The default is you lose everything.
Humanity has gambled away the surface generations ago. That was during the rise of Cursemaster Zaorath, the first one. People couldn’t leave well and good alone; they just had to stand up to the overwhelming evil, and so the great magician cursed the ground, cursed the living, cursed bloodlines, too, and the only habitable space remaining were underground cities. Still cursed, mind you.
Zaorath won, but our ancestors sure showed him that they disapproved.
Thanks to their heroism, I grew up underground in Farinay City, orphaned by my own cursed family in which nothing could go right. And because I couldn’t take a hint, I’m a curser.
It was Challenge Day. The fourth day of Challenge Day, to be exact. On these days only, you could challenge the city’s Cursemaster and his council of High Cursers for their titles.
That morning, the arena’s spectator ranks were half empty, the present audience largely hungover, and the announcer spoke in a subdued rasp. The High Cursers, who stood as judges, were only paying cursory attention from fatigued eyes, some adjusting the new ribbons on their wrists and arms that they had won in recent matches.
At last, Cursemaster Benneth stepped onto the floor, radiating serenity. A hush fell over the ranks.
He briefly raised his eyebrows at me. “Normally, a challenge spoken counts, but I’ll let you out this once, if you ask.” The “good morning” died on my lips. My eyes wandered to his wrists. One ribbon only, a bright orange one that was showing signs of wear. It had belonged to the former owner of the title many years ago. Cursemaster Benneth did not take ribbons from lower challengers.
The leaden feeling in my body, along with all the facts, told me this was a really stupid idea. At least as stupid as becoming a curser in the first place. But the lead weighing down on my heart made it beat faster, too, made me wake up, made me smile. And now I really wanted that ribbon.
“Thank you,” I said. “But I’ll keep the challenge.”
Was it a sigh? “I thought you were smarter. Alright, have it your way.”
At least that was sort of a compliment. Wasn’t it? I tried to ground myself through the light-headed feeling and reach out to the walls around me. The announcer recited the rules and conditions as before each match. The air was starting to get frigid. The walls responded to me. Cold earth, cursed and made to speak to us, trapped in its existence like the worthless people that tried to make use of it for arena games and politics.
The announcer’s tired voice rose and drifted back into my consciousness. “Finally, no touching nor targeting the opponent’s body, and no killing. Surrender must be accepted immediately and counts as a loss.
“It is the losing party’s responsibility to know when to surrender to prevent their own death. That is all. Cursemaster Benneth and Curser Sarendyne, get ready. The match begins now.”
The light-headedness got worse if anything, and my heart wouldn’t be still. I had to calm down, but my body refused. I tried to take a deep breath and couldn’t: the air was getting too thin. … The air. He’d cursed it. That bastard.
Alright, think. Breathe deeply. No, that failed.
Cursemaster Benneth knew just how to induce a panic. And in a few moments my body would be entirely useless, so that was not what I ought to rely on now. Really though. The air?
My mind reached out to the earth surrounding us, feeling along the walls, my own curse delving into the ground. Meanwhile, my reflexes helpfully let me know that the air supply was running out and I should remove myself from the situation.
I let the anger seep in along with the curse for good measure. What could I do now? My field of vision was narrowing.
Help me. The city had to help me. Would it? Against its protector? I should have thought up a plan beforehand. Somehow I had just assumed that I would find a way on the spot and Fortune would smile upon the underdog. Dizziness made it hard to remain standing. Help me. The earth was cold.
Cold and trapped, like me. I let my mind run along the walls again, faintly now. Didn’t we all want to be free? Were walls really what this cursed and abused ground wanted to protect? My vision swam, and little lights started dancing in front of my eyes. I’d understand you, I told the ground. Help me, and we’ll be free. I need to breathe. We both need to breathe. Get us air.
I didn’t have long until my surrender. In fact, I had to preserve some energy to even be able to surrender before I collapsed. My mind with its dancing spots caressed the oppressive walls once more. Come off.
A light, rustling sound. Then the sand came off, running down the walls, and then taking larger pieces of rock with them. My vision nearly gone, I stumbled into a crouching position. More rocks rumbled down along in sympathy. The ceiling, I thought, I need air. Cool ground reached up into my mind, infusing it with its awakening will, and helped me pull down bits of sand and rock upon us. I had to surrender. Just another moment, just take down a bit more of this prison…
“Surrender!” Cursemaster Benneth’s voice croaked into the destruction. Cold air rushed into my lungs. I coughed and took some gasping breaths, until dizziness finally took me out and my head hit the ground.
I woke up and felt a comforting cold presence recede into the earth. Well fought, I thought, or it thought, or maybe we both did. I blinked and rubbed the sand from my face. He had surrendered. We had won, hadn’t we?
I looked up to the Cursemaster and the council standing close-by. The spectators were gone. I pushed myself up and stood on shaky legs. Stern pairs of eyes turned on me, and not in a stern but well-meaning mentor-like way. They looked seriously displeased with me. Cursemaster Benneth set to speak but then turned around to another figure. “Mayor? Do you want to…?”
Mayor Ryphid stepped forward and mustered me for a while, during which nobody spoke. What? What was their problem?
