Too Many Curses

A. Lee Martinez

Tor Books

Chapter One

Margle the Horrendous had a habit of collecting things. There were his books on various subjects of study arcane and lore obscure. His castle was filled with various monsters, or pieces of monsters, for purposes only wizards might fathom. Other chambers were filled with jewels, enchanted knickknacks, gold and other precious things, and all the peculiar odds and ends that ultimately meant little to wizards yet which they insisted on hoarding. He also had a great assortment of enemies who he had gathered over the years. Margle rarely killed his foes. Death rarely amused him. Instead, he kept them close, a grand collection of old rivals and fallen heroes. And as with all his collections, it was Nessy’s task to take care of them.

Margle was an exceptionally generous master, meaning that he was generally too busy to bother yelling at her, and when he did, he usually threw things not dangerously hard or sharp and missed more often than not. And Margle was frequently absent from the castle, leaving Nessy the run of the place— or at least the rooms that weren’t forbidden to her, where she wasn’t interested in going anyway because there were certainly many horrors waiting in Margle’s castle. There were even one or two rooms the wizard himself never went into. And one place, The Door At The End Of The Hall, that even he avoided going anywhere near.

Nessy enjoyed maintaining Margle’s vast library. And if she should take a peek at a secret volume or two while alphabetizing the shelves, Margle had yet to notice or care. She’d even picked up a handful of magic tricks. Nothing serious, but small spells of practical use. Feeding the horrors in the bestiary was the worst of her tasks, but even that she did without complaint. It was honest work and gave her a roof over her head and food in her belly, and though she knew that one day Margle would certainly kill her in a fit of rage or for some fiendish experiment or maybe just because it would amuse him to do so, she was glad to have it.

Except for the occasional overly chatty gargoyle.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I slew three ogres while armed with only a wet towel?" Gareth asked.

"Yes." Nessy polished his stone head with a rag as the gargoyle continued.

"Well, it was a terrible struggle. . . ." He blathered on for some time, and Nessy nodded as if listening. She pitied the poor soul trapped in a stone demon perched over an archway. Such was the fate of Margle’s enemies. At least this particular enemy.

"Are you listening?" Gareth sighed.

"No." Nessy was ruthlessly honest, not so much because she valued the virtue as because she seldom considered lying before she spoke.

"I was a great hero, you know."

"I know." She spat in his eye and wiped away the dust.

"I hate when you do that."

"Would you rather have dirt in your eyes?"

"No."

"Well then . . ." She nimbly climbed onto his back and shined his horns. Gareth didn’t move, couldn’t move. He could only talk, and talk a lot. And stare down the corridor at The Door At The End Of The Hall.

"Ever wonder what’s in there?" he asked as he always did when being polished.

"Best not to imagine."

"Maybe for you. That’s all I can do."

"Well, maybe if you were quieter you’d get more visitors." Gareth grumbled, "The others are just jealous of my legendary feats."

A disembodied voice spoke up. "Ah, yes, that’s it. Certainly nothing to do with your personality. Or lack thereof."

"Hello, Echo," said Nessy. Margle had taken away everything but Echo’s voice. While she lacked anything in form, she was at least free to roam the castle.

"He’s back."

Nessy’s tall, fuzzy ears cocked. She heard the distant thunder that always signaled her master’s return. "Thank you, Echo."

The voice didn’t reply. Or she was gone. It was impossible to know, but one was never really alone in Margle’s castle. Nessy jumped to the floor.

"You aren’t finished," protested Gareth.

"I’ll be back. And you can tell me all about that time you died and had to wrestle the lords of the underworld to return from the grave."

"That is a good one. See, I’d just been slain while fighting an army of lizard men. I’d defeated them, but at the cost of my very life. . . ."

Nessy walked away. He continued. Gareth enjoyed hearing his stories more than anyone else. An audience was mostly a technicality.

"What a bore," said Echo, somewhere over Nessy’s right shoulder.

"You could listen to him occasionally," Nessy said. "He gets lonely."

"Oh, I do. I’ll ask him about one of his tales of adventure, and then I’ll go find something to amuse myself, leaving him to prattle."

