The cold was a hammer, striking the air from Eitan’s lungs the moment he stepped into the faltering storm.
It was also, he noted, already dark, the suns having set sometime after the Errant crew had entered the tavern.
Eyes narrowed against the wind-driven snow, Eitan pushed himself away from the tavern, shooter low, but steadied over the blade that stood for his left hand.
He didn’t know what it meant that, even after so long, he could feel the cold in the ghost of that hand.
In the faint glow from Upsilon’s outmost buildings, the hint of the moons in the tattering clouds, he spied his quarry moving northward, away from the tavern, from Upsilon, and the airfield.
What tracks he left were quickly refilled by the gusting ground snow, so Eitan followed at a job, mindful to stay within view of the city’s struggling lights.
He had no wish to emulate the warning tales of visitors who became part of the frozen landscape, simply because they could not see the shelter meters away.
He sucked in a breath like needles as the would-be killer approached what looked to be a rising shadow, and disappeared into it.
That can’t be right, he thought, before recalling Magnus and Yiva speaking of one of Upsilon’s other winter traditions—the snow Trojeborg.
In the moment, as Yiva had described the project, the scholar in Eitan had found it charming—and an interesting and clever way to honor the labyrinths that had originated in many of Earth’s cultures.
Now, as he came close enough to see the wall of snow through which his prey had disappeared, the warrior in Eitan experienced a shiver of acceptance—and a dark appreciation for the fractal nature of the universe.
What else but those mathematical echoes of nature and space could explain how he was, once again, trailing Conn—or at the least, a man made in Conn’s image—down a pre-ordained path towards death?
Still, one could take precautions, so before he entered, Eitan dropped the psychic shields he had been at such pains to teach Jagati, the better to sense his prey.
It was not his greatest strength—for the most part, Eitan was best attuned to the thoughts of those with whom he had physical contact—but over the past year he’d found himself sensing more, and at a greater distance, than in the past.
This sudden expansion in his sensitivity was curious, and he had some ideas as to why it was happening, but for the present he simply used it, reaching out to find the hot ripple of flame he associated with Jagati, and at her side, the warm, steady pulse that would be John.
That was what followed behind.
What lay before, on the other hand was—frenetic, and discordant—as if, he thought, the man’s thoughts were a hive of bees on the swarm.
Rather than help Eitan pinpoint his quarry, the effect dizzied him to the point he raised his shields again before stepping into the Trojeborg.
“Clouds are breaking up,” John observed as he and Jagati pushed through the wind. Stars, and one moon’s crescent, added some detail to the snow-blown expanse.
“You say that like it is a good thing.”
John flexed his fingers on the hilt of his shooter—thermal gloves or no, the cold was enough to numb his fingers—and considered the dangers of extra visibility.
Trusting Jagati to stay on Eitan’s trail, he let his mind recreate the scene in the tavern.
The fallen drummer, bleeding from what John’s practiced eye said was a stab wound.
Pascal, shooter in hand, gash on his temple.
The smell of plasma and singed flesh—presumably from the man Eitan had taken off after, as no one else had been shot.
“I don’t think the man we’re after has a shooter,” he said, keeping pace.
“Which means we have to watch out for a blade…but why take a knife to a gun fight? The guy had to know everyone in Upsilon is armed.”
True enough, John thought, and necessary, given Upsilon’s remote location. Sometimes packs of wolves, or herds of mammoths decided to investigate, and had to be driven off. “Quieter, I suppose,” he said, in answer to Jagati’s question and watched as even she, hardened veteran and jump captain, cringed at the idea.
John’s own breath exhaled in a fog, which iced over his face as he considered the mystery wouldn’t be solved until they found the man.
“That way.” Jagati’s voice, pitched to carry over the wind, pulled John’s attention to what appeared to be reaching fingers of shadow on the snow.
“Another ice tavern?” he asked, trying to make out what shape cast those shadows.
“No sound, no people,” she hissed through the wind, and shot an arm out to block John, thus preventing him ramming into the wall which seemed to have risen from nowhere. “Don’t break your pretty face.”
“Ha, and thanks,” he said as she moved on, running her hand along the flat surface that, on closer inspection, proved to be a wall of bricks.
Or, rather, bricks made from snow.
“Opening,” Jagati said, and John saw she’d found a gap in the wall.
Both double checked that their shooters were live, then rounded the corner of the wall, Jagati low, John high.
The stillness within the labyrinth surprised Eitan, though it shouldn’t have come as a shock that the stacked bricks of snow would block the forceful wind.
It still sang overhead, but the bite was lessened, as was the sting of the snow it had driven into Eitan’s exposed skin.
But that small relief came at a cost, as even the faint light from the city was lessened by the labyrinth’s barrier.
Hearing the crunch of his own boots in the drifted snow, Eitan stopped, listened, considered.
Unlike the mazes of Epsilon or Guinness, the Trojeborg was a true labyrinth. Not designed to confuse, but to lead the visitor to its center.
Mazes presented many choices, but here there was only the choice between moving forward, or moving back.
Eitan chose forward.
Slowly, and with his weapons at the ready, he trailed the creaking footsteps before him as they lead to the right, along the outer wall, then left, then a short right.
