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The Soldier’s Wife 5: Why Soldiers Fight

The Soldier’s Wife 5: Why Soldiers Fight

 

The Thirty-Ninth Day of Spring, the Three Thousand and Fiftieth Year of the Kingdom

The alarm thundered.

Why can’t you let me mourn? the exhausted Lamahavi thought. Her eyelids felt like lead weights, her swollen ankles throbbed, she had to pass water once more, and the light-cursed demons attacked the Bulwark.

Again!

Frantic drums pounded through the Ring City, summoning defenders to drive back the enemy into the Diamond Ward and keep them from flooding into the city. More good men like Lamahavi’s husband would die today.

A single year was all she’d had with him. It was nothing at all. A fleeting moment in a life. Her dreams of growing old with Yelaikav snuffed away by the resinsword of one of the ant-like demons who sought to drown this world in darkness.

She stared down at her husband’s corpse as she prepared his body for the funerary boat. It would float him down the Fraught Curve, the river that flowed past the Ring City and out of the Forbidden Arc. At its terminus, where the waters would pour into the sea, lay the City of the Embalmed Dead. The hallowed resting site for the Songblade Knights and their families, especially those men who had died in the defense of not just the Forbidden Kingdom, but the entire world at large. All those ignorant nations who did not know how Lamahavi’s people—Lamahavi herself—suffered to keep them safe.

Yelaikav looked like he was sleeping, his cheeks pale and smooth. His features relaxed, eyes closed. His hands were folded across his chest, gripping the carved-bone hilt of his Songblade, the hallowed weapon he’d wielded. It was her right to keep it in trust for their child, if she carried a son in her belly, or to let it be buried with Yelaikav in the mausoleum city.

One day, she would be granted a place at his side, to lie interred and preserved against the decay of the world.

The alarms thundered. Boomed. The drums pounded with a frantic energy, and she did not care. Nothing mattered. The world had become ash, smothered beneath bitterness. The light of her life, the bright, shining diamond that had made living in the Ring City bearable, had been stolen from her.

He would never compose terrible poetry to make her smile. Tell silly jokes to make her laugh. Share kisses to make her sigh. He would never get to see his child in this life. She trembled as the injustice overwhelmed her.

Why?” she cried out to Layiv, the Diamond Lady. The goddess who’d erected the Diamond Ward and charged her ancestors to defend the world. “Why him? Why my husband? Did you need him in your White Choir? Why couldn’t you let him stay with me? Even another year. You could have at least let him hold our child! Answer me!”

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Shut up!” she spat at the drums, her bloodshot eyes wild. A bestial madness twisted her young face. “You’re why he’s dead! You killed him! That booming. You summoned him to his death!”

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

She screeched, irrationality spilling through her. A tangle of brown hair fell in thick strands to her shoulders. A matted mess. She scratched at her face, raking red lines down her smooth cheeks as the drums kept pounding. They thundered from every direction.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

QUIET!”

But they wouldn’t stop. They kept resounding. She leaned over her husband, her wrinkled kimono shifting over her round belly. She was close to delivery. Weeks or even days away. She pressed her face into his chest as she sobbed. Her grief poured out of her. She clutched his orange kimono, fingers scratching at the silk.

Come back to me!” she begged. “Please, please, come back to me. I need you.”

A shadow fell on her.

Yel?” she asked, this moment of irrationality seizing her that her husband had descended from the White Choir to be with her once more. That the Diamond Lady had relented and freed him from his service in the next life to be with her.

It wasn’t Yelaikav.

It wasn’t even human.

She stared in stupefied shock at the demon approaching her, the setting sun stretching its long shadow to fall around her kneeling form. Its umbral twin hugged her body in impending night. The first time she’d seen one of the hulking things, the inhuman visage had sent gibbering terror through her. Numbed by grief and exhaustion, she now merely stared bleary-eyed at the monster, not registering the danger that approached her.

It stood on two legs, slender and covered in a black, waxy carapace, knees creaking with each step. The legs descended from its armored thorax. Thrusting behind it was its swollen abdomen, a few spindly hairs bristling on the soft flesh. Two pairs of arms thrust from its thorax, each one like the legs, armored in its chitin. It held a greatsword in its four hands, a beastly weapon made of black resin hardened to the toughness of diamond. Its triangular head fixed on her. Eyes like black onyx, covered with many facets, gleamed. Antennae spamed and its sharp, crushing mandibles spasmed. A scent like vomit, the bite of sour bile, filled her nose.

It came to kill her.

She didn’t care about that. Nothing mattered to her. Everything had been taken from her. She stared listlessly at its advance, the boom of the drums fading. In a small corner of Lamahavi’s mind, it registered that the breach must be titanic for a demon to get so far from the Bulwark. For every drum in the city to be pounding.

I’ll see you soon, my love, drifted through the haze of her thoughts like a piece of flotsam bobbing across a fog-choked lake. It hardly did more than eddy through her exhaustion.

The demons held no mercy. They came from another world. A universe of darkness they sought to escape. They would transform this world and cover it with their foul hives. Slaughter every human and replace them with their squirming larvae.

Lamahavi knew it was her duty to fight, but . . .

Duty had made her into a widow.

Honor had left her broken.

The demon stopped on the other side of her husband’s corpse. It raised that huge blade to cut her in half. Ruddy light played on the smooth, black surface. The edge glinted in the setting sunlight. She sat transfixed by her impending death.

Her child kicked her in the ribs.

Hard.

Pain burst from the impact. It slammed into that fog smothering her thoughts. A reminder that one part of her husband had survived. The blade slashed down at her. Lamahavi acted. She snatched the Songblade’s handle and threw herself back in one motion.

She landed on her back, her pregnant stomach making the movement awkward. The blade struck the stone where she’d knelt moments before. A crystalline crack echoed through the air. The demon chittered as it raised its sword and advanced on her. She struggled to stand. She pushed up with her elbows. She would never dodge the blow before it struck her.

The sword slashed down at her again, hacking towards her belly.

She smacked the handle of the Songblade into her thigh. A gesture her husband had done a hundred times. The tuning fork hidden in the hollow cylinder hummed to life. The sound activated the diamond embedded at the other end.

The blade sang.

A sword of light appeared. A glowing brilliance of white, the manifestation of the Tone of Diamond. She thrust it up before her to ward off the attack. The resin blade slammed into the radiance. The blade sang louder as it repulsed the attack. She didn’t even feel the strength of the demon, the titanic power it held.

It was nothing before the power of the Tones of Harmony.

She shuddered as it drew back its blade. She had a chance. She had never fought with a Songblade, but desperation animated her body. She had to protect her baby. With great effort, she sat up and got her sandal-clad feet beneath her. She heaved upright with a groan, thigh and calf muscles protesting after hours of kneeling. Knee joints popped. Her lower back throbbed.

She fell into a fighting stance but swayed, unsteady. Her pregnancy made her more top-heavy and threw off her balance. She leaned back to compensate, but it changed how she stood, affecting her footwork.

The sword slashed at her.

She raised the blade before it. It weighed hardly anything. Only the handle, made from the hollow wing bone of an Imperial Condor, had any substance. The sword sang as it caught the enemy blade. The demon’s mandibles snapped together. Its antennae twitched.

It swung at her with fast strokes. The huge sword moved like a black blur before her. Lamahavi gasped. Her sandaled feet scraped across the flagstones. Its clawed feet clicked with its steps as it drove her back.

The blade flashed before her as she parried, struggling to hold back the demonic attack. Her left hand cradled her belly. Her child kicked with ferocity and squirmed inside of her. A powerful cramp blazed through her nethers.

Liquid spilled down her thighs and splashed at her feet.

No,” she groaned. The pain twisted through her stomach.

The demon didn’t care that she had entered labor. It only wanted to cut off her head. To kill her child fighting to enter this world. She screamed against the contraction squeezing about her womb and blocked the next attack.

She had to find an opening. She had to dispatch the demon. She wobbled, battling against collapse. Sweat spilled down her face, soaking her thin eyebrows. A drop ran into her left eye. She blinked against the stinging salt.

The demon swept in.

She didn’t know the forms to attack. She only knew how to fight with a spear. All she could do was hastily throw it before her and deflect or parry the powerful blows. If she didn’t attack and kill it, the pain of labor would soon overwhelm her.

No!” she screamed her defiance at the demon. “You won’t take all of him away from me!”

Lamahavi had to treat her sword like a spear. She felt more comfortable with the weapon. She aimed the point at the thing’s carapace. Would this work?

Its sword swept in hard. She jerked her arm to the left, moving the lower half of the blade while keeping the point aimed at the demon’s thorax. She struck the weapon to the side, deflecting the resinsword past her shoulder. Her pregnant belly heaving before her, she lunged a riposte thrust at the enemy’s chest like she held a spear.

Her legs snapped forward. She screamed through the agony contracting through her womb. Her child kicked. She stepped on sandals and socks soaked in her amniotic fluid. A sweet smell permeated the air, clashing with the bile stench of the demon. She rammed the point of the shining blade at its chest.

The glowing tip struck.

The demon’s carapace melted beneath the purity of the weapon’s song. The radiance sizzled against the chitin and burned through its armor. She buried the sword into its chest. Mandibles snapped at her as the thing died, a final attack to steal her life.

She sliced up with the sword on instinct. The radiant blade cut through the demon’s shell with disturbing ease. No resistance at all. In a heartbeat, it flashed up through its thorax and split the demon’s head in half. It fell half-apart before her as its momentum crashed it into her. A mandible stabbed into her shoulder.

She staggered back and twisted her body, bending half over to protect her belly from the collapsing demon’s impact. The mandible ripped from her shoulder. Blood spurted. She staggered, her contractions twisting through her guts.

The Songblade fell from her hand. It hit the ground with a jarring impact, silencing the tuning fork. The humming died along with the radiant blade. She didn’t care. She screamed out again. The pain was coming so fast now. She fell to her knees. Blood oozed from the wound in her left shoulder. That arm barely wanted to work as she fumbled to open her kimono.

Help!” she screamed, the drums thundering in the distance.

It was all happening so fast. She thrust open her kimono and howled as her shoulder blazed with agony. Her screams resounded through the jetty. She unfolded it on the ground and then sank onto it, her thighs spread apart. She wore only her shorter under kimono. She had no one to help her, and her child came.

She pushed at the contractions. She screeched, the cry tearing at her throat, as the pain ripped through her nethers. Time lost all meaning to her as the drums echoed in the distance. Her cries mixed with the sounds of battle resounding through the city. Men died in all directions.

But she could feel her child coming. Sliding out. She had to keep pushing. Instinct controlled Lamahavi. She had midwifed twice since arriving at the Ringed City. She knew she had to push with the contractions. Her entire face contorted as she kept bearing down. Her cheeks blazed scarlet as she screamed again.

The head crowned. She kept pushing. Lamahavi whimpered, hoping her child would be fine with no one to grab the little baby. She squeezed her eyes shut as, finally, her baby was born. She panted, sucking in deep breaths.

No crying.

No, no, no!” she wailed. She lifted the child into her arms, covered in afterbirth and smeared in blood, skin turning blue. Such a tiny thing. A boy, eyes closed, mouth covered. She hooked her finger, cleared his mouth, then brought the child to her shoulder.

She patted his bottom. The child squirmed. Then the cries rose from his lungs. A healthy wail. Color spread across his body. Tears spilled from her eyes as she cradled her little baby boy. So tiny and fragile, his fists squeezed tight as he cried.

Mahaikan,” she whispered, the name her husband had chosen on his deathbed. “Mahaikan, look at you.” Despite the pain and exhaustion, she smiled broadly. She looked up at the heavens. “Yelaikav, we have a son!”

They found her hours later, lying in a stupor with her baby crying at her breast. She lay between her husband’s body and the demon she’d killed with a Songblade. Blood soaked her shoulder. Medics were called while whispers echoed around her.

Lamahavi understood her husband more now than she ever had. Why he’d fought. Even why he’d even died. What she held in her arms was the most important thing in the world. Mahaikan was more than hers and Yelaikav’s son; he was the future. Theirs. Their race’s. The world’s. Every baby held the promise of greatness. A promise that it was all worth the price she’d paid in blood and tears.

Soldiers understood that. The good ones, at least. The ones who were not conscripted but who made the choice to stand day after day at the edge of order and stare into the abyss. To hold back the madness for one more year, one more month.

One more hour.

She had held it back today long enough to bring about a miracle.

The soldier’s wife vowed to stay in the Ringed City. To raise her son and teach him what his father had died for. She would help those she could. Her husband was dead, but there were other good men who stood against the darkness.

The light could only shine bright so long as hope remained. Anyone could take up its light and slay the night. Even a pregnant woman smothered by grief and exhaustion, wracked by pain and agony, could take it up.

Lamahavi would keep her husband’s blade in trust for their son. Every day, she would think of Yelaikav. She knew he sang to her from the White Choir above. She had the strength to stand day after day and protect the future until the time came for her to float down the Fraught Curve and lie beside her husband until the world ended.

As she held her son to her breast, she knew so long as hope blazed bright, the end would never come.

The END

The Soldier’s Wife 4: The Tragic Purpose of Life

The Soldier’s Wife 4: The Tragic Purpose of Life

 

The Thirty-Seventh Day of Spring, the Three Thousand and Fiftieth Year of the Kingdom

Lamahavi knelt on the reed mat, her pregnant belly swelling the folds of her cotton kimono and the protective, gray smock she wore over it. Her stomach made her current task more difficult, but she didn’t complain. Everyone in the Ringed City worked towards one goal: defending the world.

She need only glance out the window in the workshop to witness the Diamond Ward distorting the blue sky. In it writhed the wound upon reality: the Black Blood Rift.

She’d carefully shaped the wood into dowels to fashion crossbow bolts. It was a skill she had learned since her arrival in the city just over a year ago. After straightening them, she used her knife with care to shave off excess slivers of wood. They curled from the shaft before falling to land on the swell of her stomach. The smock was tied at her back, covering the front of a kimono decorated in her namesake: white orchids.

Outside, the twang of crossbows echoed as a group of wives practiced their marksmanship. Though their husbands, Songblade Knights all, fought the demons, every woman knew devastation could fall and they would have to take up spear and crossbow to fight with their men. Lamahavi had already fought with Yelaikav, her husband, on their journey to the Ringed City last spring.

Her son or daughter kicked inside of her. Vipaloza, a trained healer like Lamahavi and whose husband served in the same company as Yelaikav, believed Lamahavi would have a daughter. “Your child is riding high, not low. I am certain you will have a girl. I’ve delivered eleven babies since living here, and I have never been wrong about the sex of a woman’s child.”

Lamahavi wouldn’t mind a daughter, but she ached for a son more. Her own little Yelaikav to raise. She enjoyed watching the boys play and yearned for one of her own, a mixture of her and Yelaikav. Either boy or girl, she would love her child fiercely and strive to protect him or her.

Songblade Knights had the greatest motivation to kill the demons. While they all served to defend the world, they had something more precious close at hand to protect. The knights had an aphorism: Love is the backbone of courage. Love is the foundation of bravery. Love is the bedrock of civilization. Having their wives and children behind them was incentive to fight with all their passion.

She sat down the shaft and picked up the next dowel to be trimmed. She stared at it, giving it a critical eye. She’d already straightened a dozen using steam to soften the wood and a series of jigs to hold them straight while they dried. Now they needed to be smooth. She found a protrusion in need of trimming, humming as she worked.

The thwacks of crossbow fire continued. The women of the Apple Blossom Octant, hers and Yelaikav’s company, practiced. With her pregnancy so far progressed, she was exempt from strenuous training, but making crossbow bolts was a useful task she could perform.

The last year had been hard. Full of terror for her husband. The dread of waiting to find out if he would survive never grew easier. She had found the strength to endure it, but every time a man was bought into her infirmary wounded, she feared it would be Yelaikav.

The demons were active. A hard year. Losses were mounting. There had been three breaches that tunneled through the ground and burst out behind the Ringed City. A company of rangers had died stemming one, the famed horsemen and women who patrolled the Forbidden Plains searching for such eruption of the ant-like monsters. Another breach had laid siege to one of the Hundred Forts, the next line of defense before civilization began.

A shadow fell on her.

A beauty moon full. Shaping death, making life. The contrast sublime.”

She smiled at the poem her husband spoke. “I like that.” She set down the dowel and cupped her belly. “Moon full, huh? I do feel a little round.”

A little, Lama?” Yelaikav stepped in wearing his blue-lacquered armor. The lamellar plates were stitched together to allow him to move with ease. Silk cords held the various pieces about his body. His great helm hung from the sash through which he tucked his bone-handled Songblade. A pattern of white diamonds adorned his armor, painted on by Lamahavi herself. “Your belly is as round as any of the seven moons.”

What are you saying?” she asked, curious how he’d turn this into a joke. “That I’m fat?” In some women, it would be an attack or a trap. For her, it was a challenge.

Why, that my child is a big lass. Proof of my prowess.”

She rolled her eyes. “And I have nothing to do with that. I’m as tall as you.” She was an Easterner, whose people were the tallest of the three races that made up the Forbidden Kingdom. It gave her delicate features and the brown hair she wore pinned up with an ivory comb. “I think if we have a big daughter, I am as much to thank as you.”

Then we can share the boasting joy when our daughter towers over all the boys.” He stomped forward in an exaggerated manner, his armor jingling. “She’ll be the terror of the sands. No boys will try anything with my daughter because they’ll be too scared of her.”

So, every father’s dream?” Lamahavi’s smile grew. “For their daughter to be a sweet maiden whom they don’t have to worry about sneaking off to the bamboo grove?”

Exactly,” he said, holding out his hands, his gloves doffed and tucked into his sash.

She took them and he helped her stand, something more difficult these days. She groaned, feeling the pressure in her bladder growing. Their child squirmed around in excitement and she winced, a foot kicking into her liver.

Well, I seem to recall you liked it when I snuck off with you to the bamboo grove.”

His grin grew. “Well, you’re not my daughter. It was your father who had to worry about the boys luring you away.”

Luring? Trust me, you didn’t lure me.”

Luckily, our daughter will not be a woman of loose morals like her mother,” he added, still grinning.

Loose morals?” Her lips cracked. “You weren’t complaining at all about my morals that night.”

And I never shall.” He cupped her face and kissed her. She’d only had one other man. Vevoztaj was dead, though their relationship had ended years before his passing. He just wasn’t right for her. She needed a man who could make her smile with his teasing.

When he broke the kiss, she took his arm and said, “I will make sure our daughter knows all the ways to lure those boys off to the grove and how to make them cry out to Layiv like you did.”

You wild wench,” he gasped. “My own wife conspiring to help all those lecherous boys take advantage of our sweet daughter?”

Maybe she’ll take advantage of them. Like I did with you in the bamboo grove.”

He laughed and she giggled.

Good thing I have my blade. I’ll make sure those boys are too scared to rise to the occasion.”

Then our poor daughter will die a spinster,” Lamahavi said in mock lament. She picked up her spear leaning against the wall by the exit to the carpentry shop. A length of polished wood her height with a steel blade as long as her forearm. Wings thrust from the side just as long as the point.

A small price she’ll have to pay to keep those boys from ruining her purity. My daughter shall stay my little girl even when she’s old and wrinkled.”

And curse you every day.”

Such a cruel wife I married,” he groaned.

They stepped out onto the courtyard, passing the wives collecting their bolts, practice over. The women greeted the couple, Yelaikav nodding to them. Lamahavi waddled at his side. It was the only way to describe how she walked now. That ache in her bladder grew more and more pressing.

Talking with Yelaikav helped.

So, what shall we name our tall spinster daughter?” she asked as they headed into the narrow alley leading to their apartments. This part of the Ringed City was a warren of buildings, a natural maze to confuse any demons who breached this area and to provide tight choke points for the defenders to stop an invasion.

Something strong. We could use the characters for sword and blood.”

Yelaikav, you are not naming our daughter Bloodsword or Bloody Sword or Sword of Blood.”

Entrails? The character has an almost cute charm in the ways it wraps around itself.”

I wouldn’t let you name our son with the character for entrails,” she said, shaking her head. Her own name, Lamahavi, held the characters for White and Orchid. His, Yelaikav, held Sword and Diamond.

Mmm, Black Death?”

Your humor is off today, husband.”

Really? So no Fragrant Corpse or Sickly Flower or Raven Claw?”

Those are disgusting names.”

Iron Spear?”

Not much better for a daughter.”

Burning Skull?”

Did you get hit on the head?”

He gave her an innocent grin. “Why do you ask?”

She arched her eyebrows at him.

How about . . . Purple Vulture?”

She shook her head.

Thought that was better than Smelly Vulture,” he muttered in feigned innocence. “Okay… Uh… Fat Bear.”

She’s going to be tall, not an ogress.”

Pink Dawn.”

That’s a . . .” She trailed off. “Wait, what?”

Pink Dawn. Too gruesome?”

No,” she said. “That would make a lovely name for a girl.”

What shall we name it if it’s a boy?” he pondered. “Iron Spear?”

Maybe,” she said, mulling the appropriate names over in her mind. “We could use—”

The street before them buckled and then heaved upward. Lamahavi froze as dumbfounded shock seized her. A triangular head, a pair of twitching antennae thrusting up above it, reared out of the hole, dirt spilling off, paving stones tumbling to the side. The first of its segmented arms thrust out, each plated in chitin. Sharp mandibles clicked. Its faceted eyes found them.

Her and Yelaikav’s reflections appeared broken in those dark, gem-like eyes. It hissed, a scent of sour bile reeking from it. With a scramble, it burst from the hole, its second pair of arms holding a pair of curving resinswords.

Layiv’s bright curse!” her husband shouted and thrust her back.

She stumbled as his Songblade ripped from his sheath. She fought to keep her balance, planting a spear point on the pavement while her pregnant frame made her sluggish, top heavy. Her heart raced, cold fear coursing through her veins.

He smacked the handle of his blade against his thigh. The tuning fork hidden in the hollow handle rang out a pure note. A blade of shining white thrust from the end, singing as he swept into his attack, sliding at the creature. A Songblade could cut through anything but the demon’s resin, a black, tar-like substance they regurgitated to build everything from hives to the weapons they wielded.

Get help!” he shouted. “Sound the alarm, Lama!”

She turned to do just that and gasped. Behind her, the street buckled. Another demon burst out of the narrow street, cobblestones falling off its black, waxy body. It scrambled out of its hole, a long blade clutched in a pair of its hands. Its mandibles clicked as it focused on her.

She set her spear, her sandaled feet spreading into a fight stance. “We’re surrounded!”

The fear wanted to consume her, but she chose to be brave. Every time she came face to face with terror, she had to decide. It wasn’t an easy choice most days, but with her husband behind her, she found it easy as deciding to breathe.

His blade sang as the demon rushed at her on its third pair of limbs. The segmented legs ended at clawed feet. She cried out and lunged forward, thrusting her spear out before her. She struck the demon on the center of the carapace. Her hardened-steel tip cut a thin scratch into the armored thorax, dealing no damage to the demon. The curved surface deflected her thrust to the side. Her blade popped forward, sliding between its first and second set of arms. The long wings jutting from the side of her weapon, like a sword’s crossguard, caught on the demon, holding it at bay.

The monster pressed forward, pushing back. She leaned her weight into her spear, legs bending, her child kicking frantically in her belly. A burst of strength exploded through her, pumping hot through her veins. The muscles in her thighs and calves fought against the demon pushing on her. His blade swung, crashing into the haft of her weapon, nicking the hardwood. But it was thick.

She had to hold. “Yelaikav!”

He didn’t answer. His blade sung behind her. Light flashed and danced as she struggled to hold back the demon. She slid her hands down the haft until she held her spear by the butt, giving herself all the reach she could, but making it harder to keep the weapon straight. The resinsword’s impacts shivered down the shaft.

A sizzling hiss. Blood boiled. A chittering scream.

Yelaikav rushed past her, snarling, “Behind you!”

She pulled her spear away and spun as fast as she could, letting him fight this demon. He’d left one dead, guts spilled out of its abdomen, legs twitching. Another demon crawled out of the hole the first had made. She snarled and rushed at it before it could fully emerge.

She thrust her spear at its head. It swung a limb at the weapon, knocking it to the side. She shifted her stance and swung back, driving the left wing of her weapon right into a faceted eye. It burst, a brackish liquid oozing out. The thing chittered in pain, antennae twitching wildly.

May the Diamond Lady, divine Layiv, curse you and your foul ilk!” she shouted and drew back her spear. She thrust again, coming at its head from its right side where it was blind.

She struck the creature in the mouth. Her blade buried past its snapping mandibles and jammed into its brain. Its antennae spasmed and flailed. It gurgled as it died. She panted, ripping her spear free. She hardly felt the weight of her child as the battle energy pumped wild through her veins. It sharpened sense and flooded muscles with strength.

She turned to see her husband cutting off the head of the demon she’d held back. It fell to the ground, but two more had crawled out of its hole. His armor creaked as he danced towards them. His great helm bounced on his hip. He thrust his glowing blade at the first one, but its resinsword deflected in a sweeping circle. Her husband flowed into another form. A high slash, Plum Blossoms Dancing, followed by a flurry of four attacks called Badgers in His Den. He cut off an arm, a blade falling to the ground. A hard swipe cut the small joint between thorax and abdomen in half.

The second demon fell on him. Mandibles bit into his armor, scraping on steel. He got his blade into the creature’s thorax, cutting heart and lungs. Black blood coated his armor as it collapsed, revealing more scrambling out the hole.

Large breech!” she shouted and rushed forward to his side. She held her spear ready.

The deep boom of the taiko drums exploded from nearby. The call to arms beat out their location. They just had to survive. Knights were on their way. She thrust her spear, slamming her weapon’s wings into the sword arm of a demon, opening it up for her husband’s blade to cut through its carapace. Blood splashed her smock, soaking through to her kimono and then to her round belly.

The Diamond Lady!” she cried.

For my daughter!” he roared.

They fought together, trained for this moment. She distracted, he killed. The drums beat, but it felt like an eternity since they’d begun. Where was their help? Where were the other Songblade Knights who should be nearby? Time stretched out long, distorting how long they’d fought.

Claws scrabbled behind them. Her husband cursed. He spun around her as she slammed her spear into a demon’s thorax. Clawed hands grabbed the haft, battling with her for control over it. A resinsword slammed down hard into the thick, hard wood. Unfeeling eyes fixated on her.

Her husband shouted, moving behind her. She threw a look over her shoulder. Two more demons had flanked them. They’d crawled out of the hole, pushing the one she’d killed out of the way. Yelaikav fought with the same desperation Lamahavi felt. They were surrounded. They would die here. Their daughter would never stand tall.

No!” she shouted in frustration. She refused to let that happen. Their family wouldn’t die here. They would survive.

Lamahavi thrust hard with her spear, knocking back the demon. It stumbled, and she swept for its legs, tripping it. Once on the ground, she slammed her spearpoint into the monster’s arm, right at the segmented joint in the limb holding its blade. Her point drove into the vulnerable gap. A loud pop echoed as she severed the connective tissue. They had no bones inside them. It was all on the outside.