"That’s not very nice."

"Well, I’m invisible. You only know I’m around when I’m talking, and he never lets anyone else speak. So he never knows. Sometimes, I come back later, and he’s still going on. Then I pretend I’ve been listening the whole time. If I do it right, I can keep him amused for days without ever really having to listen to him."

This struck Nessy as a touch unethical even if she couldn’t see the harm. But she had to admit that she didn’t polish the gargoyle as much as she should because there were times she wasn’t in the mood.

A small bat swept down and landed on her shoulder. "Are ye lasses speaking of the old gray blowhard? Can’t stand the lad meself. His stories are all fuss and bluster."

"Hello, Thedeus," said Echo.

"Sir Thedeus!" squealed the four-inch bat.

Like all the castle’s fallen heroes, he was stubborn about letting go of his greatness. They were all alike. Gareth was only a little worse.

The hallway torches flared. Margle liked a bright castle. It was expected that Nessy be in the tower to greet him on his arrival. If not, he’d threaten to shave her fur or throw her into the bottomless pit in the castle bowels. He wouldn’t do it. Probably wouldn’t, she corrected, knowing that he would kill her one day. She also knew that when he did, it would have little to do with anything she’d done. But there was no sense in making him mad. Her stubby kobold legs gave her a slow walk. She dropped to all fours and scampered at a brisk trot.

Sir Thedeus disliked the bumpy ride and took flight. "Given any thought to me suggestion, lass?"

"Not that again," said Echo. For a bodiless voice, she sounded curiously out of breath.

"Aye, it’s high time we kill that evil bastard."

"And how exactly do we do that?" asked Echo.

"All I need is an opening, a moment of weakness. Then I pounce from the shadows and rip out his throat."

"You’re a fruit bat."

"I’ve still teeth, lass."

"Nessy has to peel oranges before she gives them to you."

"Ach, have ye ever tried nipping an orange rind?" said Sir Thedeus. "I’m telling ye, it canna be done."

"Nessy does it."

"Fine. She can rip out the foul bastard’s throat then. I don’t care. As long as he dies and the spell is broken. Don’t ye want to be a person again?"

Nessy pulled farther ahead. At full speed, she could outrun Echo and Sir Thedeus. She darted through the labyrinth of corridors. Margle was close, but she took the long way. She wasn’t worried enough to go near the Wailing Woman today.

A clap of thunder told her that Margle’s arrival was imminent. She bolted up the stairs, having lost Echo and Thedeus somewhere along the way.

An apparition rattled his chains at her. He howled pitifully.

"Not now, Richard."

She ran through him without pausing and reached the top of the tower not a moment too soon.

A great, black bird flew through the tower window. It clutched a stone the size of a kobold’s head in one talon. It glared at Nessy with burning red eyes and shrank into Margle’s shape. He was tall and thin, rather bony even for a wizard. His billowing robes only made him look more fragile. In Nessy’s experience, a wizard’s mystical powers were inversely proportional to his physical presence. Margle was a powerful wizard and a slight man. Sir Thedeus’s teeth might just be able to bite the scrawny wizard’s head off if the bat put his mind to it.

Margle’s glare strengthened. "Where’s my wine, dog?"

Nessy lowered her head, covered her muzzle with her hands, and tucked her tail between her legs. "I’m sorry, master."

He wrung his hands. His stringy forearms tightened. "And I thought I told you I wanted this floor polished."

"I did polish it, master."

He sneered. "Don’t contradict me, beast."

"No, master. But the stones are slick, and I thought they might be too slippery."

"Ah, there you go again. Thinking is not your purpose."

"No, master." She licked her lips. "Yes, master. Sorry, master."

"I should boil you alive for eternity."

"Yes, master."

Margle gritted his sharp teeth. "You’re fortunate, dog, that I’m in a good mood."

Nessy peered at the stone in his hand. The shape, color, and markings showed it to be a nurgax seed. She’d read of them in Margle’s books but didn’t mention that to the master. Nurgaxes were rare beasts, valued by wizards more for their rarity than their power. Nessy remembered the passage in the book. When the seed was broken, the nurgax would spring full grown and devour the first living creature it saw. It would then imprint on the second living creature it saw, forming a bond that could only be severed by death.

