Vance knew only one immutable truth about the world: Lucky people didn’t get cursed—much to his eternal frustration.
The onyx figurine sitting in his hand had been stylized into two people embracing one another. One had a face of pleasure and the other a face of dawning horror. Vance had tried everything—holding it, smearing his blood on it, even licking it in a desperate attempt to get the forsaken thing to curse him. It was a good one too . . . an enfeeblement hex. It wouldn’t kill its victim, merely sap their strength and leave them an invalid. He already had dozens of death curses laid on him. However, this curse was rare and would round out his ever-growing collection nicely.
Vance was a spellspeaker—even if he was untrained—and his particular talent inverted the effects of curses. Vance had more than three hundred in his collection. A few hexes of fleshrot meant he’d gathered up enough regeneration to have been around awhile. During his youth, he was much less discriminating in what he added to his inventory. Some of the most common curses of them all were ones of bad luck. It meant good things came his way more often than not and bad things happened to just miss him. Becoming cursed, as far as all his inverted hexes were concerned, was definitively a “bad thing.” He was fairly certain that the hex contained in the figurine would grant him inhuman strength, though he could never be sure how his talent would interpret the inversion of a curse.
He hadn’t found any werewolves to bite him, and he wasn’t sure he wanted them to. What was the opposite of turning into a wolf? Turning into a cat? Instead of turning at the full moon, would he transform at the new moon or sunrise? Or would it simply make him more resistant to lycanthropy like those maledictions of madness he received from those temples he raided? Vance shuddered. Whoever built those temples really had a thing for octopuses.
After what happened in Cherbourg, priorities had changed, and he needed a way to fight back. No one bewitched hundreds of children and lived—not if Vance had anything to say about it. So, he had trekked across the forsaken sea, crossed this forsaken desert, found this forsaken relic—which now wouldn’t give up the forsaken goods.
Vance looked up from his brooding to see a man standing across from him at his table in the inn where he was staying. The man’s skin was dark and weathered like the wood from an old oak. And like an oak, though on in years, he looked to have deep inner strength.
“Are you the Cursetaker of Penbrook?” the man said, his accent melodic and gentle as he drew out his vowels.
Vance turned his attention back to the figurine. “Busy!”
“I can see that . . . busy endangering all of the patrons in the tavern with a cursed relic.”
There were only a handful of patrons in this little traveler’s hostel, which squatted on the edge of this oasis town. The people of Axom were darkened by the sun and had music in every word they spoke. A passing barmaid nearly dropped her collection of discarded tankards at the weathered man’s words.
Vance glanced in her direction and then waved her off. “Not to worry,” he said, smiling, “I’m too lucky for anything bad to happen.” Then he added under his breath, “And that’s the problem.”
The barmaid didn’t move and looked like she was about to run to the door to call for the town watch, but the old man flashed a signet ring, and she reluctantly moved on to the other patrons.
“Wait a moment, who taught you that tongue?” the old man said after she left, mouth agape.
“It’s a curse I picked from an old abandoned tower out east. It allows me to communicate with people in the language they are most familiar.”
“Astonishing! I haven’t heard my homeland’s tongue spoken on another’s lips in thirty years. So you are the Cursetaker!”
Vance set the relic on the table between them, “Look, friend, I don’t want any trouble with the law. It’s not as though anyone was using this. In fact, someone went out of their way to put it in the deepest, darkest hole they could find. I have a use for it. Even if they didn’t, why shouldn’t I have it?”
The weathered man pulled out a chair at Vance’s table and eased into it with the weariness of age. He sighed. “Son, if I wished you to be arrested, I would have let the serving woman call the watch. And not to inflate my own sense of self-importance any further, but cabal heads don’t hunt down simple graverobbers. You can call me Gebre. I have a job for you.”
A head of a Royal Cabal of Spellspeakers? That meant he ran a king’s private group of spellslingers, and they were nothing but trouble. On occasion, Vance had done work for hire removing jinxes from petty nobles who deserved them, didn’t pay enough, and treated him like dirt. But a cabal head?
Vance sniffed. “What? Some lord get blighted with a limp . . . peg? Would make building a house more difficult.” He didn’t have time to mess around with the triviality of a court’s politics; he had a child murderer to hunt.
Gebre chuckled. “No, no. This is a far more serious matter.” Then a mischievous smile touched the corners of his mouth. “Besides, houses in Axom are chiseled from stone.”
Vance wasn’t sure what to make of Gebre. Cabal heads also didn’t talk to people like him—let alone laugh at his jokes. There did seem to be an uncharacteristic kindness in the man’s eyes. Vance had only seen it a handful of times in his long life. This was either the real deal or more likely a very good deception.
“So, what do you need me for then?”
Gebre leaned in. “A malediction has been laid on the king’s daughter.”
“She pretty?” A grateful princess might be a nice perk.
“She is ten years of age.”
“Ah, so not ripe yet.”
Gebre’s outward shell of joviality faltered. “Listen here, Cursetaker, you can pretend to be a scoundrel all you like, but even in Axom we have heard of your exploits in Cherbourg. You are a better man than this—act like it!”
