Deep inside the labyrinth the sound of the wind had lowered significantly—enough that Jagati felt certain every crunching footfall resonated throughout the snowy structure.
But she had to trust that the stacked bricks of snow muffled their footsteps as well as it muffled the voices that had begun to mutter overhead a few turns back.
She could—just—recognize Eitan’s low pitch, but the words were indistinct as she led John around the next turn—bearing left again, which told her they were nearing the center of the labyrinth.
But the truth was—even without the ever-shrinking path, she could pinpoint Eitan’s location—though the warmth of the clovecardamom scent that she associated with him had a metallic tinge to it, underscoring the pain and confusion she also sensed from her crewmate.
“I smell plasma,” John’s voice was soft, close, and his hand fell on her shoulder again, the weight both a reminder of his presence and a caution as they moved, connected, around a hairpin curve, where they discovered the plasma’s target, in the gaping, melted slump of what had been one of the labyrinth walls.
Why didn’t we think of that? Jagati’s internal head slap was interrupted by a muffled thump—someone had landed a punch—and a voice she didn’t recognize saying, “Killed…” a pause, a scuffle “… done this before?”
“You don’t remember?” Eitan fell back—Conn’s last strike had been fast and hard.
At the question, Conn, mid-step, hesitated. “I remember—” He paused, his face—leached of color by the night—seemed to ripple. “I remember… someone saying I was… lucky.” Then he blinked, and his expression cleared—no, more it smoothed—like sand swept flat by a hand. “But I don’t remember you.”
Eitan’s heart tripped. “You are lying.”
“My word to the Ancestors,” Conn swore with the thin flash of a smile. “Though I’m sure your face would be well worth remembering,” he added, even as he sprang forward in a flurry of thrusts and slashes that drove Eitan into the pillar of ice.
His shoulder sang, but still Eitan grabbed Conn’s arm, blocking the incoming sword and bringing his own blade to bear, just under Conn’s ribs. “You are lying,” he said, again.
Conn blinked and shook his head—as if trying to shake off a swarm of bees—but in the act Eitan, and despite the shields he’d so carefully put in place, was slammed by the image of his own face… sweating, bleeding, his eyes flickering in the torch light.
Pain—a hot, wet, tearing—clutched at his gut, as surely it had clutched Conn’s on the long ago day he’d fallen from Eitan’s sword.
“Mothering wasps in the hive!”
“What?” Jagati’s curse had John darting around to block her from—he didn’t know what—but he figured it had to be bad, given the way her hand flew to the nearest block of snow to steady herself, even as, on the other side of the collapsed wall, Eitan’s kick sent his opponent stumbling away from the central pillar. “What’s wrong?” he asked, even as she attempted to shake him off, even as she pressed an arm over her stomach, as if ill, or wounded.
“Yeah, Eitan knows this Conn guy,” she said, “and…not in a good way.”
“Stay here,” John ordered, his voice flat as he spun and rushed over the heap of the collapsed wall.
He should, he thought, he really should have known she wouldn’t listen.
Gritting his teeth against the memory, Eitan reared back and kicked Conn in the chest, sending him flying. In that brief space, Eitan slammed his fist into his own thigh, repeatedly, and hard enough to drive away the fevered dreams of the past.
In the deadly cold of the present, Conn stumbled to a halt and barely took a breath to recover before diving again at Eitan, sword whistling.
Eitan dropped where he stood.
Hearing the blade strike the ice, feeling the cold shards running down the back of his coat, he slashed out at Conn, who was already dancing away, again.
He might or might not remember their last battle, Eitan reflected, but Conn was still as deadly a fighter as he’d been in the arena.
Jagati shook off the glare of consternation from John as she joined him on the other side of the wall.
He really should have known she wouldn’t listen.
She only wished she could as easily disregard shake the jangled memories warring as furiously as the men who carried them.
It was an intimacy so deep, so tangled—so private—that it stopped Jagati from even attempting to take aim.
Beyond all that, as she watched the two engage, break apart, and engage again, Jagati realized was seeing something she’d never seen before where Eitan was concerned—an actual contest, between equals.
Some might say Eitan’s opponent had the advantage, seeing as he had two actual hands, and the build and balance of a natural brawler.