"Shall I put that away for you, master?"

His sneer deepened. "Beast, you’re never to touch this. Do so and I’ll ? ay you."

"Yes, master."

"Layer by layer by layer."

"Yes, master."

"Then I shall make a hat from your tanned hide and matching bookends from your bones."

"Yes, master."

Margle was in a threatening frame of mind and kept on for another minute. Nessy nodded and acted appropriately fearful. The threats didn’t mean much. When Margle did finally kill her, it would probably be without warning.

". . . And I’ll serve your eyes in my soup," he finished.

"Yes, master. Shall I fetch your wine?"

"Wait, beast. I haven’t dismissed you yet."

Nessy’s fur bristled.

Sir Thedeus flew into the tower and perched on her shoulder again. "Oh now if ever there was a throat needing ripping out," he whispered. "Should I go for it, or would ye like to, lass?"

Margle held up the nurgax seed. The skin on his face tightened. A lock of gray hair fell across his eyes. "Tell me, dog. Tell me how you live to serve me."

"Of course, master."

"Would you die for me?"

"Ach, what a great prat," said Sir Thedeus.

Nessy bowed. The day she’d been waiting for had finally arrived. She was mildly relieved. Good to get it over with and being devoured by a nurgax was a quick death.

Margle repeated the question. "Would you die for me?"

"Yes, master." But only because she had no choice. She looked up at Margle. He was ready to smash the seed on the ground.

"I canna take it any longer." Sir Thedeus hurled himself at Margle’s throat. Despite the thinness of the wizard’s neck, the small fruit bat merely nipped ineffectively. Unimpressed but startled, Margle backed away. His foot slipped on slick, polished stone, and he tumbled. The nurgax seed broke open and a giant purple monster sprang forth. It had one eye and one horn, tiny wings, and a body that was just a giant snout on two heavy legs.

Nessy scrambled behind a table out of sight.

The nurgax growled curiously.

"No. Stay away!" All the confident malice was gone from Margle’s voice. "Stay where you—"

Then came a crunch. And a second crunch. And a slurp. Then a contented purr.

Nessy poked her head out. The nurgax stomped over to her. It licked her once, drenching her fur in its slimy drool.

She laughed. It laughed.

"What did I miss?" asked Echo, her sudden wheezing breath beside Nessy.

Sir Thedeus swooped around in circles. "Nothing much, lass. I just killed the bastard!"

There was nothing left of Margle. Not so much as a scrap of cloth. The nurgax wasn’t much bigger than Nessy, and it didn’t seem large enough to hold a whole man in its belly unless its body was all stomach. A possibility she didn’t dismiss. Even then, there should’ve been bits of wizard, an arm or a leg, dangling from its lips.

Nessy wasn’t sad to see the wizard gone but she was now an unemployed kobold. This wasn’t the first time she’d lost a master. Wizardry was a dangerous occupation, almost as dangerous as wizardry assistance.

"If he’s dead, why don’t I have a body?" said Echo. "And why are you still a bat?"

Sir Thedeus landed and examined his wings. "I’m sure it will just be another moment or two before the spells are undone."

A jar filled with eyes, teeth, some brain, and a tongue began to bubble. Everyone was too distracted to notice. Thirty seconds passed, and the bat stayed a bat, the voice remained without a body.

"Any minute now," said Sir Thedeus impatiently.

Nessy went to Margle’s chair. She’d always wanted to sit on it, wondered what its cushioned seat would feel like. More comfortable than the smoothed stone she normally used. She grabbed hold of the armrest to pull her delicate three-foot frame into the chair but changed her mind. Margle was dead, but wizards weren’t always permanently so. If he rose from the nurgax’s throat, he would certainly be upset. Finding a lowly kobold sitting in his favorite chair would only enrage him further. She sat on her stone. Uncomfortable, but she’d grown accustomed. The nurgax stayed by her side. Its thick tail swung with wild abandon, occasionally thumping the ground.

It whined. Nessy rubbed its snout, and it immediately started purring.

"We’re not changing," said Echo.

