The Best of Deep Magic: Anthology Two
The Best of Deep Magic: Anthology Two - fantastical worlds of space adventures, mysterious poisoners and war birds await — stories with depth, strong protagonists, high tension, all told while pulling at your heart strings, or making you smile with understanding. In this anthology, you’ll find nineteen stories, including many novelettes. Go on adventures with heroes old and young and visit many new worlds.
The stories included in this anthology are: THE SPACE BETWEEN by Larry Hinkle, FORGED IN IRON AND BLOOD by Jeanna Mason Stay, THE POISONER'S REVENGE - A KINGFOUNTAIN TALE by WSJ bestselling author Jeff Wheeler, THE RED WALLS OF ISHRI by Patrick Hurley, THE DEVIL WENT DOWN TO THE DANIEL WEBSTER CHARTER SCHOOL PTA’S ANNUAL HALLOWEEN CHILI COOK-OFF FUNDRAISER by Eric James Stone, HIS LADY’S FAVOR by K.D. Julicher, THE TEN SUNS by Nebula and Hugo award winning author Ken Liu, GRAVE SECRETS by WSJ bestselling author Charlie N. Holmberg, THE HALL OF THE DIAMOND QUEEN by NYT bestselling author Anthony Ryan, THE LADY OF PAIN by Steve DuBois, LOVE IN THE TIME OF HOLODECKS by Charity West, HANGING TREES by Christoph Weber, MUZIK MAN by award-winning author Wulf Moon, ONE WAY by Gerri Leen, DARNED SOCKS by Brendon Taylor, PERFECTLY PAINTED LIES by Brittany Rainsdon, THE JOB PROSPECTS OF HISTORY MAJORS by Alyssa Eckles, PILE OF BONES by NYT bestselling author Michael J Sullivan, and DON’T WAKE THE DREAMER by K.M. Dailey.
Deep Magic's Anthology Two has science fiction and fantasy stories hand selected by our team. All of these stories have a noblebright thread of honor, compassion, or selflessness. So jump in and learn about escapism holodecks, battered old technology which has created a new culture, and a messianic robot, learn the magic of needles and thread, and so much more in this jam-packed anthology. Explore these stories by bestselling authors today, and experience new adventures of sacrifice, love, family, loss, and triumph.
Release date: May 25, 2021
Print pages: 449
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The Best of Deep Magic: Anthology Two
Forged in Iron and Blood by Jeanna Mason Stay
Lina had left the war long behind her. That’s what she told herself, anyway. Especially on nights like this when dusk fell through the open doors of the smithy and the fire blazed in the forge and in her blood. But the crash of her hammer against the metal was too like the clamor of battle, and the memories kept flooding back.
The pulse of the fight, the tang of blood in the air. Friends bleeding and dying, both fae and human, their lifeless bodies strewn across the field. Such pointless, wretched loss. She swung the hammer again, hoping to drive out the pain and forget herself in the work. To forget their naivety—her naivety—in believing that peace could come so easily. The oathbinding magic was certainly rare and powerful. But no promise made to one foolish half-blood fairy could end the simmering tension between the two countries as quickly as it ended the actual battles. If only she’d—
“Lina-smith,” a bright voice called from the doorway.
Lina shook herself from the memories and turned around, a practiced smile covering her thoughts. “Seelah,” she greeted with false cheer. “How are you this evening? How’s the newest grandchild?”
“Delightful, of course,” Seelah said, beaming as she bustled in. She dropped her basket on a table and eased herself onto a stool. “Oh, but don’t let me stop you”—she gestured for Lina to keep working—“I’m just here to have a little rest.”
Lina chuckled to herself and stoked the fire again, enjoying the distraction; a “little rest” meant Seelah had gossip to share.
“You’ll never guess what I heard today,” Seelah began, pausing to speak between the clangs of Lina’s hammer. “Jinnel was arguing with her husband—well, you know that’s nothing new—but she brought up her great-aunt, and she threatened to head off there and stay with her for good. And then he . . .”
Lina let the stream of words wash over her, Seelah’s voice a soothing reminder of the peace that Lina had fought and killed and sacrificed to protect.
