Win every bet? Make money hand over fist? Sounds good to some of the Jennan Clan, and they don't want to give up the opportunity, even to the point of war ...
Chiernavan the Elf pulled a pretty slick trick on us, I have to admit. She paid out a major investment for a curse on us, one that would cause about as much trouble for my clan as an all-out war. The curse, as nearly as we could figure out, made the Jennans attract wealth and good fortune. Sounds lovely, but that's not our style. Especially when, in its additional irritation, the curse prevented us from passing on any of the wealth. No one would accept our money, steal our money, hold on to our money -- it was becoming like a steadily growing anchor. We tried just dumping the gold and jewels we'd accumulated by the side of the road in some bushes, but within a day a couple poor farmers caught up with us, their donkey limping and overburdened with the treasure. "We knew you couldn't be leaving this behind," one said, bowing and groveling in a most abject manner.
The Silver Platter Curse even made it impossible for us to lose a bet, no matter how outrageous, and the victims of our luck were prevented from even holding a grudge.
We headed toward the Jennan Well, where the source of the curse had been laid, and hoped for a good outcome, and not the demise of our clan. My friend Danner and I had as our companion and very reluctant colleague the worthy Cloudraft the Great, a wizard with a penchant for nude recreation and fine dining.
The lands of the Ur-clans are along a river that empties into a seacoast, and are mostly found under tall trees, with an occasional clearing for agriculture, the whole idea stemming from a desire not to be spotted for plunder or snacks by a passing dragon. When we passed the borders of the Jennan Lands, we stopped for the night to parley and plan.
"WHY am I a part of this," moaned Cloudraft, "I hate conflict!"
"We all hate conflict, Cloudy," said Danner, "and just what conflict are you going to inflict, removing a curse?"
"You stupid hedge-perchers! Don't you see what will happen when the curse is lifted?"
"We'll go back to living the way we're supposed to," I told him.
"Do you really think every one of the Jennans is going to want to do that?" the wizard roared.
"I would say that it's too damn bad if they don't, Cloudraft. And if they take exception to having the curse removed, then maybe it will be too damn bad for us, but I'm not changing my mind. What do you care, anyway?"
"Professional courtesy, for one thing! I don't want to discommode a brother wizard, and Fellmount will not be pleased to have his curse broken by fellow wizardry!" He was so agitated that he waved his wand and made an overstuffed recliner appear, and leaned back with his feet to the fire and began pulling at the hairs of his moustache.
"So why don't you and Foulmouth --"
"-- Fellmount -- get together over some schnapps afterwards and cook up a nice curse on someone else? A little Warlock-Bonding, eh?" Danner offered helpfully. "I know this lawyer who specializes in frivolous lawsuits who could use a little interest in his life."
"IF I am able to break this curse --"
"We know you will, Old Hat," Danner smiled with true fondness.
"Shut up! If I do, then Fellmount will be expected to refund the fee he was paid to put the curse into use. The fool gave a 10-year money back guarantee!"
I looked at Danner, who was looking at me. We both burst into hard laughter that knocked us flat on the ground. When the weakness of knowing we were not the only citizens screwed in this deal had passed, and we had wiped our faces dry of the tears of hilarity, we sat up again, composed ourselves with a number of "Ahem's," and I said to Cloudraft, "That's the Chiernavan we know and malign, all right. She knew that we'd try to break the curse, and then she'd have caused misery for us and got her money back besides. How much did she pay him, anyway?"
"Five hundred pieces of gold. A fortune." His voice was serious, and his lips thinly pressed in a pucker, and Danner and I lost it again, holding our bellies and shrieking with laughter.
"We'll spot him the cost and give him a big tip, besides," Danner gasped.
"And even though you don't want paid," I promised Cloudraft, for the curse prevented him from accepting any of our money, "I will arrange for something."
"And the resentful Jennans?" he asked skeptically.
I thumped my staff into the ground, anchoring it. A cloud of mist formed into dozens of Jennan ghosts, standing around, staring at him. "I am a Jennan, Wizard. Should any clan elder dispute my choice of action, the Spirits of the Jennan will set them straight."
"Damn straight," said a spectral voice.
"Straight as de inter-state," said another.
"Good lookin' wiz-ARD," murmured a different shade.
I drew the staff out of the ground as Cloudraft's knees jerked up to his chin. He batted a ghostly hand away from his ankle, dispersing it like vapor. "Keep your ectoplasm to yourself!"
"Be nice, Cloudraft. You want them on our side."
"Our side? OUR side? Do not include me on YOUR side! I am the only one on MY side, which soon will be on the FAR side of the continent from YOUR side!" He stood up, made the recliner disappear, and made a tent appear. He drew an unbroken line around the tent with his wand and muttered some words of warding so that the ghosts couldn't pester him. "And that goes for you, too!" He pointed his finger at us, turned, and flounced inside the tent flaps.
What happens when the spell is broken? When perpetual good times go back to being the run of the mill upsy-downsy kind of life? I tell you, it's going to be rough for us, even though this easy street atmosphere has become annoying as hell. You see it all the time with people everywhere. They have a long run of good times, prosperity and happiness and health, and then like a bolt of lightning, everything changes. A job is lost. Someone gets an ugly illness. A flood sweeps through town and demolishes the houses.
