Curse Breaker Darkens

Jerlo wants to finish his paperwork, not search for a man who should be dead in a prison that’s nearly impossible to reach. When a disembodied voice warns him that a demon is after his indentured mage, Jerlo sets off without a second thought.  

He swore an unbreakable oath to God to protect Sarn, no matter the cost. Even if he hadn’t, he’d still go on this quest. No one except God should have access to the power inside the Kid. But one man does, and he’s locked in the oubliette for demon summoning. 

In a country run by a group that wants to destroy all magic, mages and demons shouldn’t exist. Neither should the rock monster that’s pushing Jerlo deeper into a trap. But this demon plans to do more than exist, and it’ll need more than monsters to succeed.

Now, Jerlo’s in a fight, not just for his life but for his soul. With just an unshakeable faith in the God who sometimes talks to him, will he lose everything in a deadly contest of wills? Get Curse Breaker: Darkens now. 

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Into Darkness 

Hello, darkness my old friend,
I’ve come to speak to you again.
Under your cover, I bend,
a light-loving boy to your end.

My lord’s throne he’ll then ascend
and force the world to descend
into madness, my old friend—
so the maggots can attend
the putrid feast we will send.

—Prayer to the Dark One

“Will it keep until tomorrow? There were some troubling elements in his tale.” 

Nolo’s question repeated like heartburn as Jerlo turned the page and stared at it. That conversation, which had happened two weeks ago, kept playing in the back of Jerlo’s mind despite his best efforts to shut it out. 

Some troubling elements in his tale, heh. When aren’t there? Jerlo scribbled his name on another form and set it aside. Sarn could only speak the truth as he knew it, but that boy had been tailoring his speech since way before he’d become Jerlo’s problem. So that wild tale about a dark creature from another realm wreaking all manner of trouble was likely just the tip of an even larger problem. One the Kid would never reveal unless forced. 

Jerlo sighed and turned the page. His eyes skimmed the courtesy report sent from Mount Racine’s head Ranger, but not a single word registered. 

“Will it keep until tomorrow?” Nolo’s disembodied voice asked from the shadowed corners of his office. 

Jerlo dropped his head into his hands and gave in. “It has to. A body and a book are unaccounted for,” he said, supplying the next line to his mute audience. Dragon statues ringed his desk. Their glowing crystal eyes reminded him of Sarn. 

“I don’t know who helped Shade pick up a passenger. Or what that creature was or how they summoned it,” Sarn had said two weeks ago on that goddamned bluff while staring into the rising dawn—a clear sign he was editing his tale for his superiors. 

Jerlo rubbed his aching eyes as the conversation looped back to the beginning again. 

“Will it keep until tomorrow?” Nolo’s voice echoed in the windowless office. 

“You’re not here.” Jerlo laid his head down on a pile of papers in defeat. Maybe it was his conscience replaying the conversation to prod him into action. A body and a book are unaccounted for. A body and a book. 

The body had belonged to a demon-ridden youngster named Shade, and the book likely contained spells for summoning Shade’s vanquished rider. Neither were found despite a thorough search of the enchanted forest. What did his conscience expect him to do about that? Commanding Mount Eredren’s contingent of Rangers was his job, not finding lost articles, even if they were magically significant. 

“Are you certain it can wait?” 

Jerlo started. This time the voice spoke not from memory but from the doorway. His second in command, Nolo, regarded him with worried eyes. 

“Which problem are we talking about? Please tell me Sarn’s staying out of trouble.”

“He is.” Nolo didn’t say ‘for now,’ but his tone implied it. His second shifted his weight from foot to foot, and for a moment, he doubled. 

Jerlo blinked. Two Nolos now crowded the doorway. One was a man of middle-thirties with skin the color of rich earth wearing the forest green uniform of the Rangers, and the other was a black smudge holding a black bow and a full quiver. Death’s Marksman gave Jerlo a nod, then faded into Nolo’s shadow. Nolo shook himself, and the beads at the ends of his braids clicked together. 

“You creep me out when you go all Death’s Marksman on me like that.” Jerlo suppressed a shudder. 