“. . . So I thought I would drop by some soup tomorrow and just check in on her. Would you care to join me?”
Lina snapped out of her thoughts again. “Oh, um, yes. Always glad to lend a hand,” she replied. “Come by tomorrow at dusk?”
Seelah agreed but lingered, waiting.
In answer to the unspoken question, Lina smiled wanly. “I’d invite you over tonight for tea, but I’m exhausted. It’s straight to bed for me.” She looked toward the open doors. “Must be the cold weather coming, always makes me sleepy.”
Seelah picked up her basket to go. “Another time, then. I do enjoy our chats by the fire.”
“I do too,” Lina said, and she meant it.
Maybe it was time to move on, though. She’d been living in Solime for years, getting too comfortable in her role, playing the friendly grandmother maybe a little too well. She was bound to accidentally reveal something true about herself, make a mistake she couldn’t afford.
Or maybe she was just getting old; her hair was more gray than black now, and though smithing had kept her strong, it was getting harder to creak out of bed in the mornings. Maybe it was just natural that she was restless and thought more about the war these days, as she was drawing near to leaving everything behind for good. She’d played her part for as long as she could, but she couldn’t avoid the end forever.
Lina stepped back from the forge and surveyed her smithy—a few small worktables, stacks and buckets of scrap metal, projects and tools hanging from the ceiling and lining the walls. A good place. A place to forget and be forgotten.
She stripped the heavy leather gloves from her fingers and stretched her hands, easing their tired muscles and massaging the scars that crossed her palms. She’d amassed more burns and cuts than she could count. She rolled her shoulders to release the strain of hours bent over her work. A cold breeze blew in through the doors, and she welcomed the chill. She was right—the weather was cooling. There would be snow soon.
She raked the coals from the fire, set them to cooling, and made sure her tools were put away for the night. With everything in its place, Lina closed the shutters over her window and took one of her smaller hammers down from the wall; being a blacksmith meant that no one thought it odd for her to walk around with weaponry. She latched the door shut, dropping a small nail in the dirt so it leaned carelessly against the door. The actions had become automatic, almost meaningless, but there was comfort in the familiar.
The path home was short, her little cottage nestled in the space just behind the smithy. As she approached, she slowed and eyed her surroundings. Nothing disturbed. A particular pebble lying on her porch was in the same spot as usual. She stepped over it, slipped inside, and set her hammer by the front door.
She twitched her rug to the side, checking that the entrance to her hidden room was undisturbed, and glanced toward the brick in the hearth that covered a store of coins. Everything was in its place. She could rest, banish the clash of weapons still echoing in her mind. For now at least. She closed her eyes and listened to the stillness with a smile. Tomorrow, maybe, she’d think about moving on.
* * *
Lina startled awake, her eyes wide and staring, her heart pounding. She’d been dreaming, of course—of Mollen. Her dearest friend, her brother-in-arms, her once-upon-a-time hope for the future. In her dream, she watched him fight, just as she had so many times in life. He was grace and beauty, the swing of the sword, all dance and brilliance. Watching him, it was easy to forget, for the moment, the devastation of war.
Then the sunlight had flashed against the torque around his neck, and the dream became a nightmare, a memory.
But that wasn’t what woke her now, in the gray hours before dawn. There had been a noise. She listened, her body tense.
Then she heard it again. Outside and very near. A grunt of pain. A sound almost as familiar as ringing iron.
She pulled on her overdress, picked up her hammer, and crept out to investigate, every sense alive to danger. Though dawn was near, the space behind her smithy was swallowed in darkness. Lina listened again, raising the hammer, as her eyes darted from shadow to shadow.
In one of the deeper shadows, Lina saw it. Something, anyway. A huddled form, large enough to be a grown adult, curled up against the wall where the heat from the forge warmed the bricks. It didn’t move. It didn’t belong.
Maybe this would be the moment when danger finally caught up with her. Maybe she would find out if she could still fight. Her blood pumped with vigor, her heart answering the possibility for battle. She stole forward.
