by C. D. Lee
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"A contrite heart, a humble thought,
Are mine accepted sacrifice."
- Sir Walter Scott
(Click on image for larger version)
"No!" My counterpart cried out suddenly, as in the next instant he seemed to be engaged in a pantomime struggle against some invisible attacker. After just a few seconds of wild display he was dragged down to the floor, as if overwhelmed by a much-stronger foe, or by the sheer weight of numbers.
I knew only too well what Grimoire must be experiencing -- the jury of his judgement -- the spirit of every man whose body and life he had stolen since the year 451 A.D. I knew that these vengeful wraiths had been following him from life to life, loathing him, waiting impotently on the astral plane while hoping for a chance of revenge. This Lukasz was undergoing what I had undergone myself two Christmases ago, alone and friendless in a cold, dark cavern of the Moon.
The seemingly ineffective spell I had thrown at D'Epee had released these denizens of the netherworld. Trying to achieve by magic what the Entity had achieved by technology had been a long shot -- but now I saw that my desperate spell had clicked.
Lukasz lurched about on the stone floor as if kicked and buffeted by heavily-shod feet and mailed fists -- feet and fists just like those I had felt once myself. "It wasn't my fault!" I heard him plead. "I was a soldier! You were acceptable casualties!"
Acceptable casualties? What a conceit! Had I once, like my counterpart, dismissed the lives I destroyed with that same paltry phrase of jargon? What, exactly, had Archimage's war been about anyway? What had its thousands of "acceptable casualties" been sacrificed for? I still didn't know.
Remembering my suffering on the Moon, I felt every blow registering upon Lukasz's battered body; I would have turned away, except that my brother had the right to have his hour of reckoning witnessed. Not even a miscreant like Grimoire should have to die alone.
Suddenly D'Epee's pendant flew free, only to hover in mid-air -- held up, I knew, by ghostly hands. I watched fascinated as a sliver of energy streaked from it to slash the man's breast, suffusing his white shirt with a streak of free-flowing blood. "Agghh!" Lukasz cried and clutched at his wound.
"Kill me if you can," the sorcerer wailed in bitter challenge, "but I'll die with my curse on all your heads --!"
The pendant flared repeatedly. Time hung suspended while I stared at the scene of torture that seemed to go on forever; the warrior who had clung to life for fifteen hundred years simply refused to die easily.
Though growing nauseous from the goriness of the sight and the passion it evoked in me, I still couldn't avert my eyes. If I managed to stomach it, it was only because, down deep, I knew I was not watching a sordid torture-death but a cleansing ritual -- the symbolic destruction of the life I had once led and later repudiated. Judgment was being passed, harsh judgment, yet I accepted it not so much as a judgment on Grimoire as upon me. This other Lukasz was my scapegoat, the victim who took all my sins upon himself and paid the price that I should have paid. But could one man's debts be expunged by the blood of another? The answer came when I realized that I felt no emotional purge, no release, no purification whatsoever. . . .
I remembered my own ordeal and the story of Lot sprang to mind; the patriarch had asked God to spare an evil city if it should hold merely ten virtuous men. Grimoire did not need virtuous men, but forgiving victims. My life had been returned to me not because I had found ten relenting accusers, but because I had found just one -- Eden Blake.
One woman's pardoning grace had been pitted against the thunderous rancor of Mongols, Crusaders, Hussars, Samurai, and warriors of every stripe -- and, miraculously, her lonely-but-determined voice had sufficed to sway the entire mob of vengeful phantoms.
How ironic, then, that today Eden Blake could give, would give, no succor; I was an Eden Blake who believed that the ghosts were the agents of justice and to grant mercy to an arch sinner would have been the greatest of blasphemies.
These are strange thoughts, of course, but I remember thinking them. What had driven me to such a sweeping judgement? Why should one who had been forgiven not forgive in turn? Surely I knew Lukasz much better than Eden had known me, but this knowledge kindled no warm flame in my breast. If Eden could find it in her heart to grant me forgiveness, why did I refuse to succor one in whose shoes I had walked myself?
I think I will be asking myself that question until the day I die. . . .
When at long last he lay there lifeless -- a bloody, seared, and mangled wreck, I strode slowly forward to stand over his butchered corpse. The smell of burned flesh and scorched blood reminded me of a thousand battlefields -- of Crecy, of Ypres, of Mohacs. Grimoire's mutilated face was the worst -- I could no longer recognize him for the man I'd known.
But then again, I hadn't recognized much of myself in D'Epee; and that little had made my blood run cold. I found myself unable to shake off this man's death as easily has I had shaken off many another. I had a lot of thinking to do.
