Keeping the Lamp Lit - Part XI

Authors's Note:This portion contains a scene which is quite graphic. Reader discretion advised

Until that next day, Thalberg had been unable to break away from his normal caretaking duties at Metamor to make the journey to Loriod's estate. Even when he did arrive, it was later in the afternoon. Loriod had spent the wearly parts of his day with Father Hough, fondling him in certain places, and teasing him. Hough had remained resolute, and had refused the food offered him from Loriod's hand. According to Macaban though, he ate what tiny amounts were given when the donkey came to check up on him. It could only therefore be taken as an insult that Hough refused to eat anything from a noble hand.

Loriod remembered how he had groped the man's genitals and playfully told him that he would never feel that way again in a week. It was an exciting sensation, and his own body had trembled from sensual delight. However, it all had to wait while he dealt with his rabbit troubles. Thalberg had been shown into his guest room where only a few days ago he had entertained the nosy bunny, and was waiting for him. Loriod kept him cooling his heels a full hour while he continued his debasing of the priest. It maddened him that the holy man remained silent throughout the whole affair!

Thalberg was a giant figure; only dragons really looked more intimidating. His yellowed eyes and teeth glared down at Loriod from a great height as the crocodilian sat patiently on the couch, warming himself in the glow of the sun that streamed through the large windows. His green flesh rippled, and the large dangerous tail draped over the side of the couch, rolling back and forth lazily. The reptile was watching Loriod curiously as he entered.

The nobleman glared at the commoner. Even when he stood, Loriod had to look up at the alligator's eyes. "Do you not show respect for your superiors?" Loriod spluttered at the confounding creature. Did not anybody know what respect for the nobility was anymore?

Thalberg inclined his head. "I'm sorry, my Lord, but I suspect that you really don't want to infuriate me any more than you already have. If you ever want to be invited to state dinners again, you will not treat me like you do your own subjects."

The gall of the man! Loriod wanted to shout him down into submission, but controlled his anger. There was important work to be done, and he needed Thalberg on his side. If all else failed, there remained another option...

Suddenly the voices in his mind were shouting at him. "No! If you cast a spell on one scale on the body of this man, you will forfeit all claims to rulership over this land." Loriod sat up straight, and peered fearfully at the alligator for only a moment, and then let it pass. The voices had never threatened him so directly before! But they quickly calmed down, and began slowly to explain their reasoning to him. Thalberg was too important to simply disappear, and one word of misdeed from him, or any spell cast upon him would be clear to the mages at the Keep. He was too close to the Duke too often. Better to handle this carefully, and through mundane means.

Loriod sighed, and then started again. "At any rate, Steward, I need to purchase the services of one of your staff."

"For what purpose?" Thalberg asked suspiciously.

"My fish keeper recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances. I have a lot of money invested in my ponds, and I don't want it all to go to waste."

Thalberg rubbed his neck with one claw. "One of my men. Well, I'd be willing to let you use him for about twenty gold a week till you find another to do the job."

Loriod spluttered at the ridiculous price. "Twenty gold a week! That's extortion."

"It is the price I am setting. I'll make a deal with you , however. You can pay me five a week, but if my man complains to me in the slightest about being treated unfairly or brutally, you will pay the remaining fifteen for that week. If you interfere in any way with his duties, you will pay me the remaining fifteen for the week. If you ever touch him you will pay me the remaining fifteen for the week, and you will never get the loan of another of my men again. Do I make myself clear, Loriod?" Thalberg's voice was dangerous. Loriod had to admire the gall of the man, challenging him so boldly in his own home, but such insolence was simply intolerable!

However, he did not have to tolerate it. "If you threaten me again, Thalberg, I'll have you thrown out and send an official complaint to the Duke for your behavior."

Thalberg waved the comment aside. "Those are my conditions."

Loriod glared darkly at the offensive creature. How dare the spirits prevent him from using what they had taught him! How much he would like to use some of the more interesting runes he had learned on this offending reptile. There was a wonderful shrinking rune that he had picked up that would make this monster much more to his liking. Chameleons were far easier to handle than crocodiles, after all...

"I am a noble, I have my rights."

"You also have your responsibilities. You have responsibility over the people of your land. If you can't keep them under control, who's fault is that?"