A whimper and a few muttered words emerged from under what she could now see was a torn, stained cloak. “Hurts . . . stop . . . can’t . . .” The voice was deep enough to be male, though human or fae she didn’t know.
Lina breathed deeply once for calm. “Hello?”
He writhed and moaned but didn’t respond. Lina peered more closely, almost feeling the waves of panic rolling off him. She adjusted her grip on the hammer’s wooden handle. His face was hidden, and he wrapped his arms protectively around himself under the cloak. She studied him, warrior and grandmother battling inside her. She could help him. It could be a trick. She should protect him. She should watch her back.
After a moment of indecision, the grandmother took over. She crouched and set her hammer beside her. If anything was amiss, there was always the dagger concealed in her skirts.
“I’m going to help you,” she whispered soothingly, the way she would talk to a terrified child. She got a hand under his arm, pulling him to his feet. He was frail, lighter than she’d expected, even as he leaned heavily on her, one hand now reaching up to rub against his neck. She shuffled him forward, bearing most of his weight and still scanning for danger, until they reached her cottage.
With a bit of maneuvering—and a brief, regretful glance at her clean blanket—Lina settled the man in a heap on her bed. She locked the door and checked that her window shutters were tightly closed, then started a hearth fire going. She kept one eye on the stranger.
Now that he was stretched out in the glow of her fire, she had her first clear view of his clothing and cloak, both of fine wool but ragged beyond hope of repair. His hair, a dirty brown, hung lank and tangled, and he had maybe a week’s growth of beard. Whatever he was running from, he’d been running awhile.
He started to mumble again, tears slowly streaking his face. “Need help . . . Can’t think . . . Hide.” He reached his arms toward her, then yanked them back and tugged his tattered cloak more tightly around his neck. “No.” He convulsed. “Yes.” He shook his head.
The pain tugged at her, and she forced herself to ignore the tightness in her throat at his suffering. Focus on what you can do, focus on solvable problems, she thought. So she fetched a cup of water and dipped a cool cloth into it. She brushed the cloth across his forehead and his bright red cheeks as she looked him over. No obvious external wounds, but by the way he alternately rubbed at his neck, then tugged his cloak more tightly around him, something must be wrong with his neck. He groaned when she moved his head and batted at her hands when she reached for the clasp of his cloak. She stifled a sigh at his resistance, then pushed his hands away and yanked at the two sides of the cloak.
It tore apart, revealing the man’s neck. And around the man’s neck, a familiar metal torque—an echo of her nightmares—caught the glow of the firelight.
She leaped to her feet and drew her hidden dagger, her joints protesting at the speed of her movement.
The war had come back to her, in a way she’d tried to never think of again.
Her muscles tensed, and her heart raced as she crouched in a fighting stance, waiting for him to pounce. He didn’t look like a warrior—in fact, he looked more than half dead. But she had no idea the extent of the torque’s powers. For all she knew, it could make even the half dead fight like dragons.
“Please,” he muttered. “Help me.” He opened glassy eyes and looked up at her, pleading, clawing at his neck like an animal caught in a trap. “Don’t”—he shook his head slowly—“don’t let them have me.”
“Who? Why are you here?” A thought suddenly struck her with a wave of horror. “Do you know who I am? Were you here for me?”
But he had lapsed into unconsciousness, and no matter how she nudged at him—dagger at the ready—he only tossed feverishly.
She fetched some cord from a cupboard and bound him quickly to the bed, then backed away to a safer distance, where she could observe the man and think. She had to think, ignore emotion, ignore the queasy wash of sadness and anger and fear that lapped through her.
If someone was making these torques, something dangerous was on the horizon. Of course, it couldn’t be war again, not with the oathbound pact still in place. The rulers of both lands had sworn in carefully worded oaths that there would be no war between their countries, and that pact would have to be honored as long as the oathbinder lived. But even without causing outright war, the torque could make plenty of mischief.
Or maybe it had nothing to do with the tension between the two lands, but whatever it was, it had to be stopped.