People are surprised by that, as if the good life was some kind of right they'd acquired along the way. "Why did this have to happen to me?" they ask, ignoring the consideration that there are few people in existence who haven't had rotten luck, some of them just about all their lives.
Like the colony of wood sprites that live on the west face of Spar Mountain. The pines that grow there are so straight and tall that lumbermen can't resist cutting them down, which leaves the wood sprites homeless until some more decent trees grow up. And as they live on the weatherward side of the mountain, every storm that passes by drenches the hillsides with water until little cascades appear to wash away their mint and teaberry gardens. That is, of course, unless the lightning from the storms doesn't set the forest on fire. I was passing through their forest once and met a sprite named Mesquite who had found a broken pocket watch. It was his most prized possession, not that he, living in the brush, had many. He consulted it regularly to decide the time. "When I wake up in the morning, I look at Watch and say, 'Look at the time! Time to get up!' When I feel hungry, I look at Watch and say, 'Time for some food!' When the storms begin to thunder, I look at Watch and say, 'I should have known that it was time for a storm!' Watch always makes me tell the time, be it time of day or night. I can tell what time there's honeysuckle blooming and when it is time to take shelter under a rock. And this Watch is so powerful, it can hold all the times I can think of."
"What time is it now?" I asked Mesquite.
"Time for you to leave before you get so hungry we have to feed you," he replied cheerfully.
There aren't many wood sprites left on Spar Mountain any more, but the ones that are still there have that fatalistic attitude, that whatever time it is, it's the time for it.
We're going to need pocket watches like that once this spell is broken. Because there're some lizardmen who are going to come after us to get back their gold. Not to mention some dwarves, who will be pretty angry to have been drawn into some humiliating betting games. And Pip Hiderson, who may even have figured out how the gold of his grandfather's ghost came to be missing. If I consulted Mesquite the Sprite's wise old Watch, would I find that it's time to run and hide or time to pay the piper?
We made it to the Jennan Well by the time the sun was just about halfway up the morning sky, which gave us a little time before the Hour of Light when the sun would illuminate the depths of the underground water source. There were no guards there, as there should have been. I pointed with my chin at Danner, and she rather reluctantly climbed into the sentry post. I led Cloudraft down the stairs to the deep lake that made Ur-Jennans the best shamans in this part of the world.
When the sun came over the skylight at noon, we looked into the Well, now illuminated to light golden and brown and blue shadows. I pushed my staff into the ground, and well-guards of past times began to amble towards us.
"What's been done to the Well?" I asked them. Their misty shapes swirled about, blue-ish in the sun, gray in the shade. Two, then five, then a dozen whispered and pointed to the depths of the Well, where a black stone made a shadow as dark as the Abyss.
"Aser," Danner's voice echoed down the stairs, "Bel Ur-Trabben to see you."
The Ur-Trabbens are seers, who look at things and see the future, or possibilities, or the past and its echoes. Beller was small and dark and delicate, with graceful hands and sleek hair. Obviously the Ur-Trabbens didn't need a curse to live high on the hog.
"An elf and a wizard came here and left a stone," she said serenely, "and I saw you coming to remove it."
"I thank you, and the Life That Guides the World thanks you," I said, not wishing to be resentful of the things I already knew.
"And a contingent of the Jennan clan is on its way with horses and spears and bows to stop you from taking the stone. I thought you should know," said Beller, with her perfect lips, her Bambi-like Ur-Trabben eyes wide and innocent. She turned and glided back up the steps.
"Quick, Cloudraft, get the stone out of there! What do we have to do with it when it's out?"
"We'll have to destroy it, but it's a moot point -- I can't make it move by magic," he said, "That's part of the genius of the curse."
"Then jump in and get it," I said. "The water's not that deep there, only about 12 feet. They must have wanted us to see the stone to tease us. What are you waiting for, theme music?"
"I can't swim," said Cloudraft.
"I'll get it," I volunteered, shedding my robe. I dove in deep, making my hands a rudder towards the stone. When I scooped my hands around the black stone, I felt a shock like I had been leaning on a tree struck by lightning. I came back to myself on the rock edge of the lake, puking water.
Dripping wet, Danner was pushing on my back, and Beller was kneeling beside her with her little painted fingers interlaced. "Aser, I forgot to tell you that I foresaw that only a wizard may touch the stone."
I pulled my robe back on. "Anything else you're forgetting, like maybe seeing how the stone is removed?"
She pursed her lips and tried to look thoughtful. "No, that part's all fuzzy."
Must be the part that's your brain, I thought. Just then there was a clanging at the top of the winding stair. The want-to-stay-rich contingent was rattling at the locked gate. "I'll just go and let myself out," said Beller, standing up, "I have no part in this."
Coughing, I grabbed her ankle before she could get out of reach. "Beller, if you let yourself out, don't you think they'll take that opportunity to let themselves in?"
"Oh," she said, putting her hand to touch her lips, "yes, I can see how that will happen."
