The Remnant: Part Eleven
Mr. Fox’s reaction was immediate. He simply turned on his heel and exited the room, following the herald. Jeran, likewise, having glanced at the other two with a slight shrug, left at a quick pace.
Lockwood met Lisha’s troubled gaze. “What should we do?” she said. “I... can feel him. He’s incredibly strong. Too strong.”
Lockwood could feel it too – Mr. Sly’s presence, so magically charged that it pervaded the very air around them, so powerful that it seemed as though one body could not possibly hold all that magic together.
And he was quite certain that not one of the sorcerers here, not even all of them combined, would be able to defeat Sly. For the first time, Lockwood suddenly realized that if he chose to fight he was going to lose and that there was nothing he could do about it.
Except... perhaps there was.
“You go on,” he told her slowly. “There is something I am going to try.”
She looked at him uncertainly, clearly debating whether she should trust him and how much she should ask. In the end, she simply nodded, though she did not move. Lockwood left without another word.
He needed quiet and solitude; he needed to be sure that he would not be disturbed. Most of all, he needed these precious few minutes to decide if there was any reason that he should not do what he was about to do. It seemed dangerous, almost, to borrow power to such an extent as this. And yet what difference could it possibly make? He had already borrowed a good deal with no negative consequences, and it did not follow that an exponentially larger amount would come at an exponentially larger price.
When he entered his room, the faerie was waiting for him. Dusk was beginning to fall. As she sat with her back to him, facing the window, Lockwood could distinguish her ghostly pale green glow against the fading purples of the sunset. He did not think he could recall her ever having used the furniture in such a way, sitting there as though she were simply visiting and as though she were really a part of this physical world at all.
“Mr. Lockwood,” she greeted him quietly, though she did not turn to face him. “I will give it to you.”
“Give what?” he exclaimed, closing the door behind him with a convulsive shudder. “I have not asked.”
She stood now, turning to regard him contemplatively, holding out one slender white hand. “There is no need. Come.”
Her manner was so gentle, her face so beautiful, that he found himself drawn to her without even really meaning to step forward.
“You must understand,” she continued kindly, gesturing for him to take a seat, “that such power does not come freely. We will give you what you seek, but we will require... an additional sacrifice.”
Lockwood began to feel profoundly uneasy; the faerie’s white tunneled eyes seemed to be boring holes in him – for a split second, looking down, he was convinced that they had; but it seemed to be only an illusion, for on closer inspection there was nothing. “What do you want?”
She only smiled. “It is not a question of what we want. It is a question of power. The nature of ours is that we need something to sustain it – something only you can give. A small sacrifice.”
Deep down, he knew that something was wrong. Surely this was not a deal he should consent to. But – he had gone so far already, and it seemed a matter of desperate importance. There could be no harm, at least, in finding out exactly what sacrifice might be required. “What?” he asked rather hoarsely.
Her eyes turned away, and for a moment his heart jumped to his throat as he imagined what she might demand. Then he realized that her gaze had rested on the large white Snowbunny in the chair beside her.
“What about Bunny?” whispered Lockwood.
“It is a spell of protection. Nothing more, nothing less. You must dissolve it and return that power to me; only then can we proceed.”
“Dissolve – but – how?” It seemed an impossible task.
The faerie turned her glowing eyes back to him. “It simulates life. Therefore it will be easy enough to destroy.”
He stared at her in horror, the first true horror he had felt in as long as he could recall.
Once again she smiled her undecipherable smile. “The whole of Meridell is at stake, Mr. Lockwood. Your friend’s lives – your sister’s – your own. I hope you will not stick at the destruction of one spell.”
Wordlessly he reached for Bunny, who cuddled trustingly in his arms. Lockwood ran a shaking hand over the petpet’s ears; and then he moved his fingers to its throat.
The shadows were lengthening on the white marble floor. Outside the vast, elaborate window, the single statue of a sitting Draik looked out across the horizon, its grey surface almost blood-colored in the twilight. Inside stood four figures.
Farthest back was the massive form of King Skarl; flanking him were Lisha, wand in hand, and Jeran, sword at the ready.
