Keeping the Lamp Lit - Part XVII

What's this?" Misha asked himself aloud as he stood bent over the cookstove. He was examining a single glyph on a shattered board. "It looks magical."

"I don't know!" replied Caroline. "The mark looks... evil."

"It does at that" the Long Patrolman replied. "I wonder what it is, and how it how it got here?"

"There's no telling. Do you think we ought to check it out?"

"Eventually, I suppose," the axeman replied languidly. "Burning enchanted wood can be dangerous. Perhaps while the meat is boiling I'll run it by Pascal. Until then, I hope I have your full and undivided attention?" Misha's eyes sparkled mischievously- the couple rarely got to spend enough time together, and he had long wanted to share this old family recipe for mutton stew. The otter-morph giggled and came close.

For a long time, enchanted boards and even cooking were the farthest things from their minds.

The forest was dark, and it was unfriendly. Charles felt multiple thorns scratch through his naked fur as he ran, brambles entangled his legs, and branches smacked against his face. Yet he pushed onwards, running, trying to get as far away from the river as possible. Already in the distance he could hear the sounds of pursuit, the howling and the cajoling of the Lutins as they disembarked from the ships and set up chase. How fitting that a rat would be hunted by beasts.

The further he made his way in the woods, the more dense and tightly packed they became. Though he was tripped up, he tried his best to hide his tracks. Having spent years training till he rose to a black among the Sondeckis, he knew how to move quickly through the woods without leaving a trail. At the moment however, he was moving too fast to completely hide his path. Once he got far enough away, he could begin obscuring his trek back to Metamor. It would take many weeks, but there was little choice. With the Lutins following him, searching for him, he had to get far enough away to throw off his closest pursuers if he was to survive.

Of course, the really terrifying thought was that Nasoj himself would be showing up in a few days. Could he, a single rat, hide from one of the most powerful mages this world had ever seen? He had no choice but to try. And it was also quite likely that an experienced mage like Nasoj, while possibly never having any formal experience with the Sondeck, would have no trouble annulling it. Either way, he had to keep moving.

Many times as he barreled between trees and over bushes frightened animals would cry out as their home was disturbed. He cringed at the shrieking cry of each one, for surely it would draw the Lutins. The amulet was bouncing back and forth along his chest, striking it coldly with each step. It was the reason he was forced to make this mad dash through a forbidding wilderness at night. How much terror could it wreak if he let Nasoj have it? There was no choice, if he ran into the Lutins, or if they found him, he would have to kill them to get away.

The air was quite vibrant, but he could smell the fetid Lutins. That was a good sign. The wind was coming in from the north, so they could not for now locate him by scent. And unlike Matthias, the Lutin nasal system was not developed enough to track by scent alone. As long as he hid himself well enough, they would not easily find him.

Suddenly the trees opened up into a small clearing. Staring up at the black nebulous sky, he could still see the cloud cover. It was interminably dark; only the silhouettes of the trees at the edge of the clearing could be made out. This was ideal for a rat. Carefully he made his way through the grass-filled field, smiling a bit as the blades tickled at his bare legs. He had sprinted long enough, now he would hide his tracks, and conceal himself. Stepping back into the dense forest with the tall tress straining to reach the sun to the south, Charles took one moment to look back over his shoulder. A dim light could be seen coming from beyond the forest. The ship was still burning bright. Charles quickly said a silent prayer for the lives of the men of Whales.

Matthias then turned about and jogged into the depths of the forest. The rat's footfalls were now silent, and they left no mark. His passing left no broken branches nor snapped twigs. Animals did not screech in his wake, and within an hour, the sounds of pursuing Lutins faded away, disappearing beneath the general chorus of tree frogs.

He continued onwards, hoping that he was heading south, for several more hours before the exertion became too much for even him. Charles took a few moments to stop and catch his breath. Looking about, he could see a break in the canopy above him. The clouds still coalesced in the midnight sky. He would have to trust to his own directional sense for now.

Listening to the forest, he could vaguely hear a faint trickling. Walking cautiously towards it, it soon grew louder, until he could hear the familiar dripping of water over stones. Soon, a small stream came into view, winding its way through the trees, opening out into a small brook further on down. Charles leaned over, and took a long drink, finding it to be the best tasting water he had enjoyed in a long time. It was clear, icy cold, and brilliant.

Sitting back on the near bank and leaning against a tree, Charles took a moment to relax. He would have to find a place to sleep soon, as well as something to eat. This was as good a place as any to rest, though. Sleep for a few hours, and then continue on south. Perhaps by then the clouds would have pulled back.