“Curser Sarendyne,” the mayor said at last. “You are hereby banished from Farinay City until you have met the following conditions:”
“What?” I asked. “Wait.”
He stopped, frowning. “What did you think would happen?”
What did I… “Not this,” I said. “I won, didn’t I? He surrendered. And surrender has to be accepted.”
Cursemaster Benneth shook his head. “This isn’t about winning or losing. Do you still not get it? You almost collapsed the city to win. And you’d be its protector?”
Oh, so that was what they meant. Still though. “It wasn’t against the rules though, was it? Besides, you cut off the air. If anything…”
The Cursemaster let out a slow rattling sigh. “I did not target you individually. I cursed the air in the entire room. I couldn’t breathe either. It was not against the rules.”
Great protector he was. “And I didn’t target you either. I went to the ground for help.”
“There’s more to it than the letter! Are you really that dense? You can’t be the city’s protector and destroy it just to win.”
I shook my head to try and get a clear thought. This couldn’t be happening. And he couldn’t be talking to me like this. And banished? They couldn’t banish me, the surface was a mess; everyone knew that. Some protector he was. “I didn’t destroy it. I didn’t even really curse it. We worked together. So… Ask the ground what it thinks of your protection.” Perhaps that was a bit much.
Cursemaster Benneth clenched his teeth. “If you want to breathe so much, maybe the surface will be more to your liking.”
“Enough,” the mayor cut in. “Sarendyne, you seem confused. Were you really not aware of what you were doing?”
Here was a chance to get out of this, perhaps. Just go along, plead for mercy… My glance flickered over to my opponent again, and the anger at the injustice of it all rose up with new intensity. I looked back at the mayor. “I’m aware that I won.”
The mayor frowned. “I’ll say I didn’t expect an argument on the basics. Do we really not have a rule – does nobody tell the new ones that you can’t collapse the city, for Zaorath’s sake?”
Levyne, an elderly High Curser pursed his lips. “We do indeed lack such a rule. By the letter, Sarendyne won. If the city agrees to help him, the result is valid.”
“This is madness,” Cursemaster Benneth spat. “You can’t be seriously considering this.”
Mayor Ryphid raised his hand to silence the group. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. Exhaled. Opened his eyes and looked into mine. “You are already exiled. I pronounced that part of the sentence.”
And just like that your entire future is forfeit.
“But,” he continued. “The city worked with you, for whatever reason, so I’ll respect it. You are its lawful protector – from the surface.”
I meant to protest, but he cut me off. “I’ll add something else. Find us an additional city. Farinay City is getting crowded, and we need room to expand. If you manage that, you can come home.”
“That…” I bit my lip. It was impossible. And probably very convenient for everyone involved. Find someone for the dangerous errand without feeling guilty. But it had been pronounced, so that was it.
“That is ridiculous,” Cursemaster Benneth scoffed and turned away, coat flapping behind him.
Oh no. Oh no, not like this.
“The title is mine,” I said. “So is the ribbon.”
Several incredulous pairs of eyes landed on me. Cursemaster Benneth turned back around slowly. “Fine. Since you and the city get along so well… take a meaningless title and a piece of cloth. Meanwhile I’ll continue to actually protect the city and its citizens.”
The mayor nodded. “If you all agree to this, let’s do it like that. Cursemaster Sarendyne, we’ll supply you with everything you’ll need. You can leave today.”
Benneth tugged on the ribbon’s knot and let the piece of cloth flutter to the floor. “Enjoy your ribbon, Cursemaster.”
Very classy. And I would have to be just as classy and pick it up from the floor. Well, I could do that. I wanted that ribbon. So I stepped forward, crouched down and picked the ribbon out of the dust.
As I got up, High Curser Levyne leaned over. “Are you alright with this?”
A hint of concern from someone on top of all. Today was my lucky day. “Thanks. Well… If all I’m getting out of this are a title and a ribbon, I’ll take them.”
He shot the smallest of smiles. “Good luck out there. I’ll go and revise our laws now.”
The first thing I felt was the wind. None of the gentle, magically enhanced air I knew, but a cold force that whipped and chafed. Below, I heard the old metal protest as the guard locked up the lid that covered the tunnel. Around the lid, only sand, a few brown plants, and a faded wooden sign that read “FARINAY CITY”.
I looked around and let my eyes scan the horizon. Nothing.
That vast emptiness. All that space. I was alone now, and I needed something, everything. The partially guessed map they had given me was not going to be useful if I did not find a single landmark. I took it out anyway, and it almost flew away. I managed to hold on to it, the paper protesting loudly and trying to rip itself apart.
They had advised me to turn towards the sun and then go right, but pointedly without a guarantee. It was as good a guess as any, so I did that. There was supposed to be a settlement somewhere along the way, of which I was told to beware. No specifics, just beware.
I was cold, and the wind lashed my hair into my face from all directions, or at least it felt like it. This was awful. Air was good, especially after the match earlier, but not so much of it at once.
Looking down at the map fluttering and straining in my hands, I noticed the orange ribbon tied around my wrist. Good enough. I stuffed the map into my bag, took off the ribbon and gathered my hair in a ponytail against the wind’s best efforts. After a few attempts, my trophy held back my hair and I could continue onwards. It was a good thing I’d become a Cursemaster.