by John Roberts
a retired general must fight returning daemnons
|In the second age of the world Terra, forged from the love and kindness of the spirit Carsimus, daemons born of the dark spirit Mors assailed all that was good. Commanding the lesser daemons of Mors was the greater daemon Mortuus, the drake of fire and death. The men of the city Arcos strove with Carsimus to drive back Mors and his foul minions. Marshaling them was the general Ducarr, the king Visus I, and the mage Lucet. All the land was ravaged in the conflict and Visus I slain and alas, Carsimus also perished. But in the end Mors too was defeated, and all his broodlings fled into the abyss of space and time. The valour of the fallen King Visus I lived on, driving back the encroaching darkness as a vast orb of light in the sky, an eternal ward against fear and despair.
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The misted falls washed over the crag in coruscating sheets, splashing into the sheening lagoon far below. The sun lit warmly upon their cheeks as they sat huddled together on a moss covered outcrop. She looked softly into his eyes, her gilded locks dancing in a gentle breeze. With a grin he closed his eyes and moved his lips closer to hers….
He stood proudly in his pearl hued uniform and cloak, marveling at her beauty. He slipped a gold band set with a heart shaped diamond upon her finger, and she slid a silver ring inlaid with ivory upon his. She raised her head and he threw back the silk that veiled her face. As they leaned in to kiss, a glorious peal of trumpets sounded and all who were gathered cheered….
She smiled as a cool wind rippled across the bronze prairie, and listened as birds sang in a nearby thicket. He rolled through the field with their son, and together they laughed as the grass tickled their fair skin. They lay on their backs watching the clouds sail by as she glided towards them, and when she reached them she lay with them and together they snuggled in the grass….
Ducarr rolled over and woke from a peaceful sleep. He lay in his ornate canopy bed, head resting on a feather pillow, listening to her soft breathing. Fair Sterce, so beautiful art thou: lithe as the morning wind, bright as the spring flower, eyes endless wells of love, hair a cataract radiant as the sun. He caressed her sleeping form and kissed her forehead, threw back his covers and rose. He walked over to Sterce’s side where young Talis lay in wolf skin blankets upon the marble floor. Ducarr donned his tunic and breeches, and over the sleeping boy and crept quietly from the room, shutting the oaken door gently behind him. He walked down a hallway liveried with many portraits of his grandsires, all strong and proud men of greatness. He came to a flight of wide curling stairs, and after descending and passing through an open arch entered a verdant garden.
He strolled along a cobbled path winding through an elaborate maze of herbs and orchards and shrubs, their myriad of scents perfuming the air. Sunbeams reached through branches and shone on green leaves dappled with morning dew. He turned from the path and meandered into the heart of his tended wood and at length came to a glossed stump carved in the likeness of a chair. There he sat looking into a shimmering pool when there came a slight rustling in the bracken nearby. He turned as a soldier came stamping through the trees.
“General Ducarr,” said the man, “the King requests your presence; there is a council to be held pertaining to the rumors.”
Ducarr lifted his gaze from the pool and gave a resigned sigh. “Then lead on, lieutenant. But I warn you, I promised my wife and son we would picnic together and they are as yet asleep. I will be home for my picnic whatever the King wants.”
“As you will, milord.” The lieutenant turned and led Ducarr through the garden and towards the palace of Arcos, chief city of men.
King Visus IV slouched in his throne, listening wearily as his councilors prattled on of grim portents of the coming age of darkness. None of these men have ever seen the daemons, much less fought against them; their tidings are nigh useless. Ducarr will know. The only other who had lived through the War of Spirits was Lucet, the ancient warlock who slew Mors when Visus I fell. Lucet stood in the corner, adding no comment to the din of the councilors.
Just as Visus IV was nodding off, the lieutenant he sent to retrieve Ducarr stumbled in to announce the Lord’s arrival. The room quieted, and the General himself ambled through the stone double doors in his tunic and breeches. The council scoffed at the sight of him wearing plain clothes in their presence.
Visus IV waved away their complaints. “Welcome, Ducarr. Need is great, and blessed am I that you have honoured my summons.” He rose and dipped his head to the General before seating himself again.
“Was there a choice?”