Charles sniffed about the area until he found a nice abandoned home. A squirrel had once lived inside that tree, but now the small opening was empty. Charles placed the amulet down at the bottom of the hole, and then placed a few leaves and pine needles over top of it. He carefully smoothed out the leaves he had disturbed, and then, satisfied that his place for the night would not be discovered, shifted to his full rat form, and then climbed up to his temporary home. Curling up on top of the leaves, he could still feel the peculiar contours of the amulet beneath him. This was not going to be an easy sleep.

Nor did it prove to be a pleasant one either. His dreams of late seemed to be quite running the whole gamut from pleasant and serene walks with Lady Kimberly, to torturous nightmares in which any number of horrors would cry out in glee as they wreaked terrible pain and torment on the innocent. It was usually a child's scream though that would remain consistent throughout. That night was no exception. It made him curl tighter in the leafs against the chill of the night. It was the sound of an evil omen. Something terrible was happening out there in the world. Some great and ancient evil was rising. Charles tried to shut out the scram, but it only grew more intense. And as before, the source of the misery was not to be found.

So it was with great relief that Charles arose into the crisp morning air and left behind the horrid dreamscapes. Matthias quickly poked his head out of the hole in the tree, and peered about the forest. The songs of birds could be heard throughout the treetops. The rat could smell no trace of the Lutins, only of the fresh morning day. It was chilly, but the clouds had once again parted, and the sun shone through the tree branches to give a bit of light upon the gently flowing stream.

Climbing out of the hole, Charles grew back to his normal size, collected the amulet, and was off again, using the sun to guide him southwards. He walked at a leisurely pace for now, stopping to pick berries along his way, making sure that none were poisonous of course. It was a beautiful day, much like many he had seen at the Keep. The enchanting quality of the towering oaks and pine, all nestled together in the rolling hills with pleasant trickling streams and the mellifluous songs of birds, almost made him forget the great evil that was looking for him.

For most of the morning, he made his way down through the pine needles and fallen leaves that had remained after the snow had melted. When the trees gave way, he could see of to the west the great chain of mountains that eventually he would have to cross. Much of the slopes were still covered in snow, locked forever in the coldness of the north and of that white powder. Charles didn't want to cross over too soon, as there would not be much opportunity for getting food up so high.

By noon, everything seemed to be moving along so smoothly, that he knew something had to go wrong soon. It was a vague sense of uneasiness as he walked beneath the boughs of trees, some of which already had new leaves growing upon their branches. Nothing could hide up there, at least easily. The contour of the land was quite variable, and he tried to stay of the tops of hills, preferring the valleys where it would be hard to see him. Even still, he did so at a great risk. And in his heart he knew that it would not be long before he had to face the Lutins again.

So it came as no surprise when late in the afternoon, that pungent odor returned to his nose. They were somewhere nearby, for the scent was fresh. Listening to the air, he could hear nothing aside from the wind in the branches. Looking about he saw nothing aside from the trees and the bushes. Taking a deep breath, swallowing the fear that was building inside his chest, he continued onward, still walking for now.

Suddenly, from behind him, he heard the snapping of a twig. Immediately his legs kicked into action and he dashed to the south, trying to outpace whatever it was that was behind him. He rushed heedlessly onwards, barreling past the trees, until a sudden jolt of energy struck him from behind, sending him toppling to the ground and then tumbling down the hillside. Head over heels he fell, past bushes, and by trees, until at last he collapsed in a small stream bed. The chilling touch of the water in his face, brought him up on his knees, but the ache in his back prevented him from getting to his feet.

Matthias peered over his shoulder at the hill behind him, noting that the forest seemed to suddenly come alive, as Lutins poured out over the rise, thundering down the hill like stampeding cattle. Charles grimaced against the pain, and stumbled along on his legs, running as best he could despite the injury. Whatever had struck him had been powerful, possibly even magic. Yet no matter what, this amulet could not fall into Nasoj's possession.

He did his best to duck and weave between trees, minimizing his exposure, but there was little chance of him outrunning the Lutins this way. He heard their thunderous footfalls and screams of vitriolic rage echoing behind him. Charles did not look back once. The hills swept up to him, and came to a sudden rise, and there they stopped. Digging his feet into the ground, and clutching onto the nearest tree, Charles stood precariously standing over a small ledge. It was a good thirty or forty feet to the ground far below.

Taking a moment to peer behind him, he saw one Lutin raise its hands up towards him, and then a sudden brilliant ball of energy hurtled towards him. Charles dived over the precipice, the force barely skimming his flesh. With his heart in his throat, he reached out to whatever branches came near, grabbing at them, snapping them in half with the force of his fall. Yet they slowed him down enough to land on the ground without bruising. Getting back to his feet, the dull throbbing in his back still complaining to him, he continued to run.

