What Am I?: Part Five
Kitron’s eyes were glassy and hollow, and his long, ink-black fingers were running slowly over the V-shaped scar on his chest. “Kitron? What’s wrong?” Kelenria asked, suddenly concerned.
Kitron jumped slightly, but spared her only a brief glance before returning his eyes to the mirror that decorated one of the treehouse’s walls. Jack had given Kelenria a choice between getting a treehouse or being painted, and since she had chosen the former he had gone to great lengths to make sure that this haven was no less lavishly furnished than a small Neohome. It was probably at least as expensive as some paint brushes, and Kitron should have been comfortable here.
But he wasn’t. Something had happened that had left this calm, relatively stoic Zafara deeply upset. His gaze was full of turmoil, yet desolate, like an ocean tormented by storm without a ship or a seabird to relieve the lonely, turbulent emptiness.
Kelenria was just about to pose her question a second time when Kitron’s deep voice rose tentatively out of the shroud of brooding silence that had wrapped itself around him. “This scar,” he began in a low tone, barely more than a whisper, as if needing the answer but almost loathing to hear it. “How did I get it?”
Kelenria frowned. “I’m not sure. You already had it when I first found you.” That was what this was about- the scar on his chest? Why was he so worried about it?
His next words, though simple, concise and quiet, were ample explanation. “It is symmetrical. It was inflicted deliberately.”
Even though she had until now spent no time whatsoever thinking about it, the answer hit Kelenria instantly, with the sickening force of a flung stone. He’d been branded. Kitron came from a world of monsters, and was just now beginning to realize it. The young Xweetok’s heart sank and her insides twisted with pity. Most people in Kitron’s position, with an uncertain present and a seemingly empty future, at the very least had a past that they could look back to; and, if they tried hard enough, even the most deeply hurt among them might be able to find some echo of a time when things had not been so hard.
All Kitron had was a piece of tangible evidence that his past and the people in it had been cruel.
He was staring at her now, almost pleadingly, his usual fiercely erect posture replaced by a vulnerable, slack-shouldered stance that made him seem strangely small and his expression, still displaying that pitiful mixture of question, uncertainty and fear, looked incredibly incongruous on a Neopet that big. His voice, too, suddenly seemed far too small for his body. “Why?” he asked quietly, still fingering his scar. “Inflicting minor but painful physical damage on me could have no useful role in whatever function I may perform. What could be the purpose of doing so, then?”
Kelenria swallowed hard, not wanting to answer him. For all his occasional roughness, for all his size, strength and cold strangeness, for all his staggering potential for destruction, Kitron clearly had no concept of needless sadism. How to explain it to him? She didn’t want to be the one to tear away the veil between innocence and reality. But she didn’t think she had a choice. “I think,” she said slowly, “Dr. Sloth was trying to mark you as a member of the Virtupets Empire that he was trying to build.”
“Sloth?” Kitron echoed uncertainly; then suddenly it seemed to click. The dots had already been there, and now this new information was finally allowing him to connect them. “Dr. Sloth. Master of Virtupets.” He paused, and his eyes grew round. “I am Kitron of Virtupets. Sloth is my master...” Kitron suddenly froze, turmoil crashing through his mind.
Waking up alone, trapped... seeing another Neopet, breaking free, approaching her in search of a mission, of a purpose in life, a reason for existence... confusion in her eyes, mirrored in his heart- who was this person? Why was she the only one here to meet him? Something was wrong... but she would make it right. There was nothing to worry about as long as he was on a course toward the unveiling of his designated function, the map that would banish uncertainty. Talking to her, hearing her talk back...
“Actually, I’m not with Virtupets, so I have no way to contact your ‘superiors’. I’m with Neopia.”
Mental hands grappled to shove puzzle pieces into place, to force them to make sense, to rearrange them, to give them a meaning other than the one that was glaring into the eye of his mind. The one he wasn’t sure he could accept.
Neopia, the target of Sloth’s- of my master’s- conquest.
If he is my master, then his wish must be my objective.