“I don’t know why it keeps coming out. For years, I’ve barely felt its touch, but lately, the black quiver is always at my back, waiting.” 

“I bring out the best in everyone,” Jerlo muttered as he leaned back in his chair. 

“Very funny, but off-topic.” 

“How is it out there? All quiet on the enchanted forest front?”

“Yes, too quiet after the mayhem two weeks ago.” Nolo searched for a chair, then gave up. 

Jerlo sat on the largest, most comfortable chair, and the spare chair boasted a pile of books about an order of magic-hating monks called the Seekers. It was best to know one’s enemy before he came. That was Jerlo’s motto, even if legends and rumors made up most of his intel. 

Nolo leaned against the lintel and yawned. “Still no sign of the body or the book, though the former must have decomposed or been buried by now. Nothing discarded in the enchanted forest stays there for long.”

“I’d feel better if we had proof one way or the other.”

“What if there are more of those things running around out there? Shouldn’t we look for them?”

“That’s what I’ve been doing.” Jerlo lifted a book from the top of the stack and tossed it to his second. 

“What’s this?” Nolo caught the book and cracked it open. He grimaced at the smell and the grotesque imagery. 

“A book about demons written by a monk five hundred years ago. It’s the closest match I can find to the horned thing the Kid described.” 

“Are there more of them running around?” Nolo paged through the book.

“I don’t know.” Jerlo threw up his hands, but he intended to find out. His continued sanity might depend on it. “Is there anything else I need to deal with?”

“No, tonight’s watch was a quiet one. I had the Kid straighten up the training room. He wasn’t happy about it, but he didn’t argue. It’s not like him to acquiesce like that. He’s been different since that thing went down.”

“Different how?” Jerlo sat up straight in his chair. 

“Less argumentative and more distracted—it’s like the bulk of his attention is focused elsewhere on something I can’t see. I don’t like it.” Nolo’s grip on the book tightened until his knuckles paled. 

Neither did Jerlo, but the conversation died, and the ‘M-word’ echoed in the silence. It was a subject neither would broach because the Kid might be the only living mage left thanks to the Seekers. What a frightening thought that was, and he and his second tried hard to ignore it. 

Nolo backed away from the dreaded ‘M-word’ until his back touched the door. He was god-touched by an aspect of Death, but not a mage. What he did wasn’t magic. It was a skill with deadly consequences. 

“We all grieve in our own ways. Maybe that’s all it is. The Kid knew Shade for years before that worthy’s death.” Nolo scrubbed a hand over his face. 

“Go rest. I need you sharp tonight. And I should finish some paperwork.” Jerlo gave the never-ending pile a glum look. It would take an ocean of ink and several years to make a dent in it.

“May I hold on to this?” Nolo held up the book on demonology, and the moaning face etched into its cover stared at Jerlo with hollow, eyeless pits. 

“If you’re seeking a little light reading, try the Shayarin legal code. I guarantee you’ll pass out before the end of chapter one. But that tome in your hands is likely to induce nightmares.”

“If you don’t need it, I’d like to give it a read to see what we’re up against. There could be more of those things.”

“Go for it, just don’t blame me if you wake up screaming from night terrors.” 

“I won’t. You should try to get some rest too.”

Jerlo waved off his second’s concern, and his gaze landed on a half-finished letter. What had he meant to write? Not anything important or he’d remember. 

“Have a good morning.” Nolo went out and closed the door. 

Heh, a good morning would bring answers. So far, this one’s brought only questions. Jerlo set the letter aside and leaned back in his chair. Outside his windowless office, the sun was preparing to ascend its throne. Even though he couldn’t see it, he felt its rise, and he imagined its first pink rays striking Mount Eredren’s craggy face. Through its thick stone walls, that light pushed into his body, warming his bones. Jerlo laced his fingers together over his flat stomach and closed his eyes. 

Something had niggled at him since before Nolo had entered. Jerlo groped after it, but the thought fled through the holes in his mind. When he finally wrestled it into submission, his vision grew wavy. Everything faded to gray, then green as the view steadied. Jerlo now peered out of the eyes of a fourteen-year-old mage-gifted child. It was Sarn’s memory, stolen during a strange interview—by accident, of course. Jerlo was no thief. It had become part of the flotsam and jetsam cluttering his mind until something had reminded him of it. 