The demon chittered and lashed out a foot. Fear empowered her reflexes. She twisted her body so he hit her on the side and not her round belly. The force knocked her into the side of the stone building. She hit it and fell to the ground, spear clattering before her.

Mandibles snapping, the demon gained its feet and threw itself at her. It had lost its sword, but it had sharp claws on its three remaining hands. She thrust her legs up before her, kicking out. Her kimono tore beneath her smock. Her silk sandals, soles covered in tar, struck its carapace. It swiped a clawed hand, striking her, leaving a throbbing cut to her calf.

Lama!” her husband shouted.

He appeared over her and swung his Songblade. He sliced off the demon’s triangular head. It fell around her feet, mandibles twitching. She caught a glimpse of Yelaikav’s face, full of passion. Brackish blood smeared across his cheeks and nose, his eyes hard, burning bright.

They were not dead yet. They would survive.

The demon seized his sword arm. Mandibles crushed. He screamed as iron plates warped, bent. A resinsword struck his chest, shaking his lamellar armor. Then another blow landed on the same spot, seeking to break through the steel protection. He struggled to twist his arm free as he growled, battling now with agony.

He switched which hand held his blade. The demon jerked hard. Yelaikav roared in pain and rage. Blood spurted from gaps in his armor. Lamahavi watched in horror as he stabbed his blade into the demon’s thorax. The light sizzled inside of it. The demon spasmed and jerked its head hard to the side.

Her husband’s arm ripped off above the elbow. The sharp mandibles had sheered through steel and bone. Blood spurted from the main artery running down his arm, splashing across its black carapace as it fell dying.

Yelaikav!” she screamed in fright.

The taiko drums beat so loud. Where was their help?

One-armed, Yelaikav leaped over the thrashing demon still clutching his severed limb. He swung his diamond blade into the next. He wasn’t as good with his left hand, but he danced anyways. Lamahavi grabbed her spear, her side bruised, her leg throbbing and bleeding. She struggled to stand, using her weapon as leverage.

Their child kicked as she gained her feet.

Her husband attacked with ferocity. He fought two of the demons now. Light flashed before him. It painted across the demons’ waxy carapaces. Glittered in their fractured eyes. One insectoid head fell free of its spindly neck while the other buried mandibles into the chest plates of his armor. Its sword thrust down, finding a gap in the protection girding his thigh. Blood spurted.

No!” She lunged forward to stab it and knock it off, but Yelaikav reversed his grip on his sword.

The blade of diamond light slammed into the creature’s back. With a twist, it melted through the waxy carapace and cut out the side. The demon spasmed, still squeezing his chest. He groaned, his armor plates driving into him.

He staggered and then collapsed. She dropped her spear and caught him. His weight, combined with his armor, was too much and she staggered, driven to her knees. She ended up with his head on her lap, staring up at her. The arterial spray slowed. More blood poured out of the rents in his side. The mandible had pierced through the bands of steel and into his abdomen, ripping into his organs.

Tears fell from her eyes and rained on his face.

Tears flowing down cheeks,” he croaked, reciting the first poem he’d ever written for her, “banished by a simple act, smiling to spite grief.”

She saw it in his eyes. He knew he was dying. Armor jangled. Shouts roared. Reinforcements surged to stem the breach. Too late to save her husband. So much of his blood had already spilled from him. Even as the tears fell down her cheeks, she forced herself to smile for Yelaikav, Songblade Knight.

Husband and father.

There it is,” he said. “Here . . . take . . .” His left hand, still holding his Songblade, reached for her. She took the bone handle from him. The tuning fork had stopped humming, jostled by his fall. She clutched it while her cheeks ached from holding the smile. “If it’s . . . a son . . .”

He’ll have your blade, Yelaikav,” she said, her shoulders shaking. Her left hand stroked his face.

His left hand cupped hers. His thumb caressed the edge of her lip curled in a smile. “Sorry.”

For what?” The grief begged to explode out of her. Holding the smile hurt. He slipped nearer and nearer to death. It wasn’t the end, she knew that, but it meant she’d live a long life without him. She had decades ahead of her before she passed on and would be reunited with him. She always knew her husband might one day give everything to protect the world. She just hoped he’d be lucky to grow old with her.

Foolish, maybe, but it was the only way she’d been able to endure being a soldier’s wife.

No, hope died with him.

Why are you sorry, Yelaikav? You fought bravely. I’m so proud of you.”

Won’t be there . . . for our . . . child.”

She or he will know about you.” Her throat burned as much as her cheeks. Selfish fear rippled through her.

Name our child with . . . Diamond and Orchid. Mix . . . me and you . . . Best parts of us.”

I will.” She turned her head and kissed his palm. “I love you, Yelaikav.”

My beautiful orchid. Blossom bright for our child.”

Watch us from the Diamond Heaven,” she whispered, fighting to hold the smile for him.

Love . . . you . . .”

He let out his final exhalation. His hand fell limp from her face.

The grief exploded out of her. She bent over, her pregnant belly pressed to his head. She screamed out the rage and pain, hating the demons for ravaging her world, and the folly of their ancestors for Shattering Reality to begin with. A good man had spilled his heart’s blood to hold the darkness at bay one breath longer. For one more generation to live.

For their child to grow up.

Her tears fell on his face as she rocked back and forth. She hugged him to her lap, consumed by the hole gouged into her heart. Diamond tears splashed across his unmoving features. They rolled over his bold nose. The scar on his cheek. The lips growing blue in death. His body cooled to her touch. His spirit departed, leaving her.

When she’d married Yelaikav, she’d known this day could come, but she wasn’t ready to face it. Not prepared at all for the pain. She cried over his body until they took her away, a stumbling corpse herself, dead inside as she clutched the bone handle of his Songblade.

Then she felt her child move inside her womb. Yelaikav had fought hard to keep both her and their child alive. The tragic purpose of life: the old die so the young may flourish. Generation after generation after generation.

Why did it have to be so soon? she thought as she stumbled in the supporting hands of the faceless women around her.

Wives of soldiers who dreaded the same doom blossoming in their own lives.

Alone in her house, kneeling on the bed she’d shared with her husband, she held the sword to her belly and thought of the name for their baby. Diamond, layika, and Orchid, mahavu. A character from both her name and Yelaikav’s.

If you’re a daughter . . . Layikavu. If you’re a son . . . Mahaikan,” she whispered. “You’ll be beautiful and strong.” She glanced up at the ceiling. Her tears were gone. She hoped Yelaikav could see her because . . .

She smiled. She would be strong for their child. It was a choice. She would grieve—how she would grieve—but Yelaikav’s child needed a mother to tell stories of him.

She found her journal. She had to record the last poem he’d ever told her with all the others. She would cherish every one of them. One day, their child would read them and know the beauty of Yelaikav’s heart.

She drew the first character with a graceful stroke of brush, painting black on stark white.

To be concluded…

Click here for Part 5!

Review: A Bard’s Lament by Poppy Kuroki

A Bard’s Lament

by Poppy Kuroki

Reviewed by JMD Reid

Ella and her sister Lucinda are trapped by crushing debt, forced to earn coin to pay off their dead mother’s bills. Luckily for Ella, she has a talent. She’s a bard.

Unlucky for Lucinda, she has only her body.

As Ella sings her songs, she struggles to take care of her sister while plotting their escape from their plight. But every day things grow worse and worse and worse.

Will all Ella have left is a lament?

Kuroki’s return to fantasy is amazing. This novelette is a powerful, emotional, and tragic tale of two sisters trapped in a prison of an uncaring society. Crushed beneath inequity, they are doing what they can to survive.

The prose is lyrical and moving. Kuroki slowly ratchets up the tension until you’re desperately tapping on the side of your eReader to read what happens next. With such a short space, she brings Ella and Lucinda to life, makes you care for them, and takes you on the journey of their lives.

Though a short read, it’s an impactful one!

You can buy A Bard’s Lament from Amazon.

Weekly Free Story – Lily’s Kiss

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Lily’s Kiss

Her Royal Highness, Princess Livia Bethany Izzabel Karzinoth, took a deep breath as her new boots crunched on the edge of the crenelation. She did her best not to look down at the plunging drop before her, her rope swaying like a long snake down the side of the tower’s black stone. The knot in her stomach twisted even tighter. Her breath quickened. Frozen air puffed before her, the night’s chill deepening, adding a bite that snapped at her pink cheeks. Already, frost rimed the tower’s edges.

Winter’s chill stole through the structure. On her climb up it, she felt those icy fingers digging through the leather pants and jerkin she wore, rough clothing she’d filched from the laundress and tailored in secret through long nights to fit her shorter, yet curvier, form than the squire who owned them.

Her moleskin gloved hands gripped the rope as she turned around, facing the tower’s center, her back to the vast expanse of air behind her. Her stomach squirmed as the heels of her feet hung off the edge.

I’m going to die,” she whispered to herself.

She could picture it now, her booted foot slipping on the icy stone, the alchemical treatment on the gloves failing, her grip slipping. The rope hissing by her, the tower’s stones streaking past, as she plunged head-first into the outer bailey below.

She stood atop the Raven Donjon, the highest tower of the castle. It was a remnant of the old keep torn down to build the larger, and more impressive, dwelling that housed the royal family. The stonemasons had left behind only the rearing shaft of black, an edifice only a fool would climb.

That’s me, thought the princess. A fool.

But she had no choice. A fortnight ago, she’d discovered love in an unexpected place. Not in the nobles who came from across the known world to court her, the dignitaries from a dozen courts, or the men of power and wealth all looking to forge an alliance with her father’s kingdom. Nor did she find passion in the arms of a rough soldier or a comely servant like many ladies of the court did, reveling in their sordid love behind their lord husbands’ backs.

She’d found love in the face of Lily, her new bedmaid.

It had blossomed so unexpectedly, swelling in her heart until it swallowed her body.

And when discovered abed, the evidence of their sapphic passion found on their flushed bodies and despoiled sheets, Princess Livia lost her Lily. The soldiers had taken the maid away, imprisoning her at the commands of Livia’s horrified parents. Already, the ink upon a betrothal contract dried, signing the princess over to another man who’d carry her away after their affair. Meanwhile, her poor Lily would rot in her cell high up in the Raven Donjon, condemned for loving Livia. Just picturing Lily quivering, freezing in her rags, propelled Princess Livia to step off the battlements and slide down her rope.

I’m going to die, ran over and over through the frightened princess’s thoughts. The rope hissed as it slid through her moleskin gloves. Treated with an alchemical formula she’d filched from the castle apothecary, the gloves gripped the rope in an unnatural way, almost sticking to the gray hemp even as she’d descended down it.

Now, however, she let out a shriek as she slid faster, her heart beating, fearing the treatment’s failure. Flashes of falling shot through her mind again. The darkness rushing up at her, the bone-crunching impact, then nothing. Death. But the idea of her poor Lily wilting away in the cell proved far, far stronger than the terror turning her insides into laundry churned by the fullers’ feet.

Livia was a fool, but her love gave her no choice.

The toes of her boots scraped down the mortared stone of the tower. She stared straight ahead, refusing to look down. Though she had a childhood full of romping through the castle, of climbing trees and smaller towers, never once had she dared the heights of the Raven Donjon. Not even her tomboyish enthusiasm had given the younger her the courage to attempt what she did tonight.

Her toes scraped down the wall until she hit a gap, her feet swinging into nothingness. She let out a squeak of fright as she swung into the opening, fearing a deadly plummet to the courtyard loomed. Then metal rang, her boot striking the barred window of a cell. A heartbeat later, her foot landed on the ledge of the window’s opening. She trembled, realizing she’d reached her destination.

With a sucked in breath, Livia lunged her hand forward and grasped an iron bar. She pulled herself from her rope to perch on the window’s ledge. She had half her feet planted on the stone, the other half hanging off over open air.

Again, she could feel the distance yawning between her and the courtyard’s stones far below.

Lily,” she hissed, peering through the darkness. The chill from the iron bled through her gloves. Her heart thundered in her chest. “Lily, it’s me.”

Nothing answered her.

Did I climb down to the wrong window? Did I misjudge her cell’s location?

A panicked flutter rippled through the princess. She’d carefully planned everything the last fortnight. The moment her parents had stolen Lily from her, she’d launched into her daring rescue. She’d tried to be the model daughter for them when she’d come of age. She’d put away her boys’ clothes. She’d stopped romping through the swampy edges of the moat or playing rough games with the scullion boys. She wore the restraining gowns her mother ordered sewn for her, draped herself in jewels gifted by suitors, wore the unguents and perfumes proffered by servants, allowed the greasy makeup to paint her face, and sat for hours while her hairdresser tamed her dark locks. She would have endured it all if they could have let her have Lily. She would have gladly married any man, done her wifely duty and bore him heirs, so long as she could have her bedmaid with her. To have the woman she loved to keep her company, to share lonely nights, and with whom to enjoy sweet kisses and tender caresses.

But the bitter words her mother spoke to her that night echoed in her head . . .

*

Lady Sun and Father Earth made everything in opposites,” Queen Bethany lectured to the princess.

Livia huddled in the dressing gown stuffed on her after they took Lily from her, hugging her legs as she sat in the middle of her rumpled bed. Candles lit the room, the light dancing upon the stern matron’s face. Tears stained the princess’s cheeks as she ached for her bedmaid’s return.

Day and night,” continued her mother, “white and black, order and chaos, man and woman. They are meant to complement each other. Without opposites, there would only be bland sameness. You were born to be with a man.”

The words struck sparks inside the princess. It offended her that her mother saw only filth in the beauty she made with Lily. Livia bounced onto her knees on the bed, glaring defiance at the queen. “I was born to be with Lily!” the princess raged. “I love her! She loves me! What is so wrong about that? What crime have we committed? It’s not like I bedded a scullion! I just shared something . . . something wonderful with my friend.”

The queen shook her head, lip curling in disgust. “There was nothing wonderful about what we found. It was perversion. We are blessed to rule, Livia. The compliment of those who serve. How can we disrupt the order Mother Sun and Father Sky gave to us? We have to be exemplars!”

Like you and the captain of the guard?” spat the princess. “What part of the natural order is cuckolding my fath—”

The queen’s slap snapped the princess’s head to the side. “You understand nothing about being a woman. I never should have tolerated even a moment of your foolishness as a girl. Look what it has done. Running around like a boy has warped you into thinking you are one.”

I’m a woman,” the princess hissed. “So I do understand just why you bed the captain of the guard. At least I love Lily.”

You are too young to even understand what that word means.” The queen leaned forward, seizing the princess’s chin. “When you’ve brought life into the world through blood and pain, then talk to me about love. Until then, you are my daughter, and you shall never see that little strumpet again! I will find you a husband so you can do your duty to him and to our family.”

The queen whirled, skirts flowing like an angry tide, and marched from the room. Alone, the princess simmered. Thought. Plotted.

*

Memory of that argument gave Princess Livia fire as she peered through the darkened cell. “Lily, are you there?” I’ll crawl across this entire tower. I’ll find you even if I break my neck doing it.

She grabbed her rope and swung out from the alcove, abandoning the empty cell. Anger swelled in her for making such an error. It could ruin everything. She couldn’t afford to die. She had to rescue her sweet Lily. Nothing else mattered.

Swallowing her fear, Livia walked herself along the outer wall of the tower, her feet braced against the stones, the rope creaking as she scurried sideways towards the next window. She spotted it as she walked along the outside of the tower. Above, the rope scraped on stone.

Mother Sun, shine upon me, she prayed, and don’t let my rope fray and break. For Lily. You’ve seen how sweet she is.

The image of her lover swelled in the princess’s mind, that round face framed by cornsilk hair, eyes as blue as the sea, as azure as the sky. Despite her common birth, Lily possessed the natural grace that a princess should embody. Dainty, delicate cheeks paling at the sight of blood, squeamish around mud. Sometimes, Livia imagined a horrible mistake must have happened. That the pair were switched at birth, the universe’s proper order messed up again.

First, you create me to love women, she prayed to Mother Sun, then you give me the personality of a peasant and not a princess. Why would you do that?

She didn’t understand. It confused her why everyone preached the order of creation when she felt so alien from it, so different from what was expected. When she’d met Lily, she finally understood just how flawed she was, how much the Gods had botched the casting of her form into the mold of life.

But she didn’t care about why she was created wrong. It didn’t matter now. Not when she found someone just as flawed, just as alien, just as out of place as her. Someone who understood. As she shuffled across the tower’s rounded exterior, the memory of their first kiss swallowed her thoughts.

*

I’m so sorry,” Lily gasped, jerking her head back from the princess’s. “I didn’t meant to do that. It just . . . You’re just . . . so beautiful.”

Livia blinked in wonder, still feeling the touch of her bedmaid’s lips. Though they’d only known each other for a month—her last bedmaid had married another servant—they’d fast become friends despite the difference in their stations.

As was usual, they shared the princess’s bed tonight so Lily could be on hand to provide for the princess’s any need. As they talked about idle things, they had rolled onto their sides to face each other. The contents of their conversation had utterly evaporated from Livia’s mind by that quick, chaste kiss.

How could she remember anything as she sat their trembling, awakened to her true self? Everything in her mind crystallized who she was. Her eyes widened as she stared at Lily, studying her with new sight, and seeing her as more than her new friend. She saw that opposite she’d searched for to complete her and couldn’t find among the men like she’d expected. All those suitors she’d politely suffered. All those times staring at the guards training and trying to understand why the other courtly girls and servants giggled at their sweaty, shirtless bodies.

It all became clear, Mother Sun’s illumination exposing the truth.

It’s okay,” Livia answered, her words strained by awe. “It wasn’t . . . distasteful. It was . . . rather nice.”

Relief burned across Lily’s face. Her eyes trembled. “Thank Father Earth’s gentle ground. I am truly sorry. I just couldn’t help myself.”

You were afraid I’d be offended?” That hurt Livia. “You never have to be afraid of me.” She took Lily’s hand, scooting a little closer, her nightgown rustling about her skin. “I would never hurt you. Even if you planted a thousand kisses upon my lips.”

Lily squeezed Livia’s hand back. Trembling, the maid asked, “You mean that, Your Highness?”

Livia.” The princess smiled. “Didn’t I tell you to call me that?”

It’s just . . .” Lily scooted closer. “It’s such a dream. Being with you. Every day, I pinch myself.”

Because you’re living in the castle?” frowned Livia.

No. Because of you. That I get to be with you. You make everything so much brighter.”

Me?”

You’re so elegant.”

I’m always tripping over the hem of my skirt.”

You move with such grace.”

So gracefully into a vase or a plinth holding a bust.” The princess grinned. “And then crash.”

Your hair is lustrous.”

If you like horsehair.”

Princess!” Lily said with some heat. “Stop that!”

Livia blinked at the outburst. “What?”

You are so beautiful. You don’t have horsehair. And you’re not so wide that you crash into anything. You walk with wonderful grace. Don’t hate yourself. It’s terrible.”

Livia became even more confused. “Why does it make you so angry?”

Because I don’t like anyone insulting you. Not even yourself. I . . .” She swallowed her words. “I love you, princess. That’s why I kissed you. That’s why I’m so happy and think this is a dream. I know it’s wrong. I shouldn’t say this because it means you’ll hate me, and you’ll send me away from you, but I just had to blurt out what was in my heart. To tell you how I felt even if you—”

Princess Livia kissed her bedmaid. And it wasn’t a quick, chaste kiss.

*

They had two weeks of beautiful nights before that horrid evening when they were caught. Princess Livia wanted them back. So she kept working around the tower, her arms threatening to rip free from her shoulder sockets. She gripped the rope, ignored the cold, and moved with bouncing, swinging steps closer and closer to the next cell window.

She was almost there when her boots slipped on the icy surface as she went to make her next swinging leap. She let out a startled yelp, soles scraping on stone. She found purchase for a heartbeat and made a mad lunge for the window ledge. Her fingers stretched wide. She realized how dumb this was. If she missed . . .

The courtyard was so far below.

With a squeak of relief, she snagged the icy lip of the alcove. Her alchemical gloves gripped. Breath exploded from her lips. Her feet scrabbled against mortared stone. She found purchase and hauled herself into the window’s alcove. She pressed herself against the bars, clutching them, her entire body shaking as she peered inside, praying to see her lover.

That she didn’t risk death for nothing.

Lily!” she hissed, her heart thundering in her chest, threatening to break her ribcage. Her entire body trembled. “Please, are you there, Lily?”

Shadows stirred in the room. “Livia?”

Mother Sun’s blessed light,” gasped Livia, relief flooding through her.

What are you doing?” The shadow rose and darted to the window. Silvery light splashed onto a frail figure, face gaunt and wan, blonde hair lank and swallow, darker than Livia remembered.

She’s so dirty, the princess realized, staring at her lover in the thin nightgown she wore. The same garment that had half-clad her body the night they were caught.

Tears burned Livia’s eyes. “What did they do to you, sweet flower?”

I’m fine,” Lily said, her thin arms reaching through the bars to touch the wool sleeve of the shirt the princess wore beneath her jerkin. “They haven’t done anything to me.”

Did they feed you?”

A crust of bread and a bowl of soup each evening,” she said. “It’s more than enough. But what are you doing? You’ll fall. This is foolish, Your Highness.”

Don’t call me that!” The anger surged through Livia.

Lily flinched.

I’m sorry,” the princess said, grabbing her lover’s thin arm. “I didn’t mean to yell. I had no idea they treated you this poorly.”

She shrugged, looking resigned to her fate. Livia’s heart broke.

They tell me you’re to be married,” the girl continued. “That I’ll be released once you’ve left with your husband.”

Well, I’m releasing you tonight,” the princess said. “You won’t spend another heartbeat in here.”

A sad smile spread on Lily’s face. She leaned forward to the bars, kissing Livia through the gap. “Another sweet dream. I’ll savor it tonight.”

Every night,” Livia insisted. “You’re coming with me.” She shifted around, pulling off the pack slung on her shoulders. From it, she produced a tied bundle of clothing. “Here, for you. Put it on.”

And then what, Liv?” Lily glanced behind her at her cell door. “Am I to break down a stout oak door and overpower my guards? Or am I to shrink and squeeze through the bars?”

The princess winked. “Leave those to me.”

Lily took the bundle from the princess, frowning. “What are you up to?” Then she groaned. “You’re not playing with that alchemical stuff again?”

They cured your pimples,” Livia objected.

And made my skin peel for a week.” But a smile touched Lily’s lips, such radiance in the darkness of the cell.

Livia grinned back, just so happy to see that beauty again on her lover’s face. She could stare at her for eternity, just drinking in that smile, the simple joy in her round face. But you can’t stare at her like a mooncalf all night. They’ll start a search for her come dawn.

Hurry and change,” the princess said, pulling out a glass vial from a pocket. A plug, also glass, stoppered the end, sealed shut by wax. The aqua regal in there could devour through the sternest stone but couldn’t harm fragile glass.

Lily moved deeper into the cells. She turned her back, drawing up the hem of her nightgown, exposing her pale thighs. She paused, throwing a look over her shoulder. “Don’t look, Liv!”

I’ve seen you naked before,” the princess said. “We used to bathe together. And do other things.” A naughty grin spread on her lips.

Just . . . Please.”

Fine, fine,” Livia said. “Just hurry. I’ll focus on getting you out of here. I won’t look. May Mother Sun blind me and Father Earth swallow me if I do.”

As Livia worked the crystal stopper off the vial, breaking the wax seal in the process, she heard the rustle of clothing. She bit her lip, forcing her eyes to stare at the bar. With care, she dribbled the caustic liquid along the bar near the top. It hissed and bubbled, eating into the metal. It ran in hissing lines, etching furrows into the iron. She did the same on the next bar, careful to keep it away from her moleskin gloves.

She shifted on the edge, breathing heavily. Heat washed across her face from the alchemical reaction. A smell, not unlike rust mixed with vinegar, assaulted her nose. She wrinkled it while holding the vial near the bottom of the bar and tipping it over so the contents dribbled out and—

A naked back almost glowed in the dark. Lashes striped it, half-healed, puckered and raw.

Livia froze. Liquid hissed and bubbled, stone groaning as the aqua regal poured out of her vial onto the stone around the bar, forming a caustic puddle. Anger swirled through the princess. Her hand gripped the bar, leather creaking as it rubbed on iron.

Then Lily donned the wool shirt, hiding her injuries.

What did they do to you!” hissed the princess.

I’m fine,” Lily said, her head lowered. “And you promised not to look.”

What did they do? Tell me!”

Lily stiffened. “Yes, Your Highness.”

Her words slapped Livia again. She tried so hard not to be imperious with Lily, to let them be equals, but her upbringing always reared up in her anger. Those barking commands burst from her lips. A lifetime of giving orders to everyone save her parents was not an easy habit to break.

Please, my sweet Lily,” she said, her voice lower. “They hurt you. Why?”

To purify me. A nun came to scourge my sin out of me. But I wouldn’t renounce my love for you.”

Tears fell down Livia’s cheeks. “Why do you love me so much that you would endure such pain for me? I’m not worth it.”

Of course you’re worth it!” Lily whirled around, staring with such shining eyes. “Because it’s you!” She touched above her breast through her wool shirt. “Because you dwell in here. They’d have to cut my heart out to get rid of you.”

You’d die for me?” Livia gasped in awe. How do I ever repay that?

Aren’t you risking death for me?” Lily pulled up the leather britches up her skinny legs. “You’re perched on a window high above the ground. You could slip and fall to your death.”

Don’t remind me.” The princess shuddered, suddenly feeling all that empty air between her and the ground. “If I think about it, I’ll freeze up again and . . .”

The sound of bubbling hisses drew her attention. She gasped, realizing almost all the aqua regal had poured out around the middle bar, eating a smoking depression into the stone. The bar she clutched wobbled in the center of the puddle as she shifted. She looked at her vial and breathed a sigh of relief.

She had enough regal aqua left to eat through the other bar. Or so she hoped. Lily would need two removed for her to squeeze out to freedom despite how slender she’d become. Livia poured the last drops of the hungry liquid onto the other bar. Then she tossed the empty vial over her shoulder. She shuddered, regretting that as it took a dozen heartbeats before it hit the ground with a shattering tinkle.

Just don’t think about how high we are,” she muttered beneath her breath as she jerked on the first bar. She pulled it free with ease, the bottom end popping out of the pool of acid, the top snapping free. Not wanting to make more noise, she thrust it into the cell and reached past the remaining bars to lower it to the floor.

You really are amazing, Liv,” Lily said as she finished lacing up the stout boots. The girl looked almost like a young boy in her men’s clothing. Only her hair was far too long and her face far too feminine for the resemblance to be more than superficial.

If she had my big breasts, she could never pass for a man, thought Livia.

With a twisting jerk, she tried to pull the final bar free. The top came off without any problem, breaking free with a crunching snap. But the bottom only twisted, the metal stretching but staying whole. She took a hard grip on it and tugged hard, heaving with an oxen grunt.

It came free with a clanging pop.

She gasped as she suddenly jerked backward towards the empty air behind her. The soles of her boots slipped on the icy ledge. She felt herself teetering, windmilling her arms to keep from toppling backward. Her heart shot up into her throat as she leaned back.

