Deep Magic - Winter 2018
If you want to read gripping stories that don’t rely on sex, swearing, and graphic violence—you’ve come to the right place!
DEEP MAGIC is an electronic magazine that publishes clean short fiction in the fantasy and science fiction genres (epic, paranormal, steampunk, etc).
We're pleased to announce this new line-up of authors for our Fall 2018 issue!
- Sci-fi short story "Too Many Historians on the Western Front" by Paul R Hardy
- Fantasy short story "The Lady of Pain" by Steve Dubois
- Fantasy short story "Nix and Jack" by Maria Morillo
- Sci-fi short story "Salvage" by Anthony Tardiff
- Fantasy novella "The Poisoner's Revenge: a Kingfountaintale" by WSJ Bestselling author Jeff Wheeler
Extended Sample Chapters of Novels:
"The Shadow of What Was Lost" by James Islington
Release date: December 11, 2018
Print pages: 158
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Deep Magic - Winter 2018
The Lady of Painby Steve DuBois
The world is full of wounds. Gashes and cuts, scrapes and scuffs, bruises and breaks, as varied and as awful as the people who create them.
I saw more than my share of wounds, in my six years with the Adventurers’ Guild. I couldn’t have told you their exact nature or made accurate distinctions among them. For that task, you’d want a physic. A physic could tell you the exact point at which a twist transforms into a sprain, a cut becomes a laceration. A physic could name the muscle that tears in a man’s calf, leaving him to walk forever lopsided, or tell you why that mace-jarred shoulder will scream him awake every morning in his old age.
These were not my concerns. I was a healer, not a physic. The guild’s directions were clear. My task was simply to make the pain go away. Immediately. At any cost.
Ask another woman about wounds.
Ask me about pain.
* * *
The morning of the day I died began with Rogart’s injury. The others referred to Rogart as “the Bull,” as much in reference to his ever-flaring nostrils and his rubbery-lipped snores as to his strength. He’d worked several turns as a caravan guard on the Sussuran route before coming north. The rest of our crew had no idea of the reasons why; only that they must have been good ones, to blacken his name so comprehensively among the merchants that he’d wound up slumming it among the likes of us.
I knew the reasons, of course. A servant of the Lady always does. And he knew that I knew. And for that, he could never forgive me.
No matter. He needed me. He was hurt. There he sat against the cavern wall, broadsword bloodied and dangling from his limp hand on the rocky floor. We’d managed to stanch the bleeding in his thigh. The nanders’ carcasses, six of them, were strewn around the fissure, chinless jaws slack in death, torchlight flickering in their dark, staring, sightless eyes.
It had, in truth, been more massacre than fight. Still, before the curtain came down, one of the nanders had gotten in a fortunate stroke, a spear thrust that somehow found the gap between Rogart’s tasset and greaves, just above the knee. The rest of the crew was busy rooting through the detritus of the nanders’ existence—a dented copper pot, polished stones amidst filthy rags, nothing you’d call “treasure”—and Rogart stared up as I approached. His face was pale as cream. I was, as I’ve said, no physic, but I could diagnose the reason for his pallor, and it had nothing to do with loss of blood.
“Just . . . just give me a minute,” he snuffled. “I can hack it. Had worse.” He fixed the point of his sword against the cavern floor, gritted his teeth, tried to hoist himself to a standing position. He levered himself up a few inches, massive shoulders trembling with the effort. Then he collapsed back to the floor in a clangor of armor.
“Take your medicine, Rogart. Let the Lady in,” Sten called from over by the hearth. Sirrah Sten, I should say, for he retained his ordination in the Radiant Order. Generous of the High Chival, no doubt, to make a guild captain of one of his own servants—even one long past his best, with rheumy eyes and a graying beard. “It’s not as if it’s the first time.”
But that was the point, of course. Nobody’s afraid the first time they’re ministered to by a servant of the Lady of Pain. They’re bleeding out, or desperately ill, and they’re ready for a miracle. How bad can it be? they think to themselves.
