Keeping the Lamp Lit - Part XIII

It had been a long time since Rupert had seen real action.

Once upon a time, he had been a Marine. But even the demands of this elite service had not proven enough for him, and Rupert had taken up the art of spying. Which had in due course given way to bodyguarding, and a long association with the Greek family that finally lead to taking care of Prince Phil here in Metamor.

What a long strange road his life had proven to be! But an exciting one, sure enough. And Rupert lived for excitement.

The walls of Loriod's castle had been neglected, and the ivy and numerous cracks in the stone proved all that Rupert needed to make his climb in the darkness easy. Sentries were few and ill-trained, and the great silverback gorilla was certain he had not been seen. Becoming an anthropoid had been a lucky break for Rupert- he had deeply feared both age regression and feminization because of the effects both would have had upon his combat skills. But gorillahood, now, was absolutely perfect! He was stronger and more fearsome than ever, and more agile to boot. Being unable to speak was definite drawback, but considering that the alternative to Metamor had been a slow wasting death from a particularly loathsome disease he had picked up in a distant land, Rupert was well content. Long ago he had mastered the difficult art of being happy with who he was.

And serving Phil was proving to be an honor as well as a duty. He had been a great admiral, of course, and Rupert remembered him to have been a decent enough bloke as a human. But rabbithood had done something to him that that almost defied explanation, that had to be experienced to be understood. Sure, it made him a physical coward, rendered him unable to lead charges and the like. But the chemistry of a great military leader made gentle by nature, with all his will to succeed and thinking ability and discipline left intact, well...

Phil didn't realize it, but someday he was going to be a GREAT King.

If only Rupert could find out what Loriod had done to him! Otherwise, the Prince's future was far less bright indeed. Thomas had needed some convincing, but a long private session had left the Duke persuaded to allow Rupert to have a go at Loriod's castle.

Finally, after a climb so effortless that it left him not even breathing hard, the gorilla came to a shuttered window. The wooden covers were tightly closed, but there was no evidence of light around the seals. This, Rupert decided, would be his way in.

Carefully, the great ape reached into the special pouch that was kept in Phil's lockbox along with the other State secrets of Whales that were of necessity kept at Metamor. Whales had no reputation for spying or skill in the use of magic- the world thought of only the Fleet in connection with the island nation and this suited the King's magicians and spymasters just fine. Cloak-and-dagger work is SO much easier when your enemies imagine you are no threat! The narrow bladed saw was in it's appointed place, and with exquisite care Rupert removed it and began working the incredibly sharp and expensive diamond-studded tool back and forth over the wooden crossbar that latched the shutters. Swiftly, and in near perfect silence the wood parted, and after a quick look-see Rupert was in.

The room was just a tiny alcove, originally intended only to hold a couple archers during a siege. Typical of his neglect of military function, Loriod had converted it into a little store room, packed with gaudy odds and ends he no longer needed. Rupert had to be very careful as he edged through- the room was so densely loaded with junk that it would have taken hours to make the little space fit for archery again. But by moving slowly and with forethought, the gorilla made it silently to the door, where he peered out into the passage beyond.

Which was lit by candlelight, damnit! And except for thick over-patterned carpeting and the ubiquitous gewgaws sitting on little tables here and there, there was no cover either. Well, sometimes you just had to take chances, Rupert thought to himself. After listening intently, the great ape inhaled and exhaled a few times, then counted off .

One, two, THREE!

And on the third number he exploded from his cover, and dashed on all fours as silently as possible down the corridor, to the stairwell beyond. There he ducked down a few steps, and listened intently again.

Silence. He had gotten away with it.

The stairs were no less bereft of cover, but at least Rupert knew that he could hear anyone who might be coming. Down he spiraled silently, past cheap paintings and even cheaper stands of shoddy arms stockpiled, at least theoretically, against the chance of attack. Loriod's castle had originally been built to act as a distant outwork of Metamor's own mighty walls, but in it's current state of disrepair the Marine in Rupert itched to assail the place. With only a few shrewd blows the fort would collapse like a circus tent with it's poles removed. Phil would, Rupert guessed, send perhaps 200 marines to the assault along with a few specialists like himself to sow confusion. The whole operation would take an hour or so. Yet the defenses had once been sound. It was so sad...

When he had counted the right number of levels, the gorilla ducked into another corridor and found a little room to work in for a moment. He reached into his pouch again, this time removing a magic sensor in the form of carefully shielded light. When pointed at something magical, it would glow. But the glow would only emerge from a narrow little slit that was unlikely to be seen by anyone but the user. Rupert took a moment to listen again, then aimed his device down the corridor. It showed no wards anywhere.