They had come from the same roots, Grimoire and Mantra, but there could not be two more dissimilar people. Or was such an idea merely the denial of an unpleasant truth? Were we two actually brothers under the skin? Given the same rotten cards to play, how much better might I have fared? I knew the answer, for we were the same man. The same man, yes, but --
Yin and Yang -- they were opposites, but yet existed in harmony, and out of harmony came unity. Yin and Yang; Mantra and Grimoire.
Seeing myself corrupted and destroyed in the guise of Grimoire should have made me wiser, yet I divined no fresh answers, drew no needed insights. I was sensible of nothing except a jumble of harsh impressions: anger, self-loathing, vengeance, and retribution. I shook my head, wondering whether any of it mattered. Lukasz had been a decent man at one time, hadn't he? But had he been an angel, who would have known it? Who had appreciated the least of his sacrifices and his sorrows before he became Grimoire? Now that Lukasz lay dead who on earth would mourn for him -- not as a hero or a villain, not as an object from dream or nightmare, but as a human being?
Or mourn for me?
I had once served Archimage believing that I was defending the world, but my last male body, already long under the sod, was remembered not as a warrior called Lukasz but an insurance salesman named "Carl." He had had a past, a family, and a widow to weep for him; but no one wept for Lukasz -- the man who had actually died that day. Who knew that Lukasz had ever lived? Who?!
And what about when this life is laid to rest? There shall be no one to speak the name "Lukasz" at my grave side. The people will have gathered instead to mourn a Canoga Park friend and neighbor, a lady with no great claim to fame, one who had performed no mighty deeds, a working mother named Eden Blake. The sole legacy of the warrior known as Lukasz will one day be the everyday works and deeds of a Californian housewife. A strange fate.
A strange fate, but perhaps not a regrettable one. Who could have understood Lukasz and the unbelievable life he led, the incomprehensible cause he followed? On the other hand, if I complete Eden's life honorably -- as I have promised to do -- many of those works and deeds which she will be remembered for will in reality have been mine. And therefore I shall have my legacy -- if ever I deserve one.
I suddenly realized one thing more -- that Archimage had never deserved half my scorn. What a saint the wizard must have been, to have wielded his immense power for so long and still have managed to do so little harm, beyond "acceptable casualties," of course. I owed my insight to Grimoire, the man who had robbed me of my assumption of virtue, who had shown me the ugly face my own weakness. How had Archimage resisted the temptations which might have turned him into a Grimoire, Thanasi, or even a Boneyard?
Knowing that my former master was probably a better man than I after all, should now I forgive him? Was I capable of such forgiveness? I hope that I might be. I have Eden's compassionate example to live by.
Before leaving, I decided to levitate the ruined bodies of Lukasz, his knights, and the old man into the lime pit -- after recharging it with fresh calcium oxide and water from the cellar tap. For some reason I wanted Lukasz to vanish completely and untrumpeted, along with both his minions and his victims. Beyond this, I hoped that the very memory of his good and evil would be dissolved with him. Lukasz Theodorickson should never have lived beyond 451 A.D. -- and as far as most people of this world knew, he hadn't.
The dawn of Monday the 20th found me atop yet another tall building, this time clutching Strauss' talisman in my tense fist. This was it, my final chance; if the prized artifact failed me I'd be doomed to perpetual exile. And what then? This would not be a bad world to live in, I supposed, and I could try to make up for the injury that Grimoire had wrought as Mantra. Even so, this couldn't help but be a lonely place for me. I had changed profoundly over the last two years; I no longer wanted to be a freebooter continually starting over, fabricating new identities as needed. Imperceptibly, even against my will, I had put down deep roots, roots which I had no desire to break -- and this was not the soil that nourished my roots.
Strauss, grateful to have gotten out from under Grimoire's thumb, was obliging enough about the trinket -- or he became so once I'd offered him D'Epee's pendant and a sack of loot from his cellar cabinet in trade. Without me around to keep Strauss honest, I expected that his overreaching ambition would soon get him killed. Too bad, but I wasn't anybody's nanny -- at least not in this dimension. Grimoire had had his chance and had blown it; now Strauss was getting his. For that matter, I was getting mine -- but from here on in I'd be milking my opportunities for all they were worth.
After projecting my thoughts and intuition into the cosmos for several minutes, I invoked my mantra:
"Change, Growth, Power!"
"Change, Growth, Power!"
While chanting those three simple words it occurred to me that this world's alternate Eden Blake had been absent from my mind for several hours. Stranger still, I felt no urge to gaze upon her one last time before blinking out of her universe forever. She was a fine person, to be sure, but she was not my Eden. What I had shared with Eden Blake back home had been unique, and that Eden didn't need to be sought for in living flesh because she had already become a part of me. Whenever I missed her, and I expected to miss her often, I had only to go to the closest mirror to behold her loving features, her encouraging smile, her forgiving eyes. In fact, I cannot escape from her reality even if I tried.
