I hope you enjoyed the first part of Blessings and Curses (and I hope you’re enjoying The Fall). We saw last week that Conrad isn’t faring so well since his encounter with the Blacklehnian. It’s not altogether as bad as that hulking man is faring though. And since only he knows of the curse he spoke of, it’s up to Conrad to keep him alive. In this next portion of the story, Conrad takes the man to some allies in the city…
Blessings and Curses
The sun was still far beyond the horizon, but the tinges of fire opal and cerulean in the sky heralded its arrival. The cleric had labored for some time to reach the temple district of Atalatha, made all the more difficult by the burden he bore.
Conrad had borrowed a cart from the front of one merchant’s shop and stretched hide from another, all under the cloak of night. Even with the wooden wheels lending their aid, the weight of the transport made for a tiresome task. Conrad dragged his forearm across his sweaty brow and noticed the prominence of his veins once more. He tried to dismiss the dull pain as mere weariness, his muscles protesting his labors. That sight of the blackness returning to his body proved he was deceiving himself.
He pulled on the hide, making sure the feet that dangled off the edge of the cart were properly concealed. Conrad fought past the pain and fatigue, lifting the cart once more. He set to work, pressing forward, the path before him familiar. While the main entrance to the temple of Mathias was much closer, it was also prominently displayed before all. And while Eltan Mane, the duke of the city, had declared the Blacklehnian prisoners were in fact “guests,” he wasn’t so sure the sight of the violet band would be accepted by the other parishioners.
Instead, Conrad opted for a more discrete route. The temple complex in northeastern Atalatha encompassed each of the major gods, though some, like that to Nerot, were relegated to smaller places of worship. Each of them celebrated their dead, those tried and true heroes of a particular craft or designation. Craftsman, clerics, farmers, and soldiers were all given respects – unless there was no coin to see them safely into the ground.
Atalatha’s dead had been piling up for some time. With the recent attacks by Blacklehn laying waste to much of the city’s defenses, whole families had been removed in a manner most permanent. With no one able to pay for a funeral or construct a box, they were placed atop the pile.
Conrad held his arm over his mouth and nose, for that pile, far to the north of the cemetery, had grown large and fetid. The corpses were left to rot in the summer sun, and there were not enough gravediggers in the city to properly bury them. Conrad recalled his last visit to the temples, where a more respected member of the clergy had suggested the clerics and healers exercise some humility and pick up a shovel. He was dejected when he was reminded the injured still outnumbered the dead.
The pile was useful for one thing: None of the gravediggers batted an eye when he drove his cart through the area, a lifeless body doing little to raise suspicion. The foul stench chased most other folk away, but it left the path to the rear of the temple of Mathias clear and uninhabited. Still, the journey was long and arduous. By the time he arrived at the discrete back door of the grand stone building, the sun had lifted over the side of Atalatha’s walls. The dull pain had grown fierce, like solitary pin pricks in random parts of his body. His veins were more prominent then as well.
As he studied his strange metamorphosis, the door swung open, and a set of chainmail rattled. Conrad lowered his arm and shook his head, taking account of the man who filled the doorframe. He let show a weary grin when he saw the familiar paladin, who appeared as tired as he. A vow of silence meant no complaints would be heard, even when his labors became too strenuous.
“Hello, Robert,” Conrad said.
The paladin bowed and flashed a polite smile to his friend. He moved forward and extended his arm, but before he reached Conrad, he noticed the cart and the odd contents of it. He tugged the hide away, revealing the hulking Blacklehnian.
Conrad was already nodding before his friend narrowed his eyes. “It’s been an interesting few hours.”
* * * * *
The man from Blacklehn was laid out on the cot, breathing steady once more, but still unconscious. Beside him, the cleric sat in a plush chair, a far-off stare helping him to endure the agonizing thrum pulsing through his body. Caught in that reflection, he didn’t hear the tapping of boots coming down the adjoining hallway. When the door swung open, he nearly flung himself from his seat.