The ground swam so far below.

Don’t fall,” Lily gasped, rushing to the window. She thrust her arms through the opening and hugged Livia about the waist before hauling her from the precipice.

The princess seized a still-whole bar, arresting her dangerous lean. Her entire body shook. Her blood pounded through her, feeling colder than the air around her. She squeezed her eyes shut, sucking in deep breaths. The back of her heels still stuck out over the lip.

Okay,” Livia said, her voice brittle. She struggled to gather her thoughts. “You need to . . . uh . . . The, uh . . .”

The what?” Lily asked.

Livia took a deep breath, struggling to regather her thoughts scattered like a flock of songbirds fleeing the cat which jumped into their midst. “The rope! You have to tie the rope about your waist.” She spoke swiftly now, trying to mask her fear with activity. “Okay?”

Rope?” Lily asked.

Livia pulled a shorter length of rope out of her pouch and handed Lily one end. The other she wrapped about her waist and knotted it. Then she knotted it a second time. Lily’s fingers fumbled at the rope, clumsy in her moleskin gloves. But she managed to cinch the rope about her, squeezing the baggy clothing tight to her narrow waist.

The princess checked the knot just to make sure. It’s not tying off an embroidery or a seem.

Okay, watch that puddle,” Livia said as she took Lily’s hand. The acid had eaten half a foot into the stone, leaving a pockmarked depression. Little crags riddled it where the aqua regal had eaten deeper into the softer veins in the rock. “It’ll melt through your boots and your gloves.”

Lily gave a tight nod.

With a heave, the princess pulled Lily onto the ledge. It grew crowded with both girls clutching at the bars. The princess thrust the longer rope into Lily’s hand. The girl swallowed and looked down. She let out a squeak of fear.

Oh, no, she’s going to freeze up on me and—

But Lily gripped the rope and slid down it, clutching it with her feet with surprising skill. The cord bound between them played out as the princess followed, hugging the hemp and abandoning the relative safety of the ledge.

The rope swung away from it. She gasped as the tower blurred before her. Lily shrieked beneath her as they swung like the bob dangling at the end of a carpenter’s plumb. Her stomach swam as she gripped the rope with her treated gloves.

She choked on her scream.

The exterior of the tower scraped along her arms. Then she gasped, striking one stone which protruded a little more. She spun about. Lily squeaked in fright beneath her. Livia hit back into the tower, bouncing a second time. Her arm ached. She hugged the rope, her dark hair flying out around her face.

And then they dangled beneath the rope’s anchor point, swaying back and forth like a trembling pendulum. Livia let out an explosive breath, her entire body numb from fright. She hugged the rope, her eyes squeezed shut. Sucking in deep breaths, she vowed to never climb anything again.

Liv!” whimpered Lily. “What just happened?”

Part of the plan,” the princess said. I should have realized we’d swing like that! She forced herself to look down. “Mostly. Are you okay?”

Her lover just nodded, lips sealed tight.

Okay, it should be fine. Just slide down. The gloves should keep you on the rope. But you’re tied to me if you do fall.”

Lily smiled at that. “I know you have me.”

I love you,” Livia added. Just in case.

Then the princess and her lover slid down the rope. It rasped against the gloves and the leather of her trousers. She hugged her legs about the cord. The rope was their life. If she slipped, they would both die. She shuddered as they descended faster and faster.

Lily gasped beneath.

Then Livia crashed into Lily. They fell in a tangle of limbs on the paving stones of the courtyard. The princess lay atop her paramour. Lily squirmed beneath while hysterical giggles burst from Livia’s mouth.

We did it!” Her voice echoed through the courtyard. “Oh, Lily, we did it!”

You’re . . . crushing . . . me . . .” choked Lily.

Gasping, Livia rolled onto her back. Lily sucked in grateful breaths. But she still smiled. With Livia’s help, she stood up, gazing at the Raven Donjon, their rope swaying down the side like a narrow braid descending down a giant’s dark back.

Tears fell down Lily’s cheeks. She shook. Then threw herself at Livia. The princess hugged her trembling lover. Hot lips kissed at her neck, wet tears rubbed on her cheek. She rocked Lily in a tight embrace.

You’re free,” the princess cooed. “You won’t have to go back. My parents will never hurt you again!”

Where will we go?”

Will cross the hills and enter the neighboring kingdom. I have plenty of jewels and coins stashed in my saddlebag. It’ll be money to let us live in comfort and safety out of my parent’s reach. They won’t send soldiers past the Menhirs. Father respects them.”

I—”

A shuddering crack snapped from above, cutting off Lily’s words. Then something boomed and crashed down the tower. An avalanche of falling stone slammed into the courtyard nearby. Shards of stone hissed through the air. Livia gasped, her cheek flaring numb. Dust billowed from the rubble. She touched her face, and felt blood.

What was that?” squeaked Lily.

Livia groaned. “The ledge. The acid ate through the stone and some of the wall came down and—”

A horn blared an alarm from the top of the tower. Torches danced in the opening of Lily’s cell, the guards checking the ruckus. Fear struck the princess. Across the castle, she heard other shouts. She seized her lover’s hand and yanked her towards the nearby stables.

Hurry!” shouted the princess, her insides twisting. She’d expected to have hours and hours of night to ride as far from her parents’ castle as possible.

If we’re swift and get out the postern before anyone realizes it, we still might make it.

Hope kept her running, dragging Lily behind her.

They burst into the stables. Horses whinnied and nickered, nervous hooves stamping. Livia threw open the last two stall doors, the horses in them already saddled before she made her climb. Buttercup, her dun-yellow mare, snorted, tail flicking.

It’s okay,” Livia said, grabbing her bridle. “Come on, Buttercup. It’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Buttercup reared, jerking reins out of Livia’s grasp. The horse’s dark eyes were wild from the trumpeting horns. The princess stroked her horse’s neck, peering into scared eyes. She felt pulse pounding beneath her hide. But her soothing touched calmed the mare.

How’s Dancer?”

As placid as ever,” Lily said, leading out the roan mount she normally rode when the princess took her morning excursions. “I don’t think anything can spook her.”

Good, we need to get to the postern gate and—”

Well, what do we have here?” a voice growled. “Couple of horse thieves?”

Livia whirled to see the hulking Karson, Captain of the Guard, enter the stable wearing a leather jerkin hastily donned, his muscular legs bare beneath. He marched forward on boots laced tight. A sword glittered in his hand, its point long.

We’re not horse thieves,” Livia objected.

“‘Course you are,” he grinned, his bold nose almost quivering, as sharp as the beak of a hawk about to tear into the rabbit. “You probably purloined the queen’s jewels, didn’t you? Sent me out to find them, she did. Wouldn’t even let me get dressed when she saw them missin’. Then that piece of stone came crashin’ down, and I seen you two runnin’ in here. I knew you two was the thieves.”

Anger boiled through the princess. He came from my mother’s bed! Why can she do what she likes, but I have to be proper? Why can’t I have my lover?

Get out of the way, Captain Karson,” she said in a ringing voice. “Or you shall be in so much trouble if you even harm a hair on my head.”

The man snorted. “And why would that be, thief?”

Livia’s eyes widened in realization. He doesn’t recognize me in the dark. In these clothes.

Her gaze darted around the stable, searching for a weapon. She spotted a farrier’s hammer hanging from the wall. She snagged it up, gripping it in both hands. The small, iron head felt so puny compared to the captain’s sword.

Oh, ho, got a brave thief here,” he growled.

Liv, don’t!” Lily gasped.

I won’t let them hurt you!” the princess snarled, her anger too great to care. She lunged in to strike.

The sword hissed.

Though angry, her instincts of preservation surged through her. She skittered back away from the blade. It cut the air before her, flashing silver bright. A blur that left strands of her black hair severed and dancing through the air.

Livia’s heart hammered. Cold pumped through her veins, dousing her anger. The man snarled, recovering from his swing, and thrust the sword at her guts. She dove to the side, rolled across the hay-strewn ground of the stable, and gained her feet only to crash into a stall door with her shoulder.

A horse neighed in fear as she bounced off, stumbling to keep from falling on her face.

Liv! No!”

Lily’s warning gave the princess a heartbeat to act. She ducked low. The sword crashed into the stall door above her. It splintered the wood, caving in several planks, and lodged in the thick, oak frame. The captain of the guard grunted and planted his left boot on the stall. His naked thigh bulged as he struggled to haul his weapon free.

Livia acted.

She slammed the hammer into the guard captain’s right knee with all the force she could muster. Hardened steel crashed into capping patella. A loud, splintering snap echoed through the stables. The shiver of the blow rattled down her arm.

Karson bellowed in pain. Rage twisted his face. He tottered as his left arm swung like a pendulum. Princess Livia, flushed with the triumph of landing a blow on the loathsome man, gasped as the back of his fist slammed into her face.

She reeled. The world spun around her. Her vision went blurry as she crashed into a pile of sacks of millet. She draped over them, staring at the rush-strewn ground. The entire side of her face throbbed. For a moment, everything doubled as she struggled to think. To move. To do anything with her body.

Lily screamed, drawing Livia’s addled attention. Words poured out of the frightened girl’s mouth, her hand pointing wildly, stabbing the air. Livia tried to parse her lover’s meaning, the sounds all blurring together with the bell ringing in the stable. She shook her head, her brain rattling in her skull. A queasy writhe gripped her stomach.

She looked in the direction Lily pointed.

Karson gripped his sword in both hands. He stood, putting his weight on his left leg, his right knee swelling red. With a mighty heave, he wrenched his sword out of the ruined stall door. He staggered around, sliding on his right foot more than picking it up.

Baleful eyes fixed on the princess.

Oh, no,” she said, words slurred. For the first time in her life, Princess Livia witnessed murder in a man’s eyes.

Her body refused to obey her, as if the blow had severed the connection between mind and flesh. She could feel the tendrils reconnecting, her finger twitching first, her head shaking. But she couldn’t stand. Everything still felt so numb, fuzzed by the blow. Her stomach writhed more. Bile burned the back of her throat.

I’m going to die, she realized as Karson raised his sword high into the air, the blade’s edge gleaned razor bright.

And then the stirrup flew through the air, aimed square at Karson’s face. It crashed across his blunt, masculine features. Blood spurted from a twisted nose. The stirrup bounced to the ground as the brute stumbled back.

Putting all his weight on his right leg.

His cry of agony galvanized Princess Livia. Lily’s desperate throw bought her a few more precious heartbeats of life. She had to capitalize on it. She had to rescue them both. If Karson cut her down, his next stroke would end the life of the fearful blonde girl relying on Livia for protection.

She would not let anything worse happen to her Lily.

Poxed whores!” bellowed the guard captain. Snorting like a wild boar, he drew his blade back for the attack to end Livia’s life.

She acted, hugging the sack of millet to her. She stood up and whirled around, millet cradled to her chest. He snarled, his sword flashing down on a curving arc that would end with her cut in half, bleeding on the floor.

She thrust the sack of grain out before her like a shield.

The sword slammed into her makeshift defense. The burlap rasped against her moleskin gloves. If she grasped them with her bare hands, the force of his swing would have ripped the sack out of her hand. Then the end of his sword would still have hurtled down and found her vulnerable skull.

But the alchemical treatment held. Her gloves kept a hold on the sack, withstanding the force of his blow. The sword cut deep into the millet, but the densely packed grain slowed the impact. The sword embedded only halfway through it. Seeds spilled out around it, pouring like a brown waterfall to puddle between their feet.

Sun-blinded bitch!” he spat. He jerked his sword out of the bag. More grains poured out as he drew back for his next attack.

Liv!” screamed Lily in desperate fear. “No!”

Princess Livia thrust the sack of grains before her. Her arms extended. Spilling millet, the burlap tumbled through the air as Karson raised his sword up high. Though not a powerful throw, it still struck him in the bleeding nose, unbalancing the guard captain worse than Lily’s stirrup had.

This time, when Karson put all his weight on his right knee, his turning body torquing the joint, a sickening tear wrenched the air. Bone popped through the skin. Agony exploded from his mouth. He toppled back, hitting the ground hard, sword falling from his hands. He clutched at his ruined knee, grunting through the obvious pain.

Livia darted forward and kicked his sword across the rush strewn ground and away from his hand. It tumbled into the stall he’d hacked open.

Mount up!” the princess shouted.

You earth-cursed bitch!” spat the guard. “I’ll gut you!” He lunged for her leg. “And strangle the whore-life out of you! Poxed slattern!”

She ignored him, dashing for her horse. He struggled to stand, but agony screamed from his mouth again. Livia savored it, triumphing over the defeat of this horrid man. She swung herself up into her horse’s saddle while Lily mounted hers with ease.

Ride!” the princess screamed, exhilaration beating in her heart.

She felt alive as she heeled her horse. Her steed galloped forward. The guard captain cursed, rolling to the side and out of the way of their escaping mounts. They burst out into the night, Livia guiding her horse to the nearby postern gate she’d left open. A narrow opening, just wide enough for a single rider to duck through.

She threw a glance to ensure Lily followed, then plunged through it, leaned low over the neck of Buttercup. Men shouted behind them as she let out a giddy laugh, bursting out of the castle’s outer walls and to sweet freedom. She wheeled her horse to the right, charging for the road that led from the castle and around the town that lay at its feet. Lily spurred her horse abreast with Livia.

The two young women flashed each other smiles. Lily’s blonde hair streamed behind her. The clouds broke above them. Silver shimmered in Lily’s tresses. Livia shuddered, her heart thudding in triumph.

Hooves drummed on hard-packed dirt. Horns sounded behind them. Torches burned on Karzinoth Castle’s parapet. She knew that guards and knights even now rushed to their horses to give chase. The princess and her lover had to ride as swift as the setting moon.

They had to reach the borders of her father’s kingdom. Once past the marking stone, his soldiers could not follow without risking a war.

Livia!” Lily shouted, looking over her shoulder at the castle’s gray walls. It sat up on the hill they rode down, almost glowing in the moonlight against the blackness of the sky. The drawbridge rattled down across the moat that protected the front of the castle.

Just don’t stop riding!” Livia said, leaning low over her mount. “We can reach the border by morning.”

I won’t stop!” Lily said.

Pursuit sounded horns behind them. Metal clattered. Hooves thundered on the road. Livia’s heart drummed as the night raced by them. Stars wheeled above them. The silvery face of the moon descended towards the horizon. She hardly felt the icy kiss of night on her cheeks against the heat burning inside of her.

Her jaw throbbed, her face swollen and puffy. But she didn’t care. It was a small price to pay to save her Lily. To their right, the horizon pinked. Dawn’s promise gave her hope. They just had to keep going. Their horses didn’t carry men in armor now, but light women. They had the advantage.

So long as they didn’t falter.

As the horizon grew brighter and brighter, the land came into resolution. They tore past fields of winter wheat and barley. Already, the peasants were out working. They paused, leaning on fences to watch the two female fugitives fleeing the company of knights.

A ragged cheer rose from some, waving them on.

They’re celebrating our love, a part of Livia thought even as another, more cynical part of her, said, They’re enjoying the spectacle. I bet they’ll cheer just as loud if we’re caught and hung.

Liv!” Lily shouted, pointing ahead with enthusiasm.

The border stones lay ahead. Two great menhirs rose on either side of the road. They were ancient and said to be the bones of Father Earth himself demarcating the boundaries of the hundred kingdoms, dividing the world of men into neat parcels.

They weren’t always respected, but Livia knew this pair was.

Come on!” she urged her mount, putting heels to flank.

Buttercup snorted and neighed, neck lathered with exertion. Livia’s heart twisted with excitement as their freedom came closer and closer. They flew across the plain. The menhirs, dark stones thrusting three times the height of a man and covered in strange runes, loomed closer.

The knights’ thunder dwindled.

She threw a look over her shoulder, seeing them rein up. Defeated.

The two girls raced across the border, passing through the menhirs’ shadows. Their laughter resounded through the air. Huge grins burst across their lips. Tears fell down both their cheeks as they followed the road winding into a new kingdom, escaping from the oppression of the old.

Out of sight of the knights, not wanting to tempt their pursuers into violating the border by taunting them with their love, the two girls reined up. They threw themselves off their horses. They came together, limbs engulfing the other, lips meeting in sweet love. Despite the swollen pain in her face, Livia treasured each and every kiss seasoned with the salt of their tears. Her heart burst for joy in her chest as they held each other. The sun’s first rays peeked over the horizon, falling golden on the lovers.

They shared their joy, their hearts, their lives. Livia clutched Lily tight. No matter what the priests taught or the kings said, she would love her Lily. She would savor every moment with her. They would forge a life together. A life of their own choosing.

I love you, Lily,” the crying princess said when they broke that sweet kiss.

Lily sniffed, pressing her forehead to Livia’s. “Always.”

The END

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Death rides in the Cyclone!

The demonic Stormriders are the greatest threat…

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When the storm clouds come, what will Ary do?

You’ll be enthralled by this epic fantasy story set in the skies above the Storm because the characters will keep you hooked.

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The Soldier’s Wife 3: The Beauty of Life

The Soldier’s Wife 3: The Beauty of Life

 

The Third Day of Autumn, the Three Thousand and Forty-Ninth Year of the Kingdom

Lamahavi always enjoyed her turn to watch the young boys at play. Today felt extra special.

She couldn’t stop smiling as she sat at the edge of the small courtyard full of sand where the young boys play-fought. It wasn’t serious training, but wild and unorganized. None were more than seven summers, when they would begin receiving more disciplined lessons in sword and spearplay. Now, they clacked their toy weapons together as they laughed and shouted and ran. They wore their yukatas of brown or dark blues or grays, the hems worn shorter than a girl’s, leaving their legs mostly bare as they darted to and fro.

A chaos of shouts and flying sand and laughter echoed. She smiled as she tried to watch them all.

The dangers of living in the Ringed City never felt so far away as when she watched the children play. Her season here had taught her to treasure any moments of peace she found. To live in the moment. Death fell with a swiftness here. Since she’d arrived, five Songblade Knights had died.

It was a bad summer when a class graduating from the Academy of the Shining Blade never produced more than fifteen. This year had only nine, including her husband.

The Songblade Knights couldn’t lower their standards in their fight against the demons. They held back the vile monsters who managed to breach the Diamond Ward that always glittered above her head, a distorting geometry thrusting into the blue autumn sky.

Lamahavi didn’t know why she enjoyed watching the young boys play more than the girls. Maybe she saw her husband in them. He had a mischievous nature, his inner child not destroyed by the weight of responsibility nor the fighting he’d already endured serving the world.

Her Yelaikav was once like these boys, trading blows with sticks, kicking up sand with his sandaled feet, laughing with other children. The girls had their own play with dolls and playing house and creating elaborate history for their toys. Those could be fun to participate in, but Lamahavi could just sit down for hours watching the boys’ exuberance race from one end to the other.

CRACK!

The loud crack of wood snapped her attention to one group. A boy, Vipaloza’s son, fell to the ground. He clutched his hand to his chest, his small body trembling. The other boys, all looking six and possessing a year or more of growth on the lad, laughed at him.

Going to cry, Lozehazi?” one taunted. “Just cracked your knuckles.”

The young boy on the ground shook his head with defiance even as the tears formed. Lamahavi could see them growing big in the child’s eyes. She rose and smoothed down the tight skirt of the flowery yukata she wore. Autumn had begun, but the days were still warm enough to wear lighter robes. Her sandaled feet whisked across the sand.

Some of the boys groaned. “See, you got a woman involved,” sneered the eldest. He kicked sand at Lozehazi. “You’re too weak to be a true knight’s son.”

Hey!” she barked at the boy, clapping her hands together. She’d also learned not to show a hint of fear before the children. They could be as vicious as a pack of wild hounds sniffing after an unattended baby. “What sort of knight kicks sand at his brother instead of offering him a hand to stand?”

He’s not my brother!” declared the eldest boy, Yemonu. He was the son of a knight in a different squad from Yelaikav’s. “He’s a sniveling baby. Look at him; he’s crying. It was just a little rap on the knuckles.”

Lamahavi arched her eyebrows at him. She stood over the boy, looming with the height her Easterner blood gave her. She had her brown hair pinned in a mass of braided curls held in place by her favorite hair comb given to her as a wedding gift by Yelaikav. Her deep-lavender eyes lanced down at Yemonu.

I asked you a question, boy,” she said, her tone cold.

He shifted in his place, feet worrying a depression into the ground. The other boys with him were slowly backing away to melt off amid the others.

Well?”

A knight wouldn’t do that, Madam Lamahavi,” he muttered, not meeting her eyes. “It’s just . . . he’s so small and weak.”

So you’re a bully?” She didn’t hide her disgust. “What an honorable knight you’ll make. I am sure your father will be proud of a son that hurts those weaker than him instead of standing steadfast in their defense.”

The boy’s brown cheeks darkened. He trembled.

Are you a bully, Yemonu?” she asked.

No, Madam Lamahavi.”

So, what are you going to do?”

He thrust out his hand at Lozehazi and helped the younger boy to stand. Tears had formed tracks down dusty cheeks. The boy looked down, still rubbing at his injured hand. The older boy muttered an apology and then raced off.

I am weak,” mumbled Lozehazi.

She sighed and sank down to look at him at eye level. She put on the most motherly smile she had, one she hadn’t much practice giving. She was young, only married since early summer. She produced a silk handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed the end against her tongue before she began wiping at his face.

Why do you think you’re weak?” she asked him with patience. The boys were shouting around her, back to playing.

I’m so small,” he muttered. “I’m not as strong as the others.”

He’s big for his age,” said Lamahavi. “And there’s no shame in being small.”

I can’t be a knight if I’m small.”

She paused. “You have plenty of time to grow up. And even if you can’t be a knight, there are other ways to serve. I’m not a knight. Don’t I do important things?”

You’re a woman.”

Her brow furrowed. She cupped his chin and lifted his gaze. “I am a person. Every one of us can be of service. The shame isn’t in being unable to do a role, it is in not doing what you can with what you’ve been gifted. We’re all equals. The farmer is as important as your father.”

No, he’s not,” the boy said. “My father’s a Songblade Knight. He keeps the bad demons from killing us all.”

And if he didn’t eat?” She gave him a serious look. “How much play can you enjoy when you haven’t eaten?”

He squirmed.

That’s what I thought. So just because you’re small doe—”

The taiko drum pounded.

Play stopped.

Lamahavi straightened as the deep boom of the drum exploded through the neighborhood. Her gaze snapped to the rising Bulwark, the dark-stone defenses that ringed the Diamond Ward and held back the gaping wound in Reality through which the demons bled. Her eyes studied the geometry of the Ward, Black Blood Rift a dark smear beyond the adamant force.

A breach, pounded through her mind with the same blazing beat of the drum. A breach. A breach.

The demons had come.

Lozehazi threw himself into her legs, hugging his face into her hip as he whimpered. She knew that fear well, but she couldn’t let it swallow her. She made the choice every time she heard the drums to act.

Boys! Boys!” she shouted. “Come on! All on me! You know what to do!”

Scared faces rushed towards her. Even Yemonu had lost all his bravado, his face paling as he rushed to her side. She gently pried Lozehazi off of her and took his hand. He gripped with fear. The drums meant death came. Any of their fathers might be the one to die. And if it was a bad breach, where the wives had to join the fighting, orphans could be made.

Come along, just like we practice,” she said, keeping her voice calm. With Lozehazi’s hand gripping hers and the other boys swarming around her, it was easier to hold back the terror wanting to surge through her body. “The shelter’s this way.”

Life in the Ringed City was unlike any in the world. The only city where the fortifications pointed inward, where no man worked his craft without a weapon at hand, where women watched children with a crossbow in reach. She fetched hers left at her seat and quickly belted on her quiver with its bolts. As she did, Lozehazi gripped her yukata’s skirt.

Stay together!” she kept saying as the taiko drums changed their beat. Three beats, a pause, two beats, a pause, then repeated. It signaled the breach’s location. It was Blossoming Lilac Octant, on the far side of the city from their own, Apple Blossom Octant. “Hold hands. Protect each other. Especially you older boys. That’s your job. Right now, you’re knights.”

She led them from the play area to the nearest shelter. Civilian workers—the blacksmiths, stonecutters, butchers, weavers, armorers, and the myriad of other craftsmen needed to support a city—were flowing towards them with their own families, holding spears or swords or their own crossbows. Wives of knights, like Lamahavi, had their own jobs to perform during a breach.

Normally, she manned the infirmary, but this day she had responsibility for the boys. She wouldn’t leave their side, no matter what. Her heart tightened as she heard the clatter of armor, the sound of knights rushing up the stairs to the Bulwark to flood into the breach and drive back the demons.

Thoughts of her husband filled her mind as she flowed down the stairs into the shelter. Dug into the earth and surrounded by heavy stone walls, it had doors made of thick iron. Designed to be closed and barred from the inside, they could sustain the occupants for a week before food ran out. Water came from a cistern that could keep them supplied for weeks longer.

It was dark inside. A few diamonds glowed, lit by tuning forks humming at the right frequency by them. Their song was lost to the shouts echoing through the chamber. The civilians knew where to go better than Lamahavi. The pallets seemed all claimed. Even the boys knew better than her, leading her to their area near the front. Another wife shepherded a group of girls to the other side.

Is everyone here?” she asked, staring at the frightful boys clustered around her. She counted, relieved to find none missing. They all sank down onto the pallets, whispering to each other.

Lamahavi settled down onto a bench along the wall and found Lozehazi before her. His face was a mask of fright. She gave him a reassuring smile, her stomach roiling with fear now. She had nothing more to do. She had brought her charges to safety. She didn’t have an infirmary to ready. To gaze out at the Bulwark and maybe witness the fighting and see how it was going.

She could only wait.

The large doors creaked closed. Boomed shut.

Lozehazi whimpered and threw herself onto her lap. She grunted in surprise and set her crossbow down on the bench. He shifted to get comfortable. It was near dark where they were, the diamond lights distant. She could hardly see his face, just an outline.

Her arms went around him and she found herself humming. Feeling the boy on her lap sparked something deep inside her, this maternal flame. She pressed her face into his hair, feeling the soft texture of it.

It’s going to be okay,” she said after a moment. “It’s alright to be scared. I’m scared, too.”

You are?” the child asked.

Everyone is,” she said, remembering words her husband spoke to her. “Being brave is something you can only do when you’re scared. When you feel that cold, clammy terror squeezing at your guts. Being brave is when you decide you won’t let the dread control you. That you’ll be strong and stand up.”

I’m not strong,” he whispered.

I’m not talking physical strength. There’s a different kind. It’s inside of your heart. It doesn’t matter how big and brawny you are or how much you can carry. It’s the strength that only shows up when you’re afraid. When things are difficult. It’s the strength that lets your parents be brave out there. It’s inside of all of us if we only believe.”

How can someone small like me be strong?”

When I was a child, I loved the story of the three brother horses. Do you know that one?”

No,” he said.