The flame of Vance’s bravado dwindled to an ember, his face faltered, and his voice grew small. “This far away? I crossed the sea.”
“My king’s ears hear even farther and sailors are terrible gossips, especially for the right price.”
Images of children racked in pain played in Vance’s mind, and Gebre took the sudden silence as an opportunity to flag down the barmaid. She was the innkeeper’s daughter, gold ring in her nose, braids in her dark curly hair, and a white dress with colorful embroidery on the hems playing off her sun-darkened skin. It was far hotter here than in the north, and Vance was growing a tan of his own. Though he was pretty sure he would never develop the shade these people had. That kind of thing only happened over generations. The things Vance noticed even after living at least a pair of centuries never ceased to amaze him.
“Flatbread and peppers, and the house’s best hummus.” The cabal head was talking. “Oh! What does the house have in the way of a good tea?”
“The blossom green is good.” The barmaid seemed to purposefully avoid looking at the figurine on the table.
“That sounds wonderful, dear.” Gebre looked over to Vance. “Do you want anything?”
Vance didn’t respond, and the old man simply ordered a second helping of the same and a whole pot of tea. Gebre left Vance to his thoughts, the long silence only interrupted by the barmaid sliding Gebre’s order onto the table. He thanked her and dug into his food with zeal.
Vance finally shook the flood of memories from his mind and whispered, “What kind of curse is it?”
Gebre finished a bite. “Mmm . . . are you sure you don’t want any?”
“I have a starvation hex.” Vance pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t need to eat.”
“Need to? I love that I get to eat. There are few pleasures left to an old man like me, and I suspect you are far older. Though it makes sense,” Gebre raised an eyebrow and leaned in, “that one who keeps company with the dead . . . forgets to live.”
“This thing must be pretty bad if you’re willing to turn to someone like me.”
Gebre sipped his tea and nodded, “An entropy curse, a powerful one. She is being kept in isolation so that it has less to use upon her. I doubt my king would accept your help in any other circumstance.”
“Why me? I’m sure a king of Axom has access to dispellers that could simply unspell the thing.”
“It kills people who get too close. The princess fled to the dungeons herself and no one has been brave enough to go down there.”
Vance sighed. “And you think my luck aura will allow me to get close without dying.” He shifted in his chair. “Look, I have had my brighter moments, but I’m no hero. I’m a graverobber. Are you sure you want to allow me to take something so powerful? You’d be handing me a weapon.”
Gebre ate more flatbread and sipped at his tea. “Are you sure you won’t try some? It’s my favorite.”
Vance rolled his eyes and grabbed a flatbread, scooped up some of the sweet and spicy peppers, and dipped it into the hummus. Vance’s eyes watered, but it was good. Gebre smiled and handed him the extra cup of tea to soothe away the acidic burn. Vance added a mental note to find an acid-based death curse.
Gebre watched Vance sweat out his discomfort with a bemused smile. “The longer the curse has to wait with nothing to use, the more time it has to become inventive and build its power. We need to act swiftly before it is too late.”
Vance faded again and he pressed his lips into a line. Forsake it all, forsaken kids; why did it have to be a kid? He was already too lucky. He may very well be able to do it—his luck might be powerful enough to get close—but what then? His power would completely plateau. Gebre was right—old men have few pleasures left to them. Vance didn’t need money; he always had enough or bartered in favors. Take this inn for instance. He had saved the owner’s son from a runaway cart and received free room and board for a month. He loved his life on the road, prying out things people locked away in fear and seeing the many different ways they could make him strong.
“I want to get this relic to hex me first.”
“This really cannot wait?”
“It’s the whole reason I came this far south.”
Gebre’s eyes narrowed, peering at the figurine, “Why this one in particular?”
“Do you know what it is?”
“I’m familiar with the story and what they had to do to bind it to that object and lock it away.”
“Most hexes, jinxes, curses, or maledictions attack the body or the mind or create an inconvenience. The inverse is a defensive magic or a harmless but useful trick. After Cherbourg . . .” Vance hesitated. “After . . . I am done merely surviving. I want a way to fight back.” He tapped the relic with a long finger. “The lovers might give me a way to do that.”
“You think,” Gebre inclined his head, “you will become as physically strong as it makes others weak.”
“Exactly, and I have spent a week trying to get it to transfer to me and it’s not doing it. I’m already too lucky!”
Gebre snorted, “You are the only man I know who can say that in a bad way with a straight face. Very well, but again we must do this quickly, there isn’t much time.”
“Well, I’m not helping without getting a way to fight back first.”
“I don’t suppose it is as simple as crafting a blessing for you, and besides making one strong enough would take too long.”
Vance tilted his head, thinking it over. “You know, being a graverobber, I avoid temples that are in use, and no one is willing to bless me for my work. So . . .” He shrugged. “I guess I don’t know.”
“Well, we could try to remove some of them with a ritual cleansing.”
Vance considered, biting his lip. Removing the deadwood might be a way to start over now that he knew how to be more discriminating.
“How . . . precise is that? I don’t want to lose some of my good stuff.”
