worst creatures they’d seen in the Tower were employed by it.

After what felt like a very long time of walking through the same passage, they heard a different sound. The sound of coarse, labored coughing.

“Hey… it sounds like someone is sick down here.”

Immediately, Ben honed in on the sound and began to follow it. Where there was coughing, there was something alive. For now.

It didn’t take long to pinpoint the source of the sound. It was someone locked inside of one of the cells. For some reason, Aur felt a strange prickle over his skin as they drew nearer. Something didn’t feel right.

“Ben,” he warned, not for the first time that day. “Be careful.”

Again, Ben didn’t listen. He walked forward with a concerned expression. “Hello? Can you hear me?”

A wan face appeared through the bars. A man lay there, looking extremely ill. Dark circles lined his eyes, and his skin looked pulled taut, showing the shape of his cheek bones.

His voice was a hoarse rasp, “I-is someone out there?”

“I’m here,” Ben responded, taking a surprised step forward. “Oh. You’re a person!”

The man gripped the bars weakly. His orange eyes fought to stay focused on them. “Some kids? Down here?”

“Careful…” Rook warned. “He’s wearing mageloks.”

Aur could see the cuffs that the centaur indicated. They were heavy and metal, lined with flickering runes that were meant to prevent the wearer from using magic of any kind.

“How did you get here?” Ben asked.

“Please! You have to help me!” The man just responded frantically. His breath wheezed as he struggled to make the sound of words. “I was captured by a white-haired mage and a scythe-using demon!”

Aur looked at Ben. The other boy voiced exactly what he was thinking, “TsuMe and Kip.”

For once, Ben began to approach the situation with caution. “Did you come from the world below?”

“Yes… yes I did!”

“Then, how did you get all the way up here?” It was Rook’s turn to look suspicious. And for good reason. Humans didn’t just appear in the Tower.

“I told you… I was captured,” the man stammered, looking as pitiful as possible. “Please… please… you must release me!”

Ben mulled this over. “If I let you go, what are you planning to do?”

“Get as far away from this light-forsaken place as possible,” he said. That sounded legitimate. But then, he said something that just didn’t click. “I swear I didn’t do anything to deserve being here!”

Aur didn’t know why, but he knew the man was lying. The fact that he knew this left uneasy prickles over his skin. It wasn’t nice to accuse someone of mistruth. But he just couldn’t shrug off the feeling that this man was much more dangerous than he let on.

Ben didn’t seem to notice. His mind was on other things. “Would you take us back to the Blue Planet, too?”

“Yes! Yes, of course I would!” the man agreed quickly.

Another jolt ran through Aur’s body. Another lie. This man had no intention of helping anyone but himself.

“Just let me out of here and I’ll do anything you ask!”

This lie was so strong it almost turned Aur’s stomach.

“That’s a promise?” Ben reached forward, his hand shimmering with green energy. He meant to open the lock.

“I promise,” the man said. “On my honor.”

Aur suddenly saw his hand moving of its own accord. It landed lightly on Ben’s hand, pulling it away from the lock. “Ben. No.”

“What?” his friend turned with surprise.

He had no idea how to explain this. How to make Ben believe him. What he was suggesting was leaving this man locked up in jail… which was a terrible thing, and he knew it.

“He’s lying to you,” Aur told him simply.

Ben stopped and took a very long look into his friend’s face. He must have seen something there. Something that bothered him.

“How do you know?”

“I… just do.” Aur hunched his shoulders, his voice hardly a whisper. The way Ben was looking at him was like someone realizing something frightening for the first time. “He’s a bad man.”

Ben opened his mouth, unable to find the words to respond.

That’s when the man turned to look at Aur. “Hey, kid… what are you waiting for? Don’t you want to go back to the Blue Planet?”

“No…” Aur winced and looked away.

The man rattled the bars with his mageloked fists, “Come on, kid. Don’t be like that.”

That’s when Ben took a step backwards, pulling his hand away from the door. “I’m sorry, Mister. We’re not supposed to talk to strangers.”

“What?!” the man exclaimed, face turning even more pale than it was before.

“Can we go now?” Rook asked, his own voice sounding shaken.

Suddenly, the man’s face contorted. No longer was it the weak, submissive man who would do whatever was asked of him. This man was a frightening, twisted visage of desperation and loathing.

His voice rose much louder than it had been before, demanding, “Wait! You can’t just leave me! GET BACK HERE!”

Ben jumped with surprise at the man’s transformation. Aur backed away, eyes wide, shaking his head.

His intuition had been correct.

The man continued to shout, the unwanted sound carrying down the dark corridors. That’s when another sound echoed back at them, something woken by the noise. Something that sounded and felt terrible.

“What was that?” Ben choked out the question. He felt it, too.

Even the man within the jail recoiled from the door, covering his head with his hands. He moaned, “No… no… not that thing again…”

Something erupted from the shadows, a flaming embodiment of fury and hate. Aur didn’t get a chance to see what it was. His feet were already carrying him the other way as Rook whinnied.

“Let’s go! Let’s go!!”