Maybe it’s an Easterner tale.” Lamahavi thought back to her father and sitting on his lap. “Once upon a time, there were three brother horses. One was strong and mighty. He could pull a plow all day long and not get tired. Just prancing up and down the field, drawing the iron through the earth and tilling it so his owners could plant good grain in and grow fine fields of wheat.

The second brother horse was lean and swift. He could race across the plains faster than the wind, his magnificent mane and silky tail flowing behind him. He delivered the most urgent of messages. The sound of his drumming hooves could be heard far and wide.

The third brother horse was a pony. He wasn’t big and strong nor was swift and fast. The best he could do was pull a little cart to the village market, loaded down with a few bushels of grain. Not the large wagons of his first brother or the heavy plow he could pull. He tried hard to pull more, but he was too small. He tried to run as fast as the second brother horse, but his legs were too short. He wanted to be just as good as they were, but he couldn’t.

But did he give up? Did he decide he was useless and couldn’t help out the family who owned them? No. He pulled his little cart to the marketplace. While his brothers were busy plowing fields and delivering messages, he could take a few bushels of grain to be sold and make the family money. He was proud of that.”

This is a boring story,” Lozehazi said.

It’s about to get exciting. You see, demons came upon the farm and word had to be given out to the nearest castle to alert them before they were caught by surprise.” She hugged the boy. “In those days, the White Goddess hadn’t created the Diamond Ward, so the demons were roaming everywhere, killing and hurting and trying to destroy us. They spread their foul resin wherever they went, building hives and trying to cover the world in their vomited black.

The three brother horses all vowed to go and deliver the warning. ‘I am the strongest,’ declared the first brother horse, ‘I shall gallop day and night and deliver word to the castle so the soldiers can be ready to fight and kill the invaders.’

“‘And I’m the fastest,’ declared the second brother horse, ‘and I shall race the wind itself and outrun those demons. I shall reach the castle and bring word before the demons can fall upon them unaware and slay those brave soldiers.’

Now the third brother horse still wanted to help. ‘I too shall go,’ he declared, ‘and bring word to the castle. I can trot at a steady pace. Pulling my little cart has given me endurance. I shall not fail. I will bring word and make sure that the soldiers are warned.’

The first and second brother horses laughed at him. ‘You will collapse with exhaustion before the day is done,’ said the first brother horse. ‘Then the demons will cut you down while you lie on the ground panting.’ The second brother horse declared, ‘You shall fall so far behind me that the demons will catch up to you and cut off your back legs. You’ll fall to the ground and they will butcher you. Just hide with the family and survive.’”

They’re right,” interrupted Lozehazi. “They’re bigger and faster than him. He should just hide. That’s what we’re doing.”

We are hiding, but the soldiers have been warned and are fighting. Now, in the story, certainly the first brother horse could pull more weight than the pony and the second brother horse could run faster, but was that enough? The journey to the castle was long and far. The straightest path cut across rough terrain. Anything could happen. The three brother horses all set out together. The second brother horse, as swift as he boasted, raced ahead of his siblings. Before they had gotten halfway across the first valley, he was already over the hill and out of sight. The first brother kept up his steady gallop with the pony at his side. The two ran as fast as they could.”

So the second brother horse will reach the castle long before them. Why did his brothers even bother going?” The boy squirmed on her lap. “Why not tell a story about fighting?”

The first brother horse was too stubborn to back down. He was the oldest. The strongest. He should have the honor delivering the warning. He ran as fast as he could, and the littlest brother just managed to keep up. They ran and ran all day long. But pulling a plow all day, while it had given him strength, had also made the first brother big. Too big to keep up that pace. Halfway through the second day, his heart gave out and he collapsed on the ground, thrashing as he died.”

No!” the boy gasped. “But he was so strong.”

Being big is sometimes a hindrance,” said Lamahavi. “Sometimes it’s a strength. But in that race, he had to carry all that extra weight. That sapped his endurance faster than it did the little pony. ‘Go on and sound the alarm,’ the first brother horse said to the pony as he lay dying. ‘Let the guards know.’ ‘I shall,’ whinnied the third brother horse. The littlest kept galloping, his eyes thick with tears because he couldn’t stop to help his brother. Warning the soldiers was more important.”

The boy nodded. She felt his breathless excitement. “But what about the second brother horse? He left first. Did his size get him in trouble?”

Not on the plains. His swiftness was an advantage, but then came the woods. They were thick and tangled. Not even the wind could howl through them. The air was dead inside. The second brother horse had to pick his way through them, growing more and more agitated with every step. He knew the demons rushed tirelessly behind him. But he couldn’t go forward at more than a crawl. All the time he’d gained was lost.

At the dawn after the first brother horse died, the third brother horse arrived at the woods. The little pony slipped beneath the branches with ease. He trotted around the trees, keeping his head low. He had to move fast. He could hear the demons coming behind him. They were getting closer and closer. They were chittering and clicking and making all those horrible sounds.”

Lamahavi’s memory burst with her close encounter with a demon on her journey to the Ringed City. The alien monster had almost killed her with its resinsword. It resembled a giant ant taller than her, mandibles sharp and ready to rip into her flesh.

Soon, the third brother horse’s small form slipped through the forest and found the second brother horse trapped. His great mane lay tangled in the bark of a gnarled pine tree. His tail had been caught in prickling brambles. Spiny brush wrapped about his forelocks, pinning him in place. ‘I’m trapped, little brother,’ the proud horse whinnied. ‘I ran fast and true with all my heart, but I couldn’t slip through the woods unscathed. Ride. Sound the alarm. Do not let the demons devour us.’”

Lozehazi quivered on her lap. He whimpered, his eyes wide as he stared up at Lamahavi. The glowing diamonds twinkled like stars in his liquid depths.

So the third brother horse trotted on. The sounds of the demons hacking and slashing and ripping through the woods grew louder and louder. The terrible moment came when second brother horse whinnied his defiance and fought to kick the beastly monsters and crush their carapaces. Then he went silent and the third brother horse knew he was alone. That it was all on him. Not the strongest. Not the fastest. But just the right pony to make it because he never lost faith. He never let himself be useless. He’d pulled his little cart and gained just enough endurance to burst out of the woods at a gallop.”

Lozehazi caught his breath.

He ran and ran. He could see the castle ahead. The place where the brave soldiers could face the demons, but only if they were alerted. His hooves drummed across the road. The demons chittered behind him. They knew he was going for the alarm, and they hated him. In their alien souls dwelt only black rage. They want to pollute our world. To destroy all that is bright and beautiful about it.

The third brother horse wouldn’t let them.”

The boy let out an explosive breath and gasped, “Yes, yes, he’ll make it! He’s fast enough! Strong enough!”

She smiled at his enthusiasm. Outside, his father and her husband fought those same demons to keep them from devouring the world. The other boys were crowding around her, drawn by the sound of her voice. In here, she waged her own little war against despair. Against the panic that could fill the soul and drown it.

The third brother horse ran and ran, his little hooves drumming. He whinnied as loud as he could, ‘The demons are coming! The demons are coming!’ Behind him, the demons chittered their rage at his neighing. Their clawed feet carried them ever closer, for he was growing tired. He’d run so very far, but he couldn’t stop now. The castle was so close. ‘The demons are coming!’ he shouted with every last breath he had.

The demon’s sword stabbed into his side.”

NO!” all the little boys, including the one in her lap, gasped.

He whinnied in pain, and it was his loudest shout yet. He wouldn’t let the demons win. He would let the soldiers know so they could protect all the farmers and craftsmen, the wives and weavers, fathers and seamstresses. He neighed even as the blood filled his lungs. The third brother horse’s alarm reached the castle. The soldiers heard.

As the third brother horse fell to the ground, twitching and dying, he saw the soldiers on the ramparts. The horn blew, sounding the warning. The Songblade Knights were gathering for their charge to rout the demons. The foul aliens would not fall on the castle unaware. The third brother horse had foiled their twisted plans. They gnashed their foul mandibles in despair and broke their resinswords in grief as the gallant Songblade Knights charged out.

He wasn’t forgotten, the third brother horse. After the demons were slain, the knights carried his body all the way to the City of the Embalmed Dead. They laid him to rest with all their brother knights who’d died battling demons. With the wives who took up spears to fight at their warrior-husbands’ sides to hold back the umbral tide pouring out of Black Blood Rift.”

Lamahavi stared into the young boy’s eyes, wide and wet, sad for the third brother horse. She brushed away his tears. “So you see, no matter how small you might be, you’re never helpless. There is always something you can do. And that’s an important thing, Lozehazi, because one day, you’ll be bigger. Year by year, you’ll grow, and there will be little boys who will look up to you. One might even be my son.”

Your son, Madam Lamahavi?” he asked.

Do you want to know a secret?” she asked.

He nodded.

There’s a little baby growing inside of me. A handsome son or a beautiful daughter. And one day, they’re going to need someone strong to watch out for them. Do you have that strength, Lozehazi? Is it in your heart?”

It is,” he said with such bold assuredness. “I’ll be strong. For them. I will.”

I know you will,” she said. “That’s the beauty of life. We are all strong in our own ways, we just have to find it inside of us. It’s like a little coal, so faint we don’t know it’s there until we fan it to life. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re weak. Because you’re not.” She tapped his chest over his heart. “Not in here, where it matters.”

His smile dazzled her, ignited this warm ache inside of her. As he slid off her lap, her hand rested on her belly. She’d missed two of her moon flows. A mix of her and Yelaikav. As the boys started playing the three brother horses in the dark of the shelter, the fear for her husband met the strength inside of her.

What grew in her womb, that tiny spark of hope, was what they all fought for. So that the beauty of life could continue. So the darkness couldn’t smother it. She waited for the fighting to end, to find out if her husband lived, while watching the next generation romp and play.

No matter the outcome, mankind endured.

To be continued…

Click here for part 4!

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The Soldier’s Wife 2: Death Is Not the End

The Soldier’s Wife 2: Death Is Not the End

The Twenty-Fifth Day of Spring, the Three Thousand and Forty-Ninth Year of the Kingdom

The Diamond Ward glittered on the horizon.

Lamahavi drew in a deep breath at the first sparkle she noticed. Her deep-lavender eyes widened. It was like witnessing the rise of a star. A day star. Something that should be impossible to see with the sun near its zenith. Awe filled her soul as she sat on the driver’s bench beside her husband. Her hand shot out, grasping his wrist.

I know,” he croaked. Twinkle fire bright, glittering before azure, burns salvation.

His impromptu poem swept through her, reminding her just what the twinkling warded. The world’s destruction. The Black Rift. The wound in the fabric of Reality from which the demons bled. The demons that had attacked them two days before. A small scouting party which had almost killed Lamahavi and her new husband, Yelaikav.

She had found courage enough to fight. To weather the danger and survive. The love for her husband would give her the strength to be a soldier’s wife and endure life at the most dangerous fortifications in the world. The Bulwark around the Diamond Ward. The first line of defense to hold back the hordes of ant-like aliens wishing to spill out of their Dark Reality into her own. The greatest warriors armed with the rare Songblades served there.

Yelaikav had earned the privilege of joining the august ranks of the Songblade Knights.

The two water buffalos pulling their wagon were new, drawn from the spares trundling behind the last wagon in their small convoy. One had been lamed by her own crossbow bolt and the other slain by a demon. The monster had broken much of the furniture intended for their new home when it had fled into the back of the wagon to escape Asozyem’s sword, another Songblade Knight traveling north with them.

The loss of possessions didn’t matter. They’d survived the skirmish with the scouts. Three demons slain. Countless millions boiled beyond the rift. The Goddess Layiv had given their peoples the watch. Easterners, Westerners, and Northerners alike united to hold the demons at bay. The rest of the world could waste resources contending nation against nation, to indulge in the petty squabble over which king or emperor or satrap ruled which boundaries on the map.

The Forbidden Kingdom could not.

They’d held the trust and stood the watch for over three thousand years, shepherded by an unbroken line of divine emperors carrying Layiv’s blood. The grand generals, selected by the emperor, coordinated the military might of their nation here.

The Diamond Ward, the Bulwark, and the Ringed City.

My new home, Lamahavi thought.

The young woman knew this day would come. Known it for years when she’d come to Fortress, the military capital of their kingdom, to support the Songblade Knights. She’d wished to be a soldier’s wife, to support and succor those who would fight for their nation. She’d courted two candidates and found love in the second: Yelaikav. His humor never failed to brighten her spirits.

She wanted to brighten his.

The glimmer grew and grew on the horizon. Soon, she could see the gleaming facets of an adamant barrier that surrounded the dark wound beneath. The shadow swelled, too. A gash of night that sundered the world. It shed the inverse of light. Its opposite. Here, the last wound of the Shattering had failed to heal.

Lamahavi stared into another reality. A world beyond the harmonics of this one.

At the base of the barrier swallowing the horizon, a city appeared. A dark band. The road they followed, a hard-packed track rutted from generations of wagon wheels, became paved. The jarring change rumbled through the wagon.

There was no wall warding the Ring City from the outside. It was an inverted fortress. Its fortifications aimed at the center. Basalt buildings reared around the bottom swell of the Diamond Ward. A half-mile out, and it consumed most of the horizon and reached high into the sky above her head. She leaned back, shifting her brown hair pinned up atop her head by her jade hair comb. Her delicate face held only awe and terror, flicking between the emotions. The writhing wound of the Black Rift, appearing to twist and wriggle through the distortion of the adamantine barrier surrounding it, captured her attention.

Only a horse’s nicker pulled her eyes down.

A gathering formed before them. A small column of Rangers, the elite cavalry of the realm and who patrolled the Forbidden Arc, the lands surrounding the Diamond Ward. They raised lances in salute, holding their horses at parade rest. Most were slender and short. Their sex could be hard to judge with their scale mail hauberks and great helms covering their heads, demonic-like masks covering their faces. About a third of the Rangers were women, their smaller size and weight giving their mounts greater stamina and, thus, range on their patrols.

Lamahavi found her spine straightening. She shifted in the light-blue yukata—a summer robe that fit tight about her body and belted at her waist—covered in a pattern of white lilies. Her hands folded before her. Yelaikav’s casual ease had vanished. He wore the serious face of a soldier. He wore a man’s yukata, fitting looser.

At the end of the line of soldiers, more armored figures awaited. They wore the lamellar armor of Songblade Knights. Made of bands of steel held together by stiff cords of twine. The plates overlapped each other and shifted as they moved. They covered the knights from head to toe. Small gaps revealed the padded, dark underclothing worn beneath. Each one was lacquered in different hues to show off the character of the bearer.

The man in the lead wore his armor black with gold rings painted across his chest and stomach. He had horns thrusting up from his great helm, curling up and over his head. His war mask held the fierce, snarling ferocity of a mountain panther.

The famed Panther of the Ward, Gunsho Kofumuji. Songs of his deeds had been sung when Lamahavi was a girl. He had led the twenty knights against the black-flood breech. Only he’d walked away alive. They’d found him standing on the mound of dead demons, exhausted, on the verge of death. Beneath his armor, stories claimed, lay a mass of scars and gouges to his flesh.

Four officers stood behind him. Men who commanded squads. One of those would be her husband’s new captain, his taisho. Her gaze slid from a man in green armor with black spirals to a red armor accented in gold. Her eyes stopped on the third man.

He’d lacquered his armor a deep purple with owlish, yellow eyes painted on the chest and on his helm above his eyes. He stood tall, a Northerner, and she felt the intensity of his gaze beneath his mask. Her heart clenched.

A man she hadn’t seen in a year. He’s risen so far?

Welcome, welcome,” spoke Gunsho Kofumuji. His voice rasped with age. He raised a hand clad in a heavy gauntlet. Her husband drew up the wagon. “We do not stand on ceremony here. Rangers brought the word of your skirmish. Already, you defend the world.”

Lamahavi managed to sit a little straighter at those words, delight rippling through her. She had done her small part in that skirmish.

Yelaikav,” Kofumuji said, staring at her husband. “You are assigned to the Apple Blossom Octant. Third squad under Taisho Vevoztaj.”

Lamahavi fought her groan as the man in the purple armor stepped forward. The man she’d once thought she would marry. Her first lover. When she’d ended their relationship, she had cried for a week until Yelaikav had made her smile with his poem.

Tears flowing down cheeks

banished by a simple act

smiling to spite grief

Follow,” Vevoztaj said, his words coming out hollow from behind his mask. He turned onto a circular street that led in both directions, miming the curve of the wall.

Yes, Taisho,” answered Yelaikav, his voice strong. Deep. Not betraying a hint of emotion.

She couldn’t help but follow Vevoztaj as he marched down the street to the right. He moved with a natural grace in the armor. The stitched-together plates of folded steel allowed for natural movement and range of motion. It wasn’t nearly as constricting as it looked and could mean the difference between life and death fighting a demon.

Her husband had fought one without it by necessity. Packed away behind them was his armor. And hers, a much lighter coat of chain to be donned in the direst of events. Wives hadn’t had to fight a breach in three hundred years, but vigilance had to be maintained.

It’s good to see you,” Vevoztaj said. He removed his war mask and then his helmet, unveiling his short, brown hair. Like her husband, the top of his head had been shaved and the exposed skin tattooed with the character for protection, a diamond surrounded by walls. “I knew you would pass, Yelaikav. You always possessed skill.”

Your opinion humbles me,” Yelaikav said, his tone stiff as his posture.

And how is Fejisoza?” Lamahavi asked.

She’s good,” Vevoztaj answered. “She’s settled into life here.”

I’m not surprised. She has a spine of iron.”

Vevoztaj nodded, not looking back at her.

Lamahavi had known they would both be here; she just hadn’t expected to see him so soon. To have to live in the same barracks as him. All the squads of Apple Blossom Octant, one of the eight districts of the Ring City, would have their own barracks, militant apartments for their soldiers and families to inhabit, sharing a small garden and pooling their resources to support and knit together as a cohesive unit. She’d see him every day.

She made a good wife for you,” Lamahavi said, feeling an awkward weight pressing on her as their wagon trundled down the street.

They passed watchers. Children peered over the railing of porches from the second or third stories of barracks they passed. Banners with stylized characters marked the different squads and their homes. Between them lay various craftsmen. Brave and skilled laborers who brought their services her, the most dangerous place in the world. She let her eyes drift to the basalt buildings. The roofs all had crenellations. The sides facing the rift had only narrow windows, mere arrow slits, and none on the first two floors. Some of the buildings had machicolations along the eaves, slots in the floor of the ramparts thrusting out past the side of the building so the defenders could shoot down at the attackers besieging the base.

A blacksmith worked outside on an anvil, bare chest gleaming with sweat. A spear leaned nearby where it could be seized. He pounded glowing metal, sparks bursting in flares.

A group of women carrying laundry baskets waved, their hair done in braids or folds, all pinned with hair combs to leave shoulders bare. They wore a variety of yukatas cut in different fashions and with different patterns, displaying the style of their homes with pride.

A group of armored Songblade Knights marched by not long after, all smacking fists to chests in salute, rattling their lamellar plates. Yelaikav beat fist to chest, and she inclined her head out of respect.

Finally, after covering nearly half the city, they entered the Apple Blossom Octant. Green banners hung at the entrance, the character for “tree” stretched almost to near unrecognizability to resemble a tall tree with a wide canopy. The characters for “fruit” dangled beneath it as apples. It was clever. The characters for “tree” and “fruit” combined made the word “apple tree.” Lastly, falling like petals were the character for “blossom.”

Beyond it, at the first barracks, a group of soldiers in armor waited; behind them gathered wives and children. A nervous ripple ran through her as she recognized three of the wives, women she’d known at her time at the Academy, Fejisoza among them.

A year, and already you commanded your own squad, Taisho,” said Yelaikav. “I am impressed.”

Our last taisho lost his head two months ago. I gave orders and they proved fortuitous.” Vevoztaj said these as if they were matter-of-fact. “Gunsho Kofumuji gave me command of the squad.” He paused. “Squad Three, I give you our newest brother, Yelaikav, wielder of a diamond sword. With him, his wife, the honorable Lamahavi.”

The eight other soldiers pounded fists to chests. They bowed, the points of their great helms aimed at them for a moment. Then they straightened, all looking fierce behind their war masks. They had the bone handles of their Songblades tucked into the silk sashes around their waists.

Yelaikav climbed off the wagon then held his hands out for her. She scooted down the bench and he grabbed her waist, setting her down. She bowed low but kept her eyes raised with pride, as he smacked his fist to his chest.

My wife and I are honored to join you, brothers,” Yelaikav said. “Though my body may fail, my spirit shall never flag. Through pain and blood, through grief and sorrow, I pledge to stand my watch, Songblade in hand. My life belongs not to me, but to the world. Thus, I promise to spend it without hesitation so that the world may flourish. Death is not the end, but the beginning of eternity.”

He spoke the oath without a hint of fear. She straightened, her heart reverberating in pride. To her left, the Diamond Ward covered the sky. The black wound to the world writhed and bled the demons who would destroy them all.

Death was not the end. Beyond lay paradise. The eternal reward for those who served mankind. Civilization was a vast machine. In the Forbidden Kingdom, every person, from the farmer who planted the seeds to the miller who ground the flour, were all a piece of it. A machine united in defending the world from destruction. Those who served, no matter how small it might seem, would find their rest and succor.

She was ready to do her part and was proud of Yelaikav for pledging the entirety of himself to it. Just let him survive. Retirement was not a shame, but the greatest reward in this life. For it meant that the World’s end had not arrived.

The wives stepped forward with welcoming smiles on their faces. Each one of them held a small charm, an ofuda with characters of blessing painted on them, to be hung up on the windows and door frames of her new house.

Thank you for your warm welcome,” she said as each one introduced themselves, a blur of names she would need days to get straight as she came to know her new neighbors. “I promise to help us knit a community in the wilderness, to make it a bastion of civilization amid the horrors that threaten our world. I shall build with you a foundation of courage.”

Be welcome, sister,” each said and placed a kiss on her cheek. Left then right.

Fejisoza came last. Vevoztaj’s wife possessed the round face and silver hair of a Northerner. She wore it cut short along with a tight smile, a single red stripe painted in the center of her pink lips. She planted the two kisses and pressed her ofuda into Lamahavi’s hand.

Be welcome, sister,” she said, voice strained.

Lamahavi swallowed. She felt Fejisoza’s eyes upon her. A strange guilt swam through Lamahavi. She once thought she would wed Fejisoza’s husband. Handsome, daring, the epitome of a Songblade Knight. But Vevoztaj had been cold. Kissing him had stirred nothing inside of her no matter how hard she tried. She forced herself to stay with him for months past when she should have broken off their courtship.

Perhaps, she’d wanted too badly to be a wife of a Songblade Knight that she’d ignored her own heart’s pain. Though he’d always seemed so stoic, his mask had cracked the night she’d broken off their relationship. She had fled crying only to be comforted by Yelaikav a week later. With him, she didn’t have to force herself. It wasn’t a chore to love him.

Let’s get them settled in their house,” said Vevoztaj. “You have two hours before we muster for the night patrol.”

Tonight?” she asked, a spike of concern through her. So soon?

Vevoztaj turned from her. “It is our octant’s night. That should change because a new brother has arrived?”

Of course not,” she said, flushing, feeling the other wives staring at her, judging her. “My apologies. The travel was wearying. It was not a smooth journey.”

Yes, our new brother has already slain two demons.”

I had help,” Yelaikav said. “My wife proved an able distraction and Asozyem wounded the other.”

Vevoztaj nodded.

Come, come, let’s get them unpacked!” snapped Fejisoza. “Hurry.”

Activity fluttered around Lamahavi. Everyone rushed in, including knights in their full armor, hauling off what furniture had survived. A few chairs, though the table they went with was lost. One nightstand. Two out of three of the flower vases her older sister had given as wedding presents. Clothes were piled in the corner since their traveling chest had shattered and their wardrobe splintered.

Soon, she helped her husband dress in his blue armor painted with white diamonds. She drew on the cotton hakama and coat that protected his body from the abrasion of the steel plates. She closed it before pulling on each piece. All the knots had to be tied precisely and since many of them in difficult places to reach, it meant no knight could adequately armor himself. She shook as she worked, her fingers trembling as she twisted the strong, silk cords into perfect knots.

You’re shaking worse than our first time,” he said, giving her a smile.

I didn’t shake,” she said, frowning at him. She hadn’t come a virgin to his bed. She’d given that to Vevoztaj. It had been . . . disappointing. Pain but not much pleasure.

Not with fear,” he said and grinned at her.

A smile played on her lips for a moment. “Well, that’s not why I’m shaking now.”

The only thing to fear of death is the momentary parting it will cause,” he said.

Momentary for you. I’ll have to live another fifty years cursing your name for getting yourself killed on your first patrol.”

So you have something to look forward to.”

She glared at him. “That is not even funny. You think I want to curse your name? I would rather have you all those fifty years. Longer.”

So would I.” He thrust out his arms, letting her tie on the bands of armor plating that covered them. “I would give anything for that, but no one knows how long their soul shall hum.”

Like a tuning fork struck, the note it sang wouldn’t last forever. Some tuning forks could sustain a tone for hours, like the ones powering the Diamond Ward. Others could last a few minutes, perhaps an hour at best, but they all faded. Entropy was the state of things.

So I shouldn’t worry because you’ll die when it’s your time?” she demanded as she finished her knot.

Just know you’ll be in my heart,” he said, his eyes soft on her. “One way or another, we’ll see each other again. Like that cat your mother owned.”

Her gaze narrowed. “The one who ruined my favorite kimono by peeing on it?”

Exactly. No matter how many times you washed it, you couldn’t be rid of the stench. I’m much the same.”

She stared at Yelaikav in hopeless despair and then burst into laughter. He could never take anything seriously. He said the most absurd things, and she loved him for it. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek, clinging to him, wanting her joy to last.

She broke away from him and soon she was alone, though not for long; the other wives were soon calling on her, and she found herself playing hostess, serving tea and being distracted from her husband’s patrol as she gossiped with the others.

*

She lay on her cotton-padded futon and stared at the empty pillow beside her own. She stroked the round cloth stuffed with the soft down of an alpaca. Her finger danced over the linen, wishing it held Yelaikav’s warmth.

Their first night in their house felt desolate. A profound ache filled her. She couldn’t sleep, and not because of the purple moonlight spilling through her bedroom window. Plum was glowing full tonight, his violet joy drowning out the light from the six other moons. She stared at the pattern it painted across the back of her hand, the small shadows caused by tiny imperfections in her near-flawless skin.

She studied them as she worried for her husband. He would be endlessly circling the Diamond Ward, marching along the Bulwark. He would make sure that each of the Diamond Hearts of Layiv resonated, their three tuning forks humming away. Only one was needed to activate any gem, even the largest diamonds in the world.

Three gave redundancy.

They would be on the lookout for any signs of a breach. Of any activity bleeding through the Rift. The battle would start with their alarm and their Songblades meeting the resinswords of the demonic invaders seeking to bleed through into their reality.

She squeezed her eyes shut. He’s fine. How often do they attack? Just a few more hours. Dawn can’t be far off. He’s fine. He’ll hold you soon.