Sir Thedeus squinted at his furry little body. "Do ye think I dinna notice?"

"He is dead, isn’t he?"

"Aye, being digested as we speak."

The nurgax hiccupped.

"Shouldn’t we be changing back then?" Echo said.

"That’s the way it usually works, lass. Slay the wizard, and all his magic is undone."

"How do you know?"

"I’ve killed wizards before."

The jar of eyes boiled to attract someone’s attention and failed.

Nessy considered her next job. She could go back to her tribal caves, find a husband, begin a life of moss farming, and birth a litter or three. That wasn’t a bad life, and she wasn’t wholly against it. But it was boring. Working for wizards was a sure road to a grisly death, but it was a stimulating career with all the ducking and groveling and gargoyle polishing and other such requirements. She’d seen things that most could only imagine. She couldn’t go back to the caves.

Finding a new position wouldn’t be difficult. She had experience, a bonded nurgax, and a grand surplus of wizardly books and equipment that any arcane scholar would dearly love to get their hands on.

"Nessy, why aren’t we changing?" asked Echo.

The kobold shrugged.

"Ye mean ye dunna know?" Sir Thedeus flew in anxious circles. "Weren’t ye the unholy bastard’s apprentice?"

"Assistant," she corrected. "I assisted. He didn’t teach me magic."

"But you’ve looked through his books," said Echo. "And I’ve seen you do magic."

"Nothing more than trifles."

The jar trembled hard enough to rattle the shelf. The eyes tapped rhythmically against its glass sides.

"What’s he want?" Sir Thedeus grunted.

"Isn’t that Margle’s brother?" Echo said.

"Aye, or what’s left of him."

"He was a wizard, wasn’t he?"

"Not a very good one, judging from what Margle did to him."

"Still, he has to know something."

The jar hopped twice.

"Quick, Nessy. Get the jar."

Nessy hesitated. Margle had told her never to touch that jar.

Echo’s voice grew soft. "We’d do it ourselves, but we need your help. Please."

Nessy glanced at the nurgax. She gently put a small hand on its enormous lips and opened them. The beast complied obediently. She gazed deep into the black chasm of its throat.

"Master, are you in there?"

No reply. Still unsatisfied, Nessy performed a final test.

"Margle?"

She flinched instinctively. Margle would never allow her to use his name if he were still alive. She was quite certain he was dead. For now.

The nurgax licked her with its wet tongue and laughed. Its laugh was a lot like a kobold’s, half bark and half chuckle. Was that because of the bond, she wondered, or just coincidence?

She set her fears aside, and using the cooperative nurgax as a ladder, retrieved the jar from its high shelf. It boiled furiously, shaking in her arms. She walked down the nurgax’s tail, set the jar on the floor, and unscrewed the lid.

The yellow fluid calmed. The eyes, teeth and tongue rose to the surface in the arrangement of a vague face.

"Thank you. Ah, I’ve missed the fresh air." The eyes bobbed, and the teeth floated into a smile. "Yazpib the Magnificent, finest wizard of a thousand kingdoms, at your service."

Sir Thedeus was less concerned with introductions. "Why haven’t we changed back?"

"Only works that way with inexperienced wizards. New wizards build their spell matrices around themselves, tying them to their own life because it is a relatively easy technique. Now Margle was an old hand at the magic arts. He’d learned to create self-sustaining arcane webs, thus allowing his spells to exist independent of his well-being." Yazpib sensed he was losing his audience. "So killing Margle doesn’t necessarily end his curses."

Echo sighed. "We’re stuck like this."

"That largely depends on how well Margle crafted his spell construction. Generally, the magic begins to fracture without the periodic reinforcement of will, the glue to shore up the leaks. So to speak. How long this might take varies with the metaphysical solidity of these spells and the applicable thaumaturgical pressures."

Though Nessy had looked in Margle’s books, she hadn’t ventured into advanced magical theory. But she got the gist of it. Margle was a great wizard, and while his spells would probably crumble eventually, it could be a very long wait.

Yazpib continued. "However, any spell can be countered. I was never as talented as my brother, but with his death, I might be able to break your curses. But I’m a touch indisposed."

