They approached the chest. They’d been searching their entire adult lives for this treasure, and the thrill of the chase had worn away. Now all they wanted to do was crack that baby open, grab whatever was spendable, and head to the nearest alehouse to enjoy their well earned reward.
There was enough visibility in the dimly lit cave for both of them to see the face of the other, and what they saw was very similar. A sweaty, dirty, unshaven face with an expression of fatigue paired with relief. They each placed one hand on the chest and pushed open the lid.
It took them both some time to recover from the overwhelming sensation they experienced upon first touching their prize. They staggered to their feet, gathering as many pieces of treasure as they could carry, and exited as quickly as possible from the cave, the dankness of which they could now sense as well as see.
“Could it be some kind of curse?!” one asked the other as they reached the outside air.
“It can’t be,” the other gasped.
As they headed for the nearest road, they both began to notice that the oppression of the cave began to fade. Instead of a dank, musty feeling they felt something much fresher and cleaner. The wind was blowing through the trees, and it was almost as though they could experience the growth of the trees alongside them. They found the road and did not have to travel far before the taste of food floated on the wind to them, and they quickened their pace.
It wasn’t long before they reached the inn, but they weren’t sure that the food that they knew to be inside was worth all of the other sensations wafting off of the inn; most of them were unsavory.
A quick glance and exchange of opinions led them to walk boldly inside, ignoring whatever gift or curse they had acquired in the cave, and hoping that it would go away once they had consumed enough alcohol.
The buxom proprietress caught their attention as they entered the busy inn. “What can I get you boys?” she called, winking at one of them. She got less attractive as they approached, however. Her charms melted away as their new sense informed them it had been quite a while since she had bathed. There was nothing they could see, but the conviction grew stronger the closer they got.
“Food and ale, please,” they requested, trying not to look repulsed.
“I’ll bring it out in a moment,” she said, looking slightly offended at their reaction to her. “There’s a table over there.” She pointed to a darker corner of the room, where the last empty table sat next to a hooded man stooped over his pipe.
The aura surrounding him was worse than those of the other patrons, and they disagreed momentarily over whether the proprietress was likely to bring their food to them outside, as it would be much less oppressive to eat out there. They were interrupted by their order appearing on the table much sooner than they’d expected. Their stomachs grumbled at the sight of it. Despite the overwhelming room and the formidable man in the corner, they rushed over and fell to.
It was worth it. The combination of their already extreme hunger and the new senses they had been experiencing was remarkable. It was as though they could forsee the taste of each bite, and that precognition made every one more savory and delicious. And the ale? It was almost as if they could discern not only which grain had been used to brew it, but also how long it had grown in in the field, and the very day it had been picked. It was the best meal they had ever had.
The only thing that could intrude on their dinner was the smoke from the hooded man’s pipe. With their backs to him, they couldn’t see the smoke, but they knew it was there. It felt dark and tainted. It seemed to seep across the floor in order to permeate their souls.
“Who is that man?” they asked the pungent proprietress when she brought them some bread.
“Who, Old Rufus?” she responded in a hushed tone. “He’s harmless. Crazy, but harmless. Makes his money warning travelers away from some cursed treasure. Bit of a charlatan, in my opinion, but I don’t toss him out on his ear, since he always pays what he owes.” She eyed them. “Speaking of, how were you planning to pay?”
“They already have,” a voice intruded, “can’t you see?” He pulled his chair up to their table and blew a ring of smoke from his pipe at them. They rocked back as the loathsome wave hit them.
“Now, Rufus,” the woman scolded, “you stay out of this. These gentlemen were about to pay their bill. Unless you’re going to pay it for them.”
“They’ve already paid their price,” he repeated, and fixed her with a gaze. “And if there’s a brain in that skull of yours, you won’t take their money, lest you share the curse they bring.”
She looked him in the face and seemed frightened for a bit, but then laughed and responded, “the only curse gold brings is never having enough of it,” and walked away.
When she was gone, the three men at the table regarded one another silently. Food went uneaten on their plates, ale unconsumed in their mugs. For a long while they sat in silence. Then Old Rufus spoke.
“You found it, didn’t you?” he asked quietly.