She hugged her pillow to her chest. She knew this would happen, that she would spend lonely nights in her bed aching for Yelaikav’s to return. She was strong enough to accept it. Love was the foundation of courage, and from there strength built. She loved him enough to endure. Together, they would help protect their world. They—

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

A massive taiko drum thundered through the night. The beat was frantic, pounding out an urgent call. A breach.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

No!” Lamahavi gasped as she burst out of the tangle of her blankets. Loose, dark-brown hair spilled about her face, painted with violet highlights.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The alarm beat faster than her wild heart. She trembled, wearing the loose linen of her jinbei, her sleepwear. Her feet moved before she even realized it. She grabbed a thicker yukata from where it hung, pulling on the blue cloth and belting it loosely about her waist. She slipped her bare feet into her slippers.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

She grabbed her crossbow from its hook by the door and slung it over her shoulder. Next, she belted on her quiver of bolts. They hung from her left side, ready to be drawn, the weight familiar. She threw open her door onto the open walkway.

Lamahavi!” shouted Vipaloza, one of the wives. “Come with me!”

The woman hurried down from the next door. In it, a young boy held a spear cut for his size, his face wide with fear. He struggled to look brave. A toddler clutched his clothing, her eyes wide but only curious.

How often does the alarm ring to not concern the small child?

Hurry,” said Vipaloza. She wore her yukata open, showing the thin sleeping garb beneath. She held her crossbow slung over her shoulder, her quarrels rattling in their quiver. “You were trained as a healer?”

Lamahavi nodded, letting the woman pull her along. Other wives were rushing out. Some emerged with spears. One had her daughter helping her don a simple hauberk of chainmail. Lamahavi had left her own behind. Fear burned through her.

Her man would be where the breach was.

This way,” Vipaloza shouted, breaking into a run. Her loose hair danced about her shoulders. The silvery strands flashed purple.

Lamahavi ran after. She was good at it. Her bolts jostled in her quiver. She held her crossbow tight to her chest as her heart thundered beneath. The drums kept booming. The sound seemed to come from every direction.

The Diamond Ward shimmered and rippled above them. She gasped at the bleeding cracks of light marring up the surface on one facet. Shouts roared through the night. Squads on standby, armored in case of a breach, rushed past them with a clank of metal, Songblades out and humming, spilling a rainbow of light along with their lacquered armor.

Here, here!” Vipaloza shouted, racing down a side street into a narrow alley and towards stairs. She rushed up them.

Lamahavi followed. The steps were narrower than the alley. Only one person could rush up them at a time. They snaked back and forth three times as they climbed up onto the fortifications above. She gasped as they spilled out onto the Bulwark themselves. Songblade Knights rushed up wider stairs, their swords glowing. Singing.

Come! Come!”

Vipaloza’s shout drew Lamahavi’s attention towards a small building before a maze of rhino horns. Large stone blocks thrust up like the beasts’ horns to slow the rush of attackers, forcing them to weave through the obstacles. Beyond, a low wall stood with four wives already manning it with crossbows. Two more with long spears waited behind them. They nodded to Lamahavi and Vipaloza as the pair rushed through their defenses and into the building.

The scents of medicinal herbs filled her nose, reminding her of the apothecary she’d trained with at the Academy. The mélange of various remedies was too mixed for her to separate their components. They blended together into a heady aroma. Vipaloza moved through the dark room with purpose. She found a tuning fork and smacked it against a wooden shelf. It hummed with an A note. She placed it beside a diamond lamp.

Clear light flooded the room.

Lamahavi struggled to gather breath as she hung up her crossbow and tied back the sleeves of her yukata above her elbow with red ribbons. A cistern in the back held water. She dumped her hands into it and then splashed the shockingly cold liquid on her face.

Then she waited.

The shouts echoed through the night. She paced in the small room, waiting for the horror to end. Fear for her Yelaikav weighed at her belly, ripping at her stomach. Her slippers’ tar-coated soles whisked across the room while she paced. Vipaloza sat at a table, her eyes distant like she was seeing through stones to the battle where their men fought.

Skittering shrieks.

Roars.

Drums boomed.

A crystalline shatter burst through the night.

The sounds made her jump every time. Was this the end? Would the Songblade Knights finally fall? Would the women outside have to use their spears to hold their position? Would she fire her crossbow out the door in a vain attempt to kill the demons before she was torn apart?

Death is not an ending, she repeated. The promise of suffering in this life was rewarded in the next.

It felt hollow.

Shouts grew outside. Women cried gibberish to Lamahavi. Her ears couldn’t understand what they meant, but Vipaloza leaped to her feet and grabbed bandages. Lamahavi watched her, not understanding why they should do that.

Then the boys carrying stretches appeared. They were the sons of knights, twelve or thirteen years old, not men yet, not old enough to train at the Academy, but trusted to be runners. They brought the first stretcher and laid it on the floor. Vipaloza rushed over to tend to a knight clutching at his mangled arm. The skin and bone had been stripped from his forearm, the white ulna peeking out.

The second stretcher entered, the man screaming in pain. He held a wad of cloth over his stomach. His blood had soaked through it. Lamahavi stared at him for a moment, too terrified to glance at his face and see who it was.

Lama, surrendering to fear is a choice, too,” whispered through her mind. Her husband’s words from days ago.

She could choose to be useless, to stand rooted in terror for Yelaikav, or she could do her duty for the man wounded in the defense of the world.

She sprang for the bandages and grabbed them. Her ears suddenly worked, words becoming understandable. Vipaloza worked on the other man. She’d already tied a tourniquet about his arm above his elbow and twisted it tight with a dowel.

Amputation would follow.

Lamahavi rushed back to her patient and sank to her knees, hair falling loose about her face. She peeled back the bandage. Horror struck her. A demon’s mandible had ripped through his armor and belly. The jagged tear gaped open wider than the span of her fingers, the two halves of his flesh ragged. They didn’t match up. He was missing a chunk of his stomach. His innards looked to have spilled out and then were hastily shoved back in followed by a wadding of cloth to hold them in place. She knew of no way to repair the damage. She couldn’t close the wound, and blood pooled across his organs. Some torn. She breathed in. The sour aroma of flatulence filled her nose.

Bowels punctured. Blood poisoned.

I’m sorry,” she whispered. Despair crushed her. The first patient she had to treat, and she had no hope to save his life. She pressed the bandages over the wounds, the white cotton absorbing his blood, blossoming red.

Lama . . . havi . . .”

The sound of her name stiffened her. “Yel . . .”

Her words died on her lips. It wasn’t Yelaikav who lay in pain. It was Vevoztaj.

Her former lover’s face held a pale sheen of sweat across his brow. His face twisted with the agony of his injuries. His hand reached out, fingers trembling. He took her wrist and smeared blood across her skin.

I know . . .” he groaned, his fingers crushing like iron about her.

Know?” she asked. Her eyes burned with emotion.

I’m dying.” He said the words with such finality. She shifted on her knees, moving closer to his head. “I kept them alive. My men. I didn’t let those demons hurt them.”

Of course not, Vev,” she said. Her free hand stroked the side of his face. She smiled at him. “You love your men. I saw that in training exercises.”

Loved you, too,” he croaked.

She didn’t know what to say to that. It was the first time he’d ever spoken those words. She’d known he loved her, but he could never express it. She couldn’t face a future sharing her bed with an icy mountain, his heart a glacier so remote that no human had ever tread upon it. She could have tried to make the attempt to reach it, but she feared she’d die in the process. A frozen husk left uncaring on the slope.

There was a time when I loved you,” she admitted. Fear squeezed her heart. She wanted to ask for Yelaikav. Did he still live? Vevoztaj said “his” men. Did he count the new arrival in that tally?

You were my plum tree,” he said. “When training was hard, I would lie beneath your shade and stare up at your blossoms.” Pain rippled across his face. His hand crushed her wrist.

She endured.

Demons curse me!” he snarled.

I can get something for the pain,” she said. She tried to rise, but he held on tight to her.

Just let me look into those eyes,” he said. “One last time.”

She nodded. The tears built in the corners of her eyes. They were almost spilling over her cheeks. She leaned over him like she once had. Her free hand stroked across his brow as a great wellspring of pity surged through her.

His breathing slowed. His eyes grew into dark pools. Eternity.

It wasn’t . . . all bad . . . ?” he croaked. “Right?”

No,” she said. “No, it wasn’t. Some of it was good.” She leaned over him, her loose hair falling about her face. She pressed her lips against his forehead. His flesh was cool. “You can rest now, Vevoztaj. Your duty is over. Set down the burden. Another shall carry it for you.”

Loved . . . you . . .” he croaked. “Always . . .”

I know.”

She straightened and stared into the dark depths of his eyes. The pain fled. Peace embraced him. His grip slackened on her arm. The tears fell down her cheeks.

I’m sorry,” she whispered, “I needed someone warm. I wanted to love you. I did.”

She sat up straight, the tears falling hot down her cheeks. The back of her throat felt raw. Outside, a mighty chime rang. A resonance that shook the foundations of her body. Her bones vibrated to it. A pure light blazed, spilling through the narrow windows and bleeding through the cloth curtain. A new dawn had arrived upon the world.

The breach mended. She could feel it in that moment. Vevoztaj had saved the world today. Him, his squad, the rest of the Songblade Knights. Her husband. Lamahavi stayed kneeling there, staring at Vevoztaj’s dead face.

He could be sleeping. Memories of watching him sleep haunted Lamahavi.

How is he?” asked Vipaloza.

He laid down his burden,” she answered, her tears ended. “Yours?”

He needs something to help with the pain.”

Lamahavi rose and began making a tincture of boswellia for the pain, yarrow for the bloodloss, and a strong distillation of epheda to let the knight slip into a deep sleep. Vipaloza bandaged the stump of his arm, the severed limb covered beneath a white cloth beside him.

After giving the man the tincture, the curtains burst open and a woman gasped. Fejisoza rushed to her dead husband. She fell to her knees and a keening wail burst from her lips. She pressed her face into his chest and clasped his hand.

The one which had clung so desperately to Lamahavi.

She didn’t know what to say to Fejisoza. How to take away her loss. Lamahavi knelt beside the woman and placed a comforting hand upon the widow’s shuddering back. She stroked Fejisoza’s long, silvery hair. Lamahavi didn’t stop until Fejisoza lifted her head and turned a grief-stricken face to her.

Did he . . . say anything?”

Guilt stabbed deep into Lamahavi’s heart. “He said he loved you,” she lied. “His last words were of you.”

Fejisoza nodded. The words took away some of the pain. A little. Lamahavi didn’t regret them. She couldn’t control what Vevoztaj felt for her. When he’d married Fejisoza last year, she’d hoped he would find happiness with the woman.

To let go of her, but he’d held onto her until the end.

Maybe he’ll find acceptance in the next life, thought Lamahavi as she rose. As he takes succor in Paradise. He’d set down his burden.

Lamahavi hadn’t. Nor had her husband.

She stepped out of the infirmary. No others were brought in. Perhaps they were taken to different ones. She stared at the passing Songblade Knights. Many dripped with ichor. She searched for Yelaikav’s blue armor patterned with white diamonds. Her hands clutched tight before her, fearing that he lay dead.

Would he think of another woman as he lay dying? You could never truly know a person in this life. She thought she knew Yelaikav, but didn’t Fejisoza think the same thing of her husband?

The thoughts were poisonous. She knew Yelaikav. His love. He made her smile. Ever since that day he’d found her crying. She stood tall, waiting for him to return to her. She watched the passing knights stoically.

One broke away in ichor-splattered armor, his great helm missing. She hardly recognized her husband. He looked old. His face haggard. His movements felt brittle as he stumbled to her. She spread her arms wide. She couldn’t be Vevoztaj’s plum tree, but she could be Yelaikav’s.

His armor clattered as he embraced her. He pulled her to him. He tried to smile, but it felt fractured, broken by the night. His eyes stared distantly. There was more than ichor on him. Blood matted the shoulders of his armor and clung in his hair.

Vevoztaj?” he asked.

She shook her head.

He closed his eyes. “That’s two we lost. They ripped Najozham in half. Just . . .”

He needed her. Clung to her. She stared into his eyes and did the most Yelaikav thing she could think of. “How many knights can still look as beautiful as the sun setting over the Golden Sea?”

How many knights . . . ?” His brow furrowed. His eyes sharpened on her. “Did you just . . . call me beautiful?”

There is nothing more beautiful than you right now,” she said, pressing her face into his chest, feeling the slick lacquer painted over the plates of metal that made up his armor. “Nothing.”

He kissed her brow and whispered, “I kept thinking about you. When they first breached and fell upon us, I fought with a ferocity of a denned badger. I had to come back to you.”

Death may not be the ending, but she wanted Yelaikav to carry his burden for as long as possible. To grow old with him. She knew that each dawn she had with him was a gift.

Something to be treasured because it could be taken from her so swiftly.

To be continued…

Click here for part 3!

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The Demon’s Fear

The Demon’s Fear

The Song is back,” Ogot’pak croaked.

Kee’mab’s throat bulged with a nervous exhalation as she crouched on the bank of the Deep Current River. A long, slow croak groaned from her lips. She rose to her full height, the muscles of her long legs, slender compared to the thickness of her torso, flexing beneath her waxy, green skin. Her webbed toes spread wide in the soft mud of the bank. She gripped one of her fishing spears in her hand, two more strapped to her back. Her belly was a paler green than her back, legs, and arms. It merged with the loose skin of her throat leading into her wide, squat head. Her eyes, round and sitting atop her skull, fixed on Ogot’pak.

Truly?” Kee’mab asked. Her webbed fingers tightened on the polished, wooden haft of her fishing spear. The slender bone tip had a hook, a barb to catch her prey, the large ot’pa’qq which swam in the dark shadows of the Deep Current River.

Truly,” Ogot’pak said. “Mak’maq’by vanished from her hut before her mate’s eyes. Poor Rok’kk’ak is left to care for their tadpoles alone. Two days and Mak’maq’by has not returned.”

Kee’mab’s throat swelled against her nervousness. Her eyes twisted atop her head, glancing to her right without her body having to move. Upriver, her mate, Eg’kee, tended to their first hatching. A dozen tadpoles swam happily in their spawning pool.

Will it be as bad?” Kee’mab asked.

As thirty years ago?” Ogot’pak flared her throat to thrice its size, the green skin paling as the sac expanded. “Only the river knows. But if the Song is starting up again…”

Kee’mab shifted. Her free hand, fingers long and spindly, reached down to the heavy club hanging from her loincloth’s belt. The hardwood had blades of dark shale spaced around the end, each jutting out the length of her finger joint.

Some come back from the Song,” she said.

Some.”

The river gurgled by, oblivious to the tightness in the air around the two amphibians. Kee’mab felt a chill that couldn’t come from the warm air caressing her drying skin. Her mouth, as wide as her throat, opened. Her tongue itched to fling out against the injustice of the Song.

My grandmother never came back,” Kee’mab said.

Ogot’pak croaked, a deep, mournful sound. They were both Yq’maq’a. Their people had dwelt in the marshes and forests around the mighty rivers for all of time. They had survived the Songs time and time again.

Great Spawner in the sky, watch over your tadpoles, prayed Kee’mab.

I have to get to the village,” said Ogot’pak. She hefted the scaled hides of the large fish that Kee’mab hunted. “Ak’bd’ek is expecting my leather.”

Good hopping,” Kee’mab said.

Good fishing,” Ogot’pak answered. Her legs compressed then she bounded away, a jump that carried her over the wide river. She landed lightly on the other side, the scaled hides draped over her back rustling.

Unease rippling through her, Kee’mab crouched in the mud, her webbed toes flexing against the soggy ground. She stared at the current flowing past. The darker water housed the large ot’pa’qq. Fear rippled across her dried skin. She yearned to dive into the current and wrestle with one of the large fish.

It would be simpler than wrestling with the Song.

The Singers needed the Yq’maq’a, or so the stories said, to fight their dark enemies. Survivors of the Song, those who’d returned, spoke of a steamy forest, trees towering higher than you could leap. The Singers were small things, standing on two legs like the Yq’maq’a but with smooth skin the color of mud and fur like a beaver on their heads. They needed warriors for their holy battle against terrifying beasts. Clawed Crushers, Rotting Shamblers, Winged Death. More.

Why do you torment us, Singers?” croaked Kee’mab to the air. “Why do you need us? We have our own troubles.”

Her throat expanded in disgust as she stared at the river. She needed a successful hunt. Her mate, the gentle Eg’kee, waited with their spawn. He had to guard them against any maundering foxes or diving shrikes seeking to creep into the pool and devour their tadpoles. Right now, their offspring were a little bigger than one of her fingers. He couldn’t leave them. He would get no sleep or rest for the next two moons. He needed her to hunt and provide. It was the way of their people.

She laid the eggs, he cared for them. Despite his gentle heart, he was a fierce father.

Movement flitted through the stream. She rose, her throat tightening. She gripped her spear as she stared at the dark shadow sliding across the surface. Her eyes tracked it while the rest of her body remained still. She had to wait for the right moment to strike. Her legs tensed for the leap and—

A humming melody whispered around her. It almost sounded like the wind through the boughs of the willow tree and singing through swaying reeds. But there was structure to the melody. Need. Her throat bulged as her legs contracted. She leaped as the Song swelled around her.

She soared straight into the air, a surge of panicked heat rushing through her veins. Her heart pounded as she opened her mouth, gulping in air. She twisted at the pinnacle of her leap, jumping ten times her height. The marshy world laid spread out before her, the ot’pa’qq swimming down the river.

Great Spawner, no!” she cried out as the music surged around her.

As she descended, sapphire light danced in motes, balls of wispy blue spinning about her. The singing grew louder. It spilled from beyond her world, seizing her. She landed in the mud as the azure glow swelled and swallowed her.

The harmony now had a deep cadence, like the low ribbit of a matronly Yq’maq’a. A deep baritone. She gripped her spear and stabbed at the light. The radiance rippled like the surface of a still pool. The Song intensified. The sapphire contracted around her. It spilled like water about her flesh as it seized her.

Eg’kee!” she cried out, picturing her smaller mate, her gentle male with his beautiful eyes and the fine bulge to his throat.

In the light, a gem appeared. It was blue, cut and faceted with care. It neared Kee’mab. She thrashed in the grip of the watery light, but it held her like quicksand, heavy and suffocating. The sapphire pressed towards the smooth top of her amphibian head and nestled between her eyes.

Heat flared as it seared into her flesh. She croaked out her scream of pain as the gem merged into her and—

She tumbled through a void. Complete darkness. Her limbs floated beside her like she drifted in a vast, dark ocean. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. She felt weightless. A terror yawned in her. A gibbering fear that savaged her.

What if she was stuck in this void forever?

The watery light seized her once more and yanked her out of the void. She tumbled again and then gasped. She felt ground beneath her webbed feet. Hard soil. New scents filled her nose. Not the sour muck of the river, but an earthier musk. Humid air spilled over her. Shouts and cries and clashes echoed as the light faded.

The Singer knelt before her outside of a circle made of a metal wire possessing the dull gleam of copper. It held a sapphire in its hand similar to the one buried between Kee’mab’s eyes. Its song died down as it opened its eyes and stared up at her. It had skin the color of rich, brown mud, smooth but not waxy and warty. Its neck was slender, thinner than its head. Black fur covered the top and back of its skull. Its eyes stared up at hers.

I am Running-Beside-Stream of the Frog Clan of the Children-of-the-Great-River,” its words spoke in her mind. It stroked the gem it held. “Do you hear me?”

Send me back,” croaked Kee’mab. “I have a mate. Tadpoles. Send me back.”

Demon, you are summoned in the hour of our great need,” the voice continued as if it didn’t understand her ribbits. The shouts echoed through the trees. The ground shook. Other Singers rushed past the circle, wielding spears tipped with dark stone or clubs bladed with granite. They wore loincloths, their bodies muscled and gleaming. Mist spilled through the jungle. Screams came from the direction they ran. “The Tomb Lords seek to butcher our people once more. We have need of your aid, mighty demon.”

I’m no warrior,” croaked Kee’mab. She struggled to move. A resonance echoed around her like the circle held a memory of the Song. “Send me back. I’m a huntress.”

I hear the fierceness of your croaks, demon,” Running-Beside-Streams said in her mind. “You shall crush our enemies. Slay them all. Protect the Children-of-the-Cataclysm.”

With fingers, not webbed but separate, it broke the circle. It rose, standing half her height. It stared at her with eyes shining and wet. She croaked and then gasped as the gem flared bright between her eyes. Its words echoed through her mind.

The Singer’s commands seized her body. A compulsion she couldn’t fight gripped her. She turned towards the directions the warrior charged, facing the boiling mist. Her legs flexed. She leaped as terror filled her heart.

Eg’kee, she thought, dread for her mate warring with fear for herself. So few survived the Song.

Slay the Tomb Lords and their foul creations,” the Singer commanded in her mind, its voice resonating through her bones.

She landed beside the base of a massive tree, the trunk wider around than she was tall. It rose and rose, its top lost in the thick canopy of green that covered the sky. The sounds grew louder and louder. A horrible, crunching boom echoed. A wet splat. Screams, though made from the foreign mouths of the Singers, were full of pain, a universal agony that she recognized.

Terror. Fear. Panic. Death.

It loomed before her.

She had to survive. Somehow.

Despite every muscle in her body screaming at her to bound away, she leaped towards the violence. She landed again, the dense mist drifting around her, coating her waxy skin in moisture. The sounds came from every direction.

The blue sapphire flared between her eyes.

A scuttling sound crashed through the brush to her right. She whirled to see the fog rippling. Something barreled through it. Dark and low. A massive claw, like that on a crab, lunged out of the mist at her.

Croaking in terror, she leaped backward, a short bound.

The fog billowed as the scuttling thing charged out of it. It was armored, like an insect grown to monstrous sizes. Mandibles snapped. Its pincers thrust from either side of its hungry maw. Faceted eyes fixed black on her. It was long and had an armored back. A segmented tail rose above it, curling to strike. It was tipped with a massive stinger, venom dripping from the end.

A Clawed Crusher, gibbered through her thoughts as the hulking scorpion charged at her, trampling brush. The dagger-like ends of its armored legs stabbed into the dirt as it scurried at her.

Vice-like claws snapped forward, dotted in teeth-like spikes. She leaped again, rising into the air, the mist swirling around it. The sapphire flared. She couldn’t run from this. She had to kill it. She had to survive. A mighty croak burst from her throat as she descended, reversing the point of her fishing spear.

She hurtled down at the monstrous scorpion. The air rushed past her. The thing’s pincers snapped in seeming frustration. She aimed at its head, thrusting her spear down beneath her like she would spear a mighty ot’pa’qq moments before she landed. The bone tip struck the black carapace.

Snapped.

The bone point splintered. Pieces flew about her and her legs bent to absorb the impact as she landed on the monster. Her best spear shattered on the thing’s segmented back. Movement flashed before her as her waxy skin tightened. The venom-dripping stinger knifed down at her.

She croaked in fright and leaped back. The stinger hurtled beneath her and stabbed hard into the ground. She flipped and landed behind the monster, clutching her broken spear in her hand. Only scratches marred its carapace.

Great Spawner, guide me from the predators in the current,” she prayed, an ancient call for aid.

Scuttling crashed behind her.

Kee’mab whirled around to see another monster scorpion burst out of the brush, pincers tearing apart a flowering plant. Faceted eyes glinted, reflecting the blue light of the gem embedded between her eyes.

Out of panicked fear, she thrust the broken spear before her. Mandibles snapped. Crushing claws hurtled at her. Her weapon plunged into its open mouth. Its scurrying momentum impaled it forward down the shaft. Something crunched inside its maw. She’d struck something hard. Ruby light flared from its mouth followed by a gush of brackish ichor. A horrid scent of rot and decay fouled the air.

Before she could gag, the thing’s claw slammed into her. The force battered her back. She fell, the broken spear wrenched from her webbed grip. She hit the ground hard, croaking at the pain throbbing across her fleshy side. Her legs kicked as she struggled to right herself, her spears rattling on her back.

Foul liquid poured out of the scorpion’s mouth. It collapsed in a clatter of chitin. Flickers of red light pulsed from inside. Confusion rippled through Kee’mab. She didn’t understand what she’d struck. How’d she killed it and—

The first!

She gained her feet and whirled around to see the first one scuttling at her, dirt clinging to its barbed stinger. Her skin tightened. With a mighty croak, she leaped into the air as a crushing claw lashed out.

It seized her lower leg.

She ribbitted in pain as the serrated edges of the claw bit into her waxy skin. Her hip burst with sharp agony as her leg almost dislocated. The beast slammed her into the forest floor. She bounced, the pincer crushing her lower leg.

No, no, no!” she croaked as it dragged her across the ground, pulling her towards its hungry maw.

Screams echoed through the jungle. Terror shot through her as she stared at the remorseless thing. Its faceted eyes held no mercy. It didn’t care about her mate and their tadpoles. She had to get back to them. They were helpless.

Great Spawner!” she croaked as she came closer to death.

She grabbed one of her two spears off of her back, panic surging through her. She thrust it before her, aiming for its maw. She had to kill it. She had to get back to Eg’kee and their children. A twitching mandible deflected her spear high.

It stabbed into its eye. Pus oozed out, foul and fetid. The rank scent of decay swept over her again as the scorpion pulled her closer. Its mouth opened wide; dozens of little feelers ringed it, all twitching, all wanting to pull her leg in and feast.

No!” she screamed, her loud, croaking shout echoing through the woods.

She threw her spear.

The slender weapon, designed to pierce the softer scales of a river fish, vanished into the maw of the scorpion, the haft grazing her webbed toe. It buried deep. She heard that loud clatter of bone striking stone. The scarlet light burst out of its maw. She saw a brilliant gem embedded in its throat. It pulsed with ruby light then shattered. Ichor burst from the creature’s flesh as shards of the jewel lanced through it. The foul ooze boiled around her spear. Its jaws snapped shut, snapping the weapon’s haft.

The monster collapsed as the rank odor spilled over her. The pincer holding her leg relaxed. She kicked herself free and rolled away. Throbbing pain rippled up her limb. Her skin was dented, darkening with bruises. She gained her feet, throat bulging with her rapid breaths.

What are you?” she croaked, staring at the dead monsters. The way they smelled had her gagging while the ichor pouring out of them was like their insides were liquefied. Through joints in its carapace, more of the foul gunk oozed out. “What is going on? What is this madness?”

Demon,” the voice spoke, “you are doing well, but you must keep going. You have to find the Tomb Lords. You have to silence them or their abominations will tear us apart. We are dying.”

I’m dying!” she shouted at the voice, the blue gem pulsing. She wanted to find the Singer and plant her spear in its chest.

She wanted to return home.

The voice drove her into the mist towards the screams. She drew her last spear and hopped on her wounded leg, short jumps that throbbed with agony. Her throat pulsed, rapidly ballooning and retracting. Her tongue twitched in her mouth.

It flicked out three times her height in frustration.

