Keeping the Lamp Lit

by Charles Matthias and Phil Geusz

chapter 1

It was late afternoon when Lady Kimberly threw herself sobbing into my fur.

The day had been typical of many since I had accepted that destiny intended to use me as a wild card. Morning I had spent penning and editing stories, an activity that did much to keep me sane while living in a white rabbit's body. Then, at noon I had dined with Lord Thomas, spending a couple hours assessing the intentions of our Enemy and trying to come up with some confounding devilry of our own to return past favors. And finally, as the shadows lengthened again my focus had been set on the affairs of distant Whales, reading a dispatch from my adopted father and composing a reply. The news had not been good, nor my response simple. The two letters had been laying side-by-side for my study when the door suddenly burst open and Matthias's beloved fell weeping into my arms.

Rupert leapt instantly into action of course, but I stopped him with an uplifted forepaw before anything untoward happened. I hated having a bodyguard again after all the happy carefree years at Metamor, but had to acknowledge that Tenomides had chosen well for me. Rupe was an accomplished scribe, valet, and even had gotten the knack of rabbit-grooming. He was also accomplished in more deadly arts. Originally an old family retainer of many years service, my new companion had contracted a deadly sickness. The King asked if he would be willing to risk Metamor in the hope that transformation would bring about a cure as it sometimes did, and Rupert had agreed eagerly. The results were good, and the upshot was that I now had my own private 600 pound gorilla to help me through life's little challenges. A most loyal and skilled gorilla, in fact.

We got along well. Strangely enough, there seems to be a certain chemistry between lapines and anthropoids. One of life's little mysteries, I guess.

Anyway, Rupert withdrew and I simply hugged Kimberly, absorbing her tears with a deep sense of foreboding. Matthias had been out on a patrol, and there was only one reason I could imagine for his beloved Lady to be so upset...

But thank the heavens it turned out I was wrong. Matthias had indeed returned safely, had even distinguished himself in combat, much to my surprise. But something had snapped in him. Eventually, the story spilled out of the sobbing rodent-woman. Broken spears, magic spells waved aside, an assault on Thomas himself! What madness was this?

It was then I noticed Kimberly's torn dress. Had the guards mishandled her, I asked? The answer left me cold.

I held her a little longer, letting her find what comfort she could. When the sobbing had given way to silent hugging, I vowed quietly to find out what was going on and to see what I could do. A glance was adequate instruction for intelligent Rupert- we had been together long enough for me to know that he would see Kimberly back to her room and find a friend to be with her. Which would give me all the time alone I needed to make a little point to my equine friend...

The throne room was not far from my apartment. Hurriedly, once Rupert was gone I took the chain my father had sent me with the Seal Rings of the Master of Fire and Crown Prince of the Island of Whales dangling from it and threw it over my neck. The gaudy hardware jangled annoyingly as I hopped willy-nilly on all fours down the narrow corridors, once knocking a steward off his feet in my impolite haste. Then, heart and lungs working rapidly, I skidded to a halt just around the corner from the main door, and awaited my chance.

Luck was with me- I heard the door open almost immediately. Timing things carefully so as to let the spearmen take their ceremonial steps back from the portal I waited two beats, then hopped for my life.

Right between the guards...

Few creatures sprint like a warmed-up bunny, and my enlarged size only made me fleeter still. With each hop I dug my hindclaws into the rich carpeting, silently accelerating all the way up the main aisle to my friend's throne. No one, not even the Prime Minister had time to react before a final leap put me right in Thomas's lap. Where I sat, staring grimly into his shocked face.

"Hello, Thomas!"

The moment stretched out, so I dug in deeper. "I could send for Rupert, you know. He might not be as much fun for the guards to brutalize as Lady Kimberly was, but who knows? They might enjoy a challenge."

Meanwhile said guards were clustering around the throne in confusion, spears upraised. The silence continued, so I offered one last taunt. "Going to send me out on patrol too? Or just dungeon your chief ally's top admiral and adopted son?"

Finally, Thomas could stand it no more. As I had hoped, he burst out laughing and started scratching my ears, waving the spearmen away. "Phil!" he finally got out. "I have never..."

Then he laughed some more.

There are many strange things about Metamor Keep, and my friendship with Thomas has to be one of the strangest. He took me in as a mercenary long ago, not letting on in the slightest that he knew I was Master of Fire of the Island of Whales and had been offered the Throne of my homeland. When the great transformation caused me to go feral for years on end, he saw to it that I received proper care and informed my countrymen. Then, upon the return of my reason (or what had always passed for it, anyway) he helped me find honorable employment for my now-limited talents, discreetly seeking my counsel in such a way that I still never suspected that the secret of my past was nothing of the sort. He had behaved with honor and rare compassion towards me, in other words.

On my end, I had come to admire how Metamor was run. Thomas's dedication to the arts and the free exchange of knowledge had been a great revelation to me. We of Whales prided ourselves on our dedication to free trade and free oceans. In fairness, we had never suppressed anyone's viewpoints or creations. But why had we never actively fostered libraries and artist's workshops and laboratories like Thomas had done at Metamor?

The possibilities involved in bringing the two cultures closer together were mind-boggling. And we both knew it. With the riches of free trade and the riches of free learning working together, the world could be transformed out of it's current state of ignorance, illiteracy and poverty. And who knew what future that could bring?

So it was that Thomas and I heeded each others views closely, and gave each other great trust. And so it was that instead of having me dungeoned like my friend Matthias had been, Thomas canceled the rest of his schedule for the day and joined me at my usual table in the "Mule" for dinner.

We exchanged pleasantries over weak beer at first, then got down to business when the main course arrived. I salivated heavily when the laden platter was delivered- as fellow herbivores Thomas and I usually just shared a plate. State dinners were all well and good, but both of us really had gotten sick of them over the years. And when you lose your taste for food that's been heated, even the pleasures of exotic dishes and gourmet cooking are removed from the tedium of formality. In my quiet little corner, with Rupert and Thomas's guard discreetly protecting our privacy we could talk and eat and be frank with one another.

Finally, I nosed some oats over to the side and sniffed delicately at them. "Nice, but just for a change" I observed.

He was working on a head of Romaine lettuce. "I might say much the same."

"Mph." I nibbled at the delicacy, swallowed. "We seem to have much in common, My Lord."

Lately, it was "My Lord" and "Your Highness" for business, "Thomas" and "Phil" for friendly talking. He took the hint.

"Including the acquaintance of a certain rat that's been behaving rather oddly lately," he replied.

Oats take a long time to chew. I considered my reply carefully. "My Lord, I know Matthias well. He is headstrong, perhaps. No, I'll take that back. He is headstrong, period. But he surely meant you no harm. And brutalizing his Lady Kimberly was unforgivable."

It was the Duke of Metamor's turn to chew on things. Eventually he gave his own considered response. "Your Highness, what would the penalty be for a seaman striking you at sea, aboard your own flagship?"

"Death, if the intent was mutiny. Something lesser, if not. And none at all, were the sailor mad."


"Mad, My Lord. As I suspect Matthias was this afternoon."

"Hmm." Thomas chewed more, long and loudly. He ate like a horse, an unfortunate side effect of the Battle of the Three Gates that made entertaining dignitaries far more of a burden for him than for me. "Your Highness, it may be that Matthias was a madman this afternoon. And perhaps I overreacted. But I swear that I never heard of the woman- what is her name?"


"Kimberly, then, being hurt. And I saw nothing, having been understandably somewhat distracted. Tell me what you know."

So I shared what I had heard of events from the rodent-woman's point of view, starting with her eager anticipation to greet her love, and ending with the nightmare in the throne room and a description of her tattered clothing in my chamber. Thomas was always a sucker for a romantic story, and by the time this one was finished he was in a state of great agitation.

"This... This..." he spluttered.

"My Lord, it seems your security does indeed need to be overhauled. Not only were you twice assailed in one day, but your guards overreacted as well to an innocent bystander."

The horse-morph nodded solemnly. "I will put my best men on it."

"Perhaps you should choose one of the operatives from my special section? Who better to know how to safeguard you?"

"Hmm. You know, Your Highness, while we are on the subject I worry about your safety sometimes as well, since you have publicly acknowledged your Royal position."

My ears rocked in an involuntary smile. "Perhaps you should use Rupert as your consultant."

"What do you mean?"

"Allow me SOME secrets, My Lord, even from you. Now, I have a proposal for you on how to handle this whole Matthias affair..."

He sat dry-eyed in the hay, staring into the empty blackness. The dim light coming through the hole in the door was barely enough for him to see any of the features of his cell. His paws and his nose were his only means of knowing what lay about him in the darkness. The small pile of tan-coloured hay in the one corner had obviously been changed since the last time a prisoner had been here; it was the only really clean thing in the cell. The place stank of some long gone droppings that had not been cleaned, from a small animal, probably musteline from the scent. There was a patch of fungus clinging to the slick stone walls with the crumbling mortar and rotting cement. Of course, he deserved much worse than this for what he had done. His head should be decorating a pig pole in the Keep's killing grounds; his lifeblood should be drenching the spring grass and staining the earth red. The people of Metamor Keep should have had the pleasure of seeing a traitor such as himself beheaded. He could hear their cheers and hootings and snorts of derision as the great axe was raised and his body bound to the block. The block would have been scarred with the nicks of the axe, and with the dried and caked blood of the former miscreants.

Instead, his head was unrightfully upon his shoulders, and he was in this pathetic excuse for a dungeon.

Matthias was a writer- his imaginings tended to be quite dramatic and vivid.

Yet, they had given him a fate that he did not relish. To serve on the patrols for the rest of his life was truly a torture worse than any that he could have conjured up. He didn't dare let himself be killed to end the pain. He could never forgive himself for not doing his best to protect others. Yet at the same time, he would become the very thing he loathed to become - a killer. Well, it was the only thing he deserved to be! Look at what he nearly did to the Duke! Look at that! He had marched in there, attacked the troops, broke through that pathetic air spell, avoided Jon's battle form, and nearly assualted the Duke. What better thing for him to do than to kill people.

He was a killer, that was all he could ever be.

Charles put his head in his paws, trying to hold back the tears. It was better that he be in the dark where none could look upon his hideous countenance. The Sondeckis had come with him. Though he had escaped them almost six years ago, it was still a part of him. One could not just leave one's life behind. The past inevitably molds the future. All of the training, all of the conditioning, and all of the skills he had acquired were still there. He had hurt Sir Saulius with his skills about a month ago, and he had bit the petrified wood in two the month before that. Oh, he had confessed some of this torture to Fox Cutter, but could he ever possibly hand all of it over to anybody? How could Lady Kimberly look him in the face and say that she loved him ever again if she only knew what he really was? How could she?

The thought of her, the one whom his heart ached for, the one for whom he would trek through worse than this for if she only wished it, finally brought the tears to his face. His racking sobs echoed back to him, and down the dungeon hallways. The pain was only beginning.

Dungeons are always dark, and always cold. This is no accident- it is a sad fact that in the real world people have to be imprisoned and must be punished. And the timeless, seasonless atmosphere of a dungeon helps make sure that no one who is an unwilling guest will want to visit twice.

My intelligence-gathering activities at the Keep made me a fairly frequent visitor here. I had interrogated any number of near-mindless Lutins, and even fought wit-duels with Demon officers and the odd human or two that sought service with the Enemy. Humans in particular were eager to deal with us, as their inevitable transformations would make them unable to ever leave if we held them for any time. So it was that Roscoe, the Master of the Dungeon, was unsurprised to see me at any hour. "Phil!" he greeted me eagerly.

"Hi, Roscoe!" I replied as warmly as possible. In truth, I felt deep pity for this poor soul- the same spell that had made me look good in white had not been so kind to him. He had been made into a bizarre darkness-loving thing by having his body merged with that of some kind of cave-scorpion. Sunlight was intensely painful to him now, and his nightmare pale appearance alone had persuaded more of the Enemy to talk than I liked to think about. Roscoe was hideous, grotesque, an affront to all that was beautiful and natural...

...and a man just like me. Who had dignity, and always seemed starved for company. I tried to remember this whenever I visited. "How's tricks down here where the sun never shines?" I asked, rocking my ears.

He clicked his pincers rapidly, his own substitute for a smile. "Oh, not so bad. Been pretty quiet here under the rock until your friend Matthias came to visit. I guess you know he isn't allowed visitors until tomorrow?"

I could smell meat rotting in the distance, but didn't comment on it. Something told me it might be the Keep Dungeonmaster's dinner. "Thomas has authorized it, Roscoe. Honest."

He scanned me a moment with cold faceted eyes, and the rotten scent grew stronger, making my stomach lurch. But I was too polite to allow it to show, and after a moment Roscoe skittered delicately about and led me into the gloom. "Guess it's alright," he declared. "After all, everyone knows you and the Duke are thick as thieves."

"Thanks, friend!" I said, rocking my ears again and putting what feeling I could into my voice. We headed down a low cell-lined corridor, then I waited while the cave creature fiddled with the bar on the entrance of the proper cell. Finally, with a low groan the heavy portal swung open and I nipped inside. The solid door shut behind me, leaving me in blackness. Roscoe would be right outside if I called, but still the atmosphere made me feel alone and a bit afraid. How must it be working on my fellow writer?

"Matt?" I asked into the darkness. I could smell him, thick and strong in the poor ventilation. Not surprisingly, the scent was heavy with anguish.

My friend's low voice answered me flatly, emotionlessly. "What?"

"I've come to see you."

"Has a day finally passed? When will Kimberly come?"

Sighing, I realized that I probably should have brought her, or at least arranged something. Nobody can think of everything, though. "It's not time yet, Matt. You've only been in here a few hours." The rat groaned at hearing this. "I got special permission from Thomas. And see, I've brought you something to chew."

At this I sensed him stirring on the straw pile I knew to be in the back of each cell. Taking it as an invitation, I sat beside him and offered him the exotic, aromatic wood that Tenomides had begun to ship me from my homeland, once he discovered it would please me. Politely, he broke it in half and quietly we gnawed together for a bit.

Then I realized something. "Matthias, this is seasoned bountifruit wood. We don't make ships out of it because it's too hard to work with- tough and springy. You can dull a steel saw on it. Yet you just broke it by hand!"

He sighed. "Once you open up a little, once you begin to talk about things you just can't hide anything anymore, can you?"

I was confused. "Matt?"

"Someday, I promise I'll share it all. When I feel better."

Quietly, I nodded. I had kept some secrets myself....

Finally, my friend spoke again. "How do you deal with it, Phil?"

"With what, Matt? Being a rabbit? A rat ought to come closer to knowing than most."

"No, not that. That's easy, for me. But how do you deal with being a murderer? With the blood on your hands?"

Some understanding of the whole affair began to dawn. "Matt, I have killed, yes. In numbers that I shudder to think about. And it's NEVER easy to live with. But I tell you that I am no murderer."

"Tell that to the dead!"

Sighing, I chewed for a bit and stretched out in the straw. Here at Metamor, straw was some of the most pleasant bedding around for many of us, but it was kept in the dungeon regardless. Tradition, I suppose. "It's not the dead I worry about, Matt, or what they think. It's the living."


"Would you like to hear a true story, my friend? We've shared many stories it seems, but too few true ones."

I took more silence as permission.

"I was just out of the Academy, a fresh-faced junior Fire projector on a tired old patrol ship. It was our job to watch out for pirates mostly."

"One day, we were patrolling off the port of Quaroom. You know it?"

I could hear him nod. Who had not heard of Quaroom, the city whose gold mines had no bottom and whose people knew no peace?

"One revolution after another happens there, you know. The average life expectancy between coups is only seven months, and that figure hasn't changed in a century. Yet there never seems a shortage of those who would be King.

"As happens so often, a revolt broke out. This one was nastier than most- not just a few simple poisonings and slit throats but rather a full-scale rebellion. The Captain decided to make port so that we could pull out the embassy staff and a few gold-traders and their families. Usually the citizens of the Island of Whales are not molested anywhere they may travel- after all, our arm is long and the Fire brooks no argument. But it looked like utter chaos had broken out this time, and chaos breeds, shall we say, unconsidered actions."

I shifted uncomfortably. Telling this was not easy, even all these years later. "We arrived too late. The heads of our countrymen, and those from many other lands as well, sat on poles around the harbor. They had been perceived as rich, and that was enough excuse for them to be killed. Even the children.

"Now, my friend Matt, I want you to think on something. I didn't know a soul that had been killed personally. Nor did I have any personal grudge against the people of Quaroom. Everyone knows they are oppressed and looted by one despot after another. But I wore a uniform, one that stood for the rule of law and civilized behavior. And one that was entrusted not just by my own nation but in effect by many others to enforce that law.

"We were only handful of men against the marauding thousands shaking their fists and taunting us from the shore and the docks. The only thing- the ONLY thing- keeping them from rowing out and overwhelming us by sheer numbers was the fact that we held the Fire. And similarly it was only through the Fire that we were able to strike back."

Beside me, Matt started, as I knew he would. "Come now, what would have happened had we left this unprovoked, criminal act go unavenged? I'll tell you- it would have happened again and again and again. My people work hard, and trade openly and fairly. We tend to prosper. This leads to jealousy and hatred among others, especially those who feel that they are entitled to prosperity without the fairness and openness and hard work. In the end, Matt, force is needed sometimes. None of us like it, or rather none of us who are decent human beings. But there is evil in the human soul as well as good. Sometimes, it must be purged.

"The crowd didn't understand what was happening at first, as we lowered sail and rigged the oars. In truth, the Fire is not used so often that the preparations are well known. I suppose they thought we were going to try and recover the victims' remains, so they armed themselves and massed for a hand-to-hand battle. And gently we rowed up and let fly the Fire into the crowd.

"Matt, I know you killed on your expedition. I haven't been able to read the report yet, but rumors are flying. On that day, however, I personally killed dozens as they fled in terror. And I was barely old enough to shave. You may have seen blood and death, but have you watched people burn, Matt? Have you watched a young girl no older than yourself dance grotesquely among the flames, until she falls still screaming into a burning pool? And smelled the stench of her charred corpse? Breathed the smoke that was once her attractive flesh?"

I paused at the memory. Matt might think it an exaggeration, but I knew it to be the literal truth.

"When it was over, there were still a few heads standing down at one end of the quay. We recovered them as evidence of the crime we had punished, and headed out to sea.

"One of the heads was that of a little girl, Matt. And they had put the head of her teddy bear on a post beside her as some kind of sick joke. From then until now whenever I see a girl with a stuffed toy I remember that moment. And I know that horrid as it was, my actions at that time are even today keeping her safe, because my actions showed that brutality will NOT be tolerated, that there are certain basic human laws that we will not accept or forgive the breaching of. And I know that the message was sent in a language that even the basest of mentalities can understand. In other words, it is those still alive who matter."

There was silence for a bit, then Matt spoke. "For my beloved one, for her safety I have killed."

"And for the safety of those I'll never know, I have killed. To prevent the outrages that would surely have happened had I not."

More silence. Then I spoke again. "Matt, I had qualms too, that first time. What got me through the long nights that followed was that I knew I had obeyed my Captain's orders, as I had sworn to do. I respected him a great deal- he was a very wise man. If it makes it any easier, I'll share a secret with you. Can you keep it?"

"I suppose."

"I shan't tell all, because I have other obligations and oaths to uphold. But in essence you killed on my advice and at my orders. The raid was needful, and it was a success. It prevented much evil. I didn't choose you specifically to go- someone else did that. I do not like the rule that requires all who can to patrol, because there are many among us ill-suited to killing. But you may blame me for the deaths if you wish."

There was only silence after that. Then, my friend began to tremble and weep as if the world were ending. "Matt..." I said consolingly, offering my shoulder.

But the rodent-morph pushed me away, and turned his back, his muscles suddenly iron. "No!" he said, in a part whisper, part growl. "Not you, not now! Not if you were the one..."

His words pierced my soul. I respected Matt. Was I truly a murderer in his eyes? If so, was I kidding myself? His good opinion mattered to me, and the rejection hurt. Badly.

Thomas and I had worked out a way to try and do justice for my friend. The Horse-King had promised me that I could request Matthias's release at any time, and it would be granted and the incident forgotten. He trusted my judgment, and I did in fact know my friend well. But in his current emotional state, clearly this was the safest place for him to be. He was all sharp edges, broken inside. Maybe I could get Father Hough to talk some sense to my fellow author. I made a mental note to send the priest word of what had happened right away, before turning in for the night. Matt seemed to respect him a lot...

Quietly I called Roscoe, and returned to my chamber to toss and turn the darkness away. Sometimes, my memories are not the best of soporofics.

Matthias stared at the wall, unseeing blackness that it was. It was like a vortex that threatened to swallow him up. He wished that he could plunge headlong into it. The walls were sealed against him. Some magical ward that he could not break through was in place, he'd already tried. While he could touch the rocks, his power immediately vaporized the moment he did so. A simple spell surely, but an effective one nonetheless. Of course, it might mean that somebody in this place knew of his power, and knew it's exact nature. Then again, it could be a common spell used on mages to prevent them from escaping. He wished that it could take his power from him permanently, but there was nothing that could do that. It was a part of him more inextricably than his love of writing was. Nothing was closer to being his soul than the Sondeck. That baneful power had caused him to be who he was. It was by that that he had been made and lived. Everything else was just a delusion in his sick brain.

Phil thought he understood. All of his words had only infuriated him further. He got comfort out of knowing that he was following orders? What a pathetic excuse! That was his reason for leaving the Sondeckis. That day had been painful, but the choice had been clear and long since overdue. It had been the beginning of that nine month stretch on the road laying his trails, false one after false one. He didn't want them finding him, as he knew they would search. It had been almost six years since he left, and he'd never seen another with the Sondeck, and certainly nobody from his past. That wasn't completely true. He had seen Habakkuk before, but it was certainly true as well that the kangaroo did not remember seeing him. Still, he had thought he'd escaped the Sondeckis. Perhaps, but the Sondeck had been carried with him, and it had struck, and brought itself back out to laugh at him. Even now it must be giggling with delight at Charles's predicament. It had revealed itself, and made sure that his life would be a Hell. How could he properly love Lady Kimberly if his own hands were caked in the blood of innocents? How could he be the one to care for her when his hands had ended many a happy and productive marriage?

He would not take orders to kill again. Not from the likes of anybody who thought they knew what was better for the people than the people themselves! There they were sitting up in their stuffy palaces and amongst their jewel-drenching courts with flatteries affixed to their mouths and they felt that others had to do their killing for them to protect the good of everybody. Did they go out there in the snow and see the forest floor tainted red with the blood of the dead, did they attend the funeral ceremonies for the dead of even their own side? No! They were too busy playing some game with their counselors or laughing it up getting drunk on fine imported wine bought with the money taxed from the people. He could not help but think of the disgusting Lord Loriod, who seemed so perfectly to fit the description. If there was anyone who deserved dying in this court, it was him. He was a monster to the people.

Matthias crumpled to the ground, head in his paws again, his tail bunching up painfully beneath him. Was he so easily turned back to his old ways? Was he so willing to go out and kill others? Phil might be right about one thing, the safety of others was important. But at what cost? Just when did the line get drawn? Just when did everybody stop and realize that there had to be an end to the madness? The patrols killed Lutins, and anybody allied with Nasoj. Because of that, the people at the Keep were protected from the ravaging hordes that had come down six years ago. It seemed almost ironic that the time of his departure from the Sondeckis and the Battle of Three Gates were so close together.

Yet, here he was, never complaining or arguing about the need of the patrols, and he was quite willing to let them go and kill, but he didn't want to look at the battles himself. What kind of hypocrite was he? He was as bad as Loriod. It was only fitting that he be made to serve the people that he had leeched off of for the last five years in a position of protector and killer. After all, there was nothing else that he could do quite so well.

Charles leaned over the pile of straw and vomited, his body aching with the spasms of grief and confusion.

chapter 2

Glancing at the aide who was carrying the stack of books he had collected, he grimaced. If that was all this library had, then things would be much easier for him. Watching the fox who was scurrying about the shelves trying to meet his requests, he chuckled to himself. At least his tax money was good for something. Loriod considered himself lucky to have escaped any careful scrutiny over the past two days. Certainly his actions today would be of no less concern. People did not notice things, they were intrinsically stupid. Besides, what could they do to him? The farms on his lands supplied most of the food for many of the Keepers; the only proper way for them to treat him would be groveling on their knees before him. Of course, most didn't, and that annoyed him to no end. Certain individuals annoyed him further with their constant pestering and irritation. Phil, for example, a commoner and an animal. Loriod choked every time he was forced to call the bunny-rabbit "Your Highness".

Today he would lance one of the many boils on his soul.

"This is the last of them," Fox Cutter said as he brought the leather bound tome with yellowed pages inside to him. Loriod negligently stacked the book on top of the five already in the arms of the strong aide. His aide was a donkey, and had been loyal to his husband before he had died six years ago. Now his loyalty had transferred to the new lord over the Loriod estate. Loyalty was a hard thing to come by these days, as so many in these lands came up with new ideas. How Duke Thomas had ever decided to tax the nobility he could not imagine. That was a mistake that needed to be corrected. It might take a long time, but the most worthwhile of goals always were the most difficult.

"Thank you," Loriod replied kindly. "I shall return them as soon as my scribes have finished copying them all. Here is the deposit that you asked for them." Loriod passed the pouch of gold crowns over to the Fox. There were fifteen gold crowns in that purse. Expensive certainly, but the librarian was most insistent. After all, who knew when accidents could happen that would destroy precious literature? Loriod did. Fifteen gold crowns was a price he was willing to pay, considering he paid much more in terms of the taxes levied upon him and the other nobles of surrounding lands by Metamor Keep.

"Please, be careful with them!" the earnest Fox called as they turned to leave, his paws inside the money bag already.

"They shall be back with you in a fortnight." Loriod strode out of the library, content with his performance. The carriage was there waiting for him. He had Macaban place the books inside the carriage itself, which Loriod slovenly set himself down in. He leaned out the door, down at his retainer. "I wish to visit the dungeons. Take me to the Castle."

"Yes, my lord." Macaban nodded his head, and climbed up into the driver's seat. Loriod reached into his coat pocket, and pulled out a bundle of towels. Unwrapping them, each towel a bit moister than the last, he found at the center a small stone. It was bright red, with an orange stripe down the middle much like a flame. He set the books in a circle on the floor of the carriage, and placed the stone between them, being careful to dry it off first. The stone settled into place, rolling back and forth between the books as the carriage jostled on the way to the castle. He leaned back in his seat watching the stone; a smile played across his fat lips. This was going to be painful, but it was necessary. Things like this were always necessary. He had purchased the stone years ago, nobody would ever dream of a connection. It would all be just a terrible accident.

He tapped one fat finger against a knee as he watched the buildings pass by his window. Filthy hovels most of them, but that was where many had to live and work. Even in a fortress such as this, it always amazed him that there could be so much dirt around. The closer they got to the castle, the more attractive and clean the buildings became. The Deaf Mule, one of the closest to the Keep itself was probably the nicest of the bunch and most certainly the best run establishment in the Keep itself. He had of course never been there, but Macaban told him that it was a pleasant place with good cheer. Certainly his aide would know of what he spoke in such matters.

Loriod kept his eye on the bright red and orange stone, noticing the way it slowly rolled back and forth between the books. Where it touched the pages cringed away. It was almost as if the books knew themselves what was going to happen to them. Of course that was ridiculous, but it was how it seemed. For a moment he felt a slight tremor of a pause. Perhaps the gods were displeased with his actions and were trying to warn him to stop before it was too late. How could the gods be siding with some rat who didn't even worship them though? Especially when he, Lord Loriod was a noble, appointed by the gods themselves to watch over other people. He was special, and more important than any of the common folk, especially over infidels from foreign lands.

Of course, he too was from a foreign land, and he too had been raised in much the same faith as that rat had. His marriage to the previous Lord Loriod, and moving up north here had changed all that, though. He had never really believed in the Catholic God, and besides, he had seen the power of real gods since coming here. Besides, even among the Catholics, the nobility were anointed by their God just the same as it was everywhere else in the world. Something so universal could only be true. He was more important than everybody of lesser station. His elevation to manhood only confirmed his suspicions that he was destined for far greater things than even his birth would imply. The spirits told him so of course. He would be much more than just a petty Lord out on the manors of Metamor Keep. Yes, they promised him that.

The carriage came to a slow stop, and Macaban came around to the side and opened up the door. "We are here, my lord."

Loriod eased out of the carriage, his massive bulk making the steps of the carriage creak as he lowered himself to the ground. He peered up at the magnificent castle, with its multispired layout and blocky design. It was certainly a sight to behold. The palace was quite unlike any other he had ever seen. It had decorated balustrades, and the promenades were simply breathtaking. The architecture was quite with the times and most fashionable. What was most startling was how unobtrusive the defensive armaments seemed on the castle. Considering how close they were to a war zone, such techniques would for most places be much more stringent. Here however, the magic of the valley somehow managed to let them attain great beauty and a powerful defense at the same time. It was unmatched throughout the world as far as he knew.

Loriod was quite jealous of Metamor. He continually worked at improving his own castle, of course, but somehow there was just SOMETHING missing in his own stronghold. But the Lord just could not quite grasp what it was.

Maybe his castle needed more paintwork...

"Macaban, I want you to wait here with the carriage. I shall return shortly. I have one small errand left to run," Loriod told him sternly.

"Yes, my lord." The donkey climbed back up onto the driver's seat of the carriage. He wondered just what sort of connection his aide felt with the horses who were drawing the carriage. Loriod was glad that he had not been cursed with such a connection, because that would have certainly reduced his status in the order of things, and he would still be a woman.

Striding into the castle, he headed for the basement. It was a quick walk, and he ignored the glances he received from the staff and the other itinerants who lived here. The dungeons were of course, a most disgusting place to be, but he had his task ahead of him. Nothing was going to stop him, not even the gruesome looking jailer Roscoe. Roscoe was truly a hideous sight to behold, but Loriod knew from past experience that the scorpion was starved for company. A smile and a pleasant conversation would make him quite amenable to anything he asked. The insectile creature was shrouded in the darkness, only a few torches lit the office he lived in. The bleached white of his carapace flickered in the feeble illumination.

"Ah, Roscoe, how are you doing this day?"

Roscoe skittered out of his corner at seeing him arrive. "I am well. And you, my lord?" Loriod remembered Roscoe from before the change as he'd often had his husband arrest fellows that he was not particularly fond of. When he had been a she Loriod had enjoyed visiting them later in the dungeon and extracting certain things from them. Roscoe did not know why it was he came, and never asked embarrassing questions. However, that was because he had made sure that Roscoe and he were friends after a fashion. Truth be told, he couldn't stand the sight of the filthy creature, but sacrifices did have to be made. The greater good needed to be served, and if his eyes and nose were made to see and smell things unpleasant for a period of time, so be it. The cave scorpion could always be replaced with a more pleasing dungeon-master when Loriod was in his proper place in the world.

"I'm doing fine, but I was a bit distressed to hear that my friend, Charles Matthias, has been jailed. I would like to get a chance to speak with him."

Roscoe waved his antenna in an uncoordinated manner. For a cave scorpion, he communicated his emotions well. "I thought you told me that you couldn't stand him?"

Loriod then remembered an ill dropped statement that he had once made to the night creeper. The one fortunate thing about Roscoe's change was that it prevented him from leaving the dungeon much, if at all. Thus he never got much of a chance to find out what was going on in the world above aside from what others told him. Almost any lie would work. Loriod did his best to look bashful, his ruddy cheeks burning an even brighter red. "I must admit that I was wrong about him. We got a chance to talk it over, and well, we worked things out between us. May I please talk with him?"

Roscoe reached for the keys and began heading towards the stairs. "Certainly, follow me please."

Loriod followed the insect down into the abysmal darkness and tomblike dungeons. The guards posted saw Roscoe and stood aside and as he moved on down the dank hallway. Off in the distance the sound of water dripping on cold stone could be heard. They came to an iron door, and Roscoe turned the keys in the lock and pulled it open. Loriod smiled to the jailer as he stepped into the darkness beyond the aperture. "Thank you, I'll knock when I am finished."

"I shall come for you then." Roscoe replied, shutting the door behind him in the darkness. Loriod peered into the dim cell about him, smelling feces and other unclean things. He put his hand to the door, and with one fleshy finger traced out an intricate pattern on the portal. The path his finger followed glowed in a silent blue nimbus, and then faded.

"I had no idea you knew rune magic." the voice from the end seemed distant, almost mocking.

Loriod smiled to himself. There were many things this stupid rat didn't know about him. "I must admit, I had no idea that you could perform the Longfugos technique. It seems there is a lot we didn't know."

The rat gasped for breath. Suddenly he saw the dark outline of Matthias creeping closer. The eyes reflected the dim torchlight, and he could see that their was a wild fear in them. It was as he had hoped. Matthias was a member of the Sondeckis. His suspicions confirmed, he was glad that he had taken the chance with the pyrock in his carriage. Now, he truly had what he wanted. The wheel of Destiny had advanced another notch. "How did you know that?"

"Well, you see, I grew up near the Southlands. My uncle was one of the Sondeckis in our area. The family considered him an outcast, but I always had a fondness for him. He told me many things- even though he was not supposed to- and even showed me a few of the moves and powers. When you sliced through that air spell of Posti's, I recognized it as the Longfugos technique. Nothing else could have pushed your force through the air to rip the spell apart. Oh I admit I don't know much about the Sondeckis, but I know enough."

Matthias's voice was subdued. "So I guess you are going to reveal me then?"

Loriod chuckled. "If I wanted to do that, I could have told Duke Thomas just what you were when he asked me if I knew anything. But there was more potential in lies. You see, I know what would happen to you and me if I revealed what I knew."

"And that would be?"

"The Sondeckis would find out, and kill the both of us, and everyone we might have told. If they had to, even the Sondecki of the white would come and see to it that nothing of this place was left standing. As one, they are quite effective. If a large number of them came here, I imagine that most of the palace would die in a single night. The mages first, of course. That is standard Sondecki procedure these days. Isn't it?"

"What do you want, Loriod?" Matthias's voice was very bitter and consumed with hatred. Loriod savored it. The spirits had promised him such pleasures. It was always fun to see people squirm beneath his thumb, and the voices had given him the power to do that. Of course, they wanted him to do certain things for them in return, some of which were inconvenient. Perhaps Matthias could do some of the work for him, and give Loriod more time for pleasures? The spirits warned him of course that corrupting Charles would be difficult, but that it could be most rewarding as well. Then Loriod abandoned the idea. Of course not, Charles couldn't be expected to understand right away. Best to start out with small things and get the rat to accept his role. Big things could come later...

"Now, first, you will always address me by title. I am Lord Loriod to you. And you will always end everything you say to me with 'my lord'. Otherwise, I could let a little bit of information leak out. If I put it in the right place, they will only come for you. I don't imagine you want that. But if I put the information in certain other hands, they may come for your precious Kimberly instead. Do I make myself clear?"

Matthias suddenly jumped at him, screaming with rage. His palm slammed into Loriod's chest. Loriod could never have moved fast enough to stop him. However, he didn't need to. He felt nothing from the impact. The spirits had told him true when they had said that the rune would cancel the power of Matthias's Sondeck. Loriod chuckled as the rat stared at his palm, and at the still standing and living noble. "It doesn't work does it? I have protection runes on me. And don't worry, nobody will hear anything we say in here. That rune I placed on the door was a rune of silence. And, it gave me access to your personal aura. Your Sondeck can not harm me anymore. In fact, you cannot kill me period. So I suggest that you start learning to show the proper respect to your superiors. If you ever lay a hand on me, I promise you, the Sondeckis will find out and will come for both you and Kimberly. Now do you understand just what is at stake here?"

The rat-man backed off, his hands trembling, his whole body going vacant. The words that came slowly from his mouth sounded like he was gagging on them. "Yes, my lord." How pleasant it was to hear those words from him. It was about time this filthy rat started showing his naturally born superiors some respect.

"Ah, you do understand. Good, now, I might from time to time be asking of you certain favors. You will fulfill them without question or objection. If I find out that you have failed me, then you and your little friend will be handed over to the Sondeckis. Are you willing to do what I ask?"


"Yes, what?" His voice went stern.

Matthias looked like he wanted to bite his tongue off. Loriod felt a bit of a glow in his groin. "Yes, my lord."

"Very good. Now, to the business at hand. I am going to make sure that all knowledge of the Southlands is lost to the people of Metamor Keep. I am honorable in my dealings, though you may not think so. I will ensure that nobody else ever finds out who you are, unless you wish to tell them yourself, in which case I would be most displeased. Now, there is a matter of our constant dispute. I do not like the fact that you are with the Duke's blessing taking money that rightfully belongs to me and the other nobles."

"You mean for the Writer's Guild?" Matthias seemed a bit surprised by that.

"What did you say?" His tone was dangerous. Loriod was greatly enjoying this, and he wanted to see this little rat squirm some more.

"You mean for the Writer's Guild, my lord?" Matthias repeated, using the "proper" form of address and respect.

Loriod shook his head. "The Writer's Guild brings in almost four times as much money as it spends. No, that is a good investment, and it only means more money for me in the long run. What I am concerned with are these frivolities such as your Gnawer's Meetings. They waste good gold that could be better placed in my pockets. You are the one who organizes and oversees them. I want you to stop them all together. It is a drain on the noble's accounts for no good reason."

Matthias had a startled look on his face. It was obvious that he was having a little bit of trouble understanding this. Of course as a commoner who could expect him to easily grasp new ideas? "I have already spent the money for the next two meetings. I can't change that, my lord."

Hearing the title used without prompting made him smile. The voices had told him that this would be just the beginning. "That is fine then. You may have your last two meetings. If the money is already spent, then it is already spent. No more spending though. Your group may meet two more times, and then it must stop. If anybody else tries to start it up again, you must stop them. Is that clear?"

"Yes, my lord." Charles cast his eyes to the ground, and seemed to back away into the darkness. It was so wonderful to see this prideful rat put back in his place. Of course the Gnawer's Meetings were nothing, though they were an annoyance that should be swept away. Greater things were coming. The spirits had promised him great things

"Now, that is all I really need from you now. If something else comes up, I will tell you. Try not to get yourself killed either. If you die out there on patrol, I will release the information anyway, and your Kimberly will be joining you in your torment in the underworld. Oh, another little annoyance I wish to remedy. I have heard rumors that you call your whore a Lady. I wish for you to stop such pretenses, and call her what she is." Loriod walked back to the door, chuckling to himself. This had gone remarkably well. Matthias had folded almost instantly. A bit disappointing, perhaps, but fulfilling nonetheless.

"You are the only one who will be seeing the underworld!" Matthias spat from the darkness as Loriod began to trace a cancellation rune over the first. The barb about Kimberly had almost made Matthias leap upon him once again. It was quite clear that Kimberly was one of Matthias's weak spots. Loriod made a mental note. Perhaps he could introduce Kimberly to the spirits as well? They seemed to like the idea. However, to do so unobtrusively would be rather difficult.

"What was that you said?" Loriod's finger stopped where it was. The blue nimbus began to fade.

Matthias suddenly shrunk farther back. "Nothing, my lord."

"Good, I would hate to think that one of my subjects would wish me ill." Loriod chuckled, wondering if Matthias would catch the implication.

"What do you mean one of your subjects? I don't live on your lands, my Lord." Matthias was getting good at acting out respect. Perhaps in time it would become real and not faked once Matthias realized how much superior Loriod really was to him. Of course, he doubted that would be anytime soon, considering how self-important Matthias was. All he had to do was to humble him long enough, however, and it would happen. He'd seen many a prideful man become nothing more than a sniveling servant like they all should be when given the proper motivation. Matthias would be no different than the others.

"Oh, did I forget to mention it? I want you to move onto my lands as soon as you possibly can make the arrangements. Of course, this would all take place after you are finished out on patrol, but still, keep it in mind. You will soon be living under my thumb, and I expect obedience from my subjects."

There was a moment of silence from the back of the cell. Finally Matthias's timid voice replied, "I understand, my lord." He wondered if Charles was planning on finding his way around this agreement. The spirits assured him of course that a one such as Matthias would do so. However, there was nothing the rat could do about it. Loriod held everything that the rat cared about in his hands. It was a beautiful arrangement.

"Good." Loriod crossed out the rune, and then banged on the door with his fist. A moment or two passed, and Roscoe returned. Loriod stepped out the door, and was a bit surprised to see that the court rabbit, Phil, was there with Roscoe. "Thank you, Roscoe." he said, before giving Phil a curt nod and passing on down the hallway. Phil did not say anything in return to him, but slipped into Matthias's cell and disappeared from sight. Loriod did not waste time thinking about the two animals, but began talking with Roscoe, getting the jailer into a lively conversation as they made their way back up the hallway towards the daylight. He needed to kill just a little more time, to ensure that the pyrock would get the job done.

Roscoe seemed very interested in the Keep gossip. Loriod told him of some of the recent attacks by the Lutins, and how the crops were growing under the almost-forgotten Sun, and even about the slightly unusual weather that they were having. It was a bit hot for April this year, but according to Saroth, it should pass. But Saroth didn't know what he was talking about, the spirits told him gleefully. Roscoe soaked up every last morsel of it, and Loriod knew that he was playing right into his hands. If Loriod left too soon, then he could be blamed for what happened. It was just a matter of time. His nose of course was begging him to throw caution to the winds, but his mind was stronger than that. This was a very delicate job, and he needed to make sure that it was done properly.

It probably took only fifteen minutes for Macaban to come running in the dungeon with a very scared look on his face. His shirt and pants were covered in soot, and his long ears had been quite singed. He saw Loriod talking with Roscoe and nearly fell to his knees before him. The hoof like hands were held out imploringly. "I apologize most sincerely, my lord."

"What is it? What has happened?" Loriod demanded, making a show of being startled.

"The carriage, my lord. It has caught fire. I could not stop it." Macaban cried out between the pleadings for mercy.

Loriod turned to Roscoe. "I'm sorry but I must go."

"I understand." Roscoe replied solemnly.

"Come, Macaban, we shall see just what your negligence has cost me." Loriod strode from the room imperiously, followed by the ever loyal Macaban who was most truly sorry about the fire.

The pyrock had performed its function. As he reached the courtyard, he saw that it had done its work quite well. The entire carriage was a smoldering ruin. The books were nothing but ashes. The rock itself must have burned itself out. It was a semi-magical rock that would burn if set in dry air. That was why he had kept it wrapped in wet cloths. Otherwise it would have caught fire long ago. Now that it had been burned to ashes along with everything else, it would be just a freak accident. His job was almost complete.

Turning on Macaban, he made a show of being furious. "How could you let this happen! If you were not a family retainer I would give you one lash for every gold piece you have cost me this day! I will be merciful and make it only one lash for every ten gold you have cost me, but nothing less. Now requisition me transport home. You will receive your punishment in due time. I am most displeased with you Macaban. Most displeased!"

Macaban begged his forgiveness and then trotted off to secure another carriage. Loriod did his best to keep his smile on the inside. It was indeed turning out to be a beautiful day.

chapter 3

With morning came serious trouble in the form of a special dispatch.

Dawn and dusk are a real rabbit's most active periods, and even on "normal" days it was not unusual for me to be up and busy early, making up for the lost shuteye with a noontime nap. But with all the old emotion Matthias had stirred in me last night, sleeping late had not been an option anyway. Trying to take productive advantage of the extra time, I had been writing an unlikely story about a fanciful future in which people assumed animal form just to race one another- it had been inspired by own annual exercise against the other fleet-footed denizens of Metamor. Thus it was that I was awake to hear the rider clatter up to the gate, and listen as the mechanism raised the portcullis for the messenger, and then lowered it again behind him. Not surprisingly, someone knocked at my door minutes later. An intelligence chief works very bad hours.

It was something from a spy I had personally helped place in the Enemy's capital. One of my most reliable people, Hester, was literally living a dog's life in the Wizard's own kennel. She reported only rarely, and usually by far more discreet means, as sending an unscheduled message meant considerable risk of exposure to someone in her position. Impatiently I nibbled the scroll open, after assuring myself that both the wax and magical security seals were still firmly in place. Then further awkward efforts with nose and teeth and clumsy forepaws served to spread the tightly rolled paper so that it could be examined in detail.

It made my blood run cold. Our Enemy had long been fond of transformation magic- the condition of the Keepers bore witness to that, certainly. Yet surely there were limits obvious even to our Enemy! Surely there were points beyond which even he would not dare push!

But it seemed there were no such limits at all.

I had been taking up quite a bit of Thomas's time lately, I realized, but there was nothing new in this. Even before Channing had cleared up the old misconceptions about the prophecies of Mad Felix we had tended to often work closely together, and since then the relationship had grown. A quick message was sent via Rupert, and voila! I was invited to break my fast with the "Horse-King" himself.

Neither of our appetites were very good, though. Not after reading what was in Hester's report.

"You're sure of this?" Thomas asked me for the seventh time.

"Hester is one of the best."


I didn't blame the Lord of Metamor- in fact, I wished I didn't have to believe it myself. "We must act, clearly. The threat here is..."

"...incredible." Thomas finished for me. I sniffed vaguely at his coffee, wishing that a cup didn't make me too nervous to function. Together we sat and stewed some more, until finally I felt a need to sum things up.

"If the Enemy can pull this off, it's the end of everything we believe in. The end of everything human and humane. I wonder who would ever craft such an evil amulet, anyway?"

"Jon might know. He is interested in the distant past. Or more likely not. The important thing is, what do we do about it?"

"We destroy it, of course!" I responded promptly.

"Destroy it? When it is unique in the world? Who knows what we might learn? Maybe even how to unlock the Curse of Metamor!"

"It's uniquely evil!" I countered with passion. After all, I had been feral myself for a long period of time- this hit home on a personal level. "Look here, My Lord. It is bad enough that some of us here have gotten the bodies of insects. Imagine how horrid it would have been had they gotten insectile minds instead. That's basically what our Enemy is after, you know. Absolute and total mental control through transformation. It's horrid!"

Thomas shook his head again. "I still am amazed. Think of an army of insect-soldiers, all guaranteed to obey mindlessly your every command. And all armed and armored by Mother Nature. Or by something a bit more unnatural, rather."

"And if Hester has the second part right? That changing one lutin into a partial insect form liberates the power to change thousands of insects into partial lutin form? All mindlessly obeying orders, like a moth attacking a candle flame..."

We both shuddered together. Throw in a few Demon officers to lead them, and such an army would be unstoppable. They would overwhelm Metamor and the lands beyond as surely as a swarm of locusts would inevitably and brainlessly ravish a farmer's field.

"And this old amulet is said to make this possible, as soon as our old friend figures out how," Thomas mused.

"He's no slouch as a magician, you know. Our breakfast menu proves that." I had eaten freshly cut clover, while Thomas consumed seven whole apples. Core included.

The Duke sighed. "Yes, I know. We can't have much time. What do you suggest?"

I hesitated for just a second. "My Lord, in truth it is far easier to destroy such a thing than to capture it. Magical objects this powerful leave an invisible trail once a wizard has handled them. It is like a signature. Trying to get it out would be death."

Thomas sighed. "Yes, I know. But it is a shame to lose any knowledge- even this kind of knowledge."

"I agree. But it is probably inevitable. So let us approach this from two directions. Instruct the Keep mages to come up with a way to kill this magical amulet, to nullify the power within it. They've done this sort of work before, have they not?"

"Yes, of course."

"Then they will know that any package we deliver must be small and inconspicuous and undetectable by magical wards. I will work on how to get the goods into our Enemy's tower."

"Agreed, 'Hare of White'. Sounds like this might be a job for the 'Rat of Might' we keep expecting to have turn up. Any signs of our super-rodent collaborator yet?"

"No," I sighed wistfully. "Truly, he would be a natural for a job like this one, if the 'Might' part is as literal as the terms 'Horse-King' and 'Hare' turned out to be. But no one at Metamor has seen any of our rats do anything extraordinary. Save heading the Writer's Guild..."

We both grinned at that, trying to picture the quiet Matthias as a battlefield Goliath. Then the smiles faded from out faces as we recalled EXACTLY what we had each seen yesterday, and put our observations into a whole new context...

Finally I spoke. "My heavens! Could he have been under our noses this whole time?"

Immediately, I excused myself from the Ducal table and dashed down to the dungeon. Could our wild speculation be true? Could quiet 'Mattrat' be the one of whom Felix spoke, whose presence was vital both to our ultimate victory over the Enemy and the birth of a new Age? He didn't even know of the Prophecy, I was fairly sure. Nor had he ever shown much interest in the affairs of State or in warfare. Quite the opposite in fact! Yet, it just felt so right somehow. And a rat-person able to function as a full-morph like I knew Matthias could was absolutely ideal for the mission facing us. It was hard enough to keep non-sentient rats out of buildings, after all. Much less the "Rat of Might"...

Roscoe told me Charles had a visitor, so I did not approach the cell closely. Even a prisoner is entitled to privacy, after all. So I made much-appreciated small talk with Roscoe until, of all people foul Loriod emerged. Loriod? Here? Raising his several chins in a futile attempt to sneer at my common birth, he passed in silence. Which was just as well for the both of us- in the days before the Enemy had seen to it that I never had trouble burrowing my way into a problem Loriod and I would have long since run afoul of one another. As it was, his continual snubbing of me and backhanded, oafish comments about my lapine instincts had ignited a fire within me that I was forced for now to simply live with. Conflict comes hard to me these days, when it gets away from abstract strategy and into the rough and tumble. And Loriod, knowing this, made free use of the license it seemed to give him. But some day, I had sworn to get even. Thomas was so goodhearted he could not see it, but Loriod was much too vulgar a being to have the Ducal ear. Roscoe didn't really like him either, I could tell, but he showed no disrespect and continued to make small talk with the fat man as he let me once again into MattRat's cell.

"Matthias," I said into the darkness. "It's me again. And something important has come up. If you trust me, tell me everything. All of it. And in return, I will tell you a tale that I think will come as a bit of a shock. I know that it did to Thomas and I..."

There was a derisive snort from the blackness. "If I trust you?"

I felt the sting deeply. "Charles," I hoped he took my use of his first name as a sign of goodwill, "I've worked alongside you for years now."

Matthias laughed. It was a lost laugh, one that I did not relish hearing. "Yes we have worked alongside each other. And all that time you were also acting as the liaison between the spies and Thomas."

I took a quick breath. "How did you know? I never told you that."

"That's right, you didn't tell me that. It wasn't too hard to find out though, all those missed meetings and abrupt departures when Kee brought you notices kind of clued me in on something. Oh, and you smelled like the dungeon often enough to give me pause. Yet you never noticed that little rat following you to a couple of those private meetings with Thomas, the ones not even Bob was privy to." Matthias's voice was accusing now. Somehow, I had completely lost control of this conversation. "You didn't trust me with that information. Of course you've told everybody practically everything else, but there was always some trust that you never confided in me. And you expect me to tell you everything? What kind of idiot do you take me for?"

I looked down at the ground, scuffling my hindpaws on the smooth brick. I could see his paws laying out in front of him on the ground. His right hand was tracing a figure on the stone. I stared at it a moment; it seemed he was tracing out two different figures over and over again. What could that mean? "I'm sorry. Matters of State are things that I cannot divulge easily. I'm sure you can understand that if I just went around telling everybody what I do here that my life would be even in more danger than it is now."

"Oh yes, Your Highness." Charles voice was mocking, but at the same time, there was a hint of self-displeasure in it. I wondered just what he was hiding that was so painful, that would drive him to lash out at his friends like this. Something was deeply wrong here. More now than even the night before.

Charles leaned forward, his black outline becoming distinct in the darkness. "I suppose it never occurred to you that if I reveal my secrets my own life may become forfeit? If certain people knew what I was and where I was, then they would hunt me down and capture me; most likely they would kill me too. If I even said the name of the people involved, I would be certain of death. Of course, I am near it anyway."

