THE LIVING CURSE



THE LIVING CURSE, by Ethan Fode:

There was no fire or smoke, only the terrible groan as the temple crumbled, the thick columns snapping in half, the walls buckling outward. He barely noticed, consumed by the song of the sorcery in his bones, the oily feel of the ancient magic coating his soul. When he finished destroying the temple, he stumbled as far as his strength would take him and collapsed into sleep. He did not dream.

He awoke to the gritty feel of sand against his cheek, the taste of the desert in his mouth. Waves of heat emanated from the ground and the sun blazed against his back. When he tried to rise, he could feel the ragged ends of his collarbone grinding together, so he gave up. Instead, he turned his head, wincing at the pain.

Dunes rose all around him, and he could see no signs of habitation nor any road or trail. Only his footprints, disintegrating in the scorching wind. He swallowed. His throat was raw, his tongue swollen from thirst.

Gingerly, he sat up. He touched his ragged white robes, blood-stained and filthy.

He was lucky to be alive.

The others — his friends, the cultists, and the cult’s twisted godling — were dead, buried in the ancient temple. He’d survived, even though he hadn’t deserved to.

His body throbbed with the pain of his wounds. Underneath his injuries was a deeper ache, always there, that reminded him of the burden he carried. His skin itched; his wounds were healing rapidly, his cuts closing, his tainted skin scarring over. He imagined he could feel his broken collarbone knitting itself together.

An inventory of his belongings revealed a battered compass, his runic blade, and little else. No water.

He remembered a small oasis to the east, where he’d camped before he’d been captured by the cultists. At the oasis, he could find water and shade.

With some difficulty, he got up and started walking.

He stopped several times to rest, and managed to catch a small green lizard, which he tore apart with mindless hunger. He found a clump of cactaceae and took what moisture he could from them. They left a horrible, feculent taste in his mouth, but at least they dulled his thirst.

The sun was nearing the horizon when figures appeared in the wavering heat haze, coming his way. He altered his course, angling away from them. Perhaps they were nothing more than simple nomads. Or perhaps they were bandits, marauders, or cannibals, like those who’d lived in the temple.

After a short time, he glanced up and saw the figures had drawn closer. They’d sighted him. He couldn’t get away.

* * *

The fire smoked and hissed, meager flames curling around young green wood. A spit of meat dripped and sizzled. Long blades of late afternoon sunlight striped the ground. He sipped a cup of bitter tea and watched the man across from him, a scarred, dark-skinned desert native clad in worn finery. A chieftain. The man had introduced himself as Jahout.

“And who are you?” Jahout had asked.

“Soren,” he’d replied, his voice cracking.

Jahout’s clan was camped in the lee of a tall, rocky promontory splayed in the desert like the claw of a hawk. Natural caves provided places to rest and recuperate. A spring trickled from deep underground, forming a shallow pool. The water had a sharp metallic taste and a hint of sulfur reek. Still, Soren had drunk greedily when he’d received a waterskin, promptly vomited, and then drank some more.

Jahout lit a pipe and offered it to Soren, who reached for it but shook his head when he caught a whiff of the smoke. It reminded him of burnt dung. Jahout shrugged, half smiling, and took a long pull on the pipe. Smoke curled around his head like a gray tentacle.

“You wear the white robes,” Jahout said. “You are one of them, eh? A priest?”

“Yes,” Soren said, reckoning the tribesmen must have been on good terms with the temple, or else they would have slaughtered him on sight.

“And your wounds? You look … unwell.”

Soren imagined what Jahout saw: a man with milk-white skin, claws for fingernails, and an eye that looked like a boiled egg. A man on the verge of death; a living corpse. “I was … ill. That’s why I left the temple. To seek a cure. Then, on the road, my companions and I were attacked by animals. Desert wolves.” This was true enough. The cultists’ humanity had been debatable. “I became separated from my friends.”

“I see.” The chieftain frowned a moment. “We have not heard from the temple for several weeks. Your brothers have grown quiet.”

“I’ve been away from home for some time,” Soren said, which was also true. He thought of his home, the city of Rahatta, which sat at the edge of a glittering bay filled with the white sails of ships. So far from here.

“How long have you been away?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Ah.”

