Welcome to this month’s new, free-to-read story, where Sara Beth Durst reveals that — when it comes to certain kinds of curses—there’s often more than meets the eye. ~ Dec. 4, 2022
Curses and Cake
By Sarah Beth Durst
The problem wasn’t that the wizards all died; it was that their curses didn’t. The death toll after the Curse War ended was nearly worse than it had been during the war itself, which was why Zette reminded herself every day that she was lucky.
Never mind that her husband had disagreed. Vehemently.
She’d fled him, barefoot, third-degree burns on her arms, through the night to her parents’ house, where she’d discovered they felt the same as he did. They’d chased her off—her father with the garden shears and her mother with the second-best kitchen knife, the one used for potentially tainted meat.
She’d come here, all those years ago. Back then, Refuge was a cluster of corroded metal lean-tos hidden within an abandoned garbage dump behind numerous hazard signs.
Now . . . well, the hazard signs were still there, but the lean-tos were nicer. Zette lived in the back of the bakery she’d built, her bed nestled behind the ovens, with the scent of bread, cake, and cinnamon heavy in the air. She’d named her place the Lucky Bakery. New arrivals assumed the name was ironic; she knew it wasn’t.
* * *
Zette hummed to herself as she kneaded the morning’s bread. She slammed the heels of her palms into the dough, rolled through it, and then folded it in half before repeating. This was her favorite part: transforming a ragged clump of flour and salt and such into a smooth and pliant ball beneath her hands. It was a kinder sort of magic than she’d ever known.
Outside, the sun was struggling to rise. Rays poked between the scars in the sky. It looked like fingers grasping, trying to peel back the hazy gray—another legacy of the war, a side effect of a darkness curse that had very nearly succeeded. Its failure, though, gifted them with magnificent colors: crimson and deep purple, as well as a violently bright yellow. Zette was admiring a swathe of orange across the kitchen floor when the cans she’d strung up as a bell over the bakery door rattled.
Without pausing her kneading, she called, “One hour for the first rise, one hour for the second, thirty minutes to bake—you’ll smell when we’re open!”
“I didn’t come for bread,” a voice called back. Male. Unfamiliar.
Leaning left, Zette peered around the oven. “Huh. You’re not from here.”
The stranger was blandly handsome: chiseled chin and well-groomed hair, with blousy, clean clothes that screamed they were made by an expensive tailor. “Indeed. I’m traveling.”
That was vague. Also, suspicious. This wasn’t a place anyone traveled to or through, at least not intentionally. Besides which, most of their visitors arrived in a panic, typically bleeding, broken, and bruised—or at least disheveled. “Oh?”
“I am on a holy quest.”
Zette muttered several words that would have caused her parents to disown her if they hadn’t done that years ago, then said in a bright voice, “Splendid! How can I assist you?”
“It’s I who wish to assist you,” he said grandly. “Do not be afraid, but there have been rumors of an afflicted one plaguing this region—”
She gasped loudly.
“—and it is my sworn duty to rid the land of all monsters who prey on the innocent. I seek to prevent them from spreading their poison to those who merely wish to live in peace.”
Zette widened her eyes. “You’re a hero!”
He bowed. “Yes, dear lady, I aim to be.”
“Great!” she said. “Then you can rid us of the cursed one who”—what were the words he’d used?—“plagues this region. Follow the dried-up riverbed east three miles, and you’ll find it in a cave behind a copse of dead elder trees. You can’t miss it.”
He became quite eager at that, thanked her profusely, and rushed out of the bakery, the cans rattling in his wake. Zette waited until the orange light on the floor shifted to bright yellow before she let the tentacle that she kept hidden beneath her blouse stretch out to snag a dish towel from its hook. She laid the towel over her ball of dough so it could rise.
“Heroes,” she humphed.
* * *
All Jenica had to do was avoid the curse on the stairs. And the floor. Also, according to their research, the door to her left, the east window, and the chandelier. She had no idea why the wizard who used to own this palace would curse the chandelier. Maybe he’d hated people who lit candles?
Ry’s voice crackled in her ear through the hacked spell. “Don’t let your shadow fall across the window or you’ll set off a third-level shadral.”
“Which is what, exactly?”
“Your shadow will come to life and rip your skin off.”
“Clever, yet revolting.”
“There’s some debate over whether ‘rip’ is accurate. Might dissolve it.” He always sounded so cheerful when he talked about curses, at least from a safe distance. He was holed up across the street, tucked beneath the rusted roof of an old shed, with a map of the late wizard’s palace labeled with every known curse on every floor—which admittedly wasn’t all of them. The fourth-level hazard signs that surrounded this place kept most scavengers away. Not us, though, she thought.
