Keeping the Lamp Lit - Part III

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.

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