Tales of Epic Fantasy
Edited by W. H. Horner
Illustrated by Nicole Cardiff
Trade Paperback • 6" x 9"
Direct Price: $12.80
The clash of steel. The scent of blood. The heat of fire from heaven. The cries of the dying and of the dead.
Brave warriors and devotees to the gods follow the paths their faiths have put before them, and when religious fervor meets skill of arms and magic, kings will fall, armies will collide, and men and women will perish for their beliefs.
Blood & Devotion contains nine short stories and novellas of epic fantasy, accompanied by the art of Nicole Cardiff.
Epic Fantasy Short Stories and Novellas
Trade Paperback • 6" x 9"
ISBN 10: 1-934571-02-4
ISBN 13: 978-1-934571-02-6
Table of Contents
Foreword by David B. Coe
“The Daughters of Desire” by Jay Lake
“Hammer Song” by K. L. Van der Veer
“The Treachery of Stone” by William Jones
“In the Light of Dying Fires” by Gerard Houarner
“The Perils of Twilight” by Peter Andrew Smith
“The Gifts of Avalae” by Ian McHugh
“Eye of the Destroyer” by Aliette de Bodard
“Greatshadow” by James Maxey
“Magic’s Choice” by R. W. Day
“An action-packed adventure from start to finish full of twists, turns and delicious surprises. Magic, treachery, murder and honor blend to create stories that linger in the imagination.”
—Gail Z. Martin, author of The Chronicles of the Necromancer series
“Each of the tales in this anthology is a gem: sharply drawn, polished, a blend of beauty and power.”
—David B. Coe, the Crawford Award-winning author of The Blood of the Southlands trilogy
Would he have to exterminate all of Marya’s followers in Copper Downs? He doubted that was possible.
“Have you no words?” Laris demanded.
“There has been a great wrong,” Fantail said. “Mistakes were made at the beginning of time, mistakes that bore fruit in the form of your goddess and a thousand of her sibs.”
“You may follow those words, but you do not believe them, little sister.” Laris’s eyes narrowed as she studied Fantail. “I see water in your blood. This is none of your affair at all, sprite.”
Fantail’s knife was in her hand. “I am bound to what I am bound.”
That was enough for Firesetter. He drew deep into his power. The flames rumbled within his soul. His fingertips and ears warmed with their energy. He would strike Laris and her goddess where they stood, then raze the temple.
“You are wrongly bound as well, Red Man,” Laris said.
Vision rainbow-bright, ears so sharply painful they seemed to bleed, he clenched tight the flames within. “I am alone in the world.” Fantail winced, but did not gainsay him. “I am a made thing.”
“Go inside,” Amren whispered. “Take Esyllt with you.”
Catrien grabbed Esyllt’s hand and turned.
“Hold!” the domini called. Two of the knights spurred their mounts forward, swinging around between Catrien and the house. The other knights drew up in a circle around them. Amren pulled his wife and daughter close, folding his great arms around them both.
The domini led his horse forward and stopped several yards away from them, holding the sword. “You will tell me what you know of that Iron Hill knight,” he said softly. “When last I saw him, he had not the strength to fight.” He held up the sword. “Nor did he bear such a weapon.”
“We know nothing,” Amren said, “not even his name. He rode in wounded not half an hour ago and collapsed by that tree. My wife is a healer. She mended his wounds as best she could, and he took his leave.”
“And this?” The domini held up the sword.
What had he been thinking, offering the knight that sword? Amren searched for safe words, but he’d already taken too long in answering. No lie would pass now. He sighed. “I made it. I’m a smith.”
The domini’s brows rose. “Oh! And quite the smith too.” He ran his fingers over the runes on the blade, then looked at the knights around them. “This,” he said, “is why we cannot allow magic to run wild in the hedges beyond the Sovereignty! Magic is a holy gift, but the uninitiated are not discerning in its use! Would that we had more sway in these lands. There is talent here that would benefit all, could it be brought into our fold.” The domini rubbed a hand over his balding head and stared, first at Amren, then Cat, as if looking for something. “At least we can bind their magic to the service of the Light to keep them from doing further harm. I will administer the crae’ath.” He put the sword down and held out his hands to Catrien. “Mi’lady, you first.”