Loriod finally could not help himself. He spluttered angrily, "It was that damned rabbit Phil! He snuck those two out from under my very nose! He was here on my lands, and stole them out during the night. Why don't you ask him where they are?"

Thalberg got quiet suddenly, and appeared quite thoughtful. "I shall look into this," He murmured distractedly. His hand reached across the couch to the sidetable where some of his treats and delights were kept. Thalberg did not seem to be aware what he was doing as he reached over the plate of carrots.

"Don't touch those carrots!" Loriod shouted, a bit of a catch in his voice.

Thalberg snapped his arm back, and looked over at the sidetable to the carrots and then back at Loriod. "I'd never take carrots. I was reaching for one of these eggs." Thalberg pointed, but did not touch.

Loriod was taken aback a bit by the strength of his own reaction. "Sorry, nothing then." Thalberg stared at him mysteriously for a few moments, and then shrugged it off.

"So, do you want to accept the labor of one of my own servants under the conditions I have set?" Thalberg asked. Loriod was too upset to reject the offer, and was quick to shake the reptile's slimy hands and then excuse himself. He let Macaban escort the creature from his abode and quickly made his way back to Hough's room, shaking uncontrollably.

As he stepped back with the priest, he felt his old dominance and joy in commanding the situation come back in a rush. THIS was more to Loriod's liking than crocodilian Stewards he could not control! He looked over the prone figure with suggestive eyes. "You are looking quite well today, my dear priest. Now, are you ready to talk yet?" Loriod smiled as the priest continued to stare resolutely at the ceiling. This was going to take a while, it appeared. Yet Loriod would enjoy breaking this one. Some things get sweeter with time...

When Charles heard the ropes lashed to the docks, he poked his head out of the hole, and scrambled out from underneath the bookcase. It had been a long hungry voyage already. The Captain came to take his dinners in his quarters, and gave his rat companion some of the bread and cheese that was served to officers. They were meager portions, but this was all that could be had.

He'd spent most of his time down below the Captain's room, scurrying about in the darkness and finding his way along the inner passages between decks. He'd even managed to find a nice little way to squeeze himself into the pleasant smelling galley where the cook, a burly man with crossed eyes and oily hair, spent his hours cleaning and preparing food for the forty other men on board. He had even sniffed his way around the fo'castle noting how the sailors were nearly sleeping on top of each other, almost like a pile of rats. He found the comparison slightly amusing.

However Charles spent most of his time wandering beneath the cracks of Ptomamus's room, staying as far astern as possible. He would frequently conduct exercises with himself, putting the small bauble package inside his mouth and taking it back out again. His cheek pouches were amazingly large; he'd never before realized just how much he could fit inside there before. Thankfully, his delivery didn't taste too bad either.

Still if he had to sum up the first few days on board the "Arrow" in one word he would have chosen "boring". Charles found life as a sea-rat quite monotonous and completely unengaging. There simply was nothing for him to do. The only activity available to him was exploration of the ship and contemplation of his fate.

Since he was most likely part of the prophecy, he would survive this trek. Charles tried to keep that in mind, but as always, his own thoughts led him down to darker concepts. Perhaps his entire role in the prophecy was to cancel this amulet and nothing more? What if he was supposed to die horribly at the hands of Nasoj and his ilk while on this voyage in order to fulfill the prophecy? It had not been very explicit in detailing his duties. Who could tell how the prophecy would resolve itself?

And of course, there was the one pleasant thought he had left. What he was doing was going to keep Lady Kimberly safe. Whenever things became so bleak in this dark catacomb on the waves he would think of her lovely face, whiskers, and tail, and things wouldn't seem quite so bad.

He wanted to hold her paws in his, and sit beside a nice mountain lake while the sun was slowly dipping in the sky. There were many such lakes in the mountains around Metamor. It was unfortunate that they were often times too dangerous from the frequent Lutin incursions. Such natural beauty spoiled by such evil!

Still, when they got back, he really ought to take her out to see such things.

Yet now Matthias was on a ship that was docked at Brathas. Scampering up the bulkhead and sitting on the small window sill, he peered out at the lapping waves as they licked the shoreline. More ships dotted the docks along the wharf, though most were rather shabby. Ptomamus would be going ashore to see an apothecary, and several others would be busy loading cargo and supplies for the remainder of the trip.