She removed the crossbow from her back, fitted an arrow, and aimed it across the ballroom. Sighting along the shaft, Jenica steadied her shoulders and drew a slow breath in, then out—
“You’d think you could tell whether it ripped or dissolved by the—”
She only had one chance. Miss, and the arrow could clatter to the floor, triggering another equally horrifying curse. Probably will collapse the ceiling. Or transform the carpet threads into venomous snakes. Jenica eyed the portrait on the opposite wall: a man with high cheekbones, a sharp nose, a silk suit, and a fireball on his palm. She didn’t know his name, though Ry probably had it written in one of his notebooks. She wasn’t going to ask. She didn’t need to hear the biography of another mass murderer, and anyway, he—
“Got it yet?”
Jenica released the arrow. It flew across the room with the hiss of a whisper, uncoiling the rope at her side until the arrow thunked into the portrait’s forehead, burying itself deep in the wall. The rope snapped taut. “Yes.”
“Have I told you lately you’re amazing?”
She smiled. “You can tell me again.”
“Magnificent. Incredible. Awe-inspiring.”
“Keep that up, and I just might kiss you when we’re done. Enthusiastically.” After securing the crossbow to her back, she tied the end of the rope to a pillar, tested the knot, and then clipped a carabiner with a loop onto the rope. She wrapped both hands around the loop.
“In that case, I’ll root for you to survive.” His voice was light, but she heard the worry he tried to hide. Every hunt was a risk. But the reward . . .
Kicking off, she sailed from the balcony, across the ballroom. She imagined for a brief second how glorious it must have been: marble floor, gilded walls, and every candelabra and chandelier ablaze. It would have been dripping with magic as floating trays carried sugary concoctions to the guests while instruments played without any musicians. Now, years after the Curse War had ended, it was a decaying memory of decadence. Cobwebs draped across the ceiling, and the windows had either been smashed or were covered in a film of grime. Every scrap of gold had been stripped from the walls. Every instrument that hadn’t already been salvaged for valuable bits was strewn across the room, broken and coated in dust.
Still, Jenica thought it was beautiful. And its secrets were going to make them rich. No more begging for scraps of food. No more sleeping in shadows, afraid that some monster—either human or once-human—was going to find them. They’d be safe, warm, and fed.
Dropping into a crouch on the other side, she waited for a moment to be sure she hadn’t set off any yet undiscovered spells. But all was silent and motionless. She took a step forward—the tile beneath her left foot sank down by a fraction of an inch, and she felt a curse settle onto her skin as soft as a cobweb.
She made a sound, a soft whimper. She couldn’t help it. It slipped out.
“Jenica?” Ry said in her ear. Then, louder: “Jenica!”
She screamed as pain ripped through her back. Her skin split on either side of her spine, and black bat-like wings burst from her body, dripping with her own blood. Dimly, she heard Ry calling her name over and over, and then she heard only the wind as she launched herself upward, through the decayed roof, and toward the sky.
* * *
After the second rise, Zette slid the bread into the oven to bake. She was frosting a batch of cinnamon rolls when her customers began to trickle in.
First: Buia, a wrinkled woman with a bent back, who was, in truth, less than twenty-five years old. She’d foolishly wrapped a cursed scarf around her neck, thinking it was pretty. It had aged her a decade per second.
Next: Venic, a boy about nineteen years old, who’d run afoul of a curse for marking thieves. It had tinted his skin a brilliant red.
Then: Siball, who was fully human still, except on nights with a full moon.
And last, Anlina, the trader who supplied Zette with flour, sugar, cinnamon, and whatever other ingredients she needed—Anlina had lost her wife, and that loss was curse enough for her, she’d said.
Welcoming them in, Zette served cinnamon rolls and, when it was ready, fresh bread. “There was a hero sniffing about again,” she said conversationally.
Siball let out a yelp, while Venic swiveled to face the door.
“‘Was’?” Anlina asked.
“I sent him east to the cave by the elder trees,” Zette said.
Anlina smiled. “Then there’s nothing to worry about.”
Zette nodded, but all of them kept an eye on the door, just in case. That was the beautiful thing about Refuge: they watched out for one another here.
* * *
Jenica collapsed into a heap beside a dried-up riverbed. She curled knees to chest and gritted her teeth against a scream. Her back muscles contracted as her new wings receded into her skin. Blood mingled with sweat. She exhaled, limp and exhausted.
I’m not dead.
I should be dead.