Rattling footsteps echoed before Kee’mab. Her throat swelled as her fear surged. She rushed into a dense drift of fog and then burst out into a clearing. A mighty mountain loomed ahead, the craggy peaks rising towards a bright sun. Hills piled closer, covered in thick brush that boiled and shook as things rushed through it.

In a moment, the source of the rustling appeared as rattling skeletons burst out of the thick bushes and charged down in shambling ranks. Each had a gem buried in their mouths, glinting with purple light. They were shorter, the corpses of Singers animated and sent to fight. It curdled her blood as she witnessed living Singers with spears and clubs meeting this impossible horror. They stabbed and swung, striking the skeletons but doing little damage before bony fingers tore into their flesh in great spurts of crimson blood.

More scuttling scorpions rushed into the fight on her right. Her throat tightened as she spotted more of her own race, sapphire gems embedded in their heads, leaping forward to battle the carapaced horrors. She knew them. Ogot’pak, who’d given her warning, swung her fist into a skeleton, knocking the thing into fragments. She kicked hard, ripping apart another.

Ogot’pak!” Kee’mab croaked as she drew her club.

Ogot’pak didn’t react to Kee’mab’s words. The clash of battle boiled through the land. Everywhere she looked, skeletons, scorpions, and other things attacked. The brown-skinned Singers died while more and more of their numbers charged out of the fog behind her. She had to help them. The egg-eating voice in her mind along with the gem buried in her skull forced her to act.

She swung her mace before her. The skeletons were only half her height, like adolescents to her. She crashed through their skulls and shattered their rib cages. Amethyst jewels burst with purple light as she smashed through their animated corpses.

Kee’mab pressed forward, her leg throbbing as she battered through the skeletons. Singers cheered around her, crying out in their squeaking tongues. They surged forward with her, little children fighting with ferocity, clubbing the skeletons that her blows missed.

She pressed on and on. The skeletons reached for her with bony fingers ending in sharp points, but her club swung hard. The heavy wood, set with the blades of shale, shattered their bones. She trampled over the shards as she battled towards the hill.

Other Singers stood at the pinnacle, their skin a paler shade of brown, a dusky hue. They had no hair but instead had bands of black patterns wrapped around their skulls. They wore robes of black and clutched stones of frozen midnight in their hands that flared with an umbral light.

To her right, she spotted Ogot’pak again. She wielded one of the Singer’s clubs. It looked tiny in her hand. She swung it hard before her, battering through skeletons while a pair of scorpions scurried at her.

Fear tightened in Kee’mab’s throat. Her friend faced the beast, the gem flaring bright in Ogot’pak’s head. Kee’mab leaped, the pain flaring in her wounded leg. She only covered half the distance she should have. She landed while shifting her weapons. She gripped her spear now as she croaked out in fear.

Ogot’pak didn’t flee. She faced the scorpion, the Singer’s club raised to smash down on its head as crushing pincers darted forward. With a mighty throw, Kee’mab hurtled her last fisher spear. It soared over the heads of the battling Singers and skeletons. It whistled, flying true, thrown with all her skill.

The spear buried deep into the scorpion’s mouth. It struck the gem. The ruby light blazed. It fell dead at Ogot’pak’s feet. Her club swung down, striking the carapace head a moment later. The blow bounced off the hardened chitin.

Joy surged through Kee’mab. She ribbitted her delight.

They would survive the Song and return to their people.

The second scorpion’s claw seized Ogot’pak’s body. Kee’mab croaked in horror as her friend was lifted up by the monster’s crushing grip. One pincer dug deep into Ogot’pak’s chest while the second grabbed her lower legs. Bones popped. Flesh tore. With a mighty pull, the scorpion ripped Ogot’pak in half. Ogot’pak screamed her agony. Guts spilled out in a pile before the scorpion. It threw the upper half of Ogot’pak’s corpse into a group of Singers, bowling them over.

No!” croaked Kee’mab. Her body shuddered. Her tongue fluttered in her throat as waves of grief washed over her.

Demon, you must keep fighting,” ordered the voice in her mind. “You have to reach the Tomb Lords.”

Great Spawner piss on your Tomb Lords!” she howled as she watched the scorpion stuff Ogot’pak’s right leg into its hungry maw. “Why are you doing this? Why can’t you fight on your own?”

You’re doing well. You’re saving my people, but you have to keep going, demon.”

The voice and the egg-eating gem turned her body. She stared at the hill. She was at the base of it now. Skeletons raced down it, trampling the brush, leaving paths of devastation. The three Singers at the summit stroked their obsidian staves. A pair of scorpions patrolled before them, heavy pincers snapping.

Her eyes locked on the figures. A rage filled her. An anger that had to be answered. If she couldn’t find Running-Beside-Stream and unleash her fury upon it, she would inflict her wrath out on those three on the hills. The had to pay for Ogot’pak’s death.

She leaped over a phalanx of skeletons stumbling towards her, her leg throbbing with agony. She didn’t care. She was beyond pain. She drew her club again, one of the shale blades shattered. A shard of white skull lay buried in a crack.

She landed on the slope of the hill. She croaked against the torturous throb shooting up her leg as her muscles flexed. She leaped again, the hill soaring beneath her. The three on the hill glared at her. Two were taller, the other slimmer, face different, softer, body curvier beneath its robe.

She landed before the scorpions. Their claws lunged at her, legs ripping at the slope as they surged at her. She leaped again, soaring over the monsters. Pincers snapped, almost catching a webbed toe. She raised her club up high, fury surging through her.

Something screeched above. A large bird with black feathers opened its maw, a helidor gem shining in its throat. It dived at her as she hurtled at the three Tomb Lords. They shifted, the smaller raising a head skyward, mouth moving, a harmonic song pouring from its voice while umbral shadows shivered off the glassy-black stave.

Kee’mab landed before the smaller Tomb Lord and swung. Her club brained the hated thing. Its skull shattered; an eye bulged. Something broke beneath its skin. Shards of obsidian burst out of the black tattoo on the Tomb Lord’s head, the shards tinkling through the air.

The bird above went limp. It plummeted toward the ground without a shout and crashed behind Kee’mab.

The scorpions chittered as they charged up the hill. The nearest Tomb Lord gripped the obsidian stave, blood pouring from its fingers, staining the glassy stone. Dark light flared across the stave as it sang. Kee’mab thrust out her left hand and seized the Tomb Lord in her webbed grip. The Tomb Lord screamed as she lifted it and whirled around.

The first scorpion was on her. She thrust the Tomb Lord at its stinger knifing down. It struck the thing she held. A blood pincer burst out of the Tomb Lord’s chest, ripping through the black robe. The screams turned to gurgling spasms.

The scorpion collapsed.

Kee’mab understood. These three controlled the monstrosities surging across the jungle. The skeletons, the Crushing Claws, the Winged Death. The voice wanted them to die. If she killed the Tomb Lords, she would go home. She would survive the Song.

Salvation at hand, she whirled around to face the final Tomb Lord, her club swinging in a brutal arc at its body. Things seemed to move slow, her mind drinking in details. The five markings around its head looked like black claws gripping its skull. The blackened skin was puckered, raised. Something was beneath the tattooed flesh. Something that glowed with a faint pulse of shadows.

More obsidian.

It shouted as she swung her club at it. The Tomb Lord thrust its stave forward, blood spilling from its cut fingers and staining the obsidian. The stave struck the sapphire gem embedded in her head as her mace slammed into its shoulder. Sapphire light exploded around her, clashing with the crimson shadow.

A harmonic dissonance surged around her. A cacophony of conflicting notes reverberated through the air. The watery light engulfed her. She croaked in shock. The Tomb Lord screamed in pain, its body crashing into her. She felt it clutching her waist, clinging to her as the world seemed to fold.

Invert.

The azure light and the crimson shadow intensified. Warred. They assaulted each other, rejecting the other like fish oil and water. They couldn’t mix. They were inimical and yet were surging around each other. The gem vibrated in her head. The Tomb Lord screamed louder.

Her stomach churned as the world folded.

She appeared in the void. The sound was gone. She spun, arms shifting. The Tomb Lord clutched to her. It stared at her, eyes wide. Its shoulder bled from her bladed club’s impact. It shook its tattooed head, gibbering in a strange language.

Get off me!” she screamed and kicked with her good leg.

The Tomb Lord’s grip broke from her. It spun away into the darkness, fingers reaching for her, twitching. She recognized the terror on its face. Then the blue light was around her. It was pure, unstained by the dissonance of his obsidian shard and foul blood.

The watery radiance gripped her. The harmony she heard rippled around her. The Song carried her. It held her immobile. It blazed with sapphire flames. She croaked, thrashing, struggling to be free. The harmony hit a crescendo.

The Song died.

She gasped, lying atop a marshy hill, staring up at a cloudy sky. She croaked, heart racing as she sat up. Her leg throbbed. Her throat ballooned before she let out a mighty croak. Her eyes darted to and fro and…

She was on Three Hop Hill overlooking Deep Current River. Her entire body shook. Her leg throbbed from the scorpion’s crushing claw. Crimson blood from the Tomb Lord was smeared across her torso. She released her club and sat up. Her tongue burst out of her mouth, flicking out as she rocked back and forth. A ribbitting croon burst from her that became a mighty shout.

She’d survived the Song. She’d killed the Tomb Lords, but… but… “Ogot’pak.”

The horrific sight was seared into Kee’mab’s mind. Her webbed hands grabbed fistfuls of the wet grass she lay upon. She scrubbed at the blood on her while her leg swelled from her injury. She groaned, croaking against the pain.

Against the grief.

How many of her people did the Singers summon? How many did they throw into their desperate fight against the evil Tomb Lords and their corpse armies? She scrubbed harder at her torso, needing to be clean.

Would she ever be?

The screams of the dying Singers, of the hissing scorpions and rattling skeletons lashed at her as she leaped away from the hill. She had to escape the sounds. They whipped at her. She landed at the hill’s base, stumbling at the fresh pain that throbbed up her leg. She grabbed a stunted willow tree’s feathery fronds to stay upright.

Ogot’pak’s croaking death-scream echoed around Kee’mab.

She pressed from the tree, moving at a loping bound, short hops that could never carry her far enough away from the echoes of death. They chased Kee’mab. Her eyes darted to and fro, her throat inflating and deflating again and again and…

A croaking, crooning song filled her ears.

She blinked out of the daze of pain. She stared ahead at Yq’maq’a who crouched low, his legs bent to the side. He stood a forearm shorter than her, his skin a deep, dark green. His soft croon, a lovely soprano, echoed over the babble of the river. He stood on the edge of a mud enclosure, an artificial pond built in a side-spur of the river beside a mud hut.

A large club lay at his side.

Eg’kee,” she croaked as she limped ahead.

His eyes twisted to face her before he shifted his entire torso. He peered at her with an unblinking gaze. Then he croaked and rose to his full height. He gripped his mace as his throat bulged. “Kee’mab?”

I’m alive,” she said. “I’m fine.” She limped forward as his eyes flicked up and down her. “The tadpoles?”

What happened to you?” he asked, his voice gentle. He lowered his club. “Did a crocodile ambush you?”

The tadpoles?” she asked again as she approached the pool. She peered at the water, but she could only see the gray sky reflected in the mirrored surface.

They’re fine,” he said. “Kee’mab, what happened?”

The Song,” she croaked as she reached the pool’s edge. She fell to her knees, staring into the water. A dark tail swished by, one of her tadpoles darting through the weedy bottom, its body still round with a yolk sac. More flitted through the pool. Five. Six. A dozen.

Song?” Eg’kee said. He knelt beside her. His long arm went around her shoulder. “Kee’mab?”

I survived the Song,” she ribbitted, a quiet sound. Her eyes closed as she leaned against her mate. He pressed her head into his throat. She could feel it inflating and deflating with his breath while she watched their tadpoles play.

His crooning sound, so different from the harmonic melody, wrapped around her. She’d survived the Song. In her mind, the horrors she witnessed remained. Ogot’pak torn apart, the skeletons slashing at her flesh, the crushing claws of the scorpions, the Tomb Lords she’d killed at the top of the hill.

They stained her thoughts. Would she ever escape them? Would she fear seeing death every time she closed her eyes?

She didn’t understand why they fought. What it had all been for. The Singers had wrenched her from her world and driven her into pain. If the Tomb Lord hadn’t destroyed her gem, would she ever have returned to her mate? Her tadpoles?

She clutched to Eg’kee and struggled to find peace.

The END

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Weekly Free Story: The Assassin’s Remorse

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

The Assassin’s Remorse

G’nite, Cerena,” Beshie said. “You be careful, you hear? All sorts of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells lurkin’ in them streets when the fog be rollin’ in from the Redmud.”

I’ll be fine, Beshie,” Cerena replied, slipping on her heavy, woolen cloak. It was plain, a deep maroon, and not the greatest quality, but it was the best she and her husband could afford.

I can have one of me boys walk you home,” Beshie offered her.

Cerena sighed, a little irritated at Beshie’s over-mothering. The matronly woman meant well, but Cerena had walked these streets at night for years and never ran into these “ne’er-do-wells” that Beshie always complained about.

The fog lay thick on the streets of Kash-on-Redmud. The town was called Kash-on-Redmud to differentiate it from the larger city of Kash, as well as Little Kash, Kash-on-Tumblewaters, and Upper Kash. She often pondered her ancestors’ lack of imagination. Surely, there were other names besides Kash.

Cerena shrugged the cloak tightly around her, trying to ward off the creeping chill of the mist as she trudged down the cobblestone street to her home. Exhaustion weighed on Cerena, her feet sore from standing for hours serving the homeless of the town their bowl of watery soup and heel of day-old bread. Every Whiteday evening, since she was a child, Cerena had come to the soup kitchen. She found the work rewarding; it fulfilled her Act of Compassion for the week.

She was a devout follower of the Seven Colours of Elohm, and strove with diligence to follow the Seven Tenets: Compassion, Patience, Forgiveness, Virtue, Honesty, Temperance, and Modesty. Each Tenant was represented by one of Elohm’s Colours: Compassion by Orange and Patience by Yellow. Green for Forgiveness and Red for Virtue. Honesty, White; Temperance, Blue; and Modesty, Purple. Only when all seven Colours are balanced in your life, can true freedom be found, the catechism went. Cerena liked to think she had a good balance. She wasn’t perfect, of course, no one was, but she tried her hardest and had been rewarded with a loving husband, a comfortable home, and fast friends like Beshie.

Her boots’ heels clicked on the pavement with each step. One click as her heel touched the cobblestone, then a second click as the ball of her foot came down.

Click-click.

Click-click.

It echoed through the empty streets, half-muffled by the thick fog that rolled in from the river. If it weren’t for the jewelchine streetlamps shining their soft, white light, she’d have been hopelessly lost. She knew her way home—six lamps to Ostler Way, take a right, then twelve lamps to Fishmonger’s Row, turn to the left, and four more lamps would see her to her tenement building.

Jewelchine lights were a marvel. Cerena could remember how dark the streets were as a child before they were discovered. The streetlamps were made using a diamond wrapped with a gold wire. Elohm, in his great mercy, had taught the secret of harnessing the powers of Gems and Metals. Just like there were seven Colours, there were seven Jewels and seven Metals. Each Gem had a certain property: Amethyst for security, Topaz for healing, Ruby for warmth, and Diamonds for light, for truth. Light is the purest form of Truth, banishing the darkness of Dishonesty, the catechism went. The wire provided the power. The purer the metal—with Gold the purest, Zinc the basest, and five others falling in between—the longer the jewelchine would last before the wire burned itself out and had to be replaced. For such an important task as lighting the streets, the Archons had decided to use the more expensive gold wire on the streetlamps, trading a short-term cost for a long-term gain.

There was the rumor of an eighth Jewel: Obsidian. Black as night, and used for only the most vile purposes. It had to be wrapped in the eighth Metal: Black Iron. The Metal found only in the hearts of dead stars that had fallen to the earth. Cerena shuddered at the thought. Only a man so deprived of Elohm’s Colours would dare to use such a thing.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Her contemplation of the jewelchine streetlamps slowly drifted to other thoughts as she confidently walked the foggy streets. She wondered how her husband’s trip to sell his leathers downriver to Ustervin progressed. A nervous pang entered her stomach; she always worried while Asht was gone. He was a tanner, and once a month he would make the day’s journey by pole-boat to do business with the leather merchants of Ustervin. It would take a day or three to sell his work, and then the two-day journey upriver. She missed him desperately when he was gone; their bed felt so lonely without him. But they needed the money his monthly trips brought.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Clack.

She frowned, stopped, and peered back into the mist. Was there someone else in the fog? It was so thick a fool all in motley could stand not three paces in front of her and she’d not even see him.

Hello?” she asked, her voice tight. Beshie’s warnings lit a small fire of panic in her belly. She clutched at her cloak, pulling it tight around her, and listened. She strained, trying to ignore the blood rushing in her head as her heart pounded to the rhythm of fear.

Nothing. Only the echo of her own words parroting back at her.

Slowly, she relaxed.

Get a grip, woman, she told herself. She suppressed a momentary stab of irritation at Beshie for planting the sparks of fear inside her. Cerena smoothed her cloak, reminding herself that Beshie was just concerned for her safety. Anger is black, is darkness, the very absence of Elohm’s Colours, she repeated the catechism to herself. Weighing down your heart like an anchor. Let go of hate, of all black emotions, and allow your heart to freely soar up into Elohm’s light.

With a deep breath, she kept striding through the fog.

Click-click.

Click-click.

It’s just my imagination playing games with me, she decided as she made the right turn onto Ostler Way. No one is following me.

She tried to gather her thoughts and focus on what needed to be taken care of at home before she could retire and seek the lonely solace of her bed. Asht should return tomorrow unless his business in Ustervin ran that extra day. She reminded herself to lay out her prettiest dress for tomorrow. Her cheeks flushed, thinking on the purple dress that showed just a hint of her bosom. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, within the guidelines of Modesty, but you could be a little immodest with your husband alone in your house; Asht was a passionate man after all, and she enjoyed it when was aflame with desire.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Clack.

Just my imagination, she kept telling herself. She quickened her steps. Only three jewelchine streetlamps before Fishmonger Row.

Click-click.

Clack.

Click-click.

Clack.

She peered over her shoulder. She saw nothing through the white haze except the fuzzy light of the last streetlamp. There were only two lamps to go. Her heart thudded in her chest.

Click-click.

Clack.

Was it getting closer? Another worried glance over her shoulder revealed nothing. Her stalker could be just paces behind her, cloaked in the fog’s white blanket.

Click-click.

Clack.

Her breath came in quick, ragged gasps as panic nibbled away at her thoughts. She reached the twelfth lamp and went left onto her street. Only four more lamps and she’d be home.

Click-click.

Clack.

She started to trot. Whoever followed her was closer.

Three lamps to go.

Click-click.

Clack.

Panic overtook her in a flash, like fire consuming dried tinder. She broke into a run, hiking up her skirt. She was beyond caring that a man might see her ankles and calves, beyond caring about Modesty; she just had to get away from that clack.

Two lamps to go.

She ran faster, her boots slipping on the damp cobblestone. She gasped, struggling to her balance, feet floundering beneath her. She gained sure footing, and raced forward. The last lamp was just ahead. She reached into the pocket of her skirt and grasped the amethyst bound in copper wire—the jewelchine key to the tenement’s building’s front door—tightly in her sweaty fist.

The last lamp flew by, a white blur in the thick mist. Her building loomed out of the fog, welcoming her with promised safety. She took the steps two at a time to reach the porch. She brought the amethyst key to the gemstone lock. A little arc of purple joined the two followed by a mechanical click. She threw open the door, darted in, and slammed it behind her. As she sucked in relieved breaths, she leaned back against the door.

Safe.

It took her a few minutes to regain her composure. She shook; tears ran down her face, mixing with the sweat. Twice, Cerena dropped her key—the crystal thunking on the old, wooden boards of the floor—before her shaking hands managed to put it back into her pocket. She was safe. Whoever had followed her in the mist wouldn’t have the key to the tenement building. The shaking stopped, her breathing slowed, and she wiped her face clean with a frilly handkerchief she produced from her skirt pocket.

It probably was just my own footsteps echoing back at me, Cerena told herself, feeling silly about the entire ordeal now that she was safely inside. She pushed off from the door and mounted the stairs; they creaked and groaned as she climbed, one hand grasping the banner. As she neared the second floor landing, she stepped over the loose runner near the top—the one the landlord refused to fix. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with it, Missus Ibsin,” he’d grunt to her whenever Cerena would bring it up. “So what if it wobbles some?” She hated talking with him. His breath always reeked of stale beer and his cheeks ruddy with proof of his less-than-obedient following of Temperance.

The floors creaked in front of Cerena. A plain-faced man stood on the second floor landing. Watery, toad-like eyes stared at her and lank hair fell about his forehead. He wore the slightly shabby clothes of a workman: dark trousers and a red waistcoat missing a button beneath a heavy, dark green coat that fell down to his knees.

Oh, hello, sir,” Cerena said, her voice neutral. She searched her mind, struggling to remember which one of her neighbors he was. “Um . . . I’m so sorry, I can’t seem to remember your name.”

Quite all right,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “It’s Missus Ibsin, right? Asht’s wife?”

Yes,” she answered.

His shove caught her completely by surprise. His hand pushed hard square on her right shoulder. Her feet left the steps. For a moment, Cerena was floating through the air. She seemed motionless, staring at the toad-eyed man in disbelief. Her hand reached slowly for the banister like she’d thrust it into thick molasses. Her fingers strained, desperate to grasp the railing and arrest her fall.

Why would he shove me?

Her fingers missed the banister, digits closing on empty air.

Then her back crashed into the middle of the staircase. Pain exploded through her. She grunted, the wind whooshing out of her lungs; her legs flipped over her head as she tumbled down the second half of the stairs. The hard, wooden steps bruised her flesh. She came to a rest sprawled on her back. Her left foot still rested on the stairs, the other lay twisted at a horrible angle.

What in the Black is going on? She was too confused to care about the vile curse. Her head rang too much to feel the pain of her broken leg. She blinked, her body struggling to move and her mind struggling with the stranger’s actions. The stairs creaked. The toad-eyed man descended, his face devoid of emotion.

Help!” she rasped, struggling to yell.

Surely, one of her neighbors had heard her crashing tumble. She balled a fist and pounded on the wall. His shadow fell on her, blocking out the soft, white light from the jewelchine crystal glowing from the ceiling. His knee came down between her breasts, crushing her lungs. She tried to breathe, desperate to suck in a lungful of sweet air. The entire weight of his body pressed down on her; ribs cracked like twigs. She clawed at his knee, struggling to push him off. She needed to breathe, her lungs burning and her head swimming.

He’s killing me, Cerena realized in utter disbelief. No! I can’t die! I don’t want to lose my husband! She kept pushing at his knee, using every bit of strength she could muster; her face burned as the blood pumped furiously through her veins while her body screamed for air. No, no, no! This can’t be happening! Please! Her husband’s friendly face swam up in her mind—sweet smile, loving eyes. Please, Elohm! I’ve followed the Tenets all my life! Please, give me this one thing! Let me live!

Her strength gave out. The world grew black on the edges, narrowing her vision. Her body ached for air, but it was useless. She could fight no longer. All she could do was stare up at her killer. Never in her life had Cerena hated someone more—a black, corrosive, heavy rage. How dare this man steal my life! It isn’t fair, Elohm!

His eyes were green.

As her heart began to flag, that one thing filled her mind. Green. The Colour of Forgiveness. She was about to die. How could she face the Rainbow of Elohm with hatred in her heart? With a weight dragging her down into the blackness? I can’t! I don’t want to be dragged into the black depths! She gathered every last bit of will she possessed, focused on her killer’s green eyes, and whispered three words.

And then she let go and was swept up by the beautiful, scintillating light.

* * *

Cerena’s lips moved, struggling to speak; her eyes focused intently on the assassin.

Liquid blue pools became black as the life fled her body.

The assassin kept pressing his knee into her chest. He counted calm heartbeats; when he reached one thousand, he was satisfied that she’d died. He studied her round face, the color fading from scarlet cheeks, leaving peaceful beauty staring sightlessly at the ceiling.

What had she tried to say to me at the end? His memory focused on her dull lips—no reddening rouge to brighten them, a modest woman—as they formed soundless letters. It wasn’t a damnation or a curse. The anger had melted out of her face and her eyes had softened right before she’d struggled to speak. A calm acceptance transformed her final moments.

Confused, the assassin walked back up the stairs, found his absorber—a yellow jewelchine that trapped sound in its influence, covering most of the stairwell—and slipped the Heliodor wrapped in Nickel into his pocket. She’d tried to raise a racket, but thanks to this handy jewelchine he’d invented, none of her neighbors had heard a peep.

He descended the stairs, taking care to step over the loose step that would be blamed for Cerena’s death. He paused at the bottom, studying her face—dead, beautiful, framed by golden hair—one last time, trying to puzzle out what she’d tried to say.

It doesn’t matter, the assassin told himself, pulling his gaze away.

On his walk to the tenement building’s front door, he slipped out his Obsidian blade bound in a Black Iron wire. The blade had a lot of nicknames: black tooth, shadowed death, the assassin’s wife. Death by focused light was the sentence for being found with an Obsidian jewelchine, particularly this one.

He touched the lock with the blade, tricking the amethyst jewelchine. It clicked mechanically, and he slipped out into the fog, carefully sheathing the blade. Despite being able to easily slip between a man’s ribs and find his heart, the blade was fragile and easily chipped. That would destroy it. The Obsidian had to be shaped just so, and the assassin did not have the skill to make a new one. The cost of a replacement blade would beggar him. It had taken years, and many deaths, to pay off this one.

With a staggering walk, he stumbled off into the fog, just another drunk coming home from the tavern. The mist wreathed him in a thick, white blanket smothering sight and sound. The assassin’s thoughts drifted—dull lips moved soundlessly; the plump kind that were nice to kiss.

What did she try to say?

He went two blocks too far before he realized he’d missed his turn. A momentary panic shot through him as he struggled to get his bearings in the thick fog.

Pay attention, Eljin, the assassin admonished himself. Plan, think, succeed. His mantra: plan carefully, think everything through, and you will succeed. Thanks to his meticulous care, he didn’t make mistakes, and thus commanded high rates for his work. So stop rainbow watching!

The lapse of situational awareness puzzled the assassin, his mental discipline weakening beneath the question of her final words. What could she have possibly been trying to say with such a calm, almost forgiving, look on her face? It annoyed him when he missed the second turn, and he grew angry at himself for walking past the third.

Plan, think, succeed.

His house was a narrow, tall building, built cheek-to-jowl with the other houses on the street. The assassin had inherited it from his mother when she’d passed away ten years ago. He’d lived in the house alone ever since. Inside it was neat, orderly. He took off his heavy jacket, hanging it carefully on the coat hook, his shoes placed precisely beside the door, and pulled on his felt slippers.

A trapdoor lay in his sitting room beneath a gray, oval rug decorated with seven lines woven in many intricate knots. Each line was a different color, giving the appearance of piety. The assassin gave little thought to the Colours and the uptight God, Elohm.

