Keeping the Lamp Lit - Part XVIII

When the rat finally awoke, it was to the whistling of wind, and to a very hard, and tough sensation on his back. Above him, the great blue sky swirled in countless circuits, endless in its vastness and scope. It was a windy day, very windy in fact. Downright freezing actually! The wind was so fast he was afraid it would pick him up and throw him about if not for the straps holding him down. Straps? What was going on? The last he recalled he'd been running from an army of Lutins.

And then fainting in front of that dragon. Matthias could hear the mighty heartbeat beneath him finally, and the flap of its wings. He'd been captured anyway, and was now tied down to the back of a dragon in flight. Damn Nasoj! One way or another, he was going to have to destroy this amulet. If he had to die doing so, then he would. The lamp must keep burning bright. If a few have to be sacrificed so that all may shine, so be it.

Charles peered down at his feet. The amulet lay against his chest still, but his arms and legs and chest were firmly secured against the blue dragon's back. He could see the tail, with thick spade at the end, slowly moving this way and that against the changing winds. The ground was too distant for his slightly myopic eyes to make out.

Taking a deep breath, he called forth the power of the Sondeck once again. Ever since his confession to Phil, it seemed to have been used almost everyday. Charles dismissed that irony, and quickly freed his hands. The straps were tough leather, but they snapped away at his will. The dragon noted this immediately, but could do little about it while in flight. Matthias could vaguely hear him trying to shout something against the wind, but Charles refused to listen.

Breaking free his other restraints, Charles suddenly was thrown from the dragon's back by the freakish winds. Tumbling head over heels through the void, Charles offered up his final prayers to God, knowing that soon enough he would meet his Lord. Just before falling through the cloud layer, he saw the dragon diving after him. Nasoj must not have this amulet!

His bones shivered as he streaked through the air. Matthias found his thoughts turning to those things that he would miss when he was gone. He wished he could have seen his friends one last time; especially Lady Kimberly. She was more than a friend though. The little sweet rat was the most concise statement of his reason to live and to serve. For a moment, the strength of his love for her was enough to warm his heart.

And then the clouds broke once more, and he could see the blur beneath him, rushing closer and closer. The land was still some ways below him though. Suddenly, from above, the dragon pierced the milky veil, and with talons outstretched, tried to snatch Charles from the air. The rat however struck out at the dragon, smacking it's claws with his fists, and for a moment, deflected them away. Matthias however was sent spinning away, twisting and tumbling out of control from the force of his attack. The dragon, used to flight, was much better at maintaining control.

Charles found himself shrouded in mist again, but only for a few moments before he emerged closer to the ground than he had dared imagine. Yet what was revealed was not the trees and hills and mountains of the Giantdowns that he had been expecting, but rather the rolling waves of the Sea of Stars to the south. Why would an agent of Nasoj bring him here? To kill him? The dragon could long ago have done that. The only answer left to him was one that made him feel like an idiot. The dragon was not from Nasoj at all.

The rat managed to right himself, spreading all of his limbs out against the wind. His fur was pulled taut against his skin, and his jowls and whiskers blinded him by flapping in the incredible wind. How he hoped the dragon would catch him soon! Matthias had no idea how close he was to the water. He could see the waves, but had no idea how large they were. At any second he knew he would strike against the surface of the water and be instantly crushed by the impact. Charles could strengthen his body with the Sondeck, and hope that would be enough. But a fall from such a height would be almost certainly fatal. Even if he lived past the initial impact, surely his bones would be broken, and the bleeding would attract sharks and other sea predators. No, his power was incapable of saving him now.

He could almost taste the sea water, the salt burning his nose as he tried to breath in the harsh waters. Matthias closed his eyes, not wanting to watch anymore. His prayers went out to the Lord that he might be saved from death at this moment. That he might be spared so that he could see his loved Lady Kimberly again. The fall went on and on and on...

And then the dragon's claws grabbed him about his waist, and yanked him back up into the sky once again. Charles held on tight as the whiplash movement snapped him backwards, awakening the pain in his back once again. He grimaced as they climbed back up into the clouds, the sea disappearing beneath him. Staring at the large black claw that could easily slice him in two, and the blue scales from which it protruded, he thanked the Lord for his wisdom in making dragons.

"Thank you!" Charles shouted into the air. The dragon's head turned back to face him on its long sinewy neck. Its eyes were a bright blue as well, and they looked rather frustrated.

"What did you have to go and do that for?" it called out in a deep bass voice.

"I'm sorry. I thought you were taking me back to Nasoj," Charles replied, shouting his lungs dry again.

