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Duck Slaks and the Heart Eaters of Seefrin
Before the days of men like Duxon Slaks, eyes would turn to the heavens and see blue skies. Before time itself had forgotten the Earth, a great civilization had grown out of a time of stone. A history of blood and triumph had once opened a door to abundance. There were men who knew peace. Great machines once filled the skies. Work could be completed at the push of buttons. A thousand men could know the thoughts of anyone, anywhere in the world.
Those blue skies tinted dark now. Blue, yes, but never bright. A sourness seeped into the soil of this world. Civilization was almost myth, existing in remnants of structures long decayed. Like men who lived in caves in times long forgotten, the people of Earth sheltered in the crumbling, manufactured citadels that once touched the skies.
Duxon Slaks shuffled his past the small town that served no more purpose than to hide its people from the rain, and allow them to store food for whatever seasons passed in this part of the world. Duxon stuck out like an annoying sliver, with his thick pancho and leather boots. His clothes were made of the toughest fabrics, and served him well when he climbed the rocky mountains or quested into the deeper layers of this world. What did he seek? Whispers on the wind? Were there answers in that voice that sometimes filled his thoughts?
The wind blew over him fiercely, unnaturally. The afternoon was calm, but he could feel the shudder in the air. Somewhere in the mountain pass, something called, and yearned to be heard.
He raised one arm to block the sand from his eyes. His hand glinted in the unnatural light of the sun. The world might be used to the strange tint in the light, which would have been unrecognizable to the men of the civilized world, but no one in this town had ever seen a man with a metal hand before.
The thing might not have been metal at all. It had a glint, but something in it felt like stone, even though it moved as well and with as much motion as his other hand. How Duxon had acquired this unique biology was a strange story, and perhaps here and now it did not help to reflect on things. The only thing that mattered were the voices that drifted on the winds from the time he had merged with the dead hand. Only that could explain his tendency to arrive at these ghastly locations, feeling their call whenever he lowered his guard.
There had been wonders when he followed the voices, and terrors that could chill a man to stone. And here, foul winds were rising from the mountains. What would today bring?
Filling a canteen at one of the wells, Duxon made his way out of town. A skinny child crossed his path, gave him a frightened look, and moved on without a word. Duxon moved on. He found himself beyond the town, back in the wild world and heading into the mountains.
The hills descended through the mountains. Duxon was waylaid by a few rough climbs, scraping his back against jagged rocks as he slid to better footing down a narrow passage. He paused for an hour to regain his strength, eating and drinking under the hot sun, and listening to the voices on the wind. He could not hear them clearly, but he felt something nearby. When his strength returned, he rose and continued into treacherous terrain.
Almost out of nowhere, the dusty hills opened into a valley of verdant green. Duxon knelt and took stock of things. He was high above some structure supported by ancient pillars, overgrown with thick green that didn't belong in this dry heat. Without any doubt, this was one of the weird places of the world. Just beyond a simple town, he had found a mystery. Investigation of the surrounding area clearly showed where paths were carved through the abundant trees. Duxon knew of strange places like this, and he instinctively felt for one of the pistols holstered at his hip.
He renewed his journey with caution and stealth. A thirty-foot drop waited ahead, but Duxon found the face of the mountain a welcoming climb, so he descended to a ledge that shrouded him behind the fronds of a tree. There was much evidence of foot traffic below. The building looked like a temple, though it was never easy to tell. Historic records indicated a civilization that had designed entire cities meant as entertainment destinations. Duxon had seen a few of those, and this looked much older. This was probably a piece of real history.
Movement up the road caused him to back into his concealment. He watched from above as a procession marched toward the temple. Eleven men in total, all armed with spears, and they were led by a tall man wearing an armored breastplate. He looked clean compared to his men. His face was shaven, hair combed, and his armor shone blindingly in the light. Four of his men were dragging an enormous bull that walked in a stupor, as if drugged.
Duxon noticed his hand feeling warm, and a voice hissed, barely within hearing.
Fiery rage filled Duxon Slaks. The bite of anger tensed every muscle in his body as he watched the men enter the temple. At that word, all was made clear. Seefrin was a name that would turn men away with fear, but Duxon Slaks felt only a consuming desire for vengeance. A hundred years of damnation befell humanity with one flick of Seefrin's vile tongue. The hideous, black demon, the melter of minds, Seefrin! Some called it a god, but Seefrin was as much a god as the mythical snake men of the Arctic. Vile Seefrin! These fiends, these fools, they were making sacrifice to Seefrin!
