Gift and Curse

Background

In 1318, a few newly made hermetic apprentices shedded the social flaw of the Gift. This news spreads quickly, and Bonisagi from Durenmar itself claim these apprentices for themselves so that they may study this miracle.

Their excitement turned to horror when these apprentices acquired over several months what would become known as the Rotten Curse.

In 1319, news arises of more apprentices contracting the Rotten Curse. A hastily assembled symposium of the Order’s foremost experts on the Gift gathers. Their postulates so far have stood up:

1. The Gift and the Curse are related but separate phenomena.
2. Most with the Gift will bear the Curse and vice versa.
3. The Curse can begin as the Jealous Curse but may reshape into the Rotten Curse.
4. Hermetic magic cannot break the Curse.

A later symposium in 1339 adds the following postulate, given evidence unfolding over time:

5. Only Hermetic apprentices develop the Rotten Curse.

At present, almost one third of Hermetic apprentices develop the Rotten Curse.

There had been questions prior to the rise of the Rotten Curse about whether the Gift and its downsides were, metaphorically speaking, just parts of the same creature or separate creatures that attracted each other. For that matter, there were notions that the Gift came in several different species. After all, most people with the Gift were supernaturally repulsive, but a minority enjoyed the Gentle Gift. For that matter, some of the Gifted were beyond insufferable (the Blatant Gift), and there were also mundanes that suffered the downside of the Gift without any of its benefits.

However, the symposium of 1319 became a seminal moment: with little dissent, the Hermetic Order adopted the view that the Gift and the Curse were separate things. This realization, despite coming under woeful circumstances, has ultimately excited the Hermetics: it should be easier to suppress a separate Curse than—in accordance with prior theories—tinker with the Gift without harming it. Additionally, the way the Rotten Curse arises suggests that the Curse is not fundamentally immutable.

Hermetic thinkers generally split into two camps on the origins of the Rotten Curse. The less popular one seeks to prove the date of the first afflictions was no coincidence: God, the Dominion, or other higher power manifested the Rotten Curse as punishment for the Order’s indifference to the Great Famine. Thus far, nothing has proved this take. The more popular camp believes that the Curse changes slowly over the ages. However, few in this camp, compared to the first, set themselves to proving it. Those that do only have circumstantial evidence to cite, noting that lore from around the known world attests of magicians having all sorts of curses that somehow relate to their arcane talents.

The Gift and the Gentle Gift
The Curses

The Gift (0-point Merit for Magi)

The Gift basically operates using the same rules presented in the core book except where it comes to its traditional drawbacks. Characters with this Merit must also choose one of the Curses.

The Gentle Gift (Major Merit for Magi)

The Gentle Gift operates under the same rules discussed in the core book.

Hermetic scholarship now regards the Gentle Gift as simply the Gift absent the Curse—its usual companion.

The Curse (variable Flaw)

The Curse now has four recognized varieties, and some Hermetic researchers have become obsessed with finding more whether among Hermetics or Hedge Magicians.

The Jealous Curse (0-point Hermetic Flaw, Major Supernatural Flaw)

The Jealous Curse operates per the traditional social drawbacks presented for the Gift in the core book; someone under this Curse easily stokes feelings of envy, jealousy, and disgust in others.

Most Gifted folk still have the Jealous Curse from birth, though it’s not a guarantee (see below) that a future Hermetic apprentice will avoid the Rotten Curse.

The Shunning Curse (Major Hermetic Flaw)

The Shunning Curse operates per the traditional drawbacks presented for the Blatant Gift in the core book; someone under this Curse has almost no hope of civil relations with those not protected by Parma Magica or similarly effective measures . . . unless, that is, it changes into the Putrid Curse (see below).

The Rotten Curse (0-point Hermetic Flaw)

The Rotten Curse occurs only in Hermetic Apprentices who have had their Arts opened. If their Jealous Curse doesn’t shift towards the Rotten Curse between the Opening and their first Gauntlet attempt, their Jealous Curse is fixed in place.

During the transition, the effects of the Jealous Curse lessen progressively over a month. For the next few weeks to one month, the apprentice experiences life as if she had the Gentle Gift. All too soon, though, the Rotten Curse will arise, and the apprentice’s life will change forever.

First, the afflicted discovers that everything he eats becomes unpalatable. In the next few days, even the most pristine cut of roast or flawless apple will visibly rot at his touch. By the end of the season, his mere presence can spoil food in minutes.

