The Vengeance of Curion
by S. L. Harris
Marl had gotten clean away with the crown of Curion and was drinking down the first of his profits when the vengeance of that immortal sorcerer began. The rogue’s gaze traveled down his lifted tankard to behold a wracked female form, lambent and pale, with eyes that seemed the very origin of darkness. She floated above a table of men who did not see her; her long hair and tattered cloak billowed in a wind that did not blow. The sounds of the room drained from Marl’s ears, and the fire suddenly gave him no warmth.
Marl perceived at once that this phantom had been conjured and sent by Curion. It was precisely the sort of curse that Marl had glimpsed in the blasphemous books of gramarye that lined the walls of the sorcerer king’s tower (for Marl, even in the course of so momentous a heist, could never resist stealing a moment to browse a book). And he well knew the powers these dead souls had to steal men’s breath and break their fortunes, to drive them to madness and despair. It was, to all appearances, a classic haunt, and Curion was a man of classic tastes.
As Marl’s beer touched his lips he spat it out, vinegar sour. Despite the ugly taste on his tongue and the chill spreading through his frame he lifted his vessel toward the floating figure.
“That was well done,” he said. “A cruder spirit would have gone at once for the wailing and the clanking of chains. But to take away a weary man’s beer!” He nodded respectfully, then sadly sloshed the foul liquid back and forth in the tankard.
The haunt stared at him, and in those eyes was a hateful desire to accomplish the ruination for which she had been summoned. But Marl saw something else as he watched this ghostly woman, and the part of his mind that was neither scheming his escape from the curse nor clutched by maddening fear brushed against the beginnings of a most unexpected realization.
Reasoning that there’d be no more cheer for him in the Oak and Squirrel that night, Marl stood and reached into his pouch to pay. But his fingers found none of the coins with which his purse had been full to bursting. Instead they touched what were, Marl realized on closer inspection, many hundreds of moldering fingernails, like those of dead men.
The ghost smiled hollowly and faded from view.
It was a delicate task, though not a difficult one for such as Marl, to slip unseen from the tavern and convince the stable boy to give him his horse without the customary fee.
He led the horse away and was well out of town before the good proprietor noticed that Marl had vanished without paying—a loss the more troubling as the rogue, flush with cash and beer, had some hours earlier put the entire tavern’s entertainment for the night on his own tab.
Down the midnight forest path he rode, the white form flitting beside, behind, and before, spooking Marl’s good horse and setting his hair on end. As the moon painted branching shadows on the ground, the spirit set to work on them, shaping them into all the painful memories of Marl’s long life: lost loves and good comrades gone to their graves, those few jobs he regretted passing up and the many he regretted taking. She sculpted fallen leaves with perfect artistry into the very image of his old mother, weeping after her son gone wrong. The breezes whispered in the voices of men he had slain, telling of the lives they might have lived, until Marl, who had never allowed himself to be sentimental about business, was weeping quietly into the rushing wind.
She danced around him, mocking and triumphant. Yet as he looked at that figure lit like the face of the moon, he felt toward her that inexplicable tenderness one feels toward another who has glimpsed one’s inmost sorrows..
In a little cave known to the highwaymen of those parts, Marl tried to rest. Yet he found it difficult, for, though it was mid-May and warm, his body was cold as a corpse in January. He had already put on all the clothes he had, yet the chill would not depart. As he gathered sticks for a useless fire, the ghostly woman hovered before him. Marl’s eyes traced the lines on her face and the luminous ripples of her ever-blowing hair.
He worked at the fire, but, though Marl prided himself on being able to make a blaze of rotten logs in a rainstorm, he could not now coax a flame. At last he settled back against an ancient root and fixed his eyes on the spirit.
Through his shivers, he managed something of a conversational tone. “You were a traveler, I observe.”
The ghost regarded him with what might have been curiosity and might have been simple malice.
“Your shoes,” he explained. “Good shoes, well-worn. And you seem to have died walking, or ready to walk. I hope to greet death so.”
The haunt gave no answer.
“Where you dwell now—when you are not conjured for a haunting, I mean—are there roads to travel? Some say it is a flat and empty plain. That would be hard for me. Or a darkness in which there is no waking. That would be harder. The dark is for work and walking.”
A shudder troubled the spirit’s face like wind on the waters.
Marl went on. “Do you hate being conjured up? The books all say you spirits do. Disturbing your rest and all. But I think I would be glad.”
Marl wrapped his arms around his knees to give himself at least the illusion of warmth.
“I’ve been haunted twice before, you know. Two different ghosts. I drowned one in a basin of holy water reserved for the baptisms of princes—and still that kingdom’s soldiers dog me. I swapped one in exchange for a curse of honesty, which was in the end far more trouble than the ghost. And now there is you.”
The ghost broke her silence then. “Fool! I am not some little geist to be pushed into the water or traded like corn! I am Muriel, the shade of dark roads, whose undead spirit is a hot coal in the necromancer’s hand. I have been the bane of emperors and of lonely men in great houses! I shatter minds with my wail and foil prophecies with my curses! I am bound to you by mighty sorceries, and I am your ruin!”
“Muriel,” whispered Marl to himself, as his weary mind at last found sleep despite the cold.
His restless slumber was full of dreams of drowning. With the sense of black waters closing over him, he awoke to find that Muriel’s spectral lips were on his own. She was, as malevolent spirits are known to do, drawing the breath from out his lungs. Marl, however, heart racing and mind still honest with the honesty of first waking, did something that no victim of such a ghost has been known to do before or since. He returned the kiss.
