The Curse: Part Ten
A dark, cold wind blew over the empty street, whipping Lockwood’s coat against him and carrying away all other sounds in its dismal howl. It occurred to him to wonder how he had gotten here, and why he had ventured out onto the road, but upon the whole it did not seem to matter very much anymore. A heavy book weighed down his arms; he wondered about that, too, having the vague idea that it had not always been a book.
“Quite an excessively desolate day, wouldn’t you agree?” Lockwood remarked to a looming icy pawn.
As the chess piece appeared disinclined to reply, Lockwood continued his stroll down the road. He saw knights, and bishops, and castles, shining like dazzling lampposts on either side of him, lighting his way.
At the end of the road stood an icy Queen and King, flanking a fantastic flight of shimmering black and white stairs that led into the sky. The King was a noble, majestic Lupe carved in black ice, but it was the Queen who caught his notice: a breathtaking Kougress of pure, glittering white.
Both King and Queen bent their heads to look at him, and he observed that their eyes were lifeless, blood-red jewels.
Lockwood removed his hat and bowed politely to both of them; they nodded in silent acquiescence, as though they approved. Then with a chuckle – because they were, after all, simply figments of his imagination – he continued up the icy staircase. He did not think to wonder about the fact that the steps were not at all slippery, nor did he regard it as odd when a pack of cards fluttered down from he sky in front of him.
He bent to pick one up. It was a Jack of Spades, all in black and white and red, flawlessly beautiful in design. Shifting the heavy book he was carrying to his other hand, Lockwood dropped the card off the edge of the stairs and watch it flutter down into absolute nothingness. If there was a ground, somewhere far below, it was many miles down.
He noticed the Queen of Diamonds lying face-up in front of him and reached for it. “My favorite card,” he murmured. “What do you know.”
This Queen was a lovely, icy faerie whose glittering gaze seemed to pierce his very soul. For a moment he wondered if she was really in the card, or if she might somehow leap off of it and become solid before him; but she did not, therefore he continued up the endless stairs.
Except that there was an end, and quite suddenly, without warning, he reached it.
The view from here, from the very top, was so fascinating and so incredible that it was almost heartbreaking. Far below a city was stretched out, a pop-up city of black and white, with bright splashes of red here and there and carved statues of ice lining the streets. The stairs he had come up zigzagged meaninglessly down forever. The laws of gravity and structure did not seem to hold much weight; it was almost, thought Lockwood, like living in an optical illusion.
Then, because it seemed as though there was not much else to do, he opened the book and began reading the first page.
Are you going to take me back? read the first line.
Everything came rushing back to him in an instant; he remembered why he was here and what he was going to do – what he had been going to do, at least. He tore his eyes from the book, but it made no difference at all. The words simply jumped off the page and slipped straight into his thoughts.
You are more than welcome to, if you wish.
He remembered when he had first created the book. In the moments before the casting he had been entirely resolved against helping Jeran. It was only afterward that he had begun to feel the stirrings of his conscience, and it was only afterward that he had agreed to help. It was only afterward that he had learned to appreciate his sister; been grateful to Darigan; set out to protect Celeste and Tom from the curse that was really just part of himself.
There was something indescribably sad about the idea that his personality, now, was not really real, and never had been. All the better side of his nature could only exist without the malevolence he had gotten rid of. Saddest of all was the fact that, if reabsorbing the curse did change him in a fundamental way, his cold, uncaring self would never regret it.
He plucked a blood-red rose from the rose bush that had appeared next to him – or had it always been there? – and twirled it between his hands, gazing down on his magnificent kingdom.
You see, I can live – without or within you. I will simply and quite naturally become part of you, as I always was before.
“I know,” he told it. “But where, I wonder, will you do more harm?”
The book was silent, and he wondered if it cared at all.
He knew which choice would be more painful to him, right now. Then he laughed, an oddly unnatural sound in the total silence. “For once in a way, I do not think I will let my selfishness get the better of me.”
Still the book did not reply. Lockwood had decided, however, what he was going to do. As a person, even a rather unpleasant one, he was not dangerous – not really. The magical artifact had the potential to harm others. And somewhere in the back of his mind remained the glimmering hope that Darigan had been right and that reabsorbing the curse would alter nothing at all.