Soren shifted uneasily. The chieftain seemed skeptical.

Jahout reached over the fire and carved off a strip of meat. He offered it to Soren, who refused. “Of course,” Jahout said. He gave a knowing wink. “You prefer other food.” He chewed thoughtfully. “Where is your necklace? With the symbol?”

“It was destroyed.” By me. When Soren closed his eyes, he could still see the symbol, still feel the sorcery flowing through him again. Seductive. Dangerous.

He remembered that one of the tribes had close ties to the cult. “You’re Hilf’s father,” Soren said, thinking of the servant boy he’d befriended at the temple. A gentle child, beaten and abused by the monsters he served. “You traded your son to … us.”

The chieftain grimaced and spat into the fire. “Do not talk about that weakling. He was worthless.”

“He’s dead.”

Firelight played across the chieftain’s face. “Good.” Jahout regarded Soren warily for a moment, then cocked his head. “We have an altar, here, if you wish to worship.”

At the mention of the altar, gooseflesh prickled on Soren’s arms. “Do you perform the same rituals?”

“Not yet.”

“Ah,” Soren muttered, relieved. Still, he resolved to flee the camp as soon as possible. Something about the place felt tainted, unclean. It was only a matter of time before the Sleeping Ones corrupted this tribe. The thought made him shudder.

“You must be tired from your travels. Please stay. I insist. We can provide you with clean robes and provisions.”

“Thank you,” Soren said. At night, while the tribesmen slept, he would make his escape. “If you’ll excuse me…?”

Jahout leaned back. “Of course.” He called out something in his native tongue and a short, broad-chested man approached. “Follow him. He will show you where you can rest.”

The man stared at Soren with naked curiosity, taking in the torn robes and pale, scarred flesh. Soren glowered back.

Jahout made a shooing motion. Soren’s guide turned and lumbered off without a word.

Along the way, they passed a wooden cage. Inside, a young woman, barely out of girlhood, lay curled up, her back against the bars, eyes closed. Probably kidnapped from another tribe. Deep in the desert, there were no cities, only a few hardy tribes who survived either from trade or predation.

Soren paused to look at her.

“You want?” his escort asked in a thick accent. He grinned and made a crude gesture with his hands.

“No.”

The tribesman shrugged, then continued walking.

A hundred yards further brought them to a wide circular area in which a group of children played a game with a ball made of rags. The game involved kicking the ball between a pair of sticks in the sand. Soren remembered playing a similar game as a child in the streets of Rahatta. The only difference was that these children didn’t have to dodge mule-drawn carts and angry shopkeepers. Then again, these children were playing on scalding-hot sand, and unlike Rahatta, there was no sea breeze to cool them. Tough little bastards.

The largest boy bullied the others. He muscled down a smaller boy and barreled over a gangly girl who stood in his way, knocking her clean off her feet.

The girl got up and brushed the sand from her skin. She frowned at the other children, who were deeply involved in the game and ignored her. A scrubby bush on the sidelines caught her attention, and she ran over and snapped off a long, clawlike branch bristling with thorns.

When the boy who’d knocked her down ran past, she chased after him and smacked him across the back with her switch. He yowled and turned, shaking his fist. She held her ground and thwacked him again. He yelped and cowered away. She brandished her makeshift weapon and took a threatening step. He ran.

The other children hooted and laughed, cheering her on. The girl raised her stick in triumph. Soren smiled. Well done.

The children dispersed, probably to take care of chores, and Soren’s guide led him to a small cleft where he could rest undisturbed. Without another word, the tribesman left.

Soren stretched his arms and legs. His wounds had almost healed, and the broken ends of his collarbone had grown together. Being a half-human monster had its benefits. His fingers touched the place on his shoulder where the ghul had bitten him, long ago, and infected him with its curse. He remembered begging a sorcerer for help. Instead of healing him, the sorcerer had simply locked the infection away. It had remained a part of Soren ever since.

When evening came, he lay down, intending to nap for a few hours and make his escape under cover of night. But he grew restless and could not sleep. Getting up, he walked along a low rocky ridge along the outskirts of the camp.

