The curses were the loveliest, and most satisfying, to paint. She could see them in her mind, even before she picked up a brush, pulsing and glowing with color in careful, delicate patterns. The love spells were surprisingly pale, dull, often almost lifeless on canvas; she supposed this was in part because the purchasers (and she never painted a love spell without a purchaser) wanted them to be overlooked, unnoticeable. They sometimes blinked at her when they came to pick up their paintings, but they never argued, and she had never had a request for a refund, even with her hefty price.

Not for love spells, at least.

The other spells — there, she never quite knew what to expect, not until she picked up a brush, and closed her eyes, to let the spell enter her mind. If it even did. A rain spell hadn’t, despite her best efforts, hours in front of the canvas, eyes shut, waiting for the colors to enter, to swirl in her mind. And nothing, only blankness. Not a single pattern or hint of color. In the end, she had to go to the woman who had needed the rain, to say softly that she could not help, and had watched the woman cry, useless water falling nowhere near where the rain was needed.

She had put some of her own gold into the woman’s hand, but it had been refused, and in the end, she could only stand in her doorway and hold back her own tears.

Watching the woman leave, she remembered then — not for the first time — how she had started, painting for beauty alone, not magick, until someone had come along to show her the trick of it, of bindings and paint. Those first paintings — they had not been all that good, the work of someone still searching for beauty. But they had not been failures.

They had not faded or disappeared, the way her spells did, the way her spells must.

She would not think of that, of any of this. Not now. She had a curse to paint. A curse where she would not — could not — think too much of the purchaser.

§

The knock had come at night, which was not a surprise; the artist worked odd hours, and made sure her clientele knew of this. Spells might be needed — were needed — at any hour, and many preferred to make their purchases in darkness.

The person at the door, however, was a little surprising.

The artist was accustomed to wigs, masks, hoods, and veils. Her purchasers always came in disguise, always, even for the most benign of healing spells, as if even admitting to the need for one would be dangerous. But this woman — man? had gone far beyond a mere mask and hood. She — he? actually shimmered in the doorway, creating a distorted look difficult for the artist to look at for more than a second or two. And this was an artist gifted at staring at things, at seeing the truth, whatever the light or shadows.

And… yes. Something in that shimmer.

The artist shuddered.

Magick.

What could possibly cause anyone already under a spell to seek out another one?

But the door was already open, and so, the artist bowed and let the man — woman? — in.

The shimmer did not end once the person was inside. Indeed, it worsened, causing the very walls of the house to look bended, distorted. The artist had to blink. She moved into the chamber she used to welcome guests — clients and friends alike. A comfortable chamber, with large chairs and low tables, painted in soothing colors. From the flare of the shimmer, the artist guessed that her latest patron did not feel soothed.

“I cannot remove that,” the artist said, before any other exchange of civilities. The sooner this ended, the better; who knew what this shimmer might do to her home, to the studio upstairs, now holding — she tried not to think of this — three separate spells, none of which had been entirely paid for. The artist was careful with money, but if those spells were damaged, it was days of wasted work — and a heavy loss if she could not repaint them. And she did not know if she could. She had never had to repair a damaged spell.

A handwave from the person. “That is not why I require your services.”

The artist gave a quick nod. “Your needs, then?” She could feel her heartbeat rising, her breathing quicken. Not for the first time, she regretted that her only weapon was a brush — but she had never had time for anything.

“A curse.”

The entire room shimmered.

The artist found herself blinking again. “The target?” she asked, when she could see again.

“Myself.”

Another shimmer, but this time the artist was more prepared. She could see her patron expanding, shrinking, expanding, and then becoming just a simple robed figure again.

“Forgive me,” the artist said, with a deep bow. “But you seem to be under a curse already.”

Something that might have been laughter came from the patron. “No. This is something else.” The patron stepped forward; the artist felt the hair on her hands rise. “You will curse me, little artist.”

“One of my spells, mingled with other magick —” the artist began.

