a Strange Paradise vignette by Curt Ladnier
For the first time in an eternity, Jean Paul Desmond was a happy man. Safely ensconced in a comfortable bed with Emily, weaving languidly between consciousness and sleep after the first day of their life together as man and wife, Jean Paul was truly content. His vast riches had never brought him that, nor had his much envied aristocratic heritage. His noble birthright had spawned a waking nightmare, corrupting his first love, transforming her from a goddess to an abomination. His Mark of Death pronounced sentence on all those around him. But that was all over now, Jean Paul mused as he drew closer to the sleeping form of his new bride.
Emily was everything that Erica wasn't. Where Erica was flamboyant and vivacious, Emily was bookish and subdued. Erica loved a life of parties, status and constant public attention. Emily wanted nothing more than to settle down quietly with her husband, to begin their new life together. And that suited Jean Paul perfectly. After their honeymoon, he would make arrangements for his subordinates to attend to the various family businesses, while he and Emily made their own home and tended to the business of making a family. The only curse he had to fear now was that of growing old and fat with the passing years. Jean Paul smiled beatifically in his half-sleep at the thought.
The smell of smoke was his first clue that something was wrong. His eyes snapped open, adrenaline instantly awakening him at the thought of a fire. Blinking several times, he looked 'round the room for the source of the disturbing scent, but saw no evidence of smoke or flames. His concern had no chance to subside however, as a new shock gripped Jean Paul's soul. He saw that he was not in his honeymoon suite at all. He was gazing over the ruins of his once-luxurious bedroom on Maljardin!
For some moments he sat, awestruck, in the smoke damaged wreckage that had once been his bed. It wasn't possible! A year earlier, Jean Paul set his own centuries-old home ablaze in order to rid himself of the murderous thing which was masquerading as his beloved Erica, and to purge the spirit of his evil ancestor, Jacques Eloi des Mondes, who seemed to have permeated every nook and cranny of the great chateau. That had been last year, and a lifetime ago. He hadn't as much as seen Maljardin since that day. How could he suddenly be looking over the still-smoldering aftermath of that tragic night?
"Emily!" he cried abruptly, rousing himself from his stupor of confusion. "What ..." But a shock even more profound than he had yet experienced caused him to cut his question in mid utterance, and struggle only half successfully to stifle back a scream. Drawing aside the bedclothes in search of comfort in this moment of disturbing unreality, Jean Paul did not find the sleeping form of the woman who had so lovingly exchanged vows with him before God and witnesses less than twenty-four hours earlier. Rather, in bed at his side lay a womanís badly charred and blackened corpse!
She had probably been beautiful once - before the flames had ravaged her soft, defenseless body. Now she was nothing but a mass of red blisters and blackened flesh, partially covered by the remains of an evening dress, the tatters of which had fused to her form in places. The smell, mingling with the scents of ash and burnt wood, was indescribable.
Unabashed terror lifted Jean Paul with a wild urge to fling himself blindly from the bed. In his haste to flee, he became entangled in the remnants of the ruined silk sheets and landed in a heap only a few feet away. Dazed, he sat there for a long time. The situation was incredible, utterly insane. And yet, here he was. Slowly, bit by bit, his traumatized brain began to allow him to process his impossible surroundings. The fear was still there, but Jean Paul managed to repress the panic. Losing control would certainly do him no good, and whether the estate was in ashes or not, he was still the master of Maljardin.
A sudden impulse caused him to rise and return to the grotesque carcass on the bed, something he was almost certain he had glimpsed at the moment of his panic. Yes, even a cursory glance confirmed it. There, resting delicately around the dead woman's throat - actually seared into the flesh - was a locket. Erica's locket, which he had given her during happier days. A single tear crept down Jean Paul's cheek, despair battling with revulsion within his brain, as he realized that he had been lying next to the immolated remains of his dead first wife.
Turning abruptly, he strode for the door. He had to leave this room before he lost his reason completely. The rest of the chateau was in the same state as the bedroom, ravaged by the inferno through which Jean Paul had meant to cleanse his home, to cleanse his soul. The main staircase was in dangerous condition, but navigable with extreme caution. Some little effort brought Jean Paul to the center of the great hall, barely recognizable now as the site where the blaze had started.
He stood amid the ashes and smoldering remnants of familiar furniture, almost unable to take it all in. This room held ghosts for Jean Paul; so many people who had walked and talked here with him were now dead. Dead because, in the depths of grief, he had defied God. Alison, Dan, Vangie, and all the others - he had opened the deadly Pandora's Box which took their lives. Now his guests - his friends - whose single fervent wish had been to leave the island were permanent inhabitants of Maljardin.
Had it really been only a year since the conflagration - since Jean Paul had lost consciousness on the steps before the chateau, to awaken days later and thousands of miles away? He had lived a lifetime since that night, returning to the home of his youth, making long-overdue connections with family members he had not seen in years and, of course, meeting Emily. Facing horrors, too. Jean Paul shuddered slightly at their recollection. The destruction of Maljardin had not purged the taint from his family's blood. Still, he had faced those demons too, and triumphed. How, then, was he here? And why?
