Jhagan held himself rigid, forcing his vision to remain forward as the river water shuddered and screamed. He breathed in, tasting the salty tang of the deep sea, steadying himself deep within his awareness. Before him the old martian river wailed and roared as his adversary arrived.
The warrior breathed within the natural rebellion. Slowly, rhythmically he spoke, reciting the litanies and vigils taught to him since childhood. Tension bled from him, flowing down the steep river bank to mingle with the water’s rebellion below, gathering around the rusted remains of old terraforming river-makers.
“So the warmblood is frightened is he?”
The heavy scent of sulphur and cloying spice struck the warrior like a tidal wave. Jhagan opened his eyes, slowly, feeling the animal rise of apprehension in his gut. A figure climbed the water bank, its hunched back arched as if ready to pounce. Its face twisted in a spidery approximation of a grin, the multitude of eyes and sensor feelers combing Jhagan’s waiting form. River water screamed from the crustacean's skin as it climbed into the weak dawn sun. The animal desire for murder washed the scenic river in dark intent.
“Shocked into silence?” the crustacean gurgled when Jhagan did not respond. He moved like an oceanic spider, a multitude of thick legs drawing him forwards with a slow lack of grace. It crested the water bank, hunching its fore body to conceal itself from the rising sun.
“I have seen an Aerokean warrior before” Jhagan said, allowing his inner calm to radiate through his voice. “I was a boy at my first duel. I have been a judge and spectator at every bout since. I do not fear you, champion.”
The towering crustation snarled, a hiss of animal amusement. It reached one long bulbous arm to its back, unclasping the heavy metal sabre strapped to its shell. It turned briefly from Jhagan, surveying the empty river banks surrounding them.
“Yet I see that neither of us brings spectators to this event?”
“No” Jhagan said, his eyes locked on the aerokean’s own segmented vision. “There are few enough of us left to hold the old farmsteads, let alone provide for the old traditions. The old governmental bombing runs have seen to that much '' Jhagan drew his eyes across the aerokean warrior before him, marking the savage scars marring the exoskeleton. “I hear that your own people are in a similar position.”
The aerokean grunted in something akin to grim amusement. “Raids and raids, little man-thing. The North Trench has seen its share this last decade.” The crustacean snarled in frustration. “No Aerokean will stand back, mark me now soft skin! Your hive-human brethren will have to drag every trench-born warrior from the depths to claim that ocean.”
Jhagan nodded, knowing full well the warrior saw the downfall staring his race down the waves of time. The growth of the cities, the rise of the expansionist All Party and their zealous city dwellers was just another piece on the same old board. Man and Aerokean had been waring since the first disturbances of the ancient terraforming machines long ago. Their territorial nature, their inability to adapt in the face of such a prodigious invasive force, would be the end of them.
“My uncle asked me this morning why we would still fight.”
The aerokean did not appear shocked at this. Nor did Jhagan expect him to be. Despite their appearance, he had learned long ago that many of the subterranean warrior clans did not think all too differently from the frontier colonists. Old honours and traditions still had to be satisfied. Especially those intended to bring peace, even at the cost of ritual blood shed.
“It is the code” the warrior said, holding the sheathed long sword before him. In earlier years the pair would have duelled with ion lance and lightning guns, but the relentless disarmament forced upon the frontiers by the All Party had done away with that. “The old skein still binds us to this, traveller.”
Jhagan nodded. Slowly he uncrossed his legs, climbing to his feet in a fluid motion. His eye never strayed from the Aerokean champion. The sheathed length of his sword felt strong in his grip.
“What is your name, man-thing?” the aerokean warrior asked. Exposed to the orange dawn he hunched beside Jhagan, yet still managed to tower above him. Smoke from the ritual sconce poured past the blades of his feet, coiling just out of reach of his savaged exoskeleton. Nothing of the land desired to touch the ocean warrior.
“I am called Jhagan '' he said without grandiosity. Slowly he reached up, drawing his arms from the felt robe over his shoulders. The motion was fluid, practised. His eyes remained locked upon the warrior before him.