Brathas was a bustling little community set against sloping mountains and the rushing sea. Perched against rolling grasslands on a the small plain before the spires of the mountains that dominated this part of the world, the town was the last free trading port this far north along the Sea of Stars. It was also the birthplace of Lady Kimberly.

That last was understandably the most important to Matthias. Had he not been so constrained, he would have endeavored to locate that piggish noble she'd been betrothed to, and see just what he was doing now. According to his love, he would probably be sleeping with her younger sister or any other number of concubines. Wasn't such practice against the law in these northern climes? Nobles it seemed could get away with just about anything they wanted.

Charles climbed down from the window at the sound of footsteps banging on the planks overhead. Scanning the room, from the bed to the dresser and back to the closed door, he kept his eyes open. He shinnied down the wall, and then dashed back across the room towards the safety of the bookcase. He wondered just what sorts of things the Captain liked to read. However, now was not the time for such speculations.

Still, it was nice to be out of the darkness every once in a while. Charles bathed in the sunlight that came streaming in through the small windows, bringing some brightness to the perpetual gloom. Most of his day had been spent in the shadows below decks. Much of the rest of it would be as well, he realized glumly.

He gingerly reached down and grabbed the end of his long hairless tail and felt it between his tiny paws. Charles held it for a moment, touching it and recognizing it for what it was. It signaled his place in this universe. It was a mark by which he would be known. He was a rat, and this tail was one of many things that proved it. Furthermore, he was the "Rat of Might". Was it such a horrible fate? No, not really. Difficult yes, horrible no.

Still, there were times when it became irritating. For example, that Coxswain's footsteps were once again coming towards the Captain's cabin. With a resigned sigh, Matthias slipped back down the hole in the back of the bookcase, and waited quietly in the night next to his bread and cheese for Magnus to depart once more.

Father Hough lay limply on the filthy sheets, too parched to cry out any longer for water. Not that it was likely to do any good anyway- his previous appeals had gone absolutely unheeded . Croaking out little yelps of pain he shifted his body the little bit that his bonds allowed him. But the cramps were not lessened. It seemed that nothing and no one could help him in the slightest degree, that he was condemned to simply suffer pointlessly until he died.

Even his mind was tormented. This Loriod "fellow"- Hough would not allow himself even in his extreme desperation to curse- clearly thought that the Father knew something important about Charles Matthias that he could somehow use. And indeed, Matthias's confessions had been rather... disturbing. But that was an issue between God an the rat-man, not one for Hough to interfere with. A priest was but an intermediary. Didn't Loriod realize that? And that the most powerful oaths possible bound him to silence? Even if Loriod WERE able to make him into a woman, even if he COULD make him no longer eligible for the priesthood, then it was still his duty to remain quite silent.

But Hough was deeply afraid. All young priests in seminary read of the martyrs, and wondered if they could stand up to the ultimate test of faith. And somehow, Hough had always known the test would come to him. But unlike his classmates, who seemed to almost welcome the chance to die in agony for God, Hough had known doubt deep within himself.

Now every last nightmare was coming true, and Hough could but pray for the strength to prevail.

Weakly, he struggled again, not with any real sense of hope but rather because not to struggle would be to give up. And giving up life was a sin. He was still fighting his bonds, having restarted the flow of blood and pus from wrists and ankles, when foul Loriod barged into the room.

"Well, Father Hough! How are you enjoying your last hours as a man?"

Hough croaked pitifully. He hated himself, but could not help begging for water.

"Water is it you want? Then water you shall get, my fine young lady. For how can you tell me what I wish to know unless you can speak? Macaban!" The evil creature shouted down the corridor, "Water for my sweet!"

Hough thought he had been afraid before. But only now did he know true terror. For a strange tingling sensation was spreading over his body. With Loriod right in the room, the Curse was beginning it's work! Hough groaned in desperation. He wanted OUT! "Oh PLEASE Lord!" he prayed to himself, "Let this cup pass from me! Let me escape the Curse!" And weakly he began to struggle again.

The bonds! They were looser than before! He was shrinking!