Darigan lied to you.
“I encourage you to do your worst,” Lockwood said with a touch of his own malice. “You see, I already know exactly what you are going to say.”
You would like to think that, wouldn’t you? Perhaps you are deluding yourself. You prefer to believe that I am lying, but consider the possibility that I am telling the truth.
“I imagine,” he replied with amusement, “that you tell the truth approximately as often as I do; in which case I may safely assume that you are lying.”
He took a deep breath, gathered all the magic he possessed, and reabsorbed the curse.
“Reality,” Lockwood remarked to Darigan, “is a funny thing, you know.”
“Oh yes,” agreed Darigan with his wry smile.
For the first time Lockwood noticed what Lord Ashford’s house looked like. It was quite pleasant and airy, composed mainly of light, woody colors and washed-out greens. The windows were large and the view outside was overwhelmingly pleasant, though the sight of an angry farmer who had gotten his hoe stuck in the mud rather spoiled the serene, picturesque country landscape.
“I suppose you will be glad to get back to Meridell Castle,” suggested Darigan in a manner that was almost guarded.
Lockwood caught his meaning and looked up from his packing to give his own particular brand of ironic grin. “Oh, excessively. I assure you that I have no intention of wreaking havoc or shocking Lisha with my heartlessness.”
“Ah – well, that is something of a relief. So you haven’t –”
“Not at all. You were entirely correct.” He paused for a moment. “It would be rather useless to thank you, I’m afraid. I have already done that several times with no discernible purpose. I am sure you know – how grateful I am.”
“Someday I think I will tell you the story of Sally. Until then suffice it to say that I can imagine how you feel, particularly as I have done much less for you than a little girl once did for me.”
“She must have been quite an extraordinary little girl,” observed Lockwood.
“Yes, I rather think so...”
The thought reminded Lockwood of Tom and Celeste. He had not been able to resist one last piece of magic: a mysterious gift of neopoints which Celeste had somehow not thought to wonder about. It was more than enough to finance her removal to a nearby town in more comfortable and independent lodgings. One unanticipated side effect had been the return of Bunny, as it appeared their new landlady was not terribly fond of petpets.
At the moment Bunny was busy depositing his fur upon one of Lockwood’s expensive black suits. “Do you know of any way to unconjure something?” Lockwood asked irritably.
Darigan blinked. “Well – it can really be quite complicated... Perhaps you might consider giving the Snowbunny to somebody else?”
“As a matter of fact, I already have. Twice. He seems to have quite a steadfast affinity for me.”
Darigan turned to the window to hide his smile. “I believe Lisha likes petpets.”
“Is that so...” A thought struck Lockwood. “Well, it is altogether possible that I should keep it in any case, as a memento of my only successful piece of magic to date.”
Lisha, upon Lockwood’s arrival, alarmed him most thoroughly by throwing herself upon him and bursting into tears.
“May I... ah... inquire as to the nature of your complaint?” he asked in bewilderment.
“I’m so sorry,” she sobbed into his elegant grey waistcoat. “I’m sorry, Lockwood – I made you go and you could have been killed and it’s all my fault –”
He guided her tentatively to a chair and placed her there with a sigh; evidently Darigan had written to her about the events of the past few days and had explained everything, a process which he had intended to tackle over the course of several weeks. He decided that the most prudent thing to do was simply wait in sympathetic silence until she had finished. When it seemed that she had, he asked her what he had missed in his absence.
“Well,” she said, blowing her nose, “Skarl wants me to take on some student from Brightvale, although I did remind him that you’re still alive.”
“That could be quite amusing, I suppose,” said Lockwood doubtfully.
“Oh – dear me, you look the same as ever. Not at all worn or sickly, and I suppose it would kill you not to be fifty times as well-dressed as the rest of us. And still wearing a cravat! Honestly, do you have any feelings at all?”
“What in the world do you mean?”
“Haven’t you been at all put off cravats?” she persisted disbelievingly.
“Not in the least,” he replied in surprise. “Why should I be?”