“Jhagan?” the aerokean whispered, as if tasting the word. The raised the blade it had brought before it, still sheathed in its decorative scabbard. “We of the aerokean name our blades for the great adversaries they slay. When you are dead at my feet, would you wish me to name this blade for you if you so earn it.”
Jhagan did not respond. His awareness was wholly upon the sword. All other things fell away. All which stood out in his mind where his blade and the opponents, the cooling mud beneath them, the fall of the steep river bank.”
“Very well” the aerokean hissed when Jhagan did not answer. The champion drew the sheathed blade to his side, ready in the motion to release the blade from its housing. “I am called Herzan-Ghutruck-Malvek. Progeny of the colony your folk call Sige-What in your tongue, Gharum-Malvahn in mine.”
Jhagan watched, focused. There had been no desire to cause injury or slight by his silence. The Aerokean sabre had flashed before him, drawing forth the well of his memory. The dozen instances he had seen such a blade welled before his eyes.
The force of his grip upon the hilt of his blade grew light. Nimble. He moved his foot forwards, feeling the loamy earth fold before his bare feat. Herzan stood for a moment, frozen, expectant, before realising his adversary was not going to speak.
The aerokean champion grunted. Jhagan thought he could hear a mote of amusement in the scared warrior's tone. The great crustacean stared down the length of the sheathed blade before him.
“So then, '' Herzen stated, his voice taking on a hissing buzz that vibrated the air. “Just as in ancient times; man and aerokean settle the years bad blood. One bout, one death, one life taken under the sun's dawn. Their life's ichor spilled to prevent the greater death toll of Mul-Taban, the war of land and sea.”
The pronouncement froze the air around them. Jhagan remained still, eyes and mind and all thought pressed upon his adversary and his blade. The instant stretched, weighed by the sulphurous scent mingled with the wash of nearby salt water. The river beneath them flowed on, roared waves rising in mock salute to the coming blood shed.
In the distance the sun continued its climb. It crept higher, higher, until the last razored peak sat barely breaking the distant disk of fire. Man and Arkaen stood, immobile.
Then the sun rose above the final peak.
The silence shattered.
Two blades leapt from scabbards. Metal shrieked as the twin blades met. They rose and fell and rose and fell, a dance of screaming crying phase-steel.
Jhagan side stepped, forcing the massive crustacean to pivot uncomfortably. Herzan growled, releasing a series of vicious blows that forced the frontiersman back several steps. Jhagan snarled, barely managing to break past his opponents guard, adding another scar to the brutalised exoskeleton.
Vicious wind billowed from the brine sea. It struck hammer hard against the twin combatants. Jhaban faltered, his feet struggling to keep him stable in the sudden rush of the gale. He pivoted, sabre whipping out, deflecting a strike aimed for his head.
Awareness shrank down to the blade point. Both combatants moved with the shuddering grace of a savant. Twin blades met, deflected, wrestled around one another. Sparks showered from the energised blade, falling to the river side to leave a startling hiss. The orange glow of dawn flashed across the weapons, painting the scene upon the water below in mythic flame wreathed devastation.
Dimly Jhagan realised he was being forced back. His back was to the twisting river, mere inches separating him from the precipitous drop to the winding rush. Another flash of sabre metal and he was forced back once more, the heel of his rear foot kissing the open air above the rush.
Time slowed. Awareness fell to the finest of points. Jaban came forwards, sword prefacing his forward momentum.
Red. Pain. sensation blanketed his mind, shuddering his arms, forcing a pained arch in his back. Jaban rolled, his momentum taking him forwards. A flush of damp air passed over his head. He half rolled half collapsed, dragging himself up from the tangle of grass.
He stood, guard up, blinking ferociously to clear his eyes. The dark silhouette stood within the red haze. The heavy grasp of the sabre in its hands reflected the meagre dawn's light, penetrating the mottled red pain of Jhagan’s senses.
Slowly the red stain faded from his vision. Herzan stood before him, hunchbacked posture more pronounced now. The massive warrior breathed heavily, large arms seeming to shake in the stillness. Jhagan marked the dark stain on the champion's twisted face, the torns lengths of several severed sensory probes sagging upon its neck.