Duxon heard the men assembling inside the ruins. He scanned the forest for any sign of watchers, but there were too many places for guards to hide, and little time to waste. He would have to risk breaking his cover.
This was certainly a forest of Seefrin. Duxon could see it now that his senses were running hot. A disturbing visage, and an illusion of something real. The trees here did not sway in the wind. The further he climbed down, the more Duxon could feel the presence of the evil demon. He hurried to the entrance, keeping to the shadows of the pillars. The temple had seemed small, but it was merely the ornate, if dilapidated, entrance to a large cave within the mountain. There were more stone pillars here, but they were arranged in a widened circle. At the far end of the cave stood an altar of stone, and the bull was tied to a thick pillar nearby. Dark stains covered the dirt around the altar. Conclusions were easy to come by in this situation, but Duxon stood back, watching the men spread out to surround the tall man. Their leader stood at the altar, brandishing a strange dagger with a handle of golden scales. Torches lit the room, and the light struck the man from every direction. His armor glinted, and so did the blade of the dagger. Duxon squinted at the man, trying to figure out where he had seen such armor before.
“We witness the rise of Seefrin in the days to come. The blood forest must feast, and we make this sacrifice in Seefrin's honor, to feed him the lifeblood so that it be made pure. Blood must spill so that blood may rule, and in the beating heart of the sacrifice, the glory of...”
Duxon let the noise drown. It was true, then. These monstrous zealots were touched by the madness of Seefrin. This was a blood forest, and it would only grow to consume the mountain if this was allowed to continue. These men had all been tricked by the man in charge, somehow, into eating the heart of a sacrifice. They would be held in thrall more and more with each sacrifice, and if Duxon did not act, all of these men would be devouring the heart of this bull like animals in mere moments. Duxon Slaks knew no other way to break the hold Seefrin had over these men than to kill the leader. He would be the one who started this corruption, who made a deal for power beyond that of mortal men. Duxon seethed, gazing at the gathered men as his mind raced for a solution.
After a few moments, with little in the way of options, it came down to a shot. Duxon's pistol smoked at the barrel, and despite the sudden noise that echoed within the cave, the dozen heads that turned his way did so very, very slowly.
Exactly a dozen, for the leader was still alive, and Duxon found himself confused. His aim had been true. He came out of cover and took a few paces forward, gun at his side. The men did not so much as point a spear at him. If he tried to fire again, they would all attack him, and they were so consumed by Seefrin's influence, they would do so wildly, with no regard for their own lives. All for the blood demon, Seefrin.
“If it is a sacrifice you wish, then I invoke the ritual of sacrificial combat.”
The leader smiled wickedly at Duxon. “You entered our temple and tried to kill me, only to find it impossible, and now you seek to invoke our rituals? And who are you, who would kill me from behind like a coward?”
Duxon gave his answer in a voice of deep and growling anger. The shadows seemed to back away when he spoke. “I am Duck Slaks. I am the enemy of the Old Darkness. I seek to end your hold over these men, and I know the evil one you serve well enough. You will take my challenge, for my sacrifice is much more rewarding than a simple bull.”
The sinister smile crossing the face of his tall adversary curved into a grimace. The man's voice was full of slithering eels; slick and slippery, oozing from the cracks of his mind. “Well said, and true. Duck Slaks, you say? I am Calcian, a Ghost Priest of Seefrin. Rather than have my men kill you, I will accept your challenge. However, I will wear my armor, for I sense you have some advantage upon your person, though I cannot comprehend it. Tell me, do you still wish to battle for your life? You may leave without fear, otherwise. I will allow you this one chance to flee. That is more than you were willing to offer with that bullet.”
Duxon nodded. “However you like. You and I battle to the death, and when I win, the sacrifices will end.”
He accepted before he was able to figure out Calcian's game, but Duxon knew something about the armor would make this a difficult fight. His bullet should have put a whole the size of a fist in Calcian's forehead. How had he missed?
The men spread their circle to give the combatants room. Duxon tossed his gun to the ground, then undid his holster and threw his other pistol down in the dirt as well. They were useless here, evidently. He pulled a large knife from one boot, and stood ready to fight the gleaming priest.