Gebre guffawed. “We wouldn’t want that, would we.” He looked at Vance and his face softened a bit. “But I guess I wouldn’t want my power stolen from me. Honor will not allow me to leave you uncompensated for good work, though you are not making yourself easy to help.”
“It’s my understanding,” Vance noted, “that blessings don’t linger like curses do.”
“Curses don’t linger either; they complete their task and then go back to the spirit world.”
“True enough, but some linger, like a phantasm of forgetfulness. The task is to stick around.”
“They last as long as the energy they have been given. Some of yours should’ve lost their fuel long ago, but I suspect the ones you speak of feed on the person’s aura after they run out of fuel.” Gebre’s next words held a compassionate tone that Vance had rarely heard aimed in his direction. “I don’t think you, even with your power, could feed very many more. A ritual cleansing might actually save your life.”
Vance didn’t know what to say to that. On one level, he wasn’t a trained spellspeaker. He only ever researched enough to find his next prize. He hadn’t considered there might be a limit. Maybe Mikel’s warnings weren’t too far off. Also, who was this young pup to treat him like a son? Vance may have looked to be in his thirties despite his ashen white hair, but he was more than two hundred years old. He didn’t know his precise age. Being an orphan, being so old, and often being alone made keeping count difficult; he gave up keeping track decades ago.
“One more thing that may entice you.” Gebre sipped his tea. “The spellspeaker who laid this tragedy upon the princess was Ivan Zoric.”
Vance’s stomach fell out, and he swallowed hard. “What did you say?”
“Ivan Zoric, spellspeaker, talent unknown, specializes in making curses, highborn from the north and east, likely Gutthuida. Motives unclear, other than to sow anarchy, which he is more than adept at. His crimes in Axom include the cursing of the princess. Other crimes include enthrallment, murder, and rape. His crimes abroad include the mass cursing of the City of Cherbourg’s children.”
Axom controlled the whole length and breadth of the Abay, the major river on this continent, and they used it to such effect that even in this desert place they were the breadbasket of all those reliant on the Middle Sea for trade. A blow to Axom would be a blow to the whole of the civilized world, or at least the civilized world to hundreds of millions of people. Vance had wandered east once. They were interesting people, if a little stuffy. They also thought their kingdoms were the center of the cosmos. Vance wasn’t interested in saving the kingdom. But Ivan Zoric? He was why Vance needed a way to fight—to hunt that bastard down.
Vance narrowed his eyes at this man clearly working an angle, “Tell me one thing, and I will help you.”
“You seem too—”
Gebre cut him off. “Happy? Full of laughter to be in charge? Perhaps you would prefer my apprentice who would incarcerate you for your crimes and offer you your life as payment?”
Vance closed his mouth.
Gebre continued, a smirk growing on his aged face, white teeth flashing. “Being a bully is too much work.” The old man rubbed a hand over his face. “And I am too old. You attract more flies with honey than vinegar, and though I find your chosen occupation distasteful, I need your powers. Also, your actions in Cherbourg granted you the benefit of the doubt. Furthermore, I came from nothing and any opportunity to thumb my nose at the court, I take… with relish.”
Vance’s face peeled into a vulpine grin and he chuckled; he thought he could grow to like this man. “How quickly can you have the ritual ready?”
“We will need to talk to the king first.”
Vance and Gebre traveled out of the small town toward Xandria, one of the capitals of the Axomite Empire on the coast. They trekked across another forsaken desert until they stood before the palace, and then turned about thirty degrees to the right to see a tent city, the largest of which was a tent fit for a king. It looked like a visiting king’s caravan, but all of the flags were of Xandria.
“Xandria is visiting Xandria?”
“It appears in my absence they have decided to move outside the palace.”
The palace itself was a marvel of masonry and spellspeaking. Vance had heard the stone itself had been pulled up from the ground by spellspeakers and then later sculpted into shape and reinforced by master masons. Four round towers with minarets extending even higher cornered the palace complex. The main building almost reminded Vance of a ziggurat.
Suddenly, the ground shook, and Vance lost his balance, narrowly missing the ground.
Gebre picked up his pace toward the tent city. “The curse is attacking the understructure of the palace; we need to hurry.”
Gebre pushed through the guard and swarming crowds, straight to the king’s tent. A woman with a single long dark warrior’s braid stood in front of the structure. She was not of Axom (Helena, perhaps, with the way the olive tones played through her skin), and she wielded her expression like a pikeman before a cavalry charge.
“Master Gebre, is that him?”
Gebre waved a hand at the woman. “This is my apprentice Thea.”
The woman lifted her nose in disgust. “He is an unkempt mess, and you want to bring him before the king?”
When Vance threw himself into a project, things like grooming became less and less important as he got closer to the finish line. He had crossed the mark and claimed the figurine as his prize, but the forsaken judges were refusing to give him his laurels. He wasn’t bathing in protest.
“Thea,” Gebre said, a gentle rebuke in his tone, “You felt the tremor; there is no time.”
Thea sighed. “Very well.”