“Let me worry about that problem,” said the patron. “You will curse me.”

Colors flashed through the artist’s mind, pulsing, painful. She had never seen — never tried — “I have other commissions,” she managed, through the flood of colors. “It will take two weeks —”

“You will delay those commissions,” said the patron.

The artist continued to fight the whirlwind of colors. “Your curse — it needs some pigments I do not have, and the canvas – the canvas is going to be —”

A thunk of coin. “This will help defray the costs. Paint it, little artist. Paint it now.”

The house seemed to shudder. The artist shut her eyes against the whirlwind of colors, the pulsing brilliance, the patterns —

She could not paint this, even if it was in her mind. She could not. From the patron, another whisper. “Because if you do not, you will die.”

The artist slumped to the floor, the colors still swirling, pulsing. Curses had never hurt before, never. But this one —

“And it will not be swift.”

But the artist did not hear those last words.

§

The artist did not wake for some hours. When she did, the colors had receded, at least a little, replaced by a driving need for paints. Canvas. Supplies. Not the ones she had in the house. How she knew that, she did not know, but the need was strong enough to send her staggering for the door.

The town where she lived was large enough to support a curious sort of shop, which sold not only paints and canvases and brushes, but items to appeal to those with different tastes: odd candles, old books, bronze sticks, cracked teapots, marble elephants, round stones. And more. It trembled, so some said, with magick. The artist had never felt that tremble, but she most certainly needed special pigments.

As she stumbled from the door, she felt despair and vertigo wash over her, nearly sinking her to her knees. She seized hold of the doorjamb and took a deep breath. The road to the shop was rocky, and hilly, and her feet felt unsteady, but she could hear that voice in her head. Death. The colors pulsed.

One foot forward, and the next, always trying to keep the walls within touching distance of her hands, hoping that no other patrons saw her. She entered as quickly as she could, given the shifting earth, and did not blink as she handed over the heavy coins for the pigments her colors pushed her towards: seven heavy tubes tied with gold.

And with that, the colors were assaulting her again, and she could not remain in the shop. She bolted back to her house.

§

The colors wanted a large canvas. Not the largest she had ever done, but large enough: she dragged stools from where she had stored them in other rooms so she could reach each corner and the top without stretching. They wanted brightness, shining. That she could give them.

They wanted intricacy. That was a bit more difficult.

And they wanted speed and power and hatred.

Death.

The shimmer, the way it had almost folded the floor, the way it had pulled at her eyes and made her —

No.

It was one of the dangers of magicks, of curses, the way one curse could bleed into another. It was why she did not, could not, take on more than one patron, more than one painting at once, although once the paintings were finished, she could store them, for a time. Why she sometimes had to force herself to pause, to meditate, to sit in hot water, just to make sure all traces of the last spell were gone from her mind and hands. Otherwise healing spells might mix with curse spells. She had seen it happen — from another artist — and she still woke up, gasping, at the thought.

That shimmer was no spell of her making, but still, it wanted in. Whatever it was, it either did not want this spell completed, or it wanted it changed, or —

No. She was imagining things. The shimmer itself didn’t want anything; couldn’t want anything. But it could enter her painting, if she was not careful.

She was careful.

Breathe.

She remembered to breathe, and to drink when her body reminded her. She forgot other things: sleep, food, rest. The colors pounded at her, swirled through her, never leaving her fingers or mind for long enough for her to do anything else but sip water, or perhaps stretch her legs against the floor. Her legs and hands ached.

She did not stop.

She panicked at every near miss of a brushstroke, every color that seemed slightly off. When she paused, the thought she could see the shimmer pressing against her, pressing against her walls; she could hear the words your death your death your death echoing in her mind. But it was not the words that were driving her.

It was the painting.

The greatest she had ever made.

And it would die once the patron — and the shimmer — touched it.

Something in her nearly died at the thought, but something else would not let her stop painting. When she looked at it, it almost seemed to move. She did not let herself think that when the patron arrived, it would move.