“How do you know?” they breathed in amazement.
“I could tell the moment you walked in,” he replied, cleaning his pipe and gesturing it at them. “No one else seems to mind this thing so much.” He smiled. “Believe me, it’s an acquired taste.”
They glanced at one another. “She said you warn people away from a cursed treasure,” one began.
“How do you do it?” the other continued, “and why?”
He tapped his pipe on the edge of the table and laughed. “Can’t you tell?” he asked. “I have it. The curse. I found the treasure myself, in my youth, and the curse descended on me as it has on you. I left that revolting cave and breathed the sweet open air. I found my way to this inn and had the most exquisite meal I have ever tasted.” He laughed again, but it sounded rough and bitter. “I was young then. I thought the odor in the cave was just something I imagined in my fear. I thought the fragrance of the forest and the flavor of the food was a result of my elation on finally possessing the treasure. I thought these impressions would fade with time or,” he smiled grimly at their mugs of ale, “if I dulled my senses.”
“Then... this never goes away?”
Old Rufus shook his head in reply, repacking his pipe and lighting it. “Never,” he said, bathing them in a haze of smoke again. “I put back what I’d taken and dedicated my life to preventing anyone else from falling victim to it. I wait here in this tavern, diverting adventurers. Sometimes I tell them my story. Other times I send them off after different treasure. They pay me well for my information, even if it’s false. In my experience, if people are determined to find trouble, they usually will, regardless of whether it’s the trouble I send them after.” After another moment of quiet, he added, “I’m only sorry I failed.”
“If you’ve dedicated your life to keeping other people from the treasure, you could have done more than sit in this putrid inn,” one said.
“That’s right!” the other insisted, jumping to his feet. “And we’ll do better! We’ll make sure that no one ever gets their hands on the treasure.”
“We’ll bury it!”
“Cast it into a pit!”
“Hide it where no one can possibly find it!”
“I did what I could,” Old Rufus interrupted quietly. “Do you ever wonder why it was so hard to find in the first place? You two are proof that adventurers who go looking for trouble will absolutely find it.”
“No one ever will again,” they vowed, and moved toward the exit as quickly as they could through the rest of the inn’s curious patrons.
Just as they reached the door, the proprietress called out, “You boys weren’t planning on leaving yet, were you? You’ve still got to settle up with me, and this won’t cover it.” They turned back to see her standing next to their table, holding a coin that had most likely fallen out of one of their pockets.
It took a moment, but they were able to see exactly when the curse fell on her. She gasped and her face turned white. Staggering to one knee, she looked around wildly, finally focusing on Old Rufus, still sitting at the table puffing at his pipe. “What’s happening to me?!” she choked out, overwhelmed by every new thing she could sense.
“I warned you,” he told her, then he stood, and in a loud voice, addressed the whole room. “These men have unleashed the Curse of the Treasure of Smel,” he turned and pointed at them.
Before the startled crowd could react, they dashed out the door and all the way back to the cave. It reeked so much they could hardly stand to go inside, but they covered their noses and held their breath and it was less terrible.
They approached the chest. They’d been searching their entire adult lives for this treasure, and now they would have to live the rest of their lives with the curse. They vowed, then and there, that they would do more than Old Rufus had done. They would make sure that no one else would ever fall under the curse as they had.
No one ever heard from them again. We don’t know whether they tried their hardest to succeed, or if they gave up and lived out the rest of their lives warning travelers away at an inn. Or perhaps they were killed by the angry mob that followed them when they fled to the cave that day.
What we do know is that they failed.
Because before they found the treasure and dropped that coin, noses were used for breathing and sneezing and another place for hair to grow.
Today, there aren’t very many people who are born without the Curse of the Treasure of Smel. We don’t regard it as a curse much anymore, either. In fact, most see it as a blessing.
There are lots of people who enjoy pipe smoke and no end of those who go spelunking in caves in spite of their dankness. But perhaps the greatest blessing that we acquired from Curse of the Treasure of Smel is the knowledge of our own cleanliness.
There are unpleasant things in the world, and beautiful things. And if the treasure had remained untouched, I’d never be able to smell any of them.