Vance was led into a chamber filled with food, gold, and opulence. It was all rather typical. Vance had been in the presence of a few kings in his long life, and the longer he lived the more he realized there was nothing deific about them; they were giant man-babies. He just couldn’t convince anyone else of that. Selling the religion of your nation was important. It ensured everyone bought into the grand deception—that one man spoke with the words of the gods. However, that’s all it ever was—a deception.
At the center of this child’s toy chest of a tent was a man more muscular and more topless than Vance expected. The king’s physique was thoroughly enjoying the blessings of youth and vigor his spellspeakers granted him. The king wore a headdress, a collar inlaid with gold, and a cloak made from the pelt of a big cat—a lion from the look of it. Vance had never seen a lion in person before and merely seeing its pelt was impressive; maybe he would seek out those werewolves after all.
This king was one of many tied to the Abay river, the source of which was the imperial seat in the highlands to the south. While Gebre and the king sounded similar enough, the king’s speech was short and clipped, contrasting Gebre’s drawn-out vowels. “Who have you brought me, Gebre? I tasked you with saving my daughter, and you bring me a beggar from the street?”
“I bring you the Cursetaker of Penbrook, the man who has dealt with Ivan Zoric’s handiwork before.”
The king stared down at Vance, eyes clearly appraising his appearance. “I suppose I can’t expect better from a graverobber.”
Vance quirked an eyebrow. “I prefer to say I retrieve abandoned wealth.”
The king gaped. “You disturb the dead in their slumber!”
“I disturb an empty wineskin after everything that made the wineskin lovely has been rung out.”
Gebre cleared his throat. “Perhaps, we can debate the afterlife another time. The curse is days away from swallowing the palace into catacombs.”
“Yes, Gebre. You, as always, are right. How quickly can you have this thing out of my daughter?”
“Right after Gebre helps me get what I came for.”
“My palace is going to be destroyed, and you want to delay further!” The king rose and lifted a scepter to summon the guard. “Gebre, my patience is running thin with this barbarian.”
“The Cursetaker requests that we help him retrieve a hex from a relic he has recently acquired,” Gebre interjected.
“Stole, more like.”
“In any case, it is our agreed-upon price, and I have already set the arrangement in motion.”
“Very well, we are sending in crews to retrieve what we can before everything goes to Duat in a handbasket. A country cannot function without a seat of government, and the jackals are already at the door.”
Gebre gazed upon twilight atop the palace tower, the stars beginning to fade into dawn. He had spent the whole night inscribing the spell circle for Cursetaker’s ritual cleansing in white sand, specially made for the purpose. Doing this so high up was only a little nerve-racking given the instability in the palace’s foundation. Gebre had seen the report about the structural damage; the crack could give away at any moment. Deserts were flat, however, and this ritual needed to be at the highest point he could manage. The work crew who brought the stone basin had almost died of fright when they heard what Gebre required of them. He invested each grain with a bit of power as he dug through memory to perfectly replicate the words he needed. Many mages tried to disguise their conjuring by learning magic in languages long passed from the Earth, and the strength of their magic suffered for it. For them, it was only the language of their head and not of their heart. Maybe that was easy for Gebre to say, for no one spoke the language of the tiny and insignificant village where he grew up.
“Thea, bring him. Dawnrise is coming.”
The Cursetaker still bore his loincloth. Gebre smiled and dismissed Thea from the roof of the tower.
“I’m glad you are taking this seriously; it appears all of the preparation I requested of you has been performed?”
“Yes,” Vance said, barely a whisper, his lips bluing and shoulders turned in on themselves.
It was indeed cold this morning. Gebre always marveled how the desert could flip back and forth so drastically from cooking levels of heat to being so cold your breath steamed. Even in Gebre’s extra robe, the cold had seeped into his bones from his night’s work.
“In order for this to work, you will have to be naked.”
Some saw this man as a criminal, and graverobbing was a serious offense to be sure. However, in the outer village where Gebre was from, cursetakers weren’t spellspeakers, they were innocent victims. Unable to deal with hexes any other way, they transferred all the maledictions in the village to one person and then cast them into the wilderness. Gebre couldn’t help but feel a soft spot for a man who bore the wicked intent of evil men like a mantle of pride rather than one of abandonment, and in so doing protected the world from them. If only his father had been so lucky.
“Step into the stone basin in the center, and we will begin as the sun peeks over the horizon. Oh, and don’t disturb the sand.”
There was powerful magic in a dawnrise. Dawn was symbolic of a new day, a new life, and new beginnings. It finally and for certain shed the darkness of the previous day. Gebre stepped into the circle, careful not to disturb his night’s work, bringing with him the final ingredient to the ritual.
As the tendrils of light shown over the horizon, he began in the language of his heart. “I bring water for the body,” Gebre said, pouring the pitcher of water over the Cursetaker’s head who shivered, now wet in addition to cold.
Gebre lit the twisted packet of herbs, careful not to breathe any of it in. Spirit-walking was for younger men. “I bring incense for the spirit.”