"Now why would a good dragon of Whales take you to that nut?" The bright blue rescuer continued to pump its wings until they had once again settled comfortably into a glide. Charles felt the chill of the upper air again on his body. It was a bit harder to breath up so high, but not too much so.

However upon hearing of the dragon's origin he was quite relieved. That was where Phil had been from, and named crown prince of as well, plus Ptomamus and his men. Aramaes's spell had worked! "So, where are we going?"

"Where else? To the Isle of Whales!" The dragon boomed in a hearty voice.

A formal Council of War was a rare thing in Metamor. Every noble was there of course, and every mage of responsible position, And so were Duke Thomas’s vassal lords.

All except Loriod, of course. He was the subject under discussion. Quite energetic discussion, in fact.

“Look, My Lord,” Christopher of the iron mining Duchy was saying. “We all know that Loriod is guilty of certain... excesses, shall we say. And that he is far from a pleasant man. But what right have we to dispossess him?

Barnhardt agreed. “Would you so easily throw me off of MY lands, Duke Thomas? Our families have long and deep ties. But then so do yours and Loriod’s. If we once turn on a brother Noble, who will be next?”

There was general agreement with these thoughts, and the Keepers present were getting worried. This was not going at all well. Then Thomas played his trump cards. Raising his voice regally over the festering debate, he called out “Bring in Prince Phil, and Father Hough.”

Rupert, wearing his full-dress Marine uniform rolled in his caged Prince on a little cart. And the newly-youthful priest was leaning heavily on a stick, wearing short pants and sleeves that displayed but a small portion of his wounds, and then only the physical. Conversation halted instantly.

“My Lords and allies, you know of Prince Phil’s affliction, I am sure. However, it has become worse of late. In fact, it may have become irreversible. I have good reason to hold Loriod accountable for this. And Father Hough, who I am sure is also known to you all, will tell his own story...”

When Thomas was done relating the tale of Loriod’s poisoning attempt, and Hough had bravely shared his own humiliation, there were no more doubters. Phil and Hough were personally known to all there, and respected. What had been done to them would not be allowed to stand.

Come dawn, Loriod’s castle would be stormed and the Lord of the Manor brought to justice.

Rupert went in early and alone, of course. It was Fleet doctrine to send in saboteurs, and Phil had long intended to display to Thomas the effectiveness of the tactic. Besides, the ape had some personal business with Loriod. Rules of war be damned. If Rupert found him, he would see justice done himself. Justice swift and complete. He owed Phil that much...

A tear stung the gorilla's eye as he thought about his Prince. Wessex's failure had hit Rupert hard- he knew very well that Phil trusted the youngster completely and had great faith in him. And the look on Wes's face as his magic failed the lapine bespoke volumes to one who knew him. Truly, the mage considered the battle lost.

If Metamor's specialist in Nasoj's magic had given up, then where was hope to be found?

Well, if there was no hope then there was always the option of exacting the highest price possible from the enemy. Phil himself had chosen this course at the Battle of the Wind, had he not? And somehow, by fighting on long after all reasonable chance of victory or even survival was gone he had managed to pry a triumph loose from stubborn Fate. Could one of Phil's friends make any less of an effort?

Rupert answered his own question as he came abreast a familiar window. At a touch, the shutters opened. The big ape shook his head sadly- the incompetent fools had not even found his entry point from last time...

The little archer's room had not changed a bit, and this time Rupert negotiated it with far more ease. He listened, repeated his mad scramble to the spiral stairs, and began his work. Stopping at each rack of cheap, shoddily made arms the gorilla affixed a little piece of paper with a rune drawn carefully upon it. Then, once it was firmly in place, he completed the little drawing by adding one last tiny mark. Immediately the little rune flared for just a second, then all appeared as it was before. Except that the swords, morning stars, bows, and spears were melted into the rack itself, making them into one single solid object. An object useless for fighting...

Fifty times Rupert repeated his task in the long night that followed, a fine evening's work punctuated by three near-discoveries and two uses of the trusty sandbag. By dawn's first light the alarm was out, though, and the game nearly up as well. The silverback had been using all the skills he possessed just to survive. Once in a very high-ceilinged room he had vaulted to a high shelf seconds before two confused pursuers met below, never thinking to look up. Another time he had been forced to leap from one tower to another in a feat that would have been impossible were Rupert still a man. But he had accomplished his mission, and was still free.

Now, Rupert was on his own time. He headed for the Throne Room, death in his eyes...

