Keeping the Lamp Lit - Part VI

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.

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