The Curse: Part Nine
A sudden knock on the door broke the tension. Darigan had the presence of mind to turn himself invisible, and Lockwood answered it.
“A call for you, Mr. Lockwood,” explained the Kau maid with a curtsy. “Miss Johnson wants to see you. She says it’s urgent, sir – seemed very upset.”
“I - I see,” Lockwood replied stupidly, leaning against the doorframe. “In that case I suppose I must see her, mustn’t I?”
“That’s very kind of you, Mr. Lockwood. Would you like to come down to the parlor?”
“Certainly,” he agreed. Hoping that Darigan would understand, he closed the door behind him and followed the maid downstairs.
The day was nearing an end and the skies were far from clear; therefore the maid carried a glowing candle in front of her, casting sinister, enigmatic shadows on every surface. For a moment Lockwood wondered whether they were not merely the products of his distorted perception, but they did not shift about or seem particularly unnatural; and so he concluded that they were not.
The instant he saw Celeste he realized that something was indeed urgently the matter. She was breathless and exuded a sort of restrained terror, which burst forth the instant the maid had departed.
“Oh, Mr. Lockwood!” she cried, wringing her hands in a most appealingly pathetic manner. “I hardly – I hardly even know where to begin, but even though you did your best to protect me I have been seeing the strangest things! Oh! I can’t even think how to tell you –”
“Perhaps you might begin,” suggested Lockwood with a sinking feeling, “by describing what exactly it is that you have seen?”
The pretty green Cybunny perched herself on a sofa and made a visible effort to calm her nerves. “Out there,” she whispered. “On the street. They were all standing there and watching me and it was dark, and – I don’t know – it was so strange, I don’t know how to describe it!”
“I believe I may have some conception of what you mean,” Lockwood told her with a sort of rueful irony. “However, perhaps if you were to take a moment’s reflection you might find yourself more capable...”
She paused, twisting a piece of her dress rather nervously. “Have you ever played chess, Mr. Lockwood?”
“Once or twice, I suppose. I assume you have a particular reason for asking?”
“Yes, because it was – it was a little like a chessboard,” Celeste explained faintly. “These giant dark shapes everywhere, and some of them were white and then some were black, and... Oh!” she cried in frustration. “It doesn’t make sense when I talk about it, but you must understand that it’s what I saw. It was everywhere around me, on the street.”
Lockwood had never had any patience for chess, but it so happened that he had often noted how aesthetically pleasing the game was; the checkered board and oddly carved pieces held a particular fascination for him. He supposed therefore that it was only natural – the entire curse had, after all, come out of his own imagination.
“I believe you,” he said heavily, at last. Celeste breathed a sigh of relief; it was clear that she had not entirely expected him to accept her words. “I would be thoroughly sorry to have you think that I did not. It is simply a question of whether you are likely to come to any harm.”
“Oh, I – well.”
Lockwood reflected for a moment. “Did anybody else see what you saw?”
“Only Thomas,” she said softly. “Nobody else seemed to notice it at all.”
Lockwood could have sworn that he felt his heart skip a beat as a terrible realization hit him. The Snowbunny – he had looked it over, of course, and he had not found anything. But he had been in such a peculiar, disjointed state of mind that he might easily have missed something. And in that same peculiar, disjointed state of mind he had cast wards, of all things the most likely to go wrong!
“I have been the greatest, most utter fool,” he said.
Celeste appeared quite shocked by this revelation. “But of course you haven’t, Mr. Lockwood! What in Neopia do you mean?”
“It is barely conceivable,” he continued slowly. “I can hardly explain it myself, but it is the truth.... Miss Johnson, where did you leave your brother?”
“He’s – he’s in the kitchen, the servants were very kind to him and he wanted to watch them...”
“Does he have –” Lockwood searched his memory for a name but found none; “does he have the Snowbunny with him?”
“Yes,” she replied rather timidly. “I hope you don’t mind. I was worried that it might not be clean to have in the kitchen, but they didn’t seem to bother about it.”
“Oh, I assure you that that is the least of my worries at the moment. Miss Johnson, would you possibly do me a rather large favor and stay here for the next half hour or so?”
“Why – if it helps you! I can hardly think of anything easier.”
“Neither can I,” he agreed. “You are certain you understand, then? Stay here, in this room, until I return; and if Thomas should happen to venture into your field of vision you must order him to stay as well.”
“Why, if you say so, Mr. Lockwood.”
“Excellent,” he replied, and departed.
Tom was indeed to be found in the kitchen, marveling over the stew that the cook was preparing; and the Snowbunny was with him, perched obediently on the counter with a very benign look about it.