Rogart knew exactly how bad it could be. Hence the white face and the wild eyes. “Give me the balm, then, for the Lady’s sake!” he cried.
Sten gave a sidelong glance to Kiva, blue eyes piercing and aristocratic features merciless beneath her leather skullcap. She reached into her satchel, then shook her head at Sten. “Just three vials left,” she said.
Sten turned back to Rogart. “Sorry. Not enough,” he spoke. “There’s still gods know what between us and the firedrake, and we’ll need to conserve our resources for the final showdown. With that thing looking to cook you to a crisp, you’ll be glad to have a vial of balm close to hand.”
“Then let me turn around and head back to the surface. There’s no need for . . .”
“No chance, Rogart,” Sten interjected. “Job’s not done. You know the rules. We break a guild contract, we’ll never be offered another. We waited months for this job, traded in every favor we’ve earned in order to get it. And it’s not like we’ve pulled enough loot to cut the job short. Up to our elbows in nander blood, and not a single brass . . .”
“One,” Kiva interjected.
Sten turned, puzzled. “One?”
Kiva grinned and produced a single tarnished coin. “The big one had it secreted away in his loincloth,” she said with a wicked grin. “You’d rather not know exactly where.”
Sten turned back to the snorting hulk of a man immobilized against the cavern wall. “We’ve trod this road before, Rogart. All of us.” Sten unstrapped one of his own greaves, revealing a thin, pale mark; the mark of a maiden’s lips.
The mark of my lips.
Rogart’s eyes rolled back in his head. “Ten percent,” he muttered. “All this for ten godscursed percent.” And then he gathered his breath for a shout. “Lady’s mercy!” he swore, immune to the irony. “All right! Get on with it, and damn you!”
His eyes beheld me with utter hatred. But that, as Sten would have said, was a road I’d trod before. I knelt at Rogart’s side. He fixed a strap between his teeth, bit down hard, closed his eyes, and lifted the tasset, revealing the ugly purple gash beneath. It was deep and gruesome; a lesser man would have been sent straight into shock upon receiving it. But it was nothing compared to what he was about to endure.
I lowered my head to the wound in his thigh, and I pressed my lips to it in a kiss. The pain came down like a thunderbolt, arcing through us both. And as Rogart’s strangled shrieks echoed throughout the cave, I felt my own body writhe in silent sympathy.
* * *
The pain came, excruciating and terrible, and with it, Rogart’s memories.
My scarred oaken arms around him. Son to a prince, graceful and refined, features chiseled and beautiful under the desert moon—what could such as him ever see in such as me, an uncouth beast of the north? Adoring me. Showing me, a scowling animal, a love that I have always desired and never deserved.
The caravan guards, discovering us together. The fury of the merchant prince. Under the code of the nomads, I deserve death. In his absence, death would be a mercy. Instead, exile and disgrace. And always, the craving. Always, at the sight of the smooth, sleek torso of a well-made man, or at the wry, lopsided grin and flashing green eyes of some carousing mountebank on a city night. The thing inside me, rising, hungry. The thing that wakes me, shuddering, from sleep. The thing that unmans me. The only foe I cannot kill.
The pain faded. The blurred world regained its focus. I raised my mouth from Rogart, still propped against the wall, sweat rolling down his face into his collar, his eyes closed and the newly formed mark of a kiss upon the untroubled flesh of his thigh. He spat out the strap and opened his eyes, but he could not make them meet mine.
Slowly, he rose. “All right,” he said to Sten. The screams had scourged his throat, leaving his voice a raw, guttural rasp. “Nothing like the touch of a woman’s lips, is there? Now let’s be on our way.”
* * *
I had been a girl of nine, a novice at the House of the Lady, on the day the abbess laid down the Lady’s Law to me in ritual tones. “Her blessing is healing, swift and true,” she had said. “But the gift is not without price, for she spares her children no ounce of pain. Rather, she compresses it. Every ounce of suffering that the recipient would experience in the natural course of healing the wound—weeks, or months, of stinging ache—all compressed into a few bitter moments.” She had paused. “It is a blessing that would kill most recipients. But the Lady is merciful, and for that reason, she imposes upon us an additional duty. For those few short moments, we inhabit the souls of those we serve. We share their minds, their memories, and above all, their agony. And thus, their pain is halved, and their lives are preserved.”