Descending the narrow, wooden ladder, he entered his dark, dry cellar made of smooth dirt walls. Wooden slats, resting on the hard-packed soil, creaked beneath his feet. By memory, his hand found the jewelchine light; the black was banished by white light. He hung his tools—his wife, the obsidian blade; the absorber; two emerald stunners, each wrapped in black iron wires; a pair of grip-gloves, and his pocket-torch—on a board of cork studded with nails, providing a spot for each tool to rest.

The assassin surveyed the cellar, searching for any minute thing that lay out of place. Plan, think, succeed. A spider formed a cobweb in the corner—wispy, spindly, untidy. He found a rag, killed the spider, and wiped up the clinging silk. Satisfied that everything was in order, he climbed the ladder, closed the trapdoor, and repositioned the prismatic rug.

He washed the cobwebbed cloth in his sink and left it to dry before he climbed the stairs and found his bedroom. He readied himself for sleep precisely. He dropped each article of clothing into his hamper before pulling on a clean nightgown. Then he drew back the quilted duvet and crawled beneath. Sleep came the moment his head rested on his pillow.

* * *

I forgive you.

The assassin jumped awake, nightgown drenched in sweat, heart pounding, lungs heaving. The dream lingered in his mind—dull lips struggled to speak; blue eyes widened black. Soundless words echoed in his mind.

I forgive you.

He stumbled downstairs into his kitchen and his hands trembled as he filled up a clay cup with water from his jewelchine kitchen sink. The assassin downed the liquid in a single gulp before filling another cup. His paroxysms spilled water as cold as ice, as death, across his hand. He concentrated, forcing his hand to stop shaking. He drained another cup, carefully placed it back into his cabinet, then climbed the stairs, and returned to his bed.

* * *

The assassin woke as the first rays of morning peeked into his room. No more dreams had plagued him after he’d returned to bed. Last night was just an aberration, he told himself as he dressed in his sober clothes before making his bed. To break his fast, he picked a tomato out of his garden, sliced it thinly, and fried it with two eggs. After eating, he cleaned his dishes, wiped down the counter, and took the leftover food to his mulch pile.

He had a short walk to his jewelchine shop. On the way, the assassin passed the same, familiar faces. He nodded to Master Tosner and Master Isthen as they sold their fruit and meat pies on the street corner, gave Ostin a polite nod while giving his nightsoil cart a wide berth, and shook hands with Master Hron as he smoked a cigar before his business, Property and Life Insurance. It lay next door to the assassin’s jewelchine business.

Often, it amused the assassin that none of these men knew the real person who lurked behind his mild-mannered mask. To them, he was just a jewelchine smith—boring, unremarkable, trustworthy—a paragon of Elohm’s Colours. He was honest with his customers, dressed modestly despite his apparently successful business, was temperate in his behavior, compassionate enough to give to soup kitchens, forgave other’s their trespasses, was virtuous in his habits, and only patience could allow a man to craft delicate jewelchines. He played the farce, mouthed their catechisms while thinking his own: Think, plan, succeed. A sloppy assassin was a dead one. Whether by treacherous associates, vigilant targets, or sorrowful executioner, the end was the same.

He unlocked his shop’s door and threw wide the drapes covering his storefront. He examined the shelves, making sure every jewelchine was in its proper place and in working order. Satisfied, he entered his back room and, with great care, set out his jeweler’s tools. First, he set about repairing a broken aquifer, carefully bending gold wires around a deep-blue sapphire. The wires had been damaged, stopping the gem from condensing water out of the air. It should only take the assassin’s practiced fingers half the morning to replace the delicate wire.

I forgive you.

Hands shook; gold wire snapped, ruining the morning’s work. Suppressing his annoyance, the assassin set his pliers down. Plan, think, succeed, he berated himself. He dropped the two broken halves of gold wire into a jar to be melted down later for new wiring, and snipped a new length from a spool. He took a breath then returned to the delicate work of bending the wire in the specific pattern to channel the gem’s power. The way the gem was cut and the way the wire was wrapped and bent instructed the jewelchine on how to manifest the inherent energy of the gem, channeling the power into useful tasks. It was an art form—figuring out the angle of the facets, the degree at which the wire had to be bent, and just where the wire would lay upon the jewel. The assassin had found moderate success at inventing a few devices to aid his nocturnal work.

By midday, though his back ached from bending over, his mistake had been repaired. He stretched protesting muscles while his stomach rumbled. He put his tools in their proper spots, locked up his shop, and walked to a small, open-aired cafe at the street corner. He bought his usual ham sandwich on rich, black bread along with the midday paper. Unfurling it, he scanned the headlines as he took a large bite—salty ham, sharp cheese, and spicy mustard warred in his mouth.

Woman found dead in tenement,” the headline read. He moved down to the article. “Late last night, Cerena Ibsin was found dead of an accidental fall in her tenement. Neighbors blame a loose step that her landlord had long refused to repair. Friends spoke of Cerena’s generous heart. ‘Every Whiteday evening she was helping out at my soup kitchen,’ a tearful Beshie Corvan reported. Cerena was survived by her husband, Asht, who . . .”

Pale lips, blue eyes. I forgive you.

Bile rose in his throat. Pushing back from the table violently, the assassin bolted for the gutter. In a trickle of dirty water, he emptied his stomach with three heaves. He watched the green-yellow chunks washed away in the filthy current with the other effluence.

You a’ight, Eljin?” the cafe owner asked, picking up the assassin’s chair that he’d knocked over in his haste.

Yes, yes, Kefin,” the assassin muttered. “I was out in the fog last night.”

The owner shook his head, red jowls swaying beneath his chin. “Gotta watch out for them bad vapors. I always wear a cheesecloth ‘round my mouth. Strains out the bad vapors, it does.”

I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.”

Kefin handed the assassin a cup of water. He rinsed his mouth and spat the bile into the gutter.

What is wrong with me? After so many years, so many deaths, the assassin was at a loss as to why Cerena Ibsin would affect him even a little. He’d killed his heart years ago. What was so special about one housewife? She is hardly the first wife I’ve killed for a husband.

Blue eyes softening with forgiveness. Forgiving eyes widening into death.

A creak drew his attention, a wooden sign swinging in the breeze, a faded tankard painted on the splintered wood. Just one drink, he thought. What is the harm? The bar was nearly empty at midday, the proprietor snoring in a chair, his face ruddy with drink. Barley whiskey, cheap, burned the assassin’s throat after he’d roused the barkeep. The fire in his guts drove away those black-damned eyes. Slapping three brass glimmers on the counter, the assassin felt his composure restored.

Work went a little slower that afternoon. This wasn’t like him; he rarely drank and never in the afternoon. Maybe a touch of sherry to drive out bad vapors on a particular foul night, or a glass of port when his cousin visited.

I forgive you.

Why? he asked the blue eyes.

Pain flared; half-a-finger of tin wire stuck into the meat of his thumb. Blood welled dark-red around the metal then trickled down his digit. A bloody tear shed.

The bell tinkled, announcing a customer entering his shop. The assassin grunted as he pulled the wire out, his thumb throbbing harder. He wrapped his wound in a handkerchief and walked through the beaded partition to the counter.

Good day,” the assassin said to the man and a woman in the shop.

The man had a friendly smile as he sauntered up to the counter while a bored look filled the woman’s dusky face, her plush lips pursed as her dark eyes scanned the shelves of jewelchines. The pair couldn’t have been more opposite: the man dressed in the rough clothes of a tradesman, hands calloused from heavy work, his skin pale, a local. Her dusky skin named her a Terysian from across the sea, her clothes rich-red brocade, low-cut to display a magnificent bosom. Not even the whores in Ustervin revealed so much flesh. The assassin could not stop his eyes from admiring her lushness. Terysians didn’t follow Elohm and his Rainbow of Morality.

Hello, Master Ibsin,” the assassin greeted the man, his client. “How’s your day been?”

Sad,” he answered, though not a hit of grief afflicted his friendly face. “My, uh, friend and I returned from Ustervin this morning to find that my wife had a tragic accident.”

The assassin glanced at the woman, evaluating her: beautiful, expensive clothes, jewelry—costly to stay “friends” with.

May the Rainbow of Elohm carry your wife’s soul to the heavens.” The platitude sounded wrong when the assassin spoke them; a mockery of Cerena’s life.

Blue, forgiving, dead eyes stared at him.

Are you all right?” Ibsin asked the assassin; he sounded concerned.

A skilled liar, the assassin guessed. A heart as dead as mine beats in his chest.

Yes, yes,” the assassin answered, gathering his thoughts. “You’re here to pick up your pocket-torch, right?”

Ibsin nodded. “I believe we settled on two gold beams?”

The assassin glanced sharply at the woman, who was still browsing his shelves. Two gold beams, more than a month’s salary for a laborer, was far too much coin for a simple pocket-torch jewelchine.

Don’t worry about Jasymina, Master Eljin,” Ibsin said with a dismissive wave. He produced two large, golden coins and slapped them counter.

The assassin’s hand darted out, scooped them up and pocketed them. From beneath the counter, he produced a diamond gem wrapped in zinc, the cheapest of metals, and handed it to Asht. The “grieving husband” nodded then motioned to Jasymina.

She swayed to him as he marched to the door. “I bet you could sue your landlord for neglecting to repair the step, Asht,” she purred, taking his arm. “That must be worth as much as her life insurance.”

Ibsin laughed; it was rich, full of life. “You might be right. I know a barrister . . .”

The door closed behind them. Disgust filled the assassin, clinging like muck to his soul. Killed so her husband could support his mistress. The assassin froze. Why do I care about why he wanted her dead? He patted his pocket, feeling the reassuring weight of the two gold beams.

* * *

Cerena stared up at him, her blue eyes shining with forgiveness as his knee pressed on her chest. Her face was turning red as she struggled to live. She was beautiful in a natural way, lacking any enhancement by immodest cosmetics. Her face was round, nose dainty, lips plump, and hair golden silk.

As pretty as Jasymina.

The assassin pressed harder. Reminding himself, you were hired to kill her. Don’t go getting soft now, Eljin. Ribs snapped like dry twigs. Her dull-pink lips struggled, soundlessly speaking.

Only this time, sound issued from those pale, wriggling lips: “I forgive you.”

Why?” he asked her, pressing harder with his knee.

Coins clinked behind him.

Fear rushed through him, cold as a winter’s gale. His hand darted by instinct to draw his wife. He spun with the Obsidian dagger held low. Cerena stood behind him, a nimbus of rainbowed light surrounding her, two gold coins held in her hand.

Is this what my life was worth?” she asked, blue eyes glistening. “You stole my happiness, my future, for two little bits of metal?”

I . . .” The words died in his throat.

You stole me from my husband, my friends, my family. You stole me from everyone that cared about me, loved me. All for these coins?”

The assassin floundered as her blue eyes held his gaze, pleading for answers. “It’s what I do.” The answer sounded lame—unsatisfactory, insulting, cheapening—the moment it left his lips.

I see,” she sadly whispered. “I was simply a nail to be hammered? A fish to be gutted? A cowhide to be tanned?”

His mouth opened, but he found no words to speak, no excuse worth the cost. He never thought about why he killed. He was good at it, and the rewards supported his jewelchine tinkering.

Was my life so worthless you can’t even answer me?” The pain in her words tore at the assassin’s soul. Guilt—crushing, suffocating guilt—filled his heart, squeezing it with an iron grip, trying to arrest its beat.

It was your husband that wanted you dead,” the assassin gasped, clutching his chest as his heart warred to stay alive. “Not me. I didn’t kill you! It was your husband! I was just his tool—the hammer wielded by his hand. It wasn’t my fault!”

Was it my husband that pushed me down the stairs? Did he crush my lungs with his knee and stare me in the eyes while I died?”

The assassin bolted awake, his nightgown stuck to him with sweat. He raced downstairs into his orderly kitchen and tore open cabinets. He threw plates and crockery to the side to find his cooking sherry. He grasped the green bottle and didn’t bother with a cup. He took a long swig of the wine. Then a second deep swallow, the drink burning his insides, warring with the guilt crushing his heart.

It was your husband!” he sobbed at the blue eyes. “He killed you! Not me!”

I forgive you.

Then leave me alone! Haunt your black-damned husband! He killed you!”

I forgive you.

I didn’t kill you! I don’t need your forgiveness!” He threw the bottle at the blue eyes, striking a crock of honey. Both smashed into unsightly, untidy shards. The assassin didn’t care. He only shrieked incoherently at those eyes.

* * *

The assassin dressed in dirty clothes; none were clean in his house. Unsteady with drink, he grabbed the first pair of trousers he found on the floor and pulled them up his leg. He tottered on one foot, the room spinning around him, and fell back onto his bed. He grunted and continued dressing. He found a stained shirt and a greasy waistcoat and did the buttons up crooked. He stumbled down the stairs, catching himself twice before he tumbled head-first. He snagged a half-empty bottle of whiskey left on a shelf in the sitting room, took a swig, then kicked the rug aside that hid his cellar. Bottle in hand, he descended into the black hole, the drink weighing him down into the darkness.

As he stared at the cork board from which hung his assassin’s tools, he struggled through the fog of his drink to remember what items he would need for the night’s work. His wife, of course. He slammed the obsidian dagger into its sheath. Then he snagged his diamond pocket-torch, the absorber, and his pair of leather grip-gloves made with tiny Emeralds bound with Aluminum wire that adorned the glove’s palm and fingertips.

I invented these, right? The assassin asked himself, staring bemused as the light glinted in the emeralds’ facets. Pretty sure I did.

He made it halfway down his street when he realized he’d forgotten the igniter. Plan, think, succeed, he berated himself. He struggled to focus through the fog of drink. Part of him knew he shouldn’t imbibe the alcohol, but it shrouded him from those forgiving blue eyes.

No more mistakes, he berated himself. You need this job, Eljin. It had been the first nocturnal job he’d taken in the weeks since the Ibsin job—the assassin didn’t like to think about that one; the blue eyes always appeared when he thought of her. Desperation drove him to accept this one. I could make some money again if those damned, forgiving eyes would go haunt Ibsin instead.

He felt ill while he’d talked to Missus Kithan—the same roiling, nauseating inferno that consumed his stomach every time he talked with a potential client—but he needed the money. Creditors were pounding on his door: rent was due for his store, vendors needed payment for materials, and his customers demanded refunds for shoddy work. The two gold coins burned in his pocket, weighing him down with every step.

He should just part with them, couldn’t. Her eyes castigated him every time he tried.

He got lost on the way to Salmon Row. The helpful proprietor of a bar gave him directions, as well as selling him a bottle of cheap whiskey. Off lurched the assassin down the streets, stumbling from one side to the other.

An hour later than he’d planned, the assassin found the house. It was large, constructed of river stones fitted together with mortar. A tall garden wall encircled the house. Green tendrils crept over the top of the wall and hung down the bricks, reaching for the street.

The assassin pulled on his grip-gloves. With ease, he climbed up the wall. The problem came when he tried to hook his right leg over the lip. He balanced precariously atop the narrow wall, struggling to get his legs to cooperate. His foot kept catching on the stone lip. He gave a jerk and his leg lurched over too hard. For a moment, he flailed his arms in a useless attempt to maintain his balance before he fell heavily into a rhododendron bush.

Stems scraped his face as he struggled to escape the bush, lavender petals clinging to his clothing. He stumbled out, tripped forward, and fell onto soft grass. He patted himself as he stood and realized he’d dropped something important. With a grunt, he strode back into the bush with drunken determination to find the bottle of whiskey he’d dropped.

He found the bottle just in time, feeling the blue eyes nearing. He took a drink to ward them off. Then a second for good measure. The assassin tried to remember why he hated whiskey; it was such a marvelous drink. He whistled as he staggered to his target’s back door.

He found it locked.

He stared stupidly at the knob then twisted it again. It refused to turn, as stubborn as he was. He grunted, the metal rattling. He grunted. Now what? he asked his foggy mind. There were windows he could break. He frowned. That didn’t feel right to the assassin. Don’t I have a tool that can open doors for me? He patted his pockets, and felt something hard. Igniter? I could burn the door down. Absorber? It would keep anyone from hearing me break open the window. He touched the dagger.

Feeling like a motley fool, he drew his wife and casually touched the black tip to the door’s jewelchine lock. Purple light arced; the lock clicked. With a triumphant shout, he entered the house. A cat yowled and hissed.

The bottle fell out of the startled assassin’s hand and clattered as it rolled across the wooden floor.

He almost fell over trying to grab the whiskey. Once it was securely in hand—well, once he’d taken another deep, fortifying drink of the wonderful liquid—he peered around, trying to get his bearings.

Have to find the stairs, he remembered as the cat hissed from beneath a couch.

He tried to walk lightly, but his feet kept crashing onto the wooden floors no matter how much he concentrated on gentle steps. He was thrilled to have only tripped once while ascending to the top of the stairs.

His target, Missus Kithan’s husband, slept soundly in a large bed next to his young mistress. Both snored. Several wine bottles littered the room and a half-smoked cigar lay on the floor. The bed was rumpled, the occupants naked.

The assassin struggled to remember Missus Kithan’s instructions. “I want them to burn. Him and his hussy,” she’d cackled. “He’s always fallin’ asleep smokin’ his darkness cigars! Just set the bed aflame.”

That’s why I brought the igniter.

Pulling it out of his pocket, he concentrated. The gem glowed with an inner fire, reddening the copper wire that bound it. He bent down to touch the gem to the tangled blankets when the mistress rolled over, golden hair shimmering in the moonlight.

Round face, framed with gold hair, blue eyes staring up with forgiveness.

He froze. She found me. The assassin’s hand shook. Just touch the cloth, he ordered his hand. Do it!

The blue eyes held out her hands; a pair of gold coins gleamed around pale, dead fingers. Is this what my life was worth?

Why are you hesitating, Eljin? thought the assassin. Just do it! Touch the cloth. The hand refused to move. It’s not your fault. You’re not killing them, not really. It’s Missus Kithan and Mister Ibsin and all the others who hired you over the years. You’re the hammer. They’re the hammerer. If you didn’t do it, they’d just find another tool.

Was it my husband who pushed me down the stairs? the blue eyes asked.

No.”

The assassin fled, racing down the stairs. The cat yowled, scared out of its fur and whiskers as he barreled through the parlor. He burst out of the house, scrambled over the fence with drunken desperation, and pounded down cobblestone streets. Terror and guilt whipped at his heels, spurring him to race faster and faster. He ran until his sides ached to bursting and the whiskey in his belly rebelled, vomiting out of his mouth into the gutter.

I didn’t kill you!” he sobbed over and over, bile bittering his tongue, his soul whipped raw by the tempest of his guilt. “Your husband killed you! Not me!”

I forgive you.

The tempest dissipated. Those three words banished the storm inside him. A placid calm, the lull in a titanic storm, descended on the assassin. She forgave me. The assassin looked up at the sky, dark clouds parting. The green moon, Elohm’s Forgiveness, shone down on the assassin.

How could her husband have wanted to kill her? the assassin wondered. She was such a loving woman. She found the strength to forgive me. Why did he deserve to have happiness and love? Why did he deserve to live and not her?

Why did he deserve to live?

* * *

For days, the assassin stalked Cerena’s husband, her real killer. I didn’t kill her, he would tell himself, fixing his green eyes with mad fervor on the friendly face of Asht Ibsin—the mask hiding the callous monster from the world. The assassin didn’t need the drink any longer; he didn’t need to hide from her blue eyes in a haze of alcoholic fumes. He knew what the eyes needed: vengeance, justice.

Ibsin would die. Then Cerena’s soul would be able to rest.

It disgusted him watching Ibsin cavort with his hussy, Jasymina. They spent their days shopping, buying the disgusting slattern more clothing, more makeup, and more sweet unguents. Their nights were spent carousing in expensive wine shops, the ones the wealthy merchants or itinerant noblemen patronized. Ibsin had not a care in the world, his happiness bought by his wife’s murder.

For a week, the assassin waited for his opportunity, becoming more and more delighted with the slattern’s behavior. Ibsin had begun to bore Jasymina, her lustful gaze roaming to new conquests. He watched from the back of the wineshop as Ibsin walked in, looking for his mistress. He found her draped on a wealthy merchant’s arm. The assassin smiled; she’d found someone with deeper pockets. For the last few nights, drink’s fog had kept Ibsin from realizing his Jasymina was seducing her next lover.

The assassin padded after the dejected Ibsin, his hand wrapped around the hilt of his dagger. Swollen bruises marred Ibsin’s face from the chastisement he’d received at the hands of the merchant’s guard when he’d objected too vociferously about Jasymina’s abandonment.

The assassin wondered if the guilt gnawed at the tanner now. You killed your wife for that slattern and she tossed you aside like a torn petticoat. He wanted to laugh, to revel in Ibsin’s humiliation, but that might give him away.

Plan, think, succeed.

The assassin thought it was fitting to kill Ibsin in the very tenement stairwell where Cerena had died. Where Ibsin—through the assassin—had murdered his wife.

Ibsin reached the door, pulled out his key, and touched the amethyst to the lock. The soft, white glow of the jewelchine streetlights revealed no witnesses. Like a haunting ghost, the assassin drifted to the tenement. Ibsin pushed the door open. The assassin slammed into him, throwing the tanner into the tenement. Ibsin cried out in alarm, his foot tripping on the stoop, and fell into a heavy heap on the wooden floors.

The assassin drew his wife, sleek, black, gleaming deadly in the white light of the stairwell.

You?” Ibsin blinked drink-bleared eyes in confusion. He froze as the assassin fixed hard, green eyes on him. “W-wait! I can pay you more!”

He scrambled back before the assassin’s slow advance. The tanner pulled a thick, steel knife from his boot, a heavy blade used to cut hides. A single kick, aimed with care, connected the tip of the assassin’s booted foot to Ibsin’s wrist and sent the knife clanging to the floor.

I’ll pay double your rate,” Ibsin blubbered. An acrid-sour odor filled the air—nightsoil. The assassin’s eyes flickered down, the breach of the tanner’s pants mud-brown. Yellow piss puddled on the floor.

The assassin hovered over the murderer, his obsidian wife raised. Ibsin’s eyes fixed on the black blade. All he had to do was thrust his dagger, slip it between the man’s ribs, and find the monster’s treacherous heart. Then she shall be avenged! Then she shall stop haunting me.

You killed her,” the assassin hissed.

Who?” squealed Ibsin.

Your wife!”

N-no, you did!” Tears ran from his gray-blue eyes. “I didn’t kill her.”

Yes you did! You sought me out! Walked into my shop! You hired me!” Words paused for a ragged inhalation. “You used me like a tool! A hammer!” Spittle rained down on Ibsin’s face. “A hammer to pound the nail into your wife’s heart!”

B-but you killed her! I just gave you the money. I never would have hurt her myself! She was just in the way of my happiness! But I didn’t kill her. That was all you! Please! There’s still some of the insurance money left! And I have a settlement coming. My barrister tells me I have a huge negligence case against my landlord!”

I don’t want your money!” roared the assassin. “Cerena doesn’t want your money! She wants vengeance on the man who killed her!”

That was you! Not me! Please! Elohm save me! I didn’t kill her. I’ve never even harmed a freckle on her body!”

The words struck the assassin—the sound of ribs cracking filled his mind, hands frantically trying to pry his knee off her chest, a beautiful face turning red, Cerena fighting desperately to live.

It crystallized in an instant for the assassin. He never harmed a freckle on her face . . . But I did.

No, we killed her,” the assassin admitted. He felt something fall from his heart—a great weight. I killed so many, the Colours help me. There is so much blood on my hands. “You were the mind, the thought that swung the hammer, Ibsin. You wielded me, but I’m not a mindless tool. I’m not a hammer swinging with no control over where I land, which nail I pound into the wood. I could have said no. I could have stopped you or warned her. I could have done any of a hundred things. Together, we murdered her.” The tear welled in his green eye, rolling down his cheek. “I’m so sorry, Cerena.”

Blue eyes whispered back: I forgive you.

Eljin dropped the black blade. It tumbled, light glinting bright on its irregular surface. With a tinkling crash, it splintered into three large shards on the faded floor.

She forgave us,” Eljin told Ibsin. “I don’t know why. Elohm knows we deserve her curse, her anger.”

She was a kind woman,” Ibsin blubbered.

Fishing into his pocket, Eljin pulled out two gold beams, each stamped with Elohm’s rainbow, and dropped them next to his broken blade. Then he turned, and walked towards the door.

Cerena was a better person than me. All I ever did was take. Eljin knew it was time to find something else to do with his life, find some way to repay Cerena for what he’d stolen from her. Maybe this is why she forgave me, he mused, to teach me to be a better man.

Ibsin’s dagger slid easily into Eljin’s back, slipping through the ribs and piercing his lung.

You killed her, not me!” Ibsin howled as Eljin pitched to the floor. “I would never harm a freckle on her! Never!”

Cold stole over Eljin as he rolled over onto his back. Ibsin loomed above him. Gripped in his white-knuckled hand was his tanner’s blade decorated with Eljin’s blood. The chill swelled through him as Ibsin raved, wild-eyed. The words didn’t matter; Eljin was beyond them. Anger clenched his heart. I spared this man, and this is how he repays me?

Cerena appeared, riding down from the heavens on a rainbow of light, and stood above him—light opposing her husband’s darkness. A sad smile graced her lips as she stared down at Eljin with soft eyes. Her murderer.

How?” Eljin croaked to her. “How could you forgive me?”

How what?” Ibsin cackled. “What are you saying!”

Anger is black, is darkness, the very absence of Elohm’s Colours. It weighs down your heart like an anchor,” she answered. “Let go of hate, of all the black emotions, and allow your heart to soar up into Elohm’s light.”

That’s . . . it?” The words were growing harder to bring forth, his mouth coppery with blood.

That’s what?” demanded Ibsin; Eljin ignored the monster’s mad face, fixing instead on the plain beauty of Cerena’s.

That’s it, Eljin.” Her blue eyes were soft, forgiving, compassionate.

I robbed the world of an angel.

Eljin looked at Ibsin and spoke three words. The chain snapped. The anger plummeted into the darkness. Eljin’s soul rose up into the light.

The END

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Review: Untold Stories from the World of Myrrah Volume 1

Untold Stories from the World of Myrrah Volume 1

by Autumn M Brit

Reviewed by JMD Reid

A collection of short stories set in her delightful World of Myrrah. Fleshing out the world surrounding her two fantasy series Rise of the Firth Order and Games of Fire. They involve many of her main characters from before the first series and between the two. Stories of love and guilt, stories of growth and pain.

These were a fascinating collection of stories. Some are short and sweet, others have some real depths, and others full of action and suspense. The writing holds all of Brit’s charm. The stories reveal new facets of her characters and shows the events that shaped them.

Her world has so many corners to explore, and I was glad to enjoy it. If you’ve read Brit’s fantasy series, you have to read this. If you’re a fan of imaginative and exciting fantasy stories, there is plenty in here even for newbies to her writing (though the last few will spoil Rise of the Fifth Order).

I was glad to pick this up and thoroughly enjoyed returning to Brit’s World of Myrahh. I can’t wait for volume 2!