My purpose is his conquest...
I am a tool of conquest. My modifications were applied to make me more effective in combat. Combat against... the people of Neopia.
Kelenria of Neopia.
My mentor, who aided in revealing my function to me. A military function, with us on opposite sides... Did either of us want me to know?
Does it matter? What she wants should have no relevance to me- neither should what I want. I obey my master- that is my purpose.
But where is he? The information download was incomplete- has the situation changed since it began? Would he still want me to fight the people of Neopia?
If he does, would I obey?
I have to. That is my function, my purpose. It is what I am.
Is it? If so, then why am I reluctant?
Because I do not want to kill Kelenria.
Does it matter, what I want?
Either way, she must know.
Kitron met Kelenria’s gaze, his troubled gaze searching deeply into hers. She was afraid- again. Afraid of him. As a person in the presence of a powerful enemy should be. “You understand,” he said softly, his low voice strung between emotionlessness and pain as he inwardly struggled with the choice between veiling his inner turmoil and showing Kelenria the fullness of what his words meant to him, letting her know that he did not make this choice lightly or willingly, “that this scar marks me as your adversary.” A statement, not a question. It was obvious that she already understood. He did not know why he felt he had to speak it. To warn her? To apologize? To let her know that his purpose wasn’t his choice?
Dread coursed through Kelenria’s veins, a shadowed flood once held back by a dam of hope now broken. If Kitron decided to fulfill his abstract but hideous destiny right there and then, she would be helpless to stop him. Who wouldn’t be? Surely any Neopet who resisted him would be destroyed. Flight would only delay the inevitable, even if terror hadn’t already drained all mobility from her limbs.
And yet he seemed uncertain, as if his choice was not yet made. Or as if he knew that the choice was firm in someone else’s mind, but could not make it take root in his own.
Kitron was of Virtupets in origin, but in mind and heart, he was quite simply Kitron. If only he could fully realize that.
Hope reached for Kelenria’s heart, touching upon it with the tentative faintness of a butterfly alighting on a blossom. Gathering her nerve and staring pleadingly up at Kitron, she said quietly, forcing her voice not to shake, “It’s just a scar, Ki. It doesn’t decide who you are.”
Kitron’s forehead creased in surprise and concentration. “Ki,” he echoed slowly. “An abbreviation of my full name. A nickname.” The frown deepened, then shifted into a look of questioning uncertainty. “A token of friendship?”
Surely she must realize that friendship between us is impossible. I cannot oppose the will of my master.
Kelenria stiffened with surprise, first at the realization that she had unconsciously employed a nickname, then at the fact that this strange being should ask such a question, and then finally at the very fact that she was surprised. She had sheltered him, brought him food, and tried to help him find his place in the world. Why shouldn’t they be friends?
Because by law of origin they were predestined to be enemies, if destiny held any sway.
But maybe it didn’t- at least, not yet. There was still time to fight it.
In a display of courage she would once have thought impossible, the Xweetok lifted onto her hindlegs and placed a delicate forepaw over the back of Kitron’s right hand. He looked startled, then seemed to consider whether or not to ask if this was a gesture of friendship, too. Kelenria spared him the struggle. “Yes- I do want us to be friends,” she said softly, warmed to realize that the deep conviction behind those words was born of something far better than fear. He had to know that. “And it’s not just because I’m afraid that you’ll hurt me if we’re not. I... I kind of like spending time with you, and I wouldn’t get to if we were enemies, even if you decided not to attack me.”
Kitron hesitated, a frown of confusion crossing his face. Fragments of information were rising to his mind from the depths of his buried memory, rearing their ugly heads like twisted spectres looming up out of an unquiet grave while pained voices of protest rose to clash with them.
I do not wish to disregard her words. My desires are the same as hers. But my purpose requires that I destroy those who oppose my master. This includes all who do not serve him. Emotional ties would distract me and interfere with my judgement, making me less efficient. Friendship must be less than nothing to me.
But it is not. If it were, I would not be responding so strongly to her offer.
But that is forbidden me.