"Can't you call up another wizard who can swim?" shouted Danner above the increased clanging.
"Why would a wizard need to swim if a boat or raft can be conjured at a moment's notice? No, none of my colleagues are that athletic, I'm afraid. Is it very difficult to learn?"
"Easier than one of us learning to become a wizard," I said, trying to think of how to start a swimming instruction in twelve feet of water.
"Ha, ha, ha," twinkled Beller, "Imagine, Aser, in a wizard's hat!"
"That's it! Cloudraft, turn me into a wizard!"
He sputtered, "Wizardry is a science that perfects a gift, not a condition like measles or baldness! Though, I wonder, is the giftedness a condition ... you know, this would make an excellent paper..."
"While you folks are telling jokes and philosophizing, those loons up there are hitching horses to the gates to pull them down!" Danner said from the stairs where she'd gone to check the cessation of clanging.
"I cannot imagine what all would be required of such a spell ... " he shook his head sadly, "No, it would be impossible."
"Impossible," chimed Beller sweetly.
I turned toward her, my hands sweating suddenly. "Beller, I bet you all the gold I've got that he can!"
An eerie chill breeze blew through the cavern and my skin prickled. Cloudraft's hat blew off and rolled into a shelter between some rocks. His face had paled, and his jaw dropped. "Yes, I understand now what the spell has to be." He lifted his wand, and little sparks of electricity played around the tip. "Are you ready, Aser?"
I wasn't, and would never be. It would be like having this curse settle on my shoulders forever. "I suppose I have to be."
"No, wait," Danner said, hopping down from the stairs between Cloudraft and me. "Not Aser, me." We all gaped at her. "C'mon, Cloudy, don't waste any more time!" She was already peeling off clothes.
He tapped her on the head with the wand and she fell to her knees, the electricity playing all about her. Then it faded, and she dove into the water, spiraling down to the black stone, now nearly invisible in the creeping shadows. Up she came again, holding a fist-sized stone, elaborately etched with a picture of a hugely fat figure loaded with jewelry, its back depicted covered with coins.
"Now just breaking the stone should break the curse," Cloudraft said, but as he reached to take it from Danner, the gates above broke with a screech and Jennan warriors poured down the steps. In an instant bows were leveled at us.
"I have nothing to do with this, I'm an Ur-Trabben." Beller smiled and sat prettily on a rock out of the line of fire.
"You don't want to do this," I said, holding up my hand in the gesture for negotiation. "The curse has to be lifted from our clan."
"Why, Aser? Didn't you like being warm and well-fed? Well, some of us do like it, and don't want to go back to grubbing in gardens for roots and herbs all the time, and freezing our asses off all winter. Throw the stone back in the Well or we'll shoot!"
Ghosts in the chamber hissed and milled, with whispery shouts of "Break the stone!" and to the Jennan archers, "Go back! Go home!"
There was more shouting from the top of the stairs where the gates had been. Beller put one finger to her temple and said, "I can tell that's some of the Jennans who want the curse lifted. I see fighting in the future."
Over the wailing sound the ghosts began to make, I shouted, "This is what happens! Gold upon gold is never enough! Now you want other people's blood as much as you want gold, and you won't stop with us, you'll kill anyone who tries to get in your way! You'll multiply this curse a hundredfold -- look at how the clan is already divided, you'll never feel safe again, not even from your own children!" One of the archers eased the bowstring and lowered the arrow, and then another did. To the others I said, "You told us to throw the stone back or you'd shoot us. You'll even go back on that word, because you won't want anyone alive who knows how to defeat the spell. You'll shed blood over a possibility, over a worry, over a whisper. You'll have war just so that you can take away from others instead of giving."
The ghosts began to chant, "Be judged! Be judged! Be judged!"
There was a shout from one of the curse-defenders at the top of the steps. "Stop fighting! We'll leave!" And the last archer lowered her bow.
Cloudraft poised a large rock over the curse-stone. I whispered quickly, and then the stones met, and the black one broke into five pieces. "Now it's nothing more than gravel," the wizard said, and dropped the black fragments into a pouch. We climbed the stairs out of the now-darkened Well, shaking hands and patting shoulders in commiseration. Four armed Jennans stayed to guard the broken gates.
"Danner, I'm sorry how things turned out. Now what will you do?" I asked her.
"I'm not sorry, Aser. I didn't want to have to give the horse up, anyway. I guess I'll tag along with Cloudraft for a while and find out what all I can and can't do. Maybe I can put a curse on that damn elf."
"You most certainly will not," Cloudraft said loudly and sententiously, quite proud of himself. "You will pay attention to what I tell you and be a model apprentice for as long as it lasts. I think I was able to make you a temporary wizard only, but I am not sure. I wish to consult my texts. Now come along."
Danner chuckled. "Besides, I think ol' Cloudy has a cute butt. I'll be having fun, never fear. Hey, one last thing," she said, as we hugged goodbye. "What did you whisper just before he broke the stone?"
"Just a simple bet," I told her. "I bet that the next time Chiernavan stands up to play the harp at a concert, the elastic on her underwear will give out." I shrugged.
"You win," said Danner.