Leaning forward a bit, I tried my best to sound comforting. It is hard to be a leader and a friend, to go to someone and genuinely be his comrade when at the same time I needed something in return. I wondered if he could tell that, could know that my angst and dilemma were genuine. Truly, I would far rather share beers with my friends at the Mule than play at being Crown Prince and Master of Spies. But this work needed to be done by SOMEONE, had to be performed so that people like the Enemy could be held in check. Even if it cost me my soul.

Why couldn't Charles see this?

I had hoped that I could at least get him talking civilly, but he seemed more determined to berate me verbally than anything else. Still it seemed as if he were trying to tell me something more. What was he doing with his hands? "Matt, I had no idea that it was this way. I honestly did not know. But I guarantee that anything you tell me will not leave this room. I will tell nobody else."

"Not even the Duke?"

I did not even hesitate. "Matt, the world is a crazy place just now. But you are my friend."

"Would you so easily betray your friend?" Matthias asked in a quiet voice.

This was too much. "Matt, you haven't even given me a chance yet. Have I ever betrayed you? Have you ever seen me betray anyone? I have made hard decisions, yes. I have made mistakes and gotten people killed, even friends. But have I betrayed anyone? Ever?" There was an element of anger in my voice now, a bit of the old steel that had held the reins of a thousand ships. It had been long absent, that old assertiveness and confidence, that whipcrack in my speech that came from a very hard place in my heart. I had not thought it would ever return. But I do not like to be falsely accused about matters of honor. Not in the least.

Matthias sat a while in the darkness, tapping the floor with one claw, and tracing out those two figures with the other. It seemed one was an intricate 'S' and the other seemed to be an 'X' of sorts. It was obvious that aside from his tracing, he was thinking, deliberating his answer. I waited, not saying another word till finally I could hear the rat stirring again. His voice was slow, and the words measured. "I will tell you some, not all, but some. If you agree to my terms, then I will tell you what I feel I can safely say."

I nodded. "That sounds fair."

"Well, first the words do not leave this room. I think you already said that you would honor that, and I think you are telling the truth. Secondly, I want your agreement that you will never send me again on a mission where I will have to kill somebody; I can understand if something comes up and I have to take a life to protect my own. That is not what I am worried about. What I am saying is that you will never send me to kill again. I am not ready to do it, not yet. Thirdly, in the event that I can no longer requisition the funding for such things as our Gnawer's Support Group meetings, I want you to take up the slack for me. Fourthly, I want your promise that Lady Kimberly will have her dress repaired out of the Duke's own account and that she will be taken care of in the event I am unable to. Fifthly, I will only tell you as much as I feel safe to tell, you will not pry any further until I feel it is safe to reveal it. Lastly, I don't want you asking any questions about any of these conditions. Do you agree?"

I felt his eyes upon me as I listened to each of his requirements. Some were easier to fulfill than others, and a few were a bit mystifying, but if I wanted any of the truth, what choice did I have but to go along? "I agree. And I promise to make sure that Kimberly is taken care of."

Alongside me Matthias shuffled a bit, some tremendous weight seeming to lift itself from his shoulders. And somehow I knew that at least part of that weight was going to be shifted to me. Absently, I took a mouthful of straw and settled down to chew and listen as intently as I knew how.

"Have you ever been to the Southlands, Phil?"

"No, I have never had the pleasure."

"Well, the Southlands and the Midlands are vastly different. Here, everybody is good at many things. Oh there are those who specialize in one thing, such as the blacksmith or the carpenters, but even they are multitalented. Well in the Southlands, that is not how it is. Everybody is a specialist in some way. Even in magic, they specialize. While people like Magus are good at many forms of magic, the mages in the Southlands are really only trained in one form. There are Firemasters, Weathermongers, Princes of Air, Runecasters, and many others that each have their own element. There are advantages to this and disadvantages. Magus could certainly go down there and defeat most of the specialists by his versatility. Yet, a true master of their chosen element could easily defeat even him. It is a good thing that there are so few of the black and even fewer of the white.

"I am a mage as well. Not any kind that you would know. My magic works through my body. I can control forces and power. That is why I was able to snap that stick you gave me in half. It was why I was able to bite through petrified wood. It was why I could bend iron with my hand. I don't think there is a single person in this Keep that could defeat me in a test of strength if I really wanted to win.

"Now, most of those with this power cannot do what I can do. We have rankings based on color. There are the initiates who are said to be of the yellow. Then there is the green, the blue, the red, the purple, then finally the black, and then the white. I was just recently admitted as a member of the black before I left my homeland to come here. I am a weak black, and you don't want to know what a white could do. Be thankful that there is only one white ever at a time for any conclave of mages."

"I think I've heard something of this. Not much though, Tenomides never really had any dealings with the Southlands," I admitted. From what Charles had already said, it sounded quite likely that he was indeed the "Rat of Might".

"I doubt even you would have heard much. These are closely guarded secrets. The color scheme is generally known about the lands, but everyone assumes that the black are the leaders. In a way we are, but the white is the one that leads, not the black. Nobody ever sees the white, except those of the black.

"Also, with increased power comes increased responsibility. The sept I was a part of trained as spies and assassins. We were there to keep the Southlands in check against tyrannical rulers, and against the forces of evil. I never really thought about it, just followed orders, killing those I was told to kill, and ignoring the faces of the children that would be decorated with tears at the funerals. I attended the funeral of every man I killed. I don't know why, I just had to. I am a practicing Catholic as you know. The Catholic church is much stronger in the Southlands, but even they are subject to the same edicts. I have killed corrupt priests before. Do you have any idea how painful that is to do? To kill the priests of God?"

Chewing in near silence, I nodded. Killing is always hard, and all the harder when you must kill one you admire. I once battled to the death a mutinous Captain of Whales on the high seas, a Navy hero gone mad. Somehow he had persuaded his crew that he was on a special mission and tried to blackmail his homeland by threatening to release the secret of the Fire. Inscrutable fate had arranged for our ships to meet, and the battle had been long and arduous. But in the end I triumphed, and in the process burned alive the madman who had once been my hero and teacher.

For Matthias to kill a priest must have been much like that. Could he even guess how closely I could empathize? Why did he seem so fixed on shutting out those who would help him?

"Well, it wasn't till I got to the black that I realized that something was dreadfully wrong. The black are trained in regicide. That is right, we are trained to kill Kings. I only killed one, and that was enough. While I killed him I realized that I was killing an innocent man. The orders came from the white, a man who only then did I realize to be a corrupt person. He perverted the intention of my noble calling, and turned it into a tool of political power. I looked at the faces of the children, and I could see the pain in their eyes, the wounds that could never heal. The knowledge that I had just killed a very loving father, and a good man was more than I could handle. I vowed then never to kill again. I swore never to let myself be put in a position where I would have to take orders to kill others. I realized what I had let myself become and it disgusts me. I can't do it. I just will not kill a person that I don't know because I am ordered to by somebody who thinks they know what is best for everyone else."

"Charles....." I said into the gloom, then started over. "My friend, I swear to you that Metamor, and for that matter The Island of Whales, does not engage in that sort of filthy business. Do not forget, the previous Master of Fire, my closest friend, was assassinated by poison most foul. We do not imperiously hand down orders here. When a job MUST be done, we explain why. And find someone who believes in and understands the reasons, or we leave the job undone."

The rat sighed. "I WANT to believe that things are different here, but..."

Then he continued. "That is as much as I feel I can safely say. Believe me, the truth is far worse. So when I say I don't want to kill again, believe me, I mean it." Charles's voice disappeared back into the silence of the dungeons. Somewhere off in the distance there was a startled shout, but it was not in the dungeons but above ground. It disappeared after a moment. I looked back out the door way, and I saw Roscoe coming down the steps again.

"What is it?" I called out.

"Nothing much, just a little display of temper," Roscoe replied in a tired tone of voice, and then continued on.

I turned back to the figure in the darkness, and sighed understandingly. There was so much corruption and evil in the way people were governed. And so many kingdoms were as evil as he described. It was no wonder he would not accept his past, could not. His story was much worse than I had imagined. Though I had doubted at first that he had seen anything quite so scarring as watching the flesh burn off of a human being, I was not so sure now.

Matthias finally spoke again. When I turned back around, I saw that he was no longer tracing out the rune with his fingers. "Now, you promised me your own tale. Some tale that would shock me. Well, go ahead. Shock me."

I took a deep breath, staring at his face, and wondering where to begin. But as a writer I was becoming very familiar with the appropriate place. So I started from the beginning...

Matthias seemed preoccupied, but sat quietly as I told the story of Mad Felix of Lee, and the prophecies he left behind that have since guided the destiny of the world. Given that Matthias was well if narrowly educated, I now figured he was probably familiar with the tale. My friend knew that sometimes I have to tell a yarn in my own way, however, and he was patient with my long-winded ways.

"There are only a few verses left to the Prophecies, you know, that have not already come to pass. Back at the Academy, I learned them thusly:"

"In times to come
The world in sum
Will be cut up into twain

With Evil's heart
Confined in part
Through warrior's blood and pain

On sea and land
True men will stand
So that evil cannot gain

A wizard's fate
On triple gate
a leader shall appear

With hair of white
and fat old knight
He shall know no fear

His Army shall
Be magical
Hated by all near

In fort they stand
In fight long plan'd
At sea they strike shrewd blows

The world is held
Through body's weld
Where knowledge freely flows

But vict'ry comes
From math and sums
Of scholars in strange clothes

So it shall happen by land and sea
An alliance will end this history

Fleets and forts shall pay red blood for time
While thinkers create device sublime

The horse-king controls the newfound slave
With it the world, which it to him gave

Great storms announce the end of the age
And new prophet shall see new page"

"So what does this prove?" Matt asked me. "And what does it mean here and now?" I could tell by the way he had listened unmoved to the recitation that he had indeed heard all this before.

"Our friend Channing says the translation is wrong."

Matt started at that. Finally, I had gotten his attention. "Wrong? How?"

"Just four words. But very important ones. First of all, what was recorded as 'Hair of white' should read 'Hare of white'. H-A-R-E, not H-A-I-R."

The rodent sat still, mouth agape. The inference was obvious. Thomas's equine status and my rabbity nature clicked right into place.

"And the part that reads 'Fat Old Knight', my friend. The other change is there. You see, it should read 'Rat of Might'."

You could have cut the silence with a knife.

Charles leaned back into the darkness after a moment. Thomas had fainted dead away upon hearing this news, so I wondered what could possibly be going through Matt's mind. I certainly hoped that he could understand the ramifications of what this meant. If our suspicions were correct, then Matthias was the third member of the triumvirate that would fulfill the prophecy. It was the kind of news that people who didn't know better fantasized about hearing as they went about their mundane tasks. Little did they know of the sacrifices and pain such a destiny implied...

But I did, and now I knew Matt was well aware of the costs as well.

When Charles finally spoke, his words were drawn out, as if he was giving great consideration to them. "This prophecy of Mad Felix, are you sure the translations are correct?"

"This is Channing we are talking about here." That statement should end all doubt to one who knew the goose as well as us. And so it did.

"Why was it mistranslated?"

"Who knows the workings of Destiny?" It was as good a reply as any.

The rat chewed on that a bit. Charles leaned forward again, chuckling slightly. "Destiny? Are you sure that it doesn't have something to do with the language itself? Words in languages can have multiple meanings in other languages. The words used for 'rat of might' could quite possibly imply something else altogether when looked at in the original language from a different perspective. In fact, the whole prophecy could mean something different than you have interpreted. I'm sure you've seen translations of the ancient histories. No two are exactly the same, because the translator interpreted a certain word or phrase one way, and another interpreted it a different way."

I understood MattRat's need to deny the truth of the situation- it merely mirrored my own. "So, are you saying Channing's interpretation could be WRONG?"

Charles chuckled, and I could almost detect a bit of humor in it this time. "Hardly. Prophecy is a riddle in words, and in meanings. You have to take all of it as a whole, all the words, or at least all the ones that aren't blatant mistakes as you claim 'fat old knight' was. I don't put much stock in prophecies though, because they never turn out as we expect them too.

"I remember one time a prophet of little import from my homeland declared that the Baron would lose his most valuable treasure. Well, he locked all of his wealth in his castle and hired many armed guards to protect it from any thieves that might steal it. He became very paranoid, and had all visitors to the castle searched thoroughly."

I blinked as Charles stopped talking. This story sounded much like an apocryphal tale from my own homeland. "So what happened to this Baron?"

"Well, he was a bit of a lecherous man, but nobody knew exactly how far he went with it. A prostitute whom he refused to pay because she didn't please him sliced off his manhood. Of course, she didn't know that he was the Baron at the time. So you see my friend, prophecies don't necessarily come about the way that we think they will."

Rocking my ears repeatedly at what had proved to be a far more humorous version of an old tale, I enjoyed the moment's respite from a too-serious talk. It was good that the mood had been lifted some. However, I was not really sure what he thought of Felix's prophecy. He had almost completely dismissed it as irrelevant, and I knew in my heart that it was vitally important. "But, what about the prophecy I have told you? Felix's prophecies have in the past come true in ways that seem obvious. The Prophecy has defined the grand sweep of history, and predicted it perfectly."

"They are only obvious because we can see the prophecy and what really happened. Had we not known what would transpire, we would be just as confused as the people living at the time the prophecies were fulfilled."

I sucked in my breath; it was obvious that on this point I was not going to convince Charles. Not if he didn't want to be convinced. I had seen men placed in difficult spots try to deny reality before, and was willing to grant my friend a little time to get used to a very new idea. "Even so, Channing's translation is true to the original source. I don't think there was a secondary meaning to it, though you might want to talk with Chan to ease your mind at some point. But the 'Rat of Might' is pretty unambiguous. I think it is you, Charles. Both the Duke and I think it is you."

Charles sat in silence for another moment. He then sighed apprehensively. "If this is genuine prophecy..."

"It is."

"If this is genuine prophecy," Charles repeated, "then I have no choice but to believe you."

His sudden acceptance was a bit surprising. It seemed as if he had been hiding from it and trying to avoid the labeling, but now he just took it as calmly as he might listen to a person telling him about their day. "So, will you help us? Will you help us in this struggle of prophecy?"

Charles stood up finally. He paced back and forth, his claws clicking into the stonework. "If I am indeed this 'Rat of Might' how would I know it? How can you be so sure that it is me?"

I stared him in the face, cocking my head to one side. "What kind of coincidence would it take, given what you have shared, for it NOT to be you?"

Charles stared at me dumbfounded for a moment, and then laughed. After the tale of woe and despair, this seemed completely out of place. Until I detected the underlying hysteria. "Why not me indeed! I have been trained since my youth for fighting, for espionage, for stealth. It is perfect that I became a rat when I came here. Why not me indeed?"

"Charles?" I was truly concerned now.

"Phil, do you realize that I have tried my hardest for the last six years in my life to avoid who I once was? Do you really think that I will go back to that so easily? Will I be convinced that I have to abandon the life I am leading now because some madman from Lee wrote about what is probably a rat on paper that has long since molded over?"

I shrugged. "Do you think I am fond of my own role in all of this? You don't have to turn your whole existence topsy-turvy, Charles. I still spend a great deal of time with the Writer's Guild. Nobody says you have to quit being who and what you are." He was stalling. Or it seemed so to me at least. Trying to deny that which was clearly true.

The rodent walked over to the cell door and stared out the small barred opening into the guttering torchlight outside. His paws were held behind his back just above the base of his tail. I remained where I was, motionless, silent, and watching every move he made. His voice was soft, distant. "What do you need me to do?"

I kept my sigh to myself. "There is urgent work for a rat of your talents, work that falls well within the limitations you have specified, and which can be done with honor. I need you to take a package to the Giantdowns and place it upon an amulet that is in Nasoj's care. This amulet is more dangerous to us than you can imagine. It is an ancient artifact that will allow Nasoj to turn insects into partial lutins, all under his control. He hasn't discovered how to use the amulet yet, but the Duke and I feel it is necessary to stop this thing as soon as possible. I think when you learn more, you will agree. You would have to travel by boat. I can fill you in on more only if you will help us."

My friend continued staring into the torchlight. His face was impassive, and the little black eyes that gave away so little blinked several times in thought. He squeezed his paws tightly together, the claws digging into the skin, but drawing no blood. Finally they came unclasped and fell to his sides. Charles turned back around and I knew from his scent that he had already accepted.

"I am to destroy this amulet, and nothing more?"

"Destroy it, or if that doesn't work get it out of the Enemy's possession. He cannot be allowed to have such power. It would ruin all that is decent in the world."

Charles nodded. "Funny that he himself made us into the instruments of the prophecy that threatens to destroy him."

"I thought you said that nobody could know the interpretation of a prophecy before the events occur?"

"I did. No one ever said a writer has to be consistent." Charles then took another deep breath, and finally looked earnestly into my eyes. "Phil, I will do it."

Matthias's word was a sacred bond, I knew, as was my own. This was all the assurance I needed. "You don't know how happy I am to hear that Charles. It will take me a few days to get the arrangements set up. In the meantime, you'll want to talk with some of my Long Patrol folks, and catch up on what conditions are like out in the world these days."

"That is fine. And the Gnawer's Meeting is in a few days. I hope to attend."

"You can plan on it. And I'll be there myself. Thank you in the name of two lands for offering your help."

Charles nodded, putting one finger to the door, and he began tracing out those symbols again. The same two symbols he had before. I couldn't help but notice them, and it was very clear from the look on his face that he wanted me to notice them. "Phil, please don't forget what I have said, and what I have shown you."

I chewed a whisker as I nodded emphatically. "I won't." What could those symbols mean? He certainly didn't want me to say anything about them here, otherwise he would have told me himself. The ways of magic are a mystery to me- there is not a bit of latent talent for such things in me. But I knew others who did have such talents. In spades.

Another matter struck me and I felt the fool for having almost forgotten it. "Charles, if you would like I can have you released from this cell. You do not need to stay in here any longer. Truly, I believe the madness has left you." It was an exaggeration, as I still recalled the hysteria in his laugh. But I could imagine him doing no harm.

"No. I must stay." Charles began tracing out the figures again, glancing at them once with his own eyes, and then looked back to me. "It would be in the best interests of us all if I stayed."

Now I knew something was terribly wrong. My friend was in deep trouble.

"All right then, Matt, I will leave you here if that is your wish. But I will see to it that you are made as comfortable as possible."

"Thanks. Some wine would really be nice, and some cheese as well." Matthias patted me on the shoulder, and then returned to the dark corner where he sat most of the time. "Be careful, Phil."

The tone in the voice was definitely a warning. I was already plenty alert- it comes naturally to we rabbits.

"I will", I assured him, knocking on the door. Presently Roscoe came along, and I gave him very unusual instructions to provide the prisoner with candles, writing materials, chew sticks from my personal store, and wine and cheese and anything else upon his request. He managed to hold his body in a posture that communicated "astounded", so I explained myself.

"Not all is as it seems, Roscoe. That is often the case with me, as you have seen before. Keep this quiet- no one else is to know."

Bemused, the cave-thing nodded his whole body. "Roscoe can be trusted, Matt. He does far more than most know for Metamor, here in the darkness." I took one last look at Matthias as he crouched silently in the blackness. Then the night creeper had the door open for me and I stepped back in to the hallway and from there journeyed back into the real world.

Smoke was still rising from the ruins of the carriage in front of the dungeon's entrance. In the bright sunlight I detected the acrid odor long before my eyes adjusted. The tickling sensation in my nostrils was familiar from long experience. Something had burned, and burned very hot.

It was natural, really, that I investigated the charred ruins of Loriod's carriage. Fire was once my only profession, after all, and remained what I considered my true calling. There were still curls of smoke rising towards the huge blue dome of the skies, and I had to be careful of hot embers as I sniffed and scuttled about among the ashes. My fur was an absolute wreck by the time I was done. But it was worth it. I have seen many things burn in my time, both naturally and with a little encouragement. And after talking with bystanders and those quick-witted souls who had vainly rushed with buckets to put out the inexplicable blaze, it became quite obvious to me that we had an arsonist among us.

chapter 4

Lord Loriod sat on the divan with his legs up. One fat hand languidly plucked a grape from the cornucopia to his right. Macaban, the raised welts where the whip had landed on his back showing clearly through his fur, was kneeling before him. The air was cool here, and comfortable, and Loriod basked in the luxury. The donkey-servant was reading aloud the monetary report. Taxes were good and the recent but necessary expenses were more than compensated for. He touched the grape to his lips, and savored the rich aroma. This was real fruit, not those apples that were so common in this area. Only a real noble could afford to eat grapes. Farmers were unable to raise them on these cold northern slopes. This far North the little delicacies were exceedingly rare and expensive- nobody but Loriod touched these grapes.

"And then there is the matter of replacing the stock that you used in town. I noticed that one the precious stones in your aquarium is missing, and that will take a few gold to replace as well, My Lord." Macaban's voice was droning on, but this caught his ear.

Loriod leaned over from the divan, grabbed Macaban by his donkey ears, and hauled him up. "What did you say?"

Macaban averted his eyes. "Sir, I said that one of the precious stones from your aquarium is missing, and that it will cost a few gold to replace, My Lord."

Loriod nodded, shifting his weight around. This was trouble- he had not expected anybody to notice the stone's absence. Macaban was a good retainer, and it was certainly nice to have an observant servant. However, it could also be inconvenient. Inconvenient for two reasons. One, that Macaban had noticed that it was precious was bad enough in itself. Secondly, that it was the pyrock that he was talking about. "Stand still, Macaban, do not move." Loriod put his finger to the donkey's chest, and suddenly the blue nimbus began to follow the path of his finger. When he took his finger back, Macaban stared blankly at him.

"Sir, what happened?" Macaban asked in a confused expression.

"Nothing, loyal Macaban, just continue with your report." Loriod leaned back on his divan, and plucked another luscious purple grape. The "forget" rune didn't really erase any memories. It just blocked certain areas of the mind away. Anybody with the counterrune could find the truth out. The voices seemed angry with his flagrant use of what they had taught him. Loriod sucked on the pleasant juices. Let them be angry; they needed him more than he needed them.

My fur was still reeking of smoke when I went to see Thomas. We had urgent planning to do, and serious matters to discuss. There was no time to bathe. A single look at the state of my usually neat coat and the set of my ears sufficed to make my needs clear. We were alone in Thomas's office in minutes.

"What is it, Phil?"

First I gave him the good news about our "Rat of Might", carefully not telling any more than I had promised. Matthias had accepted his place and the mission, I explained, and matters were proceeding accordingly. The equine Lord was quite gladdened by the news, and reported that work on a neutralizing package for the amulet was showing promise. "I think it will be ready in three days," he concluded.

"That's great!" I replied. Then I told him about my suspicions regarding Loriod's coach. "Who would do such a thing. My Lord?"

Thomas half-nickered. "Almost anyone, Your Highness. Loriod is not the most popular person in Metamor, you know."

I rocked my ears. What an understatement!

Thomas continued. "I regret that we have to continue dealing with Loriod- I am not so blind to his excesses as some folks seem to think. But there are certain things we cannot change all at once, not while we are living in a war zone that could boil over at any time."

I nodded solemnly. Lord Thomas and I had upturned many a mug together talking about the divine rights of nobility and what it all meant. Even my father, Tenomides, had expressed support for reform in government, for more respect of the wishes of the common folk. Together, we three cherished many notions of a new tomorrow. But dealing with our Enemy continually frustrated our efforts at reform. If the Enemy triumphed, all was lost. Now was not quite the time to take chances or undertake experiments...

"So, Loriod is an essential part of our economy. I can appreciate this," I said. "But can we really tolerate one with ideas as old as his?"

"We have no choice." Thomas said bluntly. "Unless we can all learn to eat stone. For without Loriod, Metamor would soon starve."

I nodded, making my ears flop. " I know. It's just..."

"..just that Loriod insults you, treats you as an animal and a social inferior?" Thomas was looking at me with his most piercing gaze. "You are not alone, Phil. Do you not think I see the greed in his pig-eyes when he looks upon my throne, hear the hesitation as the words 'My Lord' hang up in his throat? I KNOW that he is an ass, but he is a common sort of ass. He has committed no crimes. Or at least no crimes that three out of four nobles in the world today haven't committed as well. And as long as he does not, I dare not interfere with how he treats his subjects. The world is not always as we wish it to be, Phil. I would have assumed you had learned that lesson by now."

I sadly shook my head. Thomas was right, of course, But it didn't make it any easier to accept the boorish ignorant oaf. I explained that I would make arrangements to ship MattRat out in four day's time, and excused myself to get to work. I had set a lot of tasks for myself. Including tracing down magical symbols, investigating an arson, determining the connection between Loriod and the Rat of Might, and, just as an aside, planning the most difficult and important spy endeavor of my life.

The first step had to be writing a dispatch to the Fleet. A fast courier vessel was always stationed in Menth for the quickest possible communications between the two allied lands. I summoned the Captain personally, giving no explanations, and sent a well-mounted rider off with my note. Then, Rupert appeared from nowhere as was his habit. It was amazing how talented a bodyguard he was- most of the time I literally did not know he was about. But when he was needed, he appeared in a flash. Tenomides had provided him tutoring on rabbit care, and given him strict instructions that I was to be the best-kept rabbit in all the world. And then he had given me the only Royal command I had ever personally received- to defer to Rupert in these matters. And so it was that I had to submit to bathing and brushing, whether time allowed or not. It WAS pleasant to get the soot out of my fur, but it took much of the afternoon. And then I had to eat- SO much time a rabbit has to spend eating! Before I knew it the evening had passed, and with a full belly, soft clean fur and little rest the night before the result was inevitable. I was in my nice secure cage and unconscious before I really realized that I just didn't have time for such things.

The sound of the footsteps brought his eyes to the door once again. The feeble light streaming in through the bars was as always depressing. It seemed many things were depressing these days. Who knew what Phil was doing, but had he taken the hints that he had been given, then things should be set in motion to bring about his own redemption. Matters were moving too quickly it seemed of late, and the threats and countercharges passed back and forth in the last few days made his head spin from the possibilities.

So it was that when the door opened to admit Lady Kimberly that he was sufficiently estranged from reality to be overwhelmed at her appearance. She cried at the sight of him dirtied and sullied in the dark dank corner of the cell. He launched fully into her arms as she did his. They stayed there standing and weeping with bitter melancholy at the turn of events for quite some time. Charles felt as if his heart were going to rise up into his throat and then roll forth from his tongue into her lap.

He hated having to invite her into his dark abode, but it was what had to be done. She sat down on the straw in the dark and he offered her some of the cheese that they had given him only an hour earlier. She took a bite, but otherwise did not say anything immediately. He wished that she would just say something so that he might hear her voice and exult in the ecstasy of the one perfect sound in all the world.

It was not as if she hadn't visited before. On the contrary she had visited him quite regularly. However, each time before he had been sinking in the quagmire of misery of his own worthlessness as a creature created by God. This time, he was swept up in the machinations of forces that were rushing fast to a collision and threatened to take down everything he cared about in a maelstrom of destruction. It was the forces of Nasoj and of Loriod fighting against the Keepers and himself.

So to have such support from one who could be harmed and killed by both was a sight beyond elation and into the realms of spiritual exultation and sanctification. Lady Kimberly was at these moments the embodiment of everything pure and noble and holy. She was a true saint, and in his mind there was no doubt about it. He gripped her close, wishing once more to hear her angelic voice upon his ears, to know that she loved him and that he loved her. What did the Sondeckis matter if he could not have her? What would his vow against killing do him if she were dead?

"You are so beautiful. I am enchanted by you. I love you, my Lady. You are the most blessed thing on this Earth." His voice shimmered in the radiance that he felt building within himself. He would die for her without hesitation. Never before in his life had such feelings or emotions come over him as did his love for her. Ever since he had met her his heart had been pulled and tugged and drawn into union with her own. There was no regret about any of it. Nothing about her he would ever want to change.

She sniffled a bit, her whiskers twitching and tickling his face. "I love you too, Charles." She whispered as her head settled against his chest. He pulled her close, his heart beating faster. He wished for this moment to last forever.

Lady Kimberly pulled her head back up a little and she asked a question he wished she hadn't asked. "Are you ready to tell me yet?" Each time she had come she had asked why he had done that. Each time he had told her that he was not yet ready. Goodness she was a persistent woman!

Charles lowered his eyes, taking them away from hers. He hated to admit his shame, and found it hard to speak when pressed. Confessing to Phil had been a trial, but Lady Kimberly was somebody he loved, and he did not want to hurt her in any way. "I do not think so. But I have been thinking about it. I just am not ready to speak of it."

Kimberly nodded, and then rested her head back in his arms and on his chest. Charles enfolded her in his arms and paws, and rocked her gently back and forth. He had a mission to perform, and it might very well cost him his life. How could he protect her then? He shuddered at the thoughts, and turned his mind back to just enjoying her company for now. Those things could be dealt with later. Now he wished to be happy.

The next morning came lapine early, as my rabbit body sensed the predawn twilight and woke me to feed at the safest possible time. Rupert was up as well, and without being asked he brought me some delicious hay and a bountifruit stick to gnaw on. While I dined I considered the strange events of the past couple days, and tried over and over to piece them together. Runes. Arson. Amulets. Matthias dodging around saying certain things aloud...

A couple pieces wanted to try and come together right away. Loriod had visited the strangely-acting Charles, and his coach had been deliberately burned outside. Was it a coincidence? Most likely, but it looked as good a place to start as any. Reluctantly, I looked at my writing materials and the special quill that had been fashioned by a fan so that I could hold it in my mouth. I had been inspired recently to write about a fanciful actor-rabbit with an anthropoid companion named after my own Rupert, but just hadn't found the time. And at the current rate I probably never would.

It was a silly idea, anyway. Would never work out...

The only physical evidence I had of anything was the burned-out coach. Honoring my request, a guard had been mounted over the charred wreckage and it had not been disturbed. As soon as dawn broke, I hunted up an old comrade, Wessex. He and I had hoisted many pints at the Mule together, though on the surface we had little in common. But both of bore one important burden together, one so subtle that others did not even recognize it. My friend wore his boyhood body, fixed at age twelve. He had been a very attractive child, tow headed and blue-eyed. Trapped by the Curse in such a body, Wessex had a terrible time being taken seriously, just as I did. Even other Keepers have difficulty dealing with people so cute as us. The mage was a specialist in foreign magics, and I had worked with him very frequently over the years in my intelligence role. His work was anything BUT cute, dealing as it often did with matters of great darkness. Yet several times I had been forced to use the Royal standing he lacked to lend credence to Wessex’s warnings and cautions. So, I felt comfortable approaching him even before dawn. As I expected, he was still up poring over his scrolls.

"Don't you EVER sleep?" I asked when the mage answered his door.

"Phil!" he said, mischievous blue eyes sparkling despite the hour. "Well met! And I might ask what you are doing up so early, as well."

"It came with the nose job," I replied. "What's your excuse?"

"You know that I study the magic of Nasoj. Many spells must be cast in the hours of darkness."

"Really? I never knew that."

"It's true. I was just going to bed. But I suspect you have other plans?"

"Indeed. I have a fire I would like you to investigate..."

Once we arrived on the scene, it took my friend all of two minutes to tell me that the coach fire had been caused by magic. "Simple magic, Phil," he had explained. "Probably a pyrock or a salamander." After my friend explained the two items in a bit more detail, I thanked the mage, and encouraged him not to talk about this to anyone. With a youthful grin, Wessex agreed. He would never admit it to anyone, but he LOVED playing at spies...

And with that, I was off to Loriod's castle.

Rupert took me in a wagon, of course. He wouldn't dream of letting me travel cross-country in a land potentially full of predators. Nor did I spurn the ride- fear runs deep in lapines and is often fully justified. The journey was brief, though, and I had Rupert circle the minor fort once so that I could give it the old look-see.

The place was terribly over-ornamented, with hideously dysfunctional "gingerbread" work blocking important lanes of fire and threatening the integrity of the basic defensive layout. Gallons of bright paint had been expended to turn what had once been a nice natural gray look into a gaudy gewgaw. One of the towers was even candy-striped! I shook my head in disgust- no professional military man would have tolerated the degrading of the defense, and no being of any refinement at all would have considered the paintwork tasteful. The result was testament to childish tastes and an overweening but misplaced drive to impress. Small egos with small minds created monstrosities like this, in my opinion. And Rupert agreed. He could no longer speak since taking on gorillahood, but his disdain for the architecture was quite clear.

The portcullis was up, and we rolled right in. Immediately I was struck by how the peasants seemed so dull and lifeless compared to those at neighboring Metamor. They were clearly poorer, and showed far more respect to me than I was comfortable with. In fact, the level of bowing and scraping and "Your Highness"es was almost unnerving. Even Rupert was bowed to as we made our way through the little courtyard and to Loriod's home.

Mind you, I had no real plan or idea of what I might accomplish in visiting. But the guilty flee where no man pursueth, or so MattRat's holy book claims. And that particular book does contain some excellent advice. So boldly I showed myself at Loriod's very door, and waited while servants received orders to let me in and conduct me into His Lordship's presence.

As we walked the hallways, I saw that the interior was no better decorated than the outside had been. Overly ornate statues and tapestries were everywhere, making me wonder how Loriod had contrived to pay for it all. And, all of it was junk. My people are traders first and foremost, and even those of us who do not ourselves buy and sell learn at our parent's knee how to judge that which has real value. Loriod had filled his halls with expensive garbage, and proudly put his ignorance on display for all to see. It was sad, in a way. But it fit the man so well...

Loriod kept me cooling my heels for half an hour before receiving me, though no one left the ante-room before I was called in. My guess was that the wait was a calculated petty insult, an impression that was reinforced when he offered me neither refreshment nor chair. "Your Highness," he said without enthusiasm. "What a pleasant surprise."

"Lord Loriod," I replied formally, inclining my head just the proper amount. "How are you today?"

"Quite well, considering the unseemly heat. What can I do for you today?"

I looked him over carefully, then rather insultingly sat rabbit-style on the floor. It was more comfortable for me than any normal chair anyway,. "I just wished to see that all was well after your narrow escape yesterday."


"Your coach, My Lord. Had it burst into flames like that while in motion you might have been seriously hurt, maybe even killed."

"Oh! Yes, of course! My coach..."

I widened my eyes a bit. This made me look even more rabbity than usual, I knew. And, to someone as prejudiced as Loriod, less intelligent. If he wanted to see me as an animal, by heavens I would let him look upon an animal..."It was terrible, my Lord!" I said, deliberately taking on a childlike aspect to my speech. "The flames must have been awfully intense- everything was already burned up when I came out just a few minutes later. Gosh, it must have been hot!"

"It surely was, Phil," Loriod replied in a condescending manner. "Did you see how the gold fittings were melted to nothing?"

They had been brass, covered with gold foil. But I was willing to bet Loriod had paid full gold price. "Uh-huh! And the whole bottom was gone!"

"That's right. It was quite a fire, wasn't it?"

If Loriod wasn't the weakest minded man in a position of authority I'd ever met, he was very close to it. And I had met many. "It must have been neat when they tried to put it out! I hear twenty men were throwing water, but it kept burning."

The noble shook his head. "The peasants probably didn't coordinate their efforts properly. You know how it is when there are no leaders about."

I nodded vacantly, then hopped over to Loriod's bookshelf. He stood over me for a moment proudly explaining how much he had paid for the works there, but I found none of the grimoires I had hoped to detect. Loriod was going on and on about what a deal he'd gotten, but he'd paid three times the going rate. And never even read the impressive-looking tomes, judging by the lack of wear on them. Without waiting for him to finish, I eagerly scuttled on all fours over to the aquarium. "Wow! I didn't know you had fish!"

It was paydirt, I knew immediately, though in fact I had selected the objective simply to stay in character and gain time until I could figure out what next to snoop. Sometimes you just have to get lucky, I guess. Loriod stiffened and stood silent for a guilty moment, then decided I was genuinely no threat.

"Yes, Your Highness. They are called 'goldfish'. A distressed trader offered them to me at a great discount years ago while they were quite small. They truly are made of gold, you know. And they grow to considerable size. When the creatures die I will make a large profit."

I let my jaw fall open, and made "wow" noises as I studied the glass fishouse intently. But I could find no trace of what was being hidden. Yet, I was quite sure that I was onto something important.

But Loriod bumblingly countered my ploy. "Your Highness, it so happens that I have some fresh carrots in store, the very first of the season. Would you accept some?"

It would have been out of character for me to refuse. So I let him feed me carrots and tell me of the great bargains he had made in furnishing his castle while sometimes fondly scratching my ears. He had always hated and resented me, but as soon as I conformed to his prejudice of what I should be like things went along just fine. True, we hardly knew each other. Our social interaction to date had been a series of mutual snubs. Loriod's own pride had kept contact between us to the bare minimum. But surely he knew I was brighter than this...

Or does everyone assume bunnies are dumb?

What a revolting thought!

I kept up the silly rabbit act all the way out the front door, and licked my lips theatrically at the two cases of succulent orange roots Loriod insisted on sending along as gifts. But my playacting availed me no more information.

That was OK, though. I had the aquarium cold. As well as two cases of fresh carrots...

My next stop, since Loriod had so graciously provided lunch, was at Pascal's laboratory. She was busy, as usual, with a pot full of boiling dye.

How could bubbling liquid possibly be polka-dotted? But it was...

Usually it was pretty hard to get Pascal's attention, but this time I caught her at break-time. She was in her latex lab-skin, and lounging easily as the mix she was supervising did its stuff. "Phil!" she greeted me. "And Rupert! Ready to give up that plain-jane fur, either of you?"

I rocked my ears, but didn't even hint that I was tired of white. In a way I had grown rather fond of it, which was just as well since it seemed unlikely I would ever be rid of it. Rupert offered the 'pine no encouragement either. "Actually, I am here because I need a favor, Pascal."

She rolled her eyes. "Isn't that what everyone comes for?"

"It's a favor for Thomas."

Her face became serious at the code phrase. I often had need to consult with her professionally. "Close the door, would you Rupert?" He did, and Pascal continued. "Is it about the package? All's well here."

"No, Thomas is coordinating that end directly for me. I need something else entirely."

"Which would be"

"Do I recall correctly that you study magical runes as a hobby?"

"That was a month ago! I'm into foreign coinage now."

Pascal went through hobbies like some folks went through socks. But she never forgot what she learned. "I'm not surprised. Someday I'll show you the coins I've saved from my own travels. Some are magical. I even have a few Zilvaras."

"That would be great!"

"No problem. If I'd known you were interested, I would have let you see them before. But what I need help with is magical runes."

"Okey-Dokey! I guess you know how to draw them safely?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, if you draw a rune it can become active if you're not careful. What you do is leave the first stroke off, and indicate with dots where it should be. That way, it's harmless."

"Ah. I know so little about this," I apologized to the 'pine.

"No problem," she replied, and I drew the two signs Matthias had repeatedly shown me, with the first stroke dotted as instructed."

"Hmmm..." Pascal chirred, studying the marks intently. "The 'S' is a basic silence spell, of a variety employed mostly by our Enemy. But the 'X' is something else entirely."

"What do you mean?" I inquired.

"It is in the style of the Enemy too. But the 'X' is always a blocking spell, varied to fit specifically the magic it is intended to counter. This is totally unlike any 'X' I have ever seen. It counters an unknown magic. Mind if I make a copy?"

I thought about Charles's need for secrecy. "Sorry, my many-pointed friend. But this is one you are better off forgetting ever existed."

"That bad?" she asked.

"Yes, that bad!" I replied simply.

Pascal grimaced slightly, but her bubbly demeanor returned quickly. "Well, if you want to know more, consult Wessex. I borrowed the books on runes from him."

"Really? I didn't know he studied rune magic." And absent mindedly I thanked her, said good-bye and left

All sorts of things were spinning in my head. But above all a clue I had failed to notice before. My ears are very, very good. It is often impossible for me to avoid eavesdropping, in fact. But I had not heard a single word from either Loriod or Matthias during their conversation. And I certainly should have.

What was Loriod doing using magic runes in the dungeon? And if he had, it was a good bet that he had used the "X" as well as the "S". Further, it was also very likely that it was Matthias's unique brand of magic that was being canceled, thus Pascal's lack of familiarity with the symbol. How would Loriod come into the possession of such specialized knowledge? And how did it all tie into the carriage fire, or the aquarium?

I sighed. My head hurt, and it was getting on towards dinner time. Maybe some research at the library would help me out. Besides, I hadn't seen Fox in a long time; Wessex would have to wait till later. A friendly face might help my headache.

chapter 5

Loriod stood at the balcony that his husband had flung himself off of over six years ago. Watching the rabbit leave, his mind replayed their conversation. He'd never known that Phil was such an idiot, and at the same time so easily manipulated. The bunny HAD asked a few unsettling questions. But what could such a silly animal do to hurt him?

The voices could think of many things. They seemed quite irate with his lack of concern for the obstreperous grass-eater's inquiries. Loriod had not revealed anything, nor did he see why it would matter anyway. "Because Phil knows more than he is letting on!" was of course the voice's urgent response.

However, the voices were not the ones destined for greatness. They were just messengers. The spirits would always be on his side. And Phil was clearly a harmless fool- in fact, stroking his ears had proven rather pleasant...

Stepping back away from the balcony that had marked his elevation to the Lordship of this realm, he turned to see Macaban waiting on bended knee in the hall. The donkey's ears flopped down along the sides of his muzzle as he leaned forward respectfully.

"What is it, my faithful servant?" Loriod asked, sensing a bit of urgency in the creature's posture.

"My Lord, I have just heard that word has been sent from His Highness Prince Phil's office to the Holy See in Ellcaran. I thought you might like to know. Rumor has it that the subject of the dispatch is the rat Matthias, My Lord." Macaban did not look up, but kept his head bowed in submission.

Loriod blinked. "That is where that Catholic priest lives, Ellcaran. What is his name?"

"Father Hough, My Lord." Macaban supplied.

"Ah yes, Father Hough." Loriod looked back out the wide doors to the balcony, and at the forests and sprawling countryside upon the raised plateau. The voices seemed quiet eager to hear this information, and at the behest of their whispers, a sudden plan began to form in his mind. "Notify me what comes of this. I am taking quite an interest in this priest."

"Yes, My Lord."

"Good! Fetch me my censor, then. I wish to commune with the power again as the voices have taught me." He had no worries about talking to Macaban about these things- the donkey was conditioned to follow certain commands without thinking about them. This was another aspect of the wonderful magic the voices had revealed to him. Sitting back and inhaling the fragrant fumes emanating from his Demon-engraved censor, Loriod had a pleasant thought. When all was in its proper place, Phil might make a most amusing pet. Just before the fumes took him away entirely, he idly pictured Phil in a gilded cage just to the right of his throne, where his ears could be scratched easily whenever Loriod wished. Of course, Phil's voice would have to be dealt with so that he could no longer ask annoying questions, but once that was taken care of , well...

The voice seemed quite enthralled at the prospect, and more surprisingly still they approved of Loriod's plan, already underway, to make this a reality. In fact, Loriod thought dimly as his mind degenerated into blissful mush, they seemed rather shocked that they hadn't thought of it themselves.

Father Hough walked along the row of pews, seeing a few errant peasants in smocks and their cleanest rags kneeling in them. Their lips murmured prayers, and their heads were bowed down in submission. Hough waited a few moments to see if he was needed by any, yet none noticed his noiseless presence. Offering quiet prayers for their own well-being, he returned to his office behind the confessional and beyond the statues and pillars. The figures of religious icons stood staring down compassionately from ornate stained glass windows set along either wall of the cathedral. The light from the sun came cascading down in scintillating colors across the believers. It was a breathtaking sight, one that Hough never tired of.

His office was drab by comparison. Shelves of books transcribed by many pens from the ancient works lined his walls. He had a Bible laid out before him on the desk, written in the mother tongue of the church, and turned to the Psalms. He always liked to peruse them each afternoon, for they were the greatest poetry he had ever seen. They were the spirit of God's people, their cries of joy, anguish, and suffering. They were remarks of adulation and comfort. He traced one finger gently over the pages, his eyes scanning the text.

A clatter of hooves in the courtyard startled him only for a moment. He turned away from the window over looking the gardens and back to his studying. A few moments later, a sharp report sounded at his door. Somebody was knocking. "Who is it?" He called out, his eyes still gazing longingly at the text.

"It is Lothar. A letter just arrived for you, Father." The young voice called out through the wood.

"Come in, my son." Lothar was ten years his junior, but already very willing to serve. He was sometimes impetuous, and often times too eager in his ways. Yet he would grow into loving service in time. Hough had already decided to appoint him his successor to the Ellcaran diocese if his request for a church to be established in Metamor was ever granted.

So it came as no surprise to him to see that the letter had been dispatched from Metamor Keep. "Is it from the Keepers, Father?"

Hough smiled warmly. "Yes, it is from our friends to the north, my son."

"Father, may I ask a question."

"Of course you may."

"Is it true what they say about the Keepers? Are they really animals and children?" Lothar was obviously quite disturbed by the very notion of such a transformative change. Hough was not completely comfortable with it himself, but if that was where God led him, he would go willingly.

"And some have changed genders as well," Hough pointed out. "All of them have changed bodies in some way. It is a terrible evil that was cast upon them. Yet it is much the same as a person who looses an arm in battle. They can still serve the Lord faithfully. It would be wrong for us not to serve them as well as our regular parishioners."

Lothar nodded grimly. "I know, Father. I just fear for you. I'm afraid that you will go there and become trapped and unable to escape before you are changed as well."

Hough patted the young priest-in-training upon his shoulder. "You have nothing to fear, my son. If that is the Lord's will, then that is His will." He had not told Lothar of his request, because he did not want the young man worrying for him. There was nothing to worry about. Well, there was one thing. Hough did not want to become a woman. The thought horrified him, because it would disqualify him from serving the Lord as a priest as he so dearly loved doing.

Lothar sighed and stepped back to let Hough read the letter. Hough scanned it for a few moments and then set it down. He cupped his chin in one hand and peered blankly out past the dark robed man towards the shelves of books. Lothar glanced at him, wondering what could bring such a demeanor over his teacher. Hough peered up, and spoke softly. "Prepare me a coach. I will be leaving for Metamor Keep this evening."

Lothar did not question his instructions, but glumly stepped out the door and was gone. Hough grimaced, staring down at the letter again. "Charles, what have you gotten yourself into this time?" Pushing the letter aside, he returned to reading the Psalms, hoping to find ones appropriate.

It was going on toward evening when I arrived at the library. This was one of my favorite places in all of Metamor after all, a place where I often escaped the pressures of day to day life. And I considered Fox Cutter, the head librarian, to be a good friend as well. He couldn't help his scent, but otherwise he was one of the most non-threatening individuals in all of Metamor. And since the Battle of the Three Gates, non-threatening had become a priority for me...

It was my intention to research everything I could on Charles' s magic and the Southlands in general. But it was not to be. Fox was clearly heartbroken as he explained.

"Accidents happen, I know, even to books. But still, some of these were just irreplaceable..."

"And you say that you have nothing more on the subject? What happened?"

"It was terrible. The books were burned." Shaking his head sadly, the fox-morph continued. "Books should NEVER be burned. They don't hurt anyone."

I sympathized. Once I had been forced to send a whole cargo ship full of books to the bottom of the sea. They were being smuggled into a kingdom that considered knowledge a luxury to be taxed at a high rate. The Fleet had been hired because the higher the tariffs went, the more smuggling went on. The King figured that we could turn a profit for him, even though our prices were high. But instead the smugglers just grew more ingenious and richer, while I had been forced to destroy that which I loved most. It's a crazy world, sometimes. "What a tragedy!" I replied, sincerely.

"Yes," he replied mournfully. "But still, it could have been worse. Loriod or Macaban might have been killed, you know. Or even some of the horses."

"Loriod?" I spluttered. Everywhere I went his name seemed to be coming up. "What does Loriod have to do with this?"

Fox seemed taken aback. "Why, the books were in his carriage, of course."

"In his carriage?" Sometimes I am not too quick on the uptake, I fear.

"Yes, of course!" the fox-man explained. "I didn't want to let him take them out of the building at all, but he claimed it was his right as a noble. So I demanded a ridiculous deposit, which he seemed almost eager to pay."

"How big a deposit are we talking about here?"

"Fifteen pieces of gold."

I winced. That was a large sum of money, more than enough to meet my living expenses for a year. Or more likely two. "Has he been back to complain about losing his gold?"

"No. He didn't even return in person to tell me the books were lost. Macaban told me."

"Hmm. " And with that I thanked Fox and left. Without the books that might have told me so much of what I needed to know, but with answers to disturbing questions beginning to take form in my little harebrain...

Questions that I would never have thought to ask, even just a week before.

The next couple days went by in a blur. Thomas and I had a friendly dinner that evening, deliberately speaking only of the happy times we profoundly hoped would be part of our futures. And that night I slept soundly, dreaming dreams of a time when I no longer had to be "His Highness", but could go back to being plain old Phil...

In the morning, I woke up feral. That happens to me sometimes, even today. It is part of why I sleep in a cage. Fortunately I am pretty happy as a bunny rabbit. In fact, I am considerably happier that way than I am as a part-human most of the time. I get LOTS of attention from worried healers and friends who remember all too well that I once spent years mentally as a true lapine. And as the hours go by they become more and more frantic, waving familiar things under my short muzzle in the hope that they will spark a memory. But it never works- I return when the bunny in me is ready to let me return, and no sooner. Which, this time, was a day and a night.

Why Thomas or Tenomides puts me in charge of anything important, I'll never know. Can you imagine anything more ridiculous than your Crown Prince or Chief of Intelligence spending a whole day in the middle of a crisis trying to dig a hole in the bottom of his cage? But it's exactly what I did, mostly...

Not that everyone minds. Rupert tells me I am MUCH easier to get along with as a bunny.

I don't get too embarrassed any more, though. I've been living with this reality far too long and far too intensely for that. Instead, I welcomed the relaxing effect that feral living always seems to have on me, and caught up on what I had missed over breakfast. No sense complaining about that which you cannot change, after all.

Not that I missed much, this time at least. Commander Ptomamus of His Majesty's Courier Vessel 'Arrow' had gotten in late last night, and as ordered had reported immediately. He was put up in quarters befitting his rank, and even now was probably cooling his heels and beginning to worry lest my "illness" delay him so long that the Curse would take effect.

Hmm. I would have to take that possibility into account when writing future orders. No need to have someone go through the Change just because I was playing hare for a few days...

When he finally did formally report to me it was very awkward for us both. This was my first return to matters military in many years. Immediately I discovered that I cannot physically acknowledge a salute anymore, as my forelimbs are just not that flexible. And protocol required that he hold his "brace" until I returned it. "At ease," I finally tried to bark in my old pattern, but now my voice came out not as a harsh rasp but much rather like a child's.

The Commander couldn't help but stare, of course. Everyone does, but the effect must be even greater on a young man who studied from textbooks that featured my battles prominently. The stories about me told of a humane but hard bitten man, I knew, one who was remorseless in the pursuit of victory because he so hated the idea of defeat. To see me as I now was, small and helpless and cute, with a chew toy left over from my feral episode yesterday still sitting in my sleeping cage must have been quite a mental adjustment. It was not easy for me, either. Truly, I was not the same man I had once been. I kept trying to explain that to Tenomides, even if I did still hate losing. But somehow he just couldn't see...

But Ptomamus could. Shock was written all over his features for just a few seconds, until he regained control of himself.

"Captain," I began- anyone in command of a vessel is politely addressed as "Captain" even if their substantive rank is different- "Do you have rats in your ship?"

He thought I'd lost my mind, it was quite clear. "No, Sir."

This was too much. "Son, I have commanded 13 vessels. And inspected I don't know how many hundreds. Each and every one has had rats."

The officer gulped. His mind was telling him one thing about me, from his school days and the endless Fleet bull sessions. But his eyes were telling him something else entirely. "Sir. Truly, I do not have rats in my ship. I paid a great deal of money out of my own pocket for a magical talisman."