The two stood, motionless. Below the river hand quietened. The sea wind had dimmed its ferocity, becoming the meagre salt whisper of the distant ocean.
The massive aerokean suddenly stumbled. It gasped, one knee striking the loamy soil. The great sabre clattered to the ground, the energised edge bursting as it struck the soil. Herzan slumped, its craggy scared face slumping upon its thick neck.
“Damn” Herzan hissed, its voice wet, gurgling unnatural even for one of his kind. The warrior hissed, its gaze falling slowly to regard the shattered ruin of its carapace. Jhagan followed its gaze, seeing the ruination he had delivered to the warrior's neck had spread. A fissure had opened up across the swell of Herzan’s savaged right side, releasing a heady fall of ichor down the champions savaged front. Blood pooled at the champions feet in stinking acidic pools.
“Damn” Herzan hissed again, all aggression bled from its voice. It raised its battered head to regard Jaban, still standing with his sword raised. “At least-at least I go here, where it all began...at least for us, aye?”
Jaban nodded, blinking fiercely. The wound on his forehead continued to bleed, coating half of his face in crimson. He breathed deeply, eyes never straying from the Aerokean warrior who had come so close to severing his head from his shoulders.
“You fight well, you grassland man-things” Hervan gasped. The multifocal eyes seemed sight more duly, the remaining tangle of sensor feeders growing slowly limp in the rising sun. with a slow inevitability the warriors head began to droop, forcing the hunch to extend. “You must keep fighting, Jaban the man-thing. Keep fighting. The Hive humans and their city governments..” The Aerokean warrior trailed off for a moment, seeming to lose track of its thought. Its head tilted to one side, as if hearing something, some distracting sound audible only to the Martian crustacean.
“Do not fall..to the city people, Jaban-thing” Hervan gasped, its body shuddering with the last graspings of life. “Do...not...fall…”
The massive crustacean body shuddered, collapsed. It fell to the martian soil with an audible snap of ruined exoskeleton before sliding feet first down the river bank.
Jhagan remained for an instant longer than the watery echo took to subside. His arms shuddered and he gasped. Blood welled down the wound upon his forehead. His body refused to move, even as the sulphurous scent receded. Dark clouds gathered at the periphery of his vision, gathering like trail-wolves to surround the verdant sun.
At last he reached down, tearing a scrap of the faded ceremonial clothing to tie around the savage line above his eye.
“So lies Hervan, warrior of the Aerokean. Fallen in pursuit of his people's victory.”
Jhagan released a breath, collapsing down to one knee. He felt the loamy soil briefly part, seeking to swallow him whole. Exhaustion plagued him, riveting his body from crown to sole.
The aerokean would learn of their champion’s fall, he knew. Even coming alone as he had, many would mark the warrior Hervan’s extended absence. Perhaps some would come, as they sometimes did, seeking an account to carve upon their dead clans-mates grave stone.
Jhagan lifted his head to the sky, watching as roiling black clouds swallowed the morning sun. The warrior had spoken of the All Party, that bulbous formation of city folk gathered in their desperate calling to unite Mars under one banner. He considered the marks upon Hervan’s skin, thinking of how vicious, how monumental such a battle could have been.
The aerokean are rousing, the shade of Hervan within his mind whispered. They need only the barest binding of honour and they would be roused as a wildfire on the Acidelia Plantilia’s sweltering groves.
Jhagan stood, considering. For the longest time the frontiers had bent their backs at the Southerners, thinking themselves alone and scattered against the might of the industrialising powers.
But if the aerokean shared this view…
Jhagan turned, marching towards the distant cluster of huts that dotted the horizon, any shred of exhaustion peeled away from him. The village elders would need to be told. They would need to know, to consider.
Marching along the twisted riverbank, Jhagan caught the changing direction of the sea breeze. Sulphur and acid, heavy with oxidised spices. He turned briefly, his eye catching the speedy retreat of a hunched, spidery form in the waters below.
And for the first time in his life, potential, not revulsion, flooded into the warrior's mind.