Muriel darted back into the air and regarded him with shock.
“You are mad!” she hissed.
“Muriel!” he cried, fully awake now. “Mad I am, I think. Mad with love for you.”
She gaped a moment, then laughed—a chilling, astonished laugh. “Fool! Presumptuous fool! Has ever in the history of the world a man dared to love his doom?”
To that, Marl reflected, he could give answer even had he not gotten rid of the curse of honesty.
After that, the haunting began in earnest. What was left of Marl’s money quickly disappeared, and his fortunes along with it. He, who had once crept unheard across the king’s own bedchamber to keep an appointment with a royal chambermaid, now found his feet landing on squeaky boards and crumbling cornices. His lock picks disappeared at the most inopportune times, and guards who should have been fast asleep were awake with a sense of preternatural warning. Soon, Marl could not find an honest burglary job in any of the cities of the plain. He began to be seized by fits and fevers, and no matter how warmly he dressed, he was always cold. His good horse Haze, whom he had ridden through the shadows of the Demon Lands, now shied whenever he came near, and at last he was forced to give her up, though it broke his heart. Babies cried when he drew near and his passage set all the dogs in town to howling.
Yet he could not bring himself to seek seriously some cure or exorcism for the curse upon him. Every time that haunted face appeared, his heart skipped two beats: one for fear, and one for love. And every time it vanished, its latest malefaction accomplished, Marl called out shivering for her to stay a little longer, to give him at least a word.
Muriel went fluttering back to Curion’s tower and begged an audience. The sorcerer, seated in the company of demons in a wide and roofless chamber beneath the stars, turned on her a gaze that would wither a living heart.
“He is the most impossible creature on the earth or under it!” she cried.
Curion said nothing.
“I demand freedom from this charge!”
One eyebrow lifted on the sorcerer’s wizened face, and the demons around his chair shifted uncomfortably. Muriel adopted a chastened tone. “He refuses to go to ruin. I had thought to have him broken in a day, and instead, long weeks have I tormented him. He makes a mockery of my work, spouts poetry while I turn his shadow against him, gathers flowers while mobs chase him from town! You have set me an impossible task.”
At last Curion spoke. “If I have done so, I have done so. But I think not.” Then he cast his eyes to the wheeling stars and paid her no more mind. The attitude of the demons suggested to Muriel that she ought to go.
Muriel returned to her work with furious energy. She endeavored not to talk to Marl, though he incessantly spoke to her. Once she clove his tongue to the roof of his mouth to silence him, but Marl, undaunted, carried on his one-sided conversation in the moaning and vocalic language of the western deserts, and she relented. As he roamed throughout the cities and the wild places of the world he told her what he knew of them, which was a great deal, and invented what he did not. Not once did he seem daunted by her silence.
At last Marl was struck with fever and lay shivering six days in a hovel by the brickyards of an ugly southern city, where an old woman brought him broth twice a day on the strength of his promise to leave her his shoes and cloak when he died.
As he drifted shuddering from uneasy dreams one evening, Muriel spoke, her voice like ice.
“I have taken from you everything. Why do you still smile?”
“Ah, Muriel. As long as you remain with me, you have not taken anything.”
Her face twisted in rage, and she began tossing the hovel’s few furnishings against the wall.
“Come!” cried Marl. “This crude poltergeist work does not suit you!”
She came before him like an icy whirlwind and wailed. “Who are you to speak to me! Idiot! Ass! You mock me!”
“No, never! You are a true master of your craft.” He paused, and then, unable to help himself, added: “And beautiful, besides.”
She crashed around the room like a trapped bird, and, after a while drew so close that frost formed on Marl’s sweat-drenched brow.
“Because of you and your madness, I’m bound to you forever,” she cried. “Because of you, I’ll never again know rest!”
“Rest!” said Marl, his weak voice gaining strength. “You have no desire for rest! I’ve known it since I saw your wandering eyes in the taproom of the Oak and Squirrel. Rest is an ill-fitting cloak on you, as it is on me. We are restless souls, you and I, else how had Curion conjured you up from the grave?”
Muriel paused in her wailing, for she remembered the feel of grass beneath her feet in long-dead ages of the world, and the sight of her shadow going long before her on an easterly road at dusk. She thought of the exultation she had felt even as her spirit fled her earthly frame, her eagerness to see what lay ahead. And she thought of Marl’s wide wanderings, and his endless supply of ridiculous tales, his concern for his horse, and the stupid way he always stepped through doors with his right foot first.
“Ah!” cried Marl. “You see! You see! Come with me, my love, and we’ll see the wide world, from the slopes of the Circling Mountains to the shores of the Silver Sea!”
Joy is an emotion not ordinarily felt by ghosts, but things were moving quickly now beyond the ordinary. Muriel’s soul, unconstrained by a body, did what souls first finding themselves in love do, and when she returned from her rocket journey to the starry heavens, she rushed to gather Marl in an icy embrace.
“Aye, I’ll go with you awhile. We’ll see what comes—two restless souls in a restless world! Ah, it is good, good, good! To find a kindred spirit and one to love. I am happy. I am…”
Both Marl and Muriel realized as one what had occurred. Muriel had time to finish miserably: “I am at peace.”
And then with a moaning keen from both throats as one, the spirit of Muriel long dead began to wither and fade. For it is against all laws of nature and of necromancy for a spirit at peace to remain to trouble the world. Marl clutched heartbroken at the empty air as he felt the icy fingers slip from his chest.
And in his mighty and forbidden tower, the sorcerer king smiled a hideous smile, for cruel and subtle is the vengeance of Curion.