The abbess’s explanation provided no comfort. Indeed, I cried bitterly. “But, Graced One . . . I don’t want to hurt people!” I wailed.
The abbess had given me a quizzical glance. The lapse lasted only a moment before her face, lined with near a century’s worry and care, had again assumed the aspect of still water. “We must take the gifts of the gods as they come. And you should consider that they have shaped the world as they have for a reason.”
“But . . . why, Graced One?” I sniffled. “Are the gods monsters?”
She shook her head and smiled benevolently. “By no means. But they wish to avoid men becoming monsters. Have you considered the price that men would pay in a world of healing without cost? Think, girl. Did your father ever take the rod to you?”
I swallowed. That he did, I thought. I nodded.
“Was this an act of cruelty?”
That it was, I thought. But in my father’s house, I had learned many hard lessons, and the most vital of them had been to read the cues on offer and to provide the answer that was expected of me. “No. He merely . . . corrected me.”
The abbess nodded, pleased. “And at what point did he stop?”
“When . . . when I had hurt enough to . . . to learn the lesson.” A lie. I had fled my home for a reason.
“Pain is a teacher,” the abbess intoned. “Consider a world in which the Lady doled out her mercy without cost. Would her miracles fill us with awe? Or would they be as ordinary and expected as spring rain?” A small, thin smile. “And what of we ourselves, her servants? Imagine being called from house to house, on call for every tanner and shopkeeper, expected to attend to every kitchen burn, every child’s scraped knee. Would we be revered as healers, or scorned as slaves? The Lady is wise to impose her price. And we serve her will.” She paused. “And in exchange for our services, we endure hatred. For, among those we serve, the memory of the agony we inflict will always outweigh the memory of the service we render. And we are hated, also, for the memories we retain, for our clients view them not as a tithe to the Lady, but as secrets stolen. Hence our vow of strictest silence; without it, many would prefer death to our services.”
I had knelt before her, knobby knees on well-washed cobbles, puzzling over the mystery of the Lady’s blessing. “I . . . I don’t understand, Graced One. I mean . . .” I fumbled for the words. “If we are to serve, others must be willing to accept our service, surely? But if we are hated by all, who will seek us, let alone pay us? How are we to live?”
At that, the abbess had positively beamed. “Now there is an intelligent question, my girl!” And with that, she hooked me. Praise had been a scarce commodity in my father’s house, and I found it a heady drug. I felt a rare smile blossom across my face. “We serve the poor, of course, those who cannot afford balm. But no such duty for you, my bright child! No, yours will be a special form of service. Let me tell you of our arrangement with the Adventurers’ Guild . . .”
* * *
My first time inside Sten’s head occurred early in our fellowship. The guild had patriotically loaned our crew to the city for the duration of the conflict with Capria. The siege had been a disaster, bungled by idiot commanders with purchased commissions, and the withdrawal had been even worse, a kicked anthill of scurrying men and machines. In the chaos, a trebuchet had run over Sten’s lower leg, snapping it like kindling. Absent my gift, we’d have had to leave him behind.
A servant of the Lady learns that each person’s memory is as unique as a fingerprint. Some remember in words, like Rogart. With Sten, it was images; his mind was a book of pictures, each speaking its own story.
In a vast, airy chamber of stone, a majestic dome of translucent glass shaped in the sunburst that is the Radiant Order’s emblem, admitting the sun’s splendor. The weight of armor around my shoulders. Three other initiates to my left, and two to my right. The rigor of youth in my veins, and before me, the High Chival, paladin true and pure, lecturing: “The order is father and mother to us all, wife and child, all the family we require. The order is an altar on which we place our sacrifices to those we serve. The order is a bonfire, the fire of duty, in which we purge all that is unworthy in ourselves.” The featherlight touch of the High Chival’s great sword on each pauldron; the joy of initiation, of oneness, of immersion of self in the greater whole.
