The Lazarus Curse – a dark fantasy story

by Jon Cronshaw

Jacob sits on a throne of shattered bones. His shroud hangs black and red, hooded and flowing. A single gas lamp flickers behind him, casting shadows of dancing bones along the abandoned station walls. An empty beer can rolls from the platform’s edge and clatters against the tracks. His court of rats scatter.
“Angelus.” He holds out a pewter cup for Angelus to pours his wine and runs a curled finger through his long red hair. “Israel has betrayed me for the last time.”
Angelus sighs. “You betray each other. You are both driven by a lust for power.”
Jacob sips the wine, considers Angelus’s words, and places the cup on the arm of the throne. “I am the one.” Turning to Angelus, he narrows his eyes . “I have many followers. It is only a matter of time.”
“You both have many followers. You are moving towards a war that Lazarus will not tolerate.”
Jacob closes his eyes and steeples his fingers. “Israel’s wings need to be clipped. Lazarus must know that only I can lead.”
Angelus offers him another sigh and pours more wine.
“Do not sigh at me, Angelus. Say what is on your mind.”
“You’re the same. You and Israel are two pieces of the same puzzle.”
“We are not the same,” Jacob spits, slamming a fist down, bones splintering against his strength.
“You will only end each other.”
Jacob stares ahead and crushes the cup in his hand, feeling the metal bend to his will. He goes to stand.
“What is it?”
Jacob gasps. “I have been summoned.”
Jacob waits in silence, eyes downcast. He is on his knees, his nose touching the tiled floor. Unable to move, he listens to the scratchy rasp of Lazarus’s breath surrounding him.
Israel appears to Jacob’s left. They both bow and wait, no words, no greetings.
“We exist when we understand that we are one,” Lazarus says. Each word is clipped, stifled, pained, each vowel like shifting soil, each consonant like scraping stones. “Your pettiness has worn my patience to a gossamer thread.”
Jacob tries to wriggle, to squirm, to run, but he is paralysed, held fast by Lazarus’s will.
“We are one. We are dependant.” Lazarus spits the last word, punctuating each syllable with a click of his skeletal fingers. “It is time for your fable, time for your lesson.”
Cold fire engulfs Jacob’s body. His flesh quivers and curls as the flames bury into his being, tearing at his the last threads of his soul.
Then, the pain ceases.
“Jacob. Israel. You are cursed to end. You will expire if you do not feed on each other. You must learn the value of our brood.”
The smell of refuse and insects drifts by. Bones splinter between Jacob’s fingers when he grips the arms of his throne. “We are going to war. We cannot live together like mutually-dependent parasites.”
Angelus frowns. “If Lazarus’s curse is what you say, then you will both end. Your talk of war and conquest will be for nought.”
“Lazarus.” Jacob spits out the word. Something nudges him at the back of his mind, a pull towards his brother. He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. His expression softens as he looks up at Angelus. “No one tastes sweeter than you.”
A sudden urge grips him. He lurches forward, takes Angelus by the wrist, sinks his teeth into his flesh, and feeds. “What is this?” he growls, choking on the blood. He jerks away and drops Angelus’s arm as trails of blood extend along the platform, pooling near the edge.
“What is it?”
“I…” Jacob rests his head in his hands. “Your blood is wrong,” He shoots to his feet. “I have to find Israel.”