Across from them, Mr. Sly sat calmly in one of the wrought-iron, thronelike chairs; his yellow eyes, after a brief glance at the knight’s sword, were fixed on the king. “Those are my terms, Skarl.”
Jeran took a threatening step forward. “That would be King Skarl, to you.”
“I honor no man with the title of king,” the Halloween Kougra replied coldly. “We are all equal. And now, for my terms. You have heard them.”
“But – but give up the throne?” sputtered Skarl, who in his obvious terror was a great deal less intimidating than his Champion. “Preposterous! How can you propose it?”
“Don’t you think I can demolish this entire castle, if I so choose? What do I need to do to convince you of that?” Sly lifted his hand in a sudden motion, and Skarl quickly cried out.
“No! No need! I... I must deliberate. I have to confer with my advisers before deciding anything.”
“You will not confer with your advisers. Your choice will be made here and now. I’ve allowed you your Champion and your most famous Royal Sorcerer; that should be more than enough.” Sly paused, looking at each of the three of them in turn. “I assure you, not one of your sorcerers will be able to come anywhere close to matching me in a magical conflict. There will be no loophole.”
Skarl turned to Lisha, swallowing visibly. “Is that true?” he whispered.
Lisha, closing her eyes for a moment to blink back her despair, nodded.
“Then unless it suits Lord Clifton to come out and play... I believe your decision will be fairly clear-cut,” sneered Mr. Sly.
Lisha and Jeran were simply puzzled by this allusion, but it had a very different effect on the king, who blanched and took a step back. “I suppose,” he stammered, “well, I suppose there is... not much choice, is there, Jeran?”
He looked pleadingly to his favorite, as though the knight could somehow extricate him from all his difficulties, tell him that all of this was nothing more than a bad dream. But it was most definitively real, however surreal it felt, and Jeran had no solutions to offer.
“Very good,” said Sly. He snapped his fingers, and a parchment appeared in his hand. “I knew that self-interest would carry the day. Now, sign here. Make it official – and no blood will be shed.”
Quite suddenly, however, he froze, turning his head to the door with an expression of something very close to total shock.
Lisha nearly cried out in joy. It was Lockwood; Lockwood, resplendent in his lovely grey waistcoat and gold cravat, as handsome as ever; Lockwood, with power radiating from him of a magnitude she had never felt before. Every harsh word, every reproof – how she had misjudged him! Now, when it truly mattered, she could count on him to do what was right. Lord Darigan had spoken truly.
The shadow Gelert was collected as ever as he strode forward into the room. “Perhaps you noticed your wards breaking, Mr. Sly?”
The Kougra whirled to face him. “You! What do you want?”
Lockwood smiled viciously as he began to shift something between his gloved hands.
“I would appeal to your conscience,” Mr. Sly said slowly, “but you have none.”
“A matter of conscience, is it? Vengeance for your father? I am very much afraid... that I was not terribly fond of him.”
“My father was a tyrant and a maniac, and killing him was the most worthwhile thing you ever did.”
Lockwood paused for a moment, clearly surprised; then he tipped his head slightly to one side in a gesture of indifference. “Power for yourself then, I suppose. As it pleases you! I might sympathize, if you had not been so unlucky as to offend me some days ago.”
Mr. Sly was defeated and he knew it. But he stood his ground, as calm as Lockwood himself could be. “All about you, isn’t it? Of course you would assume that I want power for myself. You couldn’t understand, could you? You couldn’t possibly understand why I would give up the throne and dissolve the monarchy.” There was an almost mocking tone to his dry voice.
“I confess,” Lockwood replied, unfazed, “I cannot.”
“One day the people will rise up, and I hope you’re there to see it.” Suddenly he smiled. “Stop me, then, if you want to. I don’t care. My cause will live on; my ideas are indestructible.”
In answer, Lockwood paused for a moment, and then he unleashed a blast of magic at the Kougra.
Mr. Sly made a vain attempt to form a shield, but the weight of Lockwood’s dark, icy power was simply too great. The magical battle lasted only seconds as Sly was enveloped by the shadows and faded away with them, as they slipped back into their places behind the marble pillars and the four remaining people in the room.