The years flow. Like wine at first, then aging slowly into vinegar. The strength of youth slowly fading, skills eroding, waiting for a righteous cause that never arrives. Eyes tingling with the citadel’s splendors. Fingertips callused from polishing unused weapons. No proud wounds or noble scars; instead, a slowly growing ache in the spine, the twinging of oft-gritted teeth. The desire for a woman shoved deep, suppressed. And eventually, I feel the bonfire of which the High Chival spoke—not in my heart but in my gut, a constant acidic churning. I spit blood every morning and see it in my chamber pot at night.
The High Chival before me, frowning in judgment. Half my life is gone. I speak of my struggle against my cravings. I beg a new duty, a task on which to expend the profane energies of my enforced idleness. Disappointment in me, written broadly on his face, as I am sent to the guild to earn revenue for the order.
And there, in the guild: the face. Her face. The face of purity itself, of maidenly perfection, her radiance outshining that of the order. A temptress, sent to inspire my darkest desires, to unleash the beast I’d sought to bury. And that face will be ever before me now, for as long as I serve, the last thing I see when I bed down at night, and the first I see when I wake, a mockery to my pretense of chastity and virtue. Here is my scourge, my punishment for asking something for myself.
But I will not break! I will not be consumed by the fires of hell, though they rage daily in my stomach and loins. I shall accept his companions, my temptress, and my fate. I have forged my own chains. Now I must wear them. Such is duty.
The world returned; the crooked leg had been made straight, and for once, the recipient of the Lady’s blessing had borne up under it without a single cry of pain. But Sten could not make his eyes meet mine. Because the face of the temptress who haunted him was, of course, my own.
“Forgive me.” He voiced it as a commander’s order, not as a plea for mercy. He was Sten. Mercy, like love, was for other people.
* * *
Nanders are the stuff of peasants’ nightmares. The legends are replete with tales of them falling on outlying villages, slaying the men, and carrying off women and children for the cook fire. Truth is, they’re a strange sort of creature, more like men than beasts in many ways. They speak in grunts but have mastered fire. They adorn themselves in crude hides, fashion stone tools and weapons. Were it not for their sloping brows, squat posture, and hairy muzzles, they could almost pass for human.
Over the centuries the nanders have scuttled like roaches to the dark places of the world, seeking what men fear and huddling close to it, for only where men dare not go can they hope to survive. So when a crew like ours went in search of danger, often as not, we found a pack of nanders in the way.
On the day I died, wandering deep in the caverns of the Mughal, my companions rounded another twist and watched space open up before us. And there, huddled around the banked stones of another hearth, was yet another infestation of nanders. Four, no, five of them, counting that tiny young one scuttling backward across the floor. The males were out in front, eyes wild, fire-hardened spear points jabbing in our direction.
We fell into formation. Guild tactics were inflexible and ruthlessly effective, particularly against beasts too dumb to adapt to them. Rogart and Sten up front, shields raised and waiting. Kiva on the left flank, sling awhirl. Me at the back, cudgel drawn, just in case it should come to that.
The first sling bullet caught the leftmost male straight in the eye socket, and it toppled face-first into the fire. Kiva didn’t bother to grin, merely reached right back into the pouch at her side, calmly drew another bullet, slotted it home, whirled it, and caught the next one a glancing blow to the skull, sending it toppling into the cave wall. She raised her sling again, and at this point even the nanders could recognize the impossibility of their position; if they held their ground, they’d be picked off at our leisure. So the remaining adults charged, roaring their wordless shout. Even the hairy-faced females of the species had formidable voices. I envied them that.
It’s preferable to keep nanders at a distance, as any man-at-arms could tell you. Nanders are a head shorter than most men, but a single glance at their thick, muscular torsos reveals their fearsome strength. In truth, they’re a touch too strong for their own good; they rely on it too heavily, and eschew subtlety. Rogart’s unexpressed thoughts on the matter are revelatory: “If a boy grows up strong, he may never end up being anything else.”
To say that Rogart was smarter than he looked would be faint praise.
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