Keeping the Lamp Lit - Part VIII

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!

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