“Oh, thank goodness!” Lisha cried out in devout relief.
“I have to say, Lockwood, you really came at the right time,” remarked Jeran, shaken but characteristically cheerful.
Lockwood, however, made no reply. He did not even hear them. He was utterly engrossed by the strange sensation of the power draining out of him, slowly and inexorably, almost painfully. There was nothing he could do to stop it, either. He clutched at it desperately with what magic he had left, but it slipped away like the shadow it resembled.
He did, however, recognize the most unexpected voice of his sister.
“Harlan!” Lockwood felt her hands on his shoulders, and looked up (it seemed he had sunk down into one of the iron chairs, though he did not remember it) to see Cecilia’s worried dark eyes looking into his.
“Ah yes,” he murmured, more to himself than to anyone else. “I broke the wards.” That must have been how she had gotten through; that, and her uncanny ability to know when magic was being performed and where.
“Harlan, are you all right? You look quite unwell. Shall I fetch you something – a glass of water?”
He almost laughed at this solution to his current complaint, although in a way he felt a great deal more like crying. All that power, gone. How could she have given it to him, only to take it away again? Where now was that intoxicating, exhilarating rush?
And then she was in front of him: the faerie herself. Lockwood was not in the least surprised by this; it seemed only natural to him. But something was different – it was clear, from the expressions on their faces, that the others could finally see her too.
It was also clear that they were somehow frozen, unable to move or speak, and that nothing existed in the world but him and the faerie; and, perhaps, the two indistinct, cowled figures on either side of her.
“It is time for us to collect our payment,” she said.
Lockwood stared up at them wildly. One of them, he could see, was a Skeith, fat and hideous. The other figure was tall and appeared rather noble, but he could not make out anything else, for it was oddly faded and transparent.
“My choice, correct?” he gasped.
“Certainly,” she replied softly. “You have already chosen.”
“No!” he cried. “You are entirely mistaken! I have not chosen anything!”
“But you have,” she repeated. Her voice was still perfectly gentle, but there was a latent, deadly force behind her words. A wave of coldness ran through him. “Our terms are simple. They always have been. We will take what is most valuable to you.”
Lockwood could only shake his head numbly, almost too dazed for words. “I never agreed to that.”
“Oh, but you did,” said the Skeith, speaking for the first time. “So greedy – so impatient.”
“You agreed only that you would pay,” said the faerie, “and that the payment would be of your choosing.”
Lockwood retraced that awful conversation in his mind, wishing a thousand times over that he could go back and redo the past, refusing that bargain. But it was no use now. “And what do you want? My soul?”
In answer, her black-rimmed white eyes turned to Cecilia.
“What?” he choked.
“Oh, Mr. Lockwood,” she murmured, brushing her cold white fingers along the side of his face. “You poor misguided fool. It was never about you. Your soul is repulsive, worthless even by our standards. Hers is pure – untainted – beautiful. For that is the beauty we see, and in our eyes you are remarkably ugly.”
“Is there nothing else I can give?” he cried, wrenching himself away from her touch.
The corpulent, hooded Skeith gave a laugh, oddly distant after the painful immediacy of the faerie. “What can you offer us? Your selfishness? Your coldness? Your riches, your handsome face? Worthless, all worthless to us.”
“But there is one thing,” the faerie said slowly, her pale eyes gleaming in the dim light.
“What is that?” he asked numbly, dreading the answer.
“If you love your magic more than your sister, we will take that instead. Your magic – your future – we will take it in exchange.”
And, finally, he understood the awful choice they had placed before him. His sister – or his magic. He saw Cecilia in all her uncomplaining kindness, performing every task that would make his life easier, soothing away every irritation with her understanding, overlooking every past offence and promising him every unconditional affection.
Then he envisioned a life without magic, dull, ordinary, himself reduced to nothing more than a wealthy gentleman. He endeavored to imagine the emptiness in his heart where his sorcery now held such an indispensable place, solid and comforting, his constant companion.
The decision was his alone.
To be continued...