Deep Magic - Third Collection
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This collection represents the short stories featured in Deep Magic e-zine: Fall 2018, Winter 2018, Spring 2019, and Summer 2019. It includes stories by authors such as: Jeff Wheeler, Carrie Anne Noble, Anthony Ryan, Wulf Moon, Charity West, Anthony Tardiff, Aaron Perry, and KD Julicher (just to name a few).
This rich collection of short fiction would be a great addition to any fan of excellent fantasy and science fiction.
Release date: February 4, 2020
Print pages: 511
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Deep Magic - Third Collection
The Hall of the Diamond Queen
By Anthony Ryan
She loved to watch them run. Victory’s reward was the spectacle of fleeing men, the raging panic and fear a tangible delight as the Raptorile and Tormented broke their ranks and the blackwings streaked down from above, talons flashing and beaks gaping wide. This had been a harder battle than most, the foe an army some forty thousand strong led by a veteran warrior king of typically noble aspect. She could see him now, standing atop a small hill, two-handed longsword raised high as his most loyal retainers clustered around him for the final stand. She felt a faint tick of recognition as her unnaturally keen sight found his face, lined with age but still handsome beneath the beard, and the eyes of pale shade of blue reminding her of the sea.
There is only the Voice. The Voice brings great rewards and dark glory. Those deaf to the Voice are Abominate.
The mantra came unbidden, an automatic response to the surge of memory, banishing the images with a brutal ease that always stirred her gratitude. All memory is a lie, the Voice had taught her long ago. Beware its seduction, my Sharrow-met. She soon knew the recognition for what it was, watching the king reorder his ranks below. She couldn’t hear his words but didn’t need to; “Fight!” would be his exhortation. “Fight on or all is lost!” Another doomed hero. And there have been so many.
She laid her gauntleted hand on Keera’s neck, playing the steel fingers through the great bird’s ebony feathers, whispering a soft command. The blackwing tilted in response, banking hard to circle the hill where the noble king made his stand, now ringed by at least a thousand men. Ever more were rushing to join him, fear waning and shame surging at the sight of his example. Kilted clansmen from the northern vales with their double-bladed axes, strongbow wielding plainsmen from the south, barely armed crofters from the western shore, all rushing to stand with the great king against the surging horde.
Such courage, she mused, guiding Keera lower. A shame, but one such as he will ever be deaf to the Voice.
She had Keera ignore the outer ranks and swoop low over the king’s house guards, steel-clad talons tearing through their armour like scythes through corn, blood rising in a sweet-tasting vapour that beaded her skin, hot and fresh. Keera rose from the hill-top with a warrior clutched in each claw, then cast them away, rent and torn, their blood like rain on the terrorised faces of their fellows. A few bows thrummed but the arrows flew wide as Keera’s wings fanned the air into a gale. The king stood alone now, she saw, his guards forced back by the bird’s fury.
She hissed a sigh of anticipation as Keera folded her wings, bird and rider plunging down in a black streak. She had intended to inflict a quick but spectacular death. Not, of course, out of mercy but as a demonstration to his men, the final blow to their teetering courage. The king, however, contrived to frustrate her, diving clear of Keera’s snapping beak and delivering a swift backhand stroke with his sword. The bird screamed as the blade found her eye, dark blood gouting as she reeled away, wings spreading in panic, then settling into unnatural stillness at a touch from her rider’s hand.
“The Voice is kind,” Sharrow-met told the king as she dismounted from Keera’s back. “And never shirks from offering friendship to a valiant foe.” The offer was perfunctory and she knew the king could hear the amusement in her tone as she strode towards him, her hand going to the long, black-bladed scimitar strapped across her back.
“The Voice offers only death to the valiant,” the king replied in a low voice, eyes grim with implacable resolve as he crouched in anticipation of combat. “And slavery to the cowardly… and the deluded.”
There was an additional weight to this last word that gave her pause, a sense of resigned sorrow. Once again she scrutinised his face, the recognition swelling anew, summoning an image of a man and a woman standing in a garden, his eyes an echo of the ocean beyond. Can’t you see the trap in his words? the man was saying, leaning close to the woman, a keen desperation evident in voice and manner. You think he promises life? The histories are clear. All the Voice ever brings is death…
There is only the Voice. The Voice brings great rewards and dark glory.