Maggots swarm at the throne’s base while Israel’s flesh teems with buzzing flies. Drained and rotting corpses lie around his throne. Human skin stretches across its back and sides, dried pinks and browns twisted in strands that bow and stretch with Israel’s every movement. A fluorescent light tube flickers in the tunnel leading to the platform, casting a cold blue light over the scattered dead.
Jacob stands before Israel, his arms outstretched, his wrists gaping and dripping with blood. “Brother, Lazarus’s curse is our only enemy now. I offer a truce between us. Let there be no blood spilled, save for our mutual feeding.”
The throne creaks as Israel sits back. A cloud of flies darts this way and that, eddying in a macabre waltz. He hold’s Jacob’s gaze with an icy glare. “Agreed. Mark my words, Jacob, there will be a truce, but only until this curse is lifted.”
“As you say, brother.” Jacob bows his head in assent.
Silence hangs between them like a shroud. After a long moment, Israel stands, tears at his right wrist with his teeth, and offers it to Jacob. “Together.”
“Together.”
They lean down to each other’s gaping wounds and feed, sucking the blood with silent gulps as the flies hum around them.
“You taste…” they both say, their words trailing off as the faint hint of a smile creeps along their faces.
Jacob stirs when Israel crawls into his bed. The flies hover outside the chamber, waiting with the rats. “Send your thrall away,” Israel says, pushing Angelus aside with a shove.
“He is no thrall.” He makes no further protest when Angelus skulks away.
They bite into each other’s wrists again and feed.
“I hate this,” they say.
Jacob and Israel meet on neutral ground, a tunnel used by rats as a graveyard. Rodent corpses carpet the ground, some still bloated and crawling with maggots, others no more than dusty husks. Bones shatter beneath their feet as they walk. They take a moment to feed on each other and then stand back-to-back.
“We must fight this curse, brother,” says Jacob.
Israel says nothing.
“We should test the curse.”
Israel turns to him and meets his gaze in the gloom. A rat enters the tunnel along the track opposite Jacob. It stands on its hind legs, sniffs the air, locks eyes with Jacob, turns, and scurries away.
“Well?” Jacob asks.
“Well, what?”
“Well?”
“Do you have a plan?”
Jacob nods.
The air changes when Angelus nails down the final sheet of thick wood. Gone are the ebbs and flows of rushing air that mark the rhythm of the underground trains. All around is dry and still.
Jacob curls into a tight ball and feels Angelus return to his bed.
“Do you wish to feed?”
Jacob gives a weak nod and Angelus offers his wrists. Leaning forward, he tries to feed. He pushes down the urge to gag, to vomit. He turns away at Angelus’s hurt expression. “I…it will pass.”
Angelus says nothing.
The pull to Israel becomes an obsession, a twitching, a yearning twisting at every facet of Jacob’s mind.
“Jacob?” Angelus whispers.
“What is it?” Jacob’s hands and feet are heavy and stiff. He looks down to see they have turned to granite. “Summon Israel. Now!”
Israel’s arms and feet are the same bluish-green stone as Jacob’s when he arrives, limping. The flies avoid his hands. “Send away your thrall.”
“Go,” whispers Jacob.
Angelus leaves.
Weak and gasping, the pair finds flesh halfway up each other’s right arm and feed.
An iridescent glow surrounds them for a brief moment, and they find themselves bowing before Lazarus, their noses pressed against the floor and their stone arms anchored to the tiled floor as if bound by chains.
Lazarus lets out a rattling, wheezing laugh. “You dared to defy me? You thought you could lift the curse?”
“No.”
Lazarus clicks his fingers. “You were supposed to learn a lesson, but instead you worked against me.”
“No!”
“Do not lie to me. You instructed your thralls to keep you apart. And now you are here.”
A luminous green light pulses around them and starvation floors the brothers. Pain tears through their insides, a boiling, searing pain that writhes and contorts from within. Their screams do not leave their mouths, cannot.
All Jacob and Israel can do is feed. Jacob calls to Angelus for wine, but before he can utter a single word, the petrification returns and spreads across his limbs like setting ice.
“I hate this,” says Jacob, his voice muffled as he feeds.
Israel agrees, mumbling though Jacob’s armpit.
“We should end.”
“Yes.” Israel stops feeding for a brief moment. “We should end Lazarus.”
With their bodies half-petrified, Jacob and Israel summon their minions. Stone crackles along their skin as they move from feeding to giving short blasts of orders.
Jacob leans up and eyes his lieutenants. “We are in alliance…” A tendril of stone crawls along his thigh, twisting like ivy, and stops only when he returns to feed. “You must end Lazarus.”
Israel repeats the words to his own lieutenants and returns to feeding.
Jacob lifts his head weakly. “Take us to him.”
An army of rats and flies carry Jacob and Israel to Lazarus as the battle rages. Flames and arrows fly in all directions, arcing in and out of time, extinguishing everything.
The minions fall by the thousands as Jacob and Israel crawl towards Lazarus, their knees and elbows scraping, stone against stone. All the while, they still feed.
“What is the meaning of this?” Lazarus gasps, his flailing arms rendering him powerless.
Jacob and Israel drag themselves forward and separate. They lunge at Lazarus with a deafening scream and sink their teeth into his arms.
Lazarus writhes as they feed. They pull on his centre, tear at him, his bones bending and splitting. Their arms and legs turn soft, fleshy and bony, the stone retreating along their bodies like the first thaws of spring.
“Fools! You may end me, but I will make the curse stronger.”
A brilliant burst of black light emanates from Lazarus, filling the chamber with the screams of a billion holocausts. The walls around them shatter and crumble. Lazarus falls to dust as a beam of sunlight penetrates from above.
Jacob and Israel share a smile as a gust of air blows Lazarus away in a cloud of ash. “We are victorious. And now the curse is lifted.”
They look around at the scattered corpses of their armies, their crumbling empire, and the swarming flies and rats returning to their masters and share another smile. Jacob looks down at his hand and offers it to his brother. Israel’s smile falls away.
“What is it?” Before Israel can answer, Jacob’s eyes widen at the petrification spreading along his body.
“The curse.” Israel raises his stone hands.
Their bodies stiffen as the petrification moves up past their thighs.
A grim smile passes over Israel’s lips. “I fear this will not end us. We will be trapped in stone for— “ His words stop as his jaw becomes granite.
Jacob nods. “Angelus. Take us to the light. End us, before it is too late.”
Angelus crawls over to his master, his lover, his body wrecked with contusions and fractured bones. “As you wish.”
Jacob’s body stiffens as the petrification continues up his spine, engulfing his ribs and twisting his shoulders. Angelus drags Jacob and Israel towards the sunlight, towards their end.
The flies retreat and the rats scatter.
As they reach the light, they remain trapped in stone.

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Jack Vance – The Miracle-Workers (1958)

Jack Vance’s short story The Miracle-Workers was first published in the July 1958 edition of Astounding Science Fiction.

The Miracle-Workers tells the story of a far-future human society that has degenerated to feudal medievalism.

The version I read for this review was reprinted in Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction (1994) edited by Gardner R. Devois.

Have you read this story? What did you think?

Follow me on Twitter @jlcronshaw.

Jack Vance The Miracle-Workers Astounding Science Fiction July 1958