Gebre waved the incense in front of Cursetaker’s face, and the man’s eyes went black from pupil to sclera. His body lurched upright and shuddered in convulsions. The white sand filled with power, turned black, and caught flame. He dared not make a move and dared not move the Cursetaker. Breaking the circle midway through the ritual would mean a fate worse than death. He settled in for a long wait as the Cursetaker battled his inner demons.
Vance, frozen to the bone, breathed in the smoke. At first, all he could think of was how awful it smelled. It was only made worse by the fact that there was some sweet-smelling thing Vance couldn’t name laced into it to dull the odor. It didn’t help. It only heightened the contrast and made the experience even more wretched. And then everything washed away—the tower, the barely lit city below, everything. It was replaced by a swirl of colors that jolted into sharp focus.
Vance found himself naked and alone surrounded by shadows with eyes that burned silver-white. The white flame from their eyes formed cracks down their necks and arms and blurred into chains. They were his curses. He knew then precisely how many he had chained: three hundred forty-four—a hundred thirty-eight of which were jinxes that didn’t fit a particular category or description (random, petty things like misplacing important items). One hundred four were bad luck or entropy curses. Sixty-nine were death curses and thirty-three were maledictions of madness. Madness was so hard to come by; the temples to the old gods were far too well hidden.
A sensation broke through the vision, the heat of the sun warming the day and eighty-six of the bound shades faded away. He quickly checked which ones were gone before the vision came to an end. Good, he still had the one that let him speak all languages; it was a pain going that far east. But he had lost one that made sure he wouldn’t drop things. He had liked that one; it made palming gold pieces and climbing so much easier.
The weakest ones took the brunt of the ritual’s power. He still had eighty-nine entropy curses bound to him; he hoped it would be enough. Hope that he could retrieve his prize, and maybe hope that he could save a little girl.
Gebre waited within the circle; he waited until high sun when Cursetaker finally took in a sharp breath and collapsed.
He called for Thea. She hadn’t interrupted him all this time; she knew better. One sudden reaction from a dispeller might have spoiled the ritual all on its own.
“I heard the screaming.” Worry laced her voice. “It took everything I had to not run out here.”
“Everything is fine now.”
“Was it successful?”
“That remains to be seen; I may have strained the limitations of the ritual. It was never designed for someone who intentionally gathers curses like an Eireann monk gathers books.”
“Is he at least alive?”
“The next couple of days will be critical.”
Vance slowly woke to soft hands washing his plow, an even slower smile grew across his face. “How long have I been out?”
Thea jumped, then scowled at him. “Long enough for you to soil yourself in your sleep.”
“You tended me well, it appears. Thank you.”
“Thank Gebre,” she said, rolling her eyes. “He is my superior, and he ordered me to do it.”
“Doesn’t the king have maidservants for this sort of thing?”
“We aren’t sure who is loyal; they may try to kill you in your sleep.”
“I would’ve been protected.”
“With the reaction on the roof, we didn’t want to risk it.”
Vance let out a breath. “I only lost a quarter of them.”
Thea’s stormcloud eyes grew wide.
“I stopped going after the cheap stuff years ago.”
“How much of your luck was touched?”
“A little more than an eighth.” At least he still had the jinx that made him good at math.
“Will it be enough?”
“I don’t know. Like I said, I stopped going after the cheap stuff years ago.”
They made eye contact, then Thea abruptly turned away.
“Now that I am awake, can I . . .”
“Oh! Yes of course!”
Thea left the room, and Vance dressed. He looked into a polished brass mirror and noticed that Thea had kept his face shaved over the handful of days he was out. No longer in magical shock, his regeneration took care of any lingering effect of being out for so long. He felt, magically speaking, slightly better than he did before Cherbourg. He might even be able to utter an entire magical word. The little room was a partition in the tents presumably set aside for Gebre and his retinue. There was a sleeping pallet, the bronze mirror, and a darkwood pedestal for both the mirror and washing basin.
Vance made his way to Gebre’s chambers, Thea falling into step next to him. She was only slightly above average height for a woman, but was still taller than Vance, his growth being stunted by lack of food when he was young. They had given him a new set of clothes and likely burned the old ones in a vain attempt to get the stains out.
“I feel obligated to offer courtship after you’ve handled my plow.”
Thea gave a mostly good-humored scoff. “I would have wed an entire army of children back home if courtship was required every time I dealt with someone who soiled themselves.”
“I have a very large family, and I came into my power late.”
“Anyone special back home?” Vance mocked the bard, “A long-separated lover pulled apart by honor and duty?”
Thea rolled her eyes. “Not that it’s any of your business. There was . . . there was someone my father wanted me to marry.”
Vance didn’t know what to make of her expression—grief, anger, and frustration all warred for territory in Thea’s face.
They arrived at Gebre’s chambers. Gebre turned to greet them. The Lover’s Embrace sat on an isolated pedestal in a spell circle made of the same white sand used in the ritual. The innermost edges of the inscribed spell crisping black imperceptibly moving toward the outer edge.
“It gladdens me to see you well,” Gebre said, seeming to almost mean it.
“Thank you, it gladdens me, too . . . wasn’t expecting the herbs to have such a kick.”
