He’d learned to pick himself up over time.
His feet no longer scraped through dust and dirt, no longer tangled in low lying scrub that would have in the past hindered him.
And so too he would learn to pick himself up emotionally. One day, he told himself time and time again, he would learn.
This was just not that day.
The dirt and blood encrusted cloth — he called it blud, for blood-mud — dipped into the creek, revealing the slipstream of the water in rusty ribbons. Like a melting scab. The melting scab around his heart that, once washed away, ensured it would bleed fresh. He snorted a sad laugh. How many times had he repeated this act to form these thoughts in his mind, the phrases themselves now part of it. A ritual.
Glancing over his shoulder, he looked at the torso behind him with its severed limbs scattered about.
No. Not a ritual. Rituals were the sort of thing that caused that.
Water now running clean, he squeezed as much moisture out of the small stuffed bear head as he could. Turning its face to his, he pressed it to his forehead, eyes clamping shut. When he opened them, even though there was no one else to see, he was glad that there’d been enough water to run over his eyes and cheeks. At least, he thought when he heard the body coughing behind him, no one that mattered.
Pulling back his patched up coat, he tethered the bear head to his belt at his right hip, gently covering it and giving the lump a squeeze, causing the cracked leather to creak. Throwing aside the left side of the coat now, he unsheathed his sword and strode with quick purpose to the body.
The bloody, sneering face peering up at him showed little sign of the pain it must have been in as the ragged stumps of arms and legs struggled, the head craning to get a better angle on him. The creature gurgled in the back of its throat, its jaw hanging from shreds of flesh. Even without the use of it, he could tell the thing was growling at him, its yellow eyes narrowing as he approached. If it had been able to, the thing would have torn him apart with claw and teeth.
Kicking a blood splattered arm aside, he rounded the body and stood above the head. The things nose and eyes wrinkled and twitched before the rough-hewn, rust spotted blade pierced it between the eyes. Shuddering violently and coughing dark blood onto its mottled chest, the thing finally fell still. His gaze bore into its eyes, grip clenching on the bare, wooden handle until it creaked.
With a sound like a watermelon being torn in half, black tendrils jerked up the sword, like cracks forming on its surface. The eyes of the creature widened and it let out a new sound. A sound that had a barking, coughing rhythm. As the creature laughed, his steel turned to blackened crystal, but his primary concern was the approaching thunderhead of footfall. Taking a step to the side, he brought his foot down hard on the demons throat and grabbed the hilt with both hands. Pulling with all his strength, the thing would not budge so he gave it a hard wrench.
His resolve almost shattered along with the blade as its blackened crystal length cracked, reducing the weapon to half its length. The demon doubled its laughter but was soon silenced — hopefully for good this time — as his boot lifted from its neck and fell sharply on the remains of his sword.
A crash of trees from over his shoulder drew his attention to the surging demon horde and sent him into a sprint. The reduced length of his blade made it that much less cumbersome to run with, but also that much useless as a weapon.
And in this age of Hell on Earth, no more blade meant no more life.
The pumping of his legs slowed at the thought of no more struggle. No more pain and death. The waterlogged bear head smacking his upper thigh had other thoughts on the matter.
Lips peeling back and fists bunching, his feet hit the earth harder and faster. He wasn’t going to make that decision, but he wasn’t about to let the decision be made for him either, though he may not have a choice.
A snorting grunt from directly behind him and to his right made him veer sharply to the left then come about face in time to see the squat, bulky form of what the survivors called a Bulldozer but the demons called a morax. Like most demons, the thing was hairless, its thick, black skin looking like dry leather, if leather was made of rock. Moraxes had flat, almost humanoid faces, though somewhere between two to three times the size depending on the beast. This was a smaller variety, but no less deadly.
A set of deadly blade-like horns jutted from forehead and chin, those above its eyes the larger and giving the things their bullish appearance. Those horns, however, shone like obsidian and he’d heard stories that they were indeed volcanic glass. He’d never gotten close up enough to one to find out for himself, though it seemed he would get his chance. Despite their bulk and lowness to the ground, the things were fast. If he could deal with it quickly, he may yet outrun the following horde.
The moraxes lips quivered and it pulled then back into a hideous grin of sorts, exposing more black, crystalline protrusions. Top and bottom jaw were lined with jagged outcroppings of the stuff. The creature jutted its jaw and moved it from side to side, letting out a spine aching squealing grind that was obviously meant to unnerve. Switching his grip, he ran straight at the creature. Seeing its tactic fail, it galloped at him, lowering its head so the horns could impale him. At the last moment, he dove to the side and thrust his broken sword. Blade met flesh, burying deep into the moraxes eye. Its momentum jerked his arm, wrenching his shoulder and tearing the weapon from his hand.
