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The Soldier’s Wife 5: Why Soldiers Fight
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.
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!
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.
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, 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 Soldier’s Wife 4: The Tragic Purpose of Life
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.”
“Not much better for a daughter.”
“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.”
“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…