I considered. It WAS possible, after all. "Why on Earth would you do that?"

"Rats make me ill, Sir. I sneeze when I am around them."

At this, I rocked my ears. What irony! Then, I explained to the Commander what ear-rocking was, and why I did it. Before long, Ptomamus opened up and we were talking easily about events familiar to us both, him through his studies and me from actually having been there. Which was much easier and more effective than the officer-reporting thing, even if the memories were mostly unpleasant for me. It was something I filed away for future reference. Professional military officers just have a hard time reporting to a pure-white blue-eyed bunny rabbit that physically cannot return a salute...

I turned the topic away from the famous course-change that made my career, though in truth I still did not understand why people thought so highly of it, to more current topics. "Commander, have you held your posting long?"

"Three years, sir. Before that I was First Officer of the 'Iros'."

That impressed me. The captured flagship of my enemy of old was still kept in service for reasons of prestige, I knew. And to be First Officer was a posting of honor. Clearly, Ptomamus was a man with a future in the Fleet, and well-regarded. "Have you undertaken any important diplomatic missions?"

"Only routine courier missions, I am afraid, Sir."

Hmm. This bespoke well of him too. A lesser man might have tried to embroider what I knew to be a humdrum job. "Any intelligence missions?"

At that he stiffened. "Sir... Is this room secure?"

That was all the answer I needed. If he had been trusted for such before by his superiors officers, that was enough for me. "Yes, but I don't need to know details. I have such a mission for you. One of great importance."

He waited for orders, silent.

"I have an agent I need put ashore in downtown Arabarb. Right in the heart of Enemy territory. As cover, I am prepared to openly order you to convey a message under a flag of truce to our Enemy requesting the re-opening of diplomatic relations." This was a safe ruse- Whales would welcome the return of peace and trade, on the off-chance the offer was taken seriously. Which was unlikely in any event. "This agent is more valuable to Whales and Metamor than half the Fleet, Commander. Your ship and crew are to be considered entirely expendable at need."

I studied the officer as the words sank in. He blanched just a bit, which was exactly the reaction I sought. It meant he really understood, emotionally as well as intellectually, what might be required of him.

"The agent will not communicate with you in any way about the nature of his mission. You simply do not need to know. But you must extract him at all costs. At ALL costs, Captain."

This time he simply nodded. Which was good. I must have been sounding at least a little like an Admiral again. "Local conditions will dictate the means used to establish a rendezvous. You must work that out with the agent in question. But he is to be granted extreme discretion in his methods. Matthias is... an unusual person."

"Sir, may I ask a question?"

"Consider informality between us to be a standing order until revoked, son. I want you to ask questions to your heart's content."

"Yes, sir. I am just wondering something. What has all this to do with the presence of rats aboard my ship?"

I rocked my ears again. "Everything. I am afraid I am about to cost you a considerable sum of money. Your anti-rat talisman will have to be canceled out, and a population of rats deliberately brought aboard."

"But... Why?"

"Haven't been around the Keep very long, have you? Our agent is a full-morph Norway rat." I would keep Matthias's form shifting ability secret if I could. Keeping secrets was becoming a habit. "And he's going to travel in your pocket and your cabin, as needed, to maintain secrecy. He will get ashore by running down one of your mooring lines, like any other rat. I only hope one of the healers here can take care of your sneezing..."

chapter 6

Days had passed. Matthias sat upon the hay, touching it with one paw, picking pieces out, and dropping them again. The darkness had become such a close companion that the only way he could gauge the passage of time was by the coming of the food. He had eaten well the past few days; he greatly appreciated Phil's orders to give him wine, cheese, and candles - though rats found darkness less oppressive than most so he'd never felt the need to light them - as well as bread. If things went well, he would be released tomorrow and he could once again take one last meal at the Deaf Mule before journeying out on this mission.

Yet, everything was contingent on Phil's return to sanity.

The news had arrived only the past hour with his meal. Roscoe had scuttled down the hallway and opened up the door - the wine was impossible to get into the room otherwise, and Phil had assured the cave scorpion that Charles would not try to escape. Matthias had not seen Phil in what must have been two days - though in this perpetual night, he could never be sure; the last time he'd seen the rabbit had been when he had revealed the prophecy to him. So naturally he inquired about the Prince's whereabouts. The answer was unexpected, and most unsettling.

"He's gone feral again. They've got him locked up in his cage," Roscoe had replied, his voice melancholy. The drooping antennae and loosely-curled tail revealed his sincere worry. It was clear that Roscoe genuinely cared.

Matt was a bit shaken at the news himself. How humbling an experience it would be to spend ones days digging at the bottom of a cage in animalistic ignorance. Charles had seen Phil in those states before, and they were never pretty. The rat-morph grimaced at the thought of seeing such a talented scribe and good friend locked up, his mind a thing lost within inner chambers of his soul. Despite the revelations that had been passed unto him, Charles could not find it in himself to have anything but pity for the poor man.

The possibility of losing one's mind to instinct was a very disturbing and frightening one. Ever since Nasoj's curse had descended upon Metamor Keep six - seven this fall - years ago, it had been a potential reality for many of the Keepers. Each had their own opportunity to lose their identity, their personality and their very being to that of a created and corrupted alter-ego. Charles had seen each of them, and observed how the animal half of their nature modified and changed their personality. Yet Phil was an extreme - the rabbit in him did not just alter; it dominated.

Charles shuddered at the prospects such a fate presented. What if his own mind became just that of a rat? Would he scurry about on all fours, staying flush to the walls, chewing on any scrap of food he could find, and hiding from the view of all men? Matthias put his paws to his face, feeling the contours and the fur and the teeth. His two front teeth, ever growing, ever needing to chew on something were the most prominent aspect of his rodential nature. They demanded his time and his attention. How small a step could it be between this and demanding his mind and personality as well?

Matthias stood up from the hay and wiped the errant strands from his legs and tail. Over five years ago he had come to the Keep to escape his past. He had taken the responsibility for his change upon himself, and planned to accept whatever it had decided for him. Yet the possibility that he might no longer possess any human qualities had never really occurred to him. But it did now. In this cell, and knowing what was happening to Phil, there really was little else to think about.

Phil had been a friend for so many years now that he could hardly remember his time at the Keep before he'd met the rabbit. When he'd started up the Writer's Guild, Phil had been one of the first he'd asked to help. The rabbit always did his best and was dedicated. They all had their own lives, and Phil had his espionage to handle, but they each did give of themselves in so many ways. The responsibility that lay upon those lapine shoulders was heavy, and the things that Phil knew that Charles could only imagine must be staggering. How many plots by Nasoj had been stopped by his carrot-eating friend that they never knew about? What kind of burden did this knowledge imply?

What kind of guilt, at the errors and oversights that anyone in such a position must certainly make?

And then there was the matter of that amulet. Charles was almost certainly the only one who could get in there to destroy it. That much was not to be disputed. Nobody at the Keep realized quite how sneaky he could be. Becoming a rat had only added to existing training and talent. Yet without Phil to guide him and without Phil to get him there, the amulet would remain in Nasoj's possession, and who knew what horrors would descend upon the Keep? The wizard was one of the greatest single evils this world had ever known, and his depravity and intent to rule all was only being stopped by the dedication and self-sacrifice of the Keepers.

Charles paced back and forth, his toe claws clicking on the cold stone floor. He pulled out some of that fragrant bountifruit wood that Phil had brought earlier and began to gnaw upon it. It was hard wood, but it tasted good and it made his teeth feel better. Yet his mind was working faster than his teeth, trying to parse out all sorts of conflicting emotions and concepts. That certain people were evil and had to be stopped was indisputable. That he had made a vow not to kill another under orders was also self-evident. Yet, it seemed like those two worthy goals were now coming against each other.

Taking a deep breath, he continued to gnaw on the wood as he paced. Each time he turned about, he saw his tail out of the corner of his eye. It was dirty, much like the rest of him, and grimy from spending nearly a week in the cell. Yet it was his tail. A part of him. Others at the Keep also had tails, all thanks to Nasoj. Phil was in a cage trying to dig a hole in the bottom because of Nasoj. Where was the justice in that? Could he blame Phil for wanting to do everything he could to stop Nasoj from doing any more harm? Could he possibly blame Phil even if he had killed people in pursuit of this goal?

At one time he might have been able to say yes, but now, it was impossible. Now he could see things more clearly than ever before. Now his own vow made in misery and anguish was being swept up in the reality of the world and of his place within it. If truly he was a part of this prophecy than there would be no way that he could avoid killing forever. Matthias had done a lot of it just the previous week, in fact. Lutins had died about him on all sides as he used the sword to slice their chests and bellies open. It was gruesome work, but was it not better than seeing Lady Kimberly in the clutches of such foul beasts?

Yes, it was. Most definitely, it was better.

Charles paused at the door once more, gazing out through the bars into the dim light. He stared at the torches along the walls, each sputtering and flowing at the errant breeze from above. The light from a torch was contingent upon the wood and the air. Its time was short, and soon it would be snuffed. That is, if a dutiful person did not keep it lit. A lantern would run out of oil, unless a dedicated person kept it well filled with oil. The world was a lot like that, it seemed. Unless people were dutiful and guarded against the times when the wind threatened to blow out the light, they would all be plunged into darkness. Not doing anything to keep the lantern burning brightly was morally the same as trying to blow it out.

Matthias put the stick to his forehead, and closed his eyes tightly. Was killing the same way? If somebody tried to hurt Lady Kimberly, would he not defend her? How could he stand by and watch her be raped and murdered? Because of a vow? If this was the result, it was a foolish vow. But it would not happen. Nothing could keep him from defending her with his life. If she was to die, he would die first trying to prevent it. Why was killing to protect anyone else less worthy?

He turned about, trying to hold it back, but instead threw the stick against the far wall. It shattered upon impact, striking the wall with such force that a small chunk of the stone splintered off as well. Charles stared at it and realized what that portended. The spell taking his power away was on the walls, not in the room itself. He should have realized it before. He had snapped the bountifruit wood in half, but he could not hurt the walls by touching them. The rat-morph chuckled to himself at the irony. He could have escaped this cell at any time by attacking the walls without touching them. But the idea had never occurred to him.

Yet what would escape accomplish? He would be thrown into a different cell, and the spells would be recast upon the entire room. No, it was better to wait for Phil to come and get him. If he ever recovered- that he might not was an ever-present possibility of which no one ever spoke. Charles walked over to the far wall, and felt along the floor searching for fragments of his chewing material. He needed to chew, just like Phil seemed to need to dig when feral. The parallels were not comforting. For some reason, here and now though, his mind seemed determined to face many ugly truths. They were no longer things that he could shunt to the back of his awareness. They were ever present realities. And in facing them, he could never leave this cell unchanged deep inside.

Phil faced many ugly truths, day after day after day. He could hardly help doing so, Matthias thought, being locked in a cage to sleep at night and handling things in his mouth continually. Not to mention being humiliated in a thousand other petty and not so petty ways. And on top of all this, he still carried much of the burden of the fight against the one he always called, in the tradition of his homeland, simply "The Enemy".

The Prince, as he had now become in addition to all his other responsibilities, would be in his cage, with Rupert closely watching over him. The news certainly would be all around the Keep by now, and many friends would try to visit him to snap him out of his withdrawal. Charles himself had done that on one occasion, and had proven as unsuccessful as the rest. The sight had disturbed Matthias greatly, and visited him more than once in his nightmares. But no matter how unfair it seemed, no matter how much anxiety it caused everyone, it was something that had to work out itself. Phil had been completely a rabbit in mind for years; who could guess the exact duration of his current relapse?

And that begged a question - who was the real Phil? And who was the real Charles Matthias for that matter? Each of the three curses demanded a change in personality, each horrifying and frightening in their own way. For both Charles and Phil, it was in term of the animal instincts. How much of the human he had once been was left to Charles? Matthias knew his temperament had changed somewhat. Were there more subtle changes he was unaware of? Aside from shared memories, it would be quite easy to argue that the rat Matthias and the human Matthias were completely different individuals. What of Phil? He suffered the animal instincts worse than any - was there anything at all left of the human Phil?

Charles did not, could not, have any answers for those questions. The grim blackness and decaying mortar about him brought Matthias to the edge of the truth. But he could not seem to take the step beyond.

Only here at the most abysmal and lowest place in all of life could reality be discovered, Charles thought to himself. Here, in many ways helpless himself against the plottings of foul Loriod he could not help but recognize the real dangers of the world. Phil, for example, suffered today from the Curse in the manner they were all meant to suffer. And there was literally nothing Phil or anyone could do about it. Nasoj had intended to make all the Keepers either animals in mind and body, slaves to sexual desire, or infants incapable of resistance. The wizard was not the sole evil in the world; Loriod in his scheming was attempting to destroy something that brought happiness to many - a lesser evil, but an evil nonetheless.

His paws finally found a small piece of the wood Phil had brought him, and he settled back down onto the hay and put the lignous morsel to his teeth. It felt good to chew once again. Tomorrow night would be the monthly Gnawer's Meeting; he would just have enough time to wash up and prepare. He enjoyed spending time with his fellow rodents; it was a congregation of people who had over the years come to enjoy each other's company in a way that could not be expressed in words. To think that it might be stopped because of Loriod's vanity and greed made his blood boil. The man understood nothing about friendship and companionship. He was a force that had to be stopped.

If only Phil had seen the runes.

If only Phil someday recovered.

If only the light would not be extinguished forever.

Matthias tried to close his eyes, intending to rest, but his mind would not allow it. The pieces had not yet fallen into place. He wished to be away from these thoughts, but they kept coming back. Matthias stared out again, looking at the floor and the way the yellow flickering light from the torch outside fell upon it. Again the idea of duty, the most consequential idea of all, returned.

His vow to never kill again - excepting of course self-defense - forced him to stand by and watch events transpire, letting others do the work of defending the light and those associated with the light. There were many ways to serve the light- he didn't have to kill to serve it. Yet his talents and skills showed him to be a mighty warrior. He was the "Rat of Might" after all. By holding back his skills he was aiding the enemy in its struggle. He, Charles Matthias, could save the lives of others and preserve the light. But to do so to the best of his ability, to give that which was needed above all, to be true to his honor, he must shed blood. .

The mighty oath of six years ago was the last thing keeping him from stepping into the tumult. Why had he made that promise? Because his heart had ached at watching the faces of the children whose father he had dispatched. His heart still ached. It would always ache, and that was a good thing. Killing should never be done lightly. Yet what he had done back then had been proven to be wrong. Matthias had worked for the side that wanted to snuff out the light, not those who would keep it burning. If someone else had tried to kill that King and then Matthias had killed the would be assassin, then Charles would have been working to keep the lantern filled with oil. If instead Charles had stayed true to his vow, he would have stood aside and let the assassin kill the good man. It would have been just the same as the reality where he had broken the man's neck with one strike.

Charles felt like he would gag from the images running madly through his inner vision. He shook with frustration and rage at his inability to do what was right. The rat-morph grabbed fistfuls of straw and beat upon the floor with his hands. He cried out in anguish, tearing his clothes with his claws, his whole body quaking with internal dilemma that simply would not be resolved. Throwing his arms about, Matt tossed off the force that was built up in him. He did not touch the walls, for that would have instantly drained his magic. Instead he used the Longfugos technique without realizing it to throw his punches and swipes and slashes about him into the distant air. The detonations as the force struck the walls resounded about the cell. The mortar crumbled and cracked under the pressure of his onslaught, and he continued, unconcerned, only wishing for a moment of peace from the battle that was being waged in his soul.

Yet no matter how hard his old stubborn nature clung to him, the truth could not be defeated. How could Matthias live with himself while knowing that by maintaining his vow he was as morally culpable for Phil's feral nature as was Nasoj? It would be like letting that pig Loriod rape Lady Kimberly before his eyes. That image burned him deeply, marred his soul with its brand, and would not go away. On the one hand was his holy vow, and on the other his duty. Both remorselessly tore at his heart as the image of Kimberly being brutalized and hurt and screaming in pain as Loriod's fat weight descended upon her again and again replayed itself over and over and over.

Matthias squirmed about, the conflict driving him down to the deepest part of his soul. Link by link, he disassociated himself with the vow, driving it from his very essence. It stood against everything that he valued and cared about. It stood in the way of saving the lives of good people. It stood in the way of preserving the light. It was an anathema to him, it caused him to fall into the hands of the evil ones. It gave aid and succor to Nasoj and his ilk. It produced a laissez-faire tyranny of debasement, decadence, and injustice. It was wrong to hold back that which could keep the light burning bright throughout even the dark midnights of the soul. It was wrong for him to hold to this vow.

The oath crumbled and withered as every last vestige of its defenses was broken utterly by the searing image of Loriod deflowering his truest love. Its last bastion was the most ironic. It relied on his Catholicism, and his duty to uphold all of his vows, no matter how foolish. It reminded him of the story of Jepthath, and how he sacrificed his daughter to uphold his vow. His voice rang out through the walls of the cell, as he expunged the last remnants of his old existence, and destroyed the radical pacifism that had prevented him from aiding the light. "Do not swear, but let your yea be your yea, and your nay be your nay! Oh Father in Heaven, forgive a foolish child and remove him the burden of his own words. I have made a destructive vow, and I wish to be free of it! I pray this in the name of your Son!"

In that instant, he felt as if a portion of him snapped away. He said the "A-men" quietly, nearly whispering the word. Charles put his paws to the ground, and stood there on all fours for a moment, breathing in and out, trying to collect his thoughts. The vow was gone from him forever. It was no longer a part of him.

Matthias felt at peace with himself. He gazed once again at the light coming in through the bars in the door. His was a solemn duty to all the Keepers. After all, he had abilities that could be of great use. And the greater one's abilities, the greater one's obligations. To deny this was the surest path of all to evil. He would no longer hold back, but would instead serve Metamor as he had once served the Sondeckis, with honor and pride. And with this thought, for some reason was associated an image of Phil, though just why this was so Charles might never understand.

For the first time in years, he was whole again.

The rat-morph stood up from the cold stone floor, and took stock of the room about him. In his anger he had smashed the stones along several of the walls. The room was of course still stable, but it did not look to be in the best of conditions. He would have a heck of a time explaining this to Phil. The sudden thought of the rabbit brought a bit of sadness to his heart. Phil had done so much already to stop the onslaught of evil. Yet Matthias had yelled and accused him of such terrible things. Phil was a true hero who had done what was right and suffered unjustly because of it. Charles had been ignorant before, and the words he'd sown were terrible ones indeed.

Scratchy footsteps skittered down the hallway. It was Roscoe again. The cave scorpion stopped before the cell door, the torchlight behind him telegraphing hideous innards through his translucent body. With a creak the door swung inward. The faceted immobile eyes stared blankly. "What happened in here?" He asked after a moments pause.

"I got angry," Charles admitted

"I'll say." Roscoe then turned back to him. "I just received a message from Phil."

"Phil? Is he..."

"Yes, Thank God. He's come back to us."

Roscoe handed Charles a small parchment note. The rat pulled it open and quickly scanned the text. It was in Phil's unique writing, produced by the pen held in his mouth. Charles knew it well from many stories, and it was comforting to know that his friend had taken the time to laboriously and awkwardly write personally instead of dictating to Rupert as he was often forced to do by the press of duties. It was a sign of personal esteem, one that Charles had never really appreciated until now.

Charles, I need to see you immediately. Everything is ready.

Your friend,


Shedding a tear of relief and guilt, Matthias crumpled the note in his paw, and looked to Roscoe. He took one last glance about the cell that had been his home for the last half-week. Then he asked, "Am I released?"

The cave scorpion stood out of the way. "You are free to go."

Charles sighed deeply, and took his first step out of the cell and back into the world. It was refreshing to be out in the hallway again, to see the long line of torches, and to see that at the far end there was a staircase leading up into the light above. He could almost taste the baths, a place he looked forward most eagerly to visiting. Charles followed Roscoe back up the stairs, though he took his time on each one. He was leaving a significant part of his life behind. No longer would he quail at who he was, no longer need he deny the use of the gift he had received from God.

Leaving Roscoe behind in the darkness to which he was eternally condemned, Charles made his way into the sunlight at the base of the castle. The parapets and minarets rose high into the bright blue sky. The sun shone down through the cloudless air, and beat upon his fur. He basked in the warmth of it and savored the feel of it upon his flesh. His lungs were filled with the sweet vivacious taste of the trees and the grasses and the flowers that were bountiful this season. Matthias took stock of the faces that were moving about. He could see in the distant gardens Dan the grasshopper tending the flowers. Over by the central courtyard was a group of small children playing with hoop and stick. In the distance among a grove of trees two ferrets walked hand in hand. They were each flames worthy of keeping lit.

For that matter so was Roscoe's, Matthias realized. His jailer had been kind and humane, despite his own horrid fate. Did the scorpion hear these happy children playing just a few yards away, knowing he could never look upon them in daylight again? Yet, Matthias now realized, he had never shared a kind word, never helped the poor soul with his own terrible pain.

Duty had many aspects, Charles was beginning to realize, and the Lamp needed to be oiled in many, many different ways. He resolved to thank Roscoe for his kindness, when the next opportunity came.

But there were other matters that needed to be tended to first. Charles's immediate impulse was to find Lady Kimberly wherever she might be - by the position of the sun, she was probably still working in the kitchens - but the urgency of Phil's request brought his mind back to duty. Ascending the steps into the castle which seemed new and clean to him in some strange way, he slowly made his way through the vaulted halls decked with tapestries, foreign rugs, and lined with decorative suits of armor. He could not help himself, he had to admire the beauty of the Keep and the people that lived there. The names of most he did not know, nor would he ever know. The right of those he didn't know to burn brightly was just as important as the rights of those he did.

Rupert opened the door for him into Phil's tiny office when he arrived. He was bedraggled and most certainly not in fitting dress to be in the presence of royalty. But this was Phil, with whom he had been informal for years. And who had come down to visit him in the dungeon. The rabbit was sitting upon a small chair reviewing several parchments, a couple of which he recognized from the Writer's Guild. The cage stood open, and it appeared that Rupert was in the process of cleaning it out.

"Charles! Good to see you! What happened?" Phil noticed the torn clothes, and his bright eyes fell.

Matthias wiggled his whiskers a bit mischievously. "I lost my temper in the dungeon . You can imagine that I suppose, knowing me. How are you feeling?"

Phil nodded absently toward the cage. "A lot less interested in marking my territory," he said, rocking his ears.

A bit shocked, Matt laughed along with the lapine. He knew he could never treat such a serious matter so cavalierly, but then for Phil it must be an everyday part of life. Inwardly, Charles shuddered at the thought. Meanwhile, Phil continued. "As I said in my note, all is ready. But there are things we need to discuss. Captain Ptomamus will be back here shortly, as he had a few special preparations to make. The 'Arrow' should be ready to leave upon your arrival. I would suggest you leave to meet her the morning after the Gnawer's Meeting. That way, the timing should work out about right, and you'll get to see your friends one last time before the trip. And, spend some time with your Lady." Phil's blue eyes sparkled at the mention of the name, and Matthias could not help but contrast Phil's easy adoption of the informal usage of a Royal title with Loriod's angry blustering. "But before the Captain gets back, there are a few more things you need to know about your mission." He waved a furry paw vaguely towards a cushioned chair not three feet from him. "Take a seat. Rupert, keep an eye out for stragglers, would you?"

Silently, Rupert strode to the door, the great ape as always faithfully obeying his liege. Charles gingerly sat down in the chair, letting his tail wrap about one of the supports. "So, what do I need to know?"

Phil absently waggled his ears a bit. "I have made mention of the amulet. And I told you what it can do. We need you to touch a magical construct to it. It should eliminate the amulet's power. If our counter-spell doesn't work, you will need to steal the thing. That will be very dangerous, as it will leave a trail detectable to any powerful mage who has handled it. But under no circumstances is that amulet to remain in Nasoj's possession."

Bracing himself against his desk with his forepaws in an eerily animalistic fashion, the lapine Prince reached over with his head and picked up a piece of parchment in his mouth. Turning it over, he revealed a diagram drawn upon its surface. "This is a map of the fortress that you will need to infiltrate. The amulet is being held in this central room here." He indicated a central circular section of the map. "There are magical wards and mundane guards all over the place. Many are undocumented. This is the best we can do. Being a rat, you should be able to get in here and disable the amulet.

"You will have to travel there by boat, and you will almost certainly need to stay a full rat the entire time you are on this mission, except in the privacy of the Captain's cabin. Even then, you must keep your exposure to the absolute minimum, because Fleet ships are busy places. The Cox'n, for example, has the right to enter the Captain's cabin unannounced in his role as the Captain's servant. In my opinion it would be safer for you to put up with a little inconvenience and boredom in full-morph than to issue special orders and create a ship's mystery. I would only take human form if necessary to confer with the Captain. Do you agree?"

Silently, Matthias nodded.

"If you've followed me to private meetings without me knowing, I don't think you'll have a problem pulling this off." Phil rocked his ears at the comment, and Charles chuckled slightly.

"Where is this building specifically?" Charles asked, taking the map in his paws.

"It is in the Giantdowns, of course. I'll wait till the Captain Ptomamus returns so that I can brief you both on the particulars of travel. You won't need to worry about it as much as he will, but you should know as much as possible." Phil replied, shuffling a few papers about.

Charles nodded a moment, his whiskers twitching reflexively. He drew his paws over the map, tracing out possible routes in and out. "Well, I'm sure I'll figure something out." He folded the map up carefully and placed it in his pocket. He'd have to remember to take it out again when he changed clothes this evening. Impulsively, he asked a question that had been gnawing at his mind. "How are you really feeling, Phil?"

Phil started at the suddenness of the question. "You mean about me going feral yesterday?" The rat nodded. "Better now that it is over. I don't really like to think about what it does to me. I don't wish to go feral, it just sort of happens. But when it is over, I feel oddly relaxed. So I try to just focus on the pleasant part of the equation. And you? How are you feeling now that you are out of the dungeon?"

Matthias's felt his face brighten. "Much better. I want to apologize to you. I have said many things to you before that I shouldn't have. They were vicious, and untrue. I'm terribly sorry I said them. I was hoping that you could forgive me."

Phil leaned over and put one paw on Charles's shoulder. "Matt, of course I forgive you. We're friends after all. And these are hard times for us all."

Before another word could be said, Rupert interrupted them escorting a tall man. He saw Charles and immediately flinched, but a reproachful glance from Phil brought him to military attention. "Your Highness, the orders have been sent. The talisman is being removed from our ship."

"Ah, Captain Ptomamus! It is good to see you again so soon. Your timing is impeccable. Captain, this is Charles Matthias, your passenger. Charles, this is Captain Ptomamus; he will be taking you to Arabarb." Charles held his paw out in greeting, and the Captain gingerly shook it. "You must forgive him Charles, but he is allergic to rats."

"Oh!" Matthias said, startled by the idea. "I am sincerely sorry to hear that."

"It is nothing. I shall make do." The Commander replied politely. The Captain then gave Phil a very puzzled look. "I thought you said he was a full-morph Norway rat? Yet this one is as tall as you."

Phil blinked in surprise and then stammered a moment. "There are ways around such things. Normally he is, but I needed to talk to him and he to me, so we used certain charms to make him this tall. You should not ever see him like this again."

Charles stared at the two of them, but knew better than to argue or to look surprised in anyway. "It is rather hard talking when you're only a few inches long. One gets used to it though."

Ptomamus seemed quite perplexed, but shook it off in military fashion.

Phil reached underneath his plainly made desk, and with both forepaws carefully pulled out a large Fleet-issue chart. When unrolled it showed the entire coastline of the Giantdowns all the way to the arctic regions, as well as much of the interior. Most of that information was now unavailable further south. The rabbit, all Fleet Admiral now that he was dealing with professional matters, drew his paw across the coastline, past Brathas on the western peninsula and the mountains there and up to a single river mouth which he traced along upstream to the city of Arabarb. It was in the western portion of the Giantdowns, a considerable distance from Nasoj's citadel. However, it was also strategically located on trade routes that led throughout the north. Before Nasoj had conquered most of the Giantdowns, Arabarb had been the center of commerce throughout the northern lands. The waters of the river Arabas were deep and easily navigable for days in either direction.

"Arabarb? That's a month round trip, with fair winds!" the Commander declared impassively.

"A month?" Charles exclaimed, shocked by that revelation. He had expected to be away two weeks at best. He would probably come back during the next Gnawer's Meeting.

"Unfortunately yes," Phil sympathized. "If the winds cooperate. And often they do not. However, this needs to be done, and this is the quickest way short of flying you in on a dragon. Which would be suicidally dangerous."

Charles chortled slightly. "I imagine so. But why is Nasoj keeping the amulet in Arabarb? Wouldn't his own citadel be much safer?"

Phil shook his head and ears. "I think he is trying to play it safe by spreading his power base throughout his realm. That way even if one of the strongholds should fall, he still has powerful items elsewhere. I doubt he keeps very many of them at his own citadel. At any rate, that is all I can say about this. I have other matters to attend to. Thank you, Captain."

Correctly interpreting this as a polite dismissal, the Commander saluted and promptly left.

Charles looked back to Phil. "Did you want me to leave as well?"

Phil shook his head. "No, I was hoping we could talk a little longer."

"About what?"

"About you. I am concerned, my friend. How do you feel about your role in things? And would you be willing to become more involved in Thomas and I's little discussions? You are the third member of the prophecy after all. We'd be honored to have you with us." Phil wriggled his nose absently, and Charles was left dumbstruck.

"I don't know what to say! You are trying to stop the evil, right?"

"We are trying to stop Nasoj and any others like him. We believe they and what they stand for to be evil, yes. "

Charles put his paw up to his mouth and reflexively nibbled at it. He felt himself eager and more excited about the future than he had in years. "I would love to assist in anyway I can. I will certainly participate with you and the Duke."

Phil rocked his ears eagerly, and stood up from his seat. "That's wonderful. Charles, I know you will make it back safely, but allow me to wish you luck all the same. Channing and I will ride herd on the writers for you, do not worry about that. And I will see the gnawers meet as well."

Charles's face fell at the mention of the gnawers, something that Phil did not fail to notice. But he knew there was more here than met the eye already, and had seen enough to convince him that his friend Charles was truly being as forthcoming as possible.

But Matthias covered as best he could and went on. "We will indeed keep the light shining bright. The darkness cannot stand against the 'Hare of White' or the 'Rat of Might'."

Phil rocked his ears even harder, and despite having accepted the remorseless fetters of duty Charles felt like he was finally free for the first time in his life.

The sudden gaze which Phil leveled at him was one of genuine concern, but there was a hint of something else. Some subterfuge was clearly evident. "Are you absolutely sure everything is all right?"

Charles paused a moment to contemplate. There was so much wrong right now that he wanted to tell him the whole truth of Loriod's deceit. He wanted so much to impart the dangers that lay ahead. He spoke amicably though, hiding his fears. "I just hope that we can have the Gnawer's Meeting when I get back. I'd sorely hate for it to be canceled simply because I'm not about to secure the funding."

Phil nodded a bit, his eyes thinking about something. "Ah yes, I can understand that. We all enjoy the meetings. Don't worry, I'll make sure that things are taken care of."

Matthias rose from his seat, knowing that in some way, Phil understand exactly what he meant.

chapter 7

Sitting down on the floor of the Deaf Mule Inn, Charles Matthias looked about the assembled faces of his friends, and those whom he had not seen in quite sometime. This was supposed to be a happy occasion, but he could not find it in himself to be truly the happy individual that he knew he should be. Tomorrow he would be leaving once more to destroy an object of great power in Nasoj's possession. That was not a task that he took lightly. Also, he would have to travel by sea. The last time he had done so had been nearly six years ago. It was not his happiest memory.

Lady Kimberly was there, and she was all smiles and radiance. Her beautiful amber gown sparkled in the golden ambiance of the lanterns. Matthias knew that his key to happiness was to let himself be wrapped up in her joy. His release the night before had been sudden and quite unexpected, though relieving. He hoped that Lord Loriod did not see it in the wrong light.

The thought of that evil whoreson bastard darkened his mood quite quickly. Something had to be done about him and all of his machinations. However, all that he could do had already been done. If only Phil had picked up on the runes he'd been tracing. That would not be much, but it would be enough to start events in motion that might bring about the end to his fears.

"Oh, this cheese is absolutely wonderful. You must have a taste!" Lady Kimberly insisted shoving a nice wedge with a single bite mark towards his muzzle. Charles inclined his head, nibbling a bit at the side. Indeed, it was quite delicious! How lucky he was to have somebody as special as she to call his love!

"That is excellent! Where did you find it?"

She pointed with her little delicate paws at the bar where Donny stood filling mazers of ale for the gerbils. Charles smiled as he watched the gerbils turn the massive decanters over their muzzles and guzzle down the drink. "It won't last long next to those guys," He murmured.

Kimberly nodded as she took another bite of the cheese, sitting down, her tail curled up behind her. Charles leaned over and stroked the side of her face with one paw. Her whiskers twitched as he gently caressed her fur. It was so nice to have somebody in this world such as her; somebody sweet who could love him. Perhaps he should tell her who he had once been. If he could tell Phil, why couldn't he tell her?

Phil himself was sitting over chatting away with Michael and Pascal, both of whom had shown up for their first Gnawer's Meeting. Charles had already given them his greeting, it seemed they were both a bit more friendly than he would have expected. It was pleasant to see Michael as a rodent, he couldn't help but feel some sort of pride in that. Pascal, well she had always been a bit strange, but it was good to see her as well.

In fact, this was the only Support Group that he had ever attended (and he had attended them all) that featured every rodent that lived in the Keep. Sir Saulius was drinking quite heavily from mug and singing some ballad of honor-bound knights rescuing fair maidens - Charles had never known that the knight could sing so well and so humorously. Hector was making sculptures out of his cheese and bread, mostly of felines, and then biting their heads off in jest. Tallis and Elliot were applauding Saulius's vocal demonstrations. Julian was sitting in a corner by himself sipping at some ale and nibbling on a piece of Gregor's bread. Goldmark was off somewhere; he had been watching Saulius, but had as usual become a pure rat and disappeared.

The rest of the rodents were conducting their own business, and Charles saw a few familiar faces. Bernadette, one of the mice, was giving Lady Kimberly these looks that he couldn't quite read. Charles felt like he was missing a whole conversation that had everything to do with him. Michael was showing Phil his woodsman's axe and telling him one of his tales serving on the timber crews. Charles could hear a bit of the story, but was not really paying attention.

One thing that surprised him was the fact that nobody asked him anything about his recent time spent in the dungeons. For that he was grateful. That had been a miserable experience. It was wonderful to have slept in his own bed this last night. Still, the memory of the very moment that had caused him to be locked up was still in his mind. He could still see Duke Thomas's exasperated face as his sentence was cast down upon him. Perhaps he should apologize to Jon as well, since he had been in the throne room at the time.

Charles found his eyes straying to Phil as his thoughts turned over and over. The prophecies of Mad Felix were circling about; the fateful words that had forced him into making a decision that he had been loathe to do were resonating throughout the vaults of his mind. Was he indeed the 'Rat of Might'? If so, was Phil this 'Hare of White'? And therefore Duke Thomas made the 'Horse King'? It seemed all so fantastical. It also meant that he was going to be privy to some of the darker intrigue that was conducted about the palace. Before last night he would not have been sure that he would have liked that prospect. Now, it was his duty to do so, for the lamp must be kept well lit.

"Hey!" Lady Kimberly tugged at his arm gently. "What's the matter?"

Charles turned to look into her face. It was obvious that he had been falling into a trance. He wrinkled his nose a bit, and put an arm about her shoulder, feeling the folds of the fabric beneath his skin. "Nothing, I was just thinking about a few things. That's all."

"What sort of things?" She asked, turning her head to the side a bit. Her eyes peered back at him, their luminous orbs sparkling in the lamplight.

He didn't want to lie to her, yet he also had to keep his involvement in the prophecy secret. "Fate really. I was thinking about fate. Fate brought me here to Metamor Keep, just as it brought you, and just as it brought us together. Perhaps it has some good purpose in mind for leading me out on the patrols." Of that he was not lying. It was his cover story, and he intended to stick by it. It had also been his punishment

For some reason, it did not seem so much a punishment anymore.

Charles took a sip of the wine, feeling his tail wrap about Kimberly's. It was going to be a long trip, and he would certainly miss her. He missed her already! He leaned over, and draped his arm about her shoulders. She leaned her head into the nook of his shoulder, her pink ears twitching against his rough jerkin. He spoke softly, wanting to express all that had to be said. He did not want her worrying about him, but he knew that she would.

"I love you, and I will always love you. I cannot think of anybody I would rather be with, or spend my life with. I wish I did not have to go, but I must. Nothing can stop me from coming back, not when you are here. Nothing can stop me." His words resonated up through his throat, and once said, he felt empty as if he had poured himself out, and now needed refilling.

Lady Kimberly looked up into his face, her expression stunned. Her nose sniffed at him as her teeth gnawed at the piece of wood in her paws. She blinked a few times, and then finally threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tight. "I love you too, Charles!"

Matthias wrapped his arms about her, not caring who was watching them. He drew his paw across her back, scratching in deep into her fur through her dress. He would be back, there was nothing that could ever keep him from her. And when he returned, he would have to tell her all. No secret could remain between them ever.

Peering out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Phil observing them cautiously. The rabbit was still enjoying his mendacious chat with Michael and the surprisingly mellow Pascal. He hoped that they had found happiness as well. Still, the 'Hare of White' occupied his attention. Phil would keep his promises. He had never betrayed him, an accusation that he was sorry he had made in his seething rage. Phil would make sure that Lady Kimberly was safe. There was no doubt about that.

Abruptly, a voice rang out over the crowd. It was Saulius's. He was obviously a bit tipsy, as his whiskers and nose looked quite giddy. He had a streak of ale through the fur on his face, and he swayed a bit as he stood on the bench, one hand leaning against the oaken table. He held aloft his mazer, which was spilling ale upon the floor as he waved it back and forth.

"Hark! If mine eyes do not deceivest me, I believeth that there art a rat who deserves thine appreciation! His senses hast recently returned I believeth, and," Saulius let out a long burp, wiped his muzzle with one hand, and continued, "he leaveth tomorrow on a great quest! Though he already hath a fair lady, I canst imagine what more needs to be questing for." He leaned over a bit, nearly falling from the bench. Matthias tried not to chuckle at the knight's drunken words. Saulius recovered, and let out a final bleary request raising his mug high. "To Matthias! Who art a damn fine rat!"

The other rodents in the room were all chortling at the knight, but each heartily gave out the cheer "To Matthias!" as well. Charles knew that if he could blush, his face would be quite scarlet. Kimberly poked him in the side, smiling, though she had no drink. "To Matthias," she whispered in a soft voice.

Saulius then announced, "I shall now endeavor to locate the elusive cheese! Who wilt assist me in my quest?"

Tallis and Elliot helped Saulius down from the bench, while most of the rest of the rodents chuckled at the knight's antics. Michael was laughing gaily as well. Even Phil's ears were rocking in merriment. Charles hated to have to leave them. How much he wished that Loriod could be stopped. This kind of camaraderie was too good to let die because of some pigheaded noble's whim.

Yet, if he didn't leave and destroy that amulet, it might not matter anyway. Still, those were matters for the morrow. Tonight was one for celebration and happiness. He would be sure to enjoy it.

Charles took another drink of his mead, the hot taste washing down his throat. He drew Kimberly closer to him, her head resting against his chest a bit; her green gown sparkling in the light from the great chandelier. Yes, tonight was a night for joy.

The day was warm, a bit warmer than usual for this time of year. According to Habakkuk whom he'd had a brief chat with the previous day, it had been warmer than usual for the past week. Yet it only made matters worse that he was riding in the thick velvet pocket of another man. He had never before done so, and found the experience interesting. That was until Ptomamus saddled upon his horse and began cantering down the road towards the sea.

It was half a day's journey to where the ship was docked, and they had started out early in the morning. Charles had already been awake when Phil came by his door. The package was small, deliberately so, since he would have to carry it inconspicuously in his mouth as a full rat. Charles had slipped out of his clothes and changed forms, and Phil had carried him the rest of the way for simplicity's sake. Ptomamus had gingerly opened his pocket upon the side of his uniform, and Charles slipped in quietly. It was tight, but the velvety interior was comfortable to lie against. A bit of bread and cheese had been tucked in by Phil. The portions were quite big enough to satiate his hunger for the remainder of the day.

Ptomamus brought the horse to a trot, and then later to a walk as they began to travel further and further from the protection of the Keep. In the last months, Charles had gone further from his new home than he had in last five years. He expected to be going even further in time as his duty required him to. However for the moment his thoughts tended to settle on the fact that he was no longer bouncing about so madly in the Commander's pocket. He felt quite dizzy, so he stayed down at the bottom of his little home, trying to resist the temptation to sink his teeth into the cheese for fear he might make himself ill.

However, the only disadvantage to the entire affair was that lying inside the confining and hot pocket was boring! He thought about the previous night, sitting next to Lady Kimberly, feeding her exotic cheeses and breads. It made the time go faster, but did not make him any more comfortable than he already was.

The Captain seemed to have a serious problem controlling his nose. The sneezing started after a few hours, and didn't stop. Each one seemed worse than the last, a hacking and wheezing that threatened to propel Matthias from his pocket as the man's body shook violently. Charles might have chuckled at poor man's Ptomamus's situation had he not been riding in the man's pocket. From this vantage point he got a unique perspective of an allergic reaction.

The woods were quite noisy all around. He could hear the muffled sound of birds flying from tree to tree, calling out and singing their songs of Spring. The occasional bee buzzed past, causing him a momentary panic. Being so small he was certainly more vulnerable to so many other animals. That hawk that had attacked him only the previous month was still fresh in his mind. That had been one of those rare occasions when he had spent anytime as a full rat.

Taking another bite from the cheese, he reflected on the events that had brought him to this crossroads. The sudden and surprising order that he accompany Copernicus, Chris, and others to the northern borders to ambush a formation of Lutins had been the beginning of his unraveling. The battle itself had been almost academic in its bloodiness and mindlessness, but now he realized the necessity and worthiness of it. The trek back to the Keep had been done mostly in silence, with a no longer sentient Chris in tow - he'd since recovered, for which Charles was glad.

Then there was the attack on Duke Thomas. He had received that congratulatory note that had caused already strained nerves to snap. It was not a pleasant memory, but in that one instant as he stood there ready to strike palm upon his liege, everything came clear to him. He had become the man whom he once had been, ready to kill another good young ruler. Then his time in the cell, talking to the various people who had come to visit him. The two that were most important to him of course were Lady Kimberly and Phil. Not that his other friends were somehow less appreciated, but none of them did for him what those two had. Lady Kimberly had given him love and his life, and Phil had given him a purpose and duty.

Charles savored the flavor of the fresh cheese for a moment before dropping it back to the bottom of the pocket and curling up at the other end. It felt very strange staying like a full rat for so long; he really was not use to it in the same way that Goldmark was. However, it was strangely comfortable, in a way he had never imagined. Closing his eyes, letting the darkness completely overtake him, he tried to get some sleep before the arrived on the ship.

Of course it was only a few moments later that the Captain decided to try to develop a means of communication. Charles poked his head up to the top of the pocket, his nose sniffing at the horse-scented air, while his tiny claws grasped the velvety interior. "I'm having a hard time with this, Charles. That is your name right?" A moments pause while Charles suddenly realized, and so to must have Ptomamus, that he could not reply. "Oh, I'm sorry. I don't know how you ever reply. I'm afraid I don't know much about rats except that I'm allergic to them."

Charles fell back to the bottom of the pocket as Ptomamus sneezed hard, the entire coat shaking. He landed on the cheese, getting some of the delightful substance smeared into his fur. He twisted and contorted about, trying to pick it free, when the captain spoke again. It was quite clear from the sound of his strained voice that he was completely stuffed up. "As you can tell, I've never done anything like this before. You can't change into that morphic form of your own will can you? I know you can't answer me. Perhaps we can find a way for you to reply yes or no. I don't know what though."

Charles listened intrigued as he continued to clean his fur. How could he communicate with this man? Phil's instructions to stay a full rat had been quite explicit. The crew would probably be quite perturbed by the sudden appearance of rats on their ship as it was anyway. A walking talking rat standing at four feet would certainly not help their morale!

However the Captain's suggestion continued to play through his mind. What could he do that might indicate a "yes" or a "no"? Certainly he could make squeaking noises if alarmed, and hiss in anger, but the Captain might prefer nonvocal communication to prevent Matthias from being given away.

Charles then struck upon an idea, and began to claw at the inner velvet of the jacket. Perhaps Ptomamus would feel that. And feel it he did. "What are you doing in there? Is that a 'yes', or a 'no'?"

Charles wanted to throttle the man for asking such an impossible question. He stopped scratching, and bounced back and forth in the pocket. He certainly had the man's attention now because he brought the horse to a stop, and pulled open the pocket to stare at him. The commander's nose was beet red and swollen, and his eyes looked a bit irritated too. Charles stopped his wild capering and blinked up at him, his nose twitching.

"Okay, what is 'yes'?" Charles reached over and scratched at the velvet. His claws were too small to do any real damage to the cloth, for which he knew the man would be very grateful. "And your 'no'?" Charles sat there for a minute thinking of what else he could possibly do that wouldn't attract attention. He then applied his teeth to the velvet, and began gnawing upon it.

"Ouch! I guess I'll try to ask questions where the answer has to be yes." Ptomamus remarked comically. He then dropped the flap on the pocket back down, shutting Matthias up in the darkness again, and started the horse into a trot once more.

Ptomamus was silent for a few moments before he again said, "As I said, I'm having a hard time of this. Do you like being a rat?"

The question was not really surprising. Many people had asked him if he liked looking like a rat throughout his stay there at Metamor Keep. However, this question was slightly different. It was made under the assumption that in every way except his mind he was a rat. It was the sort of question that bordered on the edge of what was permissible to say and what wasn't. However, he quickly clawed out his yes.

"I guess it takes some getting used to then?" Charles continued clawing. The Captain seemed either satisfied or disturbed by the response, and did not say anything for some time.

There was another muffled sound coming in the distance. It sounded almost like another beat of horse hooves. "Somebody's coming," Ptomamus said quietly. Charles stayed still at the bottom of the pocket. He sniffed at the cheese a moment, and quickly took another bite.

They rode on for a few more moments, the distant hoofbeats growing louder. He could tell that it was a carriage from the sound of wheels turning over the dirt. As they drew closer, both Ptomamus and the other driver reined in.

There was a vaguely familiar scent and an even more familiar voice that addressed the Captain. It was Father Hough! Charles climbed the side of the pocket, and poked his head out to peer at the priest. Father Hough was alone atop the one man carriage in his black smock with a bundle of his belongings tied to the rear. His face was austere and friendly as usual.

"What is the road like up ahead?" Hough asked, not noticing him. Charles wanted to jump out of the pocket and say hello to his friend. Yet that would only reveal himself, and his presence. And in the end such an action would stand a good chance of jeopardizing the mission. However, he did suspect that after this little trip he would be spending quite a bit of time in confessional. Killing was not supposed to be enjoyable, or even desirable. The renunciation of his vow did not change that. All it did was allow him to do what was necessary to protect others. He would avoid it if possible, but he would not flinch from doing what was necessary.

And it was necessary that Father Hough not know he was there. Matthias dipped his head back into the pocket some, still peering out at his friend. Ptomamus and Hough chatted for a few moments, each telling the other of the conditions along the roads and the cities at the end of the roads. Then the horses once again began their rhythmic clopping and those of Father Hough receded into the distance.

Charles settled back down in the pocket, and nibbled a bit on the bread. Hough had come because of him, and now would have wasted his time. It was just as well. The other Catholics at the Keep would be delighted to see him so soon again.

Closing his eyes once again, Charles tried to get some sleep before they arrived at the ship. It was going to be a long journey.

Father Hough continued on his way. The military man had been most informative about the road's conditions, and his words were proving true. In the far distance, he could imagine the mighty towers of Metamor Keep rising up above the trees and the hills. He enjoyed his times there, though each visit was of necessity brief.

There were so many faces, each one unique in of themselves, that he could conjure up. Matthias was a good friend, though he was not the only one of the flock. There were so many, Copernicus, Zhypar, and many others too that he could not - to his chagrin - remember by name. Yet he was here because one of Charles's friends had asked him to come. Matthias was in trouble, and Hough's help might be just what he needed.

The road was dusty, and the forest seemed to shimmer with life. The Spring season was well upon them. Amazingly enough, it seemed to grow warmer the closer he came to Metamor Keep. They must be having a bit of a warm spell.

Suddenly, from the sides of the road came bursting out of the forest several masked figures. Hough was startled, and tried to whip the horses into a gallop, but one of them was upon him too fast, grabbing his hands in a vice-like grip. Staring at them he knew what they were immediately. They were Keepers. The ears and muzzles poking from their masks gave it away. A few humans were among them, but no children.

The first thing that came to his mind was wonder. Why would any Keepers assault him? The second thing that came to his mind was fear. He grappled with them, trying to break free, but their grip was too tight. Normally he would have let himself be taken, but this was Metamor land, and the curse was still in effect.

They finally managed to get a bag over his head, and his hands were bound behind him. He could hear his wagon being ransacked, and the horses killed. He tried to shout out, but the thick sackcloth dampened his voice. Suddenly, he felt a sharp smack on the back of his head, and everything became remotely distant as he lapsed into unconsciousness.

The smell of brine was nearly overpowering. Charles could hear the rocking of the spars and the groaning of the wood as their horse clopped along the docks. The voices of men called out gaily to their commander, and Ptomamus responded in kind. The ship was prepared to sail, all the provisions were aboard, and the talisman was removed. Everything was set.

Matthias sat quietly in the pocket, jostled around a bit as Ptomamus dismounted, and walked up the gangplank onto the deck. The groaning of the masts and the flapping of the furled sails from the strong sea breeze echoed throughout the air. Charles could already feel the shifting weight beneath him. He had not been seasick his last time afloat, but felt that if he had to spend all his time in this man's pocket, he certainly would be.

He listened idly as the Captain gave out his orders. The First Mate received his instructions, and then Ptomamus quickly walked along the ship, and into a room. Matthias could hear the door close shut behind them. It was most disconcerting to spend one's time inside a pocket, not knowing where they were going, or even where they were! Charles wanted out, but could not risk letting anybody else know he was here.

Another door was closed, and the sound of a straining wood came to his big ears. Charles looked at the top of the pocket expectantly. A hand reached in, and grabbed him gently. Charles found himself lifted up and out, and placed upon a hard wood surface. Matthias blinked at the sudden light, and peered about the room. The door was opposite the windows, which were small, and peered out to the coastline that was moving away from them; they must be just over the rudder in the stern of the brig. The woodwork was finely wrought, and tough, possibly oak or cedar. There was a bookshelf along one wall, as well as a small mirror and dresser. The bed was in perfect order, with at least two layers of blankets. There was a map of the coastline on the desk already, as well as feather pens and ink bottles.

Charles looked about curiously, and then up to the Captain, who was wiping his nose. "Here we are. Your home for the next four weeks. I'll share some of my food with you, so you don't need to worry about scrounging with the other rats in the cable tier." He paused a moment, opening his dresser, and pulling out a cleaner and more appropriate military uniform. "We will definitely have to come up with new signals for 'yes' and 'no'. Something that doesn't involve biting."

Ptomamus pulled the leftover cheese and bread form the pocket, and tossed them on the table. Charles scampered over to the morsels, and began nibbling at the bread. He took it in his paws and held it before him as he ate, his whiskers alert, and his eyes watching the Captain. Ptomamus was watching him as well, his face bemused. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were just a rat. I guess that's why Phil picked you for this job."