She and Ry had sworn that if either of them became cursed, the other would end it, but she’d flown from the decayed palace too fast for him to react, and now . . . Now what do I do?
I can’t go back, she thought. Even if she knew which direction to go or how far she’d traveled, she couldn’t endanger Ry. She didn’t know the extent of the curse—what it would turn her into, what it would make her do.
She thought of stories of the Curse War—of spells deployed in the center of enemy armies that caused soldiers to tear one another to pieces with claws and talons and teeth.
Jenica held up a shaking hand. No claws. Not yet.
All the risks she and Ry took . . . She’d known it could happen; she’d never believed that it would. She knew what she had to do, though. Before it was too late. She wished she hadn’t dropped her crossbow and arrows.
Hissing in pain, Jenica pushed herself up to sitting. Her vision blacked for a second and then cleared. She saw rust. Everywhere, rust-colored earth. Rust-colored rocks. She wasn’t in the city anymore. This was the barren lands. You came here, and you expected to die. Since that was what she needed to do, she supposed she was in the right place.
Twisting, Jenica looked behind her and saw a clump of dead trees, their limbs leafless and gnarled. Beyond them was a mound of rocks with a cave.
Maybe whatever lived in there could help, since Ry wasn’t here.
She had to move quickly before the curse stole her will and took control of her mind. And before I lose my nerve, she thought.
Shaking, Jenica stood and hobbled toward the dead trees. Every nerve felt as if it were on fire. Grabbing the nearest tree trunk, she sagged against it. A few steps more . . .
“I’ll save you!”
She turned her head to see a well-dressed man running toward her. His hair streamed behind him and his shirt billowed. He held a gleaming sword aloft.
Without pausing, he raced past her and threw himself into the cave.
“Die, cursed one!” he yelled.
There was a squeal. A grunt. A manly cry. And then a keening moan that ended in a gurgle. Jenica clung to the tree trunk and wondered if she should help—and if so, which one?
Three minutes later, the man emerged. His shirt was torn and there was a streak of blood mixed with dirt on one cheek. Pulling out a white handkerchief, he wiped bright red blood from his sword before he sheathed it.
“You’re safe now,” he said to Jenica.
She knew what she should do: explain that she was cursed. Beg him to end her before she became a monster like whatever had been in that cave. But instead the words that came out were “Thank you.”
* * *
Zette poured the cake batter into the baking tin and breathed in the cinnamon and vanilla. She’d been in a celebratory mood ever since the hero hadn’t returned from the east. Glorious, she thought. This was going to be her best cake ever.
The cans rattled.
She muttered a word her mother would have hated.
The hero limped into the bakery. He looked only marginally less coiffed than before, and the limp wasn’t due to any injury of his own. He was slowed by the young woman he was supporting. Gently, he lowered her into a chair.
Glancing at her, Zette decided the woman didn’t seem in immediate danger of dying, so she slid the cake into the oven before emerging from the kitchen. “You survived! And you found . . .” She trailed off, hoping he’d supply an explanation for his companion.
“The monster’s next victim,” he said helpfully. “It toyed with her, clawing her back.” He gestured to the rips in the back of her shirt. The fabric was caked with blood.
Zette saw the young woman flinch. “Let’s get that cleaned up so you don’t get an infection.” To the hero, she said, “You, outside. Give her some privacy.”
He bowed. “Of course. Tend to her wounds. I’ll stand guard.”
“Guard against what?” Zette asked. “We’re safe now.” She smiled at him with all her teeth as she shooed him out the door. After a second’s thought, she slid the bolt, locking it.
The woman watched her warily.
Zette fetched a bowl and filled it with lukewarm water, then she carried it, a towel, and soap over to the woman. “I’m Zette, and you’re in Refuge. Want to tell me your name? You can make up one if you’d like.”
“Jenica,” she said quietly.
“Well, Jenica, let’s see that back, okay?”
She flinched again.
Gently, Zette asked, “Did he hurt you?”
To her relief, Jenica looked startled. “No! He didn’t. No one . . . I mean, it was the monster, the cursed one in the cave. . . .”
Pursing her lips, Zette raised her eyebrows. She’d quelled plenty of liars with that expression, and Jenica was no exception. She dropped her gaze to the floor.
“It had a name once. Tyne.” Positioning a chair behind Jenica, Zette peeled the fabric of her shirt away from the slices on her back—two cuts nearly the length of her spine, crusted with blood and dirt. “This will sting,” she warned her. Dipping the towel in the bowl of water, Zette began to clean out the wounds. “Tyne used to be a farmer, until he ran afoul of a briva curse that had been buried in one of his fields, a remnant of a battle that was never fought. He came here. Started a garden. Had a life, until a hero came to Refuge, claiming she had a way to ‘cure’ him.”