“Spirit-walking is indeed a young man’s game.”
Apart from the pedestal, Gebre’s office was covered in tapestry and sculptures. Sunlight shone through a lone window cut into the canvas above and dappled the cabal head’s squat desk. Vance noticed only pillows to sit on instead of the chairs more common in his homeland. The desk was covered with loose papers. On the corner sat a large mostly empty glass jar of white sand.
“According to him,” Thea pointed at Vance. “We barely scratched the entropy curses.”
“Is this true?” Gebre asked. “I’m afraid I will have to send out for more sand, without it we will not be able to try again.”
“A little more than an eighth isn’t too bad, considering.”
“Considering what?” Thea asked.
“The ritual didn’t have any precision,” Vance said. “It just dispelled the weakest ones, working its way up until it ran out of energy.”
Thea huffed, her lips pressing into a line. “Great! So we only pulled up the weeds.”
“Again, it will have to do, time is short. Cursetaker,” Gebre handed Vance a knife, “Place your blood on the white sand and draw in your payment. I want to have this done, and we are already past our allotted time.”
Vance approached the pedestal, focused his mind and all his newly freed-up power into a single word, cut his palm, and slapped his hand down.
His voice rumbled with a release of power, “MINE!”
Vance hoped against hope that if he stuck to a single syllable he could edge more power into the word. He could feel the edges of the hex bound in the embracing lovers. He was right on the cusp of clawing the pearl from its shell, but at last moments it slipped through his fingers. In frustration, he recut his hand, his regeneration already sealing the wound, and then cut the other one too, placing both hands down on either side of the spell circle.
He rumbled out another, “MINE!”
Again, nothing happened, save a vague sense of closeness that eventually escaped.
“Can we find a target?” Vance was close to shouting.
“What?” Gebre and Thea exclaimed in unison.
Vance barely registered their shock. “Exorcisms are sometimes easier than tearing it out of a containment vessel.”
“Absolutely not!” Thea said.
Gebre absently stared off into the distance considering, “Far be it from me to cheat a man out of his fair wages for services rendered, but if it’s this difficult with this much preparation, I cannot condone the risk of not being able to cure the person targeted. Especially since I don’t have enough ritual sand to make something that complex safe for all involved.”
“Is there some other price we could give you instead?”
“I’ll have to think about it.”
“Think quickly; time is running short.”
As if on cue, the stones of the palace trembled. The curse was getting impatient; Vance could feel it. Why it hadn’t just caused her heart to stop was anyone’s guess, though it should be said that curses tended to be a bit overly dramatic. A spell’s attitude often mirrored the emotional state of the person casting it, and people who threw hexes were a bit full of themselves. They were complex and required a large investment of energy. People mad enough for long enough to go through the trouble of making them weren’t the most logical people in the world.
Vance left to clear his head and found himself following his feet to the same tower on which they tried to purify him, sitting between two merlins, feet dangling off the edge. He was too lucky to be concerned with falling. Xandria was a beautiful city. The sight of the sea shimmering as a backdrop to all the buildings, houses, and temples was breathtaking.
“We should’ve conscripted your service!”
Vance flinched as Thea stormed up next to him.
“And if I refuse to cooperate?”
“You may be ancient and powerful, graverobber, but you could not stand up to Axom’s entire cabal. We would imprison you until you agreed to our demands.”
“I am more than two hundred years old . . . my patience would outlast yours, and the brewing civil war this is causing would see me free in short enough time.”
“Who told you that?” Thea spat.
“Your king said the jackals were at the door, and it looks like the curse’s plan is to bring down the palace on top of the princess. Civil wars have been started for less.”
Thea raised her hands in frustration and then dropped them in defeat. “Gebre has so much misplaced confidence in you.”
“Confidence I never asked for.”
Thea paused, considering, “Who’s . . . Mikel?”
Vance, ready for the next round of the fight, was thrown off. “What?”
“You kept calling out that name while you slept.”
“I saved sixty-three children in Cherbourg,” Vance said, looking into the distance. “Mikel was the urchin helping me find them all.”
“What happened to him?”
Vance’s eyes watered from dust in the air. “I didn’t save sixty-four.”
A piece of Thea’s armor seemed to fall off. “I am sorry.”
“He was so focused on helping me, and he hid his symptoms so well. He was a good kid. He didn’t deserve to die that way.”
“The princess doesn’t deserve this either.”
“Do I deserve to lose everything I hold dear for one palace? Think of all the Cherbourgs I could save if I didn’t give it all up to help this kingdom.”
“Zoric hasn’t done these things without purpose. Do you really want to give him victory without a fight?”
She had a point. Zoric wasn’t merely a beast; he had plans. All the information Vance had been able to gather said he was setting something into motion that was more than mere malicious destruction.
“Do you know why I love traveling and finding these abilities?”
“All people crave power and will do any despicable thing to get their hands on it.”
“Okay, maybe a little, but it’s more than that. I grew up on the streets afraid of everyone and everything. When I came into my power, I realized I could turn the things people feared most into my armor. I may raid tombs but only because nothing truly dangerous was ever left out in the open.”