Two other members of the clergy entered, though Robert lingered at the door for a moment. He gave a nod and a grin and pulled the way shut once more. The second fellow, much older and renowned, sent a cursory glance in Conrad’s direction but turned his attention to the Blacklehnian. After a brief inspection, he poked and prodded at the large captive and finally shrugged.
“He seems no worse for wear. I assume he had injuries before this which you tended to?”
“Yes, sir,” Conrad said, wincing as he rose from his seat. “There were efforts made to rouse him as well, but no such luck, I’m afraid. His injuries were sustained several hours ago, and since then, he’s done naught but breathe.”
“Hmm.” The priest leaned forward, tracing his finger along the Blacklehnian’s body, locating scars and blemishes. When he arrived at his neck, he saw the more recent injury. He swung about and furled his brow. “This wound he has, he incurred this last night? I shouldn’t have to remind you such injuries will sap one’s energy, especially a patient as massive as this one.”
“Of course, Master Lener. It’s just that –”
“I have the utmost respect for you, my boy,” Richard said, trying to placate the healer. “And after what you’ve done for one of my dearest friends… They say Randall’s recovery is going well, and we can thank you for that. I wouldn’t dare to question your motives in bringing this man here, though I must say my curiosity is piqued. You’ve done well, and this man would survive in any bed you placed him in. So why here?”
Conrad cleared his throat and braced himself against the chair. “This man was pursued last night, much to his chagrin. Two patrons from the Bravado attacked him in an alley, and he retaliated. But I don’t think he planned on it.”
“You think he was fearful of his life?” Richard’s tone dripped of incredulity.
Shaking his head, Conrad approached the slumbering Blacklehnian. He opened his eyelids, observing the unresponsive pupils. “He badly hurt his aggressors. But he came back several moments later, set on killing them.”
“I wouldn’t expect much else from a barbarian of the north.”
“No,” Conrad said, shocked straight by the sting of the darkness. “This was different, though. His eyes glowed green, and he seemed somewhat…”
“What is it, child?”
“I know I don’t know this man, but he seemed to be under duress, like he wasn’t in control of himself. After I healed him, he was conscious for but a moment. In that time, he grabbed my wrist and warned me of a curse – one he believed he had been afflicted with.”
Richard folded his arms across his chest. “Damn it all. You told Robert about this?” Faced with a nod from the healer, the priest expelled a weary sigh. “That blasted vow of silence… You’d think people in our profession might need the use of their voice more than many. I’m tired of trying to translate my son’s wordless antics, but he did attempt to discuss this curse with me. Your account made things much easier to understand, though, thank you.”
“So what do we do with him?”
Richard chortled. “If I were not a man of the cloth, I’d say we put him in the pile out there. Seeing as Eltan has pardoned all the Blacklehnians, though, I suppose we should do our best to treat him like a citizen of Atalatha. Green eyes and what almost sounds like possession, you say? I’ll consult with some of the tomes in the Great Library. I’m sure the clerics have conducted some manor of research on such an affliction. I’ll return within a few hours, if we’re lucky.”
“What should we do with our guest in the meantime?”
Another laugh shook Richard’s narrow frame. “If he’s been unresponsive so far, I doubt we’ll have to watch him too closely. He won’t be wandering off. In any case, I’ll send Robert this way to observe him while I study.”
“Thank you, Master Lener,” Conrad said. Richard waved away the compliment and proceeded into the temple.
Once a considerable time had passed, the cleric shut the door. In solitude but for the man who shared his secret, he finally allowed himself a powerful gasp. Gone was the pulsing pain, replaced instead by a constant hum beneath his skin like shards of glass had replaced the blood in his veins. He tensed his muscles and scratched at his limbs until bright red lines were prominent above the blackened colors of his veins. Growling away the horrible discomfort, he wasted little time racing toward an antechamber, ripping the door open there.
Past a narrow hallway, Conrad saw a kitchen gone unused for some time. Inside, dust covered much of the counter space, and cobwebs clung to the cooking utensils hung on the nearest wall. Crates and barrels were lined against a side wall, rotten from misuse and water damage.