The journey there was far more dangerous this night than on his past such excursion, with the guard turned out and looking for an intruder. Fortunately, due to his earlier efforts most of Loriod's men were milling about in confusion looking for weapons. No longer fearing discovery so much (for he would willingly die to kill Loriod) Rupert became bolder and made more use of his sandbag. Silently, he took guard after guard from behind, leaving a trail of unconscious bodies as testament to his skill and wrath. And, just when he thought that perhaps he could go no further, the army of Metamor assailed the gate with blasts of magical power, a blaring of trumpets, and a bloodcurdling roar.

It was just too much. Weaponless, poorly led, and assailed by those they thought of as friends and allies the garrison panicked and ran. Not a man stood and fought for one such as Loriod.

Inside the castle, Rupert whooped at the sudden chaos. Two guards looked right at him, round eyed in unreasoning terror, then fled without a word when Rupert screamed his challenge and beat his chest. And the cheers of the Metamorians were getting louder by the second as they advanced as quickly as caution allowed. The ape knew that if he was to be the one to settle Loriod's account, he would have to move quickly. At a dead run he scrambled through the castle now, as he and the guards ignored each other in the urgency of their own respective needs.

The gorilla turned a corner and ran full tilt down a corridor that seemed oddly familiar. Even through the joy of battle that now sang in his veins he sensed something wrong, but Rupert was just moving too quickly to stop.

And so it was that the expert saboteur and ex-Marine tumbled through the hole in the floor that he himself had cut the night before, and landed square in the middle of Loriod's empty Throne Room...

He fell with a terrible crash, and heard quite clearly the snapping of his own left thighbone. The pain was terrible, and Rupert rolled into a ball of agony for a timeless period before there was room for anything else but suffering in his world. But presently he remembered who he was, and more importantly where he was. Hazily, he looked around and saw that he was alone. But that couldn't possibly last, he knew. So, cursing his clumsiness, Phil's personal guard began edging himself behind Loriod's precious goldfish tank, where perhaps he might lay unnoticed for a few moments. His fight was over, this day.

And silently Rupert gnashed his teeth in frustration as seconds later foul Loriod himself strode by just out of reach, stinking of fear and cold sweat.

Then, the great ape finally passed out.

How could the spirits have let this disaster occur? He was Lord Loriod, destined to rule all of these lands, and more. And now the Duke's army was sweeping through his forces as if they weren't even there. Soon they would be upon him, and that was a scene that he could not even picture! They would be before him, yes they would, but on their knees! They would bow to him and cede over all of the land to his authority. Than he would set right the petty excesses of the commoners and put the women in their place.

However, Loriod knew, that at this point, only one thing remained in his possession that could possibly make any of his future happen as foreordained. Only the Holy Censer which the spirits had brought to him could possibly give him the power to fight back. Climbing the mighty stairs up to the top of his tower, he could hear the shaking and pounding and screaming from the guards below. It would not be long before they found this tower. When they did, they were going to receive a surprise.

Loriod stepped past the threshold and stared at the center of the unadorned chamber, ignoring the rocking as the walls shook with the force of the siege. Where the censer should have been, a man dressed in black gowns stood, arms crossed, eyes gazing forward. It was the lead spirit, come to rescue him from this terrible mischance of fate! Loriod's smile grew at the thought of all of his manipulations. Soon he would sit upon the throne of Metamor Keep, with a Phil stuck in a cage. It would be nice to scratch his ears again.

"Ah, Spirit! I need your help! That blasted Duke has invaded my lands. Even now you must know he lays siege to this castle. Please, give me the power I need to destroy him utterly and take my rightful place on the Ducal throne."

Rubbing his thumb gently over the insignia on his arm, the dark man smiled broader. He then pointed down at the ground with his other hand. Loriod looked, and saw something remarkable. Intricate designs had been drawn, the likes of which he had no understanding. Was this the center of power in which he was to stand? It must be so. It was so like the spirits to be so thoughtful.

Loriod walked up to where the man stood, and took his place in the center of the rings of power. He could feel the magic beginning to move through him as the white chalk lines began to glow, brightening in hue until they were a brilliant yellow. His whole body tensed and filled with the sensations. It was even more erotic than his play with that irascible priest had been, for certainly, this gave all, and took nothing in return.

"I can feel the power already. I shall surely smite them!" Loriod crowed in delight. He tried to step from the circle to face his enemies, and to humble the Duke once and for all, but found much to his surprise that he was locked firmly inside the central ring. "Why can't I leave?" The man in black just smiled. "What are you doing to me?" Loriod insisted, his voice enraged.

"I'm just cleaning up a mess," the man replied, casually watching both him and the door.