While the Lutins were forced to find a safer way down, Charles intended to make good his escape. He slowed to his normal jog, obscuring his trail completely. He frequently listened, and he could still hear their cries of pursuit. The enemy knew in general where he was. That they had a mage with them made matters worse. He managed to settle into his new pace nicely, and did not find it at all difficult to maintain it. In fact, though he could still hear them, he did not see the Lutins again for another hour. He could envision a restless night, always on the move.

Running for days on end had not really been part of his practices. That sort of endurance was one of the practices and skills that the black of the Sondeckis learned, but Charles had only begun that sort of training when he'd left. What he had already learned, however, he employed to the fullest. His hunger was the worst; it gnawed at him endlessly from within. For while Matthias's magical powers could sustain him for a time, his body did still need food. All of this continual exertion had drained his reserves. And Sondeck could only carry him so far.

Charles found little comfort in the forest about him, the cold unrelenting stature of the somber trees suddenly a burden instead of a relief. The blowing wind came to him at his back, which was slightly relieving, but it only could help so much. The blue sky faded into a dull gray as the day wore on, and the sun was insufficient to warm his bones. The pain in his back also faded somewhat, but the muscles there remained very tight.

Still, it seemed that the world was not through with him yet. As he burst through a group of bushes, he found himself staring at a rag tag group of Lutin soldiers eating from a carcass of some large animal, probably a deer. With a bit of chagrin, he mentally berated himself for not having picked up on their scent, despite the fact that they had been upwind of him. Turning about, he began to run around them as they set up chase.

The distraction and subsequent change in direction had been too much however, and the Lutins who had been chasing him before were quick to catch up. Charles sprinted as fast as he could, trying to stay out of sight, but they were too close. Once again he felt that painful blast striking him in the back. He twisted about, crumpling to the ground, and smacking his head against a rock.

It took a moment for the world to come back into focus, but when it did, he saw several figures standing over him. Clutching the amulet in one paw, he backed up away from them, trying to keep an eye on all of them. As he scanned the Lutin faces, he saw the mage, with a strange lightning strike tattoo painted over one ear, and another face that was all too familiar. Sergeant Cajudy, dressed in light armor, was standing there among them, smirking down at the form of the Keeper.

"Should have known it would be a Keeper," he laughed as Charles scrambled backwards even more, finally getting to his feet to face the circle of Lutins. Scanning about, he saw that the hills were lined with them. At most there were maybe fifty Lutins, all under the charge of this one human. The odds were quite unfavorable.

"I thought I saw your ship go down," Matthias remarked, trying to buy some time to collect his power. The two most important, the mage and the human, were standing before him. Without them, this army would be in disarray. As he scanned the Lutins, he noted that all of them were armed whether with swords, clubs or spears, plus the occasional whip. There were no bows among them. That was a welcome sight.

"Yes, it sunk, but some of us can swim after all," Cajudy replied pedantically. Charles noted his look of irritation. He must have expected to catch the amulet long before this.

"So what do you want from me?"

"What do you think? Give us the amulet."

"Or what, you'll kill me?"

"Something like that. We'll probably kill you anyway, but if you make it easy on us, we promise to make it quick."

Charles reached both of his paws up to the necklace. 'Since I'm just a little rat, I'll give you the amulet. Please don't hurt me! I was just doing what I was told." Cupping his hands together, he focused all of his force right there. While Cajudy and the mage watched him, he flushed out his arms, throwing every single figure in front of him to the ground. Cajudy and the mage however received the full power of the Longfugos technique. It had shattered stone walls, and now it killed both, caving in their chests and faces, crushing the bones and organs immediately.

He then dashed over the bodies, putting all of his force into his feet, pushing hard against the ground, trying to give speed to his run. He moved past the dead bodies, and the stunned Lutins who had seen their comrades knocked aside by the very air. Faster and faster he pushed himself, the Sondeck being pushed against the ground through his feet, giving him more force and strength to continue. The wind blew past him at a great rate as he ran faster than he had ever run before, even as a human. The bellowing of rage coming from behind him disappeared into the trees as he moved through the forest.

There was no question he was leaving behind a trail, but he needed to get away, and get away fast. The terrible pain in his back grew stronger with eats step, and his eyes noted the blurring of images all about him. Each tree that went by was only a blur as he made his way over the rough terrain. Branches snapped as he moved through them, ignoring the cuts and gashes they left behind.

