The hours drew on as the curse-binder led his less-than-reputable clients down the long and shadowed halls beneath the earth. The dark-eyed and stoic man was accompanied by three others – thieves and mercenaries. They each carried a torch, but the curse-binder carried in his hand a lambent flame of ghostly green, a form of holy fire he used in his arts. Though the mercenary trio were hard and grizzled when compared to normal men, even they were wide-eyed and fearful in the forsaken places the Miasma touched. A form of living curse, an elemental darkness that covered vast swaths of the land, cutting off some areas entirely from one another, burying secrets almost as ancient as life itself. Even those who cut throats for a living feared such places, and had to hire elite members of the clergy to guide them through perilous places such as these. The curse-binder was one of these elite clergymen that could combat the Miasma.
“Are we nearly there?” asked an excessively impatient mercenary. He stroked his beard impatiently in the torch-lit glow, shooting a suspicious look towards the scar-faced man who appeared to be their leader.
“I told you we would arrive by morning, did I not?” was the curse-binder’s answer.
“And you can tell time underground, eh?” remarked the short man in dark leathers with an incredulous chuckle.
“I can tell time in all the dark and godless places above or below the earth.”
“So, you could be leading us in circles down here and we’d have no idea, is that what you’re saying?”
“Tell me why it was you hired a curse-binder? You do recall that you came to me, yes?” He was met with knowing silence, then went on to answer his own question: “you hired me because even men like you can’t fight the Miasma. If I deliver you alive at all it would be better than the death you’d suffer without me. But no, you’ll be to Gosbree’s woods by morning. And to answer your question, it is only midnight. We’ve a long way to go yet.”
Silence followed for some time. The curse-binder led stoically, the mercenaries followed fearfully – a torch in one hand, fingering a hilt in the other. After hours they entered a pillared hall of stone so large that neither torch nor holy fire could fully illuminate it. At the end of this hall was a massive iron door whose threshold was marred in a scabby oozing darkness.
“I thought the Miasma was a mist.”
“There is a mist” a second mercenary pointed to the dark fog that also wafted from the cracks of the door.
“You’re both right,” spoke the curse-binder coming to a halt a few feet from the door, “it is a mist in the loosest sense. But in some places it is solid. Here you see it reacting to iron, which is a holy material. It becomes bound to it, as a curse. It becomes a thick sludge and scabs over in time. Eventually… well, you don’t want to know what happens eventually. But this is our door. You remember I told you there would be fighting?”
“Aye, we remember, we are fighting men after all.”
“Now is the time, gentlemen. In order to break a curse like this, I must do what I do best and bind it to something living, so it can be killed.”
“Something living? We’re the only living thing down here!” spoke the bearded mercenary with a rising fear.
“You didn’t tell them?” the curse-binder inquired of the leader. He was met with an audible nervous swallow. “In order to pass through here a human must die.” His words fell like a pall. The scar-faced man and the short man turned menacingly to their comrade.
“You traitorous bastards!” roared the bearded mercenary, unsheathing his blade instantly. “You stay back! You stay away from me!” They unsheathed their blades accordingly.
“Don’t kill him you fools! Or the choice will be between the two of you” was the curse-binder’s only advice.
“You’re a heretic! I thought you were a god-damned clergyman!”
“I’m more like a mercenary myself. I was trained by the clergy, but I serve no god but the power of the Pale Flame. You’re all three cutthroats, you know how it works.” Fear blazed in the bearded man’s eyes. His former comrades approached cautiously, his longsword flashed in their direction and they backed away. “You couldn’t bring someone down here with us?”
“No one else would come here for love of money!”
“Kidnap someone. You’re not above that kind of thing!”
“I told him that all participants had to be willing to venture down here. The age of picking sacrifices off the street was a bit savage for the clergy’s taste.”
“Well I am sure as hell not willing!” His former comrades hesitated.
“We can go back. I will not refund your money. And you will still have to find another curse-binder, who will tell you the same thing and lead you to the same door.”
“We’re still doing this,” spoke their leader with feigned confidence, “we have to.”
“I mean, do we really have to?” questioned the man in dark leathers, “is it really that important to get to Gosbree? We’ve never even been to that side of the world, it may not be worth a damn!”
“Gosbree is far more advantageous than Rothedain,” interjected the curse-binder, “I can assure you of that.
“Shut up you!” the bearded man’s voice broke with hysteria, “shut the hell up!” He rushed his former comrades. The leader blocked the stroke and the shorter man drove a dagger into the bearded man’s side. He reeled from the blow.
“I recommend you disarm him” spoke the curse-binder.
The wounded mercenary crossed blades again, more cautiously this time. But he was bested quickly and a sword-stroke left his arm limp at his side, his blade fell to the ground. He staggered back, looking wildly from combatant to combatant, to the coldly indifferent curse-binder. The man resembled a wounded wolf. Now the curse-binder drew something from his cloak: an ornate censer that glowed with the same green fire as his right hand. As it swung he chanted to his flame like one whispering into a lover’s ear. A thread of glowing runes crept from the door, and soon split into several threads of glowing symbols. A paralysis came over the bearded man in which only his eyes were animate. His former comrades crept away in utter awe of the spectacle. His own threads reached up to connect with the others, and soon they wove into one. The paralysis broke and his torch fell to the ground as his flesh bubbled like he was boiling in acid, frothing in red paste from beneath his breastplate, oozing from in between his chainmail links. It purpled and blackened before their eyes, hardening into a scabby carapace. His skull was naked beneath a hood of blackened flesh, his eyes were smoking empty halls into hell itself. Anything that was human about him was gone.
“My god…” spoke the scar-faced man.
“God does not reside among the Miasma. He hates to look upon it. He can’t hear you down here. Now slay that abomination!” The curse-binder had put away his censer and drawn a fluted mace, his flame still burning in his hand.
The misshapen man advanced with feral speed, and was upon the mercenaries in an instant. The short man suffered a claw against his arm, but managed a returning strike with his dagger. It failed to crack the unholy carapace. The scar-faced man struck with similar results. Both fighters dodged more clawed strikes, but could not penetrate their foe’s defense.
“Back!” instructed the quickly advancing curse-binder. The fighters parted for him as the demented creature charged him in a frenzy. He sheathed his arm in green flame and with it blocked the abomination’s blow, and at the same time brought down his own mace, cracking the scabby carapace from its arm, exposing the jumbled mess of flesh and bone that bubbled beneath, splattering on the floor in a melancholic sludge. The fighters looked on as the clergyman and the dark being circled, each mace-blow cracking the creature’s abysmal armor. At last a blow struck its exposed skull and a cloud of darkness erupted, blackened human remains boiling out over the floor where it fell. The crust sloughed from the iron door, fading to smoke as it hit the ground. The door creaked open.
The curse-binder’s mace dripped with goo as his flame returned to his palm. His clients were in a state of complete bewilderment. He cleaned his weapon quickly.
“What was that? What did you do?”
“Do you think I call myself a curse-binder for the fun of it? You paid me a lot of money for my ability to do that. That was but an example of what the Miasma can do. A scrap of its true power. Pray it is the last of it you ever have to see, mercenary. It’s nearly morning. Let us continue.”
Silently, and characteristically remorselessly they left the massive hall, passing through the iron door and into the ruins beyond.
Matthew Jent is a Kentucky-born artist now residing in Bay Area California, where he works for a public sculptor. In his free time he pursues his other passions for painting, writing, and making music.