Kneeling at Kallik’s side while the young doctor worked to save a life, Rory had to give credit where due.
Not only was Kallik a skilled field medic, they had no trouble taking command of a potentially explosive situation.
From the moment Rory returned with the tavern’s emergency kit, Keld on his heels, Kallik had been in control… and it had been no small feat for the slender physician to keep the burly bartender, or Soshi’s bandmates, who’d tumbled in on Keld’s heels, from barreling after the Errant crew in search of the man who’d harmed their friend.
But with the coolest of orders, Kallik had the harpist on the ground with them, keeping pressure on Soshi’s wound, the guitarist running to town for the nearest transport, and Keld standing guard, preventing any further incursions into the snug.
Rory, who often served as the ad hoc medic for the Errant, couldn’t deny being somewhat agog at Kallik’s abilities, and decided not to hover, but make himself useful by tending to Pyotr, who’d quickly made room for Kallik to do their work.
Grabbing a sterile wound pack from the medkit, Rory turned to find the other man, only to discover that injured Pyotr was nowhere to be seen.
“Wait,” Jagati breathed the order as she held up a fist so that John, directly behind her, froze, weapon ready. “Someone’s coming from behind.” A sense-slash-smell she couldn’t quite identify.
“I don’t hear—”
“Neither do I,” she cut John off with a grumble.
“Oh.” He paused, cleared his throat, reminding her that he knew her newly discovered sensitivity was still a sore subject. “Can you describe what you’re, ah, getting?”
She closed her eyes, tracing the mental odor. “Remember that bag…that satchel you carry on every leave. It’s like that… battered and worn and soft… but underneath the leather is the smell you get when you sharpen a knife, the edgymetallysharpy thing.” Her eyes popped open. “That makes no sense.”
“More than you think,” John said, and she caught the edges of what felt like frustration, followed by a cool wave that might be acceptance. “Not to worry,” he added, laying a hand on her shoulder—the “go” signal. “If the one following is who I think it is, he’s on our side.”
As she nodded and moved on, Jagati wasn’t entirely sure, but he might have added a soft, “Mostly.”
Eitan couldn’t say how long he’d been walking and listening—a shadow chasing a shadow as the moons began casting light through the breaking cloud cover—when the sound of footsteps he’d been trailing… ceased.
With instincts born in battle, honed in the arena, he jumped back, stumbling in a drift of snow as a blade pierced the frigid wall, exactly where he had been standing.
The silhouette vanished with a hiss as Eitan rolled up to one knee to fire his shooter through that same brick of snow.
The plasma melted a hole in the wall, large enough for Eitan to see his target had already moved out of the way.
He fired again, melting a gap large enough to dive through, firing to his left as he dropped into a shoulder roll, forcing the other man to trip backwards onto the snow-covered ground, letting out a grunt of pain.
As both men rolled to standing, Eitan noted his opponent favored his left side, reminding him of Pyotr’s shooter, and the smell of burning.
Even as he made note of the injury, however, the wall Eitan had shot through collapsed on itself, sending smoke-like plumes of white into the air, while clumps of hardened snow pelted the two men.
This time Eitan was swept off his feet by the icy assault, losing his shooter in the process, while the other man waded with through the avalanche, short sword raised, showing no signs of debilitation from his wound.
Eitan waited until the blade began its descent before swinging his legs into a scissor kick, causing his opponent to jump back while Eitan gained his feet in time to block the next cut, parrying with the spring blade affixed to his left arm.
For a heartbeat they held, blade to blade, eye to eye, and so it was that, at long last, even in the snow-choked dark, even with the years between, even if the man opposite him no longer used his favored Fujian Khyber blade, Eitan could no longer deny the impossible.
“Conn?” The name was a question, and one that had the other man hesitating.
Ghost or no ghost, Eitan used that hesitation to his advantage, bringing his right hand in to knock Conn’s sword aside while his own blade sliced through the other man’s coat sleeve.
Blood flew like ink, spattering the snow as the two men danced away from each other.
It was only then, realizing there was room to back away, that Eitan realized they had reached the center of the labyrinth—an open space anchored by a faintly shimmering pillar of ice—a recreation, or so Yiva claimed, of the obelisk erected in Alpha, where the first colonists had landed.
Conn let out a soft curse, then flipped the sword to his left hand. “Let me guess,” he said, his voice rough with pain, but still it held that familiar lilt of humor, “you know me from somewhere?”
“Know you?” Eitan echoed the question, even as he spied his shooter—now half buried in mound of snow—and leapt towards it, then leapt backwards again as Conn’s sword swept between himself and his goal. With a hiss, Eitan whipped around Conn to deliver a kidney punch. “I suppose you could say that.”
Conn’s stumble turned into a pivot, leaving Eitan no time to follow up on the attack. “Also guessing we didn’t part on good terms?” he asked.
“Not the best, no,” Eitan agreed, feinting towards Conn’s right, spinning away as Conn riposted, with more speed than he’d shown in the past.
“And did I do that?” Conn asked, dancing away as he nodded towards the blade which took the place of Eitan’s left hand.
“No,” Eitan breathed the denial and, without thinking, added. “I did—over a year after you died. After I killed you.”
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