§

The patron arrived shortly before the artist was about to place her final brushstroke. The artist did not ask how the patron had known; some were more sensitive than others. She focused, instead, on the painting. She could not, could not, lose the painting now. She had already had to repaint some sections; having to repaint this brushstroke would mean losing the energy and having to redo part of the pattern. She shut her eyes briefly, to let the colors flow through her again. Her hands tingled. She opened her eyes and carefully, ever so lightly, placed the final stroke.

Done. She could feel it, in her bones, the way she was suddenly exhausted, the way the colors had fled, the way she could now be aware of other canvases in the room. And the sudden feel of magick, the focus on energy, in the one brilliant corner of the room. The feel that her own body now lacked any trace of that magick at all.

Gods, the beauty, the beauty.

The artist had never created anything like it. She allowed herself to slide onto the floor, not even bothering to place the last brush in water. It would need to be destroyed in any case; she could feel that. “Done.”

The patron — and that shimmer — stepped forward. “I feel nothing,” said the patron, and this time, it was not only the light and sight that were distorted, but also her voice. If the artist had had the energy, she would have clapped her hands over her ears. As it was, she found herself wincing.

“You may need to touch it,” said the artist wearily. “Or place it in your home. I do not know. The paintings never tell me what to do once they are done. I only know they do what they do once they have left me. But it is done, and cursed.”

The patron moved to the canvas. The shimmer around her distorted the walls, the floor, and even, for a moment, seemed to shadow the painting. The artist felt a sudden stab of pain, but this was not her painting now. It was her patron’s curse. The patron raised a single arm and moved it towards the painting, then stopped.

“I cannot touch it.”

The artist struggled to focus, to see. Hands. The painting. The shimmer…

The room bended, folded, straightened again, and this time, the artist could see it — something from her painting pushing against the shimmer.

“I do not think you will be able to touch it as long as you wear that spell about you,” said the artist.

“Then you will have to carry it for me.”

“I cannot.”

“Have you forgotten what awaits you if you do not?”

The artist had not. “I cannot,” she repeated. “If I remove the painting — it breaks the power. I do not know why. It just is. I have tried to take my paintings to my patrons before, and everything — the paint, the magick — has ended up pouring into the streets. I can’t.”

Her eyes hurt.

The patron stood still for a moment.

“Very well.” A whisper, but it seemed to fill the room.

The shimmer widened, brightened — and then cracked.

The artist shielded her eyes, but too late; they were already burning. And through the fires, she saw —

Beauty, more than beauty, color color color oh gods the world had never held such swirling colors even her curses had never been like this, never the perfection stung her, hurt her, she could never paint this, never even describe this oh gods her head hurt, her head hurt so much and above this a green—skinned face of such dreadful perfection that no human would ever be beautiful to her again and fire fire sparks and the world tilting, tilting tilting no wonder the curse had pulsed so trying desperately to be anything like this tilting tilting

Blankness.

§

The artist awoke to find herself in a small ball in a corner of her room.

She could still feel the painting, the curse, on the other side, living, mocking her, pulling at her.

“It did not work,” said a voice, a voice such as the artist had never heard before, a weaving of music and light and words and despair that pierced her ears with pain.

“No,” the artist began, then stopped. Her throat felt raw, burned, and against the beauty of that other voice, she heard her own harshness, and hated it, hated it to the point where she wanted to slash her own throat to silence it. Her mind was grey, grey, grey, without color, and the room was lurching. She shut her eyes, swallowed, let her tongue moisten her lips, and opened her eyes again. “No.” She had something important to ask, something important to say, but everything in her mind was grey, and the room continued to shift beneath her. “Why does one such as you even need a curse?” she heard a voice ask, harsh in its ugliness, and was shocked to realize it was hers.

“Death,” said the voice.

No, the artist thought, I made your curse, it’s right there, still holding its power… She shivered. “I —” And again the harshness of her voice startled her.

My death,” said the voice. “I need to die.”