Night had fallen, bringing with it a vast sky speckled with stars. A sliver of moon glinted. He thought about the girl sleeping in the cage. Just a few days ago, he had also been in a cage, a prisoner of the cultists, a sacrifice for the godling they worshipped. He’d escaped, murdered the cultists with their own sorcery, and killed their master.

We have an altar, Jahout had said.

Did the chieftain have any idea what fate he tempted? Power came with a price. Every child knew the story of the sorcerer-king Harlun, who’d lost his sanity by tampering with forces he could not control.

Every time Soren called on sorcery, he felt himself slipping closer to the brink of madness.

Worse was the thing that lived inside him, inflicting its daily measure of pain. Even as it corrupted his flesh, it sustained him, keeping him alive, biding its time until the enchantment holding it at bay began to fade.

We have an altar….

The words haunted him. How could he run away when he knew what the altar would be used for?

Quit wringing your hands, said a voice in his head, and do what has to be done. The voice sounded so much like Mira that he imagined her wagging a finger at him, her hand on her hip. He almost smiled. But he didn’t.

He hadn’t been able to save her.

The past could not be undone. But perhaps reparations could be made.

* * *

Full dark. The cage was unguarded. Soren stared at the sleeping girl, at the dark smudges under her eyes. What did she dream about? She made a small sound, a whimper, and flinched in her sleep. No one should be in a cage.

With the hilt of his blade, he broke the lock. The girl awoke and warily came to her feet. She whispered something in a language he didn’t understand.

Soren pulled open the door, then held up his hands and took a step back. The girl crept out of the cage, nodded at him, and slipped away into the night. How far would she get? How close was her tribe? He had no way of knowing. He wished her well.

Now that he’d freed the girl, there was one final matter he must attend to before leaving.

He closed his eyes and let his awareness spread like a silken net over the rocky encampment. He could hear the whispered voices of the tribespeople, feel their footsteps thrumming through the rock, see their thoughts flickering in the night like fireflies. He blocked them out, focusing elsewhere.

His eyes snapped open. There, at the edge of the promontory, the malevolent presence of the altar. Even with the godling dead and the cult crushed, the altar still had power. He felt its pull, silken threads, sticky as a spider’s web.

Not for long.

He followed the power to its source and came to a small cave lit by the red glow of a brazier. He hesitated, took a calming breath, and stepped inside.

Before him stood a waist-high likeness of the godling Haasaktha carved in sandstone. Vaguely manlike, the statue had tentacles instead of arms, and a great gargoyle head crowned with spikes. Deeply inset eyes, pooled with shadow.

A bronze cauldron sat nearby, unused. Soren’s stomach twisted as he remembered the cult’s rituals. A bag full of human hands, poured into the pot, the dull thudding of flesh against metal.

Was Jahout planning to foster his own cult? Around the statue’s neck hung the cult’s symbol, a twisted rune. An unnatural thing, an extension of the long-buried Sleeping Ones. The symbol called to Soren with promises of power.

He ripped the symbol from the idol’s neck and snapped it in half. Then he lifted the stone statue and threw it as hard as he could against the stone wall. The idol shattered. He stood, panting, bathed in sweat.

“I wondered if you would visit the altar.” Jahout’s voice, coming from beyond the mouth of the cave, echoed in the chamber. “Though your intentions were different than I had guessed. You can come out now.”

Soren crept out into the cool night and saw the chieftain flanked by tribesmen. “How did you — ”

“I had you watched, of course. I also sent scouts to the temple. They found nothing but rubble.” Jahout scratched his face. “You are a liar. And yet, you must have visited the temple. You knew my youngest son, Hilf. The useless whelp.”

“Yes.” Soren eyed the crowd of tribesmen who stood in the darkness behind the chieftain, silent as shadows. Too many to fight without magic. The Sleeping Ones beckoned to him from across the abyss, their songs echoing in his mind. It would be so easy….

No. He couldn’t. Dabbling in the dark arts had eroded enough of his humanity.

“I’ve done you a favor by destroying that idol,” Soren said. “It can only do you harm.”