“Why didn’t you just find a sponsor and go to a spellspeaker academy?”
“No one in Penbrook wanted anything to do with a dirty kid off the streets. No one wanted to admit that magical blood could’ve trickled into the street orphans. It meant some lord was indiscreet.”
“Gebre likes you; maybe there is a new sort of discovery as an apprentice?”
“My collection consumes too much of my aura to be a true spellspeaker.” Vance ran his fingers through his hair. “I can barely utter a magic syllable.”
“Gebre won’t always be out of ritual sand. Look, all I know is that there is a scared little girl in a deep, dark place . . . and all I have learned about you is, while you have a vile profession, you aren’t the sort of man to abandon children to evil men like Ivan Zoric.”
Now she was playing him, but forsake it all she was right.
Vance, Gebre, and Thea made their way to the dungeon—the negative space left behind by pulling up the structure from the stone. It had to be equally elaborate and architecturally marvelous. Otherwise, the palace would merely collapse back from when it came. The dungeons were in the lowermost parts of the palace and the winding staircases were both cramped, and this far down and so close to sea it was all slightly damp; the whole place smelled of mildew.
Vance asked, “So, does this princess have a name?”
“Her name is Alena,” Gebre provided.
“I get that she needs to be isolated, but the curse can’t be as bad as being kept in a moldy dungeon.”
“She’s only ten,” Gebre said, “She ran herself down here after killing her maidservants.”
When they arrived at the door, the air positively sizzled with dark energy. The curse knew they were near. Gebre handed Vance the key, and he and Thea wished him luck, retreating back up the stairs.
The ajar iron door was cracked only far enough for a small person to fit through, so Vance pushed it all the way open. As his aura met Alena’s curse, there was a hissing crackle-pop, followed by an abrupt silence as they canceled each other out. Any one of Vance’s curses was nowhere near as powerful as the curse that clung to Princess Alena like a filth-soaked garment. However, working in concert with one another, they acted like rings in a mail shirt against the biting slashes of the entropy curse.
Thankful that his blindness hex was still intact, he stepped forward into the darkness, seeing the cramped space in shades of gray despite there being absolutely no light in the room.
“Alena . . . Alena, are you there?”
Vance heard whimpering in the corner. A pang of sympathy poured through Vance; she didn’t have Vance’s ability to see in the dark. Vance knew a thing or two about being trapped in dark, cramped spaces. A part of the princess had already died in this room whether or not he managed to remove the magic that ailed her.
Relying on his magical sense, he moved toward the sound and saw her curled up in a ball. He laid a hand on hers. She was ice cold to the touch, and she pulled back tighter into herself.
“Hey, sweetheart. I’m . . . I’m here to help.”
Alena let out a sob, “Go away!” Her voice was weak and raspy from crying and disuse.
“Well, if I do that, I won’t be able to get you out of here.”
“Baba says I’m dangerous.”
“I am going to take your danger from you.”
“No! I deserve this, I deserve to die down here. I . . . I . . . I killed all those people.”
Vance’s ire rose. He had seen too much—too much death, too much pain, too many children die. And for what? So some madman could make a play at power? Then an equally strong desire for self perseverance crept into Vance’s mind. This was no petty malice brought on by a broken mirror. Standing in its presence he felt the full weight of its destructive power, and he didn’t know if he could bind and contain it. Pulling this thing in might very well be like trying to drink the ocean.
He was no hero, he was only trying to sleep better at night when he heard the wails of Cherbourg’s children. No one really cared about anyone but themselves, and he was no different. He had two hundred years of life experience to prove it. Sure this was sad, but a lot of sad things happened to a lot of children, and no one ever came for him when he was lost and alone in the dark! Why should anyone else have what he was denied? Especially some princess who until now had everything she could have ever wanted. Some spoiled brat wasn’t worth drowning for! The two angers warred in him, his desire for justice and his desire for revenge against the world that had abandoned him.
Then Mikel’s tiny voice echoed in his mind.
“You’ll get them all won’t you, Van?” Mikel’s broken voice said.
Snow and rain fell down around them, it never seemed to let up and the streets were a soup of mud and filth. Mikel lay on the ground and Vance kneeled over him in a hovel underneath an archway.
Vance’s face grew wet from the rain, “You idiot, why didn’t you tell me you had drunk from that forsaken well?”
“Each kid takes a long while to help, and I see your eyes every time. Doing the thing you do, it hurts you.”
“I’d be fine,” Vance almost sobbed. “If you die, how am I going to find the others?”
Vance probably didn’t need the boy’s help. His ability to detect malignant magic along with all his other sensory abilities would allow him to find them. He was more than sufficient for the task, but forsake it all he liked the little troublemaker’s company. He reminded Vance of himself at that age.
“You’ll find’em.” Mikel’s face was white as the snow that fell around them. He coughed up the black bile Vance had seen a hundred times already in the children who were about to die. “And there’ll be more space for the others.”
“You idiot! There’s plenty of space!” Vance wept openly.