Every element was the same as the last time Jerlo had viewed this memory. Hadrovel’s miserable eye looked through a chink in a stone wall—not a welcome sight. 

“I’ll pull you out when they’re gone. Be as silent as sleeping stones,” said the psycho Orphan Master as he pushed a hand through that hole. But he and Sarn—they dodged it. And the sudden movement made them dizzy, so they slid down the wall into a puddle of elbows and knees. 

Jerlo froze the memory and stepped outside of Sarn’s body and the windowless cell imprisoning the Kid. There were thirteen cairns. Inside their ring, a forest of white candles formed a thirteen-pointed star circumscribed by a circle. The white-clad sacrifice—Shade, was it? — bent to light their wicks. 

Jerlo turned, scanning the candle-lit cave. Where are you, Hadrovel? What part did you play in this monstrous endeavor? But this had already happened, and the viewpoint was limited to what Sarn could see through a chink in his cell. All else was flickering shadows on stone. 

Thirteen black-robed people chanted as they marched in. Deep cowls swallowed their faces, leaving their identities a mystery Jerlo couldn’t probe. Was one of them Hadrovel? Was the psycho Orphan Master their ringleader? Was Shade the recipient of the first demon this group of nutcases summoned or the thirteenth? 

Jerlo rewound the memory. Hadrovel’s black eye peered in. Was there a wicked gleam in its depths? Was the psycho’s voice saccharine against that chanting grating on Jerlo’s nerves? Or was the constant replaying of the scene somehow changing it? Jerlo pressed his thumbs into his eyes. Could his perceptions color someone else’s memory? 

 Anything was possible when magic was involved. Jerlo had accidentally excised this memory two weeks ago, and he hadn’t dared to repeat it. 

“I’ll pull you out when they’re gone. Be as silent as sleeping stones,” said the psycho Orphan Master in that memory. 

‘Be as silent as sleeping stones.’ The phrase looped through Jerlo’s mind as he leaned over and rifled through the books stacked on the chair beside his desk. One of them had referenced ‘sleeping stones.’ But which one? 

Twelve tomes stared back at him. Most were histories he’d skimmed for accounts of the Seekers and anything that might be demonic activity. The thirteenth, he’d lent to Nolo. Discomfited by the eerie repetition of the number thirteen, Jerlo pushed up from his chair. There was one way to find out what role Hadrovel had played in the demon summoning thing. 

***

Jerlo strode through half-deserted tunnels as the bells of Mount Eredren struck five. Servants hustled by carrying trays of food and ewers of water. Steam curled up from a passing cart. Its covered dishes reflected the sprawling lumir mosaic overhead that lit the servants’ way. 

I was a fool to put off this meeting. Jerlo rapped his fist against the wide banister of the Grand Stair looping between the ornate levels. His hands were small for a man of exactly five-feet, but they were proportional to his small stature and quite capable of dealing damage when needed. 

A dozen stave-wielding statues turned their heads as he strode by. Each gleaming crystal eye hurled an accusation at him. Jerlo blinked, and they faced forward again. He rubbed his eyes, and his bushy brows tickled his fingers as exhaustion mauled Jerlo. Lights twinkled in the black-spangled tide reaching out for him, but he shoved the need to sleep down. I won’t rest until I’ve faced that monster and extracted some much-needed answers. Jerlo stepped off the stairs, hurried to an office on this level, and knocked on the door. 

“Who is it?” asked a woman. 

Jerlo didn’t recognize her voice. Where was Lord Olav? This was his office. Maybe he’d hired a secretary since his last visit. Nobles did such things all the time. Their staff tended to change with their moods. 

“Jerlo, the commander of the Rangers.”

The door swung in, framing a middle-aged woman clad in purple. 

“Is Lord Olav Nalshira in?” Jerlo tried to see past the handsome woman, but her curvy body blocked the door. In her heeled sandals, she stood a half-foot taller than him, putting her ample bust at eye level. 