He hit the ground hard and rolled, ending face down on hand and knee, but the wind had been knocked out of him by the sheer force of the demon along with his shoulder muscles. He pushed off the dirt, but a hammer blow to his back knocked him back down and snatched away his breath again. The hammer became a wrecking ball as he was kicked away, his ribs flaring and setting fire to his lungs. He clutched at his side, rolling back and forth in agony. When he opened his eyes his attacker was standing over him and circling, grinning. The demon’s voice fell from its lips like boulders rolling through lava. It’s speech was incomprehensible, but in whatever eldritch way they had humans could hear their words, and their minds seemed to match their lip movements to them. If one had the time or the inclination, you could train yourself to see and hear their true words.
“Ah, the Duncan Foster. Slayer of three of my brood brothers and sisters. And this poor, poor morax.” The demon knelt by the dead beast and ran his fingers gently across its head, his fingernails made of the same stuff as the fallen beasts horns. His words spoke of sympathy for the fallen creature, but it was an affectation.
“Yeah,” Duncan said, his voice hoarse. “So sorry about that K’Phrazzis. Let me get up and I’ll make it up to you.”
The demon’s touch faltered on one of the large upper horns as he snorted. “You humans and your humour. I am aware that you well know by now that we honour our dead who have fallen in battle.” K’Phrazzis wrapped his hand around the base of the faceted black protrusion, blood so dark welling from the folds of his skin that it was almost black.
“Don’t let me get in your way. I’ll give you some privacy. As soon as I’m up I’ll — ”
Giving it a sharp twist that let out a sodden, bony crunch, the demon began to extract the black crystalline horn, his own blood mingling with the beasts as he pulled. With a final tug, the thing came loose and K’Phrazzis rose to his feet. “For my sister.” The tip of the horn pierced the flesh of his left pectoral and dragged down. “For my brothers.” The cutting continued with a line mirroring the first before another was added between those. “For all the others of my kin.” The final incision cut horizontally, bisecting all three preceding it. Then K’Phrazzis turned to Duncan. “And now for the blood sacrifice.”
Sighing, eyelids drooping along with his head, Duncan managed to sit up on his knees and waited for the end to come. Not only did it not arrive but, Duncan saw as he opened his eyes and looked up, it had not departed. “What are you waiting for? Just kill me and get it over with.”
“As you wish, I will kill you, Duncan Foster. But your end will not be so — ” The demon cocked his head, as if searching for the right word. “Merciful,” he spat, lips pulling back in disgust.
The concept of mercy for demons, Duncan knew from experience, was as alien as demonkind was to humans. Remorse, pity, compassion, all the positive traits of mankind they lacked they more than made up for with all the collective filth of humanity. Greed, hatred, fear — the inducing of it and pleasure derived from it. Even lust, though to look at them their naked forms lacked any outward genitalia.
Something hit the dry earth next to Duncan’s knee.
“Prepare yourself, Duncan Foster.”
He knew what the demon proposed.
Duncan looked at the horn that ran as long as his forearm then looked up. He took a trip of torn cloth from his battered leather satchel and proceeded to wrap it about the thick end of the horn. As he did, he saw the horde assemble at K’Phrazzis’s back, looking at least two dozen strong. “Are you going to set a timer, or did you bring an hourglass or something for dramatic effect?” He Started to tie off the make-shift handle. “Because I — ”
The horde parted and the air left in their wake rippled. Duncan swallowed, but his tongue had turned to shrivelled and cracked leather, unbending and devoid of all moisture, clogging his throat. He knew what the heat haze-like shimmer meant, and it was in no way good.
A slit tore in the air and belched heat and stench in his face, and bathed him in an unearthly ruddy hue. The demons closest to the portal stood taller as the climate of their home world washed over them, their thick, rubbery outer skins peeled back to drape from their backs like cloaks or wings, exposing their glistening, naked true forms. Some of them were clearly excited as the exposed groups multi-form reproductive organs swelled.
A shadow fell over Duncan as an eight-plus foot tall demon stepped through. Her flesh rippled as she glanced around and settled on him, anemone like areola closing and similar genital fronds withdrawing. Rippling wisps at her back wound around her body to enclose and protect her flesh, leaving spiral lined flesh that thickened into the fleshy armour they all had.
Her eyes and expression bore no hint of any feeling or thoughts on the situation. “This is the human?” She did not look for an answer and none came. Her eyes bore into Duncan’s, unblinking, unwavering. “He will make a fine example for the other Bladelanders.” With that she turned and stepped back through the portal, the rift swiftly closing behind her with a gust of hot air.
With a groan, Duncan rose to his feet, dusting off his coat and jeans. “Don’t suppose we can get a cold one first?” He looked at the faces around him, settling on K’Phrazzis. “Maybe a latte?” The demon stared back. “Take that as a no?”
“Flee, Duncan Foster. Today we will honour you.”
As he sprinted through the bush land, black sword waving and bear head tapping at his leg, Duncan was reminded — as he always was — of the fateful chase that both saved and ended his life as he knew it.