This statement was met with more glares from the council, but Lucet laughed as he emerged from his corner. “How are you General? They had me here hours ago and I’ve done naught but gather dust since.” The two embraced.
“I sorely miss my home already, and Sterce and my boy. I intend to be done here quickly and return to them.”
Lucet’s smile lessened. “I’m not sure you’ll be going home anytime soon. There is news that the void is again menacing the land, swallowing up the fringes of the world. And we have heard from more than one village tales of shadow-like creatures stalking the wild.”
Ducarr shook his head. “But there have been no sightings of daemons since they were vanquished in the War of Spirits. I was there; I saw them fall.”
“Yes, but I lived through those evil days too. Not all were slain, and the greater one escaped. After all these centuries they desire vengeance.”
“But they should be fewer,” said Ducarr, “and easily routed.”
Lucet spoke in a distant voice. “Not so, General. As soon as the rumors began I called for all creatures with wings to fly forth and see what they would. Fewer have returned than were sent, and all have seen the same: a creeping horror despoiling the land, and many forms that appear as ebon clouds razing the countryside. And they claimed to feel a presence vast and terrible stifling the very ether itself, filling all with dismay.”
“Come,” called Visus IV, “have your council with us as well.”
The two turned and saw more than one exasperated councilor, but the King as yet remained calm. “Forgive us,” said Ducarr, “we did not mean to talk in secret.” They walked over and stood by the King.
Said Visus IV, “I take it Lucet has informed you of the situation? Now on to the real matter: who is to lead the legions against this growing threat?” He gave Ducarr a lingering stare.
The General raised both arms out before him. “I will have naught to do with this. I am aggrieved that the daemons have returned, but there are many others able to lead. I miss my wife; long was I parted from her in past campaigns, and I promised my son that I would picnic with him this day. I say again: I want no part in this conflict.”
“Ducarr,” said the King solemnly, “I know you do not want this, and at first I was content to let you be, but already I sent several battalions to deal with this peril and none have returned and the stories grow worse. Only you, who have seen the daemon kind before, are fit to defeat them. Please; I know you have no love for me or this council, but for those who are in danger I beseech you: lend what aide you can.”
Ducarr glanced at Lucet, then turned back to face the King. “But all I have heard is little more than rumor, even if it is the word of Lucet my friend. I will not leave my wife again unless I am sure of danger.”
Lucet gave a start and nudged Ducarr, pointing to the far corner. There a dim shade engrossed near half the wall and was denser than shadow is inclined. The council and the King turned and stared. After a few hushed moments the councilors let loose gasps or muted curses as the darkness spread.
Ducarr frowned and pulled Lucet out a side door and together they walked to the edge of a wide balcony. He looked to the sky, then back at Lucet. “The sun, it is falling!”
Lucet nodded gravely. “It is so.”
“But there has been day eternal since the War of Spirits! The strength of the sun has never failed; many do not know what true darkness is. How could this happen?”
“As I said: the daemons have returned in vast numbers, and it seems the greater daemon Mortuus is with them. I beg you to reconsider; we will need you in the coming war.” There was silence as the two watched the horizon. “So long as this orb doth shine, so too shall men.”
“The last words of Visus I.” Lucet walked back into the council chamber, leaving the General to his thoughts.
Hours passed as Ducarr paced the balcony, recalling grim memories and musing over the evil days ahead. Sterce! It is a dark fate that war should part us, but perhaps we could flee together and abandon these troubles. Ducarr leaned against the terrace, brooding to the north. Blood-red veins of the dying father partially illumined his visage; gilt flame trembled in his left eye like the candle of love in the wind of truth. Shadows black as war enveloped his right eye, warping that side of his face. He looked to the west, and a lone tear trickled down his cheek as the smouldering sun sank lower still. Eastward he turned, and like a forlorn star he stood willing to endure the coming eventide.
Sterce stood on the crystalline veranda before the main entrance to her small palace, watching as a soldier marched up the stairs.
“Lady Sterce,” said the man, “I am bid to come by your husband, General Ducarr.” He handed her an envelope, turned and left.
Sterce opened the packet with trembling hands. She turned it over and a silver ring inlaid with ivory fell into her hand.
Talis came running through the open doors. “Mom, when are we going on our picnic with Dad?”