The vision shattered as the mantra took hold, calling forth her rage, the Dark Glory rising fast, singing in every muscle and nerve as she drew the scimitar. She attacked without preamble or restraint. On occasion she had let these encounters last, allowing her doomed opponent some measure of hope. It made the death blow so much sweeter, the final realisation in their eyes a tasty treat to crown the moment as the scimitar’s blade bit deep. But there would be no sweet moment here, she knew that. This was a day for the all consuming fire of the Dark Glory, the most cherished gift bestowed by the Voice.
The king was skilled, still swift and strong despite his age, moving with the fierce grace of a born warrior as he parried and whirled, his longsword a flicker of shining steel. A display worthy of a song, Sharrow-met mused as she brought the scimitar up and round in a scything slash that took away his life. She stood back to watch him die, the blood draining to leave his noble aspect bleached and empty, but still he clung to life, and his eyes…
“Sharrow-met!” She turned to see Harazil descending to earth on the back of his blackwing, a bloodied axe clutched in his fist. “Victory, Greatness.” The Shar-gur captain pointed his axe at the field and she raised her gaze to witness the disintegration of the noble king’s army. The Tormented had broken the ranks of those who choosing to die with their king and now moved among the wounded, pale, silent figures going about their business with customary efficiency, killing the maimed and chaining those fit to join their ranks. Beyond them the Raptorile war-packs displayed no such restraint, surging through the fleeing mob, steel-barbed tails whipping like angry snakes as they leapt and bit and tore, pausing after every kill to voice their victory shrieks before bounding on.
Sharrow-met turned again to the king as he choked out a few words, too thick with blood and pain to be discerned but nevertheless spoken with a fierce conviction. She crouched at his side, leaning close with a raised eyebrow. The Dark Glory had faded now, leaving an odd sense of sorrow she had never quite accustomed herself to, and she found she had little appetite for the killing blow.
“I…” the king rasped, dimming eyes meeting her own. “I prayed… to the Twelve Gods… that I might never… see your face… again…”
Harazil’s axe came down in a blur, before a final, forever unknown word could be started. “Abominate scum,” the Shar-gur grunted, back straight and eyes averted in careful respect. “My gift to you, Greatness.”
Sharrow-met rose from her haunches, ignoring Harazil’s gift and turning away. Her eyes tracked across the sights of slaughter and beyond, over fields of green and gold to the pale, jagged outline on the horizon. Mara-vielle, City of a Thousand Spires. The greatest prize yet won by the Servants of the Voice and the last free city on this continent.
“I beg the honour of leading the Vanguard, my queen,” Harazil said, voice heavy with anticipation. Like all the Shar-gur his lust for her recognition was ingrained and insatiable. Should she command it he would slice open his own belly in trice, an order she had been tempted to issue more than once. “I will secure the city’s treasures…”
“Be quiet,” she told him in a murmur, eyes still lingering the distant spires. She could feel it again, the upsurge of recognition, though she fought to keep it muted. By rights she should surrender herself to the comforts of the mantra but the doomed king’s eyes were bright in her mind and there was something enticing about this new sensation, something that made her endure the pain of unwanted visions. He knew my face.
“Muster your Tormented,” she told Harazil, striding to Keera’s side. “Make due assessment of the chosen. Await my word before commencing the cull of the unworthy.”
She peered at the blackwing’s ruined eye, running a soothing hand over the bird’s neck as she took hold of the red-jewelled amulet about her neck. Holding it close to Keera’s eye she chanted a soft invocation, calling forth the jewel’s power, tendrils of red light snaking forth to lick at the wound, damaged flesh reforming and knitting together. Keera gave an appreciative squawk as the healing completed, the remade eye bright and new, possibly keener than it had ever been, though Sharrow-met knew it would always ache. The Voice’s gifts carried a price; her own body was as smooth and free of scars as a new born babe, but there were times, usually at night when she sat through the sleepless hours, when the pain of long healed wounds was enough to make her cry out, though she never did.
“Send word to the Raptorile to advance upon the city.” She climbed onto Keera’s back, the bird’s wings thrumming as they caught the air and bore her queen aloft. “They will find me at the Hall of the Twelve Gods.”
Silence. No screams, no flocks of people casting terrorised glances at the sky, no weeping mothers cradling infants, no old and sick hobbling in the wake of the young as they all fled towards imagined refuge. Just silent spires overlooking empty parks and streets. There were some signs of disorder, upturned carts, doors left open in haste, various detritus littering the broad avenues. But no people, and the people were the true spoils of any victory, for what was the Voice without ears to hear it?