Sustenance – As living beings, magi need food, and the Curse turns the act of ingestion into a struggle. Most magi have an aptitude for stoicism, so most of the Cursed learn to tolerate putrid food just enough to get by. In fact, food rotted with the Curse remains as nutritious as it otherwise would have been.

Anorexia – Though this condition was known in 1400, it was more rare than in modern days, somewhat associated with piety, and all but unseen among Hermetics. That changed when the Rotten Curse arrived. Perhaps a quarter of each of the Cursed would develop “the disgust” and cease to eat. Measures to fight the disgust, magical or otherwise, are generally ineffective. Most of the affected never overcome this dreadful state and will waste away (PC magi are presumed to have not suffered anorexia or to have overcome it). A caring Parens will use the vis necessary to cast “The Sweet Taste of Nothing” (see below) in attempt to avert this worst outcome.

Covering up that nasty flavor – Through all kinds of culinary tricks, turning spoiled food into dinner was a common occurrence long ago. None of them work on Curse Rot, be they deep roasting, spicing, salting, marinading, whatever. Even magic won’t work.

Area of effect and time to affect – The Rotten Curse’s reach is indefinite. The rule of thumb is that twenty paces is a safe distance, but there have been many cases where lingering for prolonged periods have rotted food beyond this distance.

Furthermore, physical boundaries, even those as open as rail fences, tend to dampen the Curse’s reach beyond. Indeed, someone with the Rotten Curse can normally stroll down a country lane lined by rail fences and not worry about reducing adjacent hay bales into moldy piles of bed straw. However, again, these are tendencies, not hard rules.

Finally, the closer the afflicted is to the food, the faster it will rot. At about fifteen paces, milk fresh in a pail could be expected to go sour within ten minutes. Looming over the pail would almost instantly turn it sour and quickly spur the growth of fungus. Touching the milk instantly curdles, molds, and ferments it.

Affected foodstuffs – With a few important exceptions, anything a magus might use for sustenance is susceptible to the Curse. This covers everything from beef to fruit to boiled leather. In fact, the Rotten Curse seems to have an intelligence of its own: it normally won’t affect traditionally inedible matter, but if the Cursed or an accomplice determines to make it a meal, it will rot. For instance, if an afflicted apprentice sets her sights on dry oak leaves in desperation, they’ll inevitably be slaked in slime before they meet her lips.

Food sources that yet live intact are immune to the Curse. Yes, this led many a poor magus in the early days of the Curse to go as far as tearing a chunk of thigh from a living cow only to discover that even partly dismembered flesh instantly rots. Those that tried swallowing plants whole, ripped from the soil roots and all, wound up with a mouthful of compost. Bite-size critters, even when swallowed whole, would instantly die and rot in the mouth.

The only known exceptions to the Curse’s ravenous appetite are purified water, some infusions, salt, metals, and edible pawns of vis.

Purified Water – Whether achieved through boiling, condensation, or a simple spell, purified water is not just potable. It’s palatable (unless you happen to hate water).

Infusions – Coffee and tea have yet to make their way to Europe. However, Europeans use other assorted botanicals in their beverages, whether for flavor or medicine. Magi do not understand why only some infusions defy the Curse. Nevertheless, Redcaps pass around dozens of proven recipes for free.

Good recipes always require preparation by someone unafflicted with the Rotten (or Putrid) Curse, otherwise the botanicals will rot before infusion. They also require purified water and must be strained. Only a few kinds of dried fruit infusions resist spoiling.

Disappointingly, using an infusion to improve the flavor of food that’s about to putrify in the hands of the Cursed doesn’t seem to work at all.

(Incidentally, if and when magi run across coffee and tea, they’ll discover that they’re among the botanicals that withstand the Curse if prepared as described above.)

Salt – Too bad man can not live by salt alone, right?

Metals – Even amid the plagues and famines of the times, some piece-of-work nobles show off their wealth by sprinkling gold flakes on their food (frankly, some of them also believe gold may have health benefits). Anyway, none seem the worse for wear over a little yellow sparkle in their diets. So of course this led some magi to experiment with gold and other metals as sources of sustenance. To their delight, metals don’t rot. On the other hand, they’re at best inert, tasteless, and devoid of energy (gold being the primary example). On the third hand, plenty of metals in even minuscule amounts are toxic, and plenty of Cursed magi went on to become proof of that, whether living or dead.

Edible Vis – Plants and creatures that carry at least one pawn of vis are immune to the Curse as long as they bear that pawn. Therefore, a golden apple with a pawn of Herbam Vis will taste juicy and delectable from the branch. An accomplished magus chef could even find some ways to prepare it without losing the pawn and the protection. Ever tried the tail of a magic beast infused with a pawn of Animal Vis? If you have the Rotten Curse, you’ll want to.