“Find the others. Help them and remember me when next you’re on one of your adventures.”
“There was plenty of space!”
“Remember . . .” The boy went still and all that made Mikel lovely was rung out. Vance bit down on his sorrow. He had to act quickly. A curse that consumed the soul of their host could reanimate the body.
In the dark of the dungeon, fresh tears sprang to life in Vance’s eyes. Heedless of holding back the tide of his own curses, he poured every ounce of his magic into the word that would… set… Alena… free!
Deep and guttural, he bellowed, “MINE!”
The sudden outburst startled Alena, and she again flinched away. The attention of Alena’s curse became fully fixed on Vance, sensing an opportunity to grab hold of more power from its sibling curses. Vance still carried a great many of the hexes from the children of Cherbourg. The girl’s curse leaped from Alena into Vance and nestled in like a needle under a fingernail.
The dark power began its work on Vance. Alena had isolated herself to protect her people and leave the curse with no fodder to act upon. Her action frustrated and stymied its progress, forcing it to muster its strength in the dark. Vance, in this case, wasn’t so lucky, he had two hundred fifty-eight ways to kill him already attached to his aura. Starting with the death curses of its master, Alena’s curse began absorbing, combining, and mutating the whole of Vance’s collection of calamities. Every wicked ploy of death and madness humanity wrought into the world began to form into a singular fist that slammed against the vaults of Vance’s being. It felt as though Vance would come apart at the seams—mind, body, and soul.
At the final moment when Vance was certain he would die, he accepted that at least it was a good death . . . and then he laughed. He laughed through the pain and the despair as Alena’s curse attempted to claw him to bits. Something Vance was only vaguely aware of slid into place. No matter how big or small, each curse required a minimum amount of energy to contain it. Alena’s curse made a fatal mistake—it left Vance’s strained aura unburdened to seize hold of a single target. No matter how powerful any one curse was, Vance had been carrying more than three hundred for longer than Ivan Zoric had been alive. He could feel it; all his curses were gone. They had mutated into something else. Something foreign to him. It would take a long time to understand this new singular super-curse and how it interacted with his talent. He grinned; it sounded like an adventure.
Vance let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding and tried to stand. He righted himself and murmured, “Light,” and he barely noticed himself do it. A small sphere of light floated around his head and lit the room. It was a dungeon, what more could be said? There was a pallet and a privy hole cut into the stone. The princess’s clothes surely once held refinement, but weeks in a dungeon robbed them of any of their former glory and distinctiveness.
He picked up her small, exhausted form and brought her close. She smelled of filth and fear, but she was a little girl Mikel had asked him to remember. “Hello, my name’s Vance.”
“My name’s Alena.”
“Would you like to leave Alena?”
The child buried her head in his chest and clung to him like he was the last floating thing in the whole of an endless ocean.
Her tears dampened Vance’s tunic as she cried. “Thank you!”
“You’re safe now. Your life won’t get easier, but if you’re brave and maybe a little lucky,” he winked, “you will get stronger.”
He carried her out of that place, and the princess—safe for the first time in forever—passed out in exhaustion.
He met Gebre on the way up, a look of saddened relief on the old man’s face. “She’s going to need to talk about this with someone. That long in the dark may break her mind. She’s going to need help coping.”
“I will see it done,” Gebre said, in the tone of a man giving an oath. “I believe payment is in order. What do you want, anything within my power to give? Gold maybe or—”
Vance cut in, “I want an apprenticeship.”
“I just gained back my ability to speak magic, and I never valued it before because I never had anyone to teach me.”
“In exchange for this?” Gebre gave a face-splitting grin. “It would be my honor, Cursetaker.”
Vance, clean-shaven and freshly dressed in a simple tunic and trousers, presented himself and the princess to the king.
As soon as Alena saw her father, she shouted, “Baba!” and leaped into his arms.
The king returned her hug, breaking all protocol for something in Vance’s mind that was far more important.
“I am so glad to see you well, child, but now go with your new servants.” Emotion attempted to burst through his control. “Baba has business to tend to.”
Alena looked as though she would fall apart all over again.
“I will leave Gebre in charge for the next week, but this cannot wait.”
Alena beamed and obeyed.
Vance’s estimation of the king rose a bit.
“I must say, I was skeptical, but you have brought my daughter back to me. I hear your payment was not delivered, yet you saved her anyway, saved my kingdom anyway.”
“The man in charge does need a fancy chair to rule from,” Vance agreed.
“Ha! Indeed! Anything you want up to half my kingdom is yours.”
Vance recognized it as king-speak for “I am very grateful, but don’t break me.”
Vance looked around at all the wealth in this man-baby’s toy chest and hesitated. He didn’t need gold, but he did like having it around.
He resolved himself. “If I am going to stop Ivan Zoric, I will need resources. I will also need a teacher to help improve my spellspeaking.”
“You have it. I too now have a debt to settle with this Zoric. He shall know the wrath of a king of Axom.”
Vance guessed that was that, then. He was doing this.
Ivan Zoric, beware. The Cursetaker of Penbrook was coming for you.
Cover image by Christopher Campbell.