She shook her head. Wisps of black hair escaped her chignon, and they stirred in the Mountain’s quiet breathing. “No, he’s in the capital with his cousin, the Lord of the Mountain. They’re not due back until the summer session closes. Is there something I can help you with?” 

“That depends on whether you have a key to the oubliette.”

Her face blanched, and she clutched her throat. “Why would you want to go to that godforsaken place?”

“There’s someone in there I need to talk to.”

She shook her head. “Oh no, there’s only one monster incarcerated there. You can’t possibly need to speak to him.”

“If there were any other way, I’d take it. Do you have a key to it?” 

Her hand dropped from her throat to the chain around her neck. Through the violet of her dress, she gripped a slender object. “If I don’t have this key, what then?”

“Then I’ll wait, but I’d rather not. This issue is important. It affects Lord Joranth’s personal property. An object he’d be quite angered to find damaged if you catch my meaning.” Jerlo threw in a wink because his bald statement demanded it. 

She nodded, though her face remained bloodless. “I know something about the object in question. How does talking to that monster safeguard it?”

“He can help me eliminate a threat that’s long been festering. This monster played a role in unleashing it.” Jerlo’s lips twisted in disgust at the thought of Hadrovel being helpful. 

She took that all in with a couple of blinks, then nodded. “I don’t like this, but I can’t refuse your request either. If talking to that monster will safeguard that object, then I must help you. But I warn you. He’s been incarcerated for almost five years. Being so long in solitary confinement does strange things to the mind. Don’t expect to get much from him.” 

“Thanks for the warning. I’ll keep that in mind. Shall we go?” Jerlo gestured to the deserted hallway behind him. He felt the crystalline glares of the statues parked there. 

She debated for a moment, then darted inside, but she left the door cracked open. “Let me just grab a light. We should go in the daylight when the tide’s out.”

“And why is that?”

“You’ll see.” Her ominous promise echoed in the sudden quiet. 

Jerlo patted his pockets for his chunk of lumir crystal. He’d need its light where he was going. What have you gotten yourself into? Trouble most likely, but he pushed that thought away.

She reappeared before he could brood overmuch and slipped past him into the corridor. 

Jerlo rushed to catch up. She had a long stride accentuated by the divided skirt flaring out behind her. “You could just give me the key. I’m not going to release him, just talk to him.” 

“Do you even know where the oubliette is?” She didn’t bother to look at him. Her long legs kept churning despite her impractical garb. When she entered a stairwell, she descended without a backward glance. 

“It’s not in the dungeon, is it?”

At his question, she paused and leaned against the enclosing wall. The staircase wound around a central pillar the Litherians had left undecorated. Maybe they’d missed it during their last carving spree. The bluish glow of the lumir crystal in her hand only emphasized its plainness. As she studied him, the play of light and shadows on her sharp features rendered her into a caricature. No doubt she was trying to figure him out. Plenty of women had tried, but none had ever succeeded. 

Jerlo folded his arms over his chest. “What’s your name? I told you mine. It’s only fair you return the favor.”

“No.” She turned on her heel and passed around a bend, taking the cold light streaming from her hand with her. Only her soft footsteps signaled she was still on the staircase. 

“Wonderful, I’m heading to the oubliette to talk to a madman guided by a bitch called ‘No.’ You have no sense of irony.” Jerlo cast his eyes heavenwards at the darkness falling over him. He withdrew a yellow pebble from his pocket. For a moment, he held the sun in his hands. Its cool, polished globe nestled between his thumb and forefinger. 

Opening his hand, he released the lumir crystal’s glow. Concentric rings of brilliance pushed the darkness away, but it wasn’t the sun. This magically generated light was as cold as the damp stairwell. 

***

“Someone needs to interview Hadrovel. Must that someone be you?”

Jerlo started. Who had whispered that? The voice was pitched low like a man’s, but its softness could have masked a woman’s voice. “Who goes there?” 

The woman called ‘No’ had either left the stairwell or descended too far to hear his shout. 

“You tried to kill him. What makes you think he’ll speak to you?” 

“Who said that? Show yourself.” Jerlo pivoted, scanning the smooth stones for signs of his mysterious interlocutor. He held the lumir crystal at eye level as the old rhyme recommended. But its light didn’t reveal anything but bare stone that was as gray as a storm cloud. 