"What mess? If you want to clean up the mess, than you'll help me defeat the Duke!"

"You have such a small mind, Loriod."

"Lord Loriod!"

"We gave you a chance, and through your incompetence and overreaching, you have squandered it. So, we are taking everything from you that belongs to us."

"You said I would rule! You said I had a destiny!" Loriod spluttered, not believing what his ears and eye plainly told him. The yellow lines suddenly flared again, and then changed to a deep green hue. He felt a sudden wrenching, and watched in horror as his paunch began to shrink, his whole body atrophying before his eyes.

The man laughed a very deep and sinister laugh. It chilled Loriod's blood like nothing he ever knew before. "You are such a fool, Altera. You could have had power, for a short time. But you have proven more trouble than you are worth."

"Please! Can't we just take power now! All the important people are here, we can strike now!" Loriod begged, feeling himself sucked downwards into the soles of his shoes, and beyond.

"If we could have done that, we would have never come to you in the first place." The man replied blandly as the light shifted to a menacingly insane blue. Loriod watched as sparkles of blue light fell from his hands, dripping from his fingertips, and spilling into the floor. They vanished on sight, snuffed out like a candle.

"But I can still be useful to you!" Loriod insisted.

"No, you are just a liability. Had the Duke managed to capture you, he surely would have interrogated you. Then he might have found out about me. That is not something we want at all."

"Why should a spirit care if he is discovered?" Loriod asked, trying to grasp at the blue sparkles as they tumbled, but they fell through his hands as if they weren't even there.

The other regarded him for a moment with a quizzical stare, and then he laughed again. "Are you that daft, Altera? I am not a spirit. I am man as much as you are. More so in fact." He casually gauged the floor’s blue nimbus, and then smiled. "I'd be lying if I said this next part wasn't going to really hurt."

On cue, the chalk lines flared into red brilliance, and the pain shot throughout Loriod's body. He screamed, and the red glow came from his mouth, firing throughout the room and rebounding around the entire tower. It felt like his mind was being ripped apart, memory by memory. First the past few weeks were extracted and gone. And then it went even further. Systematically ripping out every face he'd ever seen, every word he'd ever known, and every pleasure he'd experienced, and eradicating them, the magic followed its fell course. Bit by bit Loriod's mind was utterly destroyed.

When the red finally faded into a dull purple, Loriod collapsed in the central circle, his body limply lying, mouth agape, eyes vacant, and mind utterly gone. The mage watched as the purple glow disconnected the innermost parts of Loriod's existence in preparation for the final spell to be given its freedom.

Just as it was about to begin, though, he heard the sound of footsteps racing up the stairs. Turning to face the door, the evil wizard saw a familiar face step through. It was that boy-mage who had interrupted him before in the castle. He smiled. "Ah, you are just in time to witness the final end to your problems."

Wessex did not notice the other wizard at first, since his whole world was focused on the person who's name he bellowed as he charged through he door. "Loriod!" The boy’s face was set in anger, but then in switched rapidly to an expression of puzzlement as he saw the drained noble at the center of the unholy ring of power. His blue eyes then moved to the other very familiar figure standing just outside those drawing. "You!"

"Good to see you again. How is the ferret?"

The boy saw once again in his mind’s eye the body of dead Dorson, and felt the rage flow through him. Then he quelled it, as he stared at this dark mage. Anger was just what this foul creature wanted. There was no doubt that he would kill this interloper, but in his own way. "He's dead, thanks to you. And I swear I will dance on your grave."

"I think not." The man glanced over at Loriod. The chalk lines darkened to their deepest unearthly black. The body of Loriod stiffened for a moment, the mouth issued forth a little scream, and then the skeletal form shuddered and crumpled to the ground, a lifeless husk. The man smiled, the shadows behind him opening up as if to suck him through. "I must be on my way now."

Wessex quickly scanned the spells, saw their focus and the terrible magic that was in them. They were connected to the room, the circle in the center, and their caster, the departing mage. Grabbing the linkage, he held on tight, and locked it to his own form. As the man tried to step into the shadows, he found that he was utterly immobilized from the waist down. The figure struggled for a moment, exerting great force, forces beyond The Metamorian’s comprehension, but still he could not move.

"You would think to trap me? Go ahead then, kill me if you dare, child!" the man taunted, turning back to face his foe with a sick grin.

The cherubic looking wizard shook his head. "I'm no fool. I've seen the way you've laid out these lines. If I try to kill you here, both you and I will go where you sent Loriod - the underworld. So you are going to come with me, to a place where things are not quite so much to your advantage."