And the sorrow and despair in those words left grey marks in the artist’s mind, sent her sinking down towards the floor. She could feel herself fading, turning grey, turning into nothing, feel the colors retreating, she had to, she had to —

“But why?”

“Because my sorrow is as eternal as I, and if I cannot end it, I must end myself.”

And the artist saw again the thousand thousand stars the thousand thousand colors the piercing beauty that had ripped her throat — “You wanted me to end that?

Her patron did not pretend to misunderstand. “I do not think it will be much missed.”

“Any lack of beauty is missed.” Something else nagged at her, something left undone, uncompleted — “And not just yourself,” she added. “Something else —”

“A small loss of beauty, with my ending. Very small. Something that would not be missed.”

The artist looked at her painting, her curse, at its pulsing colors. And suddenly, she understood. “I did not paint enough,” she said. “It failed, because I only cursed you.”

The greatest curse she had ever made, and the most beautiful. She stared at it, trying to memorize its colors and patterns, to hold it against the greyness of her soul. “It does not curse the other things that would be lost.”

“Ah.” And in that sound, despair and music and anguish. The artist placed her hands on her forehead to draw out the pain.

“You can change this.”

“Yes,” admitted the artist.

“Then do,” said the voice. “And you may yet escape your death. For a time, at least.”

The artist bowed her head.

She could feel the colors beginning to swirl inside her mind, feel the bright patterns emerging. The patterns that were so beautiful, and so deadly. She shut her eyes for a moment, to let them settle into her mind, and then headed to the small table by the wall, to examine the pigments there. She could almost feel the despair in the room settling, now tinged with anticipation. Almost absent — mindedly she picked up the knife on the table and ran it along her arm, before turning and whirling to face her painting, her — she could see it now — her beautiful, so beautiful painting. She drew back her hand —

And threw the knife right through her painting.

Someone screamed. Possibly her — her ears still rang and pounded from that glorious voice. She thumped to her knees. But even the pain and the scream could not remove the small smile of triumph from her lips.

She looked up — to feel that smile die a little.

For her patron was standing near the torn painting, something upon her face that, after a shocked moment, the artist recognized as a smile. Of a sort. The sort of smile that might be used by one trying to imitate a smile, who had never moved those muscles before.

And with a sinking heart, the artist realized: she could see her patron, free of distortion, of shimmers. Of —

Of beauty.

Oh, the woman in front of her was still beautiful. More than beautiful, most would have said, with exquisite features, flawless skin, and shining dark hair down to her knees. A vision. But the artist had seen something more there before. Something more than beauty.

Gone now. And the patron knew it. The artist’s curse had found its mark.

“Congratulate yourself, little artist,” said the patron. “You may not have brought my death. But you have helped destroy a little beauty.”

And she stepped upon the fragments of the painting as she left.

The artist sat quietly in a corner for a long time.

§

The artist did not go to the little store selling the odd pigments and brushes and canvases for some time. When she did, she did not go to the shelves that stored the pigments for curses and bindings and spells, but to other shelves, filled with quite ordinary paints, for ordinary paintings on ordinary walls.

The colors swirled in her mind.

She did not quite ignore them. Impossible, in any case, now that they had been awakened. But she could push them aside for now, and close her door to patrons, while she worked on something else. Something of beauty, with just a touch of magick — no way to keep that from her painting now — but something of beauty that would survive.


More from Mari Ness:

Mari Ness usually prefers to paint with words, not colors. Her work has appeared in multiple publications, including Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and previously in Apex Magazine. For a longer list, visit her official blog at marikness.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter @mari_ness.

3 Comments

  1. Excellent story! I thought the resolution could have been clearer, but the journey there was well worth it.

  2. That was beautiful and captivating. It held my attention throughout the entire story, which is very hard to do.

  3. Love this story! And to be honest I quite envy you a bit 😉 Wish I could write something down like this.

    Please keep them coming.

    Best wishes,
    Thomas

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