"Yer worthless to us then, lad?" said Sir Thedeus.

"I know magic. I just can’t do it anymore."

Sir Thedeus gnashed his fangs. "Useless wanker. If ye were any good as a wizard, Margle would be in that jar."

Yazpib’s floating teeth clicked against each other. "Thirty years ago, I’d have turned you into a worm for that."

"Ach, screw his lid back on."

"Will you two stop bickering?" asked Echo.

"I was just trying to help," said Yazpib.

"If I have any eggs to pickle, I’ll let ye know," snapped Sir Thedeus.

Yazpib literally boiled. "Oh, go eat a cockroach."

"I’m a fruit bat, ye git."

"Will you two shut up and let me think?" said Echo.

They kept shouting over each other. The nurgax glanced at each. It mimicked the snarls and sneers with its wide mouth. Nessy couldn’t take the noise any longer. She dropped to all fours and strolled from the chamber. Kobolds were equally comfortable upright or prostrate. It was mostly a matter of personal preference. She’d grown up a quadruped, but assisting wizards required a lot of carrying. While she could use her mouth, there were a lot of things Margle asked her to carry that she’d rather not have tasted. She mostly went bipedal now, only going back to her childhood when she needed to run or contemplate.

The nurgax followed without prompting. Nessy started down the stairs in no particular rush. A ghastly transparent corpse of moldering flesh, tattered clothing, and clinking chains appeared before her. He wailed, and the temperature dropped.

"I said not now, Richard."

The apparition frowned. "Oh come on, now. I was rather proud of that one."

"It was very good, but I’m distracted at the moment."

Richard descended the steps with her. He could only go as far as the bottom. For reasons only Margle might understand, Richard was consigned to haunt the castle’s many staircases. Why he bothered trying to be frightening, Nessy didn’t know. Boredom, she supposed. She usually humored him, but was too distracted right now.

The nurgax snapped at Richard’s dangling chains. It alternately growled and purred at him.

"So what happened up there? I heard quite a commotion."

"Margle is dead."

"Dead?" Richard stopped and wiggled his immaterial fingers. "Why am I still here?"

"Something to do with spell matrices," said Nessy. "Ask the jar."

He disappeared. Perhaps back to the top of the stairs or to another staircase entirely.

Oddly, Nessy felt saddened. She hadn’t exactly liked Margle, but she would miss him and her castle, her home. And her friends. Bodiless, transmogrified, or staircase-bound as they might be.

Echo’s panting voice bounced suddenly beside Nessy. "We figured it out."

The nurgax jerked around for the voice’s source. It snorted cautiously, and Echo chuckled. "Stop it. That tickles."

Nessy stood. She snapped her fingers. "Sit."

Whatever bond they shared, it responded immediately.

"We need your help, Nessy. You have to help us break our curses."

"I told you, I don’t know any true magic."

"But Yazpib does. He just needs an able body."

Nessy’s ears tilted forward. They always did when she was considering things. Then they flattened. "It won’t work. Kobolds don’t have a talent for magic. And even if I did, Margle is dead. It will only be a matter of time before his rivals arrive to claim his castle."

"They don’t know that yet."

"They will. Wizards smell death like vultures. They’ll pick this place clean."

"We can’t do this without you. Please?"

This was a bad idea. Nessy couldn’t possibly match Margle’s wizardry. She would most likely die experimenting with magic as most apprentice wizards did. Or Margle’s rivals would descend on the castle and kill her. But she’d long ago accepted her unpleasant death when embarking on her career. And Margle was usually gone anyway, so it wouldn’t be very different. And he might even come back. Until she was certain he wouldn’t, it was her duty to care for his castle and his collections.

"Very well."

"You won’t regret it. I’ll go tell the others."

Nessy rarely regretted. As long as things proceeded on an interesting course, she didn’t care where tomorrow might lead. In any case, she could always change her mind when the other wizards finally came for their plunder.

The nurgax licked its lips and belched. Nessy could still smell the wizard on its breath.

Excerpted from Too Many Curses by A. Lee Martinez

Copyright © 2008 by A. Lee Martinez

Published in September 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.