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Blood Moon

Black and white, light, and dark. The border between the eyewatering brilliance of the sunlit regolith and the dense black of the vacuum of space was sharper than a knife. The line between dust and nothingness was perfectly defined – as if drawn or painted in ink.

Inside him was rage. There was also pain, so great, so all encompassing, that it was almost potent enough to push away the terror of decompression; that hurt throbbed like an ache, deep in his chest, pushing away the electric, destabilizing energy of his anxiety, felt so keenly in the shaking of his hands and the thumping of his caged heart, buried in the meat of his throat.

The blue mother, planet earth, squatted ultramarine blue on the horizon, gloating with her neat, effortless perfection and welcoming safety. The desiccated moon appeared corpse-like in comparison – Selene’s dusty skin and waterless seas were grey and lifeless, where Mother earth’s body was intoxicatingly blue and spotted by green continents, like patches of moss on a vast blue stone.

The foe waited, twenty moon paces to the front, in armour black like a wraith. The hazy smear of the Milky Way’s swirling majesty silhouetted Jean – he lingered like a stain; a black ink stain defined by the ruler-straight edges of his vacuum suit. There he waited, wreathed in stars.

His eye caught a flicker above. He caught the fading sapphire impression of the radiation shield dispersing one of the void’s deadly subatomic visitors. The ghost disappeared and the shield was invisible once again; he grit his teeth within the near suffocating confines of his helmet, merely the sun reminding those present that they were all still at its mercy. Even so far away, they were still within its grasp.

To his right, the official delegation sat neatly upon the raised dais of the observation pavilion: there in his polished gold vacuum suit was the King of the Moon, flanked by his Queen in lustrous silver on the right, and his son in gleaming bronze to the left. To the left of the royal party were his mother and father, clad in the traditional dove-white of mourning, with chrome faceplates whose flawless mirror surface reflected the grey and the black of their surroundings in a warped, curved reflection of reality. To the King’s right sat the hated foe in the reflective black of their House. They represented the spawning ground of Jean of Rakka, the family whose existence was like a malignant growth, sucking away the vitality of his own House, persistently eroding away at its host, invading the very structure of his family. Like a gross tumor invested next to the beating heart of his household, it probed and threatened, always malign, always toxic. Together, the three houses represented here, encompassed a dizzying and frighteningly complex web of relationships, shared history, and politics. Behind each figure was an expanding cloud of posturing and intrigue, and together, himself included – and this ghastly event – represented the culmination of thousands of hours of legal machinations and Court maneuvering, all driven from the singularity of one event – the death of his brother at the hands of Jean of Rakka, heir to the House Aguillard. Or as he was known at Court, Jean the Cruel.

To his left, as if to lend weight to the proceedings, the King’s Flagship loomed above them in orbit like a guillotine – a vast, dazzling silver bastion of a warship – ready to enforce the King’s might upon those who did not observe the rituals of this historic event. To rain hellfire down upon the forces of any House who did not accept the outcome of the duel. To execute any soul upon this field in the blink of an eye, be it with laser or railgun.

This was madness, he thought. How could justice be found in single combat? It made even less sense than the multi stratum legalese of the House’s lawyers, whose frantic scribblings had failed to steer him away from this fateful meeting with Jean the Cruel, out on the airless regolith, with cryxis in his right hand and fighting chain coiled on his hip.

A voice crackled into the helmet of his vacuum suit, his ceremonial armor and his coffin, should Jean win the duel. “Rayburn of House Marcellus, demonstrate your readiness to commence the duel by raising your cryxis to Saint Peter” the official intoned. Saint Peter was the King’s Flagship – the ultimate manifestation of the Crown’s rule.

Rayburn raised his weaponized pickax to the sky – the silver weapon was just over the length of his forearm with a diamond-tipped spike on one side of the obsidian head and a rectangular weight on the other.

“In the King’s name, long may he rein, prove your innocence upon this hallowed ground. You must fight to the death; you may not flee the arena – if you do, you and your House will be destroyed”

He returned the Cryxis to his side and bent lower into a fighting stance. With his left hand felt at his waist for the heavy chain stowed there.

“I am ready” He whispered to himself, and the official, unseen but all seeing.

“Begin”.

It sounded more like a sentence than an invitation.

Jean advanced in a low gravity sprint, lunging across the regolith, and kicking up sharp exhalations of moon dust with each footfall. Rayburn examined his gait – it was flawless. Jean was dancing the tightrope of speed, height, and balance in expert fashion; his lunges directed him forwards – rather than upwards – and each footfall maximized the power of his stride without throwing him headfirst into an uncontrolled tumble. Watching Jean charge, with the skill of the best knights in the King’s army, Rayburn was paralyzed by what was at stake. Defeat would mean much more than death. It would mean his family would be exiled from their ancient lands on the moon – the coveted seat of Royal power – and sent to the Colony worlds, where prestige and influence would die along with the toiling workers in the factors and mines. Should he win, the same fate would befall House Aguillard. And then there was death; death by asphyxiation, hemorrhage, or strangulation.