Which was surprising! For this was the level directly above Loriod's throne room, the place that should have been the most secure chamber in the entire castle. Rupert knew that often inexperienced guards neglected to thoroughly defend the ceiling of a room; this was why he had come in many levels above the ground instead of the more securely guarded ground levels. There was still the possibility of mechanical traps, of course, but Rupert had a plan that he expected to circumvent them as well.

Doctrine called for an intruder this close to his goal to wait for a guard to go by, then to act quickly before he returned on his rounds. Truly gifted security experts thwarted this by having a second watchman follow just a minute or two behind the first, but somehow Rupert expected to find no such competence here. He waited and waited and waited...

...until he realized that no guard was coming at all! It was incredible! How could Loriod have been such a fool as to cut security expenses so low? Snorting quietly in disgust, the gorilla worked his way down the hallway until he thought he was in about the right location. Then he withdrew another tool from his pouch, this one magical as well. It was an object-locator, and back at Metamor Rupert had tuned it to goldfish. After all, the only goldfish in the castle were in the throne room.

The gorilla's instincts were as good as ever. Pointed straight down, the little instrument glowed. Now came the fun part!

First Rupert used an ordinary belt knife to cut through the brocaded carpeting. Then, he examined the stone floor carefully for any sign that there might be a major supporting beam underneath- if there was, then what came next might collapse the entire castle. But there was no sign of any underlying structure, so the intruder carefully laid out a thick velvety-black circle of cloth over the floor. Working quickly but with great care, he smoothed it out so that not a wrinkle remained. Then he reached into the pouch again, removed a little bottle, and with great care let just a drop of water taken from an obscure corner of Walrus Bay back home fall upon the blackness.

With a near-silent "whoosh", a neat circle of stone disappeared, and the ape smiled to himself as he thought of it falling into the corner of the Bay where he had filled that water-bottle so long ago. Could he help it if his bad-tempered ex-wife chose to live on a houseboat just a few yards away?

The magic detector got used first, and as expected there were glows all over the chamber below. Some would indicate traps, others just magical appliances or conversation pieces. Carefully Rupert memorized the location of all. Then he secured an ordinary piece of rope from the pouch to a handy torch holder and lowered it down into the throne room. He had no intention of using the cordage to escape, but anyone searching for him would not realize that. It would be a useful diversion for pursuers. Finally, with apelike ease the big silverback dropped himself inside.

The first stop was the food tray Thalberg had spoken of. A couple of carrots made their way into the pouch, then Rupert looked around. It was VERY dark, and he was glad of Pascal's night-vision potion that helped him see better than he might otherwise have. Pascal had done such a good job on it that Rupert intended to ask for some more to save for future missions. The throne room had changed little since his last visit, except for the main door being closed. He intended to leave that one shut, since it led but to the anteroom, and certainly there must be guards beyond. But when visiting with Prince Phil he had noted two doors almost symmetrically placed behind the throne. One would probably lead to Loriod's bedchamber and living spaces. The other was a mystery, one that Rupert intended to solve this night.

But which was which?

The magic detector came out again, and traces of spells were apparent on the right-hand door. The left hand door showed a clear glow. Obviously both portals held secrets, but there was no way of knowing what lay beyond. Rupert sighed softly, then reached into his pouch yet again.

This was clearly the riskiest part of his mission to date. Being a mage is a full-time job. One has to devote virtually every waking hour to it, and as a result mages have no time to develop skills like breaking and entering. Therefore, the Kings of Whales had put the greatest of all his wizards to work producing magical products that anyone could use with a little training. With great respect, Rupert pulled one such product, pound for pound probably the most expensive substance in the world, out of his battered pouch. It was an anti-magic powder, and one of Whale's most closely held secrets.

The stuff was not only incredibly expensive, but very dangerous to use. It countered magic by slowing it down, by casting a sort of overriding spell that played games with time itself. Since life itself had proven to be slightly magical, the merest touch was instantly deadly. Therefore, it had been formulated to be attracted to emanations of power and float across the air to it from a cleverly designed directional container. Since the left-hand door had a clear glow of straightforward magic, it was the one Rupert chose to explore first. The mage that had instructed him made it clear that while the powder was good for all known spells there were always new ones being discovered and old magics unearthed. It was better, therefore, to use the powder on straightforward spells than on nebulous stuff like the other door showed. Though of course Rupert would not hesitate to risk it if he thought there was something to be learned that might heal Phil. This was his duty, and his honor.

With great care Rupert aimed the pipette at the enchanted door, and released the valve. A small but precise flow of sparkling dust came out, attracted by the spell. It flowed for a few seconds, then slowed and stopped. The magic, if all was well, was canceled. The counter-spell would hold for several hours.