She looked down on his questioning face, tears welling in her eyes. “Later.”
Dismal faces looked on from shop windows and balconies as the legions rode in a slow procession through the city. Drums beat slowly and trumpets wailed. The column of soldiers rode towards the open gates in the shallow light of the purple sky. Ducarr’s white stallion trotted at the head of the army; he sat with his head high, seeming a statue of a legend of yore. There were no cheers, no shouts, no cries of glory to see them off, only sorrowful stares lamenting their passage. As the last of his men left the city and the iron gates clanged shut, the sun failed and a yawning darkness devoured the sky.
They spurred their mounts onward and soon left the city far behind. For hours they rode in silence through total dark; fear rode with them. When at last they stopped and made camp the men were more than eager to light fires, anything to allay the abysmal night. Ducarr sat huddled on the ground, musing into an orange fire crackling meekly. Sterce, will I ever return to your side? And Talis, my boy, will I live to see you grow strong?
Lucet sat perched on a tall wooden chair in his lofty spire. By candlelight he rummaged through many ancient tomes and scrolls, and when at last he found what he sought he shoved all else on the floor. He held up a scrap of parchment and glared into the night. Long have I awaited you, daemons. Thus he began chanting the words to an ancient incantation.
Ducarr woke and still it was dark. All about the camp horses whickered fearfully and men groaned as they too woke and found that still it seemed as night.
A soldier approached Ducarr. “Sir, why is it dark still?”
He sat up, rose to stand beside the man. “Such is the power of the daemons; if we fail it will remain night forevermore.”
“But sir, what of the sun? Has the valour of Visus I been smothered by this darkness?”
“I know not. But the wizard Lucet, my friend, is doing what he can to reverse this evil. Douse the fires; we leave shortly.”
They mounted and rode again in the dusk. After some hours Ducarr turned back and was stunned to find that he was able to see the men behind him. He smiled faintly. Lucet. But his smile faded as he looked to the ground and saw that the prairie was no longer a rich bronze, but was more rusted and sickly and crunched under the galloping hooves. The air too seemed sour, like old milk turned black. Also there was a growing heat, enough that the men began to sweat profusely.
At length the dark began to truly recede, and a pale red glow hung over the land as a blazing miasma. The increasing light brought minimal comfort, for the sweltering heat continued to wax and there was a distant gloom that did not dissipate with the coming dawn.
“Men,” called Ducarr, “that blackness ahead, there lies our fate.” He raised one arm. “Form ranks on either side and ready your spears.” They were now close enough to almost see the enemy; it seemed as though a black and roiling cloud had descended to the earth and came towards them swift as storm. The sun struggled over the horizon, its weary bands of scarlet stabbing at the sky, dripping across their mail as the men of Arcos rode forth. Ducarr raised his spear and shouted, “To glory!” In unison they lowered their tips, a charging phalanx of wood and steel.
The dark and hazy forms swarmed across the field as a plague of locusts. As the foul host advanced flowers crumpled and grass furled and even the newly risen sun seemed to wither. The two forces were but a bowshot apart, the earth rumbling in the wake of the riders of Arcos and wilting in the swath of the daemon horde.
Ducarr called to his men. “Remember what we fight for. Hold fast to courage and stay with me.” I am Ducarr, Grand Marshal of the legions of Arcos. For those who have suffered and those who suffer still I shall banish thee to the depths of space and time.
Just before the charging armies clashed a monstrous roar, sounding both as though a mother’s shriek and a dying bawl flooded the plain with dread. A surge of heat blasted across the plain as though a great volcano had just erupted. There came a whisper crawling through that searing wind. “Ducarr, Ducarr, death to thee.” Then did he perceive a crimson wyrm soaring through the sky; its bulk shamed even the red sun rising. With each flap of its wings the fell leviathan loomed nearer, and gale force winds smote the land.
Ducarr charged forth with a grim visage; a drop of fear now rippled in his mind. “Mortuus,” said he.
Sterce sat on a glossed stump in the garden looking into a pool shimmering red as blood in the mourning light. She held a silver ring inlaid with ivory in her hands as she wept. Overwhelmed with tears she let her hands fall to her sides and the ring slipped from her grasp and rolled among the reeds.
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