Charles continued staring at him, not planning on giving anything away. Ptomamus knew better obviously, and did not mention the rabbit's name again. The Captain began undressing, but he kept unconsciously looking over at Matthias. Charles turned his back to the self-conscious man, and continued eating his bread.

He gazed out the window and at the small waves. It was a brisk day, and the waves rolled gently along. The clouds were high in the sky, and the sun was moving through them on its daily course. The noises of the ship carried through the sturdy walls, and he could hear the sounds of men's voices, barking laughter, and most especially the sounds of the ship itself. The table rocked slowly back and forth, but he did not mind so much. It would take a while to get used to, but he would manage.

Ptomamus dumped a few papers onto the table after getting dressed again. Charles recognized one of them as the map of the Giantdowns coastlines. Ptomamus spread out the map, pulled out his dividers, and began murmuring numbers to himself. Matthias watched him from the other end of the table, amazed at how big things seemed to him now that he was a regular sized rat. Certainly he was going to have to get off this table, he couldn't live up here. Perhaps behind the bookcase, or under the bed?

Ptomamus set his tools down once more, and strode towards the door. At the last moment he turned to face Charles. "Stay in here, and out of sight. I don't know where, but find something. The coxswain, Magnus, can enter at any time to tidy things up. He is a good man and my friend, and he is a very meticulous about keeping my quarters tidy. If he saw you, he would try to dispatch you. So please stay out of site.

After the Captain left the room, Charles took one last bite of the bread, and then scampered on his short legs towards one corner of the table. Poking his head over the side, he could see one of the table legs spiraling down. It was hardly ornate, but it did have rudimentary channels engraved upon it. Charles carefully placed his claws into the wood and began his descent, following the track of the channels downwards. He'd seen squirrels do this often enough.

Charles fell off at the last moment, his head banging into the wood planks. He rolled over onto his belly blinking a few times. It didn't really hurt much at all; more of a surprise really. Standing on his hind legs for a bit, he peered about the room. The colossal bookcase and dresser took up one side of the room. There was a small crack between each and the floor, probably too small for him to squeeze through, but it was worth a try.

Scampering quickly across the floorboards, Charles kept his eyes focused on his goal. The rest of the room would merit observation later. Certainly the Captain would not appreciate it if he chewed up any of his fine furnishings; though as a full rat he seemed a bit more driven to chew indiscriminately. The crack between dresser and floor was too narrow, but he could squeeze himself in beneath the bookcase.

It was rather cozy under the bookcase, though he obviously couldn't stand. Listening to the sounds under the floor, he began to be able to determine just how the boat was constructed. There was as always, an intermediate layer to give support to the entire ship and so that people wouldn't fall through the floor. It would be entirely safe to build himself a little nest here beneath the bookcase. As long as he kept it neat, the Captain never need know; hopefully the Cox'n wouldn't move the bookcase to sweep underneath it!

Charles began clawing at the wood, chewing at the floorboards flush with the wall. It would take some time, but at least it would give him more mobility, and a place to store the amulet if things got hectic at Arabarb. Plus, it made his teeth feel really good.

chapter 8

Lord Loriod stood once more at the balcony, feeling the gentle breeze upon his smooth flesh. The sun cast it rays brightly upon him; why should it not? He WAS Lord Loriod. What further reason did anything need to shine upon him? His was the unblemished purpose and promise. He was the ultimate purpose for all things, and everything else was put on this world for his benefit. The spirits assured him of that.

The sound of hooves clopping on his exquisitely tiled floors angered him. How dare someone treat his floors so callously! Something would have to be done about it. Yet when the figure spoke, he knew it to be Macaban; and what news he brought must be good.

"My Lord, we have taken the priest prisoner as you ordered. He is being held in one of the guest rooms."

Lord Loriod turned about on his heel, and looked down on his faithful donkey retainer. That was indeed good news! Good enough that he changed his mind about punishing the offender of his floors. "Take me to this priest. I wish to see him."

Macaban rose from the floor, and led the fat man down one flight of steps, and into the central heart of his mansion. The guest rooms were all on the second floor, and most had terraces facing the mountains, but the chamber that Macaban led him too had no windows. Certainly his retainer was intelligent as well as subservient. That kind of help was hard to come by.

"He is in here, my Lord." Macaban motioned to the door with silver engraving along the handle and frame.

Loriod put his finger to Macaban's chest, and traced out the forget rune again. He then traced a second blue rune over the first. "You will mark each of the men who went with you to collect Hough with this first symbol. Then you too shall forget this man was ever here." The voices were very enraged with this use of the power. However, they were just voices, and didn't know better. They tried to tell him such would not succeed, but they weren't destined to rule like he was.

Macaban left to do as he was instructed, and Loriod stepped in the room. Tied spread-eagle to the bed was the priest, still in his smocks. Hough could see, and he was awake, though barely. He peered over at Lord Loriod, and blinked a few times. "Who are you?"

Loriod strode over to the bed, feeling powerful. "I am Lord Loriod. And you are my captive. You will tell me everything I want to know, or I will keep you here till you change. Do you understand?"

"I will tell you nothing," Hough replied defiantly.

Loriod gaped at the insult. He struck the man across the cheek with the back of his hand, but then quickly calmed down. "You will do as I say, priest. And you will call me by my title. I am a Lord. You will address me always as Lord. Do you understand?" Hough sat silently, not saying a word. "Do you understand!" Loriod barked hotly.

"I understand, Lord," Hough replied, his voice quiet. It seemed as if he were thinking about something else.

"Now, tell me about Matthias. What does he fear, what does he want? How has he sinned? Tell me everything."

"I cannot."

"What?" Loriod belched, his skin flaming.

"I said I cannot."

Loriod held his hands tightly, the red mark of his blow still fresh upon the priest's face. He should add a second to the man's collection! "What!" His voice was cracking from the rage.

"I said I cannot, Lord," Hough repeated again, his voice as calm as the first time he spoke.

Loriod immediately felt the anger subside. Sitting back on the bed and gently rubbing his hands over the priest's leg beneath the cloth, he smiled thoughtfully. Matthias had left the Keep on the patrols by now for certain. He would be gone for some time. He did not need this information right now; Hough would tell all in good time. However, he needed to leave this recalcitrant holy man with something to ponder.

"Remember, at any time you want to tell me everything I want to know, I will gladly listen and let you go free." It was a lie. He had no intention of ever releasing Hough. The priest could reveal his actions, and that would certainly be enough to bring unwelcome attention from the other nobles and most especially the Duke. With the power of the spirits on his side they couldn't touch him of course. Still, it would be inconvenient to have his treachery become public knowledge.

"You have about a week before Metamor claims you. You could become some animal, or even a child or a woman." He watched the holy man's face to see which would produce the greatest twinge. The priest's face was stolid, unmoved. He took his one hand from the man's leg, and then began to trace out another symbol on the man's chest. Suddenly, Hough's aura glowed brightly about him. It was a soft relaxed color, though there was a bit of tension struggling beneath the surface. A calm portion was beginning to spread through it though. It seemed that his captive was praying.

"Think about it, Reverend. You could become an animal, subjected to subhuman status and instincts. You might find yourself mindlessly chasing sticks thrown by children. You might need to chew wood constantly. You might develop an unholy taste for living flesh and blood unlike anything you've ever known before. You could grow fur, and need to be groomed constantly. Imagine the months where you shed all over everything and everyone. Or you could become a cold blooded creature, forever condemned to spend your winters indoors next to a roaring fire for fear of freezing to death. Or you might even become a creature so hideous that we can all see through your skin to your insides, the light becoming painful to your tiny eyes; you'd have to spend your life in the eternal blackness of the catacombs. Think about it.

"Or perhaps you might become a child. Your size shrinking until you are no more than a teenager or perhaps even younger. You would be small, unable to lift or carry anything. You would have trouble with coordination, and no longer would you be taken seriously by anybody. Most would mistake you for a true child, and treat you as such, ignoring you for the most part. Or worse yet, you might be confined to diapers for much of your time. You wouldn't even be able to talk, and you would defecate yourself at the most embarrassing moments. All you could do was cry for attention as you feebly try to live out the remainder of your existence.

"Think about it, my dear Father Hough. You might even become a woman. Your passion for the carnal and fleshy desires would increase beyond your wildest fantasies. Your pussy would become hot and wet at the mere thought of a man being alone with you. You would crave and need him; you would need him for fornication. you would seek it, and you would get no other pleasure but that. Your breasts would be huge and unwieldy, and would be in constant need of a man's strong hands. Your life would revolve around sexual gratification from the superior sex, and all higher and more intellectual pursuits would become moot. Can't you imagine the soft flesh you would have, smooth and luscious, ready to satisfy any man's desire? You would become a harlot, ready to spread your legs to fuck from any man who even looked at you. What do you think of that?"

Watching the priest's aura he could see the way it shifted and grew more strained after each possible sentence was laid down. However, it wasn't until he mentioned becoming a woman that it really began to react. Only the calm point in the center of his aura and presumably his soul managed to remain unruffled. That was it then; what he most feared was becoming a woman.

"Well, since you seem to hate the last idea the most, I shall ensure that it will be your sentence. I know just how to do this, you know, alone of all the population of Metamor." Looking down at the man's sullen frame, another thought came to Loriod. "And once you've changed, I think I will fulfill your needs myself. Perhaps even get you pregnant. And when your baby arrives, I will make you watch as I slowly cut its limbs off, starting with it's precious little fingers, and then the tiny, perfect toes." Having become a man, he too was subject to new sexual desires. Yet most women who became men in the Metamor lands managed to control. the urge to fulfill their sexual needs by becoming less masculine or from sheer mental will. The reasons had to do with understanding the feminine fear of rape.

For Loriod of course, this was hardly the case. "What do you think of that?" Loriod asked triumphantly.

"I am sorry that you have become such an evil person. I pray that God may have mercy on your soul," Hough replied with complete candor.

The insolence of the reply infuriated Loriod to action. He put his hand between the man's legs, and gently fondled the genitals there for a moment, before walking to the door. "If you ever want to tell me all, just shout. I will come, eventually. You have less than a week."

Lord Loriod stepped out of the room, and began sweating. How to make Hough talk? The voices seemed to know the answer, but they hinted at a more direct means of communication. The demon-engraved censor of course. Quickly dashing through the halls of his palace, he started climbing the steps of one of his larger towers. Taking the steps two at a time, he barged through the thick door and locked it behind him. The room was the only one in his entire palace that was unadorned. No gold inlays, no paintings, no statues, or comfortable amenities. It was just the cold stone and the bare walls and the censor sitting atop the dais in the center with windows to each side.

The fat man carefully walked over, and dropped into the censor a bit of the white chalk that lay beside it. Immediately an explosion of smoke rose upwards, circling and coiling like a serpent about the air, rising upwards and enveloping him in its intoxicating fumes. He would of course pass out when the meeting was over, but this was necessary, the voices demanded it.

The fog cleared then, and he seemed to be floating along a thin stream. Blackness enveloped him on all sides, but from out of the blackness strode three figures. Each were dressed in simple robes. The one in the center was a man who appeared to be in his late thirties, small wiry frame, with a very menacing gaze. His hair was black, and his robes were black with a single insignia etched upon the sleeves. It was of a Red shield with a palm facing outwards; inside the palm was engraved a white sword.

The figure on his left was another man, this one dressed in purple robes with lightning flashes marked down along either side of his chest and arms. He was taller and more muscular than the first, and his wavy blonde hair fell about his shoulders. His hands were tucked in either side of his robe. His mouth was clenched in a tight smile.

The last figure was a woman. Her slick black hair streamed down to her waist. She was adorned in purple robes as well. The only mark upon them was the figure of a pointing hand. Her face was calm, passive. Her bloodshot eyes however were quite penetrating, and startled Loriod out of his euphoric mushiness.

"You wanted to tell me something?" He asked the voices that had brought him his destiny.

The central figure spoke with authority. "You have needlessly dragged the priest into this situation. Do you think the Church is so easily trifled with? His absence will be noted almost immediately. And embarrassing questions asked. Besides, you should have known he will never talk. Catholic priests are specially trained to maintain silence about certain things. Did you not know this?"

"I have heard of these things. And his involvement is NOT needless! You have said again and again that Matthias needs to be controlled. I am merely trying to make this happen!" Loriod's voice sounded much like the whine of a petulant child trying to talk his way out of a punishment.

The woman rolled her eyes as if in search of strength from above. "Very well then,. The thing is done, and we must adopt your methods. In which case, you must make him think you can do what you claim. If you remain confident, he will believe you can turn him into a sex slave. But it is not fornication which Hough fears most."

"Then what is it?"

The man in purple spoke this time. "That is something we cannot tell you. We have risked much in just giving this warning. Only one thing more can we say to you now. Beware the Hare of White, for his cunning and ingenuity far exceed your expectations. Do not try anything else that may bring him to you again. Also, do not attempt to approach any of Matthias's friends. Phil is watching them closely."

The lightning-marked man then added in a cautious whisper. "Also, stay clear of the north side of Metamor walls."

"Isn't that where you had me..."

"It is best not to even talk about it!" the central figure cautioned him into silence. "If you follow our advice, you will soon rule all of this land. Right now is the time for caution. If you continue to flagrantly ignore our warnings, you will doom yourself to penury. Do you understand, Lord Loriod?"

"Yes, I understand."

None of them seemed convinced of his sincerity. However, the trio did not debate the subject, recognizing that already Loriod was beginning down the slippery slope that had been his inevitable doom since the first time he had lit the censor. But the fat Lord took their acquiescence as submission, of course, the natural result of his royal position. To him it was in the normal order of things that mere wizards should bend to his will. This once, he would humor them. Especially since certain "diversions" were available to him. After all, Loriod reasoned, he had once been a lustful woman.

And Father Hough was without doubt a most attractive man...

The three began to fade back into the darkness and shadows. "Power shall be yours. Heed our advice. Beware the Hare of White." And then all was quiet again in the smoke of the censor. Loriod finally passed out, visions of delicious rape spinning in his head.

With Matthias gone on his mission, I could afford to relax a bit. Brian Coe the healer had told me that while my withdrawals were unpredictable sometimes, there invariably seemed to be one whenever I was highly stressed. My own observations confirmed this, so when things slowed down a bit I often took a morning just to write. Rupert, as always, seemed to know what I wanted before I even spoke and included my special pen and some paper amid the greenery on my breakfast tray. Immediately I began exploring a concept rooted in my own experiences. Being a rabbit had changed me, I knew, and in some ways made my behavior hard for others to understand. What would happen to someone if they changed so much no one could understand them at all anymore? The result was a dark twisted tale that drew from my worst fears and experiences. It was about a Keep constable who became a dark and twisted killer, taking one victim a day and murdering them in the most horrid ways imaginable for reasons that no one would ever understand. The finished product was hardly a thing of beauty, but it would at least be memorable. Or so I hoped. When Charles got back I would discuss a title with him- he had always been better at titling stories than me. Perhaps something to do with death and reality...

At any rate, when it came time for serious work in the afternoon I felt much more relaxed. Which was just as well, because I faced the most difficult and important task of the Master of Fire. Since agreeing to formally take back my old role, it once again fell into my hands to select new apprentices for the Guild, as the Fleet was expanding rapidly at my own urging. Traditionally the final decision was mine and mine alone, and in this case the traditions were wise. A stack of scrolls lay before me, each containing the application and interview transcript of an eager young man of Whales who hoped someday to be a Journeyman of the Guild, and perhaps even the Master of Fire. It was my duty to select only those able mentally and spiritually to withstand the rigors of Guild life.

I gave each my full attention, wishing that circumstances allowed me to look deeply into their eyes and try to gauge the truth of their souls, but of course the Curse and my new form made this impossible. I had an old friend doing the interviews for me, a man I knew well and trusted- my designated successor, in fact. But even he could not carry for me the burden of choice.

You see, selecting a Guild apprentice is far more difficult than it appears. There are only so many slots to go around, even in times of Fleet growth, and many more applicants than openings. We try to choose the very cream of the crop, those with schooling beyond their years and the quick minds needed to grasp the highly technical arts of Fire and Fleet maneuver. Yet there are more important factors, things much harder to gauge than literacy or skill at ciphering. Becoming a Guild member is in many ways a calling rather than a true profession. Because we hold exclusive control of the most powerful naval weapons in the world, it is essential that we be men of honor. And because the nature of this weapon is so horrible, it is even more vital still that the boys we select grow into men who are both repelled by what they almost inevitably will be called upon to do and willing to do it anyway for the good of civilization. Those who cannot bring themselves to fire their projectors may be good men, but they will never enforce the laws of civilization at sea. Yet those who let fly too willingly become monsters. The Guild had made many mistakes both ways, and each had proven costly in terms of human life.

The responsibility for choosing laid with me, and only me. I would not unfairly try to delegate the task.

My old friend had interviewed well, and marked out for special attention those he found to be the cream of the crop. And I agreed, with one exception. He had failed to mark one applicant I found most promising indeed, a future leader in my opinion. It did not take long to realize why- the lad was from Metamor! I rocked my ears in merriment- here was one interview I could have done myself, and the yet the child had traveled all the way to Whales to apply!

Of course my friend had noted this in large letters- it was an ancient tradition that only men of Whales could join the Guild. Our secrets were far to precious to entrust to those whose loyalty might be in the slightest way suspect. The applicant's skill and level of dedication was noted, but the scroll had only been forwarded so that I could explain to the parents.

Parents be damned! I read over the document again and again, more pleased each time with what it revealed. The boy had lived on Loriod's lands, but his family had seen to it that he was educated in Thomas's wonderful schools. He seemed very sincere- his trip overland of hundreds of miles on foot through dangerous country showed that. And, upon re-examination of my subordinate's remarks I could see that he was saddened a bit by the prospect of losing this young man for the Fleet as well.

Hmm. Could THAT be the real reason he had included the "illegal" application for my perusal? If anyone in the history of Whales could get away with breaking rules, it was me. That was why I considered my becoming Crown Prince to be so wrong. But that was an argument I had long ago lost...

I was getting a bit cramped anyway, and the rest of my selections were made. So as rapidly as my forepaws allowed Rupert and I placed my Guild seal upon the applications of 14 candidates, leaving one slot empty. Then I decided to go for a little hop. It would be very easy for me to become a fat and lazy bunny, and one never knew when one might need full speed to evade something really dangerous, like a dog.

It was sunny outside, and as unseasonably warm as ever. Not a cloud marred the perfect blue sky, and I had overheard Saroth use the feared word "drought" already. After the unfortunate tornadoes of Spring, more odd weather didn't seem too surprising. I raced about the courtyard to the smiles of all around, getting my exercise in a fashion I was reasonably sure no other Crown Prince or Admiral in the world utilized. I didn't mind putting on a show here at Metamor; after all I was hardly alone here in my plight. But someday I would have to do the same in my adopted father's castle as Crown Prince, and then in MY castle as King of Whales. The very idea of being a reigning sovereign sobered me back up and utterly took the wind from my sails. How could I both be a rabbit and a King? Given a choice, I would take rabbithood every time, bad as it was sometimes. Yet both fates seemed inescapable.

Until that ugly picture formed I had been chasing butterflies without a care in the world. But to the crowd's disappointment I climbed back upon my hindlegs and began to walk as humanly and with as much dignity as possible once again. It wasn't natural to me, but my new job required me to act the part.

Didn't it?

Matthias turned about from gnawing his hole at the sound of footsteps. He could now squeeze himself under the floor with ease if he so wished, but it would be impossible for him to fit any objects through, aside from the small package. He didn't really expect to be bringing anything through the floor, but he always tried to be prepared. Besides, it would make a good place to stay for the duration of the voyage. He'd lived in dark and unpleasant quarters before; this would hardly be a trial to him.

However the arrival of one of the crew, most likely that coxswain Magnus, brought his gnawings to a complete halt. Matthias peered out from the bottom of the dresser as the muscular figure began to straighten up the bunk, pulling each sheet taut over the mattress in a quite military fashion. He was whistling slightly, a jaunty little tune that Charles found quite infectious.

However when he got to the table and began folding the maps up, Charles realized that he had left the bread and cheese out for anybody to see. Magnus indeed saw it, and a long low whistle of surprise replaced the catchy melody. He began looking about the floor, scanning for a rat. Matthias knew his teeth marks had been left all over the meal, and the Cox'n must surely know that his Captain was allergic to rats.

Charles scampered rapidly back to the hole he had made, making against his will a "thunka-thunks-thunka!" sound on the drumlike deck. Then, worriedly, he continued to keep watch from under his new cover. The coxswain, alerted further by the sound, was carefully looking under all the furnishings. It would only be a matter of moments before he reached the bookcase. Charles eased further back into his hole, scratching at the sides to squeeze his lithe frame into the intervening structure between the decks of the ship.

Suddenly he slipped through, and landed on his head amidst dust and debris. The sound was enough to attract the attentive Magnus, who quickly began sliding the bookcase out of the way. Charles scampered back from the sudden light, and gazed up at the small hole. The floorboards were tight together and well pitched, so there was little chance for any light to penetrate this inky blackness. However, his nose told him clearly that there were other openings he could escape through.

The man's thick callused fingers poked a bit down the hole, and then they too disappeared. He could hear the shuffling of the man's bare feet and the creaking of the wood as Magnus moved about the room, probably trying to find something with which to block up the hole. Only a moment later, the sound of other footsteps moved into the room, and voices could be heard.

"Captain, I've found a rat in your quarters. I'm just setting some traps now." Traps! What a horrible idea. A bit humiliating as well...

"No, there's no need to set any traps. Have you seen the rat?" Ptomamus sounded just as congested as last time. He could hear him sniffle every few moments.

"I haven't seen the beggar yet, but just look at your bread and cheese! And there is a hole underneath your bookcase. Somebody has been sneaking into your room, all right! I'll just set some traps and you can rest assured that no little visitors will come to bother you again." The coxswain's voice was certainly concerned and Charles knew that he meant well. He WAS just doing his duty as he saw it, after all. Had circumstances been different, he probably would have gotten along well with the fellow. But as things were, he was starting to get irritating...

"I do not want any traps in my quarters."

"But sir, you sound awful! You could be bedridden if it gets much worse. Let me take care of any rats coming into your quarters, and I know you'll be better in no time."

"Magnus, I'm your Captain. I have thought about it, and I do not want you setting traps in my room. Feel free to set traps elsewhere, but not in my quarters." Ptomamus probably surmised that Charles planned on staying in his cabin the whole time. In fact, he had no intention of remaining here However, it seemed now he must be more cautious than he had anticipated!.

"Yes Captain," Magnus replied, disappointment and concern and confusion all vying for first place in his voice. "What did Aramaes give you for your allergies?"

"The mage had few things, but he did give me this broth to drink each night. If that doesn't work, I shall stop at an apothecary while we dock at Brathas."

"Will I be able to go ashore to get you some fresh food? It might help."

"It depends. I am eager to deliver the dispatches, but we will have to await a reply. We might ship out at any time. And do not forget, we are traveling under a flag of truce. It would be within the rights of the Enemy to require us all to stay aboard ship."

Magnus the Cox'n was silent for a few moments. Then he returned to his own immediate problem. "Now sir, what do you want me to do about this rat?"

Ptomamus was quick to reply. "Just board up the hole and push the bookcase back. No need to worry about vermin just now." He then sneezed, giving lie to his own words, and Charles winced at the force of the eruption. He hated to be the cause of the man's distress, though the situation WAS a bit comical.

"I shall do so immediately. Let me get rid of this cheese and bread as well."

"Let me handle that!"

"Are you sure, sir?" Magnus's voice now held wonder and bafflement.

"Yes. Just leave them for now. I'm sure no wise rat would dare come back here while you are around." Charles took the hint, and decided to stay well out of sight. At least the Captain had made sure that his own room wouldn't be trapped. It would just be a matter of eating his way back through the planks near where he'd chewed his hole originally. The Cox'n might get a little ambitious in his plugging up the hole that was already there. One thing was for sure though. He was going to have to be more careful- Fleet ships were busy places!

chapter 9

It was inevitable that I should make my way directly to Loriod's lands once again. I hate unfinished business in any event, and this way I could keep my eyes open for more clues while having a legitimate cover story in place. And besides, I wanted to meet the parents of the young man from Metamor who wished to become my Guild brother.

Rupert borrowed one of Thomas's work wagons again- I simply hate being so presumptuous as to use a coach, even if being closed in does make me feel more secure. The horses made short work of the trip, and presently I found myself outside a clean and neat thatch hut. A rather attractive young woman came out to investigate our clatter, and curtsied deeply upon seeing me. She did this gracefully and easily, especially considering that by the very nature of things she must have until the Battle of the Three Gates been a man. And yet, while the other peasants of Loriod's little fiefdom had seemed utterly spiritless, there was fire in this woman's eyes. Her curtsy was polite, and there was genuine respect in it. But not a shred of servility.

I rather liked her already.

"Ma'am," I acknowledged her with equal politeness. "Only in Royal ceremonies do I accept bows and curtsies, and only then for the sake of tradition. Please, treat me like anyone else. Or worse than that- Rupert here does."

Rupert confirmed this with a grunt, and the woman smiled as she stood back up. "I had heard of your preferences.... Sir. But under Lord Loriod, appearances are to be maintained at all costs."

Not a word could be interpreted as insolent, but her tone of voice said it all. "Yes, I understand all too well. And I will not object to your placating Loriod if we meet again in public. But we are alone now, and my name is Phil." I extended a paw, handshake fashion.

She took it delicately, trying to suppress a delighted smile. The facial display wasn't due to the prospect of shaking hands with royalty, I knew, but rather because of the fact that I was cute as could be with my paw out like that and my ears erect. It worked every time to put females at ease, even formerly male females. "I am Josephina," she replied, trying to be dignified despite the circumstances. It didn't work, and eventually she gave up and scratched my ears most delightfully. I responded by getting up on my toes and sniffing at her face, and she laughed uproariously. I was enjoying myself too- it was nice to meet ordinary people of the type I myself remained at heart, who were utterly unimpressed with royal status. Presently my bodyguard and I were sitting inside at her table as she bustled about getting us both some fresh vegetables and Rupert some tea. I had to pass on the possibly overstimulating beverage, but it smelled delicious and the gorilla made sure he let me know through his facial expressions and gestures what I was missing.

After a long pleasant discussion of unimportant things, we got down to business.

"Joesephina, I suppose you know where your boy Horatio is."

She was unsurprised. "Yes, I do. And why he is there."

"Do you approve?"

She looked uncomfortable for a moment, then replied. "Phil, I am a veteran of the Three Gates, just as you are. You had to realize this, of course."

"Yes, I know what the Curse has done to you. But I had not realized you were once a soldier."

"I still AM a soldier!" she bristled, then went on more calmly. "Are you still an Admiral? If not, why are you here, cowardly rabbit?"

"Touch!" I replied, instantly regretting my error. "I DO apologize. But your cooking, your clean well-decorated house, all of these things make me think you have embraced the feminine quite thoroughly."

She nodded. "Apology accepted, from one with your problems. We are much alike in that regard."

"How so?" I asked. "Because of the Curse, Thomas has many female soldiers..."

"That's just it!" she interrupted angrily. "Duke Thomas has many female warriors indeed! But Loriod does not..."

And then I began to understand. "You mean..."

"My husband is a wonderful man, and a fine river otter as well. But I am his PROPERTY, under Loriod's rule. And I once was Captain of Alvarez Loriod's guard! But Altera will have nothing to do with me as a mere woman, though she was herself raised one.

I winced, about the only facial expression the Curse had left me. "I am so sorry," I explained. "I never knew..."

But she was all worked up now. "Sure, you have that excuse with Loriod. It's probably true that you never knew- we are not encouraged to mix with the other Keepers. But what of your own homeland? How are the women treated there?"

I started to answer that they were treated quite well, and by comparison it would have been the absolute truth. But in fact, had not all my applicants to the Guild that very afternoon been male, despite what I had learned of female fighters at Metamor? So after a pause I answered truthfully. "Better than here, better than in most of the world. None are property. But certain things are denied them."

She looked searchingly into my eyes. "You know, I had heard that you were born a peasant, and now I believe it. You speak plainly, like us, and do not try to hide in double meanings. If in your homeland a commoner can rise to your rank, it is no wonder that my daughter seeks her fortune there."

I'm afraid I spluttered. "Your..."

"Yes," she said matter-of-factly, "My daughter. The curse IS still active, you know. Once she reached puberty, it was inevitable that one of the Three Changes would come upon her. She considered a change of gender the least fearsome, and grew up hoping it would be so. Do you have a problem with this?"

After that which had gone before, what could I say? But I am afraid my voice was still a bit rough from spluttering. "No, no problem at all!" I managed to croak.

Then Joesephine smiled, and scratched my ears again. "At least you are honest. Most of the nobility is utterly useless."

Having my ears stroked by someone I like has an effect on me much like that of alcohol. It makes me reckless at the same time it loosens my tongue, and I often say things I regret. But these words I never would. "The world is changing fast, Joesephina. Changes like those happening here at Metamor cannot help but spread. I'll make you a deal. The Academy is a tough place, and deliberately so. Write your daughter and tell her to let no one know for now what her past is. If I didn't guess after living here at Metamor all these years, then no one back in Whales is very likely to figure it out either. And after all, she IS now in truth a male. Let her keep her secret until she has distinguished herself beyond reproach, as I am sure she will with the mother she had and the background information I saw on her today, THEN, let her tell the world the truth from a position of strength. And this truth will make the people of Whales and the rest of the world alike ask themselves questions that they never would have otherwise. I'll help you two change the world- it seems to be in my job description lately. But indulge me by doing it slowly."

With that Joesephina hugged me across the table, and more than a couple tears soaked into my fur. After a very long time, I broke the silence. "Tell me, is the river otter you mentioned Horatio's birth mother?"

"No, she died in childbirth. And her Stepmother was Loriod's Lady-In-Waiting before the Battle. She did not survive her Change."

"I am very sorry. Not surviving at all was most unusual."

"Almost unheard of, you mean. I think Marguerite may have been the only fatality. When Loriod took over, he declared that everyone with a new gender must live the role to the fullest, that it was the hand of destiny at work. I was married against my will, and told to keep house and keep house well or else. My husband is a decent sort, and has come to love me in his own way. But he was simpleminded from birth, and only the Curse makes him able to work productively. At least he provides well, and he truly tries to be a loving husband. He was devoted to Horatia, in fact. But..."

And then the tears came for real, bitter and quintessentially female tears of a life without hope. I wondered how many women in how many lands lived with so many broken dreams, and cried alone in their pain even as I sat and tried to comfort the one suffering woman before me.

Even Rupert looked moved. Clearly, more needed to be done here.

When this spell had passed, Joesephina apologized profusely for my mussed fur. "Phil, I am so sorry!" she exclaimed, her eyes still red and cheeks still moist.

"Never mind! It's OK, Rupert will fix it later. Now, how else can I help you?"

"What... What do you mean?"

"It goes with being a Crown Prince. Noblesse Oblige and all that rot. I don't care if you used to be ten feet tall and had smelly feet, you are now a damsel in severe distress and I am required to come to your aid. Tradition, you know."

She smiled. "Phil, I couldn't leave my husband. I HAVE come to love him, and couldn't stand to hurt him. He is so gentle really, and so terribly vulnerable. And Loriod will never let him go."

"Whyever not?"

"He is His Lordship's fish keeper."

This was interesting. "Fish keeper?"

"Yes. Loriod keeps ornamental fish ponds all around the estate. Have you noticed them?"

"Yes. The ponds are quite beautiful, in fact. I have to admit, I never even gave a thought to the hard labor that it must take to maintain them."

Joesephine sighed. "Yes, he works on them from sunup to sundown every day of the year except during the Midsummer festival. And Loriod works him then too, when the slightest flaw comes to his attention. If it weren't that Barney gets to eat the surplus fish population, we couldn't begin to make ends meet even so. The taxes are horrible! Not at all like the old days."

"I see."

"So you can understand that we have to stay here. But thanks for caring. Your the only noble I've ever met that cared."

"The Duke would care, too. If you ever met him you would know this. But circumstances stay his hand. I am beginning to think I may have more freedom of action myself, though."

At this, Joesephina looked baffled.

"Does your husband... Barney?"

She nodded.

"Barney, then. Does Barney tend the aquariums as well?"

"Yes, of course. Why?"

"A hunch, mainly. Will he be home soon?"

"Not long after dark."

"Can I talk to him?"

She shrugged. "I don't see why not. Care to stay for dinner?"

"That would be very nice." Rupert grunted at this, so I turned to him and explained. "Friend, this is VERY important, and well worth the slight risk of traveling at night to get home. I am Crown Prince, but a soldier has other duties as well.

He shook his head, ape-fashion. My guard didn't like it, but he knew of the other duties I was referring to, and just from being around me was well aware of their importance. Rupert might be a 600 lb. gorilla, but that didn't mean he was dumb. Quite the opposite was the case, I knew, much as he liked to ham his anthropoid nature up. No further objections were raised.

I exercised some more in the little clearing out front to while away the couple hours I had to wait, as Joesephina asked frequent dietary questions about apes and bunnies through the open door. Since Barney fed on the job, he and Joesephina normally ate separate meals anyway. So the three of us dined off the only two plates she owned, her sense of hospitality requiring that Rupert and I go first. Nothing could have made Loriod's economic misrule more apparent to me than the way the bustling housewife blushed when explaining why she must perforce wait her turn. The food would have been delicious, were it not flavored with embarrassment and poverty.

Barney arrived home just before his wife finished eating. I had intended to meet him outside to lessen the shock I had been assured he would experience, but had not realized that he would silently swim home up the largish creek out back. Therefore, all I had time to do before the door opened was rise quickly out of my chair.

"Lord o' Mercy!" he said, eyes wide and staring as he tried to take in who was in his humble home. "What in tarn..." Then, he recognized me. The change was instantaneous. Immediately he began offering Loriod-style "respect".

The otter-man prostrated himself face down on the dirt floor, trembling. "Your Highness! I never knowed it was you. Please, My Lord... No, Your Highness! Please, Your Highness! Have mercy! I can't see too good in the dark no more...." And he began to weep in abject fear. Clearly, he had learned well what to expect next.

Good Lord! How many poor creatures like this were there in this sorry little fiefdom? And for that matter, how many outside the Duke's realm and my own nation? Almost the whole rest of the world was run in a more-or-less extreme version of Loriod's style. What crimes had the "noble" rulers of the various lands committed to merit such fawning? Simple Barney, just doing as he had been taught, should have been a slap in the face to any "noble" anywhere. Why did it seem like only Thomas and Tenomides and I could feel the pain?

Immediately I got down on all fours beside the sobbing man, and rubbed gently up against him. This was a mark of how disturbing the spectacle had proven to be for me- instinctively I had reacted as a rabbit. It wasn't until I noticed that this strategy wasn't working that I realized what I had done. More and more often of late under stress I had behaved in a lapine fashion. I would have to watch that...

When I got up I noticed Rupert hadn't missed my little slip either. He was wearing the blank face that he always used to try to hide the fact that he was really worried...

But I recovered nicely, and laid on my belly head to head with the poor fellow. "Barney?" I asked as gently as I could. "Are you OK?"

"Please, Your Highness, Please! Mercy!" he sobbed.

"Barney, I promise you will not be hurt. Not now, and not ever again. By Loriod, or any other noble. By my Guild and my Duty, I swear it."

By then, he had ME crying. "Barney, I have just decided that a fishpond is exactly what I need to help me relax. Can you tell me about fishponds?"

A question he was comfortable with penetrated where assurances could not. "I know fish, Your Highness," he finally squeaked out.

"Good!" I said with enthusiasm. "Come sit next to me on the porch, and tell me all about fish!"

He was very reluctant, of course- the man was terrified out of his wits. But his wife helped him along, and Rupert clowned, and I tried to be as gentle and rabbitlike as possible, which in my case is very rabbitlike indeed. And eventually we got Barney talking.

"The water's the thing!" he explained with the first enthusiasm he had shown all evening. "Everything's in the water. Keep it just right, and you'll have healthy fish for sure, Your Highness!"

"The food's not important?" I asked. Despite myself, I was getting interested.

"Naw, not really. Koi are stupid, and they'll eat anything. Stupid fish, they are. The whole secret's the water."

"What about goldfish?" I asked innocently. "I like goldfish."

Barney looked like he'd been hit. His lower lip began to tremble again.

"Now, now!" I said hurriedly. "I didn't mean to scare you. I'm sorry."

The otter man looked across at me suspiciously. "You didn't know they're sick?"

"Sick?" I asked innocently, crossing my forepaws behind my back. "I don't even know what you are talking about."

"My Lord Loriod keeps goldfish, Your Highness. He's had 'em for several years. Thinks they're made of gold, you know." With that, Barney pointed his index finger at the side of his head and rotated it in an age-old gesture. It was amazing how quickly he'd come to trust me. Must have been the cute nose...

"Anyhows, they've been in far too small a tank for a long time, but Macaban kept telling me His Lordship don't want me transferring them over, that he insisted on doing that job himself. So's I just changed the water a lot- the water's the most important thing, ya see- and kept on telling Macaban that something needed to be done soon. Especially since the water was warm all the time. Goldfish don't like it none too warm."

I nodded absently. Something was ringing an alarm somewhere in my head.

"So's one day I come in and the water's all cold. Now that would be a good thing, y'see, but the water is very, very important. You have to make sure it cools down real slow like, or the fish get the "puffs", as I call it."

"The "puffs"?"

"Yep. The fish get real big bellies, and pretty soon they start to float. The poor things fight that, naturally enough, and work themselves to death trying to stay under. Two of My Lord's precious goldfish are just starting to puff...." And he covered his face with his webbed hands and began to sob again.

This poor human being was weeping over the prospect of what would happen to him when fish worth a few coppers at best died through no fault of his own. It was incredible, how distorted things became around Loriod! "I promise you, there will be no trouble for you from this. Do you hear me?"

He nodded, and I heard Joesephine suck in her breath. Only now was she beginning to understand what I planned. I just hoped she would back my play. "All right then. The water got cold suddenly, you say, and this was bad?"

He nodded again, still hiding his face. "The water is so important..." His voice was still trembling.

"Yes, I understand now that it is VERY important." Though Barney was far more important, if he but could realize it. Even if Loriod didn't. "I would never want to do that to my goldfish! Do you have any idea what went wrong?"

Barney finally took his hands down and looked me in the eye. He was truly mystified. "I dunno, Your Highness. Really I don't. I watched that water so close, it being the most important thing and all that. They were His Lordship's favorite fish, you knows. But the only thing that changed was that some kind of red rock got taken out. I never would have paid it no heed, naturally- water's a lot more important than rocks! But Macaban thought I'd stolen it, and came out and searched my house and everything."

"Macaban himself?"

"Yes, Your Highness. Macaban hisself."

For an aquarium decoration, Macaban had journeyed all the way out here and searched a home? "Did the rock ever turn up anywhere?"

"I dunno, Your Highness. He just sorta forgot about it, seemed like. And I didn't figger on remindin' him!"

My mind raced. "Can you describe the rock to me?"

"Just a rock. Pretty shade of red, though."

A red rock. Hmm....

A red rock that heated a whole aquarium for a period of years, so that the temperature dropped enough to sicken fish upon it's removal. A red rock valuable enough that when it had gone missing, Macaban himself had taken an interest.

Was it's value why Loriod had insisted on moving the fish into a new tank himself? Or was it something else?

The alarm bells were getting louder and louder as Barney innocently moved on to a lilypad die-off in a pond Loriod rarely visited, and how the fish-keeper had changed the water again and again, but I was no longer listening despite my polite nods. I could literally feel the pieces coming together...

A pyrock! Loriod had kept a pyrock in his fishtank, where any casual eyes would dismiss it as a decorative trifle. And he had used it to burn his own coach!

But why? What had been destroyed besides his own rather valuable if tacky property? My mind raced through the thickets of information on well-worn trails, doubling and trebling back to find new openings in the brambles. And then I had it!

Fox's books! About MattRat's homeland! The only sources of hard information had been destroyed in the blaze...

All of this centered around Loriod and my friend. All of it.

Clearly, it was only the tip of the iceberg.

I let poor Barney ramble on, the smallness of the life a cruel nature and crueler Loriod had left to him becoming clearer with every repetition of how important the water was. Without interrupting, I met first Rupert's eye, then Joesephine's. When I had the attention of both, I nodded meaningfully towards the wagon. Joesephine covered her mouth in shock at first, but subconsciously she must have known all along. Rupert simply nodded, and slipped inside to begin packing. Eventually, Joesephine quietly followed.

Barney could never be expected to keep quiet about my visit, of course, any more than he could fail to emphasize the importance of good water to fish. The future he faced under Loriod was bleak indeed. And of course I intended to keep my word. This man would never be brutalized or exploited again. It would be full dark by the time we left, and Rupert could scout ahead. I expected to get the civilians out clean, without being detected at all. And if we were, I doubted Loriod's royalty-worshipping guards would dare stop me in the absence of clear orders to the contrary. Bowing and scraping and saying "My Lord" too much does terrible things to a man's initiative. Besides, if I had to play the part of an offended, self important Crown Prince for a few minutes to save the lives of these two, it would be well worth it.

One of the virtues of poverty is that moving is a quick and easy thing. In just a few minutes Josephine carried the first load out, and set it on the wagon. Rupert had followed with a far-larger second package before Barney caught on. "What..." he began, looking at me with a betrayed and fearful look on his musteline features.

"It's OK!" I said. Then just to make the words sink in I repeated myself. "It's absolutely OK. Remember I said I wanted a fishpond?"

He nodded, still not comprehending.

"Well, then. Who around here knows fish like you do? Or water?"

"No one. But..."

"But what? I am truly sorry about the house. Would, say, 20 gold pieces cover your loss?" Joesephina gasped at the figure. Two would have been a generous offer, including the furnishings.

"Well..." The otter-morph looked to his wife for guidance, as I was sure he had done many times before.

"Honey," she explained gently. "What will happen to you when Loriod's goldfish die?"

His face fell, and he looked desperately around the little clearing. But until his eyes met mine, there was no escape to be found.

"Well, then," he said finally. Then, after a pause. "You say you like goldfish?"

Actually, I HAD found the little creatures rather engaging. Silently, I nodded.

"And you know they're not really made of gold, right?"

I nodded again.

"Well then," he repeated himself. "Looks like you've got yourself a fishkeeper, Your Highness. How's the water in The Keep?"

"Oh, just fine!" I explained. "But I am afraid you don't understand."

That brought both husband and wife to a screeching halt.

"I want my fishpond built on the grounds of the Fleet Academy, in Whales. Where I can relax when I become King. And remember that people are more important than fish."

"Whales?" asked Joesephina incredulously. "Whales? That's hundreds of miles from here!"

"True enough. But if you leave tonight, as I plan, you can be there in no time at all."

"But... But..."

"But what? Or don't you want to be near your only child?"

And with that all argument ended. Joesephina hugged me again, so hard I had to wriggle out of the embrace, and Barney stuttered a bit about being grateful.

The ride back to Metamor was carried out in silence, due to the possibility of pursuit. As I expected, Joesephina was well able to handle the reins, and Barney was content to sit and be still at his wife's urging. Immediately upon arrival I roused the standby guard, and wrote a letter explaining all to Tenomides. Twenty pieces of gold were brought out by Rupert and I put my seal to Horatio's Academy application at the very last second, while the impromptu caravan waited restlessly. By dawn, this family would be beyond Loriod's reach, and Thomas would have to answer for none of it to his fellow nobles. He wouldn't even know.

When Rupert finally came to put me in my cage for the night, he was acting very strangely. There was something wrong, but I just couldn't put my finger on what. Finally I out and out asked him if all was well, but he just nodded absently. Then, when all was ready for sleep he paused by the last lit candle holder and pondered for a moment.

Whereupon he bowed deeply and respectfully to me, something he'd never, ever done before. And before I could react to this totally unexpected display, he had blown out the tiny flame and vanished into the darkness.

chapter 10

Sitting alone in the darkness once again, Charles nibbled away at the bread that Ptomamus had shoved down the hole in the floor before the coxswain had managed to procure a loose piece of wood, a hammer, and some nails. The rocking of the ship back and forth, the shouting of men above and below, and the sound of creaking riggings and snapping sails gave proof to his predicament - he was a rat on a courier ship.

However it was his duty to ensure that the package, which was nestled gently against a strut where he could easily find it, was delivered in Arabarb, and so over the sea he must sail. Still, he was not planning on scrounging and foraging for most of his voyage. According to the Captain, who had been doing a lot of thinking aloud lately, they would reach Brathas in a few days, where they were making an impromptu stop of a night, and then a week to the mouth of the river Arabas.

Curling up next to the bread, his tail touching his nose momentarily, Charles closed his eyes. He did not know what time it was, but he felt awfully tired. It had been a long day, and he needed some rest. How likely he was to get very much what with all the shouting going on on deck he had no idea. The shuffle of feet and the sudden rocking of the ship as the spades were put out and manned when the wind suddenyl died jarred him further. Charles let out a rodential sigh, and curled back up again, hoping that at some point this evening, he would get some sleep.

My lapine nature had seemed unusually strong of late, and thus I awoke once again before dawn. This was really inconvenient, due to my unique sleeping arrangements. The latch on my cage had perforce to be one I couldn't undo myself for fear I would awaken as a true rabbit and let myself out. Therefore, I had to either awaken Rupert from his well-deserved rest, or content myself inside my barred bedchamber. This particular morning I once again had a pounding headache, so the choice was easy. Groaning a bit, I rolled over in my shavings and gazed out over foggy Metamor in the tranquil pre-dawn twilight, and began catching up on my gnawing.

Lapines are a lot like rodents, you see. Our teeth grow in length throughout life and need to be worn back all the time. Unlike Charles, the urge was not particularly strong in me until my incisors actually became uncomfortable. And then I usually just asked Rupert to file them back. But still, when something was very troubling or I felt a bit ill, there was nothing like rhythmic, simple chewing to settle me down.

In this case gnawing didn't ease my headache, but it made it tolerable while I considered things.

And I had much to ponder! Loriod's despicable behavior as a ruler deeply offended me, but frankly I had encountered worse in my travels. It was unfortunate that Thomas had to put up with it, though. I was certain he knew far more of what was going on in Loriod's fiefdom than he let on, and would change things if he could.

Hmm. That was an interesting thought. Maybe Thomas knew some things I did not. And perhaps it was time to share out what I knew with him. This situation was beginning to have overtones that I did not care for at all. Loriod was up to something bigger than just intimidating Matthias if he had burned property of considerable value to cover things up. And where had he gotten a pyrock, or learned the rune magic I was tentatively ascribing to him? What could the fool have gotten himself into?

But think as hard as I might, nothing new came to me. And my chewing felt good, so very good! Presently without even realizing it I was gnawing at the bountifruit wood mindlessly, lost in rabbity pleasures. It wasn't until I noticed Rupert standing over me with his brush that I came back to myself with a start. "Oh!" I said.

Rupert cocked his head inquiringly.

The sunlight was bright in the room now- I had lost several hours! This was getting worrisome, though at least my headache was now better. "I'm sorry, Rupert. You frightened me is all." He nodded, and let me out for my morning grooming. I let the brush strokes ease my too-rapidly beating heart, then decided to be open with my friend and protector.

"Rupert, when you walked up I was withdrawn. A rabbit in mind."

He stopped brushing, looked at me intently.

"I woke up normal. That means I can change while awake. That's never happened before. And, I've never withdrawn so soon after a previous episode again. It's only been a few days since the last time. You've seen me slip other ways, too, lately. Haven't you?"

The ape nodded solemnly, concern clear in his features.

"Well. If anyone needs to know it is you. I fear I am going lapine again. And that's that. There is nothing to be done about it, of course."

Sadly, Rupert shook his head and resumed his brushing. In all the world, no place was likely to offer better care for my affliction than Metamor, and we both knew it. Usually grooming is a pleasant and relaxing thing for me. But on that particular morning, it felt like a funeral rite.

At least my headache was gone.

I had gnawed mindlessly through breakfast time, so I asked Rupert to make arrangements for me to see Thomas while he was at his midmorning exercise. I needed to discuss both my increasing personal troubles and Loriod with him. He preferred to work out in full-morph form, running freely through the Ducal pastures as a stallion. Since I was one of few that could pace him easily (unless he ran too far- I am a sprinter while he is a distance runner) I took my own exercise as well, and then we grazed a bit together, companionably. When the Duke of Metamor had his fill of this, he shifted form once again, and we took our shelter under a large tree.

"That was fun!" Thomas said at length. "I never imagined that grazing with a friend could be so..."

"Fulfilling?" I offered. "I agree. It feels good down deep. Like we herbivores were meant to bond this way."

"Perhaps. Neither of our species likes to be alone all the time. Herd animals, both of us."

"Mob animals," I corrected him mildly. Then I continued. "That's one of the things I have to tell you today. I am having rabbit troubles again. Worse than ever. You and Rupert both need to know. And I will warn Tenomides as well. He needs to be thinking about a Regency to succeed him again."

The Duke was shocked. "That bad?"

I nodded ruefully. "I'm afraid so. The big thing is that this is progressing so quickly. I fear the worst, and we both know there is nothing to be done. From now on, I am regarding each day as a gift."

Thomas looked lost. "Phil, I just don't know what to say..."

"You think YOU don't know what to say!" I replied, irony heavy in my voice. Then, more gently I apologized. "Sorry, Thomas. It's just that this scares me so much... Promise me something, will you?"

"Anything, Phil."

"Will you still take me grazing sometimes, once I am gone? Mentally gone, I mean?" Vaguely my head had begun pounding again, and I was not thinking really clearly. Otherwise I would never have asked Thomas such a thing.

He just shook his head, angrily. "You shouldn't talk like this, Phil! It's not like you! And besides, it could just be a passing thing. Probably is."

But deep inside, I knew. "Thomas, it is NOT a passing thing. Something is very wrong."

"All right, then. I promise that if the worst happens I will contact Tenomides myself, and see that you get to take your exercise with me sometimes. But it will NOT happen- every effort will be made to prevent it if I have to turn the whole Keep upside down."

This comforted me some, and instinctively I snuggled up against the warm fur of my companion. It was only when he pulled away slightly that I knew I had slipped yet again. Disgusted, I shook my head to try and clear it, and Thomas, the worry clear in his deep brown eyes, reached over to stroke me. "Phil," he said, "We will lick this thing yet."

And I nodded and tried to look cheerful. "Sure, Thomas. We'll beat it." But the words had the taste of lies.

After some quiet time passed, I spoke again. "I had another reason for wanting to talk to you."

"And it was...." The Duke replied.

"One of your underlords is trying to take control of Matthias, My Lord." And I told the stallion-man all I had learned about the fire in Loriod's coach and the nature of it's contents, and how magical runes and items were appearing around Metamor seemingly wherever Loriod went.

"Hmm." Thomas replied. "You are quite certain of this?"

"Quite. Most of the legwork I did myself."

"And you say these runes are in the style of Nasoj?"

"Yes, clearly so."

"These are very serious charges."

"I do not make them lightly. But the proof, admittedly, is not yet all in."


"I tell you these things now, because I do not know how much longer I have. Normally I would wait until the case was airtight, as you know, but..."

"Of course. Tell me, where do you plan on taking this next?"

"To Wessex. He is an expert on runes, if you didn't know. I simply have not yet been able to make time."

Thomas smiled. "He seems to be an expert in all things sometimes. I will see to it that he comes by your quarters this afternoon. And after him will come many others."

"Many others? Who? I mean...."

"Phil, I am Duke of Metamor. And your are the not only my ally but my friend as well. Do you think you are not going to see every healer and mage in the Keep this very day? You have not been a Crown Prince very long yet, have you? This is MY land, and Rank Hath It's Privileges, my furry companion, to a far greater degree than you yet realize. I am going to use my rank and privilege to the hilt this very minute."