Carefully the ex-Marine searched for mechanical traps, but found none, The door was not even locked! Immediately beyond was a spiral staircase running up a high tower. Rupert used his detector again, but it revealed nothing. After a quick silent climb, another door was revealed, but it too was unsecured. The ape listened intently, but there was only silence. Still, something seemed wrong here. The hairs on the back of his neck were prickling, and Rupert had learned years back not to ignore that sensation. In the pouch was a quite unenchanted tube of sailcloth knotted on both ends and filled with sand. Fleet boarding parties had long ago worked out that this made for a most silent and effective club. The gorilla hefted his chosen weapon carefully, inhaled...

...and burst into the room! But there was no physical enemy, no one to strike down or beat into submission. Yet the source of Rupert's apprehension was clear.

For in the center of the room was the most patently evil object he had ever laid eyes on! Waves of death and coldness just seemed to ooze from it into the night air.

It was some sort of golden burner, or censor. Incredibly sexually endowed demons coupled all over it in pornographic carvings, and it glowed magically even without the use of Rupert's clever detector. My God, the ape wondered, how could such an awful thing have been so close by without anyone knowing? And how had stupid Loriod come into possession of such power? Here was clearly the answer to all the mysteries, to all of the evil that had visited Metamor in recent times. Even if this... thing had not directly led to Prince Phil's illness, it had surely played a part!

With great care Rupert eased toward the censor, but it flared brighter as he approached. Images came into his mind, pictures of a King Rupert of Whales, or at least of a Regent Rupert handling the affairs of an increasingly forgotten and irrelevant King Phil, who after years of trying would still be expending his efforts attempting to dig a hole in bottom of his stubborn cage. Until of course one day when his name was no longer needed. Then his neck would be silently broken. Peasants bowed and scraped; the Fleet brought treasure by the shipload to build ever-bigger tributes to Rupert, King of all the Seas....

No!, Rupert's mind screamed in rage, and the images withdrew. The gorilla dropped to his knees, shocked at the temptation that had just run through his mind. With hands still weak and trembling, Phil's bodyguard fulfilled his oath of honor by carefully spraying the censor with anti-magic dust. It took nearly the whole container of the costly stuff, but eventually the flow slowed as the magic faded and died. For a few hours at least, and at a cost that would have built, manned, and provisioned a Fleet ship-of-the-line for a year, the censor was just an inert piece of over-ornamented junk.

Yet it was well worth the cost. The censor had seemed to want him very badly.

It was time to get out, now that Rupert was sure that he had what he wanted. But a quick check showed that the tower walls were too smooth even for a gorilla to scale, and there was simply not enough rope in the pouch to get him to the ground. Therefore, with some trepidation the ape descended the long staircase. A careful check showed the door at the bottom still "frozen" magically, and there was no movement to be heard beyond. So Rupert emerged into the throne room, only to be confronted with the spectacle of Macaban laying unconscious directly below the hole in the ceiling!

The gorilla might have laughed out loud, it was so clear what had happened. A tray with a broken pitcher of water lay to one side of the poor donkey-man, and the servant groaned weakly. Clearly, he would be coming to very soon! Rupert thought as quickly as he could, which was very quickly indeed. Had he been in a castle in the land of the Enemy, the gorilla would have killed silently and without either guilt or hesitation. But this was different! Macaban was an object of pity for those who knew him, not one of evil. Then, to complicate the situation, Loriod's own voice came from just beyond the right hand door. And from the tone of the impatient bellow, Rupert didn't have very long to come up with something. Loriod might be an incompetent buffoon when it came to defending and securing his castle, but he DID demand and get excellent personal service. There was no time to bind the equine. What to do?

There WAS something in the pouch that might suffice, Rupert realized. He had started carrying it in case Phil became startled in a public place and behaved in a way that might cause him to injure himself. It was a powerful potion that rendered whoever it was given to completely compliant and listless. When Phil was in animal state of course he could not understand spoken words and just became calm. But an intelligent being became a zombie...

Loriod shouted again, this time so loudly and with such anger in his voice that Rupert feared he might injure himself. Though he could not make out the words, it was clear to the gorilla that My Lord was not waiting for his water much longer. Carefully the gorilla broke the seal on the little flask, and poured it into the donkey's mouth. Macaban sputtered a bit at the bitter taste, and came fully awake instantly when he perceived the hairy ape bending over him. But before he could really react, the servant's eyes glazed over and the potion took effect.

Just then, the right-hand door burst open and Loriod himself burst in. Clad only in a robe, the foul being reeked of sweat and rut. It was clear that he had been engaging in some kind of sexual antics. But his eyes grew wide as he took in the spectacle of Rupert bent over his personal servant. The fat man stared for just an incredulous second, then he inhaled hugely to give the alarm...