As she settled onto the edge of her kitchen chair, her eyes were drawn to the torque again. It caught the firelight and flickered almost like a living thing. Where an opening should be, allowing the wearer to remove the torque from around the neck, there was only smooth metal. She couldn’t look away, and she couldn’t stop the memories that she’d tried to hide from for so many years.
The only other time she’d seen an object like this had been during the war, when Mollen had disappeared for two weeks, then suddenly come back, changed. They’d thought he was captured by the enemy while on a secret mission, so when he returned, she’d rejoiced and rushed to greet him. He didn’t even glance her way. She’d taken him to report to the commanding officers, hiding her pain at his treatment. Other soldiers had gathered to hear where he’d been. He’d stood in front of them all, and then, without any warning beyond one short cry of pain, he’d thrust his sword through the commander and started cutting down his fellow soldiers. His movements were jerky, not his usual perfect grace—almost like a separate battle raged within him. A strange metal torque around his neck shone in the sunlight as he moved.
The torque the stranger wore was the same. She examined it carefully. The skin around his neck was red and raw, and when she touched it, he moaned. She swallowed and closed her eyes against the man’s suffering, but that only took her back to Mollen. She had watched in shock for a moment; then she and several other soldiers had flown into action, striking at him with shocked rage. A part of her detached itself then, unwilling to feel the agony of that battle. Within minutes, he was dead, and Lina was numbly thankful that someone else had struck the fatal blow. She didn’t know if she could have survived killing him.
After Mollen’s death, several fae spellworkers—only the fae had magic, of course, and only a few truly understood how it worked—had studied the torque. It had been imbued with mindturning, a magic forbidden, and largely forgotten, for centuries. Mollen’s treachery was not his fault. Someone had broken his will, turned his mind, and sent him back as an assassin.
Now someone was using this magic again. The knowledge seared through her. Mollen. She’d tried so hard to forget him and the pain of his death. She’d turned that pain to good, to helping stop the war once and for all. Or at least for a long while, hopefully long enough for real peace to settle in. She’d sought—and found—her own measure of that peace.
But seeing that torque again . . . Rage burned within her, brilliant yellow and malleable like iron in the forge, waiting to be shaped to her purpose. Someone had dared to experiment with such brutal magic again, and it could not be tolerated. She could not tolerate it.
Lina crept back to the smithy to gather her tools and returned to her still-unconscious visitor.
She examined his neck and the torque again, then placed clamps on its edges and began to tighten them. Tricky work to remove the cursed item without killing the man beneath; she might have given up if she hadn’t known what it was. She gritted her teeth and continued applying pressure.
Finally, with a satisfying snap, the torque broke and fell to the dirt floor. The man breathed in sharply, then rolled to his side. He opened his eyes, glassy and unfocused. “Thank you,” he whispered, then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“Who did this?” Lina asked, desperate now for answers. He didn’t respond. She nudged him, gently at first, but with increasing strength. “Where are they?” she asked, shaking him now.
Still no response. It was as if removing the torque had released him from life and pain. She watched helplessly as his breathing slowed, becoming gentler, softer, until it dwindled to nothing.
She leaned back, sighing. The yellow burning inside her dulled under the weight of death, and she swiped at her eyes.
She straightened his hands to his sides, swallowing to relax the shaking of her own hands. “From dust to dust,” she murmured over the body, speaking the human last rites. “From breath to tears.” She’d said these words over so many others, she hardly had to think about it. She paused, then added the fae blessing for good measure—more words she knew by heart. “Full circle, like the moon. Full season, like the earth. Rest now, beneath them both.” He didn’t look fae, but she knew very well there were plenty of mixed-bloods who could pass for human. The burning of iron on fae skin was the only foolproof way to tell, and since she hadn’t tried it on the poor tormented man, she’d never know if he was mixed-blood. The iron test didn’t work on the dead.
She closed her eyes for a moment of stillness. Fae or human, she wished him peace.
But the moment couldn’t last. What if he had been there for her? Did they know where and who she was?
Probably not. Solime was a busy town despite its size, with people coming through all the time. It was likely just the wildest of luck that he had happened upon Lina.
Still, she’d be careful. It was definitely time to leave, one way or another. Just as soon as she’d dealt with things here.
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