Jagati knew better. Just as she knew that, as close to equal as these two men appeared, Eitan was holding back.
Not much—not so much that most would even notice—hells, she wasn’t even sure Eitan noticed.
But she did.
Which led to the third reason she wouldn’t take the shot, because she knew—even as the pair closed for another breathless round of cuts and parries—that if she shot this Conn person, Eitan wouldn’t like it.
So she waited.
John might not have been as in tune with the emotions of the two combatants, but even as he circled counterclockwise, shooter at the ready, he felt himself reluctant to fire, to interrupt in any way the stark ballet of life and death playing out before him.
As he thought this, the man Jagati called Conn lunged forward, the slender shadow of the blade—the blade that, no doubt, had left a woman bleeding on the floor of the tavern—aimed at Eitan’s heart.
Eitan knew his crewmates had arrived, even before he parried Conn’s latest thrust with a moulinet, which he followed up with a slash and a punch to the plasma burn in Conn’s side, driving him away long enough for Eitan to turn to his friends, prepared to warn them off, but saw there was no need.
Though John and Jagati stood, stark as pencil sketches against the white walls, both had lowered their weapons, as if waiting for his cue.
Later, he would take the time to wonder at that level of trust, that inherent understanding.
For now, as Conn swung back, he could only be grateful.
Conn, squaring off, nodded at the newcomers. “Backup?” he asked.
“Please. Like he needs it.”
To John, Jagati’s statement rang through the small battlefield, brief and bright, like the trumpeters call to advance.
Still, he noted, she kept her shooter live—as did he—and while he made no move to raise his weapon, he continued to step, slowly, counterclockwise, eyes on the two men once again closing distance.
Again John was struck by the dreamlike quality of the fight, the eerie quiet overlaying the battle, and beneath it—or so he thought—there was a kind of familiarity in their stance.
The sort of thing one saw in dancers who’d partnered a long time.
He could almost see the echo of fights past as the two engaged.
Eitan parrying blade to blade, flowing into a cloud hand maneuver, twisting the other man’s arm and sending him towards the pillar.
Conn used the momentum to pivot into a punto reverso.
Eitan’s answer was to close distance, so for a moment John had only the impression of two inkblot figures joining on stark white paper, before one broke away, not before sending a splatter of smaller ink drops onto the page.
“Just like old times,” Eitan said, shaking off the graze to his ribs as Conn, now bleeding from his left leg as well as his right arm, angled to keep Eitan in view.
“So you say,” Conn hissed, but this time the casual dismissal was forced.
Jagati shook her head as if the movement would purge the hash of sensations shooting from Conn at Eitan’s comment… a rough burlappy yet friendly sensation laying over a sheen of respect which, in turn, slicked over the ephemeral sweetness—a foreboding of decay.
When her vision finally cleared, Eitan and Conn’s positions had reversed.
Still, Conn remained the aggressor, thrusting with his sword and Eitan blocking—and here, Jagati privately swore she would buy Rory all the drinks as thanks for building that spring dagger for their friend—before Eitan reared back into a leaping kick to Conn’s sternum.
The blow sent Conn back into the pillar and Eitan followed, grabbing Conn’s left arm and slamming it into the obelisk, again and again until the blade fell in a shimmer of ice, leaving the two men locked together, breath fogging the air between them.
“Well?” Conn asked, eyes a dark pool, unreadable as they met Eitan’s. “What are you waiting for?”
In response, Eitan kicked the sword away. “There is no one forcing me, this time,” he said, straightening, but then had to brace himself as Conn grabbed Eitan’s left arm, pulling the blade towards himself.
“No,” Eitan said, twisting the point to the side. “Not again.”
“Please,” Conn said, his voice suddenly harsh, rusty—as if it had not been used in some time. “Please—end this.”
Eitan winced as the plea fluttered between them, battered his shields—moth’s wings against the wall he’d erected. “I can’t—I—”
“I can,” a voice, almost familiar, broke through the tableaux.
Eitan heard John’s “No,” and Jagati’s curse.
He felt Conn’s grasping hand release his arm, only long enough shove him to the side, where he could only watch as the plasma bolt struck Conn in the chest, throwing him into the pillar once more, this time to slump, a puppet without his strings, to the snow.
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