With that, Thomas gave voice to a loud whinnying shout, and guards closed in from all directions. Tersely he gave his orders while I sat openmouthed. And then, with a gesture, they withdrew to carry out his bidding.

"Good thing you've eaten well, Phil," Thomas explained with an evil grin. "Looks like you've got a long afternoon of being poked and prodded by scholars ahead of you."

Lord Loriod was sitting upon his divan, the draperies billowing in the wind that had picked up that morning, and eating one of the large eggs from the chicken house that he had kept managed out back. It was so large for a simple reason; one of the hens there was a Keeper. One of his better kept secrets actually; he doubted that he could have kept her there had others such as the Duke known.

Still, his mind was not on chickens but on priests. The handsome frame of Father Hough kept coming back into his mind. It had been some time since he'd displayed his sexual prowess; most couplings were with either animals or peasants - both disgusting. Of course there had been a few travelers that had met his eye before. However since his elevation to manhood he had not ever raped another man. Father Hough would be the first.

It was not like he hadn't engaged in homosexual acts before. As Lady Loriod he'd been less under the public eye. Politics was a complicated game, and in the past he'd had to be very careful lest his position within the court deteriorate. However, now that he had the spirits and their powers on his side, he had a bit more room to work with. It was only a matter of time.

He bit the yolk in half, tasting the huge golden ball as he first noticed Macaban on his knees before him. The carpeting that he had purchased in the Midlands the previous year muffled the sound of his servant's clopping hooves. He did not say anything to Macaban, his dietary concerns came before some lowly peasant.

When Macaban finally broke the awkward silence, his voice trembled in fear. "My Lord, Barney, the otter who looks after your fish, has disappeared. His wife as well."

Loriod spat the yolk out in shock. It splattered against Macaban's forehead, the spittle dribbling down one of his equine cheeks. "What?"

"They've disappeared, my Lord. When Barney didn't appear this morning to care for your goldfish, I went to his cottage to investigate. I feared he might be ill. But his home was totally empty, and all of the family belongings were gone, my Lord." Macaban did not raise a hand to wipe away the egg, but let it gently slide down his muzzle, and fall from his nostrils. He caught it before it touched the carpet though, and held it tightly in his hands.

"How dare they!" Loriod crushed the rest of the egg in his hand. "Start a search party for them."

"Your guards have been searching all day, but I'm afraid the fugitives have left your lands completely, my lord."

Loriod was so incensed that he rose from his divan, hands fluttering with rage. He then kicked the kneeling Macaban in the chest, sending the donkey sprawling to the ground. He threw the remnants of the egg at the wall, and upended his table, screaming in rage. Macaban quickly got back to his knees, and kept his head bowed. Loriod stared down at the negligent servant, and brought his fine silver dinner tray down upon the donkey's head.

"How dare you let them run away? How could you let them get away?"

Macaban let out a small scream of pain as the silver platter sliced a gash along one of his floppy ears. Macaban cringed back further, trying to stay kneeled before his master. "One of the guards said that he saw His Highness Phil leaving on a carriage in the night, my lord. He said he thought he saw others with him."

Loriod's anger was suddenly vanquished with the mention of the rabbit's name. He dropped the platter to the ground and fell back upon the divan. He stared emptily at the wall for a few moments, trying to collate that last bit of information. Phil had come, had not announced himself, and the fish keeper and his worthless wife had disappeared. It was obvious. A child could have deduced the conclusion.

Loriod's immediate impulse was to head straight for Metamor and present his complaint to the Duke personally. The voices were quick to remind him of his need for caution. Grumbling, he dismissed that idea, but quickly struck upon another one. Looking down at the battered form of his servant Macaban he smiled as best he could in such a time of rage. "Macaban, send word to the Steward of the Keep, Thalberg, that I have need to see him."

Macaban stayed bowed. "Yes, my lord. Is there anything else you wish from your humble servant?"

"No, that will be all for now. Wait- clean up this mess." Loriod negligently waved in the general direction of the chaos he had caused while continuing to sit comfortably. This was an outrage that could not go unpunished!

Wessex arrived at my quarters first, as promised, and we had a full half hour together alone to discuss magical runes. He confirmed most of Pascal's information on the runes, except that he pointed out that the cancellation effect of our "X" was limited to the powers of the "S". But there was more.

"You see here the structure of the left upright in your "X"? It is a tracer modification."

This got my full attention. "A tracer modification?"

"Yes, of course. Otherwise these runes are very basic. The "S" is almost childish- I could teach this magic to a village idiot if I thought such would be careful with it. But the "X" is more subtle. I would guess that whoever laid this spell did not even know all that they had been taught. It's an old wizard's trick, teaching your students spells that somehow empower the Master. In the more evil realms, it is part of how the ancient mages hold fast to their positions of power."

"I... see. Then would it be fair to say that if this spell were cast on a room, someone somewhere would know the whereabouts of whoever was in there when it was drawn?"

"All that and more. They would also know the identities and locations of anyone who entered, forever after. This modification is serious magic, not just kitchen stuff like that "Silence" glyph.

Cold horror grew in my heart. "Wessex, my good friend, unless I am seriously mistaken this "X" may have been drawn all over Metamor."

The child's eyes narrowed. "By whom?"

He needed to know, I supposed. "Loriod. But that is very, very confidential."

"Loriod!" Wessex burst out. "Why, he is an incompetent buffoon! How could he..."

I interrupted. My head was hurting again, and time might be short. "A power-hungry buffoon, my friend. The kind of buffoon most easily manipulated of all."

And with that a light seemed to go on in the boy's head. "Ah...."

"Yes, I can see that you understand. In the meantime, we have a major problem here. Roscoe can take you to a chamber in the dungeon where I believe this rune has certainly been cast. You must find it and cancel it, and put your apprentices to work searching Metamor for others like it."

"But that could take..."

"Furthermore, you need to assume that the Enemy knows where each and every one of us is at any given time, until you can prepare a counterspell. I presume you see the importance of this."

"Yes, of course! But Phil! I was ordered by the Duke himself to come to your aid. He says your personal curse is acting up again, worse than ever. And this rune-work will take so long! How can I help you when I am chasing glyphs all over Metamor?"

The meaning of his words was receding even as he spoke. I was withdrawing again, and quickly. "Tell the Duke.." I began, then broke off. My chew stick was right over there in my cage, and it looked SO appealing. And the cage SO safe..."Tell the Duke that I am lost, but that Metamor lives. There are other mages to help me, but only you know the runes so well, Wessex. Do whatever he says after that; I am no longer fit to judge these things." I wanted to say more, to try and send warning to Matthias that he was being trailed without his knowledge. But the pounding was overwhelming, so I hopped up into my cage and chewed. The child made more noises at me, but I ignored them. And presently, I was just a bunny again, without a care in the world.

And damnit, I really was happier that way. Though Rupert openly wept as he closed and latched the door behind me...

He'd slept horribly, but at least Charles had been able to doze off after about an hour of covering his ears with his paws. It was an awkward position, but sometimes it felt like it was necessary just to shut out the sudden bangs and shouts that were so common aboard a sailing ship. The motion of the floor against his body had not in the least bothered him- rats must be more seaworthy than men.

Still, he suspected that it was at least midmorning from the chill in the ship's beams - it was strangely colder in these parts than in Metamor - and from the sound of seagulls crying out overhead somewhere. Matthias sniffed at the air slowly, and picked up the distinctive scent of his package. Scampering across the floor boards, he felt it's cool surface with his tiny claws, and then he stood up to feel the boards above him. Finding the hole he'd made, he could feel the tenseness of the new wood that had been hammered into place.

Matthias moved a bit to the side, following the lay of the planks, and then began to gnaw. It would probably take all day, but he needed to have a way into the Captain's quarters. He'd hoped that Magnus did not prove to be so irritating again. It was going to be quite frustrating to have to gnaw a new way up every time the coxswain entered Ptomamus's room.

Still, what else could a rat do?

The little room was incredibly crowded when Thomas arrived to visit his lapine friend, and agitated mages and healers were arguing well down the length of the corridor in both directions from the room. The message Magus sent had been most disturbing, and all appointments were canceled in the Throne Room for the remainder of the day as a result. And they would be the day after, and the day after that, Thomas swore, until either his friend was recovered or, well...

Until hope had been given up entirely.

His clomping workhorse hoofbeat combined with his characteristically determined stride made Thomas's approach unmistakable to the crowd, and silence fell as he approached. All were staring at him, and he did not like the helpless look in their eyes. Not one bit.

"All right," Thomas said in a low but authoritative tone of voice. "Someone give me an update."

"It's the same old thing," Brian Coe began, when no one else stepped forward. "And..."

"And that's exactly what it is NOT!" Thomas snapped. "Phil knew something was wrong, that there was something different this time. He couldn't explain it, but somehow he knew."

The healers stared in shock. None had ever seen the Duke like this.

"It is your job to isolate it, find it, and cure it. Immediately! Phil's health is critical to all of Metamor. To all the civilized world! As critical as my own!" The war-horse glared at all about him, until each specialist dropped their eyes in submission.

Realizing he had perhaps pushed too hard, Thomas softened a bit. "I know many of you think that Phil is just having another episode, and that I am overreacting. But this is NOT the case! Is it, Rupert?" The ape shook his head violently and gibbered, supporting Thomas. "See?" The Duke continued. "I am not the only one who knew him well that was worried. So let's get on with, it shall we?"

"Where can we find you to report?" Raven the Lightbringer asked tentatively.

"Right here!" Thomas replied grimly, crossing his arms. "I am camping out on this very spot until I get results."

Raven's jaw dropped, followed immediately by a dozen or so others. Then, shaken by the importance assigned the task by their beloved leader, they got to work...

Hours passed, but Phil was barely aware of the passage of time. Sometimes he ate, and sometimes he slept, and all the time these annoying creatures were taking samples from his mouth and far ruder places. What did they want with his nasty droppings, anyway? Not that they couldn't have them...

And for dinner there was carrots! Phil's eye's widened with joy as Rupert carefully carried over the produce that, everyone seemed to have forgotten, originated on Loriod's lands...

chapter 11

Authors's Note:This portion contains a scene which is quite graphic. Reader discretion advised.

It wasn't until the next day that Thalberg was able to break away from his normal duties to arrive at Loriod's estate. Loriod had spent the rest of his day with Father Hough, fondling him in certain places, and teasing him. Hough had remained resolute, and had refused the food offered him from Loriod's hand. According to Macaban though, he ate what tiny amounts were given when the donkey came to check up on him. It could only therefore be taken as an insult that Hough refused to eat anything from a noble hand.

Loriod remembered how he had groped the man's genitals and playfully told him that he would never feel that way again in a week. It was an exciting sensation, and his own body had trembled from sensual delight. However, it all had to wait while he dealt with his rabbit troubles. Thalberg had been shown into his guest room where only a few days ago he had entertained the nosy bunny, and was waiting for him. Loriod kept him cooling his heels a full hour while he continued his debasing of the priest. It maddened him that the holy man remained silent throughout the whole affair!

Thalberg was a giant figure; only dragons really looked more intimidating. His yellowed eyes and teeth glared down at Loriod from a great height as the crocodilian sat patiently on the couch, warming himself in the glow of the sun that streamed through the large windows. His green flesh rippled, and the large dangerous tail draped over the side of the couch, rolling back and forth lazily. The reptile was watching Loriod curiously as he entered.

The nobleman glared at the commoner. Even when he stood, Loriod had to look up at the alligator's eyes. "Do you not show respect for your superiors?" Loriod spluttered at the confounding creature. Did not anybody know what respect for the nobility was anymore?

Thalberg inclined his head. "I'm sorry, my Lord, but I suspect that you really don't want to infuriate me any more than you already have. If you ever want to be invited to state dinners again, you will not treat me like you do your own subjects."

The gall of the man! Loriod wanted to shout him down into submission, but controlled his anger. There was important work to be done, and he needed Thalberg on his side. If all else failed, there remained another option...

Suddenly the voices in his mind were shouting at him. "No! If you cast a spell on one scale on the body of this man, you will forfeit all claims to rulership over this land." Loriod sat up straight, and peered fearfully at the alligator for only a moment, and then let it pass. The voices had never threatened him so directly before! But they quickly calmed down, and began slowly to explain their reasoning to him. Thalberg was too important to simply disappear, and one word of misdeed from him, or any spell cast upon him would be clear to the mages at the Keep. He was too close to the Duke too often. Better to handle this carefully, and through mundane means.

Loriod sighed, and then started again. "At any rate, Steward, I need to purchase the services of one of your staff."

"For what purpose?" Thalberg asked suspiciously.

"My fish keeper recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances. I have a lot of money invested in my ponds, and I don't want it all to go to waste."

Thalberg rubbed his neck with one claw. "One of my men. Well, I'd be willing to let you use him for about twenty gold a week till you find another to do the job."

Loriod spluttered at the ridiculous price. "Twenty gold a week! That's extortion."

"It is the price I am setting. I'll make a deal with you , however. You can pay me five a week, but if my man complains to me in the slightest about being treated unfairly or brutally, you will pay the remaining fifteen for that week. If you interfere in any way with his duties, you will pay me the remaining fifteen for the week. If you ever touch him you will pay me the remaining fifteen for the week, and you will never get the loan of another of my men again. Do I make myself clear, Loriod?" Thalberg's voice was dangerous. Loriod had to admire the gall of the man, challenging him so boldly in his own home, but such insolence was simply intolerable!

However, he did not have to tolerate it. "If you threaten me again, Thalberg, I'll have you thrown out and send an official complaint to the Duke for your behavior."

Thalberg waved the comment aside. "Those are my conditions."

Loriod glared darkly at the offensive creature. How dare the spirits prevent him from using what they had taught him! How much he would like to use some of the more interesting runes he had learned on this offending reptile. There was a wonderful shrinking rune that he had picked up that would make this monster much more to his liking. Chameleons were far easier to handle than crocodiles, after all...

"I am a noble, I have my rights."

"You also have your responsibilities. You have responsibility over the people of your land. If you can't keep them under control, who's fault is that?"

Loriod finally could not help himself. He spluttered angrily, "It was that damned rabbit Phil! He snuck those two out from under my very nose! He was here on my lands, and stole them out during the night. Why don't you ask him where they are?"

Thalberg got quiet suddenly, and appeared quite thoughtful. "I shall look into this," He murmured distractedly. His hand reached across the couch to the sidetable where some of his treats and delights were kept. Thalberg did not seem to be aware what he was doing as he reached over the plate of carrots.

"Don't touch those carrots!" Loriod shouted, a bit of a catch in his voice.

Thalberg snapped his arm back, and looked over at the sidetable to the carrots and then back at Loriod. "I'd never take carrots. I was reaching for one of these eggs." Thalberg pointed, but did not touch.

Loriod was taken aback a bit by the strength of his own reaction. "Sorry, nothing then." Thalberg stared at him mysteriously for a few moments, and then shrugged it off.

"So, do you want to accept the labor of one of my own servants under the conditions I have set?" Thalberg asked. Loriod was too upset to reject the offer, and was quick to shake the reptile's slimy hands and then excuse himself. He let Macaban escort the creature from his abode and quickly made his way back to Hough's room, shaking uncontrollably.

As he stepped back with the priest, he felt his old dominance and joy in commanding the situation come back in a rush. THIS was more to Loriod's liking than crocodilian Stewards he could not control! He looked over the prone figure with suggestive eyes. "You are looking quite well today, my dear priest. Now, are you ready to talk yet?" Loriod smiled as the priest continued to stare resolutely at the ceiling. This was going to take a while, it appeared. Yet Loriod would enjoy breaking this one. Some things get sweeter with time...

When Charles heard the ropes lashed to the docks, he poked his head out of the hole, and scrambled out from underneath the bookcase. It had been a long hungry voyage already. The Captain came to take his dinners in his quarters, and gave his rat companion some of the bread and cheese that was served to officers. They were meager portions, but this was all that could be had.

He'd spent most of his time down below the Captain's room, scurrying about in the darkness and finding his way along the inner passages between decks. He'd even managed to find a nice little way to squeeze himself into the pleasant smelling galley where the cook, a burly man with crossed eyes and oily hair, spent his hours cleaning and preparing food for the forty other men on board. He had even sniffed his way around the fo'castle noting how the sailors were nearly sleeping on top of each other, almost like a pile of rats. He found the comparison slightly amusing.

However Charles spent most of his time wandering beneath the cracks of Ptomamus's room, staying as far astern as possible. He would frequently conduct exercises with himself, putting the small bauble package inside his mouth and taking it back out again. His cheek pouches were amazingly large; he'd never before realized just how much he could fit inside there before. Thankfully, his delivery didn't taste too bad either.

Still if he had to sum up the first few days on board the "Arrow" in one word he would have chosen "boring". Charles found life as a sea-rat quite monotonous and completely unengaging. There simply was nothing for him to do. The only activity available to him was exploration of the ship and contemplation of his fate.

Since he was most likely part of the prophecy, he would survive this trek. Charles tried to keep that in mind, but as always, his own thoughts led him down to darker concepts. Perhaps his entire role in the prophecy was to cancel this amulet and nothing more? What if he was supposed to die horribly at the hands of Nasoj and his ilk while on this voyage in order to fulfill the prophecy? It had not been very explicit in detailing his duties. Who could tell how the prophecy would resolve itself?

And of course, there was the one pleasant thought he had left. What he was doing was going to keep Lady Kimberly safe. Whenever things became so bleak in this dark catacomb on the waves he would think of her lovely face, whiskers, and tail, and things wouldn't seem quite so bad.

He wanted to hold her paws in his, and sit beside a nice mountain lake while the sun was slowly dipping in the sky. There were many such lakes in the mountains around Metamor. It was unfortunate that they were often times too dangerous from the frequent Lutin incursions. Such natural beauty spoiled by such evil!

Still, when they got back, he really ought to take her out to see such things.

Yet now Matthias was on a ship that was docked at Brathas. Scampering up the bulkhead and sitting on the small window sill, he peered out at the lapping waves as they licked the shoreline. More ships dotted the docks along the wharf, though most were rather shabby. Ptomamus would be going ashore to see an apothecary, and several others would be busy loading cargo and supplies for the remainder of the trip.

Brathas was a bustling little community set against sloping mountains and the rushing sea. Perched against rolling grasslands on a the small plain before the spires of the mountains that dominated this part of the world, the town was the last free trading port this far north along the Sea of Stars. It was also the birthplace of Lady Kimberly.

That last was understandably the most important to Matthias. Had he not been so constrained, he would have endeavored to locate that piggish noble she'd been betrothed to, and see just what he was doing now. According to his love, he would probably be sleeping with her younger sister or any other number of concubines. Wasn't such practice against the law in these northern climes? Nobles it seemed could get away with just about anything they wanted.

Charles climbed down from the window at the sound of footsteps banging on the planks overhead. Scanning the room, from the bed to the dresser and back to the closed door, he kept his eyes open. He shinnied down the wall, and then dashed back across the room towards the safety of the bookcase. He wondered just what sorts of things the Captain liked to read. However, now was not the time for such speculations.

Still, it was nice to be out of the darkness every once in a while. Charles bathed in the sunlight that came streaming in through the small windows, bringing some brightness to the perpetual gloom. Most of his day had been spent in the shadows below decks. Much of the rest of it would be as well, he realized glumly.

He gingerly reached down and grabbed the end of his long hairless tail and felt it between his tiny paws. Charles held it for a moment, touching it and recognizing it for what it was. It signaled his place in this universe. It was a mark by which he would be known. He was a rat, and this tail was one of many things that proved it. Furthermore, he was the "Rat of Might". Was it such a horrible fate? No, not really. Difficult yes, horrible no.

Still, there were times when it became irritating. For example, that Coxswain's footsteps were once again coming towards the Captain's cabin. With a resigned sigh, Matthias slipped back down the hole in the back of the bookcase, and waited quietly in the night next to his bread and cheese for Magnus to depart once more.

Father Hough lay limply on the filthy sheets, too parched to cry out any longer for water. Not that it was likely to do any good anyway- his previous appeals had gone absolutely unheeded . Croaking out little yelps of pain he shifted his body the little bit that his bonds allowed him. But the cramps were not lessened. It seemed that nothing and no one could help him in the slightest degree, that he was condemned to simply suffer pointlessly until he died.

Even his mind was tormented. This Loriod "fellow"- Hough would not allow himself even in his extreme desperation to curse- clearly thought that the Father knew something important about Charles Matthias that he could somehow use. And indeed, Matthias's confessions had been rather... disturbing. But that was an issue between God an the rat-man, not one for Hough to interfere with. A priest was but an intermediary. Didn't Loriod realize that? And that the most powerful oaths possible bound him to silence? Even if Loriod WERE able to make him into a woman, even if he COULD make him no longer eligible for the priesthood, then it was still his duty to remain quite silent.

But Hough was deeply afraid. All young priests in seminary read of the martyrs, and wondered if they could stand up to the ultimate test of faith. And somehow, Hough had always known the test would come to him. But unlike his classmates, who seemed to almost welcome the chance to die in agony for God, Hough had known doubt deep within himself.

Now every last nightmare was coming true, and Hough could but pray for the strength to prevail.

Weakly, he struggled again, not with any real sense of hope but rather because not to struggle would be to give up. And giving up life was a sin. He was still fighting his bonds, having restarted the flow of blood and pus from wrists and ankles, when foul Loriod barged into the room.

"Well, Father Hough! How are you enjoying your last hours as a man?"

Hough croaked pitifully. He hated himself, but could not help begging for water.

"Water is it you want? Then water you shall get, my fine young lady. For how can you tell me what I wish to know unless you can speak? Macaban!" The evil creature shouted down the corridor, "Water for my sweet!"

Hough thought he had been afraid before. But only now did he know true terror. For a strange tingling sensation was spreading over his body. With Loriod right in the room, the Curse was beginning it's work! Hough groaned in desperation. He wanted OUT! "Oh PLEASE Lord!" he prayed to himself, "Let this cup pass from me! Let me escape the Curse!" And weakly he began to struggle again.

The bonds! They were looser than before! He was shrinking!

Loriod noticed too, when he returned his attention to his prisoner.. "Ah, it has begun! Even my thoughts must have the desired effect, for sure enough, you are looking a little more female already." And Loriod gently stroked the outline of Hough's genitals. "Soon, this will be gone. All gone!" He threw back his head in an evil cackle. And when he had laughed himself out, Loriod poured a little water from the pitcher his servant had brought out onto the floor. The sound drove Hough mad!

Hough was getting a little light headed at the prospect of water. Try as he might, he simply could not force himself to turn away from the ordinary earthen pitcher. Or from the precious drops of fluid dangling enticingly from the bottom, left over from when the crockery had been dipped into a barrel or perhaps even a cool, cool well just moments before. Loriod held the liquid just out of reach, where the Priest could even smell it. Holy water, his mind thought inanely, Holy, Holy Water.

But just then Loriod struck him viciously across the face, taking his mind off of the promised drink . "I asked," the fat creature repeated, "If I let you drink, will you tell me what I want to know?"

Drink! Hough's mind screamed, yes, drink! Tell a lie, tell a little fib, you must LIVE to serve God, must you not?

But, no. It would not be that way. For to lie about God's business was an abomination. And resolutely, Hough shook his head "no".

"DAMN you then!" Loriod screamed, throwing the pitcher down onto the floor with all his might. "Damn your sick dreams of holiness, and damn your God! I'll give you what you deserve, then. Give you all of what you deserve, and more besides. You want liquid, you'll get liquid! But it will be MY thirst that is quenched!"

With that, he called for his guards again. "Turn this... creature over. Then retie him firmly. He is shrinking due to the Curse."

And the soldiers meekly did exactly as they were told, leaving Hough naked on his stomach. Loriod waited until the guards left, then put his head up close to that of the priest's. "You know, Father Hough, that I used to be a woman myself?"

Miserably, Hough nodded.

"Good. Do you know why this happened to me?"

This time, Father Hough shook his head "no".

"Mmm. I do." And with that Hough began delicately stroking Hough's beard. "You ARE quite handsome, you know. To one who still remembers what it is like to look upon you with a woman's eye."

And only then did Hough begin to guess what was about to happen. His eyes widened in horror.

"Yes, you do catch on eventually, even if you are a touch slow. My Lady in Waiting and I were in bed when the Curse came upon us. We both became men together. I can make you a woman now, the same way..."

And Loriod grabbed the Priest's long hair. With a savage jerk, he pulled back the helpless man's head and kissed him full on the lips, probing with his tongue. Hough tried to pull away, but the grip was like iron.

It was a long, full kiss that made many promises, all of them evil.

"My servant did not survive her Change. This was because I never intended her to see morning anyway. The only reason she accommodated me sexually was because I told her I would set her husband up as a rapist if she did not. He was my husband's guard-captain, a most respected man. Even if I failed to prove my charge, he would never be so trusted again. And his wife knew it. But eventually the two of them would figure out how to set me up in return, I knew, so we shared some poisoned wine. Only I knew of the antidote. She died before dawn, never knowing she had been given the gift of maleness. How very, very sad." And with that, Loriod dropped Hough's head. Free at last, Hough thrashed around violently trying to work up enough spit to clear the evil taste from his lips. But of course, he was too dry.

Loriod walked down the bed, wrinkling his nose in distaste. "My, my. I should have told the guards to let you up to relieve yourself, I suppose. But I forgot. Oh well, one cannot think of everything. And excretions are found pleasant by some. This is something I have not tried- it will be a new experience for me. Aren't you proud to be offering me something new, woman?" And with those words, he slapped Hough's buttocks, hard. Hough howled in pain.

This was a mistake. For Loriod, the pain of another was an aphrodisiac.

Much time passed, as Loriod played games with excrement and candles and tender skin. Again and again throughout the evening , Hough experienced the magical tingling of the Curse. Loriod noted each event as well, commenting coyly on how Hough's skin was growing smoother and more feminine, and his wrists and ankles slimmer. But eventually he could put off his pleasure no longer, and he mounted the helpless, miserable priest. For Loriod, it was the sweet consummation of a pleasant evening.

But for Hough, it was the blackest rape possible. And with each of Loriod's deep thrusts, the saddest passage in the Bible went through his mind.

"Father why have you forsaken me?"

"Father why have you forsaken me?"

"Father why have you forsaken me?"

But his only answer was Loriod's spurting climax.

"Hmm?" Thomas asked intelligently as he was gently shaken awake. "Wha...?"

"My Lord," the Lightbringer said gently. 'We have news."

The equine nobleman tossed his head sleepily, stood, and stretched. His joints creaked abominably. Chairs meant for rabbit-folk did not adapt well to the needs of larger morphs. Once he was fully aware, he spoke. "All right, Raven. Tell me what you have."

"Pascal was playing with some of the samples we took yesterday. She's down in her lab, and wishes to show you and Rupert the results down there. Her equipment cannot be moved."

The Duke nodded. "Of course. Rupert, care to take a walk?"

The gorilla "ooked" energetically. It had been four days, and this was the first time anything even remotely positive had come up. The two wasted no time on the way down to see the 'pine.

All business, Pascal waved Thomas and Rupert into an inner room. "My Lord, Rupert, I am going to show you something that is very difficult to see. We must seal the room and wait several minutes for your eyes to adapt to the darkness." Both visitors nodded, and presently the trio was waiting in blackness. To make some use of the delay, Pascal spoke again.

"As both of you know, I am no mage. I am an alchemist. But I enjoy dabbling in things magical sometimes, all the more since sometimes the two fields seem to come together. And I think this may be what happened here."

"What do you mean?" asked the Duke for them both.

"It's simple, really. And I think our eyes may have adapted enough for me to show you..."

With that, Pascal fumbled a bit in the darkness, then seemingly found what she was looking for. "My Lord, I have taken some liberties here. In this container are some of your own droppings."

"My... droppings?"

"Yes, my Lord. I chose them in order to be as convincing as possible. I have taken these droppings and added a catalyst to them that reveals magic. You can see the result."

And with that, she removed the lid. The manure glowed a very faint green.

"All the citizens of Metamor leave such droppings, my Lord. What you are seeing is the residue of Nasoj's spell. In another container are my own feces." And she displayed them as well, revealing the same barely discernible green glow.

"Now, my Lord, let us look upon Phil's droppings." Again there was a clattering in the darkness, but when the sample was revealed the reason for their visit became apparent. His droppings glowed the same green, but with considerably greater intensity.

"Oh, my!" Thomas said gently. "Has the spell somehow intensified for him?"

"It must be so," Pascal replied. "If the basic magic had changed any the color would be different. But as you can see it is identical, only stronger. I do not understand this at all. Even more, sometimes Phil's droppings glow weaker, and sometimes stronger. This is a mystery as well."

Thomas clapped Pascal on the shoulder. "At least now you have given us some clues as to where to look, my friend. This is more than we had."

Pascal nodded distractedly, and opened the lab door to let them out. As they passed Pascal asked one more question. "Rupert, you HAVE been checking Phil's food for magic and poison, have you not?"

The gorilla nodded energetically, and Thomas pointed out that Phil's land had suffered a terrible loss from a poisoner not too many years before. "If anyone is aware of the danger, the Royal guards of Whales are."

"Hmm," considered Pascal thoughtfully. "Knowing you, Rupert, I am quite sure that you have done as you say. Yet, I believe that not only has Phil been poisoned, but that the poison is continuing to flow. Otherwise, why would the strength of the magic in his droppings vary?"

Rupert chattered worriedly. As a guard, he knew fully well that you can never absolutely prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that something is NOT poisoned. This is why guards get ulcers.

Thomas spoke next. "You and Phil share much food, do you not?"

Again, Rupert nodded.

"And the water as well, I know. Have you yourself experienced any symptoms? Any of the headaches Phil complained of?"

The great ape thought a minute, then shook his head negatively.

"Hmm. Then we can assume that it is a food that you both do not eat. But for now, to be safe, let us change our rabbit's food supply over to my own kitchen. He may not like oats as much as carrots, but they will sustain him. And besides, he isn't likely to complain."

Pascal and Rupert looked at the stallion-man in shock. They could not believe he had said something so thoughtless. But this was a marker as to how little they knew the Duke of Metamor.

When Thomas's sense of humor turned heartless, people died.

Metamor did not yet realize it, but their leader was mentally girding himself for war.

chapter 12

It did not take too long for Charles to learn the ins and outs of a sailing ship. After the "Arrow" had left port with Brathas it had continued along the coast heading north. The weather stayed fair for most of the journey, though they did have to secure the rigging and furl the sails during one rather fierce storm that blew in from off the coast. Yet otherwise it was a pleasant and uneventful trip, letting the winds carry them along the coast till they reached the river Arabas, and then breaking out the oars to navigate the twisty but wide and deep river.

Charles had found that as in all things, there was a consistent routine when everything was well up on deck. Magnus kept almost regimented appointments within the Commander's rooms, and Charles learned to stay out of sight then. Ptomamus tended to be in his quarters only when sleeping, eating, or staring at the map laid out on the desk. He took all his meals in his quarters, and Charles would sit on the floor looking up at him expectantly. The Captain would then toss a bit of bread down, and if he had any, some cheese as well. It was rather humiliating to have to beg, but better than thievery.

And Matthais certainly had many opportunities for the latter! After leaving port with Brathas, he had commenced a full and complete exploration of the "Arrow". Slipping down from the Captain's room he realized that the inner structure was a great way to travel. He could reach almost every room on the two adjoining decks with no hassle. The galley was practically his backyard, though there was some competition. Other rats were on board the ship. They had already gnawed a hole into the galley, eating up some of the biscuit that had been left out carelessly. The cook did not make that mistake again.

Charles remembered scampering and slipping about between the cupboards, noting each of the spices and each of the supplies that the cook had possession of. They seemed fairly rudimentary - nowhere near the variety that Gregor the baker had available back home. Then again this was a sailing ship, and he wasn't really expecting a lot. Yet most of the food supplies were not in the galley anyway, but down in the hold, in heavy casks where they wouldn't spoil.

Of course, with rats on board, further protections would be needed. Everywhere Charles went he found mousetraps of all varieties. Some of them even had rats inside, their bodies broken and bent in fatal places. Though he knew they were just rats, without souls to them, he could not help but feel a sort of misery at the death of his fellow rodents. When he encountered a trap that was still baited, he made it his personal goal to spring the trap to prevent any of his kin from being harmed. One of the traps even sprang upon him when he slipped, but the thick wire that should have broken his back snapped when it struck his iron taut flesh. He remembered the sound of frustration in the coxswain's voice when reporting to a sneezing Captain on the rat situation. Charles loved it.

However, the traps were just a simple diversion, something to do while the days crept on by. There never was a silent moment; sailors shouting to one another, the sound of the ocean crashing against the side of the ship, the groaning and creaking of the wood, and most especially the snapping of the sails in the choppy wind were a continual backdrop. Every once in a while he would poke his head out of a small hole and stare out upon the deck. The bodies of thick blooded sailors would pass by as they climbed the rigging and hung perilously from the footropes along the masts. He was amazed at their agility, and at how well they worked together as a team.

Every time he went up on deck, staying well out of sight of course, he noted the gray leaden sky. It seemed always to be overcast. A sense of dreary oppression filled him each time he peered out at the twilight. Every once in a while they clouds would break, and the sun would shine through, but only briefly. It would soon be swallowed back up again in the thick soup.

Despite his attempts to prevent any of his rodential brethren from coming to harm, they did not really appreciate his efforts. In fact, all of his encounters with the other rats only sparked fights and scratches. Charles never got hurt himself, apart from the usual scuffles, but he did his best not to hurt the others. If he'd wanted, he could have easily with one swipe of his paw knocked their heads off, but that would have been murder. So instead of trying to be sociable, he avoided the other rats.

Charles found that despite all of the help the Commander was receiving, Ptomamus's sneezing only got worse and more frustrating. He couldn't open his mouth without spewing phlegm everywhere it seemed. The mage determined it was because there was too much rat hair on board the ship, and even in the Captain's own quarters. Magnus several times repeated his plea to put traps inside the cabin, but Ptomamus continued to ignore the coxswain's well intentioned pleas. His nose was completely red, as were his eyes, and he seemed miserable the whole time, yet his dedication to duty was astounding. Charles wished he could have let him know that traps did not bother him at all, but he had to stay a full rat.

It wasn't really so bad living in rat form. Being only six inches long did have it's advantages; one of which was stealth, which was the whole purpose behind this adventure in the first place. Still, it took some getting used to, even with his five years partial experience. Having been a rat morph had given him a notion, but there were significant differences. Many times he wished to shift back to his largest form, but each time he had to remind himself what was at stake. The lives of not everybody in Metamor, but everybody in the entire world were depending on him. Most especially the lives of those he loved.

Unable to help himself, he found that more often than not he was dwelling on Lady Kimberly. He remembered the first time he had seen her, she had still been mostly human, but with the tail of a rat. How distraught she had been then, terrified of the fate that awaited the beautiful girl. Charles couldn't blame her either; becoming a rat was indeed a terrifying experience for almost anyone. Charles had at first himself been lukewarm to the idea, but he had wanted any change, anything that obscured his identity, and a rat was as good as any. Most of his brother rats however had been changed against their will into vermin. He missed them all.

Whether they liked it or not, all eight of them shared a bond as rats that they could not deny. They were without a doubt most comfortable around other rats. Even Tallis, who deliberately made friends with the other species, was always the most at ease at the Gnawer Meetings. Charles missed his morning ritual of visiting the other five in the dungeon. Many times he idly pondered what each were doing. Was Sir Saulius dressing in his armor and swinging his sword about in the cellar challenging others to combat to defend their honor? Was Hector gnawing away at a block of wood creating images of majestic beauty to later be sold up on the streets of the city? Would Elliot once again let himself be a test subject for more of Pascal's concoctions? Would Goldmark be scampering about the halls and tunnels as a full rat? Would Julian be sitting quietly in his room, crying tears of a loss more profound than Charles wanted to understand? What could any of them be doing?

Charles found such speculation reassuring. Despite all of his resolutions to maintain and keep the fire bright, there were always those voices of trepidation trying to second-guess his motives. But when he thought of his friends, and not just the rats, but also Phil, Habakkuk, Misha, and so many others whom he'd come to know, the doubts faded away. With their faces in mind, he would fight Nasoj himself if he thought it would do any good.

As the days passed and they neared Arabarb, Charles found himself more and more thinking of his friends as he sat upon the window sill or inside the woodwork out on deck watching the whitecaps spill over the sailor's feet as they crashed into the rail along either beam. This was the first real mission he'd been on in the past six years. His reflexes could never go dull, whether he practiced or not. Yet it was the principle of the thing. The last six years he had lived beneath that stifling vow. He lived in fear that his power would be unleashed and hurt another. Since nothing had happened for the longest time, he had thought he'd gained freedom from it, but it came back and destroyed the false sense of security that he had laid about himself. Now he had to make his own peace by serving the light

What other time he had was spent studying the map that Phil had provided him. Once they gained the river and the sails were furled and the oars shipped out, it was only a matter of a couple more days before Arabarb came into view. While the others were busy up on deck, heaving this way and that, straining their arms, Matthias was sitting on Ptomamus's table with his little paws on the map tracing out possible routes. When he looked up he would peer out at the river passing by. The ocean was quickly obscured by the dense forests that lay about the land, and the rolling hills that they were climbing into only further shielded them.

Only once was their position compromised along the trek to Arabarb, and that was amidst a very dense thickets of forest alongside cliffs through which the river passed. Giants suddenly appeared at the top of the cliffs and began hurling rocks down upon the tiny schooner. Ptomamus's voice could be heard to bark orders, shouting for the white flag and for full speed. They made it through the pass with only minor injuries and easily repaired structural damage. But only because the giants were terrible shots. The one rock that did strike the ship landed in the fo'castle, and destroyed several of the sailor's cots, but nothing else.

However the excitement was enough to remind each and every one of the men on board the ship that they were in the Giantdowns, a very dangerous place. Until the city of Arabarb was sighted, the men became quiet as they rowed. Gone were the raucous jokes, the companionship and the camaraderie that Matthias had grown used to. The crew was now deadly serious and went about it's task without a word except the occasional order from the Captain. Charles found the sudden cessation of human voices to be the most telling proof for their location. In the Giantdowns, no man spoke aloud, ever.

Soon they would be at Arabarb and there Matthias had a task to perform. The bauble shaped counter-spell with the creases along either side was safely tucked away beneath the bookcase. It was just a matter of time before he would have to deliver that package.

Two more days had passed, and Phil was not getting better despite his change of diet. Moreover, the pressing day-to-day business of the Keep was backing up. But stubbornly, Thomas remained camped out in Phil's room. If his ministers REALLY needed him, Thomas reasoned, they would run the gauntlet of busy mages and alchemists continually bustling about the room.

Apparently, Thalberg REALLY needed to see Thomas. After days of being sent away, he finally thrust himself through the bustling mages and sages into the Ducal presence.

"My Lord, I simply must see you. Now!" he demanded.

Thomas sighed. He had been putting off this moment, for somehow in his heart he equated a return to domestic affairs with giving up the fight for his friend's identity. But he had known that eventually he must attend to his other business, that eventually he had to accept that Phil might be gone forever. For even the slender hope that Pascal had offered was turning into a broken reed, and no one else had any ideas at all...

"Come, then." And with shoulders sagging the Duke of Metamor took his Steward aside into Rupert's bedroom, where they could speak privately.

"My Lord," Thalberg began, "Did you trust Phil entirely?"

What was this? His Steward dealt with domestic affairs only! "Yes, of course!" Thomas replied. "Like a brother!"

"Hmm... " The crocodile appeared thoughtful for a minute, then continued. "I suppose you know that the Prince appears to have kidnapped some of Loriod's subjects."

"Yes, I am aware of this. Phil did not seek my permission because he wished me to appear blameless. Officially I still do not know, Steward. And neither do you! But I approve."

The crocodilian mused on the information a moment before going on. "Then from this I assume there are tensions now between you and Loriod, or rather between Phil and Loriod?"

"Yes, but that is secret as well. Tell me, Thalberg, where is all of this headed?"

"It is quite simple, My Lord. I recently visited Loriod in his castle, where he complained bitterly of Phil's action. By chance he found out about it. And His Great Bellyness became very nervous when it appeared to him that I was going to eat a carrot from his tray."

"A... carrot?" Thomas asked, taking in his Steward's obviously strictly carnivorous form.

"My Lord, forgive me for saying so, but no one has recently accused Loriod of brilliance."

Thomas smiled, his first such expression in days. "Thalberg, I am sorry to have shut you out. It is just..."

"I know my Lord," Thalberg replied, bowing his head. Then he continued, using the intimate mode of speech that the Duke of Metamor encouraged in private. "Thomas, my friend, I can manage the Keep without you for as long as necessary. I understand why you need to be here. Take care of your friend."

And Thomas, tears in his eyes, slapped his Steward and friend on the shoulder and smiled. Though the gesture was wordless, it communicated all that was needful.

The morning dawned earlier than the last; the fog lifted from the fields and hills, while the dew settled on the thick grass. Metamor Keep came alive with the sounds of buzzing insects, the songs of birds, and the strikes of hammers in the smithy. And in one of the outlying spires buttressing a tower of magnificent opulence, woke a wistful rat lady.

Lady Kimberly rose from her feather bed into the warm air of the Spring morning with a bit of aplomb. Though her dearest Matthias had been gone for two weeks, she knew that he would be back. The thought of seeing him again and of resting in his arms made her heart flutter like the wings of a butterfly. The sweet and pleasant dreams of slumber had carried her off to be with him as he bravely strode through the forests and mountains and valleys with other Keepers to fight and protect them all from the Lutins.

She smiled at the last of her ebbing dreamscapes. The most vivid had begun as a nightmare; she had been taken captive, but before anything bad could happen there came Charles, striking down foe after foe, risking his own life, all to save her. Yet not even these pleasant memories could keep the real world from once again intruding.

Despite the seeming calm and beatific peace about the Keep, the house of Hassan was in uproar. Being part of the kitchen staff - as well as her other duties of cleaning and maintenance - gossip wound its way about to her. Much of it was contradictory, but all of it was frightening. However, Kimberly had managed to get past all of the exaggerations to the core truths. Phil was sick, and Duke Thomas was not leaving the rabbit's side until he got better. Thalberg, who frequently came to the kitchens to insure that all was well, seemed particularly upset and concerned - neither of which were common expressions in the alligator's repertoire.

There was no mirror in her room, and she was in no hurry to procure one. It was hard, to have to look at herself. Sitting on her bedside Kimberly stared down at the claws and the paws and the fur and the tail. Only a few months ago she had not possessed any of them. Now they were hers for as long as she lived. By herself, she could not help but think of how ugly and verminous she must appear. Her assurance gone, she did not move from the bed, afraid to face anybody else as she was.

Charles said she was beautiful. Yet she was a rat! How could a rat be beautiful? With a bit of chagrin her thoughts turned to Matthias's countenance, and then she knew. Sighing wistfully, she stepped off of the bed, and walked across the cold stone to her dresser and pulled out a simple gown. It was one of several that she worked in. Having been a noble's servant, her father had been able to buy her many outfits; most were plain though. The seamstress had been able to reshape them to fit her new proportions. Glancing down at herself, now dressed in the simple smock, the lady rat knew that she was very beautiful.

And as expected the kitchens were quite the place for gossip and very busy this morning. Bernadette, an older mouse whom she had befriended, was already there and preparing the big black cookstoves and the pots and pans. Being even shorter than Kimberly, she had to carry a stool around with her everywhere she went so that she could reach the high places. Fortunately, in the six years since the curses had been laid, accommodations had been constructed to help all the Keepers function productively. There were fixtures and railings in the kitchen that assisted Bernadette, and sometimes Kimberly as well.

"Good morning to you, Lady Kimberly," Bernadette called out in her piping voice. She waved from over by the basins where the scullions would scrub out the pots and pans. Apparently, a few had been left neglected overnight. The mouse turned back her muzzle to the task, her tail gyrating as she scrubbed.

Lady Kimberly beamed at the appellation because Charles had given it to her. She worked her way through many of the other bustling servants to the side of her friend. Stepping up on the railing, she too put her paws in the dish soap and the pans. "Good morning to you, Bernadette. Have you been up long?"

"Since dawn, my dear," Bernadette replied, tossing Kimberly a scrub brush.

Leaning down, Kimberly began to scrape away at the stains and the marks along the cauldron's black surface. "And how is Benedict?" Benedict was also a mouse, a rather timid sort, but friendly in his way.

"He's doing well. Spends most of his time in his garden these days. He already has some green beans sprouting, and it's only April. I think he's going to pull in a fine crop this year."

Kimberly smiled as she listened to her friend tell her all about Benedict's botanical achievements and mishaps. There were not many pots to scrub, and soon more of the regular kitchen staff began to arrive and assist them in the duty. Already the scent of meats being prepared and of breads being brought in from Gregor's bakery filled the air. From a distant table she could hear the sound of knives chopping and dicing lettuce and celery, as well as the abundant potatoes. There were so many in the castle that required special diets and meals that they were always busy with special orders. The Duke's breakfast was always prepared on a large silver platter that was kept sparklingly clean and brought to him first thing in the morning. Much to everybody's dismay, it seemed to be coming back with more and more food uneaten.

Lady Kimberly was never privy to take anything up to Phil's room, which had temporarily become the Duke's abode. However her heart went out to them, because she knew that Phil was a good friend of Matthias. Into his arms she had come for comfort after his imprisonment; the reason why now escaped her. But that moment of communion had forever after imparted to her a sense of love for the rabbit. It was not the same sort of love she shared with Charles - far from it - but it was a form of love just the same.

Still, it seemed that today was determined to remind her of Matthias's absence. There was a half-eaten piece of cheese lying on the cutting board that seemed smaller each time she peered at it; yet nobody ever seemed to be near it. The gossip about the kitchen was mostly about Phil and Matthias. And then when she received her cleaning assignments for the day, she noted that every location was either a place Matthias frequented, or a friend of Charles's frequented.

It was late afternoon when she finally finished cleaning the last of the steps to Channing's Tower. Having the tallest structure in the Keep, Channing was able to be close to the stars that he often spent his time contemplating. It also made 'Reverend duty' as the cleaning staff was apt to call it, one of the most time-consuming chores about the Keep.

Despite this, it was also one of the more rewarding tasks, because Channing, when in his tower, was always a wonderful host, inviting the servants into his quarters for a bite and some tea as well as a good pleasant conversation. So Kimberly was pleased to find herself sitting in a very ornate reading chair staring out a broad window which over looked the western mountains. The cloud cover was too thick for her to see all the way to the sea, which was possible from this point on a good day.

"So, how do you enjoy your work?" Channing asked as his beak dipped into the cup of hot lemon flavored tea.

Kimberly pulled her legs up underneath her as she sat in the large chair. It was embarrassing to have her paws dangle from the chair like a small child's. "It is very wonderful. I'm glad to be back serving again. There are many nice people working there too."

Channing nodded, his eyes bright and gentle. Although the stairs leading to this room where clean, Channing's apartment was anything but. Reams of papers were piled haphazardly along various desks and other furnishings. A small layer of dust overlaid much of the room - thankfully not the chairs they were sitting in though.

Most of what he said was small talk though. It was pleasant to spend the last parts of the afternoon with him, but they all had duties, and given Matthias's absence, and Phil's illness, the Writer's Guild business must have been weighing heavily on the goose's mind. So it was that the Reverend Channing had to ask her to leave shortly before the dinner hour.

The day had not finished reminding her of Matthias. As she was leaving, she noticed a particular piece of parchment sitting on a table. The writing was in Phil's own script, and the message seemed quite urgent. Taking a moment to peer at it she read the simple but confusing sentence. "Channing, Matthias is the Rat of Might!"

"What is this?" she asked pointing to the parchment.

Channing only needed a moment's glance. He shook his beak back and forth and then sadly peered into her face. What was going on? What was this 'Rat of Might'? "I'm sorry, but that is something only Charles can tell you."

"But why? What has this to do with him?" Kimberly prodded, intent on knowing what that cryptic phrase meant.

"Everything," Channing breathed as if his tongue would be silenced by doing so. Despite her further inquiries, he would not answer her, and rather quickly dismissed her. Kimberly sat outside his door for sometime, trying to ponder the significance of what she had just seen. Finally, as her stomach told her it was time for the dinner meal, she wandered back down to the kitchens to take her supper.

She wanted to ask so many questions, but kept her mouth shut. Bernadette could tell something was troubling her, but she would not even tell her friend the mouse. Charles was the only one who could tell her what it meant. Only Charles would she ask, then. How she missed him! His face and smile were all that was needed to brighten her day. She spent the remainder of the evening crying into Bernadette's arms. Two weeks before he could return. Two weeks more must she wait for her love.

chapter 13

It had been a long time since Rupert had seen real action.

Once upon a time, he had been a Marine. But even the demands of this elite service had not proven enough for him, and Rupert had taken up the art of spying. Which had in due course given way to bodyguarding, and a long association with the Greek family that finally lead to taking care of Prince Phil here in Metamor.

What a long strange road his life had proven to be! But an exciting one, sure enough. And Rupert lived for excitement.

The walls of Loriod's castle had been neglected, and the ivy and numerous cracks in the stone proved all that Rupert needed to make his climb in the darkness easy. Sentries were few and ill-trained, and the great silverback gorilla was certain he had not been seen. Becoming an anthropoid had been a lucky break for Rupert- he had deeply feared both age regression and feminization because of the effects both would have had upon his combat skills. But gorillahood, now, was absolutely perfect! He was stronger and more fearsome than ever, and more agile to boot. Being unable to speak was definite drawback, but considering that the alternative to Metamor had been a slow wasting death from a particularly loathsome disease he had picked up in a distant land, Rupert was well content. Long ago he had mastered the difficult art of being happy with who he was.

And serving Phil was proving to be an honor as well as a duty. He had been a great admiral, of course, and Rupert remembered him to have been a decent enough bloke as a human. But rabbithood had done something to him that that almost defied explanation, that had to be experienced to be understood. Sure, it made him a physical coward, rendered him unable to lead charges and the like. But the chemistry of a great military leader made gentle by nature, with all his will to succeed and thinking ability and discipline left intact, well...

Phil didn't realize it, but someday he was going to be a GREAT King.

If only Rupert could find out what Loriod had done to him! Otherwise, the Prince's future was far less bright indeed. Thomas had needed some convincing, but a long private session had left the Duke persuaded to allow Rupert to have a go at Loriod's castle.

Finally, after a climb so effortless that it left him not even breathing hard, the gorilla came to a shuttered window. The wooden covers were tightly closed, but there was no evidence of light around the seals. This, Rupert decided, would be his way in.

Carefully, the great ape reached into the special pouch that was kept in Phil's lockbox along with the other State secrets of Whales that were of necessity kept at Metamor. Whales had no reputation for spying or skill in the use of magic- the world thought of only the Fleet in connection with the island nation and this suited the King's magicians and spymasters just fine. Cloak-and-dagger work is SO much easier when your enemies imagine you are no threat! The narrow bladed saw was in it's appointed place, and with exquisite care Rupert removed it and began working the incredibly sharp and expensive diamond-studded tool back and forth over the wooden crossbar that latched the shutters. Swiftly, and in near perfect silence the wood parted, and after a quick look-see Rupert was in.

The room was just a tiny alcove, originally intended only to hold a couple archers during a siege. Typical of his neglect of military function, Loriod had converted it into a little store room, packed with gaudy odds and ends he no longer needed. Rupert had to be very careful as he edged through- the room was so densely loaded with junk that it would have taken hours to make the little space fit for archery again. But by moving slowly and with forethought, the gorilla made it silently to the door, where he peered out into the passage beyond.

Which was lit by candlelight, damnit! And except for thick over-patterned carpeting and the ubiquitous gewgaws sitting on little tables here and there, there was no cover either. Well, sometimes you just had to take chances, Rupert thought to himself. After listening intently, the great ape inhaled and exhaled a few times, then counted off .

One, two, THREE!

