Cekme fought listlessly, his sword hardly making into place to parry his opponent’s savage stroke. The weariness of too many blows, too much lost blood covered him, threatening to drag him to the featureless ground. He feared, as he always feared at this point of the fight. His chest heaved. His wounds burned. His hands trembled. The end was a few strokes away. Death reached out its harsh hand.
His opponent, his twin brother Itmek, stepped back for a moment rather than pressing his advantage. He was young, sixteen, and darkly handsome just as Cekme.
“Ten thousand. Time to be free,” the boy said and smiled mockingly and poised his wicked blade above his sweat sodden head, his curling black hair hanging lank. “You know. I’d have thought I’d get bored with this, brother, but no.”
If he hadn’t said anything Cekme might have just let the blow land he was so weary but the taunt seared a red line through his mind. For centuries they had fought. Could he let his brother win? Could he accept ultimate defeat? Itmek’s smile broadened. His sword chopped down and the battle fury finally came upon Cekme. He twisted aside at the last instant. His brother’s sword scraped the ground but the point darted back up, twisting, lunging for his throat. The the lethal blade suddenly seemed absurdly slow. Cekme let the lunge slide past and drove the heavy bronze pommel of his sword into his brother’s shoulder. His knee shot up, thudded into his brother’s thigh. His elbow made a short, sharp circle and cracked against Itmek’s jaw. Muscles, weary from endless battle gave way beneath the blows, and Itmek went down, his sword spinning away into the blood stained dust.
Itmek scrambled for his blade but Cekme stepped on his brother’s back, forcing him down. He lifted his sword.
“No!” Itmek screamed, his voice high and panicked.
The sword fell. His brother’s life gushed out, red and bright. Cekme stepped back from the suddenly still body and hobbled slowly away. He stopped perhaps twenty feet away, where in the smooth white grit of their featureless prison 9,999 little hash-marks had been scored. One for each time his brother had killed him without being killed himself. He spat on the closest marks and kicked them contemptuously, scuffing them from existence. He turned back to his brother’s body and sat down, his bloody sword resting across his knees. He let his eyes close. With the battle done, the weariness had returned.
He didn’t know how much time passed. There was no way of knowing in the ever-even light of the prison the gods had locked them within. A footstep scraped. Steel rang as it was dragged up from the hard ground.
Cemke sighed and opened his eyes. Itmek’s baleful glare scorched across their eternal battlefield to meet his gaze.
“We agreed! We would end it, thwart the gods’ punishment!” Cemke shrugged but his brother continued. “We were so close. Ten thousand battles.”
Such was their punishment for the foolishness they’d exhibited in life. Ten thousand deaths in a row, each hard won or the oblivion of the afterlife would not find either of them. Cemke supposed he had not yet ceased to be a fool. Almost, but not quite.
“I changed my mind.”
“Idiot!” Itmek snarled and pointed his weapon. “Pick up your sword!”
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