Catrien shook her head, trembling.
One after another, pillows started to smolder, then erupted into reddish-yellow flames. An acrid smoke quickly filled the room. The fire demon gave no indication of leaving. It drifted back and forth in the doorway as though it were waiting. With its hellish fire, Mela also sensed foulness. This being did not belong in this world. A tinge of regret touched Mela’s heart. It must be done. I know my destiny comes at a cost.
“Face it!” Mela ordered Shuka. “Turn and face the demon!”
The boy slumped to his knees, sobbing. “I cannot,” he said. “I beg you not to make me.”
The blue and violet flames of the fire demon danced about, lashing at the stone and the room’s burning remnants. Like fierce blazing tongues, the flames lapped at everything as though tasting each material. Everything kissed by the flames quickly erupted into a blaze or melted away.
Sinuous strands of smoke streamed from Shuka’s robe. Mela knew the boy’s clothing was about to ignite. The master builder considered leaving him, but there was no other way out of the chamber.
“Turn to face the demon!” Mela said again. “It must see the mark Nebas placed on your forehead.”
Mela hoped this is what the demon wanted.
Still sobbing, Shuka gradually turned, facing the creature. His head moved in starts as though it were a large block of stone slowly being pulled about.
“I know the plan. A good part of it is mine.”
Her tone was sharp. He frowned.
“I know,” he said.
She was right, of course. They both knew the play of feints and diversions to come, the Worm burrowing to the fortress cistern gate, and the inevitable siege engines rolling forward, their construction having reduced a nearby forest to stumps. Their hands were already bloody with the planned sacrifice of clans backing Lord Joru’s play for independence. They were the least of what was going to be lost.
The Lady’s gaze refused to wither under his testing glare. The hurt, surely from last night’s betrayal, was plain in her bearing. “There are listeners on the wall,” she said.
“They can’t see my lips when I’m looking at you. They can’t hear our words through the beating of our hearts.”
“Stop.” She forced a frown, but a smile still flickered over her lips.
Jeloc’s ploy had worked. He’d used his heartbeat as the source of interference in his whisper spell, and drawn hers into the spell’s workings when she’d ridden up to him. She’d been touched by the romantic gesture in his sorcery, even if she didn’t trust it.
“You’re not answering my question,” she said, the smile blowing away like smoke.
“Is it because of her?”
There it was.
Djati held the chariot’s horses as still as he could. “They have more than enough men to overwhelm us. What are they doing?”
“They are waiting.” Ameni readied his bow.
The line of nomads split in two. A large man dressed in strips of leather with swirling black tattoos across his skin stomped to the front and began gesturing.
“For him,” Ameni said, releasing his arrow.
A rain of arrows followed from the chariots but each one splintered in mid-flight or was hauled to the ground by a wisp of black smoke before reaching the nomads. The shaman laughed loudly and a dark haze rose from the ground and began drifting toward the chariots. Nithotep shouted in response and light flared from the sky, burning away the mist. The shaman gestured and screamed but the darkness did not reappear. He then barked out a nomad word Ameni knew all too well.
“Arrows!” he yelled. “Shield the Niece of Pharaoh.”
Even as the words left his lips, Ameni saw an arrow strike home. Nithotep tumbled from her chariot. A mighty roar rose from the nomads and they surged forward. As the sting of axes and arrows descended on his soldiers, Ameni knew there was nothing left to do but die.
“Mother Mercy, what are these?” Olwain whispered as they stumbled to a halt.
Three monstrous, winged beasts had alighted before the hall. Carnac was glad to have Albeth arrive at his shoulder, the green glow of a killing spell wrapping the fingers of her left hand.
Center and fore, an emerald serpent balanced on raptor talons that could have crushed a man. A gigantic white lion with a scorpion tail and an equally outsized, horned and cloven-footed horse loomed by the serpent’s flanks. Slender beings in fantastical armor of gleaming gold and bronze sat astride the shoulders of each beast.