“That is not your decision to make. Nor was this.” Jahout snapped his fingers. Two men dragged out the limp body of the girl. Bruises purpled her face, and blood trickled from her mouth. “We’ve marked her, so that others know who she belongs to.” He grabbed her hair and lifted her head, revealing a bloody X carved into her cheek. She moaned softly. “Now — ”

Soren reached the girl before Jahout finished his sentence. The first man crumpled bonelessly to the ground, his throat slashed open by Soren’s blade, and the second man toppled backward with a cloven skull. The chieftain stumbled back, eyes wide. Soren eased the girl to the ground.

Jahout barked a few words in his native tongue, and several men came out of hiding, bows drawn.

Arrows? The tribesmen weren’t as dumb as they looked.

Soren glanced around: no cover. Flight was not an option.

So he rushed the bowmen.

He slew a pair of archers, but they were too spread out. Bowstrings twanged and arrows tore through him. An arrow thwacked into his shoulder. Another thumped into the meat of his leg. He stumbled and fell. The rain of arrows continued, each strike a fresh blossom of pain until he faded into unconsciousness.

* * *

He awoke in darkness. Warm sand pressed against him, clogging his mouth and nose. He couldn’t breathe.

They’d buried him alive.

Panicked, he tried to claw his way out of the sand and felt a sickening tearing sensation as his wounds ruptured. Ignoring them, he fought through the choking sand.

He emerged into the chill night air and lay on his back, gasping. How long had he been unconscious? How long since they’d turned him into a human pincushion? His limbs ached so badly he wanted to scream. Instead, he rested a few moments, gathering his strength.

Luckily, they’d tossed his sword in with him, most likely because it was obviously a thing of sorcery. Soren thanked the nameless gods for superstitious bumpkins.

He got to his feet, unsteady as a toddler. He could feel the seed of corruption stirring inside him, sending out tendrils, building him back up again. Holes gaped in his bloodied robes. The tribesmen had recovered their arrows, not caring how much meat they carved out of his body. Scabby craters riddled his body. In many places, the flesh had grown back, but instead of healthy pink skin, it had an unhealthy pallor. Dead white. The corruption inside, bleeding through. Rebuilding him in its own image.

At least he was alive. He smiled ruefully. Even smiling hurt.

Judging from the night’s darkness, dawn wouldn’t come for another few hours. It would be easy to leave, head south, toward the large trading town known as Shaarum. A few weeks, perhaps. A few lizard-chewing, cactus-sucking weeks.

Don’t forget the slave, said a little voice inside him.

He groaned. Haven’t I done enough? he asked.

No.

But I can barely hold my sword.

There are other ways, said the voice. Don’t be afraid.

* * *

Several men stood around the girl’s cage with sharpened sticks, occasionally jabbing at their captive and jeering. They passed a flask around. A low fire flickered, its red tongue providing scant light. Good.

Soren watched and waited, crouched behind a low stone ridge. Even with his wounds, he was stronger and faster than a normal man, though he doubted he could take three of them at once. Patience.

One of the men looked out, his gaze coming to rest on Soren’s hiding spot, and he started to walk over. For a brief moment, Soren thought he’d been discovered, but the man’s eyes focused on something in the distance. Soren pressed himself against the rock, holding his breath.

The man passed by, oblivious, his thoughts apparently elsewhere. Soren followed him. He drew his sword but thought better of it. When they were out of sight, he snapped the man’s neck.

The second man died when he wandered off to take a piss in a dark corner.

When Soren returned, he found the last man fidgeting near the cage, a nervous look on his face, perhaps worried about his friends who hadn’t returned. Soren picked up a stone and threw it against a pile of rocks, which collapsed with a clatter. The man flinched. His face shone with sweat, and his Adam’s apple worked up and down. He called out. When he received no answer, he drew a notched sword and crept toward the rock pile.

He did not see Soren slip behind him.

Soren could hear the man’s shallow breaths, smell the grease in his hair. Soren quietly drew his short sword, then reached out and grasped the man’s head and drew the blade across the man’s throat. But his hand slipped off the sweat-slick chin and the cut went awry. The man squirmed out of his grip and took off running, screaming incomprehensibly.

Damn.

Moments later, shouts echoed through the encampment. Briefly, Soren considered running. Then he imagined hobbling across the desert with an entire bloodthirsty tribe chasing him. That would never work. They’d hunt him down and kill him with ease. I should have fled. See what happens when you try to help?

The voice of his conscience did not answer.