...but before he could make a sound, the sandbag took him square between the eyes. He crumpled without a sound. Rupert wasn't certain whether he had killed Loriod or not, and wasn't really sure if he cared. Regretting his inability to speak, the big ape waved Macaban towards Loriod's private chambers, and followed him boldly down the corridor beyond.

They passed guards there, of course. Guards whose eyes almost bugged out of their heads at the sight of the gorilla walking calmly through the nearly sacred hallways. But the calm presence of Macaban reassured them, and what little initiative they once possessed had long since been beaten out of them. If a superior said something was proper, then it must be proper no matter how strange it seemed. To ask questions was to welcome punishment; not to notice was far safer.

About halfway down the long corridor, Rupert heard a muffled sob. A sob so hopeless, it almost broke his heart. Without even thinking, he put his hand on Macaban's shoulder and stopped him.

The sob came again. It sounded like a woman.

Ignore it, Rupert's training said. The magical object in your pouch will be the root of the misery of thousands if it is not brought out. Do not endanger all these others, just for the sake of one.

But training is not everything. The cries were coming steady now, from a chamber just ahead. A remarkably foul-smelling chamber...

The ape moved Macaban ahead until they came abreast the little room, then Rupert placed him squarely across the doorway and stepped inside. What he saw there would stay with him the rest of his days. Laying in many days' accumulation of his own filth lay a child of about seventeen. Tied face down by the wrists and ankles, the boy had clearly been raped repeatedly. He was feverish-eyed, and appeared to be starving.

"Water!" he croaked through lips so dry as to leave the words barely decipherable. "In God's name, water! Holy, holy water!"

Rupert was carrying none, or he would have freely given it all. Such suffering he had rarely seen. Deep anger grew in the gorilla's heart, and a flame lit there that would not be cheaply extinguished. Silently, he swore vengeance on the one responsible for this outrage...

Just as he turned to go back and make sure of Loriod's death, shouts came from the distance. Apparently, the incompetent guards had finally awoken and found the Lord of the manor. Cursing in fluent monkey chatter, Rupert drew his belt knife and cut the youth free. Even as he did so a wave of Change came over the prisoner; he shrank somewhat and lost body hair. Looking him over more carefully, Rupert saw that this might be either a gender change or an age regression- it was still too early to tell.

There HAD to be some way to get the kid out, Rupert told himself. Quickly he stepped to the door and cracked it, then slammed it hurriedly as three soldiers stopped to ask Macaban what to do. Rupert answered them with his sandbag, picking up a bad cut on his shoulder in the process. Then he found the solution to his dilemma. The kitchen was just down the hall, and large boxes of produce were stacked against one wall. The gorilla grabbed the closest wooden crate at random, and stuffed the semi-conscious child inside. Then, he effortlessly hefted the burden, grabbed Macaban's shoulder again and once more followed him down Loriod's halls. They were stopped again a couple times, of course, but Rupert handled all inquiries for the three of them. Once they had their questions dealt with, the soldiers took nice long naps.

The final hurdle was the gate and the drawbridge. They were closed up, of course, and even Loriod and his men had not managed to mess that operation up. Getting in had been hard enough. No way could Rupert get out again carrying his burden. And much less could he bluff Macaban through a checkpoint. He had to get the donkey out somehow, after the manner in which he had been used. The poor creature would for certain be seen as a traitor and beheaded at dawn if left to fend for himself. No one would believe he had been drugged.

All of this meant Rupert was down to his final option. Boldly he stepped out into the courtyard, stopped Macaban, and reached into his pouch. From it he removed a long cyndrilical object, which he carefully placed upon the flagstones. Then with great precision, even as he heard a guard shouting "Halt!" and beginning to run Rupert pinched one end of the tubular device and the Fleet signaling rocket burst into life and flew high into the sky. There it exploded into a huge red fireball, blinding instantly all the guards who instinctively looked at it. This number included the three closest, who staggered about until Rupert's sandbag encouraged them to rest. Pushing Macaban, the gorilla ran directly toward the gate, where some of the soldiers had been blinded. But most turned to face the gorilla. Boldness was his only chance, he knew. He kept running. Either things would work out or, the gorilla swore to himself, he would go down advancing like a good Marine...

But he needn't have feared. A dozen trumpets gave voice on the other side of the moat, and Duke Thomas's distinctive speech immediately followed. "You! In the castle! Lower the drawbridge at once or be prepared to fight. And let the gorilla came out! I want him, alive and unhurt! If you so much as touch one hair on the gorilla's head I will lay siege to this place. I swear it!"

And just as planned, the hearty voices of most of the garrison of Metamor rang out in a lusty blood-curdling cheer that promised violent death to all in earshot. Leaderless and dispirited, Loriod's men quietly let Rupert through, and Duke Thomas led his somewhat disappointed army back to Metamor.

They had not sortied in such strength in years.

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