Yet even a Sondecki of the black could not keep it up forever. After what seemed an eternity to the battle weary rat, he stumbled into a clearing, his breath coming harshly. He could barely move. Charles fell to the ground, rolling over on his back, gasping for air, trying to resolve the strange blue image that was before his eyes. Suddenly a face came into view, a large reptilian face, and a long neck, which ended in a larger body that seemed tensed and ready to pounce upon him at a moment's notice. What was this? Charles tried to muster his power once again, but the limit had been reached. Matthias could give no more.

The dragon was peering down quizzically at Charles as the rat finally blacked out.

Pascal was bleary-eyed but triumphant when Duke Thomas finally came to see her. Not that he was looking much better, these days...

"I've got it" she said simply.

"Got what?" her overtired liege replied predictably.

"The answer. What happened to Phil." Her eyes held unmistakable pride.

"What? I mean... Is it reversible?"

"I don't know- I am no mage. But I can tell you this for sure. I have the whole complete spell. given this, I have never heard of a magic that could NOT be reversed, at least partially."

The equine leader looked enthused for the first time in days. "Tell me!" he demanded eagerly. "Tell me all you have learned! Please!"

Pascal smiled shyly. "Actually, a good part of the credit goes to Misha. He was cooking, you see... Mutton stew, an old family recipe..."

Thomas nodded, eager to get to the point.

"Anyway, in the kitchen's kindling pile was an old board from a packing crate. This one here," she explained, holding it up. "It has a rune on it, and Misha feared that burning it might release some magic. The Keep Mages are kinda busy these days, you know. So, he brought it to me." Her eyes were sparkling in triumph, now. "As you know, I once made a hobby of studying rune magic. I'm fairly well versed in the Art, in fact. But this sigil is obvious. I bet even you can get understand it." Not even noticing the implied insult, Thomas bent over and examined the inscribed wood.

Pascal was right. It WAS obvious. The ornate and stylized drawing was of a crown, quite clearly suspended over a rabbit on all fours. With a magnifying glass alongside him. A light began to dawn.

"A Royal rabbit, in an animal state..." Thomas mused.

"Right! The spell could affect no one else. It was quite clearly targeted to magnify Phil's rabbit problems while doing nothing else. It is no wonder the magic was undetected- it only worked in the presence of the Prince himself. By the way, my Liege, is your nose clear today?"

"Yes, fairly. Why?"

"Take a sniff."

Carefully, as if afraid the glyph might bite, Thomas filled his nose. Instantly, another revelation hit him. "Carrots! This was part of a crate of carrots!"

"Yes. Phil was always a bit embarrassed about loving them so. In fact, sometimes he rather gorged on the things."

Thomas smiled, for the first time in what seemed like days. "Yes. He always ate his carrots in private. And do you know what? He wouldn't share his personal stock even with me..." Then Thomas came alert again. "Which reminds me? Where did this crate come from?"

"I have no idea. But, the first carrot crop just came in. As hot and dry as things are, it may be the only one this year. Loriod supplied them, didn't he?"

"Yes," the Duke of Metamor replied. "And I think that is the final piece of the puzzle. Pascal, my friend, you have done well."

The 'pine was clearly uncomfortable with the praise. "Phil is my friend, too," she replied simply.

Thomas simply nodded. He understood. Better than most.

Wessex wished he had more time to study the problems of his friend Prince Phil before taking action, but Thomas had been explicit that he needed an answer immediately, that his plans were entirely dependent on Phil’s mental state. Not that more time would have helped anyway, most likely, the mage knew. For the enchanted carrots Phil had eaten certainly had caused irreversible effects, but their degree was still open to question. Since the food had been literally incorporated into his body, there was no sure way to remove them or dispel them without endangering the Prince himself. Attempting a direct cancellation of the spell could certainly do no harm, though, and was most likely the only answer anyone could ever come up with anyway.

So, Wessex steeled himself to try it.

Under the watchful eye of Rupert, the youthful wizard drew his runes carefully and crafted his lines of power from magic dust. Then, he asked Rupert to secure the Prince right in the center of his array. The gorilla complied, even though Phil was clearly badly frightened. A harness was produced, and the Prince fixed into position despite his frightened struggles. It was an ugly little scene in its way, but one that Rupert had lived through many times before. Then, after several fruitless attempts to pacify the rabbit, Wessex recited his incantation in the language of Nasoj. The endless harsh words frightened Phil still further- he kicked and fought mindlessly in an effort to escape, but remained securely harnessed.

When Wessex was done, the white rabbit was still blindly struggling. He had failed.