Rayburn launched forward – he would not surrender the initiative this early in the fight.

Jean’s black armor bounded towards him in menacing fashion, but it took all Rayburn’s concentration to accelerate his own charge, one wrong foot could send him flailing headfirst towards Jean, leaving his helmeted head ripe for an executioner’s blow – a cryxis strike to the back of the head. As they approached, flashes of his brother’s face occupied his mind’s eye. Regardless of honor, house and prestige, Philo was who he was fighting for.

Rayburn’s heart palpitated as they clashed. In a blink, Jean’s black armour was upon him. Instead of swinging his cryxis, Jean the Cruel launched himself at Rayburn, armoured shoulder leading the momentum of his body. He slammed into Rayburn with a muffled clank, sending him spinning away to the right with no purchase on the regolith. He panicked, reaching out for the moon.

Thunk. Jean’s cryxis slammed into his flank. His vacuum suit registered the breach whilst pain bloomed in his side with eye-watering intensity. The cryxis’ diamond-tipped spike was designed to penetrate the ceramic armor of a vacuum suit and puncture the airtight lining before ‘biting’ the skin below, however, the width of the spike theoretically prevented deep penetration into the vital organs. The aim was to kill by hemorrhage of either air or blood – either would kill, given time. As Rayburn lashed out with a defensive swing, he noticed the HUD indicator for suit breach flash – he was now losing air much faster than the nominal rate.

Jean did not allow him time to regain his footing. Even as his boots scuffed the regolith and he turned back to the fight; Jean was already upon him. The cryxis came plunging down towards him. Rayburn parried the blow and strafed left. Jean was obscured by the cloud of dust Rayburn had left behind in his flight – Rayburn had well and truly lost the initiative now; he was on the run.

Jean’s black vacuum suit emerged from the dust with the same aggression as before but this time he led with his fighting chain. The nano-adhesive metal chain flicked through the cloud of dust towards Rayburn, like the tentacle of a mechanical octopus – threatening to disable him, draw him in for a killing blow. Rayburn pivoted, but the chain caught his left arm, held out to keep his balance. The chain wrapped around his vacuum suit and latched on. Jean pulled him in with a jolt.

Rayburn had lost sight of training, of technique, of analysis – this was all instinct-driven by terror. He wanted to get away from Jean. As he was pulled in, he lifted his legs and kicked Jean in the chest as hard as he could. His booted foot slammed into Jean’s chest and left a smear of dust. Jean was thrown backward by the kick and lost his grip on his fighting chain. But even as his kick propelled Jean back into the dust cloud, he whipped his cryxis in a backhanded strike.

Thunk. Rayburn screamed as the weapon slammed into his leg. The bite of the weapon was white-hot agony shooting up his leg and another suit breach icon flashed into existence on his HUD. Rayburn scrambled away from the dust cloud, limping. His air was at was at 65% capacity and falling rapidly.

He was going to die.

Jean now had time on his side, and he knew it. He slunk out of the dust cloud like the grim reaper pushing through the fog, circling Rayburn, no doubt watching the small geysers of freezing air bleed from his flank and right leg. The realization was crippling. Rayburn was going to be slain by the same man who had killed his brother, the same villain who had crashed his shuttle into Philo’s own, ejecting his brother into the void and into the cold waiting arms of oblivion. His mother and father would lose their last and only child and his death would relegate their ancient House from eminence to obscurity.

He charged Jean and struck. His blow missed and Jean danced away, sliding his boot through the regolith with perfect technique. With composure. Rayburn launched himself forward again, hacking and slashing his Cryxis through the airless space between vacuum suits. Jean avoided them all. Despite his fear, Rayburn admired his opponent – he had underestimated Jean, he had thought him only capable of aggression, of relentless attack. With each move, Jean was demonstrating to him, and to the moon, that he was clearly the superior fighter.

Rayburn paused; he was at 48% air capacity. Pangs of despair crippled him – he was dying. Meanwhile, Jean’s tinted faceplate watched, taunting in its obscurity. He imagined Jean was smiling behind the glass – smiling that twisted, cruel smile that burned Rayburn’s blood at court. He clenched his fists with frustration, and he noticed something heavy on his left arm. He looked down and found Jean’s fighting chain still attached to his vacuum suit like a black python to a tree branch.

The chain! He was a fool. He could imagine his mother and father screaming into their vacuum suits impotently. ‘Use the chain, Rayburn!’

He maglocked his cryxis to his waist and deactivated Jean’s chain with the handle’s control stud. The nano adhesive relaxed, and the chain went limp and before slipping off his ceramic armour. He raised his cryxis again and activated the chain’s adhesive before stalking towards Jean once again. Should he lose the duel, it would be a disgrace, he had neglected this advantage for too long.

He probed with the fighting chain, whipping the metal rope towards Jean again and again. As expected, his opponent remained out of reach with well-timed strafes. Minutes passed in this fashion and Rayburn failed to connect with any strike. Meanwhile his air and fallen to the dire 35% capacity. He was running out of time to change the outcome of this fight, and nothing was working. In a fit of desperation, he stowed his cryxis and took up his own fighting Chain in his right hand. He could imagine the gasps filling the helmets of those watching to his right; he could hear the sound repeat from the mouths of the thousands of house officials and servants no doubt watching him from the live stream captured by the telescopes of Saint Peter still lurking over the horizon to his left.