Calcian snarled and charged. He was a large man; taller than Duxon, but spry and not as solidly built. Still, he bore down on Duxon with the strength of madness on his side, and the first stab went for Duxon's neck. Duxon brushed the thrusting arm aside, slashing the wrist of Calcian, who seemed to feel no pain from the attack. Duxon rushed in to stab through his enemy's chest, but his knife slid across the armor, and he stumbled, leaving himself open for a moment. Calcian nearly drove the dagger through Duxon's back, but Duxon's free hand shot up and flicked the blade of the knife away.
Calcian smiled. “So, it is that hand that disorients my senses. What magic do you wield, Duck Slaks?”
There was no reply. Duxon turned and aimed a strike for Calcian's head, but Calcian was able to lean back, and the knife glided over the gleaming armor again. The two men opened a little distance, and circled each other while the zombie men surrounding them began to beat out a rhythm on the floor with their spears. It was an off-beat, demonic sound, and Duxon was sure it was the hand of Seefrin himself that guided the cacophony. Duxon found it hard to concentrate under the discordant tune.
“You should give up on striking my armor. This is armor stolen from the snake men of the Arctic. A remnant. A relic. Have you noticed yet? The blade cannot touch the armor, but to slide away. You are limited in your options for killing me, Duck Slaks. But I shall carve out your heart!”
Calcian lunged at Duxon, swiping the dagger feverishly back and forth. His height and reach left Duxon falling back at first, but it was a momentary setback as Duxon reevaluated his strategy. He knew of this armor from the Histories. The snake men were bulletproof, and nothing could pierce their armor. Only a few legends told of those who broke the breastplate of a snake man. Always it had been with some magnificent weapon or, as some old stories claimed, magic.
After several more swift thrusts – and there was no doubt that Calcian was the faster between them – Duxon finally lashed out with his inhuman hand, taking the full blow of the blade. With the squeal of metal, he caught Calcian's blade in his hand, squeezing and pressing the man back. Calcian leaned forward and drove his weight down, trying to drive his dagger into Duxon's eye, but Duxon's strength was too great, and he forced Calcian back with a single arm and powerful, marching steps. The anger in Duxon's eyes filled Calcian with dread. Calcian saw a man possessed by a determination inviolate. He felt that rage the first time Duxon's knife stabbed at Calcian's trapped arm. He stabbed three more times, and Calcian felt the bone of his arm snap under the strain as Duxon brought the taller man to his knees. With a sudden movement, Duxon ripped the dagger away from his opponent, spun it in his hand and brought it down into Calcian's chest.
The air sparked, and wisps of black smoke surrounded the wound when the dagger was driven into Calcian's black heart, all the way to the hilt.
In an instant, all of Calcian's men collapsed to their knees, and the cave filled with groans of tired confusion, as if they were each awakening from a long dream. Perhaps a nightmare.
Duxon picked up his guns. He paused after hitching his holsters in place, and listened to a voice echoing through the cave. Then he approached the bull, undid the rope tied to the pillar, and gave the beast a long look. With a tug, he tried to guide it to the cave entrance. The bull eyed him, still with a look of tired confusion in its eyes. It staggered, but followed. Duxon took a last look back at the men who now struggled to recall how they had come to this place. Duxon could offer them little help. With any hope, they could get back to their lives and forget whatever wickedness they had tasted.
Duxon took the long road around the mountains, back to the small town. Many gave him suspicious looks as he returned with the massive bull in tow, but no one asked questions. He bought as much food and water as he could afford, and a bag that he could sling over the back of the bull.
A day later, he headed out of town again, the bull following obediently behind. Duxon didn't know why the bull was such a tame beast. Whatever sedative the Seefrin cult had used was now well out of the behemoth creature's system. A little voice seemed to be telling Duxon that the bull would be worth bringing along. Although Duxon did not trust the voices completely, there were no hints of lies in anything they said. Instead of worrying about it, Duxon found himself wondering if it had been the strange dagger or his mysterious hand that had broken through the old armor of the snake men. He squeezed his hand several times, feeling a strength well beyond anything human. Was this a curse or a gift? No idea. All he could do was follow along with the voices and see. For all he knew, those voices could equally be an agent of darkness, not unlike the followers of Seefrin. If they were, he would find a way to silence them and, if he could, make them pay.
As Duxon passed the blood forest, he saw the plant life already starting to wilt.