In the flickering firelight, dark shapes moved. Soren braced himself against the rocky wall as men emerged from the darkness. Dozens of them. He drew his sword as a familiar figure approached.

“You again?” Jahout said. He made a flicking motion with his hand, the sign to ward off evil. “What are you? Some sort of demon?”

“Not yet.”

“Indeed.” Jahout’s eyes narrowed. “You were easy enough to kill, before. This time, we will cut your corpse to pieces and burn it. Let us see you come back from that.”

“It won’t work. I’ll come back anyway,” he said. Yet a prickle of fear worked its way down Soren’s spine. What would happen to him if his body were torn apart, rendered down? In his mind’s eye he saw himself rising, a stunted, broken thing, twisted beyond recognition, a corrupted puppet. He shuddered.

“See?” Jahout turned to the men standing behind him. “The demon is afraid! Take him!”

Men surged forward.

At the edge of Soren’s consciousness, the runes flickered. It wasn’t much of a choice: death by dismemberment, or the madness of sorcery.

With a trembling hand, he traced a rune in the air and began to sing. He called Fire.

The rune’s power surged through him like a river, filling him with blinding white ecstasy. A sheet of flame roared out, engulfing his attackers.

The intense heat crushed the air from Soren’s lungs. He could barely hear the screaming of the men as the fire seethed over them, their skin curling up and peeling off, muscle and fat blackening in the blaze. Still he sang. He wanted to let go. Lose himself.

A dark presence squeezed into his skull. Kill them all, it rasped. Destroy them. He saw visions of the entire encampment alight, orange flames going up in a roaring rush, the bodies piled in heaps. And he smiled.

He stalked forward and the consuming flame ran before him, burning everything that moved.

Then he came to the corpse. A small, shriveled thing. One of the children, probably drawn by curiosity. He couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl.

Images of the children’s game flashed in his mind, the rag-ball bouncing, the squeals of glee, laughter. A girl chasing a boy with a stick.

They’re evil. Burn them.

I can’t.

You must. You will.

No.

Soren clutched the sides of his head. He gritted his teeth and forced the voice down. The presence vanished. His thoughts cleared. He looked up.

Greasy smoke snaked up from smoldering bodies, and the smell of charred flesh hung in the air. He gagged.

Jahout lay on the ground. His legs were little more than fleshless stumps. One of his hands was melted into a shriveled claw. His breath rattled in his chest.

Soren held the runeblade aloft. The runes scribed on the sword twisted and writhed in the dimness.

“A cursed thing,” Jahout said, staring at the blade.

“Like its owner.”

“You are not a man. You are a monster. This is a foul death. Murder by sorcery.” Jahout’s blistered lips curled into a leer, the skin of his face cracking. “I will haunt you.”

Soren leaned closer and rested the tip of his sword on Jahout’s breastbone. “You don’t deserve a clean death,” he said. “But I’ll give it to you anyway.”

Soren thrust the blade deep into the chieftain’s chest and twisted it, listening with satisfaction as the sternum cracked. Jahout twitched and died, his eyes rolling up, the whites gleaming in the dark.

Soren turned away from the corpse. The remaining tribesmen had scattered into the desert. He secured provisions without trouble, making sure to take plenty of food and water.

Before he left, he went back to the wooden cage. The girl had recovered consciousness and was crouched in the corner. Her head jerked up at his approach, and she watched him like a rabbit might eye a wolf.

He unlatched the door and opened it. She didn’t move. “It’s okay to come out,” he said. “They won’t hurt you again.”

The girl braced herself against the back of the cage and shook her head. She must have witnessed the battle and seen what the sorcery had done to the tribesmen, to Soren.

“Please,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”

She refused.

“So be it.” He left the door open. She’d make her escape eventually. Perhaps she’d make it back to her own tribe. Then she could tell her family and friends about the monster who killed her captors and inexplicably let her live.

The sky blushed with the first light of dawn. Someday, he’d be rid of the curse. He’d find a cure or die trying. If he could, in fact, die.

He turned to the south and started walking.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Ethan Fode’s short stories and poetry have appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, The Eleventh Muse, and the California Quarterly. He lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where he works as an engineer, writer, and co-editor Crowded Magazine.


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