And on the third number he exploded from his cover, and dashed on all fours as silently as possible down the corridor, to the stairwell beyond. There he ducked down a few steps, and listened intently again.

Silence. He had gotten away with it.

The stairs were no less bereft of cover, but at least Rupert knew that he could hear anyone who might be coming. Down he spiraled silently, past cheap paintings and even cheaper stands of shoddy arms stockpiled, at least theoretically, against the chance of attack. Loriod's castle had originally been built to act as a distant outwork of Metamor's own mighty walls, but in it's current state of disrepair the Marine in Rupert itched to assail the place. With only a few shrewd blows the fort would collapse like a circus tent with it's poles removed. Phil would, Rupert guessed, send perhaps 200 marines to the assault along with a few specialists like himself to sow confusion. The whole operation would take an hour or so. Yet the defenses had once been sound. It was so sad...

When he had counted the right number of levels, the gorilla ducked into another corridor and found a little room to work in for a moment. He reached into his pouch again, this time removing a magic sensor in the form of carefully shielded light. When pointed at something magical, it would glow. But the glow would only emerge from a narrow little slit that was unlikely to be seen by anyone but the user. Rupert took a moment to listen again, then aimed his device down the corridor. It showed no wards anywhere.

Which was surprising! For this was the level directly above Loriod's throne room, the place that should have been the most secure chamber in the entire castle. Rupert knew that often inexperienced guards neglected to thoroughly defend the ceiling of a room; this was why he had come in many levels above the ground instead of the more securely guarded ground levels. There was still the possibility of mechanical traps, of course, but Rupert had a plan that he expected to circumvent them as well.

Doctrine called for an intruder this close to his goal to wait for a guard to go by, then to act quickly before he returned on his rounds. Truly gifted security experts thwarted this by having a second watchman follow just a minute or two behind the first, but somehow Rupert expected to find no such competence here. He waited and waited and waited...

...until he realized that no guard was coming at all! It was incredible! How could Loriod have been such a fool as to cut security expenses so low? Snorting quietly in disgust, the gorilla worked his way down the hallway until he thought he was in about the right location. Then he withdrew another tool from his pouch, this one magical as well. It was an object-locator, and back at Metamor Rupert had tuned it to goldfish. After all, the only goldfish in the castle were in the throne room.

The gorilla's instincts were as good as ever. Pointed straight down, the little instrument glowed. Now came the fun part!

First Rupert used an ordinary belt knife to cut through the brocaded carpeting. Then, he examined the stone floor carefully for any sign that there might be a major supporting beam underneath- if there was, then what came next might collapse the entire castle. But there was no sign of any underlying structure, so the intruder carefully laid out a thick velvety-black circle of cloth over the floor. Working quickly but with great care, he smoothed it out so that not a wrinkle remained. Then he reached into the pouch again, removed a little bottle, and with great care let just a drop of water taken from an obscure corner of Walrus Bay back home fall upon the blackness.

With a near-silent "whoosh", a neat circle of stone disappeared, and the ape smiled to himself as he thought of it falling into the corner of the Bay where he had filled that water-bottle so long ago. Could he help it if his bad-tempered ex-wife chose to live on a houseboat just a few yards away?

The magic detector got used first, and as expected there were glows all over the chamber below. Some would indicate traps, others just magical appliances or conversation pieces. Carefully Rupert memorized the location of all. Then he secured an ordinary piece of rope from the pouch to a handy torch holder and lowered it down into the throne room. He had no intention of using the cordage to escape, but anyone searching for him would not realize that. It would be a useful diversion for pursuers. Finally, with apelike ease the big silverback dropped himself inside.

The first stop was the food tray Thalberg had spoken of. A couple of carrots made their way into the pouch, then Rupert looked around. It was VERY dark, and he was glad of Pascal's night-vision potion that helped him see better than he might otherwise have. Pascal had done such a good job on it that Rupert intended to ask for some more to save for future missions. The throne room had changed little since his last visit, except for the main door being closed. He intended to leave that one shut, since it led but to the anteroom, and certainly there must be guards beyond. But when visiting with Prince Phil he had noted two doors almost symmetrically placed behind the throne. One would probably lead to Loriod's bedchamber and living spaces. The other was a mystery, one that Rupert intended to solve this night.

But which was which?

The magic detector came out again, and traces of spells were apparent on the right-hand door. The left hand door showed a clear glow. Obviously both portals held secrets, but there was no way of knowing what lay beyond. Rupert sighed softly, then reached into his pouch yet again.

This was clearly the riskiest part of his mission to date. Being a mage is a full-time job. One has to devote virtually every waking hour to it, and as a result mages have no time to develop skills like breaking and entering. Therefore, the Kings of Whales had put the greatest of all his wizards to work producing magical products that anyone could use with a little training. With great respect, Rupert pulled one such product, pound for pound probably the most expensive substance in the world, out of his battered pouch. It was an anti-magic powder, and one of Whale's most closely held secrets.

The stuff was not only incredibly expensive, but very dangerous to use. It countered magic by slowing it down, by casting a sort of overriding spell that played games with time itself. Since life itself had proven to be slightly magical, the merest touch was instantly deadly. Therefore, it had been formulated to be attracted to emanations of power and float across the air to it from a cleverly designed directional container. Since the left-hand door had a clear glow of straightforward magic, it was the one Rupert chose to explore first. The mage that had instructed him made it clear that while the powder was good for all known spells there were always new ones being discovered and old magics unearthed. It was better, therefore, to use the powder on straightforward spells than on nebulous stuff like the other door showed. Though of course Rupert would not hesitate to risk it if he thought there was something to be learned that might heal Phil. This was his duty, and his honor.

With great care Rupert aimed the pipette at the enchanted door, and released the valve. A small but precise flow of sparkling dust came out, attracted by the spell. It flowed for a few seconds, then slowed and stopped. The magic, if all was well, was canceled. The counter-spell would hold for several hours.

Carefully the ex-Marine searched for mechanical traps, but found none, The door was not even locked! Immediately beyond was a spiral staircase running up a high tower. Rupert used his detector again, but it revealed nothing. After a quick silent climb, another door was revealed, but it too was unsecured. The ape listened intently, but there was only silence. Still, something seemed wrong here. The hairs on the back of his neck were prickling, and Rupert had learned years back not to ignore that sensation. In the pouch was a quite unenchanted tube of sailcloth knotted on both ends and filled with sand. Fleet boarding parties had long ago worked out that this made for a most silent and effective club. The gorilla hefted his chosen weapon carefully, inhaled...

...and burst into the room! But there was no physical enemy, no one to strike down or beat into submission. Yet the source of Rupert's apprehension was clear.

For in the center of the room was the most patently evil object he had ever laid eyes on! Waves of death and coldness just seemed to ooze from it into the night air.

It was some sort of golden burner, or censor. Incredibly sexually endowed demons coupled all over it in pornographic carvings, and it glowed magically even without the use of Rupert's clever detector. My God, the ape wondered, how could such an awful thing have been so close by without anyone knowing? And how had stupid Loriod come into possession of such power? Here was clearly the answer to all the mysteries, to all of the evil that had visited Metamor in recent times. Even if this... thing had not directly led to Prince Phil's illness, it had surely played a part!

With great care Rupert eased toward the censor, but it flared brighter as he approached. Images came into his mind, pictures of a King Rupert of Whales, or at least of a Regent Rupert handling the affairs of an increasingly forgotten and irrelevant King Phil, who after years of trying would still be expending his efforts attempting to dig a hole in bottom of his stubborn cage. Until of course one day when his name was no longer needed. Then his neck would be silently broken. Peasants bowed and scraped; the Fleet brought treasure by the shipload to build ever-bigger tributes to Rupert, King of all the Seas....

No!, Rupert's mind screamed in rage, and the images withdrew. The gorilla dropped to his knees, shocked at the temptation that had just run through his mind. With hands still weak and trembling, Phil's bodyguard fulfilled his oath of honor by carefully spraying the censor with anti-magic dust. It took nearly the whole container of the costly stuff, but eventually the flow slowed as the magic faded and died. For a few hours at least, and at a cost that would have built, manned, and provisioned a Fleet ship-of-the-line for a year, the censor was just an inert piece of over-ornamented junk.

Yet it was well worth the cost. The censor had seemed to want him very badly.

It was time to get out, now that Rupert was sure that he had what he wanted. But a quick check showed that the tower walls were too smooth even for a gorilla to scale, and there was simply not enough rope in the pouch to get him to the ground. Therefore, with some trepidation the ape descended the long staircase. A careful check showed the door at the bottom still "frozen" magically, and there was no movement to be heard beyond. So Rupert emerged into the throne room, only to be confronted with the spectacle of Macaban laying unconscious directly below the hole in the ceiling!

The gorilla might have laughed out loud, it was so clear what had happened. A tray with a broken pitcher of water lay to one side of the poor donkey-man, and the servant groaned weakly. Clearly, he would be coming to very soon! Rupert thought as quickly as he could, which was very quickly indeed. Had he been in a castle in the land of the Enemy, the gorilla would have killed silently and without either guilt or hesitation. But this was different! Macaban was an object of pity for those who knew him, not one of evil. Then, to complicate the situation, Loriod's own voice came from just beyond the right hand door. And from the tone of the impatient bellow, Rupert didn't have very long to come up with something. Loriod might be an incompetent buffoon when it came to defending and securing his castle, but he DID demand and get excellent personal service. There was no time to bind the equine. What to do?

There WAS something in the pouch that might suffice, Rupert realized. He had started carrying it in case Phil became startled in a public place and behaved in a way that might cause him to injure himself. It was a powerful potion that rendered whoever it was given to completely compliant and listless. When Phil was in animal state of course he could not understand spoken words and just became calm. But an intelligent being became a zombie...

Loriod shouted again, this time so loudly and with such anger in his voice that Rupert feared he might injure himself. Though he could not make out the words, it was clear to the gorilla that My Lord was not waiting for his water much longer. Carefully the gorilla broke the seal on the little flask, and poured it into the donkey's mouth. Macaban sputtered a bit at the bitter taste, and came fully awake instantly when he perceived the hairy ape bending over him. But before he could really react, the servant's eyes glazed over and the potion took effect.

Just then, the right-hand door burst open and Loriod himself burst in. Clad only in a robe, the foul being reeked of sweat and rut. It was clear that he had been engaging in some kind of sexual antics. But his eyes grew wide as he took in the spectacle of Rupert bent over his personal servant. The fat man stared for just an incredulous second, then he inhaled hugely to give the alarm...

...but before he could make a sound, the sandbag took him square between the eyes. He crumpled without a sound. Rupert wasn't certain whether he had killed Loriod or not, and wasn't really sure if he cared. Regretting his inability to speak, the big ape waved Macaban towards Loriod's private chambers, and followed him boldly down the corridor beyond.

They passed guards there, of course. Guards whose eyes almost bugged out of their heads at the sight of the gorilla walking calmly through the nearly sacred hallways. But the calm presence of Macaban reassured them, and what little initiative they once possessed had long since been beaten out of them. If a superior said something was proper, then it must be proper no matter how strange it seemed. To ask questions was to welcome punishment; not to notice was far safer.

About halfway down the long corridor, Rupert heard a muffled sob. A sob so hopeless, it almost broke his heart. Without even thinking, he put his hand on Macaban's shoulder and stopped him.

The sob came again. It sounded like a woman.

Ignore it, Rupert's training said. The magical object in your pouch will be the root of the misery of thousands if it is not brought out. Do not endanger all these others, just for the sake of one.

But training is not everything. The cries were coming steady now, from a chamber just ahead. A remarkably foul-smelling chamber...

The ape moved Macaban ahead until they came abreast the little room, then Rupert placed him squarely across the doorway and stepped inside. What he saw there would stay with him the rest of his days. Laying in many days' accumulation of his own filth lay a child of about seventeen. Tied face down by the wrists and ankles, the boy had clearly been raped repeatedly. He was feverish-eyed, and appeared to be starving.

"Water!" he croaked through lips so dry as to leave the words barely decipherable. "In God's name, water! Holy, holy water!"

Rupert was carrying none, or he would have freely given it all. Such suffering he had rarely seen. Deep anger grew in the gorilla's heart, and a flame lit there that would not be cheaply extinguished. Silently, he swore vengeance on the one responsible for this outrage...

Just as he turned to go back and make sure of Loriod's death, shouts came from the distance. Apparently, the incompetent guards had finally awoken and found the Lord of the manor. Cursing in fluent monkey chatter, Rupert drew his belt knife and cut the youth free. Even as he did so a wave of Change came over the prisoner; he shrank somewhat and lost body hair. Looking him over more carefully, Rupert saw that this might be either a gender change or an age regression- it was still too early to tell.

There HAD to be some way to get the kid out, Rupert told himself. Quickly he stepped to the door and cracked it, then slammed it hurriedly as three soldiers stopped to ask Macaban what to do. Rupert answered them with his sandbag, picking up a bad cut on his shoulder in the process. Then he found the solution to his dilemma. The kitchen was just down the hall, and large boxes of produce were stacked against one wall. The gorilla grabbed the closest wooden crate at random, and stuffed the semi-conscious child inside. Then, he effortlessly hefted the burden, grabbed Macaban's shoulder again and once more followed him down Loriod's halls. They were stopped again a couple times, of course, but Rupert handled all inquiries for the three of them. Once they had their questions dealt with, the soldiers took nice long naps.

The final hurdle was the gate and the drawbridge. They were closed up, of course, and even Loriod and his men had not managed to mess that operation up. Getting in had been hard enough. No way could Rupert get out again carrying his burden. And much less could he bluff Macaban through a checkpoint. He had to get the donkey out somehow, after the manner in which he had been used. The poor creature would for certain be seen as a traitor and beheaded at dawn if left to fend for himself. No one would believe he had been drugged.

All of this meant Rupert was down to his final option. Boldly he stepped out into the courtyard, stopped Macaban, and reached into his pouch. From it he removed a long cyndrilical object, which he carefully placed upon the flagstones. Then with great precision, even as he heard a guard shouting "Halt!" and beginning to run Rupert pinched one end of the tubular device and the Fleet signaling rocket burst into life and flew high into the sky. There it exploded into a huge red fireball, blinding instantly all the guards who instinctively looked at it. This number included the three closest, who staggered about until Rupert's sandbag encouraged them to rest. Pushing Macaban, the gorilla ran directly toward the gate, where some of the soldiers had been blinded. But most turned to face the gorilla. Boldness was his only chance, he knew. He kept running. Either things would work out or, the gorilla swore to himself, he would go down advancing like a good Marine...

But he needn't have feared. A dozen trumpets gave voice on the other side of the moat, and Duke Thomas's distinctive speech immediately followed. "You! In the castle! Lower the drawbridge at once or be prepared to fight. And let the gorilla came out! I want him, alive and unhurt! If you so much as touch one hair on the gorilla's head I will lay siege to this place. I swear it!"

And just as planned, the hearty voices of most of the garrison of Metamor rang out in a lusty blood-curdling cheer that promised violent death to all in earshot. Leaderless and dispirited, Loriod's men quietly let Rupert through, and Duke Thomas led his somewhat disappointed army back to Metamor.

They had not sortied in such strength in years.

chapter 14

He was sleeping moderately well between the beams when he heard the tromping about in the Captain's quarters. Matthias struggled to wakefulness as he poked his head up beneath the bookcase to peer about the room. The colossal figure of the ships commander in full diplomatic dress stood in the center of the room looking about nervously. It was clear that he was quite worked up about something.

It only took a few moments for the rancid stench of trash and rotting fish to reach his sensitive nose. Matthias recoiled from it, swiping at his muzzle with his paws as if that would keep the hideous scent at bay. They were near the docks of Arabarb; nothing else would smell quite the same.

Ptomamus confirmed his geographical notions a few moments later when he saw the rat poking it's head out from beneath the bookcase. "Ah, Matthias. Good. We are just outside Arabarb. They haven't allowed us to dock yet, but I will see what I can do to get us ashore. If things go sour, be ready to jump overboard. The only reason they haven't sunk us yet is because of the white flag and the flag of Whales. I will wait for your signal before leaving port. Good luck to you."

Ptomamus turned about then, and purposefully strode out the chamber doors. Matthias ducked back into the darkness, wishing the captain good luck as well. Charles quickly found the small package and slipped it inside his mouth. The sharp metallic taste was cold to his tongue, and made his whole body tingle in just the slightest bit. It was an altogether electrifying experience.

The sound of men's voices could be heard above, most clearly that of the Captain as he barked out orders to his men. He couldn't quite make out what the man was saying, but he could tell that he certainly sounded better than at any point during the rest of their journey. The ship's mage must have done something to hide his congestion for he'd been utterly unable to cure it.

After a few moments of scurrying about in the darkness and climbing up along well kept wood, Charles managed to peer out into the dim daylight of a late Spring afternoon. Near the poopdeck, he hid among crates and ropes, watching and listening. The northern shore was rather steep, and alongside top of the rise stood Lutin warriors, bows in hand, arrows nocked and aimed. A human in a dirty smock of a uniform seemed to be overseeing them with a rueful glint in his eyes. Along the southern shore was the decadent and decaying city of Arabarb, once a shining light of the north, now a place of filth and putrescence. Standing at the farthest edge of the docks was another band of Lutin warriors along with what appeared to be the captain of their guard, as he was shouting orders to them.

Charles looked up to see if Ptomamus was anywhere on deck, but he must have been near the wheel. However, his voice was plain and clear. "This is the 'Arrow' and we request a place to dock."

The man on the docks called back in a grisly antagonistic tone, "What is your business?"

"I am here on behalf of the government of Whales to discuss trade negotiations. If you would let us dock, I will supply the papers to show that I have been given full diplomatic authority in these matters."

"Why would we want to trade with you?"

It was clearly obvious that Ptomamus was losing his patience with this unruly individual. His voice became quite sarcastic as he went on. "Just who am I speaking to?"

"Sargent Cajudy of the Army of Nasoj."

"Do you actually expect me to believe that you are the duly appointed representative of Nasoj for this area? Who is really in charge here?"

The man seemed unsure of himself. "Baron Calephas." Matthias knew that the name was familiar, but could not imagine where he had heard it from.

"Well, Sargent Cajudy, Nasoj stands a great deal to gain from reestablishing trade with the southern lands, not to mention your Baron. Do you think that either would be pleased that you took it upon yourself to make that decision for them? Do you really believe that they will be merciful to you if your actions here today spark renewed conflicts with Whales?"

Cajudy began to look distinctly uncomfortable. Charles watched the man fidget for a moment before he finally regained his composure enough to respond to Ptomamus's stinging words. Charles could almost see the man's earnest desire to have his men fire upon the ship.

"I will send for the Baron at once." the Sargent snapped his fingers, and runners began heading back along the docks towards the central fortress of the city.

"Good. Now if you would, please lower your weapons. We are not here to make war."

"We are always at war. Why should you be any different?" Cajudy shot back, angered att he Captain's demands. "Besides, that would be a decision for the Baron to make. For all we know, you all could be spies."

Ptomamus became quite indignant, though Charles could tell that it was an act only to gain further ground. "Watch your tongue, Sargent. We have run up the white flag and have come for diplomatic reasons. Do you wish to start a war by yourself? Any hostile act taken against me, my crew, or this ship will be considered an act of war."

"Are you threatening us?" the Sargent seemed quite aghast that any would dare challenge him here in the Giantdowns so.

"Why not? You're threatening us." Ptomamus's voice was confidant and clear. Matthias really hoped that he knew what he was doing. Swimming all the way to shore was not the most attractive prospect for the rat.

"Do not push your luck, oh men of Whales. The Baron Calephas will be here in a moment. He is the only one who will be making any demands or orders around here." Cajudy then turned his back on Ptomamus and the rest of the crew, and walked back from the end of the dock. The Lutins parted to let him past, but they quickly returned their gazes upon the 'Arrow' weapons aimed and ready.

It was a tense few moments. The men on deck eyed the Lutins lining the northern shore and the docks to the south with trepidation. The overcast sky seemed to brood, the fickle light already waning as evening approached. The groaning of the spars and the creaking of the oars as the ship rocked back and forth, bobbing up and down in the water, were the only sounds to echo forth in those few minutes. Matthias licked the bauble inside his mouth, his tongue pouring over the intricate grooves, tasting the metallic sheen. He could smell the sweat and the grime of the ship, as well as the offal of Arabarb. How he wished that this would be over and that these moments would pass, but they seemed to trickle on indeterminately. The thought of swimming in these dirtied and littered waters did not appeal to him.

It also seemed that each of the sailors realized the grave peril they were in all too well. They sat at the oars or stood on the decks, each watching, none of them whispering even a word. Not a one of them had weapon in hand, though no sailor worth their salt would not have something to fight with close by. The mage of course would have remained below decks, but with some mechanism to keep a watch on the outside world in case a fight broke out. Still, if the Lutins decided to attack, it was quite evident that the crew of the 'Arrow' would be slaughtered. It all depended on how reasonable this Baron Calephas was.

Several horseman came riding out of the city, four of them flanking a central figure in ceremonial plate armor. Upon their trumpets the first two horsemen announced the dignitary's presence with a rather dignified tune. There could be no doubt, it was the Baron finally arrived. The tension certainly seemed to relax as the Lutins on the docks jumped into the water to avoid the horses and their riders which very nearly ran them down - even Cajudy nearly fell into the water, he clutched a post at the last second before tumbling overboard. The central figure, bright feathery plumes arching up from the top of his helmet, raised his visor to peer out at the ship before him. Charles could see something akin to annoyance in those babyish blue eyes. The honor guard all brought up crossbows, with the quivers and bolts ready on their hips. Matthias could not tell, but he guessed that they were all aimed at Ptomamus.

"Who has requested the honor of addressing me?" Calephas called out in a surprisingly contralto voice.

There were a couple of sneers form some of the crew and Matthias thought he heard somebody mutter, "Molest any boys recently, Father Calephas?" It was then that Matthias recognized then name and the man. Calephas had been the son of a Baron in the Midlands, and had been a rather quiet fellow, his high pitched voice making him awkward in social situations. His moral failures and vices were quite numerous, but the worst of them had been his pedastry. When it was finally discovered, much to even his own father's surprise, that he had corrupted hundreds of young boys, murdering dozens in the process, he was stripped of his title and exiled to the Giantdowns. Somebody of his moral depravity and familiarity with power was ripe pickings for Nasoj's plans.

Ptomamus's voice by contrast sounded authoritative. "I, Captain Ptomamus of Whales, am here in the hope that we can discuss the possibility of renewed trade between our peoples."

Calephas seemed quite skeptical. "Why would we want to trade with Whales?"

"As I'm sure you are aware, Whales's naval superiority is unchallenged by any other kingdom. We have access to many remote parts of the world, and thus have trade with them. Trade with us means that you can procure goods at reasonable rates from any part of the world you wish."

"We already can have anything we wish," the Baron droned on.

All threats of retaliation and hostility were gone from the Captain's voice. It was a voice more often heard from the mouths of horse traders or merchants than from sea Captains. "Banditry and mercenaries cost much, my lord. They are also notoriously unreliable. If you formulate trade with Whales, then you have the mightiest arm on the sea to trade with. We have no need of excessive prices, and you will be assured that what you are getting is the highest quality."

Ptomamus then seemed to add almost as an aside, "Besides, as the overseer of these lands, it would be your duty to ensure that the money was collected. For that, you would deserve a commission, I think."

Calephas appeared thoughtful as he sat atop his horse. After a few moments though he regained his arrogant swagger. "Why should Whales want to trade with us? What do you want from us?"

"Ah, there are many things that can be found in the Giantdowns that are unavailable elsewhere. Arabarb use to be the largest producer of furs if you recall. Besides, think of what we can offer you, my lord. Surely a sophisticated man such as yourself must have refined tastes. Surely there are things that you enjoy that you cannot get up here. When was the last time you had a grape or an orange? Or would you like to have a hand woven rug from the Pyridian Kingdoms? Or gold decorations from Quaroom? What do you want, Baron Calephas? That is the important question."

The armored man sat quietly for a moment, the clopping of hooves on his restless horse giving him an air of impatience. The arrows and crossbows were all still pointed at the ship and her crew, a fact which made Charles nervous. Looking about, he ducked back into his hole a bit, not far, but enough to calm his anxieties.

Calephas sighed, as if he were taking a great risk, but unafraid of the consequences. "You may dock at the farthest end of the pier. Only you and your personal guards may come aboard, no one else. Is that clear?"

"I would request one concession," Ptomamus called out.

"Name it."

"Though this is standard in most parts of the world, many reservations about Nasoj's government remain with some people back in Whales. So I find that it is necessary to ensure that I have your word on this. None of your men may board this ship. The 'Arrow' will remain Whales territory. Anybody illegally stepping aboard will be subject to our laws."

Calephas thought for a moment and then nodded. "Granted. As a gesture of my goodwill, I will grant that request. All men, stand down and let the men from Whales dock." The Lutins all lowered their weapons, though there was quite a bit of grumbling as they did so. The entire ship seemed to exhale in relief at once. Matthias felt like the oppressive weather had lifted despite the cloudy sky. Calephas and his guards backed their horses along the docks, and the other Lutins scuttled away.

Ptomamus began barking out orders to his men, and the ship was brought flush with the dock. Cajudy and others tied the mooring lines securely to the posts, and then stood back as the gangplank was lowered. Ptomamus left the first mate in charge, and then descended to the dock flanked by four others, one of which Charles noted was the mage dressed in a sailor's usual assembly of smocks and dirtied cloths. Charles watched as the sailors pulled in the oars and secured the riggings, setting themselves to their tasks with great relief.

Charles waited. He would not move till nightfall when it would be nearly impossible to notice him. As it was, it was nearly dusk. Perhaps only another hour. After waiting on board this ship for two weeks, another hour seemed an eternity. Ptomamus and Calephas left with their guards, Ptomamus riding another horse, the guards all walking. Charles watched them until they disappeared behind the fortress walls of Arabarb. He then scurried back into the darkness, trying not to think about what was happening outside.

One thing that he could see from his hole inside the wall was the northern slope. As the ship gently coasted to wards the docks, the northern slopes came clearly into view. No longer did the large central mast block his sight of that small cliff. The Lutins standing atop it with their human commander were watching them. Their weapons were not at the ready, but the evil glint in their eyes was clear. They were simply waiting for an excuse, any excuse, to set upon the sailors and slaughter them all.

Charles watched them as the darkness began to descend. A few grew bored of simple vigilance, and began to play rough games, some that involved tossing their fellows off the cliff and into the water. It was a grisly site when one Lutin who was dressed in too much armor, knocked far off the cliff and into the deeper waters. He gave vent to inhuman shrieks and wails as he struggled to remain on the surface. Yet the other Lutins pointed at him and laughed monstrously. When he didn't come back up to the surface, they found his mate, and raped her in front of the eyes of all the sailors. Truly, there was no honor among these beasts.

Once he saw the torchbearer going about the ship and lighting the lanterns along each sides, Charles realized that it was time for him to do what he came for. This was the moment that Phil had prepared him for. Now he would put the craftsmanship of the Keep's mages to the test. Tonight he would validate the hope that Phil and Duke Thomas had placed in him. With this act of subterfuge, he would establish himself fully as the instrument of prophecy, the 'Rat of Might'.

Scurrying out from his hole, he slinked along the darkened edges of the deck towards the mooring lines. The package still firmly in his mouth pouch, he grabbed the rope with his claws, and began to scale down towards the docks below. It was quite easy for a rat of his size and strength. Dropping down onto the deck, he began the long walk towards the city of Arabarb in the distance. The terrain was mostly barren, charred remnants of trees were the only sign that this place was once a thriving and lovely forest. The towering fortress walls, blackened from ashes in the siege that had laid the defenders waste, seemed the mask of death. Bright torchlights flickered in windows appeared to be watcher's eyes. He shivered from their rueful gaze - for it was one of undiluted evil. These were lights he would be more than happy to snuff out.

It took the better part of an hour to make his way to the city walls proper. The ground had afforded little cover, and while on foot it normally would have been a five to ten minute walk, it was tiresomely long for a rat of his size to navigate. However, upon reaching the city walls, he encountered another problem. Even after the city had been defeated by Nasoj's army, the defenses had remained particularly strong. Thus there was no obvious opening, and he didn't particularly relish the idea of crawling in through the sewers. Lutins were bad enough in the flesh, he was not pleased at the prospect of crawling through their filth.

Instead Charles managed to locate a part of the mortar that had crumbled. It had once been a sewer access, but had long since been walled up. The accumulation of ivy and moss and the years had eroded the stone away to reveal the musty opening. Climbing inside, Matthias followed the dark tunnel along, using his nose to guide him. The rat quickly managed to reach an inner grating that peered up into the city itself. The actual stronghouse in which the amulet was stored would be in the center of town.

The bars on the grate had rusted into place, but the 'Rat of Might' had no need to worry about them. Bending two of them slightly apart, he created an opening wide enough so that he could slip though without risk. It was a darkened alley abutting the wall, and there seemed to be nobody about. All the better. He took a moment to familiarize himself with his surroundings, trying to locate himself on the map he'd studiously memorized.

Once sure of his whereabouts, Matthias began his stealthy approach. He saw few people walking about the streets. There were sentries of course, but none took notice of a Norwegian rat. Most of the inhabitants were inside disreputable buildings, cavorting and screaming and laughing evilly into the night. Never before in his life had he seen a Sodom or a Gomorrah; now he could make such a claim.

The closer he came to the heart of the city, the nicer and more hospitable it seemed. Apparently Baron Calephas had no love for Lutins either, as the stronghold in the center smelled nothing of their refuse, but only of humans. Slipping into the wall next to the large central towering structure of the town was easy. There were many small holes about the base of the walls, and through them he found inner structures. Most of the work was in wood, aside from the foundation, and so there was plenty enough space between the walls for Charles to move about.

The layout that Phil had provided him before he'd left on this trip had proved to be remarkably accurate. It did not take him long to explore most of the rooms about the first and second floors. For the most part, the inner spaces between the walls were littered with dust, rusted nails, dead insects and other animals, bits of glass or cloth, and moldy scraps of food. Charles did not have much difficulty in circumnavigating the place, noting each room in its place. The foyer was certainly not a place to visit, with four guards standing at the ready in plain sight, and four more behind pillars made from what appeared to be fresh oak. There was a library, with an amazing collection of books, nowhere near the supply at Metamor Keep, but startling nonetheless. His nose warned him about the large stable, which upon inspection revealed many well-kept horses and mostly clean stalls. Most of the rooms were servants' quarters though, all human of course.

It wasn't until the next level up that he found something interesting. Both the council chambers and the treasury were on opposite ends of the third floor. Climbing up through the rafters, a trick that he had mastered over the last two weeks, he found himself looking out a small hole at a large table with maps strewn about it, and two men leaning over pointing there fingers. It was Ptomamus and Calephas. They were speaking civilly with each other, but it was also obvious that nothing was being resolved quite yet. Charles could see that each man had two guards in the room with them. One of Ptomamus's was the mage Aramaes. The rat pondered if Calephas had as much foresight to include a mage in his own retinue.

However that was not what he'd come to see. Making his way over towards the other side of the building, Charles took careful stock of all the entrances and exits. In the event of a quick evacuation, he did not really want to find himself trapped. And from the number of guards about it looked quite possible. Calephas was no fool, he kept his guards quite happy, with many luxuries not afford to many, good food, and a rather complete supply of wenches. All this and more he found on the third floor.

Yet the most important thing of all was the amulet. It was in a hexagonal room, with six guards standing with their backs to a central dias. Upon the dias was a sparkling glass case in which was placed a brooch on a slender chin necklace. It appeared to his sight to be remarkably inoffensive, yet his better judgement and magical attunement told him otherwise. There was an awful lot of magical power in this room.

The hole in the wall through which he saw everything was high up off the floor next to a set of overhanging rafters. There was really only once place that the guards were not watching, and that was the amulet itself. Of course, nobody could get into the room without their noticing, and certainly nobody could reach the artifact of Nasoj's current interest. Nobody human that is.

Charles scampered out along the rafter, the tingling glow of the bauble inside his mouth beginning to make him dizzy. Peering over the edge, he could see the amulet only a short distance beneath him. The ceiling was not particularly high, and he judged that if he hung from the rafters, he could reach the treasure with no difficulty. Growing a bit in size, he gripped the ends of the wooden rafter with his rear claws. His tail wrapped about it as well, much like a possum, but with a strength far beyond any marsupial. He continued to grow, till he was once again his normal size, and hanging down in between the six guards, and just within reach of the glass case.

The guards were all within arm's reach, but he choose not to bother with them for now. Charles reasoned that if he did this quietly enough, nobody would be the wiser and it would give Ptomamus the leeway he needed to make his discussions with Baron Calephas seem legitimate. Holding his breath, he reached out with his paws and gently lifted the glass case from the dias. It slid upwards, a bit heavy, but nothing he couldn't handle. Staring about the room, he watched the pale shadows dance along the walls from the torch light. Thankfully, there torches spaced all about the room, so all of the specters of him hanging from the ceiling were too indistinct.

Cupping the glass case in the crook of his arm, he pulled the bauble from his mouth, and pulled apart the four leaves of its surface. The shell, opened now, gave a serene green glow. It was magically designed to change colors upon contact with the amulet. As he set it down upon the jewel's surface, the green intensified to a bright yellow. Checking on all sides, he noticed that each oft he six guards were oblivious. They were good soldiers, quiet, and attentive to duty, but foolish in that they never considered a theft from above possible. There were no entrances or exits from this room aside from the one door, so their presumption was not completely without basis, but it had still been faulty.

The light would change back to green when the amulet had been completely neutralized by the spells. Charles hung perched there, the glass case in hand, and his toe claws struggling to keep him still. He flinched at a sudden groaning of the wood. Taking a quick look about, he saw that none of the guards had paid attention to it. Wood must have groaned all the time in a castle such as this.

Charles became increasingly nervous as the light persisted to stay yellow. He could not leave until the job was complete. Yet he was discovering more and more that rats were not bats. Despite his supernatural strength, his endurance was not that much better than a normal man's. Hanging upside down from the rafters was quickly growing tiresome as his brain began to feel heavy and flooded with pounding blood. The glass case in his paws felt heavy and seemed to want to slip from his grasp to crash and shatter upon the floor. He held it tighter even, not wanting to do anything that might harm any of these people. Though his vow was no more, he still wanted to avoid killing others at all cost, regardless of their own lack of morals.

Much to his horror, the bauble did not become green again, but instead became a different color altogether - red. With a sick feeling in his stomach, he knew that the package had failed to destroy the amulet's magical powers. Now his task had to be to abscond the amulet and escape back to the Keep. The ante had just increased considerably, and the chance of loss of life went up a hundred fold.

Charles with one hand closed the bauble back up, and shoved it back inside his mouth. He then carefully lifted the pendant from the dias, and draped it over his own neck, tying it as tight as he could with one paw. He could feel the creaking and the moaning of the rafters above him. His claws dug deep into the wood, and from the stress, he began to unwittingly use the Sondeck through his toe claws. Splinters began to fall from the wood as it was crushed. Matthias watched as much to his horror one of the larger chunks fell on top of a guard's head. The man quickly reached up to brush away the piece of wood, and to peer up at the ceiling. Suddenly he turned around, and his eyes went wide. A moment later, he fell backwards, the glass case shattering as it struck his head.

Charles's hands moved quickly, striking each of the other five guards in the back of the neck before they could turn about to see what had happened. All six of them were down, but they would be discovered soon enough, and then Ptomamus would be in serious danger. He quickly climbed back up to the top of the rafters, returned to rat form, tightened the chain about his neck, and then dragged the amulet back with him into the walls.

He crawled madly through the spaces back towards the room he had see the Commander in only moments before. Looking out through the hole he could see that the both of them were still perched over the table, though it appeared that they were growing tired of the parley. That was good. Matthias quickly untied the amulet from his neck and slid out of the ole into the room. The hole was low enough tot he ground that he could easily slip in and out undetected. Throwing caution to the wind, he ran over to Ptomamus's foot and gently bit him in the ankle. The Captain let out a small report, and peered down. His face was at first one of irritation, but upon seeing Matthias there staring up at him expectantly, it calmed to one of apprehension.

"What was that?" Calephas asked.

"Just a rat," Ptomamus remarked, kicking Matthias sharply with his boot. Charles was surprised by the sudden gesture, and it took him a moment to get back up and scamper back into the wall. None of the guards moved to intercept him, after all, rats were common, of no consequence. Aside from the dull throbbing in his chest, Charles felt fine, and much relieved to have delivered his message so poignantly. Ptomamus was quick to declare his intentions to turn in for the evening. Calephas, like any good host, offered him a room in the castle, but the Commander politely turned him down.

Matthias, knowing that his Captain should be safe, quickly wrapped the chain about his body again, and continued on through the walls back towards the first floor. However, once he managed to squeeze his way back out onto the street his task became more difficult. A rat was a common site, not worth taking notice of. A rat with an amulet wrapped about him was an altogether different manner. Staying to the shadows, he ducked and darted between buildings, pausing often as Lutins or humans would pass by. Many were drunk and would fall over into the street, vomiting or just passing out, or more often combinations of both. Still there were many times when a door would suddenly open, and rushing footsteps would make Charles's heart skip a beat or two.

As he continued on his way, he saw Calephas leading Ptomamus and his guard out towards the main gate. So far so good. Nobody had noticed the unconscious guards yet. That was good. The longer that remained a secret, the more time they would have to get away. Charles let the horses pass by, and then he continued on his way towards the sewer grate. As before, there were no guards standing watch in the alley, and he was able to easily slip out through the dank passage back to the outside of the fortress. They were almost to the relative safety of the ship.

Charles made his way relentlessly through the decimated tress and grounds back towards the docks. The sod thrown up by the horses was all over the road, but he avoided that and the baleful glares from the watch fires lighted all along the fortress walls. He turned his back on them and continued his scampering. He kept thinking that there would soon be a cry of alarm from the fortress walls and riders would beset them and the Lutins still lining the cliff face would launch volleys and volleys of arrows into the sailors. Yet it never happened.

Even as he set foot upon the docks he was still certain that it would happen at any moment. Calephas had long since returned back to his castle. Surely he must check upon Nasoj's artifacts at some point. Yet no alarm was raised, and he reached the ship unmolested. Climbing back up the mooring lines, Charles found himself breathing heavily, though much better than before. Crawling back through the familiar rafters of the "Arrow" he felt as if he had just come home.

Ptomamus was in his cabin pacing. He had dismissed all of his other servants, and it was obvious that he was waiting for Matthias to arrive. "Ah there you are Charles!" the Captain smiled at seeing his rodential ally. Yet at the sight of the amulet, he seemed to tense up. "What is that?"

Charles knew that there was no way about it, he was going to have to reveal himself tot he Captain now. Untangling the pendant from about his body, he quickly grew to his tallest form, much to the Commander's surprise. "I thought Phil said you couldn't do that."

"For your sake, Phil lied. He only said that because you didn't need to know, and it was better off if you didn't. But I need to tell you certain things. My mission was not a complete success, so I have had to steal this amulet. It is magical, so once they realize that it is missing, they will be able to track us by it unless Aramaes can find a way to obscure it's pattern. Also, we need to leave here now. I don't care how you do it, but get us out of here. I will keep the amulet safe, but you just need to get us back to the open seas. How long will that take you?"

Ptomamus took a deep breath, his congestion seeming to return once again. "Four days at most. We'll have the current with us this time."

"Good. Now get us out of here. They could find the guards at anytime."

"All right, Charles. You just stay hidden, I'll take it from here. If you could leave the amulet for a moment, I'll have my mage take care of it once we leave port." Ptomamus was still confused, but his natural instincts had once again took over. Certainly he was already formulating a plan of action. Charles returned to his rat shape, and scampered beneath the bookcase, leaving the amulet lying on the table for the mage.

The bauble was where he had left it, though it was utterly useless now. He figured it might be best to keep a hold of; the mages at the Keep might be able to use it to help find a way to destroy the amulet for good. He slipped back up on deck, staying in his little hole, but watching nonetheless. Ptomamus took Aramaes aside into a small alcove, and was whispering to him. Charles couldn't hear what, but could tell that it was something very serious from the pale expression of the ships's wizard in the flickering torchlight.

Aramaes made a small gesture at the northern slopes, where the multitude of Lutins were still standing guard. Charles watched in amazement as one by one, the Lutins crumpled over onto the hillside. After a moment, an annoying gargling began to come from the monsters. With a bit of mirth, Charles realized that it was snoring. Aramaes had put them all to sleep!

Ptomamus issued his orders in a quiet voice to the rest of the crew. Sullenly the dragged their mates from the forecastle, and they each helped cast off the mooring lines, as well as douse the torches lighting their way. In practiced stealth, they moved about the ship silently as they slipped the oars into the dark waters, and pushed away from the docks. As the ship rowed away, Charles caught a glimpse of the city of Arabarb. It was still quiet, the eyes of the watch towers gazing perpetually out upon them. Somewhere in that labyrinth of decay and corruption, a lone child wailed in misery. Charles felt his fur stand on end from that sound of despair. His heart and his prayers went out to that little child who faced Calephas's abominable delights. With sick stomach, he returned below decks to catch his breath and to shut out that scream.

Slowly the ship proceeded into the abysmal night. Men would be stationed forward to watch for the turn of the river. Others would be stationed to the stern to determine if they were being pursued. Yet the groaning of the wood, and the splashing of water against the sides of the oars was all that he could hear anymore. Charles closed his eyes, and prayed for the nightmares to go away.

chapter 15

Thomas sat quietly in Phil's room, an island of calm surrounded by upset and frustrated mages. .

"He's been under complete mind control!" declared Wessex angrily. "The glyphs have been in place so long that Macaban's mind could be permanently damaged if I remove the spells, My Lord. And not only that, but he has been enchanted again and again with sometimes contradictory compulsions. "


"This is a terrible abuse of magic, sir. The spells are all kindergarten stuff, mixed together, like. Even an evil mage would have done things easier to reverse. It's like trying to fix something after an incompetent has attempted a repair. Usually the incompetent 'fix' does far more damage than the original problem."

"What do you suggest, then?" asked the Lord of the Manor.

The boy-in-body sighed. "I need more time, m'Lord. We can't leave him like this, that's for sure. But reversing things will be a horrible risk. Give me a week or two, then we can take it on."

"I see. Just one question, though. Could Macaban have possibly been responsible for his actions at all, recently? That child Rupert brought in has suffered horribly, and Loriod's chief servant had to know what was going on."

Wessex pursed his lips. He could sympathize better than most with Loriod's victim. Healer Coe had just reported that the kid was now age regressed to about 13 years, and would stay male. But he was in horrible condition, having arrived terribly dehydrated, covered with infected sores and burns, and psychologically completely out of touch with reality. His body would recover, but what about his mind? "No, Duke Thomas, he cannot have been responsible for his actions in recent times. I am quite certain of this. And the Macaban of old would never have tolerated such a thing. I knew him well in the days before the current Loriod took over the throne."

"Then put him up in a good guest suite, and keep a guard over him for his own good. Wessex, I feel for poor Macaban, but Phil's problem comes first!"

"Aye." And with that single syllable Wessex became glummer still. "The Prince's problem just does not want to resolve itself , My Lord. We have found out a few things, but nothing concrete."

"Did you analyze the carrots?"

"That we did, and so far we've learned almost nothing. Rupert's detection kit, and for that matter all the equipment in Metamor save Pascal's dark room shows nothing, but our splotchypine's rig detects a faint glow. This is not supposed to happen."


"Indeed, My Lord. Our current theory is that we are still missing a piece of the puzzle, but what it is I cannot imagine."

"And what have you learned from the censor?"

Wessex's lips wrinkled in distaste. "Hideous thing, that. But not a trace of magic in it. I don't know why Rupert even carried it out."

In the background, the gorilla looked up at the mention of the powerful device. He knew very well why the golden eyesore emitted no magic. But how could he tell what he had done, when the secret of the powder was so dear to Whales? It was necessary, though, he could see. Rupert still had not taken off his pouch. Reluctantly he pulled out the pipette and edged in between the two Metamorians.

"What is this, Rupert?" asked Thomas politely.

Chattering, the gorilla reached over slowly and pulled an enchanted talisman at random off of Wessex's hat. Understanding, the youth allowed him to take it. Then, using almost the last of the dust in the pipette, Rupert killed the magic in the little ornament.

Wessex was impressed. "What..." he began. Then he became angry. "That was to fix my aching tooth! Ow, it hurts..."

Healer Coe spoke up. "Wessex, I've asked you and asked you to let me pull that!"

Rupert chattered apologetically. Then he held up the pipette again and shook it.

"Are you saying that you killed the magic in that golden monstrosity, just like you did my little talisman?" the mage asked.

The ape nodded, and did a backflip to underscore his point.

"Well. That's interesting! Was it powerful?"

Carefully the ape set the toothache talisman on the table, and indicated a distance between his index finger and his thumb. They were separated by about a half inch or so. Then Rupert pointed at a spot on the floor and walked away. He was well into the hall when he quit and pointed to another spot about 20 feet away. It was clear that this was the amount of dust he had used to "kill" the censor.

Obviously, the golden burner was powerful stuff. As Rupert knew and Wessex already suspected, the amount of dust needed to kill a magical object was not a linear function. If twice as much dust was needed, the object was four times as powerful...

The boy-mage gasped in shock. "Rupert, is this stuff permanent?"

Phil's bodyguard replied with a definite headshake.

"I... see. Friend, you should have warned me!"

Rupert rocked his head back and forth and chattered. Clearly, he hadn't thought of it. Any mage of Whales would have known of the dust. Even professionals sometimes make stupid mistakes....

"I have precautions to take! Right now!" Wessex declared, and with that he was off in a flash of childish eagerness.

Under the circumstances, Thomas forgave him his lack of formality.

Staring at the censor of unholy evil, Wessex pondered on the question of whether any more protection spells were needed to contain the filthy thing. He had already lain on every single one that he could think of to contain evil and to prevent the corruption from spreading any further. Yet he had no way of gauging their effectiveness while the censor was still magically dead. According to Rupert, they had a little more time before the anti-magic dust finally wore off. That would be when the real excitement started!

A bell chime sounded throughout the room, a soft dulcet tone intended to warn him when anybody approached the room. The boy turned to face the single doorway that the Keep itself had provided when an isolation chamber had become necessary. Standing in it was one of his assistants, a rather precocious ferret of the name Dorson. He'd been with the mage for several years now, studying and learning, and someday the apprentice would become quite the master himself. Wessex was very proud of him.

"Ah Dorson, did you get the magical powders I asked for?"

"Yes, Wes." Dorson stepped inside the room, passing easily through the shields in the doorway that were attuned to only a handful of the Keep's mages. The ferret was the one Wessex had decided was most qualified to assist him, as Dorson's training included some unusually deep studies into protection from contagious spells. Setting down the large pouches of magical dust, the apprentice couldn't help but stare at the censor. It was a truly horrendous sight, masterfully engraved with depraved scenes of demons and their victims. Every vice a man could lust after seemed to be imprinted somewhere upon its golden surface. It promised many things, each one exacting the same price: the user's soul.

Wessex was already uncomfortable, having spent the last half-hour in a small room with the horrid thing. Taking a moment to sift through various dusts, he noted that one of them was not of quite the right consistency. Had Dorson taken some of the dust from the bottom of the barrel as he had been trained, the stuff would have been perfect. Wessex glared at the incompetent ferret and let his suddenly strong unease burst forth in little display of uncharacteristic bad temper. Clenching his fists, he demanded, "Dorson, how many times have I told you that you need to take dust from the bottom first?"

The apprentice seemed shocked by the unexpected outburst but accepted it stoically. "I'm sorry. Do you want me to go get another batch?"

"No, I'll do it myself! I seem to have to do everything around this place!. You wait here and keep an eye on this... thing." He pointed at the censor. Though he didn't like leaving the student alone with such a blasphemous object, there seemed to be little danger. After all, Rupert's powder was still strongly in effect. Well, there had been one small insignificant flicker of magical power only a few moments ago. But it had been brief, and too small for even many trained wizards to notice. It would be OK, a voice seemed to tell Wessex. Take a break, it will be OK...

The boy waltzed out of the room, glad to be leaving that "Thing" behind. Dorson watched him go, a bit abashed at his beloved teacher's display of bad temper. But he shouldn't have to be ashamed, though. After all, the ferret reasoned, he was learning very fast, and almost never made mistakes these days. The kid really ought not be yelling at him anymore, especially not over trivial matters such as the consistency of the powders. What gave a boy like Wessex the right to treat him as a child? Dorson had once even caught his mentor dressed as an ordinary boy and enthusiastically flying a kite in the courtyard. He seemed to have no sense of the dignity befitting his station at all. What would it be next for the magician? Playing soldier? Dorson snorted in disgust.

The apprentice found his eyes straying to the demon-encrusted censor. It was perched in the center of room, chalk lines and wards drawn all about it on the floor. It only took Dorson a moment to realize that something was odd about the markings. There were errors in them. It was almost as if A real child had drawn them, they were so sloppy. Why hadn't one of the most specialized mages in all of Metamor noticed this? Dorson set about to redrawing the flawed lines, fixing the sloppy work of an impertinent infant. It wouldn't be the last time he had to cover for the little snot, he told himself...

It only took him a few minutes to get the glyphs into what was clearly the proper alignment. Now Metamor would be completely protected from the evil the censor possessed. It could not spread. That is unless it was called forth by a mage, and even then its power would be held in check by the powerful wards that Wessex had so nearly botched. Not that the censor was all that impressive, in and of itself. The ferret studied the golden object with his magic sight, and saw nothing of consequence. Clearly, the thing could hurt no one.

Looking about further, he saw around the base the sharp metal rods that were used to light the candle in the center of the censor. Dorson wondered just what sort of fragrance that candle might give off? What harm could there be in ascertaining the particular flavor of the incense? After all, it was harmless now.

Dorson reached over, taking the two metal rods from their place, and began striking them together just over the wick that was held perfectly straight up as if in expectation of the spark. When it came, the candle flared brightly, and suddenly the cloud was lifted from Dorson's eyes. The censor flared to life, black oozing magic poured forth from every crevice, radiating an unholy fire the likes of he had never before seen. Even the lines he had carefully redrawn revealed themselves to be illusions. In their place were circles of power, drawn to channel energy into the center and whether lied there. The only thing that was still in place were the protection wards that kept the room sealed.

The ferret tried to scream out for help, but up from the candle a black vaporous mist spiraled upwards, filling the room, and his lungs. He gagged at the scent, but it quickly lifted him up, entwining his body and restraining his struggles. As if stepping out of the fog, a form suddenly appeared before him. It was that of a tall lanky human with black hair, dressed in black robes ornamented with a blood red shield imprinted on the sleeves. Inside each shield was a human palm, and inside each palm was a white sword. The man's eyes bored down into him, and his smile was quite cold. The fog evaporated a second later and the two of them were standing alone in the room, the censor snuffed.

"I really should thank you for that," the figure remarked in an amused voice. "Accept a token of my gratitude." He held both of his hands out before him, and then twisted his fists violently. Dorson's head spun about on his shoulders, the neck snapping loudly. The ferret's twitching form suddenly went limp, and then fell to the ground, a dead mass of spiritless flesh.

The evil wizard smirked at the sight, and then turned back to face the censor. Looking about the room at the lanterns stationed along each wall he grimaced. There were no shadows here that he could use. But that was easy enough to rectify. Stepping to each torch in turn, he quickly extinguished them with a word and a gesture. He was at the last one, standing before it ready to speak when a gentle bell tone sounded. Looking up, he saw Wessex standing in the doorway, a dazed and shocked expression pasted upon his youthful features.