At last, Jenica spoke, “Did the curse transform him?”
“Oh, no,” Zette said. “A briva curse doesn’t kill. You know what it does? It makes rainbows appear wherever you go. That’s it. Colorful lights. It was intended to foil a sneak attack. No, it was the curse-hunter who destroyed Tyne’s mind. Her so-called healing potions also left his body half-flesh and half–gelatinous ooze, which is how I know that Tyne did not cause these wounds. The creature he became absorbs its meals; it doesn’t cut. It consumes.” She kept her voice soft and steady as she cleaned the dirt from the slices on Jenica’s back. “You want to tell me how this happened?”
In a voice so soft that it was nearly inaudible, Jenica said, “I don’t deserve your kindness.”
“Says who? Him?” Zette jerked her chin toward the door. “Or whoever taught you that being cursed is a fate worse than death?”
Jenica said nothing.
Then again, she didn’t need to. Zette had heard it all before. “Life breaks all of us in different ways. It doesn’t make you any less deserving of happiness.”
“Yes, it does,” Jenica said, and then she flailed as the skin on her back fractured anew. Blood-streaked wings burst out on either side of her spine and she let out a piercing scream.
* * *
As Jenica knew he would, the hero threw himself at the bakery door. He rammed his shoulder against it again and again. She waited for him to burst through.
The baker, to Jenica’s surprise, did not seem afraid. More like irritated. Strolling as if she hadn’t just witnessed a monster sprouting its hideous wings in front of her, Zette crossed to the door and shouted to the hero, “Could you stop that, please? You’re going to break it!”
“Stay calm!” he yelled back. “I’ll save you!”
“I’m not in danger!” Zette turned to Jenica. “Am I?”
Jenica spread her wings wide. “I’m cursed.”
“Yes, I know,” Zette said, “but are you planning to kill me?”
“Well . . . no.” Of course she wasn’t! She didn’t want to kill anyone. “But . . . I could.”
“I doubt that,” the baker said calmly, “but that’s a separate discussion. Are you feeling a murderous rage or is it only the wings? Keep in mind that rages aren’t a deal breaker. Siball loses control every full moon, but we handle it. Of course, there may be an adjustment period while we figure out the exact specifications of your affliction, but with time—”
Jenica gawked at her. What was she talking about? Didn’t she see the evidence in front of her? Didn’t she know that any moment, Jenica could lose control and attack. . . .
Except that she hadn’t. And she hadn’t attacked Ry, either. She’d merely fled, in fear.
“How about we make a deal?” Zette said. “You stay until my cake is done baking and you’ve tried a bite, and if you feel like either dying or fleeing after that, then I won’t stop you. But one slice of cake first.”
Cake? But . . .
She thought of Ry and of the life she had and the life she was supposed to have. All her plans—their plans—were over. Her future was over. And she was supposed to eat cake?
* * *
Zette saw Jenica nod, hesitantly, but that was good enough for now. She pulled back the bolt on the door, and the curse-hunter fell inside. He rallied immediately and drew his sword.
“Foul beast!” he cried. “I will rid the land of your poison and save this land—”
His words were cut off as Zette unfurled a tentacle and wrapped it around his throat. “This is Refuge,” she informed him, “and you’re in the Lucky Bakery. We don’t condone that kind of attitude here.”
He raised his sword to hack at her tentacle, and a second tentacle snaked out from beneath her blouse and wound around his wrist. His sword clattered to the ground.
“We look out for one another here,” Zette said.
He gurgled as she squeezed.
“This is for Tyne.”
* * *
The bakery customers filtered in after that. Jenica tried not to react as a boy with brilliant red skin helped an extremely old-looking woman drag the body out of the bakery. The boy smiled at her shyly.
Zette was humming as she frosted and then cut the cake. She served it as soon as everyone was seated. The other residents of Refuge chatted about the weather, the new vegetable garden, and the memorial they’d hold for Tyne. They praised the cake and the baker. None of them looked at Jenica as if she were anything unnatural, and for the first time, she began to think about her future—her new future.
Lifting her fork, Jenica took a bite.
It was the most delicious cake she’d ever tasted.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Sarah Beth Durst is the award-winning author of over twenty books for adults, teens, and kids, including The Queens of Renthia series, Drink Slay Love, and Spark. You can visit her at sarahbethdurst.com or on social media @sarahbethdurst.
“Curses and Cake,” © Sarah Beth Durst, 2022.
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Oh! This is absolutely gorgeous. 💙 Thanks so much.