She spent an hour scouring the city, swooping low and high, her marvellous Voice-gifted eyes alive to the slightest movement, but finding nothing. Eventually she guided Keera towards the four tallest spires rising from the centre of the city. Each had been constructed from different coloured marble, red, gold, white and black, and were linked by a series of bridges. They were deceptively fragile in appearance, narrow with fluted buttresses, like a web spun between the spires, but strong enough to have stood for centuries. Each tower rose from the corner of a rectangular structure, itself more than a hundred feet in height, its walls decorated from end to end in marble reliefs. There were three great panels to each wall, one for each of the twelve gods, their legends rendered with a level of skill and detail as yet unseen in all the cities she had taken.
So many years of labour and expense frittered on art, she mused as Keera fanned her wings to alight on a plaza adjacent to the structure’s monolithic doors. More energy expended on defence and they might have stood a chance.
The doors were open and the space inside cavernous. Painted murals flowed over walls and ceiling like a tide of colour frozen in time. These, she knew, were the epics, the part-mythic tales of Mara-vielle’s origin and rise to greatness; mighty heroes and learned scholars, self-sacrificing warriors and wise statesmen, and, naturally, kings of noble aspect. She found him towards the rear of the chamber, the mural painted high on a wall overlooking a raised dais where a vacant throne sat. The mural was more recent than the others, the paintwork more vivid though it depicted a man considerably younger than the warrior who now lay headless on a hill several miles away. He seemed troubled, his aspect one of sombre reflection as he stood regarding an empty ocean. Her eyes went to the inscription painted above the king’s head; Therumin, The Silver King.
Therumin. So now she knew his name at least, as he had known her face. She turned, surveying the opposite wall and pausing at the sight of a patch of ruined plaster, a jarring interruption to the finely worked beauty on either side. Moving closer she saw it to have been the work of vandalism, and not recently. The fragments of surviving paint were dim flecks of colour amid ruined plaster yellowed with age. Whatever had been depicted here had been wiped away, expunged with considerable violence, though she noted the inscription was partially intact: …amond Que..n.
The Diamond Queen. She knew this name, her spies had spoken of it. Some tragedy to have befallen the ruling family years ago. The tale had little bearing on her plans so she paid it scant mind, concentrating instead on the reports regarding Mara-vielle’s copious wealth. They are strong, Harazil had cautioned but she just laughed. We are stronger, and we have the Voice.
A skitter of claws on stone drew her attention from the ruined mural. A Raptorile scout party had entered the hall, tails curling in alarm and forked tongues darting to taste the unfamiliar air as they crouched and squinted at the murals, exchanging puzzled profanity in their sibilant speech. They were greenbacks, hailing from the southern jungles and smaller than their red-backed desert cousins, but no less fierce and just as devoted to the acquisition of trinkets. Seeing her their pack-chief issue a guttural, commanding snarl and they all fell into an immediate servile posture, approaching in a crouch, claws outstretched to proffer their loot as was custom.
The pack-chief extended the clutch of pearl necklaces in her claws, seeking acknowledgement and forming the human words with uncanny precision, “By your leave, Sharrow-met.” For all their apparent savagery, these were intelligent creatures, possessed of memory and senses far beyond human understanding, though their superstitious lust for shiny things made them ever her slaves. When they die the treasure will buy them protection from eternal torment, the Voice had told her. For their prey awaits in the next world, hungry for vengeance.
She was about to raise her hand and issue the customary response, “The Voice grants rich reward, sister,” but paused at the sight of something amid their ranks, something in a tall silver frame. It caught the light with dazzling brightness before the angle changed slightly, revealing the sight of a tall woman in cobalt armour, the hilt of a scimitar jutting over her shoulder. This was a beautiful woman, Sharrow-met saw, perhaps a few years shy of thirty, pale of face with high cheekbones and a delicately curved chin, a face made porcelain in its flawlessness. Her hair was a silken jet cascade, tied back with a silver braid, and her eyes… blue eyes, blue like the sea…
“Get rid of that!” she grated, casting her hand at the mirror and turning away.
A rasping snarl, the multiple crack of whipping tails then the harsh clamour of shattering glass. When she turned back the mirror’s unfortunate owner lay dead amid its shards. It had always been this way, as long she had served the Voice, which was as long as she could remember; she could never abide the sight of her own image.