Wessex stared down at the dead form of his apprentice, and then up at the unfamiliar man in the dark robes. Then his eyes returned to his dead student. With an outraged cry, he leapt through the spell barriers, and prepared to unleash a mighty blast against the murderer of his charge. However, he was struck dumb by a sudden bombardment of hideous temptation that flooded into his mind. Images of himself upon the Ducal throne, or even of ruling the entire world poured into his mind. Forbidden knowledge was prepared to lay itself bare to him if only he willed it. Riches beyond imagination were there for his taking. Everything he had ever fantasized about was waiting for him if only he would embrace the censor....

Suddenly there was a titanic tearing sound that seemed to rip the world into pieces. It was as if every fiber and muscle of his body were being pulled apart, as if reality itself had been mortally wounded. His ears pulsated, ringing from the screeching almost-sound. The boy's mind rebelled from the idea that such a sensation could possibly exist.

And then just as suddenly, it was all gone. Climbing back up to his hindpaws, Wessex peered about into the shadowy darkness. With a snap of the Mage's fingers, all the torches burst into bright incandescence. Not only was the wizard gone, but so too was the censor. The black residue of its passing was imprinted upon the floor for all to see. It took the form of a hole into the blackest pits of the underworld, and to one as magically attuned as Wessex, the screams and odors that issued forth were horrid indeed.

He knew what he had to do. Wessex crawled over to his bags of powder, and one by one, poured their contents into the filthy hole, all of the magical stuff disappearing into the nothingness that awaited them. Striking out the lines of power that had been drawn, he crafted new patterns, patterns that would seal off this unholy opening for all time. It was but a small rift, one torn rudely open in the act of the dark wizard's escape. Yet even a small rift could quite easily become a larger one. It was fortunate that the boy's sealing spells on the room had remained in place. If the last torch had been snuffed, there would have been nothing he could have done to stop all of Metamor from entering the realm of the Demons. As it was, his precautions had proven barely enough.

Grabbing Dorson, he dragged the ferret's corpse from the room, and then stood in the doorway. Nobody deserved a fate such as the doom he was about to pronounce upon this ill-begotten place. Then, just as he uttered the single terrible word that would activate all the powders, he felt a terrible evil trying to pass through the new portal between the worlds. Wessex stood still, watching as the entire room seemed to contract towards that single hole in the floor. It cracked and shrieked loudly, attracting attention from down the hall. Several other Keepers came running to see what was happening. But Wessex did not enjoy what he saw. This was the magic of death, the kind of magic he would rather not ever have to perform.

Something large and evil raged just beyond the thin door, but the wards held long enough as the building Changed and warped in incomprehensible ways. In the end, the entire wall became a blank, black slate, the room perpetually and irrevocably gone. Never again could a room exist in this location, despite it's the Keep's variable geometry. This place was forever more sealed till the end of time. It was better that way.

Wessex bent down over the body of poor Dorson, feeling the deceitful magic still upon the corpse. The poor apprentice had been tricked, just as Wessex himself had been. He never should have left the student in the room alone. Such an item of evil was cunning, too skilled. Others stood by, confused, not sure what to say or do. The boy looked at them and grimaced. "Find Duke Thomas. Tell him, there's been an accident." Several ran off towards Phil's chambers on the other side of the palace.

And then Wessex finally had time to weep, for the ferret he had loved much as he would a son. He wept deeply and bitterly for the young life that might have been.

No longer was there any doubt in Wessex's mind that Loriod was being controlled. The wizard he had seen was a part of it. And the same man had killed his beloved apprentice Dorson. "He will pay, my friend, I promise you, he will pay." Wessex whispered quietly over the dead ferret-morph. Oh yes, the wizard would indeed pay...

chapter 16

The silence was unnerving. Darkness slipped past them, as they rowed down the river, the shores drifting lazily by on either side. Charles got little sleep before nervous anticipation drove him over the edge of wakefulness yet again. Sitting in his little corner of the deck, he watched the men undercover of the darkness heave and pull on the massive shafts of wood, propelling them downstream. The night sky was beginning to clear, and stars were beginning to twinkle down from the heavens. The moon herself beckoned them onward, casting a pale aura on everything.

Matthias strained his ears to listen for sounds of pursuit, but only the faint sound of oars dipping into the water could be heard. Occasionally the wood of the schooner would creak or pop from the stress but otherwise, there was nothing. This far north the crickets had yet to come out, and no frog would dare sing its song for at least another month. And so the ship drifted along in silence. Many heads watched behind them, back towards Arabarb, but as always, the river was dark, and showed them nothing.

The sailors were tired, all of them. Charles could tell this from their slouching and occasional grunts. Ptomamus was driving them hard tonight. Once dawn came perhaps they would be able to rest, but just now they must take full advantage of the darkness. That the clouds were beginning to break up was certainly beginning to worry Matthias, as it revealed their ship. His rodent eyes were much better than human in the dark, but even still, he knew that a man might now notice them passing, and a Lutin certainly would.

Matthias also worried about the amulet itself. The reason for the mission was still sitting in Ptomamus's quarters. Who knew what sort of magic it radiated? He could only wonder how much longer it would take for Calephas to notice the amulet's disappearance. How long would it take for Nasoj to be notified? A day or two? That was as long as he was willing to guess. Certainly once it turned up missing, a chase would begin. According to Ptomamus, there was little chance that any local could run them down. Fleet ships were far faster than any rag-tag vessels that Calephas could have available for pursuit. Still, the situation worried the rat, who was not used to such things.

The coup-de-grace however had to be those strange lights that appeared in the sky shortly before morning. It was startling to suddenly see the black sky light up with purples and pinks and other ethereal colors in a shimmering curtain of incandescence. Apparently many of the sailors were familiar with these "Northern Lights" as they did not gawk at them the way Charles found himself doing. Ptomamus himself was more angry than awed, and made the first sound since they had departed Arabarb that any of them had heard.

"Aramaes, get me the clouds back," The Captain grumbled from the poop deck.

The mage had been rowing as well, but at the sound of his name, he stood aloft next to the mainmast. Uttering words beneath his breath, Charles watched the mage work, summoning forth the very elements themselves. A cracking came forth in the sky, and the sound of thunder could be heard rolling in from the west. Charles watched in amazement as large black clouds churned on the western horizon, rushing closer and closer, billowing larger and larger. In a matter of minutes, the brilliant lights were obscured, as were the stars and the moon. Darkness settled over the river valley once again. The "Arrow" sped forth in the darkness, while the skies above threatened rain and worse.

Even after the appointed hour of dawn, the riverbed was still shrouded in darkness. The shadows that fell upon them all were thick and ominous, but more pleasant than being captured by Nasoj and his ilk. Ptomamus struck one watch below, instituting shifts of his men. The port watch slept, while the starboard rowed. The river was still too narrow to allow any sailing. It would be another day before they could safely raise the sails.

Charles felt a bit tired himself after his nightly vigil, so he scampered back under the floorboards of Ptomamus's cabin. Like the night before, his sleep was short and unrestful. However it was not his nerves that disturbed him, but the sound of the Commander's voice calling his name. "Matthias!" The Captain whispered. "Are you here, Matthias?"

Charles sullenly dragged himself up from underneath the bookcase and stared up at the slightly nervous sailor. Ptomamus was quite relieved to see him, but he waved his hands a bit expectantly. "Can you, you know, become big again? I want to talk."

Charles complied quickly and was soon standing next to Ptomamus's belly. "What is it, Captain?"

"I just wanted to tell you what we've done. I had Aramaes examine the amulet. He couldn't hide it's power at all - it's simply too powerful for him - so he did the next best thing."

"And that would be?"

"He says he diffused it. What he means by that is, the power will shine for leagues in every direction. It will be impossible to pinpoint its exact location. So if Nasoj comes looking for it, he won't know where to start. It does give our general location away, but at least it gives us a fighting chance."

"Good. But couldn't another mage just dispel it?"

"Aramaes says that they'd have to dispel it at its source, which is the amulet itself. They'd have to find it first."

Matthias have a grave suspicion that something was wrong with that, but didn't pry, chalking it up to his paranoia. As if the weather was in agreement, a sudden cracking of thunder overhead sounded, causing Ptomamus to peer up at the planks overhead. The sudden omen was not lost on the Commander, who licked his lips a moment before remarking, "It seems that Aramaes was a bit too zealous in getting me clouds. It sounds like we're going to have a storm on our hands."

"Will that make it harder to go down river?"

"It will impede the steersman a bit, but it will also blind our pursuers, for surely they will be coming soon." Ptomamus was less sure of himself than he pretended to be. Matthias was not blind, he could see the agitation clearly in the Captain's mannerisms. His nose was beginning to grow red again, his appearance of health fading to reveal the allergies that lay beneath. In a few hours, he would be left to wracking coughs and running nose as he had been for most of the rest of the voyage. Charles knew it could not have come back at a worse time.

"Is there anything else that I need to know?"

"Not really. I'll be taking my meals on deck, so you'll have to scrounge something out of the galley or the hold. Otherwise, stay out of sight, and near here so I can find you if necessary."

Charles nodded, looking back towards the bookcase towards the place he had made his home. "All right. Good luck to you, Captain. I'm sure we'll be able to make it." Matthias wiggled his whiskers, hoping his optimism was more than just wishful thinking.

Ptomamus wished him well, but then let him alone in the cabin. Another peal of thunder sounded overhead, and Charles peered out the windows at the dark waters behind them. He could tell that the wind was picking up, as the waves were quite choppy and erratic. The sky had darkened even further, despite the fact that it was nearly dawn. It was certainly going to be a miserable trip down river with weather like the Captain predicted.

However, the thought of food quickly came to mind, as it had been a long day and night, and he was quite hungry. Shrinking back to his full rat size, he scampered across the cabin floor, down beneath the bookcase, and to his own playground, the galley. Poking his head out through the cabinets, he could see the cook sitting in a chair, wiping the sweat from his forehead. The stove was burning hot, and it was obvious that he had not gotten any sleep recently.

Charles scampered down to the pantry on the lower shelves, and found the last of the bread in the kitchen. It was hard, and it was obvious that other rats had made a meal of it too. There was enough left however for Matthias to partake. Unfortunately it was also the least appetizing part, and many times he had to tear out chunks with his claws that had molded over or had things infesting them. He did not want to imagine what they really were. Still, it was a meal, and he ate as much as he could stomach.

Unfortunately, he was interrupted by the cook before he could finish. When the cupboard had opened up, and the dim light from the furnace shining brightly in, Charles had frozen still in fright. "Filthy rat!" the cook exclaimed, wielding a large knife as he reached for him with one big fleshy hand. Charles scuttled back to the far end of the cupboard. The cook put his head inside, peering into the darkness after him, the knife with sharp edge still hunting for him.

Charles looked about for a way top get out, but the man's shirt was blocking the only hole that was available. Wouldn't that be ironic, having brazed the vaults of one of Nasoj's forts, he would be killed by a simple cook with a hatred for rats. Not today though. The thunder continued to roar overhead, cracking the sky with its detonations. While the cook was distracted by the sound, Charles jumped at the man's wrist. He quickly shimmied underneath his shirt, his tiny claws ragging him along the man's flesh and down his arm.

The cook let out a startled cry, and jumped backwards, but Charles continued over his arm and past his shoulder, absorbing the foul musk of the oily individual. As the cook danced about, trying to get the rat out of his clothes, Charles continued scaling down his back, around his belly, and then down his pants, out from his leg, and then across his foot to the floor. Taking a moment to consider the burly figure, Charles noted that he was still quite distracted and beating at his shirt with his fists. It would take him a moment to regain his composure.

Matthias, chuckling slightly to himself, managed to make good his escape, and was soon back up behind the walls, his stomach full - though the aftertaste left a lot to be desired - and fully awake. All in all, it was a pleasant jaunt through the ship while weightier matters continued to unfold above him. Clawing his way up on deck, he could see the strain and exhaustion in the crew's faces as they continued to row hour after hour. The lightning brightened the sky only for brief moments, the clouds continuing to churn and collect. In only a few moments, the first drops of rain could be felt. A few moments later, and it was an uncompromising torrent that swept over them all. Ptomamus had to shout out his orders to helmsman, and even then he was barely heard. Charles could not even see the end of the ship in the thick downpour. Truly, Aramaes had been overzealous.

However the rain let up after an hour or so, but it continued to drizzle throughout much of the day. Charles watched the affairs, noting each sailor that stood to return to the fo'c'sle to get some sleep, and the ones that came up to replace them. After a time, his own eyes began to get droopy, and he returned to the blackness beneath Ptomamus's cabin to get some sleep.

And even that did not last too long. The sound of shouting made his rise with a start. Men's voices could be heard above, and the creaking of the wood made sure to register it's complaints. Matthias scrambled up into the Captain's cabin, and growing to his morph form, he peered out the back windows. Like demonic eyes, flames could be seen rocking back and forth behind them in the rain soaked afternoon. He could make a distinct outline of a ship, but nothing else. Suddenly, a bright flame rose up into the sky, arcing towards them, and then passing beyond his view. A sudden gurgling shout was heard, before it faded and was covered by the droning of the raindrops against the ship.

That first flaming arrow was quickly followed by others, and then some were sent back towards the enemy vessel that was following them down stream. Charles pulled himself away from the window, and saw the amulet lying on the table. Snatching it up, he draped it over his neck, and then shrank back down. With the necklace about him, he crawled through the beams till he got back to the main decking. Poking his head out, he could se several dead sailors lying at the oars, while their companions pulled with all their might, sending them headlong down the river.

Against the backdrop of the storm, he could hear Ptomamus's congested voice rising above the general chaos. "Keep pushing! Keep rowing! We need to get some more distance between us!" Charles decided that he had enough of just hearing the Commander's voice. He crawled out on the wind swept deck, leaving the amulet behind in the wood, and crawled up the steps. It was difficult, the rain making it slick, but he finally managed to stand on the poop deck staring at Ptomamus who stood that the wheel. Aramaes was by his side, a hand over his eyes to shield against the brightness of the oncoming arrows. They would not notice a single rat watching them in this chaos.

As their pursuers drew closer, he could make out more and more of the ship following them. It possessed a Lutin crew, that much he could tell, and they seemed more intent on catching them then on worrying about the safety of their own men. It was a smaller vessel than the "Arrow" as well, but it was very sleekly built, and obviously with enough Lutins at the oars could achieve great speeds. He wondered if there were other similar vessels not far behind the first.

Ptomamus seemed concerned with the very same question. "Aramaes!" he shouted. "Can you tell me if there are any other vessels following us?"

"I need to be in a meditative state to do, Captain. I can't do that right now, not in this sort of chaos."

Ptomamus grimaced, but stared ahead att he vague shorelines. He finally pointed at a cliff on the southern shore. "Do you see that cliff, notice how it overhangs the shoreline?"

Charles turned to see what Ptomamus was pointing at, and saw a massive stone precipice facing them on the left. Ptomamus continued. "The wind is coming in from the north, so we are going to be blown towards the cliff. Don't worry, wee are not going to get grounded on the rocks. But our pursuers are going to be going that way as well. Do you think you could dislodge enough of the rocks to sink their ship as they pass underneath it?"

Aramaes seemed a bit surprised at the request, but he stared at the colossal stone edifice that loomed just ahead of them. "I think so. I'll need to get some rest afterwards though. If anything else happens, I'm going to be any good to you. I won't be able to cast any real magic until I've had a good sleep. But I think I can do it."

Ptomamus nodded. "Fine, you just take care of that rock." He then raised his voice again, after a brief cough. "Keep rowing! They're still gaining on us!' Of course he didn't need to tell his men that. The rain of arrows was still coming there way. Due to the winds and the downpour, most of them missed, but all that struck seemed to incapacitate one of the sailors.

Holding his breath, Charles watched as the cliff slid by them on the left. The winds buffeted against the ship, sending them eerily close to the sharp rocks and perilous overhanging debris. The rain splattered against the deck, drenching him, and threatening to send him overboard. He held onto the railing tightly with his little claws. Unless the railing gave way, there was no chance of him slipping, not with his strength. But again, his arms grew tired during the interminable wait. He cringed every time one of the sailors screamed in the darkness. They were all dying for him, to ensure that he made it safely back to Metamor Keep. That thought did not comfort the rat.

The minutes dragged by so slowly as they continued on past the cliff. Aramaes stood out in the open, his eyes firmly set upon the pursuing craft. As it grew closer, Charles could make out individual faces. Each of the bowmen stood aloft on the deck, aiming their flaming arrows aloft into the dark night sky. The hate clearly played across the captain's face was sure and vengeful. After a moment's pause Charles realized that he recognized their pursuer. It was Sergeant Cajudy, the head of the guard. He seemed to take a sadistic delight at the sound of each scream that came from the "Arrow". That unruly figure, his own dirty hair wet against his face from the rain, burned into his mind as he watched it.

And then their pursuers began to fall into the shadow of that looming cliff. Aramaes raised his arms up, a crackling sound resonating across the ship. His face was strained with tension, the muscles in his neck nearly bursting from the skin. Suddenly a bright bolt of violent blue streaked from his finger tips, and struck the cliff face, shattering the rock there. Aramaes then fell, his legs buckling beneath him, the mage passing out from the exertion. The shrieks then came from the ship behind them, as the boulders fell, smashing through the woodworking, crushing Lutins, destroying everything. No more arrows were launched as their nemeses sunk into the river and out of sight on that cold miserable rainy night.

Charles breathed a sigh of relief at seeing them destroyed, as did everybody else on board the "Arrow". Ptomamus began shouting out further orders, taking care of the wounded and the few dead. Aramaes was carried to his room to rest, and the broken shafts were dumped overboard into the churning whitecaps. Matthias watched as the mess was cleaned up, and several stood up from the oars to assist their comrades. When turned to look back at the wheel, he saw Ptomamus staring whimsically at him. "Enjoy the view?" Ptomamus muttered just over the wind.

Wiggling his whiskers, Charles scampered back down from the deck, and disappeared back inside the ship. The current crisis past, he took the amulet back to the Captain's quarters, and then tried to get some more sleep. They still had a long journey ahead of them. However, now that their only mage was unconscious, it would be much more dangerous. Curling up, he tried to think of how happy Kimberly would be to see him, and he her when all this was over. He wondered how Phil was doing, and whether he had taken care of that manipulative Loriod.

His dreams were plagued by screaming sailors, and drowning innocents. There was a particular wail that caused his heart to turn cold, that of a child, a young boy. Its cry into the night was one of utter torture and debasement. There was nobody to rescue that young lad from the evils that were plaguing him. Charles could only listen to the shrieks, and yet he felt like he knew the boy intimately. It was very unsettling. Matthias wished he could just reach out and rescue the youth, but he didn't know where to look for it sounded like it was coming from everywhere.

However, despite that, he did get a good bit of sleep. When the rat finally woke again, it was early morning, and the rain had stopped. Once more the sky was a dull leaden gray, but it was a relief after the day and night of terrible rain. Charles found that Ptomamus was lying in bed getting a few hours sleep himself. The First Mate would be out steering in his absence.

Scavenging in the galley, he found bread even less wholesome than the day before, but it filled his stomach. The cook didn't chase him this time either. After the previous night's adventures, the whole crew seemed quite somber, almost reticent. There was little merriment, but much angst. Those that had died would not be forgotten. A crew was a team, each member vital for it's survival. They all felt their companions' absence.

When Ptomamus finally woke and relieved the First Mate att he wheel, it was mid morning. Charles watched the shores go by in his little hole on the deck. No other sighting of enemy ships had occurred since the first had gone down the night before. The air was quiet, and the fish weren't biting as one sailor put it. There could be no doubt in Charles's mind. Something was going to happen today.

Aramaes's return to the deck was a welcome sight, and it seemed to lift the Sailor's spirits some. A mage was a valuable asset, and to lose that was unthinkable. Of course it was only moments after his return that Ptomamus found a job for him. "Do you think you are up to scanning upstream now?"

Aramaes didn't sound very confidant. "I can try, I can't promise you anything, Commander, but I can try."

"Good, that is all I can ask. Don't strain yourself." Charles crawled back out of his hole, and climbed up onto the poopdeck, staying hidden in the mesh of railings. They couldn't see him from here, but he sure could see them. He'd wished he figured this out sooner, but he'd had to be extra careful before. Now it was just a matter of running.

Aramaes was sitting don upon the deck, his legs tucked beneath him, and his head resting against the wood. Ptomamus had put the First Mate back to steering, as he watched over his only mage. Charles saw the creases on the tall man's forehead as he bent over. They were all stressed right now, even the ship. It was still two days till the sea, by the Captain's estimate. Unless Aramaes was successful, they would never know where the enemy lay.

To their horror, Aramaes began to twitch after a few moments. His body jerked to the right and to the left, his arms convulsing, his head shaking. Ptomamus called out for help, and others joined him on the poopdeck to restrain the epileptic wizard. From the mage's throat came an unearthly scream as his whole body wrenched and spasmed as if in the most torturous agonies. The Mate gripped the wheel with both hands, his knuckles gone white as he maintained his focus on the river ahead. Charles gnawed att he railing incessantly, his anxieties only increasing as the moments wore on.

And then the mage went silent, and his body limp. Ptomamus looked down, his face white, his own hands shaking. "Aramaes?" he called att he body, his voice choked. "Aramaes!" He sneezed once again, his eyes blinking away as the allergies struck him again. He took a few deep breaths, and then gently shook his friend. "Aramaes! Wake up!"

Suddenly, the wizard stirred, and blinked. His breath was coming in gasps, as he pushed away both the Captain and the others that were hovering over him. He rose to his knees, and then fell back onto the deck, gasping and gagging on his own tongue. Aramaes rolled over onto his back, clutching at his throat, hacking and coughing up phlegm and blood. All stood away from the mage as he slowly came to, his breathing calming, and his shaking subsiding.

"Aramaes? Are you all right?" Ptomamus asked after a moment.

The mage waved one arm att hem, motioning them back. Charles continued gnawing without realizing it. Aramaes finally turned over and sat back down, his chest still heaving. He finally looked up at the others, and they all could see that his eyes were quite bloodshot. m In a raspy voice, he finally uttered, "They have mages. They found me and tried to follow me back here, but I fought them off. They don't know how close we are."

"Do you know how close they are?" Ptomamus asked once he saw that the mage would live.

"Yes. They are only a matter of hours behind us. They should catch up to us by the end of the day at the latest."

That news brought a sudden silence on the poopdeck, and Charles felt his heart sink. If there were mages, then they stood no chance, not with a weakened Aramaes. Ptomamus however wasn't finished. "How many ships were there? How many mages?"

"Three ships. Baron Calephas was in the vanguard. I counted at least five mages, but there could have been more."

"Any sign of Nasoj?"

"He wasn't there, but it seems like he is flying from his Dark Citadel. He won't be here for many more days yet."

"How big are the ships?"

"Two are about the size of the 'Arrow', but Calephas's is a full fledged warship. Even still, I think their wizards are magically propelling it downstream so that they can keep pace." Aramaes fell into another coughing spasm, but recovered quickly. "They have a full compliment of Lutin warriors."

"Do you think that they will try to find us they way you found them?" Ptomamus asked after a moment's pause.

"They can try, but they won't be able to see us past the amulet's magic. It's too powerful and too diffused."

"Amulet?" the First Mate asked, a bit confused.

"Don't worry about it," Ptomamus told him, before patting Aramaes on the shoulder, and looking at the crew att he oars. He sucked in his breath, his bright red nose sniffling as he did so. "Hoist the oars and set the sails!"

"But sir." the mate objected.

"It is the only way we can outrun them. And this river is wide enough. We should be safe." Ptomamus replied, even as the crew began drawing in the massive oaken oars, and climbing the riggings to release the sails. Charles watched as they billowed into the wind. In moments, they had caught the draft, and were suddenly propelled downstream, the water clipping by.

Charles, the excitement past, then retired below decks. He wished there was something he as a rat could do, but all that it amounted to was staying out of sight. Returning to the Captain's cabin, he discovered that Magnus was cleaning again, and so stayed below the beams. Before, the cox'n had been an affable fellow, always with a tune on his lips. Now he too went about his task in utter silence. Charles wished that he could get to know this man better, for he was truly loyal to the Captain, and seemed of good spirit. Yet Nasoj's curse kept them from ever knowing each other. And Matthias's presence here had put this young man's life in jeopardy. Yet if he hadn't come, the entire world could have been swept under by half-insect half-lutin monstrosities, all at Nasoj's command. Duty was a terrible burden sometimes, but the lamp had to stray bright against the darkness.

Once Magnus had left, Charles scampered back into the room, and climbed up on the table. The map of the known world was spread out in all its glorious detail. He could see various navigational scribblings marked along the side in Ptomamus's script. Shifting to a larger form, but not too large, Charles walked over the map, trying to see where they were, and what would the quickest possible route by land if they did not make it. Anyway he looked at it though, he was going to have to cross over the mountains. Judging from the distance to the Keep, he figured that from the mouth of the river Arabas to Metamor Keep was a two month hike, if he avoided the plains to the east of the mountains which were notoriously dangerous country. If he took a chance, he could get back in one month, but that was very iffy. Not even he could fight a whole army of Lutins by himself.

Climbing back off the table, Charles returned to full rat form, and scampered back into the dark places. There was nothing he could do, but he still had to wait so long. So he went about exploring the ship again, and setting off as many of the traps he could find. yet it produced in him no joy, it only bored him further. Finally, his thoughts came back to their natural resting place - the visage of Lady Kimberly. He could see her little nose, her whiskers, and her deep black eyes, and light tan fur. Her whole body was there before him, awaiting his touch. How he wished that he could be with her even now, sitting out beneath a tree reciting poetry, or just snuggling up underneath the stars. He lost himself in that face, not wanting to think of anything else or of anybody else until they were once again reunited.

Of course it wasn't till much later that he was disturbed. In fact it was much, much later. Charles had dozed off while contemplating her loveliness, and had slept most of the day away. It was that abrupt shacking that had aroused him. He scampered as quickly as he could up to the top decks, but not before another jolt rocked the ship to it's side. When he finally was able to see what was happening, he knew that it was well too late. Far astern, the three enemy vessels stood perched unharmed on the river's surface. Large balls of flame came hurtling towards the "Arrow", each striking their mark. The masts were a great conflagration, and most of the sailors were jumping overboard. Charles quickly made his way up to the poopdeck, and saw Ptomamus still att he wheel, turning the ship towards that large set of rocks on the distant shore. Charles saw only Aramaes left at his side. The rest had gone overboard already.

"How much longer?" Ptomamus called out, his voice straining under the pressure, the heat becoming almost unbearable.

"Give me at least a minute more," Aramaes replied as he sat focused, his eyes closed and his hands upraised.

At this point, Charles knew there was little harm in revealing himself. Rising up to his full height, he looked up the last two men on board the vessel. Only it's forward momentum was keeping it moving. "What are you two waiting for?" Charles asked then. He would need to get the amulet and get off, but he was not going to leave till he was sure that these two were off as well. Duty demanded that he get that amulet now, but if he could save these two men's lives as well, then he would.

Ptomamus turned and saw Charles there. He did not really look all that surprised either. "Calephas was driving his men faster than we realized. Aramaes is sending off a distress signal. Whales will send rescuers after us in short order." A fireball suddenly struck the cabins behind the Commander, sending burning ashes spraying over the three of them. Charles felt them sting against his fur, singing it in places. The brave captain did not waver or move from the wheel, but stayed steady, keeping the "Arrow" afloat. "It is our last chance to save these men's lives. We have to take it. You need to get out of here. Don't worry about us."

Charles shook his head. "I'm going to make sure you two get off this ship alive."

"If you don't get off alive, then none of us are going to survive! Get that amulet and get out of here!" Ptomamus shouted like any good commander. Much as the rat hated to admit it, but he was right. Charles grimaced, patted his friend on the shoulder, and then ran down the steps below decks before another fireball slammed into the side of the ship, rocking it back and forth again. Debris fell everywhere, cluttering everything with ashes and broken timbers. He saw that the Captain's door was locked, but he just ran through it, his shoulder splintering the wood as if it were a piece of parchment. The amulet was underneath the bookcase, but he didn't have time to shift. Balling up his fist, he punched a hole in the floor, and yanked that talisman out by the chain. Draping it once more over his neck, he clambered back up the stairs to the decks.

Ptomamus was still standing there, and Aramaes was shouting into the blazing night sky. suddenly, the words were cut off, and Aramaes nodded to his Captain. Charles watched both their faces calm in relief. "Okay, we're finished."

"Good." Charles replied, and then he grabbed the Captain by the waist, and tossed him overboard.

Aramaes stared at him dumbstruck, the fact that a Keeper was on the ship finally registering to the mage. "What?" He asked, in his stupor. Charles grabbed him and sent him flying into the water beyond. He was going to make sure they got off the ship after all. Taking one last look at the oncoming vessels, Charles tensed his muscles, his tail curling about his feet, and then jumped himself.

The water was frigid, and Charles buckled at its touch. However instinct kicked in after a moment, and he began swimming as fast as he could towards the southern shore. A dense forest awaited them only yards from the water. The ship behind him began to sway from side to side under the onslaught, and then it finally began to sink. Charles felt the terrible currents dragging him back underneath, but by his strength, he fought them and was able to keep moving onwards. Ptomamus and Aramaes did not seem to be so lucky, as they began to fall behind. The rat swam up next to them, and grabbed each by their collars, and kept kicking with his legs. The power of the Sondeck flowed freely, exuding from every single strand of fur on his flesh. Not even a sinking ship could stop him from gaining the shore.

Dropping the two men on the beach, he dragged himself free of the river's icy embrace, and shivered in the chill wind. He didn't have any time to waste though. Both the Captain and the mage looked to be recovering quickly, which was good. The three vessels still approached, bright lights shining on them all. They had to move fast before their enemies would be upon them.

"I have to go, can yo two make it?" Charles asked, his paws clutching at the amulet about his neck.

"We'll be fine, just get out of here, Matthias. Just get out of here! I know we will see each other again." Ptomamus gave him a brief smile, and then bent over to help Aramaes to his feet. Charles took one last look at the sailors, and then turned to face the dark gloomy forest before him. He began to run, brushing aside branches, and ignoring all obstructions. Even so, he tried his best to leave no trail for the Lutins to follow. This amulet had to get back to Metamor Keep. It was time to head for home.

chapter 17

"What's this?" Misha asked himself aloud as he stood bent over the cookstove. He was examining a single glyph on a shattered board. "It looks magical."

"I don't know!" replied Caroline. "The mark looks... evil."

"It does at that" the Long Patrolman replied. "I wonder what it is, and how it how it got here?"

"There's no telling. Do you think we ought to check it out?"

"Eventually, I suppose," the axeman replied languidly. "Burning enchanted wood can be dangerous. Perhaps while the meat is boiling I'll run it by Pascal. Until then, I hope I have your full and undivided attention?" Misha's eyes sparkled mischievously- the couple rarely got to spend enough time together, and he had long wanted to share this old family recipe for mutton stew. The otter-morph giggled and came close.

For a long time, enchanted boards and even cooking were the farthest things from their minds.

The forest was dark, and it was unfriendly. Charles felt multiple thorns scratch through his naked fur as he ran, brambles entangled his legs, and branches smacked against his face. Yet he pushed onwards, running, trying to get as far away from the river as possible. Already in the distance he could hear the sounds of pursuit, the howling and the cajoling of the Lutins as they disembarked from the ships and set up chase. How fitting that a rat would be hunted by beasts.

The further he made his way in the woods, the more dense and tightly packed they became. Though he was tripped up, he tried his best to hide his tracks. Having spent years training till he rose to a black among the Sondeckis, he knew how to move quickly through the woods without leaving a trail. At the moment however, he was moving too fast to completely hide his path. Once he got far enough away, he could begin obscuring his trek back to Metamor. It would take many weeks, but there was little choice. With the Lutins following him, searching for him, he had to get far enough away to throw off his closest pursuers if he was to survive.

Of course, the really terrifying thought was that Nasoj himself would be showing up in a few days. Could he, a single rat, hide from one of the most powerful mages this world had ever seen? He had no choice but to try. And it was also quite likely that an experienced mage like Nasoj, while possibly never having any formal experience with the Sondeck, would have no trouble annulling it. Either way, he had to keep moving.

Many times as he barreled between trees and over bushes frightened animals would cry out as their home was disturbed. He cringed at the shrieking cry of each one, for surely it would draw the Lutins. The amulet was bouncing back and forth along his chest, striking it coldly with each step. It was the reason he was forced to make this mad dash through a forbidding wilderness at night. How much terror could it wreak if he let Nasoj have it? There was no choice, if he ran into the Lutins, or if they found him, he would have to kill them to get away.

The air was quite vibrant, but he could smell the fetid Lutins. That was a good sign. The wind was coming in from the north, so they could not for now locate him by scent. And unlike Matthias, the Lutin nasal system was not developed enough to track by scent alone. As long as he hid himself well enough, they would not easily find him.

Suddenly the trees opened up into a small clearing. Staring up at the black nebulous sky, he could still see the cloud cover. It was interminably dark; only the silhouettes of the trees at the edge of the clearing could be made out. This was ideal for a rat. Carefully he made his way through the grass-filled field, smiling a bit as the blades tickled at his bare legs. He had sprinted long enough, now he would hide his tracks, and conceal himself. Stepping back into the dense forest with the tall tress straining to reach the sun to the south, Charles took one moment to look back over his shoulder. A dim light could be seen coming from beyond the forest. The ship was still burning bright. Charles quickly said a silent prayer for the lives of the men of Whales.

Matthias then turned about and jogged into the depths of the forest. The rat's footfalls were now silent, and they left no mark. His passing left no broken branches nor snapped twigs. Animals did not screech in his wake, and within an hour, the sounds of pursuing Lutins faded away, disappearing beneath the general chorus of tree frogs.

He continued onwards, hoping that he was heading south, for several more hours before the exertion became too much for even him. Charles took a few moments to stop and catch his breath. Looking about, he could see a break in the canopy above him. The clouds still coalesced in the midnight sky. He would have to trust to his own directional sense for now.

Listening to the forest, he could vaguely hear a faint trickling. Walking cautiously towards it, it soon grew louder, until he could hear the familiar dripping of water over stones. Soon, a small stream came into view, winding its way through the trees, opening out into a small brook further on down. Charles leaned over, and took a long drink, finding it to be the best tasting water he had enjoyed in a long time. It was clear, icy cold, and brilliant.

Sitting back on the near bank and leaning against a tree, Charles took a moment to relax. He would have to find a place to sleep soon, as well as something to eat. This was as good a place as any to rest, though. Sleep for a few hours, and then continue on south. Perhaps by then the clouds would have pulled back.

Charles sniffed about the area until he found a nice abandoned home. A squirrel had once lived inside that tree, but now the small opening was empty. Charles placed the amulet down at the bottom of the hole, and then placed a few leaves and pine needles over top of it. He carefully smoothed out the leaves he had disturbed, and then, satisfied that his place for the night would not be discovered, shifted to his full rat form, and then climbed up to his temporary home. Curling up on top of the leaves, he could still feel the peculiar contours of the amulet beneath him. This was not going to be an easy sleep.

Nor did it prove to be a pleasant one either. His dreams of late seemed to be quite running the whole gamut from pleasant and serene walks with Lady Kimberly, to torturous nightmares in which any number of horrors would cry out in glee as they wreaked terrible pain and torment on the innocent. It was usually a child's scream though that would remain consistent throughout. That night was no exception. It made him curl tighter in the leafs against the chill of the night. It was the sound of an evil omen. Something terrible was happening out there in the world. Some great and ancient evil was rising. Charles tried to shut out the scram, but it only grew more intense. And as before, the source of the misery was not to be found.

So it was with great relief that Charles arose into the crisp morning air and left behind the horrid dreamscapes. Matthias quickly poked his head out of the hole in the tree, and peered about the forest. The songs of birds could be heard throughout the treetops. The rat could smell no trace of the Lutins, only of the fresh morning day. It was chilly, but the clouds had once again parted, and the sun shone through the tree branches to give a bit of light upon the gently flowing stream.

Climbing out of the hole, Charles grew back to his normal size, collected the amulet, and was off again, using the sun to guide him southwards. He walked at a leisurely pace for now, stopping to pick berries along his way, making sure that none were poisonous of course. It was a beautiful day, much like many he had seen at the Keep. The enchanting quality of the towering oaks and pine, all nestled together in the rolling hills with pleasant trickling streams and the mellifluous songs of birds, almost made him forget the great evil that was looking for him.

For most of the morning, he made his way down through the pine needles and fallen leaves that had remained after the snow had melted. When the trees gave way, he could see of to the west the great chain of mountains that eventually he would have to cross. Much of the slopes were still covered in snow, locked forever in the coldness of the north and of that white powder. Charles didn't want to cross over too soon, as there would not be much opportunity for getting food up so high.

By noon, everything seemed to be moving along so smoothly, that he knew something had to go wrong soon. It was a vague sense of uneasiness as he walked beneath the boughs of trees, some of which already had new leaves growing upon their branches. Nothing could hide up there, at least easily. The contour of the land was quite variable, and he tried to stay of the tops of hills, preferring the valleys where it would be hard to see him. Even still, he did so at a great risk. And in his heart he knew that it would not be long before he had to face the Lutins again.

So it came as no surprise when late in the afternoon, that pungent odor returned to his nose. They were somewhere nearby, for the scent was fresh. Listening to the air, he could hear nothing aside from the wind in the branches. Looking about he saw nothing aside from the trees and the bushes. Taking a deep breath, swallowing the fear that was building inside his chest, he continued onward, still walking for now.

Suddenly, from behind him, he heard the snapping of a twig. Immediately his legs kicked into action and he dashed to the south, trying to outpace whatever it was that was behind him. He rushed heedlessly onwards, barreling past the trees, until a sudden jolt of energy struck him from behind, sending him toppling to the ground and then tumbling down the hillside. Head over heels he fell, past bushes, and by trees, until at last he collapsed in a small stream bed. The chilling touch of the water in his face, brought him up on his knees, but the ache in his back prevented him from getting to his feet.

Matthias peered over his shoulder at the hill behind him, noting that the forest seemed to suddenly come alive, as Lutins poured out over the rise, thundering down the hill like stampeding cattle. Charles grimaced against the pain, and stumbled along on his legs, running as best he could despite the injury. Whatever had struck him had been powerful, possibly even magic. Yet no matter what, this amulet could not fall into Nasoj's possession.

He did his best to duck and weave between trees, minimizing his exposure, but there was little chance of him outrunning the Lutins this way. He heard their thunderous footfalls and screams of vitriolic rage echoing behind him. Charles did not look back once. The hills swept up to him, and came to a sudden rise, and there they stopped. Digging his feet into the ground, and clutching onto the nearest tree, Charles stood precariously standing over a small ledge. It was a good thirty or forty feet to the ground far below.

Taking a moment to peer behind him, he saw one Lutin raise its hands up towards him, and then a sudden brilliant ball of energy hurtled towards him. Charles dived over the precipice, the force barely skimming his flesh. With his heart in his throat, he reached out to whatever branches came near, grabbing at them, snapping them in half with the force of his fall. Yet they slowed him down enough to land on the ground without bruising. Getting back to his feet, the dull throbbing in his back still complaining to him, he continued to run.

While the Lutins were forced to find a safer way down, Charles intended to make good his escape. He slowed to his normal jog, obscuring his trail completely. He frequently listened, and he could still hear their cries of pursuit. The enemy knew in general where he was. That they had a mage with them made matters worse. He managed to settle into his new pace nicely, and did not find it at all difficult to maintain it. In fact, though he could still hear them, he did not see the Lutins again for another hour. He could envision a restless night, always on the move.

Running for days on end had not really been part of his practices. That sort of endurance was one of the practices and skills that the black of the Sondeckis learned, but Charles had only begun that sort of training when he'd left. What he had already learned, however, he employed to the fullest. His hunger was the worst; it gnawed at him endlessly from within. For while Matthias's magical powers could sustain him for a time, his body did still need food. All of this continual exertion had drained his reserves. And Sondeck could only carry him so far.

Charles found little comfort in the forest about him, the cold unrelenting stature of the somber trees suddenly a burden instead of a relief. The blowing wind came to him at his back, which was slightly relieving, but it only could help so much. The blue sky faded into a dull gray as the day wore on, and the sun was insufficient to warm his bones. The pain in his back also faded somewhat, but the muscles there remained very tight.

Still, it seemed that the world was not through with him yet. As he burst through a group of bushes, he found himself staring at a rag tag group of Lutin soldiers eating from a carcass of some large animal, probably a deer. With a bit of chagrin, he mentally berated himself for not having picked up on their scent, despite the fact that they had been upwind of him. Turning about, he began to run around them as they set up chase.

The distraction and subsequent change in direction had been too much however, and the Lutins who had been chasing him before were quick to catch up. Charles sprinted as fast as he could, trying to stay out of sight, but they were too close. Once again he felt that painful blast striking him in the back. He twisted about, crumpling to the ground, and smacking his head against a rock.

It took a moment for the world to come back into focus, but when it did, he saw several figures standing over him. Clutching the amulet in one paw, he backed up away from them, trying to keep an eye on all of them. As he scanned the Lutin faces, he saw the mage, with a strange lightning strike tattoo painted over one ear, and another face that was all too familiar. Sergeant Cajudy, dressed in light armor, was standing there among them, smirking down at the form of the Keeper.

"Should have known it would be a Keeper," he laughed as Charles scrambled backwards even more, finally getting to his feet to face the circle of Lutins. Scanning about, he saw that the hills were lined with them. At most there were maybe fifty Lutins, all under the charge of this one human. The odds were quite unfavorable.

"I thought I saw your ship go down," Matthias remarked, trying to buy some time to collect his power. The two most important, the mage and the human, were standing before him. Without them, this army would be in disarray. As he scanned the Lutins, he noted that all of them were armed whether with swords, clubs or spears, plus the occasional whip. There were no bows among them. That was a welcome sight.

"Yes, it sunk, but some of us can swim after all," Cajudy replied pedantically. Charles noted his look of irritation. He must have expected to catch the amulet long before this.

"So what do you want from me?"

"What do you think? Give us the amulet."

"Or what, you'll kill me?"

"Something like that. We'll probably kill you anyway, but if you make it easy on us, we promise to make it quick."

Charles reached both of his paws up to the necklace. 'Since I'm just a little rat, I'll give you the amulet. Please don't hurt me! I was just doing what I was told." Cupping his hands together, he focused all of his force right there. While Cajudy and the mage watched him, he flushed out his arms, throwing every single figure in front of him to the ground. Cajudy and the mage however received the full power of the Longfugos technique. It had shattered stone walls, and now it killed both, caving in their chests and faces, crushing the bones and organs immediately.

He then dashed over the bodies, putting all of his force into his feet, pushing hard against the ground, trying to give speed to his run. He moved past the dead bodies, and the stunned Lutins who had seen their comrades knocked aside by the very air. Faster and faster he pushed himself, the Sondeck being pushed against the ground through his feet, giving him more force and strength to continue. The wind blew past him at a great rate as he ran faster than he had ever run before, even as a human. The bellowing of rage coming from behind him disappeared into the trees as he moved through the forest.

There was no question he was leaving behind a trail, but he needed to get away, and get away fast. The terrible pain in his back grew stronger with eats step, and his eyes noted the blurring of images all about him. Each tree that went by was only a blur as he made his way over the rough terrain. Branches snapped as he moved through them, ignoring the cuts and gashes they left behind.

Yet even a Sondecki of the black could not keep it up forever. After what seemed an eternity to the battle weary rat, he stumbled into a clearing, his breath coming harshly. He could barely move. Charles fell to the ground, rolling over on his back, gasping for air, trying to resolve the strange blue image that was before his eyes. Suddenly a face came into view, a large reptilian face, and a long neck, which ended in a larger body that seemed tensed and ready to pounce upon him at a moment's notice. What was this? Charles tried to muster his power once again, but the limit had been reached. Matthias could give no more.

The dragon was peering down quizzically at Charles as the rat finally blacked out.

Pascal was bleary-eyed but triumphant when Duke Thomas finally came to see her. Not that he was looking much better, these days...

"I've got it" she said simply.

"Got what?" her overtired liege replied predictably.

"The answer. What happened to Phil." Her eyes held unmistakable pride.

"What? I mean... Is it reversible?"

"I don't know- I am no mage. But I can tell you this for sure. I have the whole complete spell. given this, I have never heard of a magic that could NOT be reversed, at least partially."

The equine leader looked enthused for the first time in days. "Tell me!" he demanded eagerly. "Tell me all you have learned! Please!"

Pascal smiled shyly. "Actually, a good part of the credit goes to Misha. He was cooking, you see... Mutton stew, an old family recipe..."

Thomas nodded, eager to get to the point.

"Anyway, in the kitchen's kindling pile was an old board from a packing crate. This one here," she explained, holding it up. "It has a rune on it, and Misha feared that burning it might release some magic. The Keep Mages are kinda busy these days, you know. So, he brought it to me." Her eyes were sparkling in triumph, now. "As you know, I once made a hobby of studying rune magic. I'm fairly well versed in the Art, in fact. But this sigil is obvious. I bet even you can get understand it." Not even noticing the implied insult, Thomas bent over and examined the inscribed wood.

Pascal was right. It WAS obvious. The ornate and stylized drawing was of a crown, quite clearly suspended over a rabbit on all fours. With a magnifying glass alongside him. A light began to dawn.

"A Royal rabbit, in an animal state..." Thomas mused.

"Right! The spell could affect no one else. It was quite clearly targeted to magnify Phil's rabbit problems while doing nothing else. It is no wonder the magic was undetected- it only worked in the presence of the Prince himself. By the way, my Liege, is your nose clear today?"

"Yes, fairly. Why?"

"Take a sniff."

Carefully, as if afraid the glyph might bite, Thomas filled his nose. Instantly, another revelation hit him. "Carrots! This was part of a crate of carrots!"

"Yes. Phil was always a bit embarrassed about loving them so. In fact, sometimes he rather gorged on the things."

Thomas smiled, for the first time in what seemed like days. "Yes. He always ate his carrots in private. And do you know what? He wouldn't share his personal stock even with me..." Then Thomas came alert again. "Which reminds me? Where did this crate come from?"

"I have no idea. But, the first carrot crop just came in. As hot and dry as things are, it may be the only one this year. Loriod supplied them, didn't he?"

"Yes," the Duke of Metamor replied. "And I think that is the final piece of the puzzle. Pascal, my friend, you have done well."

The 'pine was clearly uncomfortable with the praise. "Phil is my friend, too," she replied simply.

Thomas simply nodded. He understood. Better than most.

Wessex wished he had more time to study the problems of his friend Prince Phil before taking action, but Thomas had been explicit that he needed an answer immediately, that his plans were entirely dependent on Phil's mental state. Not that more time would have helped anyway, most likely, the mage knew. For the enchanted carrots Phil had eaten certainly had caused irreversible effects, but their degree was still open to question. Since the food had been literally incorporated into his body, there was no sure way to remove them or dispel them without endangering the Prince himself. Attempting a direct cancellation of the spell could certainly do no harm, though, and was most likely the only answer anyone could ever come up with anyway.

So, Wessex steeled himself to try it.

Under the watchful eye of Rupert, the youthful wizard drew his runes carefully and crafted his lines of power from magic dust. Then, he asked Rupert to secure the Prince right in the center of his array. The gorilla complied, even though Phil was clearly badly frightened. A harness was produced, and the Prince fixed into position despite his frightened struggles. It was an ugly little scene in its way, but one that Rupert had lived through many times before. Then, after several fruitless attempts to pacify the rabbit, Wessex recited his incantation in the language of Nasoj. The endless harsh words frightened Phil still further- he kicked and fought mindlessly in an effort to escape, but remained securely harnessed.

When Wessex was done, the white rabbit was still blindly struggling. He had failed.

It seemed of late she was getting a lot of high profile cleaning assignments. First in the week she was assigned Channing's Tower, and now Lady Kimberly had been assigned to be this poor boy's nurse. She'd spent several hours just sitting next to his bed as the youngster rolled about, sometimes crying or whimpering, but every once in a while, he would unleash a bloodcurdling scream that made the rat cringe in horror. It was the kind of scream that plagued one's nightmares.

Most of the time though, he would lie there still, not moving, eyes open and staring blankly at the ceiling. Kimberly would talk to him, telling him about her day, and about whatever crossed her mind. As she would talk, sometimes the young boy would reach out an arm, the small fingers grasping at her fur. She would gently take the hand, and squeeze it reassuringly. The gesture would be returned, but nothing coherent would be said.

So it was that Lady Kimberly found herself taking her dinner with the victim of terrible horrors that evening. The month of May had come upon them with all its wondrous charm. Yet there was no charm within this room, only pain. She watched the boy as he ate her bread and cheese, trying to think of what she could do for him this day. He was lying still, whimpering again, his upper lip quivering, and his body twitching every once in a while.

So she did what every child wanted, she told him a story. It was a story her mother had once told her while she had been scared of the dark. After finishing off the last of the cheese, Kimberly sat down next to the boy, cupping his head in her arms, much as her mother had done for her, and then, smoothing out his hair, she spoke to him in a loving compassionate voice. The boy seemed to respond well to that, because his whimpering died out, and he just lay there, his small hands holding her arms.

The story of course was about this guardian angel, taking about how every kid had one. The monsters of the night would stalk about in the dark corners, but before they could hurt the innocent sleeping kids, they would face the angel, who stood by protecting the child. Kimberly then happily finished the story with the angel receiving his wings for defeating this terrible monster and giving a young girl reason to hope.

"Angel's don't have wings," the child muttered in his light voice. It was the first coherent thing she had ever heard him say.

"They don't?" Kimberly asked, holding the child's head in her arms, and staring down at her. It looked like there was a fog lifting from the child's eyes, as if he was truly seeing her for the first time.

"No." the boy's voice trailed off as he suddenly broke her gaze, and stared about the rest of the room, trying to put it into context. Suddenly his head snapped back to her. "Where am I?"

Lady Kimberly continued to straighten out the curls in the child's blonde hair. "You are in Duke Thomas's castle."

The boy sank back into the bed, his mouth agape, and his face puzzled. She would be here for him if he needed her. It looked like he wasn't expecting or wanting to be here. He lifted his hands from the bed covers, and stared at them. Turning them around, he noted their size, and the very contours. Kimberly watched as he began to cry once again. She held him close, and he then wrapped his own arms about her furry form, crying into her chest.

"It's all right," She whispered as she held him. "Nobody's going to hurt you."

The minutes dragged on as she rocked the young boy back and forth. Her mother had done the same for her when the pain had been great. This boy had been brutalized terribly. How could any man do these things to one so young? It was a travesty, a monstrosity. Surely the one who had done these things would see justice.

Suddenly, the child let go of her, sitting back down on the bed. He put his hands in his lap, his legs curling up beneath him. Kimberly sat next to him, wondering just how old the child was. He looked to be about ten, maybe twelve, but no older. His voice though, sounded as if it came from one much older. "You are Charles's lady friend, Kimberly, am I right?"

Lady Kimberly sat dumbstruck at the pronouncement. How did this little child know? She'd never seen him before in her life. Unless...

"What's your name?" She asked, already fearing she knew the answer.

"I'm Francis Hough." The words seemed so bizarre that it took her a moment to realize exactly who the child really was.

"Father Hough!" The joy she had in seeing and knowing that it was him and that he would be all right made her whiskers stand out on end. She bowed her head before him. "Shall I go get Coe? Now that you are awake, he can take a look at you?"

Hough suddenly very violently grabbed her arm and shouted, "No!" His eyes were wild, with some of that old fog back in place. She found herself frozen in place as the boy stiffened, and then crumpled back in the bed again. He hid his face in his hands, whimpering at the sudden fright he had unleashed.

She put a single paw on his shoulder, and his shuddering stopped. He slowly lowered his hands from his face, and then stared back up at her. "Just stay here with me," He asked, his lips trembling, his body hurt, and his mind still scarred.