The evil mage looked at the still nebulous lines, and then licked his lips. "You can't hold me in here forever, you know. I will break free. Today is not my day to die. It could still be yours though." With that statement, the man began hurling his fists about the room. The far walls all creaked and groaned under this stress and the onslaught of his attacks. They came faster and faster, the spell's grip on the man weakening along with the structural integrity of the tower.

Wessex tightened his hold, crushing the man's legs with the force of his spell. He slowly inched the magical force up to the man's chest, bending and breaking ribs as he closed his mystical grip tighter. His foe was generating hairline cracks in the boy’s spell at every second. There was no doubt, he could not hold him forever. But he could hold him long enough to arrange for a future settling of accounts. "I will have only one thing from you then this day, oh mage. I want your name!"

The man look startled, though his attacks continued relentlessly. "My name is it you want? That you shall not have! I will never give it to you!"

So the Metamorian called on hidden reserves and crushed harder, smiling as he heard one of the bones in the mage’s leg snap like a rotten stick. He knew that he could not keep up the new level of intensity for long, but he was quite sure that his enemy would be shaken at the unexpected strength of his attack. Blood poured forth from the evil one, spilling over the black robes, drenching the floor. The man cried out in the sudden agony. He writhed under the constant pressure from the link of not only his own spell and Wessex’s, but from underworld spells that were seething with rage. All except one little curly-Q of the circle surrounding Loriod had now been activated, Wessex noted. But he did have leisure to contemplate the significance of this as the struggle raged on.

"What is your name?" Wessex demanded again in his wildly inappropriate boy’s voice. The struggle was becoming titanic, and debris from the terrible pounding the walls were taking shook about the floor. Any that fell within the black circle was instantly vaporized, going to a place that none ever return from.

"No!" The man breathed out, his face drenched with sweat and beads of blood. His black hair danced about wildly in the chaos. The ceiling began to give way, rafters splitting and falling as the room began to collapse in upon itself. If it did, both wizards would die. Yet neither yielded.

"Your name!" Wessex shouted yet again at the evil wizard, whose power was unlike anything he had ever seen before, excepting Nasoj himself of course. Truly, aside from the caster of the curses and one of his own teachers, this man was perhaps the most powerful mage he'd ever witnessed. Had it not been for the existing magic that Wessex had been able to turn against its own caster, Wessex knew, he would have been finished long ago. Only his familiarity with the methods of Nasoj and his ilk had made his stand possible. These were circumstances not likely to repeat. And realizing this, Wessex reached within to his deepest reserves for one last unexpected surge of force.

"I... Asked... What... Is... Your... Name!" Wessex spat out between gritted teeth in the agony of his effort. And, incredibly, the very skull of his enemy began to distort from the pressure as the dark mage screamed like an animal in agony.

"Za...." the man finally got out. "Za...gro...."

This was no time to let up. Wessex put all he had into his spell, and a blood vessel burst in his foe’s neck, sending the red fluid spurting across Loriod’s still form. At the sight of the blood, Wessex saw real fear in his enemy’s eyes.

"Za...gro...sek!" the man finally spat out. “Zagrosek, damn you!”

"Zagrosek?" But it was too late to question further, for suddenly the field shattered, and the dark man dived into the well of shadows beneath him and was gone. Wessex shook his head clear, fixing every detail of the man in his mind, storing it for examination later. Phil had been right. Loriod was manipulated.

Suddenly, the boy’s attention was drawn back to the circle of power that had been drawn. He really ought to extract Loriod's body for evidence, but at the moment it was unsafe to. Besides, he was far too tired. But things remained to be done, like studying that last little bit of inactivated spell.

As he stared at it, it came to life.

Not waiting another moment, the boy dived through the doorway, and tumbled down the stairs even as a terrible detonation was unleashed above. The entire top floor of the tower exploded outwards with not only the force of the spells that had been planned into in the circle of power, but with the energy of every subsequent spell unleashed by Zagrosek. Wessex threw up shields to deflect the power even as he fell head over heels down the staircase.

Finally he came to rest in a heap at the bottom of the stairwell. The boy knew he was lucky to be alive after such a confrontation, not to mention the detonation that followed. However, when he looked up, all he could see was the staircase leading into the empty air. The tower had been utterly vaporized, the debris having been spread over Loriod's lands.

Slowly rising to his feet, he saw the Duke with his personal guard coming down the corridor that led to the room. That was a good sign, the castle was theirs. "What happened here?" Thomas shouted out, looking up into the empty sky.

"Hell," Wessex replied, his breath ragged. "Hell happened here."

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