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?”
“You’re a guard, aren’t you?” Aur seconded.
“Yeah, but I don’t have access to this area,” Rook explained.
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!”
“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!!”