That is my curse.
And also my blessing.
If I ever learn to heal I hope to return to this world someday and restore that which misfortune has deprived its Eden Blake. Or would such an act of seeming charity be unwise? As terrible as blindness must be for her, some good seems to have come out of it -- and the road to hell is frequently paved with good intentions, or so men much wiser than me have often said.
But, of course, there hadn't been any good intentions along Grimoire's road to hell! Many strange stones comprise that road which I think most people walk.
Focus, Lukasz, focus!
As I concentrated, I began to rediscover the lost threads which led back to my old life. The likeness of my -- of Eden's -- mother slowly took form before me -- her eyes turning my way with weary exasperation, yet they were softened by the compassion which is my due simply because I am her daughter.
I set Barbara Freeman's thought-picture aside and summoned up the image of Lila, Eden's gal pal. Sometimes I'm amazed that the dear kid doesn't have a clue that I'm not the same person whom she's known since girls' summer camp. If Lila isn't dumb -- and I know she isn't -- it has to be a world-class miracle of self-deception. I believe in magic because I have to, but dare I believe in miracles?
And soon I found myself thinking about Gus, the callous little pipsqueak with a heart so easily broken that he'd already started pretending not to have one by the age of eight. What can a parent do with such a kid? He needs a father, but I can't go that route. Not yet, anyway. Probably never. On the other hand, who in the world was better prepared than me to be both father and mother to a small boy?
But to do right by him I had to get my act together. I can't even pretend to have given him all the time I should have. Now, glancing down at the talisman in my fist, I keenly comprehended how much depended on powers outside my control to grant me the second chance that I so much needed.
And finally, last but never least, I remembered Evie. More than anyone else, Evie has made my house -- at first only a place of desperate refuge -- a home, the first I've known since I was a mere boy myself. We shared a strange fate, my daughter and I, and something inexpressibly precious -- bereavement for one forever lost to the both of us. I think the shared sadness shall help to hold us together through long years and many troubles.
But who shall know how many years he is granted?
In that strange twilight between hope and despair, of success and failure, of companionship and isolation, one supreme truth finally overrode all the others: I still loved Eden Blake with a love that transcended both life and death. And because I loved her, I also love her children. This life which she bequeathed me in an act of love had to be applied to her children's good as well as to my own, because she and I and the children are one.
"Change, Growth, Power!"
At last, fully-charged and keenly-focused, I tapped my heels together chanting: "There's no place like home; there's no place like home. . . ."
My otherworldly money passed muster with the Canoga Park cab driver, so I reached the Blake residence on Leadwell Street without embarrassment. If all went well I would have just enough time to shower, change, serve Captain Crunch, send the kids to the bus, and then drive to Aladdin before 9:00 a.m.
Such is the life of a working mother.
How in the hell did I get myself into this?
All along the ride from the edge of town I'd been looking for anomalies -- for the dreaded proof that I was still a prisoner of that other dimension or, even worse, of some third state of reality, one which I knew nothing of at all. Everything appeared normal, however, so I put my shoulders back and trooped to the front door, prepared for what might be the best of my homecomings or the very worst. Even though I still possessed my keys, I decided to play it safe and ring the bell. A moment later someone behind the door peered through the peephole and exclaimed:
It was Mom's voice! I mentally reviewed my alibi, intending to tell her that Aladdin had unexpectedly sent a car around late Friday night to whisk me off to an incredible-high-security incommunicado assignment which, of course, I wasn't allowed to talk about. Actually, I have often used work as an excuse for my absences, since the office never confirms or denies employee inquiries addressed to it from the outside -- not even from worried parents or children. That's government serving the people. Actually, though, I'm of the opinion that there must be a lot of smug liars working for Aladdin who abuse the privilege even more than I do.
Barbara Freeman had opened the door and was now staring at me with evident relief.
"Well," she said sharply, banishing an incipient smile from her handsome-if-aging features, "it's good to see that you're not laying dead in some landfill -- but I'd still like to box your ears, young lady! Where in hell have you been?"
"That's as good a description as any," I replied with a weak grin. "I'm glad to be home, too."
Usually Mom isn't one to leave deep waters unplumbed, but this time she must have seen some lingering trace of hellish pain in my glance, or of soul-killing misery in the set of my lips, because her stern cast suddenly softened. Accepting what seemed to be an unspoken invitation, I reached out and drew her against me. She returned the hug with interest, as if gratefully rediscovering the warmer and more demonstrative daughter that once had been hers. For myself, I couldn't help but be reminded of holding my own mother this same way so long, long ago.
I didn't let go until after Barbara Freeman did, and then only with regret. After all, who has a soul so dead that he can't use a cuddle and a kiss now and then. . . ?
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