"I'll stay. You are safe now." Kimberly smiled making the boy brighten somewhat. This was going to be a long night. Many times she herself had been so scared of the darkness her mother had sat up with her to weather the night. How could she refuse to be a mother to this frightened little one? He may have only the body of a child, but right now, he was a child both in spirit and in need.

And into the night they stayed, sitting upon the bed next to each other. Kimberly continued to tell him stories that her own mother had once told, and Hough listened like any frightened child might - with wonder.

chapter 18

When the rat finally awoke, it was to the whistling of wind, and to a very hard sensation on his back. Above him, the great blue sky swirled overhead, endless in its vastness and scope. It was a windy day, very windy in fact. Downright freezing actually! The wind was so fast he was afraid it would pick him up and throw him about if not for the straps holding him down. Straps? What was going on? The last he recalled he'd been running from the Lutins.

And then fainting in front of that dragon. Matthias could hear the mighty heartbeat beneath him finally, and the flap of its wings. He'd been captured anyway, and was now tied down to the back of a dragon in flight. Damn Nasoj! One way or another, he was going to have to destroy this amulet. If he had to die doing so, then he would. The lamp must keep burning bright. If a few have to be sacrificed so that all may shine, so be it.

Charles peered down at his feet. The amulet lay against his chest still, but his arms and legs and chest were firmly secured against the blue dragon's back. He could see the tail, with thick spade at the end, slowly moving this way and that against the changing winds. The ground was too distant for his slightly myopic eyes to make out.

Taking a deep breath, he called forth the power of the Sondeck once again. Ever since his confession to Phil, it seemed to have been used almost everyday. Charles dismissed that irony, and quickly freed his hands. The straps were tough leather, but they snapped away at his will. The dragon noted this immediately, but could do little about it while in flight. Matthias could vaguely hear him trying to shout something against the wind, but Charles refused to listen.

Breaking free his other restraints, Charles suddenly was thrown from the dragon's back by the freakish winds. Tumbling head over heels through the void, Charles offered up his final prayers to God, knowing that soon enough he would meet his Lord. Just before falling through the cloud layer, he saw the dragon diving after him. Nasoj must not have this amulet!

His bones shivered as he streaked through the air. Matthias found his thoughts turning to those things that he would miss when he was gone. He wished he could have seen his friends one last time; especially Lady Kimberly. She was more than a friend though. The little sweet rat was the most concise statement of his reason to live and to serve. For a moment, the strength of his love for her was enough to warm his heart.

And then the clouds broke once more, and he could see the blur beneath him, rushing closer and closer. The land was still some ways below him though. Suddenly, from above, the dragon pierced the milky veil, and with talons outstretched, tried to snatch Charles from the air. The rat however struck out at the dragon, smacking it's claws with his fists, and for a moment, deflected them away. Matthias however was sent spinning away, twisting and tumbling out of control from the force of his attack. The dragon, used to flight, was much better at maintaining control.

Charles found himself shrouded in mist again, but only for a few moments before he emerged closer to the ground than he had dared imagine. Yet what was revealed was not the trees and hills and mountains of the Giantdowns that he had been expecting, but rather the rolling waves of the Sea of Stars to the south. Why would an agent of Nasoj bring him here? To kill him? The dragon could long ago have done that. The only answer left to him was one that made him feel like an idiot. The dragon was not from Nasoj at all.

The rat managed to right himself, spreading all of his limbs out against the wind. His fur was pulled taut against his skin, and his jowls and whiskers blinded him by flapping in the incredible wind. How he hoped the dragon would catch him soon! Matthias had no idea how close he was to the water. He could see the waves, but had no idea how large they were. At any second he knew he would strike against the surface of the water and be instantly crushed by the impact. Charles could strengthen his body with the Sondeck, and hope that would be enough. But a fall from such a height would be almost certainly fatal. Even if he lived past the initial impact, surely his bones would be broken, and the bleeding would attract sharks and other sea predators. No, his power was incapable of saving him now.

He could almost taste the sea water, the salt burning his nose as he tried to breath in the harsh waters. Matthias closed his eyes, not wanting to watch anymore. His prayers went out to the Lord that he might be saved from death at this moment. That he might be spared so that he could see his loved Lady Kimberly again. The fall went on and on and on...

And then the dragon's claws grabbed him about his waist, and yanked him back up into the sky once again. Charles held on tight as the whiplash movement snapped him backwards, awakening the pain in his back once again. He grimaced as they climbed back up into the clouds, the sea disappearing beneath him. Staring at the large black claw that could easily slice him in two, and the blue scales from which it protruded, he thanked the Lord for his wisdom in making dragons.

"Thank you!" Charles shouted into the air. The dragon's head turned back to face him on its long sinewy neck. Its eyes were a bright blue as well, and they looked rather frustrated.

"What did you have to go and do that for?" it called out in a deep bass voice.

"I'm sorry. I thought you were taking me back to Nasoj," Charles replied, shouting his lungs dry again.

"Now why would a good dragon of Whales take you to that nut?" The bright blue rescuer continued to pump its wings until they had once again settled comfortably into a glide. Charles felt the chill of the upper air again on his body. It was a bit harder to breath up so high, but not too much so.

However upon hearing of the dragon's origin he was quite relieved. That was where Phil had been from, and named crown prince of as well, plus Ptomamus and his men. Aramaes's spell had worked! "So, where are we going?"

"Where else? To the Isle of Whales!" The dragon boomed in a hearty voice.

A formal Council of War was a rare thing in Metamor. Every noble was there of course, and every mage of responsible position, And so were Duke Thomas's vassal lords.

All except Loriod, of course. He was the subject under discussion. Quite energetic discussion, in fact.

"Look, My Lord," Christopher of the iron mining Duchy was saying. "We all know that Loriod is guilty of certain... excesses, shall we say. And that he is far from a pleasant man. But what right have we to dispossess him?

Barnhardt agreed. "Would you so easily throw me off of MY lands, Duke Thomas? Our families have long and deep ties. But then so do yours and Loriod's. If we once turn on a brother Noble, who will be next?"

There was general agreement with these thoughts, and the Keepers present were getting worried. This was not going at all well. Then Thomas played his trump cards. Raising his voice regally over the festering debate, he called out "Bring in Prince Phil, and Father Hough."

Rupert, wearing his full-dress Marine uniform rolled in his caged Prince on a little cart. And the newly-youthful priest was leaning heavily on a stick, wearing short pants and sleeves that displayed but a small portion of his wounds, and then only the physical. Conversation halted instantly.

"My Lords and allies, you know of Prince Phil's affliction, I am sure. However, it has become worse of late. In fact, it may have become irreversible. I have good reason to hold Loriod accountable for this. And Father Hough, who I am sure is also known to you all, will tell his own story..."

When Thomas was done relating the tale of Loriod's poisoning attempt, and Hough had bravely shared his own humiliation, there were no more doubters. Phil and Hough were personally known to all there, and respected. What had been done to them would not be allowed to stand.

Come dawn, Loriod's castle would be stormed and the Lord of the Manor brought to justice.

Rupert went in early and alone, of course. It was Fleet doctrine to send in saboteurs, and Phil had long intended to display to Thomas the effectiveness of the tactic. Besides, the ape had some personal business with Loriod. Rules of war be damned. If Rupert found him, he would see justice done himself. Justice swift and complete. He owed Phil that much...

A tear stung the gorilla's eye as he thought about his Prince. Wessex's failure had hit Rupert hard- he knew very well that Phil trusted the youngster completely and had great faith in him. And the look on Wes's face as his magic failed the lapine bespoke volumes to one who knew him. Truly, the mage considered the battle lost.

If Metamor's specialist in Nasoj's magic had given up, then where was hope to be found?

Well, if there was no hope then there was always the option of exacting the highest price possible from the enemy. Phil himself had chosen this course at the Battle of the Wind, had he not? And somehow, by fighting on long after all reasonable chance of victory or even survival was gone he had managed to pry a triumph loose from stubborn Fate. Could one of Phil's friends make any less of an effort?

Rupert answered his own question as he came abreast a familiar window. At a touch, the shutters opened. The big ape shook his head sadly- the incompetent fools had not even found his entry point from last time...

The little archer's room had not changed a bit, and this time Rupert negotiated it with far more ease. He listened, repeated his mad scramble to the spiral stairs, and began his work. Stopping at each rack of cheap, shoddily made arms the gorilla affixed a little piece of paper with a rune drawn carefully upon it. Then, once it was firmly in place, he completed the little drawing by adding one last tiny mark. Immediately the little rune flared for just a second, then all appeared as it was before. Except that the swords, morning stars, bows, and spears were melted into the rack itself, making them into one single solid object. An object useless for fighting...

Fifty times Rupert repeated his task in the long night that followed, a fine evening's work punctuated by three near-discoveries and two uses of the trusty sandbag. By dawn's first light the alarm was out, though, and the game nearly up as well. The silverback had been using all the skills he possessed just to survive. Once in a very high-ceilinged room he had vaulted to a high shelf seconds before two confused pursuers met below, never thinking to look up. Another time he had been forced to leap from one tower to another in a feat that would have been impossible were Rupert still a man. But he had accomplished his mission, and was still free.

Now, Rupert was on his own time. He headed for the Throne Room, death in his eyes...

The journey there was far more dangerous this night than on his past such excursion, with the guard turned out and looking for an intruder. Fortunately, due to his earlier efforts most of Loriod's men were milling about in confusion looking for weapons. No longer fearing discovery so much (for he would willingly die to kill Loriod) Rupert became bolder and made more use of his sandbag. Silently, he took guard after guard from behind, leaving a trail of unconscious bodies as testament to his skill and wrath. And, just when he thought that perhaps he could go no further, the army of Metamor assailed the gate with blasts of magical power, a blaring of trumpets, and a bloodcurdling roar.

It was just too much. Weaponless, poorly led, and assailed by those they thought of as friends and allies the garrison panicked and ran. Not a man stood and fought for one such as Loriod.

Inside the castle, Rupert whooped at the sudden chaos. Two guards looked right at him, round eyed in unreasoning terror, then fled without a word when Rupert screamed his challenge and beat his chest. And the cheers of the Metamorians were getting louder by the second as they advanced as quickly as caution allowed. The ape knew that if he was to be the one to settle Loriod's account, he would have to move quickly. At a dead run he scrambled through the castle now, as he and the guards ignored each other in the urgency of their own respective needs.

The gorilla turned a corner and ran full tilt down a corridor that seemed oddly familiar. Even through the joy of battle that now sang in his veins he sensed something wrong, but Rupert was just moving too quickly to stop.

And so it was that the expert saboteur and ex-Marine tumbled through the hole in the floor that he himself had cut the night before, and landed square in the middle of Loriod's empty Throne Room...

He fell with a terrible crash, and heard quite clearly the snapping of his own left thighbone. The pain was terrible, and Rupert rolled into a ball of agony for a timeless period before there was room for anything else but suffering in his world. But presently he remembered who he was, and more importantly where he was. Hazily, he looked around and saw that he was alone. But that couldn't possibly last, he knew. So, cursing his clumsiness, Phil's personal guard began edging himself behind Loriod's precious goldfish tank, where perhaps he might lay unnoticed for a few moments. His fight was over, this day.

And silently Rupert gnashed his teeth in frustration as seconds later foul Loriod himself strode by just out of reach, stinking of fear and cold sweat.

Then, the great ape finally passed out.

How could the spirits have let this disaster occur? He was Lord Loriod, destined to rule all of these lands, and more. And now the Duke's army was sweeping through his forces as if they weren't even there. Soon they would be upon him, and that was a scene that he could not even picture! They would be before him, yes they would, but on their knees! They would bow to him and cede over all of the land to his authority. Than he would set right the petty excesses of the commoners and put the women in their place.

However, Loriod knew, that at this point, only one thing remained in his possession that could possibly make any of his future happen as foreordained. Only the Holy Censer which the spirits had brought to him could possibly give him the power to fight back. Climbing the mighty stairs up to the top of his tower, he could hear the shaking and pounding and screaming from the guards below. It would not be long before they found this tower. When they did, they were going to receive a surprise.

Loriod stepped past the threshold and stared at the center of the unadorned chamber, ignoring the rocking as the walls shook with the force of the siege. Where the censer should have been, a man dressed in black gowns stood, arms crossed, eyes gazing forward. It was the lead spirit, come to rescue him from this terrible mischance of fate! Loriod's smile grew at the thought of all of his manipulations. Soon he would sit upon the throne of Metamor Keep, with a Phil stuck in a cage. It would be nice to scratch his ears again.

"Ah, Spirit! I need your help! That blasted Duke has invaded my lands. Even now you must know he lays siege to this castle. Please, give me the power I need to destroy him utterly and take my rightful place on the Ducal throne."

Rubbing his thumb gently over the insignia on his arm, the dark man smiled broader. He then pointed down at the ground with his other hand. Loriod looked, and saw something remarkable. Intricate designs had been drawn, the likes of which he had no understanding. Was this the center of power in which he was to stand? It must be so. It was so like the spirits to be so thoughtful.

Loriod walked up to where the man stood, and took his place in the center of the rings of power. He could feel the magic beginning to move through him as the white chalk lines began to glow, brightening in hue until they were a brilliant yellow. His whole body tensed and filled with the sensations. It was even more erotic than his play with that irascible priest had been, for certainly, this gave all, and took nothing in return.

"I can feel the power already. I shall surely smite them!" Loriod crowed in delight. He tried to step from the circle to face his enemies, and to humble the Duke once and for all, but found much to his surprise that he was locked firmly inside the central ring. "Why can't I leave?" The man in black just smiled. "What are you doing to me?" Loriod insisted, his voice enraged.

"I'm just cleaning up a mess," the man replied, casually watching both him and the door.

"What mess? If you want to clean up the mess, than you'll help me defeat the Duke!"

"You have such a small mind, Loriod."

"Lord Loriod!"

"We gave you a chance, and through your incompetence and overreaching, you have squandered it. So, we are taking everything from you that belongs to us."

"You said I would rule! You said I had a destiny!" Loriod spluttered, not believing what his ears and eye plainly told him. The yellow lines suddenly flared again, and then changed to a deep green hue. He felt a sudden wrenching, and watched in horror as his paunch began to shrink, his whole body atrophying before his eyes.

The man laughed a very deep and sinister laugh. It chilled Loriod's blood like nothing he ever knew before. "You are such a fool, Altera. You could have had power, for a short time. But you have proven more trouble than you are worth."

"Please! Can't we just take power now! All the important people are here, we can strike now!" Loriod begged, feeling himself sucked downwards into the soles of his shoes, and beyond.

"If we could have done that, we would have never come to you in the first place." The man replied blandly as the light shifted to a menacingly insane blue. Loriod watched as sparkles of blue light fell from his hands, dripping from his fingertips, and spilling into the floor. They vanished on sight, snuffed out like a candle.

"But I can still be useful to you!" Loriod insisted.

"No, you are just a liability. Had the Duke managed to capture you, he surely would have interrogated you. Then he might have found out about me. That is not something we want at all."

"Why should a spirit care if he is discovered?" Loriod asked, trying to grasp at the blue sparkles as they tumbled, but they fell through his hands as if they weren't even there.

The other regarded him for a moment with a quizzical stare, and then he laughed again. "Are you that daft, Altera? I am not a spirit. I am man as much as you are. More so in fact." He casually gauged the floor's blue nimbus, and then smiled. "I'd be lying if I said this next part wasn't going to really hurt."

On cue, the chalk lines flared into red brilliance, and the pain shot throughout Loriod's body. He screamed, and the red glow came from his mouth, firing throughout the room and rebounding around the entire tower. It felt like his mind was being ripped apart, memory by memory. First the past few weeks were extracted and gone. And then it went even further. Systematically ripping out every face he'd ever seen, every word he'd ever known, and every pleasure he'd experienced, and eradicating them, the magic followed its fell course. Bit by bit Loriod's mind was utterly destroyed.

When the red finally faded into a dull purple, Loriod collapsed in the central circle, his body limply lying, mouth agape, eyes vacant, and mind utterly gone. The mage watched as the purple glow disconnected the innermost parts of Loriod's existence in preparation for the final spell to be given its freedom.

Just as it was about to begin, though, he heard the sound of footsteps racing up the stairs. Turning to face the door, the evil wizard saw a familiar face step through. It was that boy-mage who had interrupted him before in the castle. He smiled. "Ah, you are just in time to witness the final end to your problems."

Wessex did not notice the other wizard at first, since his whole world was focused on the person who's name he bellowed as he charged through he door. "Loriod!" The boy's face was set in anger, but then in switched rapidly to an expression of puzzlement as he saw the drained noble at the center of the unholy ring of power. His blue eyes then moved to the other very familiar figure standing just outside those drawing. "You!"

"Good to see you again. How is the ferret?"

The boy saw once again in his mind's eye the body of dead Dorson, and felt the rage flow through him. Then he quelled it, as he stared at this dark mage. Anger was just what this foul creature wanted. There was no doubt that he would kill this interloper, but in his own way. "He's dead, thanks to you. And I swear I will dance on your grave."

"I think not." The man glanced over at Loriod. The chalk lines darkened to their deepest unearthly black. The body of Loriod stiffened for a moment, the mouth issued forth a little scream, and then the skeletal form shuddered and crumpled to the ground, a lifeless husk. The man smiled, the shadows behind him opening up as if to suck him through. "I must be on my way now."

Wessex quickly scanned the spells, saw their focus and the terrible magic that was in them. They were connected to the room, the circle in the center, and their caster, the departing mage. Grabbing the linkage, he held on tight, and locked it to his own form. As the man tried to step into the shadows, he found that he was utterly immobilized from the waist down. The figure struggled for a moment, exerting great force, forces beyond The Metamorian's comprehension, but still he could not move.

"You would think to trap me? Go ahead then, kill me if you dare, child!" the man taunted, turning back to face his foe with a sick grin.

The cherubic looking wizard shook his head. "I'm no fool. I've seen the way you've laid out these lines. If I try to kill you here, both you and I will go where you sent Loriod - the underworld. So you are going to come with me, to a place where things are not quite so much to your advantage."

The evil mage looked at the still nebulous lines, and then licked his lips. "You can't hold me in here forever, you know. I will break free. Today is not my day to die. It could still be yours though." With that statement, the man began hurling his fists about the room. The far walls all creaked and groaned under this stress and the onslaught of his attacks. They came faster and faster, the spell's grip on the man weakening along with the structural integrity of the tower.

Wessex tightened his hold, crushing the man's legs with the force of his spell. He slowly inched the magical force up to the man's chest, bending and breaking ribs as he closed his mystical grip tighter. His foe was generating hairline cracks in the boy's spell at every second. There was no doubt, he could not hold him forever. But he could hold him long enough to arrange for a future settling of accounts. "I will have only one thing from you then this day, oh mage. I want your name!"

The man look startled, though his attacks continued relentlessly. "My name is it you want? That you shall not have! I will never give it to you!"

So the Metamorian called on hidden reserves and crushed harder, smiling as he heard one of the bones in the mage's leg snap like a rotten stick. He knew that he could not keep up the new level of intensity for long, but he was quite sure that his enemy would be shaken at the unexpected strength of his attack. Blood poured forth from the evil one, spilling over the black robes, drenching the floor. The man cried out in the sudden agony. He writhed under the constant pressure from the link of not only his own spell and Wessex's, but from underworld spells that were seething with rage. All except one little curly-Q of the circle surrounding Loriod had now been activated, Wessex noted. But he did have leisure to contemplate the significance of this as the struggle raged on.

"What is your name?" Wessex demanded again in his wildly inappropriate boy's voice. The struggle was becoming titanic, and debris from the terrible pounding the walls were taking shook about the floor. Any that fell within the black circle was instantly vaporized, going to a place that none ever return from.

"No!" The man breathed out, his face drenched with sweat and beads of blood. His black hair danced about wildly in the chaos. The ceiling began to give way, rafters splitting and falling as the room began to collapse in upon itself. If it did, both wizards would die. Yet neither yielded.

"Your name!" Wessex shouted yet again at the evil wizard, whose power was unlike anything he had ever seen before, excepting Nasoj himself of course. Truly, aside from the caster of the curses and one of his own teachers, this man was perhaps the most powerful mage he'd ever witnessed. Had it not been for the existing magic that Wessex had been able to turn against its own caster, Wessex knew, he would have been finished long ago. Only his familiarity with the methods of Nasoj and his ilk had made his stand possible. These were circumstances not likely to repeat. And realizing this, Wessex reached within to his deepest reserves for one last unexpected surge of force.

"I... Asked... What... Is... Your... Name!" Wessex spat out between gritted teeth in the agony of his effort. And, incredibly, the very skull of his enemy began to distort from the pressure as the dark mage screamed like an animal in agony.

"Za...." the man finally got out. "Za...gro...."

This was no time to let up. Wessex put all he had into his spell, and a blood vessel burst in his foe's neck, sending the red fluid spurting across Loriod's still form. At the sight of the blood, Wessex saw real fear in his enemy's eyes.

"Za...gro...sek!" the man finally spat out. "Zagrosek, damn you!"

"Zagrosek?" But it was too late to question further, for suddenly the field shattered, and the dark man dived into the well of shadows beneath him and was gone. Wessex shook his head clear, fixing every detail of the man in his mind, storing it for examination later. Phil had been right. Loriod was manipulated.

Suddenly, the boy's attention was drawn back to the circle of power that had been drawn. He really ought to extract Loriod's body for evidence, but at the moment it was unsafe to. Besides, he was far too tired. But things remained to be done, like studying that last little bit of inactivated spell.

As he stared at it, it came to life.

Not waiting another moment, the boy dived through the doorway, and tumbled down the stairs even as a terrible detonation was unleashed above. The entire top floor of the tower exploded outwards with not only the force of the spells that had been planned into in the circle of power, but with the energy of every subsequent spell unleashed by Zagrosek. Wessex threw up shields to deflect the power even as he fell head over heels down the staircase.

Finally he came to rest in a heap at the bottom of the stairwell. The boy knew he was lucky to be alive after such a confrontation, not to mention the detonation that followed. However, when he looked up, all he could see was the staircase leading into the empty air. The tower had been utterly vaporized, the debris having been spread over Loriod's lands.

Slowly rising to his feet, he saw the Duke with his personal guard coming down the corridor that led to the room. That was a good sign, the castle was theirs. "What happened here?" Thomas shouted out, looking up into the empty sky.

"Hell," Wessex replied, his breath ragged. "Hell happened here."

chapter 19

It was not every day that the garrison of Metamor took a castle by storm, and the atmosphere in the Deaf Mule that night showed it. There was singing and drinking and dancing, and even the vanquished guards of Loriod's little fiefdom joined in, glad that their own long suffering seemed to be over. A handful among them were keeping Roscoe company in the dungeon below under suspicion of aiding and abetting the one everybody now openly referred to as the "Foul Lord", but the rank and file seemed to be celebrating their defeat as thoroughly as the bulk of the crowd celebrated their victory. Thomas had ordered fireworks, and a group of mages were busily decorating the heavens with dragons and flaming swords to the delight of all who looked on.

Except for one.

Thomas sat wearily in Phil's little room, looking out at the fiery spectacle unmoved. Phil sat close by in his little home, busily trying once again to burrow his way out of the gilded cage. The horse-king listened to the mindless scratching sounds, and a tear began to form under his right eye...

...only to be furtively wiped away as he heard dainty footsteps approaching. It was Kimberly, of course, caring for Phil while Rupert's leg mended itself. It was his duty, Thomas knew, to appear unmoved and unafraid in front of his subjects. So, he stiffened his back and adopted a more regal bearing as he watched the display commemorating his bloodless triumph while still choking back tears within.

For, according to the wisest mages and most learned scholars in the known world, with Loriod had died the last hope of saving Phil. Later tonight he would undertake the sad duty of writing Tenomides and informing him of the loss of his adopted son, but for now the pain just burned too brightly within him. The Prophecy was broken, and his best friend mindless.

"My Lord?" Kimberly asked hesitantly.

"Yes?" replied the Duke, trying to keep his voice from breaking in grief.

"Is it true what I heard today, that Phil is forever an animal now?"

The rumors were already flying, it seemed. Not that Phil's caretaker could be expected not to hear the truth. "Yes," Thomas replied flatly, and told her the whole story. "The magic has become part of his body, and the caster of the spell is dead. It is forevermore," he concluded.

Kimberly gasped in shock. "Oh, no!"

"We all feel that way, Kimberly. We all do. But there seems to be nothing to be done about it. The spell enhanced the animal within him, and once magnified his lapine tendencies overwhelmed his human personality. Perhaps if someday the Curse of Metamor can be reversed and the rabbit removed from Phil altogether he will recover. But the mages, as you know, hold little hope for that either, for any of us."

"That is... horrid."

"Horrid!" Thomas exclaimed, bitterness strong in his voice as the emotion finally broke through. "Horrid, you say! And you are right, of course. Phil's fate IS a horrid one. But what about the rest of us? What will happen when Nasoj triumphs, now that the Prophecy is broken? We were only a trio for such a short time! Surely Mad Felix had more in mind for Matthias and Phil and I than this! My people celebrate even as we speak, thinking a great victory is won! But without the Prophecy trio, all is lost. All is utterly lost!" And finally, crushed under the weight of a responsibility no one should have to bear, Duke Thomas began to weep.

Kimberly came to him then, of course, as any decent human would to another, and they hugged for a long, long time until Thomas returned to himself. Finally, he pulled away and nodded to the rat-woman. "Thank you, child," he said simply, turning back to the window and the false celebration of victory. Kimberly just stood quietly by her Sovereign in reply.

Eventually she spoke. "My Lord, what did you just say about my Charles and a Prophecy?"

"Hmm? You mean he has not yet told you?"

"No, My Lord."

"Well, then. I think that is his job. I will say no more."

A few more moments of silence passed. Then Kimberly spoke again. "My Lord, you say Phil was poisoned through his carrots?"

"Yes." Thomas's voice was once more flat and dead.

"Well... If I offer a suggestion, would you laugh?"

"Not at all, Lady Kimberly," Thomas replied. Then he sighed, and went on. "A suggestion is more than any other soul here can offer."

"Well... I used to work in the kitchens, you know. Until you needed a nurse for Father Hough."

Thomas nodded.

"Carrots are often used in stews. Once I made a silly mistake and daydreamed while I was slicing carrots into a boiling pot. I put in four times the amount of carrots I should have." Kimberly looked uncomfortable, then saw she had Thomas's full and undivided attention. "I was SO upset! Right away I went and got the head cook, but he just laughed and added three more portions of meat, potatoes, spices, and then poured the whole thing over into a bigger pot and added more water. I was so afraid I had made a terrible mistake, but in the end we just had to cook less the next day."

Thomas looked baffled. "Kimberly, I am sure you are trying to help, but we cannot just add more Phil!"

"We don't HAVE to!" Matthias's love responded intently. "All we have to do is cast a NEW spell on him enhancing his humanity! We just need to make the non-rabbit part of him stronger!"

Shifting a bit in his doublet and hose, Charles Matthias stared out the window at the sea. The wharfs were filled with ships; beyond them the crashing surf foamed over the bricks to flow down drains that lined the docks. He'd arrived only yesterday, but under Tenomides's orders, he was immediately sent to the tailor and had an outfit crafted for him. Not that the rat minded at all - running around nude was not something he made a habit of - it was just that he'd never worn anything quite like this before.

At his request, the tailor had made it a green doublet, which was his favorite color. And the word from King Tenomides was that it was his. Apparently once they found out he was a friend of Phil's, everything turned around for him. He had servants attending to his every need. They supplied him with cheeses of more exotic varieties than he'd ever seen before in his life. And best of all, they gave him the tower apartments usually assigned for visiting royalty.

However, despite all of this preferential treatment, he still felt like a prisoner. He wanted ever so badly to return to Metamor Keep and his Lady, but Tenomides had so far refused to see him. So he stood at the window, gazing out upon the world from this lofty perch, marveling at the rolling waves and the clear skies that stretched in every direction. Through another window he could glimpse a portion of the Island of Whales, with sloping hill sand broad plains. Through yet another he could see the rest of the Capital city, with prosperous homes and small villages just outside the city walls.

Watching the various humans milling about in the streets reminded him that once Metamor had been like this. It used to be a city that was considered the shining star of the Midlands. The northern Tier of that great civilization. now it was an abomination to many, though they begrudgingly traded and kept up relations, if only because of the political necessity. Were Nasoj no threat, the Metamorian would long since have been abandoned by the rest oft he world.

Of course, with one small exception, Charles noted. Whales was the only real ally Metamor had. Sure, they traded with Sathmore and the Midlands, even sometimes with the Pyralian Kingdoms, but it never went further than that. With Phil being the Crown Prince and also Keeper, it solidified their alliance for at least a generation to come. Perhaps in time, that alliance might spread to other lands as well.

Charles however wanted to be back where animals walked on two legs, children could order wine from the bar, and women dressed in military uniform. Of course there were other problems waiting for him when he got back. Yet they paled into insignificance when compared against what he had accomplished and the lives it had saved. And he intended to reveal his innermost secrets to the woman that he loved. She deserved to know them.

Just as he was about to dwell on Lady Kimberly, a knocking was sounded at the door. He turned to face the ornate paneled doors and called out, "Come in!"

It was a messenger, with bandolier and customary Whales dress, standing before him, looking down at the rat with not even the slightest bit of distaste. After all a rabbit was to be their king, they had better get used to dealing with Metamorians. "His Majesty requests that you join him in his chambers presently, sir."

"Ah, excellent. Would you guide me?" Matthias walked quickly over to the young man with curly brown hair and dark almond-shaped eyes. The youth nodded, and quickly made his way down the hall. The honor guard that had been posted at his door followed after Matthias, making him feel a little bit uncomfortable. He didn't really need the guards, but was not about to refuse an offer from a King.

It was just a short brisk walk to the King's private chambers, and Charles found them remarkably unadorned. There were a few knick-knacks, but none of the usual trappings that royalty seemed to burden itself with. Their was but a single table in the center of the room, and another along one wall. Charts covered nearly an entire wall, all of them drawn meticulously by the cartographers of Whales.

And standing at the window, a small mazer in hand, was Tenomides. He was a tall man, with greying hair, and wrinkling skin. Yet at the same time, his frame remained powerful, and his whole aura radiated strength and durability. Yet their was a certain compassion in the way his eyes spackled and his smile came to his lips. Charles knew, the moment he saw him, that he truly liked this man, this King.

"Your Majesty, Charles Matthias, as you requested," The messenger called out.

Tenomides smiled warmly, and then walked towards the chairs about the central table. "Ah, thank you, Peracles. You are dismissed. Charles, do come in and have a seat."

As the guards stayed abreast the door, along with Tenomides's own guards, and the messenger left, Charles walked into the room, sure to give the King a deep bow. "Your Majesty."

"No need of that," Tenomides assured him jovially. "Have a seat. Shall I get you something to drink?"

"No thank you, I've had plenty already." Charles slipped into a high chair, placing his arms against the table. His tail curled about his legs which he tucked beneath him. It was a bit uncomfortable sitting this way while wearing a hose, but he endured. "Your hospitality is without measure."

Tenomides slipped into a chair on the corner of the table, only a few feet from Charles, and smiled broadly again. "I am honored to have such a worthy guest to show my favors upon."

"I see you run a good kingdom here. The people have been very friendly and helpful during my stay so far."

"I'm glad to hear that. It is not everyday that we have a guest form Metamor staying with us." Tenomides then leaned in a little closer, hands still firmly about his mug. "It may embarrass you to know, but among my personal staff, you are considered to be a noble yourself."

Matthias blinked. "How did I manage that?"

"Phil's correspondence with me has spoken highly of you, among others. Phil's opinion carries a lot of weight here. Speaking of him, how is my adopted son?"

"He was doing well the last time I saw him. That was nearly a month ago though." Charles then tapped his finger claws on the table for a moment and finally asked what he really wanted to know. "So, when I am going back?"

Tenomides took a quick drink of his cider and then replied, "Tomorrow morning Heraclitus will fly you back."


"The dragon who found you. He never told you his name?"

"Afraid not."

"Well, tomorrow you shall return to the Keep. But tonight I was hoping that I could spend some time with one of Metamor's greatest storytellers. Surely you can regale with me stories of the Keepers and of their struggles. Maybe even some of your own adventures. How you came by that amulet might be a good place to start." Tenomides pointed to the jewel dangling from the rat's neck.

Since he was going to be here the rest of the night anyway, and since he was an ally, Charles knew it would be all right. Getting into his storyteller mode, he found the most unobvious place where a tale could begin. "Well, it all started in a dungeon..."

Every mage at Metamor wanted to be the one to cast the spell, of course. But only one actually could. And Rupert, acting as Phil's guardian from his sickbed, had unhesitatingly chosen Wessex. Those who knew the Prince best knew he would approve of that decision. There might be more experienced mages available, or even more powerful ones. But Wessex was Phil's friend, and everyone knew that Phil placed a great deal of faith in simple friendship.

Thus it was that Phil's closest friends gathered in the back of Phil's chamber that evening, all except Rupert who was still bed-bound until his bones knit enough for crutches. And all looked with expectancy and hope at Wessex, who stood before them.

"Friends," he said, "My Lord. As you know, I am going to be trying new magic here, an approach that has never been attempted before. I can make no promises, and it may even prove dangerous. Once I begin, I will need total silence."

As one, the spectators nodded.

"This work will be done in two stages. First, I am going to hypnotize Phil. This is necessary in this kind of magic or great harm can result. Then, I am going to put a spell on him that will emphasize and strengthen the human in him. Once I have begun this, I will continue to 'push' the human side as long and as hard as I can. I expect him to change form, physically. I may even be able to return to a fully human state, or near to it. If this proves possible, it may be that we have found not only the answer to Phil's problems, but a cure to the Curse for us all."

This pronouncement was met with a shocked silence, then a mutter arose. Clearly, no one but Wessex had thought of this angle. What if instead of trying to reverse the Curse they simply overpowered it? It was a new concept, indeed!

Wessex looked to the Duke, who solemnly nodded. And the mage began his procedure.

First, as he had stated, he hypnotized Phil with a jeweled pendant and a monotonous incantation. Then, after prodding the rabbit a couple times to ensure that he was truly unresponsive, Wes began his real work.

Gradually he absolutely covered the tabletop Phil sat on with intricate lines and runes, all the while mumbling spells to himself. Frequently he consulted a grimoire in the language of Nasoj, and from time to time even climbed up a ladder he had brought to look upon his arrangement from above. It was hard and heavy work for one so slightly built and with such a short reach, but Wessex never broke his concentration. Finally, the last mark was in place, and the last preparatory incantation complete. With a sigh of relief, the boy wiped the sweat from his brow, and poured himself a little water from an earthen pitcher to quench his thirst. Then he moved the ladder away from his table, and looked once again at his liege. Thomas nodded again, and Wessex removed a tiny jar of red earth from inside his robe. With exquisite care he traced the stick figure of a man on the white fur of Phil's forehead, and began a rapid incantation far more complex and intense than any that had gone before, one that sounded all the more odd for coming from a boy's throat.

Instantly the tiny drawing glowed red, but Wessex was prepared for that. From a box left standing open he drew some dust, and scattered it over the drawing until the glow subsided. Then the chant became more rhythmic, more powerful as the boy matched his strength against that of the Curse. Louder and louder Wes became, and more shrill.

And Phil began to Change.

It was a miracle the Keepers had long dreamed of, coming true before their very eyes. The Prince began to grow, and subtly change in shape. Thumbs appeared where they had long been absent, and his tail became even shorter. Subtle proportions changed, and Phil's ears shrank away to almost nothing. But Wessex was clearly struggling, clearly fighting to keep the Change going. Still, he seemed calm and confident....

...until the Crown Prince of the Island of Whales burst into flames, and began screaming and writhing in agony! Wes was so shocked that he actually missed a beat in his chant, and he looked ready to panic until Thomas shouted out.

"Wessex!" he cried, "Phil was on fire when the curse came upon him. We all forgot about it! You must change him back!"

The boy-mage nodded eagerly, understanding now what was happening. And as he eased off his chant the flames vanished, leaving only the scent of burned flesh hanging heavily in the air.

And Phil, unchanged, still entranced upon the table.

As he uttered his last syllable, Wessex slammed his small fist down. "Damnation! We were so close! So very close! But I have failed, utterly!"

"But you have done much!" Thomas insisted. "We just forgot about the fire, is all. No harm done- Phil will not remember a thing. Next time, we can be ready to extinguish it, have healers right to hand..."

"No, My Lord," Wes replied, clearly on the edge of tears. "You do not understand. It was not the flames- they were just a distraction. As hard as I 'pushed', the Curse 'pushed' back. Certainly, I could enchant Phil or anyone else for that matter back into a more human form while they lie spread upon a table hypnotized, and I exert myself to the utmost. But as soon as I rest, they will return to their Cursed form! And this means there still is no hope for my.... my..." And with that, the powerful wizard began to bawl like a child.

Kimberly rushed to the wizard's side, and hugged him tightly while he cried. And the Duke just stood silent, head hanging. People began glumly to leave by ones and twos, as from a funeral, until only Thomas, Kimberly, and Wessex remained. Presently, the boy-in-body's tears passed, and he got back to business.

"I had better get Phil out of that trance. He will be stiff and sore from sitting so still for so long as it is. The sooner I release him the better. And with that, Wessex uttered a single syllable and snapped his fingers.

Phil collapsed to the tabletop like a puppet with all its strings cut.

"Oh, no!" Wessex exclaimed, rushing to the table. "He's not supposed to do THAT!"

Immediately Wes pulled back an eyelid, only to find out Phil's pupils were rolled back in his head. And then the rabbit began twitching uncontrollably, bouncing about like a wind-up toy with a broken mainspring. "Quick!" the mage cried. "Hold him down while I prepare another spell!" And both Thomas and Kimberly dashed forward, and pinned him to the table as best they could though one powerful hindleg still threatened injury to anyone that came near. Wessex began a quick chant and gathered his power...

...but it was never used. Phil went limp again for a moment, then blinked twice. His eyes tracked intelligently, then, and focused clearly on Thomas's face inches from his own.

A fire was lit in the big blue eyes that had not been seen for a very long time.

Finally, Phil spoke.

"Go ahead. Kiss me, you fool!" he said.

Thomas groaned in mock pain and released his friend. No question about it, Phil was back....

It was already late afternoon when Matthais was finally able to see the Keep's highest towers from beyond the mountains. It was such a precious sight. Heraclitus was small enough to land on one of the watchtowers in the castle itself. Charles had expressly told the dragon where to set down, he was not going to run all the way through town. He had to get to Phil's apartments first, to deliver this amulet. After having it for over a week, he was sick of it. Let the Keep's mages deal with it.

Of course, as they neared the Keep, the great blue dragon Cerulean came aloft to inspect the intruder. Charles loved the look in Cerluean's purple eyes when he came close enough to recognize the rat hanging from the back of the invader.

"Matthias?" Cerulean called out against the wind.

"It is me, Cerulean, let us land. Heraclitus will leave as soon as I'm safely delivered," Charles shouted, his words almost drowned into silence from the blowing air.

"I will not trouble you long," Heraclitus affirmed.

"All right. I shall tell the others you are coming."

"No! Let me do it."

"As you wish." Cerulean then turned upon his wings and descended back towards the castle grounds, while Heraclitus headed for a moderately sized tower. The guard standing a top it held her ground, until she saw Matthias drop from the blue dragon's wing, and wave. Heraclitus then took to the air once again to make the long trip back to Whales.

"Welcome home, Matthias," She said, a bit awed.

"Nice to see you again, Edwina." Charles inclined his head to her. "But I must be going to see Phil."

"Oh." Edwina's face fell at that, and it puzzled him.

"Is something wrong?"

"You'll see." She bit her lip, turning back to face the skies. Charles sucked in his breath, holding the amulet firmly in his paw, the doublet and hose tight against his chest and legs. Scampering down the long flights of steps back into the castle proper, he quickly made his way, passed startled servants and glum mages to Phil's quarters.

As he passed through the threshold, he could see everybody that he'd ever wanted to talk to all standing there waiting for him. Duke Thomas was lying over top Phil, his face brighter than he'd ever seen it. Wessex was sitting on the ground, sweat drenching his childish features. But most important to him, was the other figure, who turned at the sound of his toe claws upon the floor.

"Charles!" Lady Kimberly shouted upon seeing him. She nearly jumped into his embrace as he stood there, arms open and heart full of joy. She held onto him, burying her head into his new clothes, and hugging him for all the strength she could manage. "I've missed you so!"

"And I you. I am so happy to see you, my Lady, I cannot describe it." Charles watched as the eyes of all the others turned upon him. Both Duke Thomas and Phil seemed utterly stunned to see him back. Wessex was chuckling lightly.

"Charles?" Phil and Thomas asked simultaneously.

"Hello you two. I have the amulet." He pulled it from his neck, and tossed it to Wessex, who cradled it gently. "And I have good news. We confounded all of the western army of Nasoj. May confusion reign upon them forever!"

"Hear, hear!" Thomas agreed, even as he let Phil up to his feet.

"When did you get back in port? You must have had very good winds," Phil asked. "They told me that it's only been a few weeks since you left." Phil then seemed to notice his particular outfit. "And why are you dressed like a nobleman from Whales?"

"The ship was destroyed as we were fleeing Arabarb, but don't worry, Ptomamus and most of the others made it safely back. I've spent the last few days in Whales recuperating. I got a dragon flight to and from there. I'll tell you all about it later." Charles then, arm in arm with Lady Kimberly, noticed the rather disheveled nature of his companions. "You all look rather exhausted. What's gone on in my absence?"

"Loriod nearly destroyed Phil's mind, and we were forced to take his castle. In the battle, he was killed. He also kept your friend, Father Hough captive for some very unpleasant things. He's still recovering." Thomas's voice was quite steady as he reported those things. Charles listened aghast, but with a feeling of renewed hope. Loriod was dead. His blackmailer was dead, and many good institutions could continue to shine brightly in the darkness.

"Is he?" Charles asked.

Thomas nodded. "He's a child now."

Charles sucked in his breath quickly, glad to hear that Hough would not suffer the humiliation of becoming a woman and having to give up the cloth. He then considered Thomas a moment, and knew that he had one thing he had to do before anything else. "My liege, I ask your forgiveness for what I nearly did to you almost a month ago. Can you forgive a foolish rat his terrible temper? I will pledge to you my unfailing loyalty."

Thomas stared at him a moment, the great stallion's eyes piercing him to the quick. The silent moments continued on for what seemed an eternity before Thomas nodded his head emphatically. "Of course I forgive you. We are a trio after all! We are the prophecy. We need each other. I will be proud to have you at my side when the final battle comes upon us."

Charles nodded his head, hugging close to Kimberly. He stared down at Phil, who was very excited. "Thank you Phil, for showing me what I needed."

"Thank you Charles, for doing what was needed, and for being my friend." Phil inclined his head respectfully, and Charles returned the gesture automatically.

Matthias then looked Kimberly in the eye. He could so easily become lost in there. It was deep black, but there was a life inside it that gave him hope for a brighter future. He licked her nose playfully, and then wiggled his whiskers. "And I have a few things to tell you."

"Whenever you are ready, my Charles." She said, smiling brightly, her face the most beautiful thing he could have ever seen. There could be no doubt, this was indeed a bright lamp, and nothing would ever snuff them out.

chapter epilogue

It was still early morning. A steward brought me my tray, but I was really far too absorbed in my writing to eat. With Matthias so busy these days catching up with Lady Kimberly and my own recent illness, someone had to make up the slack in "pay copy" production....

Absently I thanked her, then returned the pen back to my mouth and pressed on.

"For somehow, it seemed to him that despite the fur and the whiskers and the pointy teeth, there was something almost mystical in Walter's rage-contorted and defiant face, something brutal and primal and insatiably bloodthirsty. Something vicious and calculating and colder than anything else in the known Universe. Something that would, given half a chance, kill the last Nacalite slowly, dance laughing on his coffin, then desecrate and vandalize his grave out of sheer hatefulness and spite.

There was something in Walter's face, it seemed to %^&, that was quintessentially... Human.

And though he couldn't say just why, it scared the living Hell out of him."

The words were hateful and spiteful, I knew when I had finished, but somehow they just seemed right to me. I rather hoped Oren would like them, seeing as how the story was intended for one of his anthologies. It seemed to me that the otter was a rising writing star, and I hoped profoundly that he would add to the literary stockpile of Metamor in a major way in the future.

Breakfast was all the more delicious for being delayed, and the parsley was especially sumptuous despite the heat. I was eagerly nibbling away at it when a messenger from Thomas arrived. "Phil," it read in the Duke's own hand, "I will be taking a short trip this afternoon, and would like to know if you can accompany me. We would be back by dinnertime. And Rupert is invited as well. A little sunshine would do him some good, too."

I responded in the affirmative to the messenger, of course, and asked him to invite Rupert on the way back to Thomas. My guard and friend was still convalescing from his broken leg, and spending most of his time either with Healer Coe or swapping outrageous lies with Misha down at the Mule. Nodding, the courier left, and once again I returned to my lunch and dreams of faraway places.

Eventually I began to write again, this time a rather thinly disguised version of my own life story. Wessex had made it absolutely clear to me that I was not to stress myself in any way for at least a month, and Tenomides himself had sent a Royal Command by dragon, of all things, to enforce this requirement upon me. For the first time in months I had time enough to write.

When afternoon came I met the Duke already alongside Rupert in his seldom-used carriage out front. To my surprise, Matthias had come along as well. After the rat pleasantly greeted me, I hopped in, and we were off. Thomas had been right, it was a fine day indeed for a little outing, and the four of us made merry together as each of us discussed our little parts in the events of the past few days. The coach jounced along happily, and it was not until we stopped that I thought to wonder where we were. I got up on my hindlegs, looked out the window...

...and saw that we were on a little rise overlooking Loriod's castle.

Suddenly, the world was not such a happy place. Matthias seemed to feel the same way, shivering at the sight of that piebald edifice. Quietly, A servant opened the door and we got out and stretched our legs a bit.

Then Thomas spoke. "Your Highness, I seek your advice."

I was rather bewildered. "Go ahead, My Lord. I have sought your counsel many times as well."

"Metamor has a problem here, one that needs an immediate solution. You see, Loriod left no heirs."


"Thalberg and Macaban are running things for now, trying to make sense out of the horrible mess the Foul Lord left behind. The fiefdom is horribly in debt, it seems, and the peasantry uneducated and not very productive. The lands are being farmed very inefficiently. And I have no one available to me of noble blood whom I trust to untangle things and make them right."

"Thomas, we have discussed the nobility many times. Both of us believe that changes must be made. Why not begin here? Why give a noble control at all? Let the peasants choose a leader, and give him or her the reigns of power."

Charles started at my comments, which took me by surprise. "Let the peasants choose a leader?" He asked incredulously. Perhaps it was time to educate the rat on matters politic as well. It seems our task is cut out for us if even our own number suffer the same knee-jerk reaction to the idea. Time would tell, as it always did.

"Why not let them choose?" I responded. It was obvious that Charles was struggling with the idea, his whiskers drooping and his eyes thoughtful.

The horse-man sighed. "Would that I could, Phil. Would that I could. But I had terrible problems just getting the nobility to allow me to bring Loriod to justice as it was. In fact, had he not assaulted you, a fellow noble, they might have stayed my hand. I fear that they will not accept, yet, that their time is past. And I must also ask, what about the peasantry? Are Loriod's people ready to take on such a task, to try and govern themselves when their land is in such a mess? I think this would be the recipe for a disaster, one that would discredit the principles we hold so dear. And we cannot afford that."

Grudgingly, I realized that as usual Thomas was right. "I agree. We cannot set these poor people up to fail yet again. And until Nasoj has been dealt with we dare not open any divisions between ourselves and the rest of the nobility."

"Then you'll do it?"

"Huh? Do what?"

"Prepare this land to be free. Help the people pay off their crippling debt, build their military back up to respectability, encourage the people to be proud and bold instead of serfs...."

"Now hold on just a damn minute..."

"Your Highness, I do not ask that you take this on as a full-time job. Macaban is recovering quite well, thanks to young Wessex, and he is full of anger and resentment at the way he was manipulated and humbled. He is fully capable of running this fiefdom, I believe, and absolutely committed to preventing others from being degraded as he once was. All I ask is that you take on another minor title, oversee and counsel Macaban, lend him your authority and wisdom...."

"Wisdom!" I snorted, but the Duke cut me off before I could say more.

"Yes, wisdom! And, I want to ask you to do what you do best, to travel these lands that once belonged to Loriod and inspire the peasantry to dream and to make their dreams come true." Thomas sighed, and went on. "I know fully well you cannot take on much more work, that your Curse prohibits it. But truly, do you not enjoy helping others grow and be free? And if you will not help make our vision of people determining their own futures come true, who will? How can you ask someone else to do that which you will not?"

I just shook my head.

"And, your Highness, someday you MUST be a King. Why not begin here, in a small way?"

"Thomas, I am... touched. But..."

Then Matthias put in his bit. His confusion was past, and he seemed to be in complete agreement with the Horselord. "Phil, you have a role to play. You know that!"

At this point Rupert screeched loudly and nodded "yes" emphatically.

"Rupert, I am sorry to disappoint you, but..."

Then, from behind a bush appeared Joesephine and the fishkeeper Barney, whom I had dispatched to Whales for their own safety what seemed a lifetime ago. My jaw dropped as both fell to their knees and groveled before Thomas and I.

"Please," I said, "Get up! You don't have to abase yourselves like that! Neither Thomas nor I..."

"We must, Your Highness" said Josephine, "Unless we are made free."

I looked helplessly at Thomas, who was staring back impassively at me. Taking a quick glance at Charles, I noticed that he seemed to be smirking. Had he known this was going to happen? Then Josephine spoke again. "I bear a message from King Tenomides for his beloved son. May I beg leave to speak?"

Helplessly, I nodded.

"'Prince Phil,' the King says, 'Well do I know your reluctance to rule, and much pain has it caused me. Yet if you do not rule, to whom are you abandoning the weak and helpless, such as these whom you sent to me for succor? To whom are you entrusting the future? You and Thomas and I are of like mind and see the need for many changes. Do you dare to make the future happen, or will you sit passively by and let events flow on past like a rabbit hiding in his hole? Stand and be counted, my son, I urge you. Failure can be excused, but only cowards fail to try.'"

Stunned, I sat in silence. Why was it that people always sought from me that which I hated most to give, that which would cause me nothing but pain and heartache and but little joy? I was not like Loriod, to enjoy looking down upon the two helpless figures prostrate beneath me....

And then it came to me. Dammit, I was NOT like Loriod, and that was why they wanted me to help them. Not to rule them really, but to help them. And protect them from those who would exploit their labors and stifle their growth.

If I said "no", could these folk be facing another Loriod? If so, they were helpless to prevent it...

"All right, then" I said in a near whisper. "All right. But on one condition."

"Yes?" Thomas asked warily.

"This land shall no longer be called a fiefdom, or a vassalate. It shall simply be known as Lorland, and my title shall not be 'Lord' but rather 'Protector'. And Macaban shall be known as 'Steward'. He will hold the reins- I will merely serve as a figurehead and advisor."

"Done," said Thomas. "Of course."

And with that there was great celebration as Josephine and poor old tired Barney leapt to their feet and danced in joy. Charles patted me on the back, chuckling at my involuntary investiture. Even Rupert capered about as best he could outside the carriage as Thomas waved a red blanket over his head in what was clearly some kind of signal...

Suddenly lamps appeared in each window of the ugly edifice. And from the tallest remaining tower of Loriod's hideously over-decorated castle burst a huge white banner with, of all things, a carrot embroidered upon it. In shock, I looked at the grinning horse. He just grinned the wider. "Well, Your Highness, Lorland IS primarily known for it's fine vegetables...."

I just nodded sadly in reply. Sometimes, when events run away with you, it is better to run with them.