“Hello, Mr. Lockwood,” Tom greeted him in joyful surprise.
“Good evening. Unfortunately I am rather pressed for time, but if you can possibly spare him I would like to borrow your friend here.” He put a hand under the Snowbunny’s stomach and lifted it with an effort, wondering how in the world the tiny Ogrin managed to carry it around with him.
“What do you want Bunny for?” Tom asked ingenuously, stealing a turnip from under the cook’s nose and munching on it.
“I want to have a little chat with him. In the meantime, don’t go wandering off anywhere.”
Tom’s attention had already been recaptured by the stew, but the cook, a large red Skeith, gave Lockwood a wink and a nod. He supposed it would have to do.
As he was on his way back to his room, Lockwood was most surprised to be hailed by a worn-looking brown Scorchio in the hall. For a moment he only blinked: he had forgotten Lord Ashford quite completely.
“Is there any way in which I can help you?” Lockwood inquired rather unpleasantly.
“Er, yes, as a matter of fact. I’m sorry to trouble you with this, Mr. Lockwood, but I hardly knew who else to turn to. I – is there some chance we could discuss this in private?”
He stared briefly, presumably noticing for the first time that Lockwood was carrying a Snowbunny under his arm, but he seemed willing to overlook such peculiarities for the moment.
“If you will excuse me, Lord Ashford, I am really excessively occupied at the moment. I would, however, be enchanted to speak with you at some later date –”
“I beg you to spare me just a moment, Mr. Lockwood – I believe we may both be in danger!”
Lockwood halted and turned slowly around, feeling a rather familiar sinking sensation. “Danger?”
“Yes, of the gravest sort – magical danger! Not five minutes ago I was attacked by my curtains, which attempted to smother me until I was forced to cut them to shreds! There is no doubt about it, Mr. Lockwood. Somebody is trying to attack us.”
Ashford, Celeste and Tom: there was something that connected them all, and Lockwood had realized it at last. Experimentally, he removed the wards on Ashford. “See if that helps,” he suggested. “And of course you must let me know if anything else happens.”
“But what did you do?” called a bewildered Ashford. He was forced to surrender by the simple fact that Lockwood was no longer within earshot.
Having finally reached his room, Lockwood deposited Bunny on a cushion with no very great ceremony and searched for Darigan, whom he located almost immediately in the corner of the room.
Somehow the situation seemed calmer and less desperate with Darigan’s solid, unassuming presence in the foreground. “What do you intend to do?” he asked gently.
“I have not the slightest idea,” Lockwood replied rather breathlessly, removing his coat and examining the Snowbunny carefully for any signs of trouble.
“Unless I am very much mistaken, there is nothing wrong with the petpet,” remarked Darigan. “Your wards, on the other hand, appear to be doing something rather odd. I assume that was what you were called down about?”
“How singularly perceptive of you,” muttered Lockwood, satisfying himself that there was indeed nothing wrong with Bunny.
“Well, I will give you any help I can. But from all that I know, there is very little that I can do to your curse without harming you.” Darigan smiled wryly. “I do not envy your position, Mr. Lockwood.”
“We are in complete agreement, then...” He sighed and sat down. “As a matter of fact I have decided what I intend to do. It is not an idea that I relish, but I can see no other way.”
“You are going to reabsorb the curse, then.”
“Say rather that I am going to try,” he replied sardonically.
Darigan was silent for a moment. “It’s a brave thing you are doing, Mr. Lockwood.”
“I would be more comforted to know that it was an intelligent one.”
“Which is quite sensible of you, all told.” A faint touch of amusement flickered in his face. “I have great faith in your capabilities. Do you have any idea where you will begin?”
“Yes,” said Lockwood rather unwillingly. “I suppose so.”
“I will not question your intuition – after all, the situation is, as far as I know, quite unprecedented. Keep in mind however that you cannot let yourself be overwhelmed by your curse, and you should have no reason to. You have more magic still at your command than you put into the making of the artifact.”
“I am excessively reassured, to be certain, but it is generally my experience that what should happen almost never does.”
Lockwood had elected not to tell Darigan what he was really thinking; and that was, that a magical artifact could live on quite happily following the death of its maker.
And yet he had another concern, more pressing still, and this he could not help but voice. “If I should manage to take all of that magic back,” he asked softly, “will it – change –”
He could not find the words to finish, but Darigan understood. “That is what it will try to convince you of. I give you my word that I have considered the subject myself, and I am nearly certain that reabsorbing the curse will not alter your personality. Any differences in character from the creation of the artifact until now,” he added with a wry smile, “may safely be attributed to something called character development – perhaps even moral progression.”
“Nearly certain,” echoed Lockwood.
To be continued...