With both chains in hand, he launched towards Jean, panting and desperate. His right hand swept across backhanded and missed, but his left hand came down a moment later and the chain collapsed around Jean’s weapon arm with a satisfying thump. Rayburn pulled Jean in and then slapped the chain in his right hand down on Jean’s left leg. He yanked as hard as he could on both and Jean was immediately pulled airborne, rotating through the void like a spinning top. Rayburn let go of the chains at the last minute, letting Jean take flight. He reequipped his cryxis and jumped after his opponent. Jean flailed about in the void with both chains spinning around him and frustrating his movements. At the apex of his flight, Rayburn hacked downwards with his cryxis and caught Jean in the shoulder. Thunk. He ripped the weapon clean and soon a jet of air was bleeding from the puncture. But the blow also sent Jean plummeting back to the regolith where he landed cat-like on his feet.

Now Rayburn was falling towards Jean. Having launched himself so high, with no way of changing direction, he was locked into a slow descent towards Jean. There was no avoiding what came next – Jean slammed his own weapon into Rayburn’s other flank. Pain and fear – three breaches now. His air was at 15% and falling precipitously.

Despite the blow, Rayburn slammed into Jean and knocked the black-clad fighter to the dust; Jean’s black armor hit the regolith as if falling into greywater – dust puffed up around him like a splash – obscuring Rayburn’s vision once again. They grappled, who knew where his weapon was. Their ceramic armour thudded and clanked, Rayburn’s helmet was full of his panting and grunting, everything else sounded distant and muffled. He scrambled away from Jean on all fours and rose above the dust cloud. He glimpsed his cryxis tumbling away to his left and he dived towards it before it fell into the dust and he lost it forever. He reached for the synthetic handle, a handspan away, as Jean emerged from the dust himself, one chain trailing behind him and his left arm reaching out for Rayburn in turn.

His air was now at 4%.

The chain caught him around the neck. Rayburn grasped his cryxis. Time smeared the next moments across space, drawing out seconds into what felt like minutes. He was spinning back towards Jean, fast, pulled by the chain around his neck. As he spun, he reversed the cryxis and extended his arm. Jean hove into view, waist-deep in lingering moon dust, as if wading through a shallow grey sea. Behind Jean’s helmeted head, Rayburn watched the radiation shield bloom like a lightning strike buried in a cloud, the blue flash perfectly haloing Jean’s black helmet, outlining the ceramic armour in detail. Rayburn’s hand directed the spike towards his target.

The diamond tipped spike slammed into Jean’s helmeted head, smashing through the glass of his faceplate and burying itself into his face. Rayburn glimpsed Jean’s bearded face still pulled taught into a rictus of fury as the spike crunched into his right eye and disappeared up to the shaft.

Jean went limp, blood spurted out from the weapon, spraying in an arc of ruby crystals as his brother’s killer fell back into the murk of the lingering dust. Rayburn ran out of air – his breath caught on thinning atmosphere and before he knew it, the air was drawn from his lungs as the pressure gradient reversed. The fountains of air leaving his suit dwindled and stopped. Silence.

He turned to the official party, knowing this would be the last thing he would see. He found his parents, they were seated, as was proper. He reached for them, weak, vision fading. At least he had preserved their House.

Ghosts materialized beside him. The Kings Guard’s coagulated from the dust, slapping sealant onto the holes on his suit before ramming an air hose into the survival module on his back. Air rushed into the suit, screamed into his lungs in a painful first breath. Sound returned and all he could hear was the pounding of his heart and the rasping of his laboured breathing

He had won.

Similar guards materialized around The Duke of House Aguillard and his wife.

The Official’s voice blared into his helmet, interrupting the numbness of his near-death experience. “The winner is Rayburn of House Marcellus. Upon the order of His Majesty the King, House Aguillard is thus exiled to Heaven’s Gate – effective immediately”.

No. It couldn’t be.

Heaven’s Gate was the wealthiest mining Colony in the Kingdom – this was no punishment; this was a boon for House Aguillard, this would elevate House Aguillard to wealth second only to the King himself. The Duke and his Lady stood gracefully and were led away by ghosts – there was no sign in their gait or stature that they had lost a son, in fact, Rayburn thought he saw pride in their straight-backed moon waltz, dancing away over the chiaroscuro regolith. His eyes locked onto the gold faceplate of the King, a golden mirror, impervious to scrutiny. The King had betrayed them, and Philo’s revenge would be forever tainted by this inexplicable act.

He cursed the King in the privacy of his helmet even as the Guards escorted him from the field, leaving the dust to settle over Jean’s frozen face, encapsulated by the shattered helmet and covered in crystalizing blood. The Cryxis remained impaled in his eye – Jean had been a sacrifice, a price House Aguillard, with five healthy sons, had been willing to pay.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Adventure, Fantasy, Sci Fi

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