Pagan magLedon pushed between his warriors. “I am Pagan manKurgan magLedon, Prince of Ledonaii,” he said, his words slurring over his bear’s teeth and tongue, “and you are on Magmardain land. Name yourselves.”
The foremost rider bowed and replied in a musical voice. “Greetings, Lords of Old Magmardia. I am Malakhieh. And we are the Avalae, Gods of Avaleinaea. We have come to offer friendship and wondrous gifts—”
“Liar!” a deep voice bellowed. “False god!”
The guards beside Carnac gave way and the old Gar, Ramul Lambai, strode forward, five feet tall and near as great in girth. In his anger, he’d forgotten to affix his veil and his eyes were slitted against the light. His fleshy whiskers writhed in agitation. Ramul planted himself in front of the winged serpent, his runestaff in one outsized fist and an iron mallet in the other. The monster hissed.
She looks into His eyes. What does one say to a god? To the only god who can descend on earth and take a human form? To the god who is strongest among the Triad now, because it is war and war is His province?
I hate you, she thinks. Every night you take my husband away from me, and every night less and less of him comes back. I hate you, and I will not let you take me as you are taking him.
But the eyes, the knowing eyes, will not leave her, and they hold no contempt and no hatred.
The eyes of the statue. There is the shadow of a third eye on the forehead, for the Destroyer is the only one among the Triad who can see the future. The eye is closed, a bare suggestion of a lid carved on the stone above the other eyes. But it is moving, flowing upwards like an inverted waterfall.
She stands, transfixed. The eye opens. She feels something alien rise within her, something that fills her with a terrible longing. She needs to—
She reaches out, touches the statue. It is warm under her fingertips and throbs like a living thing.
The eye turns, focuses on her. It is green, the color of the light under the canopy of the forest. Green, like the leaves of some huge tree that reaches into the sky, upwards, until there is nothing left but the light of the city of the gods.
The eye sees her, and she is lost.
“I saw Greatshadow once,” Bigsby whispered. “Ten years ago, when the Armada of the Silver Kingdom sailed into this bay. I was watching from the window when night seemed to suddenly fall as the dragon’s shadow passed. Then, the darkness vanished when Greatshadow breathed flames. It was horrible. The whole of the ocean was ablaze. Not a ship survived. Charred, bloated bodies washed ashore for days. I’m not eager to face the beast in his lair.”
“My poor Bigsby,” Stranger said. “What you are eager to do no longer matters. You’ll do as I tell you, or I will reveal the price on your head to every soul in this accursed city.”
Bigsby stared at his knife. He’d survived some terrible scraps over the years, but what chance did he have against a wizard? He let the knife fall from his grasp.
“Curse you,” he mumbled. “I’ll do as you say.”
“It’s not such a bad thing,” Stranger said. “I promise you Bigsby, this is no journey of self destruction. Greatshadow will meet his end. When he does, you may leave with all the treasure you can carry. Even with your small stature, that’s immeasurable wealth. The dragon has more diamonds than the mer-king has pearls.”
Bigsby rubbed his chin. Certainly, a trip to Greatshadow’s lair was suicide. But, just in case, he would wear pants with really big pockets.
“Done, then. Is one hour sufficient preparation time?”
“Why wait? Thirty minutes. Let’s have this done.” She’d long grown beyond taking any great joy in battle, but this was untenable. “Berenger, please . . .”
He caught up the pendant he wore that signified him as second general. “I swore an oath. Regardless of how I feel about the current occupant of the throne, I swore, Ermessen. I can’t be false to that.” He turned his horse and rode away, his bannerman following.
She had tried, but really, she’d known from the beginning that there was no chance of success. The battle today was inevitable from the moment she stood before Conn in the schola and named him king’s son and royal.
“Do we have any chance, Excellency?” Danel asked as they watched Gombal’s lines open to receive Berenger and his man. There were so many of them, the line extended near to the edges of the wood.
“There’s always hope, Danel. Commend your spirit to whatever god you serve and wield your sword with honor.”
She dug her heels into the flanks of the horse, letting it have its head, and with one last fierce surge of joy, said goodbye to her life.