“I am not permitted to be your friend.”
Kelenria stared back at him, pity trickling in to weaken her fear like warm water mingling with cold. “Who’s going to stop you? Sloth isn’t here now, and I don’t think he knows where you are. What would he do about it if you did decide that we could be friends?”
Kitron mulled that over, pain and uncertainty still mingling in his once-emotionless eyes as his fingers drifted reluctantly out from under the comforting warmth of Kelenria’s paw to trace the edges of his scar. “My body bears evidence of what he is capable of. He marked me as your enemy.”
The penetrating light behind Kelenria’s searching eyes shifted like measuring scales poised between compassion and fear, swaying from one to another, leaning one moment toward the trepidation that she struggled not to show, and then toward the empathy she wished Kitron to see and understand. “Like I said, it’s just a scar. The scar was Sloth’s choice. What you do about it is yours. Nobody can decide who you are except for you.”
Free will outside the ability to choose the course that would best serve the ends of his designated function had simply not been a part of Kitron’s programming. How to exercise it now? “It has already been decided for me. If I am your friend, then I am my master’s enemy. Such a thing is not possible.”
“Of course it is!” Kelenria exclaimed. “Sloth doesn’t have to be your master. Really, why should he be? Because he gave you a scar?”
Why... That was a question that had not occurred to Kitron before. Why did he accept Sloth as his master? Because he is. But was he? What distinguished a person as the master of another? One who gives orders and receives obedience in response, one who determines the purpose of his servant until that servant is cast aside.
And he cast me aside. The realization hit Kitron like a wave slamming upon the shore, dashing questions aside like grains of sand to reveal hard, simple rock beneath. He discarded me, he left me behind. And in doing so, he relinquished his mastery over me. He no longer wants me as his weapon.
Kitron’s gaze, which had unconsciously dropped to the hand that hovered in front of his chest, snapped up to light upon Kelenria. And at no point was Sloth my friend. And that is what I want: a friend.
What I want... will I now be able to act on that?
Emotional ties would make him vulnerable, would impair his judgement and his efficiency. But when it came down to it, here in this moment of questions and clear simplicity, they were all he really had.
Kitron stared at the tiny Xweetok for a moment, his face expressionless as his racing mind came to a halt, slowing until it landed on firm ground. Then suddenly he softened, as if an obsidian barrier behind his eyes had melted away. “Kelenria of Neopia,” he said quietly, his words formal as usual, “you are correct. My original function is no longer applicable to my position.” A long moment of hesitation, and then he forced himself to say it. Forced himself because he meant it, even if it went wholly against the grain of his nature. “Neither is my former allegiance. I will seek a new function.”
Delight sprang into Kelenria’s eyes, mingled with hope and traces of reservation that were quickly falling away. “Does that mean we can be friends?”
To his surprise, Kitron found that he could say it without reservation. “Yes. We can.”
Joyful elation shone in Kelenria’s gaze, and rising to her full height she wrapped her forelegs around Kitron’s thighs. “That’s great! I’d really hoped you’d say ‘yes’, ‘cause you know... I’d kind of already thought of you as a friend, but it’s good to hear that you feel the same way.”
Kitron stared at her, visibly surprised. “You had considered me a friend before I had established myself as such?” Kelenria nodded, the movement molded by an odd mixture of shyness and excitement, and Kitron found himself yet again confused by the strange ways of this tiny creature. “When did you come to feel this way?”
Kelenria blinked, caught off guard by the question. “I... I really don’t know. I guess it might have been when I realized that you needed me.”
Basing friendship on the need of another. That was a concept Kitron found himself struggling to understand. Was there truly any reason behind such a thing, any logic that he might isolate and comprehend?
Perhaps there wasn’t. How should he know? Regardless of the identity of whatever stirred the movements of the young Xweetok’s mind and heart, Kitron found himself glad that Kelenria was the way she was. He was lucky to have her.
* * * * *
“He’s lucky to have you, you know.”
Kelenria blinked. “Huh? What are you talking about?”