This book peels back more of her world and reveals the underlining pinning of it. This is such a fast-paced and fun book to read. The stakes have never been higher, and the emotions have never been stronger. If you haven’t started reading Brit, then you need to pick up Born of Water and start reading this amazing series!

Fans of fantasy will fall in love with the writing of Autumn Brit! I can’t wait to see what new and imaginative worlds she’ll create next.

You can buy Untold Stories from the World of Myrrah Volume 1 from Amazon!

Blood to Flame

Blood to Flame

Day of Flames, Month of the Fire, Year of Heart’s Flooding 1062

Passion burned in Sdacsa’i.

Taek’a buzzed with euphoria as he rose from the woman’s embrace, his seed spilled in her. She cooed her delight, her ebony skin gleaming in the torchlight spilling between the two ruined buildings. The revelry raged beyond, the clash of cymbals, trumpeting of horns, and the rill of pipes created a melody of disharmony. A dozen different songs blending together with the shouts of the celebrants.

In Sdacsa’i, passions did not have to be constrained. Only one oath mattered, and only a fool would take that one.

Taek’a lurched with drunken laughter from the woman, his loincloth half-covering his manhood as he stumbled into the debauchery. He hardly thought of the woman who called herself Sa’ina. It meant “Desire” in his Ki’manese tongue.

A fake name. But who cared.

The oaths to the Passions didn’t matter here. The duty to family, friends, town, and Ki’mana did not hold power. Sleeping with a girl, spilling his seed in her, didn’t mean he had to take her for his wife and care for her children.

He’d come to taste fire. The raw Passion without any oaths or rules constraining him. A last chance of freedom before the repercussions of his deeds crushed him. Before he added his melody to Wueda and settled down to manage her father’s bakery.

He didn’t have flour on his hands here. He had the scent of a woman’s passion. He inhaled as he lurched out into the revelers dancing on the edge of the desert. Here, the fertility gifted by the Heartspring ended and the fiery death of the Anvil loomed ahead. The dry scent of the desert brushed his nose. He felt the warmth from its sands even though the sun had long set.

A giggling girl, naked and smiling, pressed a drink into his hand before being dragged off by a pair of her friends. All laughing and stumbling. He inhaled the fruity scent of fortified strawberry wine, the alcohol almost drowned the sugary sweetness. He took a swing, his tongue and throat almost dead to the burning.

Once a decade, this town lived. Once a decade, any acts here were free of the weight. Passions didn’t have to be constrained. He felt a freedom he’d never had in his village alongside the Heartspring, the massive lake at the heart of Ki’mana. From it sprang the Three Mother Rivers, the blessed channels that spread the life-giving water across what should be arid savanna.

A bonfire blazed to his right. Women danced around it, the firelight painting across their ebony skin. Like Taek’a, they were Ki’manese, not pale-tan like the Tethyrians to the north, or snow white like the staid followers of Elohm across the sea. They were the Children of Water and Fire, of passions restrained and blazing.

He drifted to the women, entranced by their movements. Some wore skirts of beads that flashed and swayed, exposing parts of their body kept hidden across the rest of Ki’mana. Breasts heaved, oiled and gleaming. Men clapped a beat around them, drinking, singing, lusting. A feverish pitch burned through Sdacsa’i.

Something built. Taek’a could feel it in the root of his phallus.

Did Wueda come here? he wondered idly. You never announced if you were going to Sdacsa’i, and your family and friends would pretend you hadn’t left. She was a fine girl and would make a fine wife, but…

He smiled as a girl darted past chased by an older man, his snowy beard almost shining against his dark skin. His muscles sagged, but he still had the virility to chase her into the dark corners between the ancient walls of the city.

Taek’a finished off the rest of his fortified wine, the flavor of strawberries lingering on his lips. He looked for a pretty girl to kiss. His eyes cast around, flicking past two men locked in their own embrace. It was Sdacsa’i.

Nothing was forbidden on this night.

The song around the bonfire hit a feverish pitch. The women were swaying in ecstatic passion. The growing sensation he felt rippled through him, a deep, resonating harmony. All the Passions had their own tones. The Passion of the Wind, of the Earth, of Father and Mother. Here, the Passion of Fire reigned. The most destructive. The most fierce. The one most needed to be controlled, or it would destroy everything.

The one place where it could sing to its fullest.

He felt it in the root of his manhood. Everyone did. The rhythm clapped louder and louder. The fire burned and blazed. The flames danced at any one moment looking like frozen crystals of oranges and reds and yellows before they shifted to the next pose. The coals of the burning logs blazed bright. The flames roared to a feverish pitch. The ground rumbled beneath his feet.

She was coming.

The Avatar of Fire. The Passion of Flames given flesh. The time to pledge the one oath enforced in Sdacsa’i had arrived. The one action that was binding. The one drunken boast you never wanted to make here.

The harmonics hummed. The buildings rattled. Groaned.

The bonfire collapsed. Logs spilled towards the dancers. They screamed, fleeing. Coals spilled across the desert sands. Sparks danced through the air. Men yanked gaping women to safety. A silence descended despite the roar of the spilled fire.

The harmony ended.

Well, well, well, look at all of you,” a voice purred in a strange form of Ki’manese, accented but not like any of the Relashim traders that passed through Taek’a’s town.

The woman who stepped up to the spilled fire had skin as pale as milk, her hair the color of spun gold. Her age was hard to say, at once young and bursting with hormonal passion, then mature and blessed with the wisdom of years. She held a silver goblet studied with garnets in one hand. She took a long drink, her ruby-red eyes flashing about the watchers.

O’csari had arrived. The Passion of Flame made flesh.

She finished her drink and threw the goblet into the fire. She laughed and pulled the nearest woman to her. Their naked bodies came together as O’csari planted a hungry kiss that made every watching male groan, Taek’a included. The woman shuddered, her ebony skin as dark as night against the Avatar’s flesh.

Mmm, don’t go far,” purred the Avatar as she broke away. She whirled around and fire burned at her fingertips. They blazed up her arms as a harmonic ringing filled the air. The single note of a tuning fork plucked.

The cup in Taek’a’s had purred.

Look at all of you,” O’csari said, her voice ringing through the night. In the dark around the bonfire, revelers gathered. She stalked around the spilled blaze, her pale flesh painted in dancing reds and oranges. “All this passion unleashed. You burn with it.”

She passed a woman, stroking her face with fiery fingers. The woman shuddered and touched her dark cheek, maybe to soothe a burn or to savor the caress of the demigoddess. The Seven Passions were sacred to Taek’a’s people. They could embody Avatars to enact their will, divinities with purposes mere mortals could never understand.

Yes, yes, you blazed with it.” O’csari breathed deep. “I can smell it. Intoxicants on the air. Lust brimming in all of you. No focus. No control. You spend your fires without any purpose. Isn’t it wonderful?” She smiled. “All this freedom. Look at what you do with it.”

A strange shame rippled over Taek’a as he realized his manhood was exposed. He shifted his loincloth. Women tugged at the scant clothing they wore. Men squirmed in place, shoulders hunching as O’csari circled the blaze, eyes judging.

She shook her head, golden hair dancing down her back. “This? You can do anything in Sdacsa’i, and this is what you choose? To fornicate with any man or woman you find? To sing songs and stumble around in a fog of drugs and wine? To satiate your own passions with no concern for others?”

Taek’a swallowed. Silence reigned

No one?” she asked. “No one wants to defend the pleasures you’ve indulged in? The freedom you’ve chosen?” She paused, glancing at a large man, his chest powerfully muscled. “Not you? You’re a strong one. What do you do?”

Blacksmith,” he grunted.

You know all about passions then,” she said. “Huh? Controlling the fire. Tempering heated metal. Is that why you’re here? Did you think you’d find satisfaction in dancing like the ephemeral flame? Swaying this way and that, blazing bright until you’re snuffed out.”

The man shrugged.

Why aren’t you reveling now?” O’csari looked around. “You have your freedom. Do not let me stop you.” She liked her lips, eyes falling on some of the half-naked dancers huddling together. “Not when there are such beauties to enjoy unless… Unless you came here for the ultimate expression of passion.”

The fire on her fingertips swelled up her arms as the resonance grew louder. It hummed through the soil and rattled Taek’a’s bones. He stood transfixed by her. The flames reached her shoulders, dancing towards her head and caressing her blonde tresses. The tips of her fingertips seemed to blur like the tines of a tuning fork.

She’s humming, he realized, the harmony coming from her divine flesh.

The ultimate resonance of passion is to give yourself completely to something else. Something beyond your selfish existence.” She whipped her gaze around. “You’ve fled your dreary existence to find freedom in this night of excess. You are tired of giving a little of yourself. To your parents. Your children and spouses. Your community. You think you want passion, that you’ll find it in this momentary pleasure. To truly resonate with passion, you have to surrender everything to the flames.”

Her eyes, almost glowing like ruby jewelchines, fell on Taek’a for a moment.

Feed it everything you have until nothing, not even ash, remains.” She shuddered. “That is why you are here. You don’t want freedom. You want the slavery that comes from true passion. To be a servant to something greater than yourself. Do you have the courage to face the trial of the desert? To let the blazing sun consume you and the sizzling sands devour you? Can you survive the furnace and become something better?

A Bloodfire?” someone called.

Bloodfires… The greatest warriors in the world. Unparalleled in their skill. They fought without fear because they had none. Every ten years, O’csari recruited for her fighters. Men and women who could take wounds that would slay Taek’a. Who could run for days on end? They never disobeyed because they gave themselves utterly to their master. They were the ultimate expression of Passion.

It terrified Taek’a that any could take the oath.

O’csari thrust her arms high.

Are you cowards?” she demanded. “Are you too scared to give yourself to me. You didn’t fear surrendering to the wine you drank, the drugs you chewed, the lusts you enjoyed. You willingly threw yourself into debauchery. You have come close to the flames. They are waiting for you. Cast yourself in. Blaze with me and be reborn as something noble. Something beautiful. Give yourself unto me and find the ultimate freedom.”

A drunken man stumbled forward, his hair shaved in the manner of a Kiwuj Ki’manese. He wore a dirty, tunic-like thwab. “I’ll become a Bloodfire!”

The Avatar of Fire whirled. Flames blazed across her entire body as she sauntered to him. She cupped his face and kissed him. The fire burning on her fingers danced to the harmonic resonance surging through the air.

The fire melted into the man. He stiffened and gasped. She broke the kiss. “I accept your oath. Dawn, you start your journey.”

Bloodfire!” a man shouted in salute.

Bloodfire!” Taek’a roared with the others.

I’ll be one!” a lean woman said, pressing from two others. She swayed with drink. “I’ll do it. Sounds easy.”

As easy as being born,” said O’csari before seizing the lean woman’s face with burning fingers and planting the fiery kiss.

The resonance hummed.

Why would they do this? Taek’a asked as another man stepped forward followed by the blacksmith. Most die. Who could survive walking days through the desert without water or food? It’s madness.

I can do it,” slurred a slender man who tripped as he marched forward, falling on his face on the sand. “I can swing a sword.”

Anyone can,” O’csari said as she knelt to kiss him.

Are they too drunk to know? He felt the alcohol burning through his own veins. The fire intense. They’re abandoning everything. They’re families. Their homes. A life of making bread…

He stared down at his dark hands. Wueda would make a fine wife. She had a plump figure. Her father’s bakery was profitable. It would be his one day, and until then he would make loaf after loaf. Day in and day out.

You slept with her that night, he reminded himself. You spilled your seed in her. You made an oath with her that night.

He thought of Sa’ina and the other women he’d enjoyed in drunken romps since arriving in Sdacsa’i. It didn’t matter here that he’d enjoyed their bodies. Even if a child quickened, it would be their husbands’ responsibilities to raise.

If Wueda is here… He pushed that thought away. She didn’t chafe under the regimented life in their village. Every day the same thing, forcing himself to wake up before dawn to work in the bakery. To find his bed before dusk.

He’d grow slowly fat like her father had from nibbling on his own wares. He’d face the ovens day in and day out. This strange horror filled him as his future stretched out before him. He swayed, dizzy from the wine.

Who else has the courage to surrender everything to the fire?”

Everything… His eyes lifted. He met her ruby gaze. A smile spread on her lips.

I can see it,” O’csari said. “Say it. Make the oath.”

I’ll be a Bloodfire,” he said, flinching from that stark feature. He never should have slept with Wueda. He’d been drunk for the first time on wheat beer, the music had been pounding, and the girl he’d wanted to dance with had instead chosen Bue’ab.

I’ll be a Bloodfire!” he declared, his voice slightly slurred. “Better than being a baker.”

Giving life is more work than taking it,” agreed O’csari before her blazing hands seized him. Fiery lips kissed him.

The resonance he felt early intensified. It shook his entire body. He shuddered as his bones shook. His flesh suddenly felt liquid. Porous. It was like the vibrations were energizing every bit of him, allowing him to become one with her flames.

They merged into his body.

She broke the kiss, and he collapsed to his knees, panting. Sweat dripped from his brow. Locks of ropy, twisted hair spilled down his cheek. He looked up to see O’csari collect the first woman she’d kissed, snag a flagon of wine from a man’s hand, and vanish into an alley.

What did I just do?” he groaned, feeling the weight of his oath. The only one that mattered here.

*

The Bloodfire oath was not easily broken.

Taek’a felt it in his bones as he waited for the sun to rise with the others who’d made it. The fire lurked in him, waiting for him to uphold his word, or he would truly surrender everything to the flames. The lean woman rocked back and forth a few paces from him, her eyes wide with the horror at what she’d done. On his other side, the blacksmith wept, staring down at his broad hands.

Every time I get drunk, I make a bad oath,” Taek’a said.

The blacksmith glanced at him, tears staining his ebony face.

I mean, it could be worse, right?” Taek’a tried to focus on that. “We’ll be warriors. Invincible. Not forced to marry the ugliest girl in the village because we were too drunk to see straight.”

The blacksmith looked down, his broad shoulders rippled. The lean woman barked a laugh that turned into a croaking sob. She shook her head and rubbed at her temple.

Headache?”

She nodded. “I’ve never been drunk before.”

I know a great hangover cure.”

She groaned, “What?”

Baking in the desert. We’ll be feeling the sun frying our bodies soon.”

She cocked her head. “Do you always babble stupidly in the morning?”

When I’m nervous. Too drunk last night to be nervous but now…” He glanced out at the desert. The sun neared rising, the world lightened to iron grays. Sand stretched across the horizon. It was said to be nothing but dunes between here and Bue’csa’i. The fortress where O’csari trained the Bloodfires lay at the end of the peninsula.

We’re not going to make it,” groaned the blacksmith. He flexed strong hands. “Passion’s curse this oath!”

But it’s what you want,” the purring voice of O’csari said.

Taek’a glanced behind him to see her emerging wrapped in a robe of Demochian silk. It clung to her lithe, pale body, her ruby eyes almost glowing. A woman hugged her from behind, ebony face blissful, eyes glazed from liquor or chewing brown soothe.

Passion has driven you here. Passions have hammered your life into the shape they now hold. Be free of them. Surrender them to the flames.” A cruel smile crossed her lips. “One way or the other, your lives have ended. You accepted my kiss. My flames burn in you. What will be left once they blaze? What will be born from your ashes?”

The blacksmith snarled and lunged at her. His bulk crossed the iron-gray sands in a flash, a charging rhino. A hum rippled through the world, the vibration of creation itself, the Passion of Fire roaring from O’csari.

Taek’a didn’t see her move. The woman hugging O’csari gasped, suddenly holding empty air. The blacksmith flipped through the air and slammed down on his back. It was an impossible feat of strength. O’csari weighed half of the blacksmith’s bulk and stood two heads shorter. She planted her foot on his broad chest.

Sun is about to rise,” she said. “Burn here or burn in the desert.”

Let me go back!” the blacksmith snarled. “I’ll make their passion-cursed pots and pans. I’ll slave before the furnace. Release me!”

But you gave your oath.” She leaned over. “There are consequences to everything. I used to think differently, I did. I believed in Anidze. We thought we could change the world, and instead we shattered it. We ruined it all.” Her lips curled in a smile as confusion rippled through Taek’a. Anidze sounded so much like A’nimize, the deadly manifestation of the Black Passion. The dread one that caused strife and discord, which had ruined the world in the distant antiquity, fracturing the peoples. It was why oaths were important.

A word spoken held power. A deed committed held repercussions. He could feel that truth in him.

Passions must be channeled, and if you do not have the self-control to manage it yourself…” Her eyes flicked to Taek’a and the others. “Go or die with him. Perhaps you’ll be reborn into something with purpose. Something strong and powerful. Perhaps you can be free of it all.”

A Bloodfire?” I asked.

Her smile flicked across her lips. “Maybe. We’ll see. Succeed or fail.”

Taek’a felt the harmony in him swelling. He glanced at the desert before him, gray, almost cool and inviting. The hairs at the back of his neck stood up. He ran a hand over his hair dreadlocks. He thought of Wueda. Is this better than marrying her?

No.

He jogged out into the desert, the others rushing with him. Flames erupted behind him. The blacksmith howled in agony, his screams flogging Taek’a. His legs found endurance. Despite the queasiness in his stomach, his pace quickened. He ran as fast as he could. His sandaled feet smacked on the sun-baked sand. The muscles rippled beneath his dark skin. The pounding in his head intensified. The taste of blood soon filled his mouth. His side throbbed.

He ignored it. He pressed into the desert.

The sun rose behind him. He felt its fire kissing his back. It spilled over his skin. A coating of sweat gleamed over his flesh. Scrub brush passed him by as he crossed the sandy soil. Lizards scurried into cover and desert thrushes chirped from thorny bushes. Grasshoppers bounded with him, their bodies as tan as the soil.

Finally, his endurance failed. He stumbled to a gasping halt. The sun’s heat already hammered at him. The air danced and wavered on the horizon, showing deceptive pools of refreshing water.

Thirst attacked him.

He looked around and saw none of the others. He glanced back behind him and only saw his footsteps disturbing the sandy slope of a dune. His head cast about while the pulsing rhythm of fire buzzed through his bones.

It pulled him onward.

You’ll be a warrior of legend,” said Taek’a as he stumbled forward. His feet kicked at the sand. His chest heaved. He licked lips, finding them cracked. He panted, his mouth dry. He rubbed his tongue across the roof of his mouth, struggling to generate moisture. “A mighty Bloodfire. Won’t that be something?”

Of course, have to be consumed by the desert,” he answered himself.

True.”

The sun’s heat intensified as he spoke to himself. The sheen of sweat on his body evaporated by noon. None replaced it. When he stopped to urinate, a weak stream of dark yellow spurted out. It hurt. He kept rubbing his tongue against the roof of his mouth, struggling to find any moisture.

His steps grew woozy. He stumbled and swayed, panting. His heart screamed in his chest. He felt it pounding with a frantic rhythm. He sucked in breaths, the air as hot as a baker’s oven. He coughed and wheezed. The sun kissed every inch of his body. His skin broiled in it. He shook his head, the world stumbling about him.

Someone has to make it through this,” he muttered, his bones buzzing. “I’ve seen a Bloodfire, remember?”

The Water’s Gift Festival?” he asked himself.

Yes, yes, the big chap with the huge sword. All the girls swooned over him. More than a few tried to entice him into a marriage.”

Not that he cared. Do Bloodfires even care about pleasure?”

Don’t care about anything, do they? Not surprising, feel like I’m getting wrung dry.”

Every drop squeezed out.”

His words trailed off as he stumbled forward into the setting sun. He blinked at that, his thoughts molten. It shone on him, half-blinding his eyes. His back and shoulders throbbed. His skin felt pinched taut by a thousand tiny fingers. He licked cracked lips oozing sluggish blood.

He tripped.

Pain flared through his toe. He gasps, stumbling and falling on the sizzling sand. He sucked in a breath, rolling over onto his back. He screamed in agony at the pain bursting across his blistered skin. He staggered to his feet, swaying.

Stared at the skull he’d tripped over.

Sand spilled out of one of the eye socket. More gagged the mouth. It was human, the exposed parts bleached white, the buried stained a dirty brown. He groaned and picked it up.

Look at you,” he said. “What happened to your flesh? Burst into flames?”

A mad cackle rasped from Taek’a. “Tried to turn your blood into fire, eh? That’s what I’m doing. Feeling it boiling out of me. Soon, soon, I’ll blaze!”

He turned and stumbled forward again, marching into the sunset, a skull gripped in hand. Sand tumbled off his back, spilling over the oozing blisters cooked into his dark flesh. The sun vanished. He’d survived the first day in the desert.

One down,” he muttered. He chortled again, his mind broiling. “See, did better than you, huh? Can’t fail. Can’t be like the blacksmith. He burst into flames…” A mad idea popped into Taek’a’s sun-addled mind. “Is that you, Blacksmith? Did you blaze here? Where did it happen?”

He staggered as the world cooled around him. Darkness deepened. He collapsed onto his chest and sank into dreams.

A dark, warm confine held Taek’a. He felt safe, curled up into a ball, his knees pressing into his chest. Whatever held him rippled and shifted. It squeezed him tight like a babe wrapped in swaddling.

Are you strong enough?” whispered a woman. “Birth comes in blood and pain.”

His eyes snapped opened.

The sun cooked him. Heat danced around him. Movement cracked pain across his back, muscles rippling splitting open blisters. Thick puss oozed across leathery skin, quickly congealing in the heat. He clutched the skull and staggered to his feet.

It was a wild night,” he babbled to the skull. “You know it. You were there.”

I was, answered the skull. He spoke with the deep timbre that reminded Taek’a of his father. Good harvest. A night of bounty. Many oaths were sworn.

Wrong oaths,” Taek’a muttered. “Wueda nice enough girl, but Obra’a… Now there was a girl to marry.”

She danced with Bue’ab. What was so wrong with Wueda?

Shrugged. He stumbled towards the west, the sun flogging his aching back. His heart screamed in his chest, struggling to pump his thickening blood. He shook his head, the skull floating beside him. Ropy locks of hair spilled around the bleached-white bones of her face.

Wueda’s hair

Yes, what was so wrong with me? Wueda’s skull asked, mandible moving, teeth clattering together.

Just… Just…” Taek’a shook his head. His ebony skin had a waxy complexion where it wasn’t blistering from the sun’s burning touch. “It’s not fair. One drunken mistake, and I had to marry you.”

I know, Wueda’s skull said. If I had been sober… Well, I was willing to make it work, but you were a coward. Too afraid of your passions. It’s why you’re going to fail. You’re not going to make it.

Show you,” he muttered and staggered forward.

The day passed in a haze of hallucinations. Skulls drifted around him, laughing, jeering, cheering. He struggled to speak to them, but his tongue didn’t seem to work. It felt shriveled in his mouth. Everything about him felt reduced.

He fell to his knees, not even feeling the searing heat of the sand. He crawled forward, staring at the horizon, at the ball of the setting sun. Skulls danced around it, a spiraling circle feeding the fiery orb. He would join them soon if he stopped.

His blood boiled away. It poured out of his pores, a red steam. His heart hurt. Every beat a struggle to pump congealing gunk through his veins. He dug at the sand, pulling himself forward another pace. He wanted to laugh. To cry. To… to…

Remember.

Taek’a collapsed into a ball. He dreamed he was in a womb, the comforting presence squeezing around him. Flames danced around him. They burned, hungry to swallow him. His bones yearned for it. For the end, but he was still safe here.

Protected.

He sucked on his thumb, his body held tight.

Do you have the strength to see the Eternal Tone? the mother asked him. Her voice echoed from all directions. To harmonize with pure fire. Your blood is gone. Sludge oozes through your veins. Do you feel it? The darkness? Do you want that?

He did not. Fear ripped through him. He trembled in the womb, the last of his passion raging in him. That was the last bit of him that existed. It had a name. Taek’a. He would have to surrender it to be born. He would have to give up everything to emerge from the womb.

His heart labored. He could feel the pain that living cost him. It was proof that he wasn’t gone. That he still breathed. If he gave up his last passion, it would take away his will. He would be bereft of it.

Terror rippled through him. He didn’t want to stop being Taek’a. He was scared of giving up his identity. It was his core. The flames burned around the womb. The fire wanted to devour his essence. If he were born, he would die.

He couldn’t surrender.

NO!” he screamed and clutched onto that last bit of life. He held it into his heart.

His blood caught fire.

He gasped as he felt his will, his desire to live, surging through his veins. The thick sludge that had become his blood, almost desiccated of any moisture, burned with hunger. It spread through his body. His heart pumped living flames through his network of arteries and veins. They spread, consuming everything.

Taek’a’s memories became the fuel for his life. His body grew stronger, sustained by his own passions, a never-ending inferno. He wouldn’t die. He wouldn’t pass from life into death. His flesh would survive.

You swore an oath, a voice whispered. To give it all up.

Taek’a’s awareness quivered at that revelation then it was gone, devoured by the fire now sustaining his body. His identity reduced to ash. The flames spread through him, merging with him. He became a living flame. The heat of the desert did not matter. The sun did not hurt. He didn’t need water when he had fire burning through his veins.

He opened his eyes.

I see you failed,” a disappointed voice said. A mother’s voice.

She stood over him, her pale skin framed by blonde hair, her red eyes soft. She touched his ebony face. The caress was tender and gentle. Pain swelled in her eyes as she stroked down to his thick lips. Her flesh felt cool, almost icy, on him.

They always fail,” she said. “No one can surrender everything to the flames. You tried. You were close. You came far, but it wasn’t enough, was it? You didn’t want to stop existing.”

Who am I?” he asked, his voice a rumbling monotone.

Her head cocked. “Why, a Bloodfire. A failed ascension. I have to keep carrying my burden.”

The Bloodfire blinked eyes.

You don’t understand. They never do.” She sighed and rose. “You need a name. How is… Ni’mod?”

Ni’mod shrugged. He flexed fingers, feeling the heat pulsing beneath his veins. A harmony sang inside of him, fiery and hungry. It demanded to be unleashed. It wanted to roar from him, to blaze and burn.

Come, Ni’mod,” she said. “I think one more made it far enough.”

As Ni’mod rose, his naked body hole and hale, he noticed a lean woman standing with a blank expression. He didn’t give her a thought. He turned and followed the pale-skin mother as she marched across the desert, lit by the setting sun. Ahead, another figure lay curled up in a fetal position, rust-red steam rising from dark skin.

Ni’mod walked into his future without care. Whatever burdens drove him into the desert were gone, consumed within his fiery blood. Only his life remained. The last passion he’d clung to. His final act of selfishness.

END

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Blood to Flame takes place in the Jewel Machine Universe!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Death rides in the Cyclone!

The demonic Stormriders are the greatest threat…

…to the people whose lives they’ve ruined. Do the riders have a weakness?

Ary knows their danger first-hand. As a child, they broke his family. Now he has a choice to make. Can he find a way to defeat them when so many before him have failed?

When the storm clouds come, what will Ary do?

You’ll be enthralled by this epic fantasy story set in the skies above the Storm because the characters will keep you hooked.

Fans of exciting and adventurous fantasy will fall in love with this story because of the great characters.

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