He wasted little time identifying the sink in the room and made his way to it. When he adjusted the tap, clear water did not pour from the spigot. Instead, grimy, murky brown liquid oozed into the basin. Conrad braced himself against the counter, his brow marred by sweat. The sting and itch beneath his skin had him seeing spots. Through that difficulty though, his vision settled on a rack of utensils before him. Reaching out, he grabbed a wooden meat tenderizer and took a deep breath. He peered through the dirt caked window and laid his left hand flat across the counter.
Conrad lifted the mallet high and smashed it against his hand. The initial shock of that rush of pain washed over him like a cool breeze. The discomfort and sting from the curse he had inherited could no longer be felt, disguised beneath the hefty blow he had delivered to himself.
He breathed easier then, even as he pulled his newly injured hand close to his chest. Unable to squeeze his fingers into a fist, he rested it there upon curled knuckles.
Spinning back toward the door, he nearly jumped backward. Robert stood there, his eyebrow arched. He crossed his arms over his chest and glowered at his friend.
“How much of that did you see?” Conrad asked.
* * * * *
The cleric sat against the wall, his head lying against dust and cobwebs. Though his agony had been compartmentalized for some time, the confusion had run its course. The darkness was circulating through his body like toxic sludge, like poison through his veins. Worse still, the injury he had inflicted on himself was no longer a distraction, simply adding to his woes instead.
Robert’s footsteps resonated in the antechamber, and Conrad lifted his head, waiting for what felt like an eternity for his friend to arrive. The paladin entered the room with a large burlap sack in his hands and sat it down beside his weary companion.
Without missing a beat, Conrad swept the bag in front of him and rooted through it. When he pulled out a bottle marked “essence of mandrake,” he uncorked it and quaffed it in an instant. He let his shoulders sink and closed his eyes, happy for the reprieve. At once, it felt like he was drifting to sleep.
Though the pain had been dulled, he still felt the powerful thrum of the darkness as it worked through his veins. He rotated his arms and observed his wrists, prominent black veins before him.
“This relief is only temporary,” he said, dejected. “Whatever this curse truly is, it cannot be wished away by a drink or potion.” He sat in silence for a moment before a new clarity washed over him. “It can be expelled,” the cleric said.
Robert arched one eyebrow while the other lowered. As his friend struggled to climb to his feet, he offered a hand.
“After I healed the Blacklehnian and siphoned his curse, the men who attacked him came after me. All I did was raise my hand to placate them and a… a darkness, like a fireball made of smoke… It flung from my hand. Maybe all I have to do is release this energy.”
The paladin held out his hands and shook his head at his friend.
“It’s been a long night,” Conrad protested. “But if this is possible, all I would have to do is find a safe place and let go of this darkness.” He glanced about the kitchen – through the windows, behind the barrels, out the door – until his vision settled on the small metal panel on the far side of the room. “No one’s used this kitchen in some time, correct?” He didn’t turn to see his silent companion’s response. Conrad moved forward and pulled down on the affixed handle. A creak echoed into the room and through the furnace. “This’ll do,” the cleric said.
He stepped back and wiped his brow with his forearm before extending his arm toward the furnace. Like nails tumbling through his muscles, he felt the darkness surging through him. A crackle echoed in the room, like the sky before a booming thunder. The darkness – a ball of black, smoky plasma – shot forth, and in that instant, Conrad felt relief.
Though his pain subsided, his fear would not dissipate, for the ebon projectile did not obey his command. Before it reached the furnace, it spun about in a narrow arc. Neither of the men had enough time to react before the dark magic collided into Robert. A powerful black aura flashed out for a moment as the paladin was struck and heaved backward through the open door.
With wide eyes and renewed energy, Conrad ran to his friend’s side. Robert was still conscious, but he was unable to focus on anything. He blinked away his confusion and looked to the cleric. “What happened?” Robert asked.
Conrad covered his mouth in shock.