Loriod noticed too, when he returned his attention to his prisoner.. "Ah, it has begun! Even my thoughts must have the desired effect, for sure enough, you are looking a little more female already." And Loriod gently stroked the outline of Hough's genitals. "Soon, this will be gone. All gone!" He threw back his head in an evil cackle. And when he had laughed himself out, Loriod poured a little water from the pitcher his servant had brought out onto the floor. The sound drove Hough mad!

Hough was getting a little light headed at the prospect of water. Try as he might, he simply could not force himself to turn away from the ordinary earthen pitcher. Or from the precious drops of fluid dangling enticingly from the bottom, left over from when the crockery had been dipped into a barrel or perhaps even a cool, cool well just moments before. Loriod held the liquid just out of reach, where the Priest could even smell it. Holy water, his mind thought inanely, Holy, Holy Water.

But just then Loriod struck him viciously across the face, taking his mind off of the promised drink . "I asked," the fat creature repeated, "If I let you drink, will you tell me what I want to know?"

Drink! Hough's mind screamed, yes, drink! Tell a lie, tell a little fib, you must LIVE to serve God, must you not?

But, no. It would not be that way. For to lie about God's business was an abomination. And resolutely, Hough shook his head "no".

"DAMN you then!" Loriod screamed, throwing the pitcher down onto the floor with all his might. "Damn your sick dreams of holiness, and damn your God! I'll give you what you deserve, then. Give you all of what you deserve, and more besides. You want liquid, you'll get liquid! But it will be MY thirst that is quenched!"

With that, he called for his guards again. "Turn this... creature over. Then retie him firmly. He is shrinking due to the Curse."

And the soldiers meekly did exactly as they were told, leaving Hough naked on his stomach. Loriod waited until the guards left, then put his head up close to that of the priest's. "You know, Father Hough, that I used to be a woman myself?"

Miserably, Hough nodded.

"Good. Do you know why this happened to me?"

This time, Father Hough shook his head "no".

"Mmm. I do." And with that Hough began delicately stroking Hough's beard. "You ARE quite handsome, you know. To one who still remembers what it is like to look upon you with a woman's eye."

And only then did Hough begin to guess what was about to happen. His eyes widened in horror.

"Yes, you do catch on eventually, even if you are a touch slow. My Lady in Waiting and I were in bed when the Curse came upon us. We both became men together. I can make you a woman now, the same way..."

And Loriod grabbed the Priest's long hair. With a savage jerk, he pulled back the helpless man's head and kissed him full on the lips, probing with his tongue. Hough tried to pull away, but the grip was like iron.

It was a long, full kiss that made many promises, all of them evil.

"My servant did not survive her Change. This was because I never intended her to see morning anyway. The only reason she accommodated me sexually was because I told her I would set her husband up as a rapist if she did not. He was my husband's guard-captain, a most respected man. Even if I failed to prove my charge, he would never be so trusted again. And his wife knew it. But eventually the two of them would figure out how to set me up in return, I knew, so we shared some poisoned wine. Only I knew of the antidote. She died before dawn, never knowing she had been given the gift of maleness. How very, very sad." And with that, Loriod dropped Hough's head. Free at last, Hough thrashed around violently trying to work up enough spit to clear the evil taste from his lips. But of course, he was too dry.

Loriod walked down the bed, wrinkling his nose in distaste. "My, my. I should have told the guards to let you up to relieve yourself, I suppose. But I forgot. Oh well, one cannot think of everything. And excretions are found pleasant by some. This is something I have not tried- it will be a new experience for me. Aren't you proud to be offering me something new, woman?" And with those words, he slapped Hough's buttocks, hard. Hough howled in pain.

This was a mistake. For Loriod, the pain of another was an aphrodisiac.

Much time passed, as Loriod played games with excrement and candles and tender skin. Again and again throughout the evening , Hough experienced the magical tingling of the Curse. Loriod noted each event as well, commenting coyly on how Hough's skin was growing smoother and more feminine, and his wrists and ankles slimmer. But eventually he could put off his pleasure no longer, and he mounted the helpless, miserable priest. For Loriod, it was the sweet consummation of a pleasant evening.

But for Hough, it was the blackest rape possible. And with each of Loriod's deep thrusts, the saddest passage in the Bible went through his mind.

"Father why have you forsaken me?"