“She was newly hatched, Sharrow-met,” the pack-chief said, her words devoid of any inflection as her kind could learn a human tongue with remarkable speed but never the emotions that coloured it. However, the floor-level crouch and rigid tail made her contrition clear. “I was remiss in not providing clear instruction.”
Sharrow-met gave an irritated wave and moved to the empty throne, running her hands over its finely carved back. “You bring me your spoils but no captives,” she told the pack-chief, sinking onto the throne and finding it more comfortable than expected.
“We found none, Sharrow-met,” the pack-chief replied, still lowered in the servile crouch.
Could they have fled? she wondered. Had the battle been no more than a desperate ploy to delay her advance and buy time for the people to flee? She quickly dismissed the notion as absurd. There is nowhere for them to flee to. Every kingdom, duchy and city on this continent now belongs to the Voice.
“Carry my word to your sisters,” she told the pack-chief. “Search every inch of this city. Go deep, into the sewers, the catacombs. The war-packs are forbidden loot until this is done and I will execute one of my soldiers for every hour that sees no captives in my hands.”
She didn’t sleep, such things were lost to those so steeped in the Voice. The Shar-gur still slept, albeit fitfully, and the Tormented required at least some rest in between their many labours, but not her. As night claimed the city she ascended alone through the hall’s upper levels, finding only a succession of corridors and rooms, all furnished to varying degrees of finery and all empty. There were more mirrors of course, it was a continual point of puzzlement to her that the people she conquered were so addicted to their own image. She shattered every glass she found, suffering the brief glimpse of the porcelain faced woman before her armoured fist broke it apart.
She found what she assumed to be the king’s rooms on the highest tier of the white marble spire, sparsely furnished with few comforts though he had maintained an extensive library, all now destined for the fire as the Voice had no tolerance for books. The adjoining chamber was more interesting, a suite of spacious apartments shrouded in cobwebs. Every surface was thick with dust, the drapes on the windows ragged with filth, the mouldings and cornices turned yellow with decades of neglect.
She judged this a woman’s chamber, a woman of some importance given the finery of the dresses hanging in the cupboards and the contents of the jewellery box on her dresser, adorned with a large oval mirror thankfully so thickly webbed it betrayed only the most shadowy reflection. Diamonds, Sharrow-met saw, plucking a necklace from the box. No rubies, no sapphires. Only diamonds. Her gaze went to the bed; large, luxurious and, if not caked in dust, surely fit for a queen. The rooms of the Diamond Queen, left untouched for many a year.
The amulet around her neck gave off a sudden heat, issuing the faint thrum that told of the Voice’s imminent blessing. Her heart began to pump faster in anticipation, it was only at these moment that this happened. Not in battle, not when exacting just punishment on the Abominate, only now when the Voice chose to bless her was she reminded that, for the many gifts that had changed her, she still retained a human heart.
I sense you are troubled, my Sharrow-met, it said, the amulet thrumming with every wondrous word, her flesh tingling as the sound washed through her. It was a more subtle reward than the Dark Glory, but no less appreciated.
“The city conceals its citizens somehow,” she replied, a slight quaver to her voice. “I would have them hear you, know your rewards as I do.”
There is sorcery is at work here, I can feel it. A great spell, woven with skill, but still just an illusion, a glamour, to be shattered like the mirrors you hate so much.
“How? How do I shatter it?”
How is any illusion shattered? The trickster relies on the ignorance of his audience when dealing his cards. But those with eyes to see the trick are never fooled. Truth, my wonderful, terrible child. Shatter it with truth.
The amulet gave a sudden deeper thrum and she convulsed as the pulse of pleasure cut through her, so pure and unrestrained it was almost an agony, leaving her crouched and gasping, gauntlets gripping the edge of the dresser tight enough to splinter the wood.
“I deserve no reward,” she groaned, shuddering. “Not until the Abominate are secured.”
This war is won by your hand, Sharrow-met. I reward as I see fit. Finish our business here quickly, for we have an ocean to cross and much work to do.
Then it was gone, the absence making her gasp once more, blinking away grateful tears as she raised her gaze, finding it momentarily captured by the gleam of the vanished queen’s diamonds.
A flicker in the mirror, something moving behind cobweb veil.
She came to her feet in a whirl, the scimitar scraping free of the scabbard.
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