None of this means that the golden apple or the magic beast tail won’t rot on their own. It simply means that it will usually happen naturally and never due to the Rotten Curse.

Macronutrients – But this is Ars Magica! Why this talk of chemistry?!

Well, once science (or consensual reality, mwa ha ha . . .) gets a crack at the mystery, it’ll discover that the Rotten Curse attacks starches, sugars, fiber, fats, and proteins. That means it does not attack a slew of other edible content, including salt, water, and plenty of micronutrients. Therefore, if the Hermetics discover a natural food source that doesn’t have macronutrients, they will discover it does not rot and the Cursed are likely to try to incorporate it into their diet. The problem is the human body can’t function without energy, and it all but requires macronutrient ingestion to make energy.

The root of why I bring this up is because magi (and players) will incessantly try to figure out loopholes to this Curse, as is only natural. Unless the loophole addresses the fundamental mechanism of the Curse without using magic, it’s not a loophole.

The Putrid Curse (Major Hermetic Flaw)

The Putrid Curse is the Rotten Curse but worse. It affects food almost instantly and completely within twenty paces. Food within one hundred paces will slowly and surely rot. Physical boundaries still provide food some protection, but a maga with the Putrid Curse is still advised to pass fenced hay fields and root cellars at a brisk pace. Worst of all, the small comforts that the Rotten Curse affords do not apply to the Putrid Curse. Water turns into swamp swill, salt tastes like metal, and not only will edible vis rot, it will inevitably become useless for anything.

The only loopholes known are edible divine or infernal vis. Needless to say, the former is extraordinarily hard to obtain on the up and up. The latter is perhaps an easier fetch, but every peripheral code in the Hermetic Order regards sating hunger with imp tenderloins and the like as rank infernalism. Interestingly, though edible faerie vis does defy the rot of the Putrid Curse, the Cursed will fall beyond sanity, at least temporarily. Even with precautions, Merinitae would never recommend any with the Putrid Curse consume faerie vis. Most who try disappear, die, or suffer grievous accidents while interacting nonsensically with equally nonsensical phantasms.

Sadly, the norm among those few that develop the Putrid Curse is suicide or starving to death. A PC with this Curse is not condemned to die, but he or she suffers daily doing what is necessary to remain alive, much less vital.

So it’s that bad for the Putrid Curse. What’s the norm with the Rotten Curse?

Failures in fighting the Rotten Curse

Again, there are no loopholes that will largely protect someone with the Rotten Curse from its deprivations. The little loopholes that exist are, at best, small reprieves or come at significant cost. Unless a character undertakes and achieves a major Hermetic breakthrough during this campaign to fix any version of the Curse, there is no way to be rid of the Curse.

But Hermetics are an experimental, wily bunch, so you’d better believe they’ve tried every simple trick they can think of to remedy the Rotten Curse. Below are just a few of those attempts.

- The symposium of 1339, noticing that the precise onset of the Rotten Curse varied but always occurred between the opening of an apprentice’s Arts and her first Gauntlet attempt, led Bonisagi to experiment with modifications to apprenticeship that would minimize this crucial interval. Their most divergent model that tribunals found marginally acceptable delayed Opening until late in traditional apprenticeship (year 13) followed by a two year book learning cram in the Arts. The experiments resulted in poorly prepared Magi, dissatisfied Parentes, and no perceived reduction in the Rotten Curse: it arose more quickly in those that had their Arts opened at a later age.

- The Bonisagi above received special permission from the Grand Tribunal to run an experiment whereby they took 20 apprentices, opened their Arts on a more normal schedule, but then instituted a proper Gauntlet the moment the Opening was complete. None of these apprentices developed the Rotten Curse. While this experiment probably established that eliminating the interval between Opening and first Gauntlet stopped the development of the Rotten Curse, the next Grand Tribunal instituted laws that effectively banned its adoption into apprenticeship: for many reasons, the immediate Gauntlet would limit the usefulness or desirability (or both) of taking on an apprentice to most Magi.

- Starting early in the study of the Rotten Curse, many compassionate Parentes have asked the same question: what if I institute a Gauntlet during the transition to the Rotten Curse? After all, at least several blissful weeks would pass between the waning of the Jealous Curse and the first manifestations of the Rotten Curse. The hope was that the Gauntlet would freeze the apprentice’s Curse in this inoffensive state. Sadly, the results were always the same: once the transition began, nothing could stop it.

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Gift and Curse

Ars Magica: Romandy Tyvent