It seemed of late she was getting a lot of high profile cleaning assignments. First in the week she was assigned Channing's Tower, and now Lady Kimberly had been assigned to be this poor boy's nurse. She'd spent several hours just sitting next to his bed as the youngster rolled about, sometimes crying or whimpering, but every once in a while, he would unleash a bloodcurdling scream that made the rat cringe in horror. It was the kind of scream that plagued one's nightmares.

Most of the time though, he would lie there still, not moving, eyes open and staring blankly at the ceiling. Kimberly would talk to him, telling him about her day, and about whatever crossed her mind. As she would talk, sometimes the young boy would reach out an arm, the small fingers grasping at her fur. She would gently take the hand, and squeeze it reassuringly. The gesture would be returned, but nothing coherent would be said.

So it was that Lady Kimberly found herself taking her dinner with the victim of terrible horrors that evening. The month of May had come upon them with all its wondrous charm. Yet there was no charm within this room, only pain. She watched the boy as he ate her bread and cheese, trying to think of what she could do for him this day. He was lying still, whimpering again, his upper lip quivering, and his body twitching every once in a while.

So she did what every child wanted, she told him a story. It was a story her mother had once told her while she had been scared of the dark. After finishing off the last of the cheese, Kimberly sat down next to the boy, cupping his head in her arms, much as her mother had done for her, and then, smoothing out his hair, she spoke to him in a loving compassionate voice. The boy seemed to respond well to that, because his whimpering died out, and he just lay there, his small hands holding her arms.

The story of course was about this guardian angel, taking about how every kid had one. The monsters of the night would stalk about in the dark corners, but before they could hurt the innocent sleeping kids, they would face the angel, who stood by protecting the child. Kimberly then happily finished the story with the angel receiving his wings for defeating this terrible monster and giving a young girl reason to hope.

"Angel's don't have wings," the child muttered in his light voice. It was the first coherent thing she had ever heard him say.

"They don't?" Kimberly asked, holding the child's head in her arms, and staring down at her. It looked like there was a fog lifting from the child's eyes, as if he was truly seeing her for the first time.

"No." the boy's voice trailed off as he suddenly broke her gaze, and stared about the rest of the room, trying to put it into context. Suddenly his head snapped back to her. "Where am I?"

Lady Kimberly continued to straighten out the curls in the child's blonde hair. "You are in Duke Thomas's castle."

The boy sank back into the bed, his mouth agape, and his face puzzled. She would be here for him if he needed her. It looked like he wasn't expecting or wanting to be here. He lifted his hands from the bed covers, and stared at them. Turning them around, he noted their size, and the very contours. Kimberly watched as he began to cry once again. She held him close, and he then wrapped his own arms about her furry form, crying into her chest.

"It's all right," She whispered as she held him. "Nobody's going to hurt you."

The minutes dragged on as she rocked the young boy back and forth. Her mother had done the same for her when the pain had been great. This boy had been brutalized terribly. How could any man do these things to one so young? It was a travesty, a monstrosity. Surely the one who had done these things would see justice.

Suddenly, the child let go of her, sitting back down on the bed. He put his hands in his lap, his legs curling up beneath him. Kimberly sat next to him, wondering just how old the child was. He looked to be about ten, maybe twelve, but no older. His voice though, sounded as if it came from one much older. "You are Charles's lady friend, Kimberly, am I right?"

Lady Kimberly sat dumbstruck at the pronouncement. How did this little child know? She'd never seen him before in her life. Unless...

"What's your name?" She asked, already fearing she knew the answer.

"I'm Francis Hough." The words seemed so bizarre that it took her a moment to realize exactly who the child really was.

"Father Hough!" The joy she had in seeing and knowing that it was him and that he would be all right made her whiskers stand out on end. She bowed her head before him. "Shall I go get Coe? Now that you are awake, he can take a look at you?"

Hough suddenly very violently grabbed her arm and shouted, "No!" His eyes were wild, with some of that old fog back in place. She found herself frozen in place as the boy stiffened, and then crumpled back in the bed again. He hid his face in his hands, whimpering at the sudden fright he had unleashed.

She put a single paw on his shoulder, and his shuddering stopped. He slowly lowered his hands from his face, and then stared back up at her. "Just stay here with me," He asked, his lips trembling, his body hurt, and his mind still scarred.

"I'll stay. You are safe now." Kimberly smiled making the boy brighten somewhat. This was going to be a long night. Many times she herself had been so scared of the darkness her mother had sat up with her to weather the night. How could she refuse to be a mother to this frightened little one? He may have only the body of a child, but right now, he was a child both in spirit and in need.

And into the night they stayed, sitting upon the bed next to each other. Kimberly continued to tell him stories that her own mother had once told, and Hough listened like any frightened child might - with wonder.

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