"Desmondton. Philip. The Mark of Death. Helena. The Key of Life. Emily." he mused vacantly. "Can it all have been some wildly vivid dream?"
Scarcely had the words escaped his lips when a peal of raucous, mocking laughter assaulted Jean Paulís ears.
"A dream? Oh, no, Jean Paul Desmond!" a sickeningly familiar voice thundered all around him, seemingly from everywhere at once. "And yet, these events do not exist."
"You!" the exclamation escaped Jean Paul in a tight involuntary hiss which caused him momentary pain. Whirling to face the wall leading to the foyer, he beheld a sight which his reason told him couldn't possibly exist. There, untouched by smoke or flame, unscathed by any devastation, hung a wood-framed canvas. Its subject, executed in dark heavy oils, was a handsome if sinister man in cavalier dress whose appearance was strikingly similar to Jean Paul himself. The portrait of Jacques Eloi des Mondes! The contemptuous laughter continued to echo throughout the house.
"I burned you," Jean Paul gasped dumbly. "I set the fire of the torch to your frame and watched it consume your damnable visage!"
"Fire? Destroy me?" the disembodied voice would have sounded playful were it not for the sinister edge which sliced through each syllable. "The master whom I serve has a palace filled with the stuff. It will take more than flame to rid you of little old me."
"You devil!" Jean Paul spat. "Why have you returned to torment me? The Desmond curse is lifted. You have no reason to plague us now."
"Poor Jean Paul. You're confused," his ancestor laughed. "First you think you've been dreaming, and now you think you're a free man. Whatever shall we do with you?"
"I've had enough of your mockeries to last me a lifetime," returned Jean Paul, crossing the room, closer to the portrait. "Why have you brought me here? Where is Emily?"
"Emily ... Erica ... Erica ... Emily ... Why are you always imploring me regarding the women in your life?" sneered Jacques. "Not that I would mind having either one of them in my bedchamber. Or both."
"Enough!" Jean Paul shrieked at the spirit whom he thought he had banished forever. "Why am I here?"
"We've brought you back where you belong," Jacques stated simply, "and I even placed you back into bed with your darling Erica. Isn't that what you begged me for all those months?"
"Monster!" Jean Paul retorted. "How could I have ever been so deluded as to desire help from you, even when I was blinded by grief?"
Jacques' only answer was another rolling laugh, but the pause gave Jean Paul a moment to regain a fraction of his composure.
"Besides," he told the portrait dispassionately, "it doesn't matter why you've brought me here. Your prank is no more than an inconvenience. The Desmond curse is broken, and you no longer have any hold over me. I'll leave this island, return to my wife, and never think of this wretched place again."
Jacques' laughter deepened, grew even more intense. "You still don't understand, do you, dear kinsman?" the spirit chided. "There is nothing to return to."
"What mendacity are you spouting now?" Jean Paul demanded.
"It's true," Jacques' voice assured him, assuming a tone of mock injury. "A few moments ago you asked me about your precious Emily. I should say that right about now she is determinedly journeying toward Desmondton, a letter from Philip Desmond inviting her to make full use of his family's library tucked safely in her handbag."
"Has insanity finally taken complete hold of you?" Jean Paul asked his ancestor, bewildered. "You're speaking of things that happened last year, after my arrival at Desmond Hall."
"Now, Now, Jean Paul. What is time?" the spirit asked enigmatically. "In my current state, having spent hundreds of years imprisoned by an effigy, time means little to me. And to a man such as you, who is eternally touched with the Mark of Death, it means NOTHING AT ALL."
"Enough of your riddles! Explain yourself."
"The matter is simply this, my foolish fellow: for better or for worse, we are both Desmonds, and both men who have pledged ourselves to a darker power. For the master to whom we are both bound, time is meaningless, a child's plaything to be manipulated - or discarded - at his whim."
"But the curse is ended!" Jean Paul insisted. "We laid it to rest in Desmond Hall. I would never have married Emily, otherwise."
"Which is exactly why you are here now," Jacques concluded. "Dear fellow, you took an oath. Pledged a bond. The One we serve will not release you from that, despite your foolish notions to the contrary. Yes, you and your friends at our ancestral home did manage to break the curse, to eradicate the Mark. You found your happiness with your woman, and that is why He has brought you back here, wiped your slate clean."
"What ..." was all that Jean Paul could manage.
"You will never be free," Jacques repeated simply. "Certainly, you can leave this island. Go to Desmondton again if you wish. Perhaps events will play themselves out in the same fashion again, or perhaps not, but one thing is certain. Should you ever manage to dispel the curse, to find peace, you will assuredly find yourself right back here to begin the cycle anew. Time and again."
"No escape ..." Jean Paul heard a tiny voice which was his own pitifully mumble, as the horror of Jacques' words gave flight to his reason.
"So you see, truly, wherever you choose to run, Jean Paul Desmond, whatever you do, your curse will follow you," Jacques Eloi des Mondes pronounced. "And Life will be, for you, always a strange paradise."
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