“Jer-lo, who are you doing this for?”

“Who are you? How did you know my name or my plan?” Jerlo whirled, but there was still nothing but lumir-crystal-lit stone and shadows above and below him. How did this creep know about Sarn? That boy was a secret he and his Rangers had kept for five years. “How do you know about him? Answer me.”

“You’re not doing this for Sarn. No, you’re still waiting for him to become someone else’s problem.”

‘Someone else’s problem’—the phrase trapped Jerlo and its truth hammered at him. He tried to shake it off, so he could get a fix on that voice. But it was bouncing around so much, it seemed to come from everywhere at once. Then it faded out, leaving Jerlo alone on the stairs. Was the lumir crystal he clutched somehow dimmed by this exchange? Because the shadows were sharper below.

Jerlo rubbed tired eyes with his free hand, dispelling the fantasy until a moan startled him. He’d forgotten about his guide. Jerlo hurried, but his short legs curtailed him to one step at a time. 

Around the sixth bend, he found her. Her lumir crystal had fallen several steps below her, and its cold light illuminated a crumpled body wrapped in purple crepe. Jerlo peeled the thin silky garment away from her skin and felt for a pulse. Finding it, he probed for broken bones as he turned her onto her back. No screams meant she likely hadn’t broken anything. 

She blinked dark eyes up at him from a face that remained beautiful despite the new bruises. She was a pretty complication, nothing more. Jerlo reminded himself. “What happened?” 

“I thought I heard something. When I glanced behind me, I must have stepped on my skirt or caught it on something because the next thing I know, I’m falling face-first into darkness.”

“What did you hear?” 

She shook her head and winced. “I thought I heard a whisper, but it might have been an echo. It was too soft to hear well.”

So there had been someone else on the stairs. Relieved, Jerlo squatted on the stair nearest her. “Could someone have pushed you?” 

“No, I fell on my own and reinforced the stereotype of a helpless female.” She twisted her lips in disgust then pushed away from him, so she could sit up unaided. 

Jerlo barked a mirthless laugh at her self-pity. 

“What’s so funny?”

“Lady, I don’t know who you’ve been hanging out with, but all the women I know are strong and brave in their own ways.”

“You’re lucky to know such women.” 

“Luck has nothing to do with it. Now, what’s your name? I don’t want to shout, ‘hey you’ next time I lose track of you.”

Her face reddened, but she held out a hand. “I’m Vanya, and by all that’s holy, I hurt.” 

“Well, Vanya, it’s nice to meet you. I think we should sit here for a spell until you’re less sore unless of course, you want to hand over that key. I can find the oubliette on my own.” Jerlo eyed her ample bosom and the silver chain nestled between the tops of her exposed breasts. 

“No, I have to take you.” Vanya gripped the key through the thin material of her dress. “I have to make sure that monster stays locked up.”

“Why would anyone release him?”

“I don’t know, and if you didn’t have express permission from the Lord of the Mountain himself, I wouldn’t take you.” 

“Good to know he’s in a high-security ward.” 

“Quite secure. There’s no escape for that villain, not so long as I hold the key.” Vanya lifted the key from between her shapely breasts and regarded it as if it held the secrets of the universe. 

“You were one of his victims.” Jerlo nodded as a great many troubling things fell into place. 

But Vanya was so lost in her contemplation, nothing external registered. “A man set apart, a child caught between—in these troubled times, the twice-dead still breathes,” she said as she turned the key in her calloused fingers. 

“What was that?” 

Vanya shook herself. “Just something Lord Joranth—I mean the Lord of the Mountain often says. Every time I hear it, I remember that horrible day.” Vanya dropped the key into her blouse and gave her corset a push as the key disappeared between her pale breasts. Those perfect globes had escaped bruising during her fall. But her hand hovered over them as her chest swelled with mounting anxiety. “Do you ever think of that day?”

That day—the day when Hadrovel should have met his end. Oh, Jerlo recalled that day with startling clarity.

“Why didn’t he die?” Vanya asked. Her plaintive question was a thread that snapped and twisted in the currents stirring the air.