"Father why have you forsaken me?"

"Father why have you forsaken me?"

But his only answer was Loriod's spurting climax.

"Hmm?" Thomas asked intelligently as he was gently shaken awake. "Wha...?"

"My Lord," the Lightbringer said gently. 'We have news."

The equine nobleman tossed his head sleepily, stood, and stretched. His joints creaked abominably. Chairs meant for rabbit-folk did not adapt well to the needs of larger morphs. Once he was fully aware, he spoke. "All right, Raven. Tell me what you have."

"Pascal was playing with some of the samples we took yesterday. She's down in her lab, and wishes to show you and Rupert the results down there. Her equipment cannot be moved."

The Duke nodded. "Of course. Rupert, care to take a walk?"

The gorilla "ooked" energetically. It had been four days, and this was the first time anything even remotely positive had come up. The two wasted no time on the way down to see the 'pine.

All business, Pascal waved Thomas and Rupert into an inner room. "My Lord, Rupert, I am going to show you something that is very difficult to see. We must seal the room and wait several minutes for your eyes to adapt to the darkness." Both visitors nodded, and presently the trio was waiting in blackness. To make some use of the delay, Pascal spoke again.

"As both of you know, I am no mage. I am an alchemist. But I enjoy dabbling in things magical sometimes, all the more since sometimes the two fields seem to come together. And I think this may be what happened here."

"What do you mean?" asked the Duke for them both.

"It's simple, really. And I think our eyes may have adapted enough for me to show you..."

With that, Pascal fumbled a bit in the darkness, then seemingly found what she was looking for. "My Lord, I have taken some liberties here. In this container are some of your own droppings."

"My... droppings?"

"Yes, my Lord. I chose them in order to be as convincing as possible. I have taken these droppings and added a catalyst to them that reveals magic. You can see the result."

And with that, she removed the lid. The manure glowed a very faint green.

"All the citizens of Metamor leave such droppings, my Lord. What you are seeing is the residue of Nasoj's spell. In another container are my own feces." And she displayed them as well, revealing the same barely discernible green glow.

"Now, my Lord, let us look upon Phil's droppings." Again there was a clattering in the darkness, but when the sample was revealed the reason for their visit became apparent. His droppings glowed the same green, but with considerably greater intensity.

"Oh, my!" Thomas said gently. "Has the spell somehow intensified for him?"

"It must be so," Pascal replied. "If the basic magic had changed any the color would be different. But as you can see it is identical, only stronger. I do not understand this at all. Even more, sometimes Phil's droppings glow weaker, and sometimes stronger. This is a mystery as well."

Thomas clapped Pascal on the shoulder. "At least now you have given us some clues as to where to look, my friend. This is more than we had."

Pascal nodded distractedly, and opened the lab door to let them out. As they passed Pascal asked one more question. "Rupert, you HAVE been checking Phil's food for magic and poison, have you not?"

The gorilla nodded energetically, and Thomas pointed out that Phil's land had suffered a terrible loss from a poisoner not too many years before. "If anyone is aware of the danger, the Royal guards of Whales are."

"Hmm," considered Pascal thoughtfully. "Knowing you, Rupert, I am quite sure that you have done as you say. Yet, I believe that not only has Phil been poisoned, but that the poison is continuing to flow. Otherwise, why would the strength of the magic in his droppings vary?"

Rupert chattered worriedly. As a guard, he knew fully well that you can never absolutely prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that something is NOT poisoned. This is why guards get ulcers.

Thomas spoke next. "You and Phil share much food, do you not?"

Again, Rupert nodded.

"And the water as well, I know. Have you yourself experienced any symptoms? Any of the headaches Phil complained of?"

The great ape thought a minute, then shook his head negatively.

"Hmm. Then we can assume that it is a food that you both do not eat. But for now, to be safe, let us change our rabbit's food supply over to my own kitchen. He may not like oats as much as carrots, but they will sustain him. And besides, he isn't likely to complain."

Pascal and Rupert looked at the stallion-man in shock. They could not believe he had said something so thoughtless. But this was a marker as to how little they knew the Duke of Metamor.

When Thomas's sense of humor turned heartless, people died.

Metamor did not yet realize it, but their leader was mentally girding himself for war.

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