Jack was obviously trying very hard not to smile as he studied the almost painfully guilty-looking Xweetok he had caught trying to smuggle an awkward armload of no less than six Ummagines out the front door. It didn’t seem to be going very well, judging by the fact that three seconds ago that armload had been half as big again.
Jack lost the battle, and his eyes sparkled behind his glasses as he broke into a grin. “Whoever it is you’re hiding in your treehouse.”
Kelenria turned crimson under her fur. “What?! I-”
Having gained a victory in the grin, Jack’s amusement was now attempting to upgrade to a laugh. This time he restrained himself, and replied, “Oh, come on, Kel. You know I was joking when I told you that I almost thought you were storing the food up for the winter, and you also know perfectly well that one Xweetok couldn’t possibly eat nine Ummagines for breakfast.” His grin widened, and he pointed to his head and joked, “This handsome thing isn’t just for decoration, you know.”
Kelenria gave a nervous laugh, and Jack sobered slightly, although the smile remained on his face as he said warmly, “Go ahead, keep your secrets. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was your age- heck, I don’t think I’d tell my parents even now if I was hiding an escaped Sloth minion in my treehouse.”
Kelenria’s blush suddenly paled to a pristine shade of white. “I never said he was-”
“So there is someone, and it’s a ‘he‘.”
Kelenria lowered her eyes. “He isn’t a Sloth minion.”
A look of mock concern filled Jack’s expression. “Oh, Sally, please tell me Lord Darigan isn’t having another bout with amnesia!”
Kelenria laughed, more lightheartedly this time. Maybe Jack wasn’t going to freak out, after all. “No,” she said, “and I could hardly be compared to Sally. I mean, from what my friends tell me, her parents didn’t find out about Lord Darigan until he told them himself. And I didn’t even last a week!”
“Yeah, well, she wasn’t biting off more than she could chew by trying to sneak him full rations, either.”
“So, when are you going to introduce him to me?”
BANG! Kelenria’s powerful hind legs propelled her forcefully into Jack’s arms and the six remaining Ummagines she had managed to hold onto until now went flying in all directions as the front door exploded open, revealing a panting Texra.
Jack’s eyes went wide with concern. “Tex- I mean, er- Texra? What’s wrong?”
The Striped Zafara’s voice rose to a shriek. “THERE’S THIS BIG FREAKY SHADOW CHARACTER HIDING IN KELENRIA’S TREEHOUSE!”
“WHAT?!” Kelenria screeched, putting a wounded Eyrie to shame in her panic. “What were you doing in there?”
“I saw something moving behind the windows and I knew you were still inside, so I went to check it out and I found this HUGE guy in there!”
Jack frowned. “Kel, I think you’d better explain this to your sister before she has a heart attack.”
Kelenria’s jaw tightened slightly. If there was one person she didn’t want to know about Kitron, it was Texra. Why did she have to be so nosy? “I found him in the building we visited on our field trip. He was floating in a tank and hooked up to a bunch of tubes, and then suddenly the computer said his ’cycle’ had ended, and the liquid drained out of the tank and he woke up and smashed his way out.”
“And then what happened?” Jack asked quietly while Texra stared at both of them in shock.
“He walked up to me and told me his name was ’Kitron of Virtupets’, and he asked me to ’tell him his function’.”
Kelenria’s gaze flicked from owner to sister and back. “He doesn’t know who he is,” she explained, anxious for them to see the rightness of her mission. “I mean, he knows his name, but he doesn’t remember much about his past. All he knows is that he used to belong to Sloth, and that he got branded.”
“Branded?” Jack echoed, his voice sharpening with righteous outrage.
Kelenria nodded angrily. “Yeah. There’s a big V-shaped scar on his chest.” Suddenly a frown of worry crossed her face. “Texra, what did you do after you found him?”
Texra hesitated, clearly aware that her words would not be welcome. Finally, pinned beneath the stares of her owner and her sister, she answered blandly, “I ran out of the treehouse and told the Defenders of Neopia.”
To be continued...