Duncan's Journal: Day 1288
I consider myself a good man. I respect women, elders, my equals, and the dead. I say a morning prayer, and an evening one. Hell, I even thank the gods for a meal, instead of immediately chowing down in the voracious manner as the other soldiers here do. By all logical means, I should be in paradise. No really, not just because I'm a good man, but also because I should be dead by now. So I ask myself: why, oh gods up there, have I ended up in hell?
1288 days. 1288 days of my life have been spent in this misery, and I'm beginning to lose faith in the glory I was promised. Some of the rookies still live in their ignorant bliss, but I've lived long enough to realize that there's not much glory to find here. “Sing the songs of glory and march into battle—-join The Crusade today!”. Such were the words of the posters The Crusade has spread all over The Mortal Realm. Gullible fools practically stand in line for these songs of glory that they've been promised... and I was one of them. But there is no glory to be found—no songs to sing. The only song heard here is the slow moaning of the wind as it passes over the endless sands, or the fatal, whimpering cries of the soldiers with great, gaping wounds in their stomachs. I'm sorry if I sound graphic, but there's no denying it. I'm in hell. They say the hellish realms are filled with death and demons that want to tear you apart and devour your innards. And frankly, that description fits this place with uncanny resemblance.
If there is any place in The Mortal Realm that no man should ever set foot, it is here. The Wastelands. It even says on the map “Here be demons!”, so why would they send innocent men and women down here to feed said demons? I see it every day. Confident rookies that march proudly around in their armor, thinking they're the cherries of the world, and then don't come back after their first patrol. And if they do, they're usually quite quickly disillusioned, when they see what horrors lie beyond the safety of Camp Vanguard. But I get it. I really do. I get why we're being sent down here, because if we weren't, the demons would be clawing at the walls of Aegon—probably the most important city in all of The Mortal Realm—instead of... well... us. But this duty is nothing but pain. It is misery. It is death. It is blood and fear and sorrow and even more death after that. It is what you'd expect it to be.
It is war.
The pencil stopped dancing. The words came to an end at the page, punctuated with a little dot at the bottom of the final letter. The lead of the pencil still kissed the rough piece of paper on the wooden desk, but the words were silenced. The hand that held the pencil, sun-burned, fiddled with it through its fingers a few times, before the owner of said hand leaned back in his chair. It creaked and moaned under his weight, while he exhaled slowly.
He was chiseled man, owner of a body tempered in the heat of battle. His arms were strong, muscles winding over his bones and his skin seemed scorched in the heat of the southern sun. His eyes, surprisingly gentle in this powerful body, jeweled the rugged features of his face. Strong cheekbones protruded from the sides of his head, and a long, angry scar crossed over his nose. A pair of earrings on both ears glimmered in the blinding sunlight, and his hair, pitch black, lengthy and shaggy, swayed down around his neck and ended right beside his chin. He sat there, in his chair, draped in his off-duty vest of leather and his long, denim trousers, and with a necklace carrying the symbol of Hrumalz, the god of war.
He sat there, and felt the heat. The unbearable, merciless heat that invaded the safety of his tent. Sweat rolled down his skin, gleaming like pearls in the sunlight that burst through the open entrance of his tent. He sat with the light in his back, spotlighting him and the desk before him. And the oddities on his desk as well, of course. Letters lay scattered all over the wooden desk, letters to his family that never went through. Letters that should have seen friendlier hands long ago, been read by friendlier eyes, but only ended up back here, on his desk. There were medals of war too, relics of a violent past, gathered neatly around an even greater relic: a shrine. A little table-shrine in reverence to Hrumalz; a miniature granite sword with holy inscriptions all the way up the blade. They say that you can tell a lot of a man by his desk. But if that was true, then Duncan really didn't know what this desk made him.
It was sundown at this point. The light that fell through the entrance of his tent and highlighted him, was divinely orange and red. It tinted everything these colors; his hair, his vest, his desk and all that lay upon it. But the color was interrupted, as a large, all-consuming shadow immediately blocked out the sunlight.
“Ho, Duncan.” A heavy, rumbling voice with the accent of shivering mountains and blistering snow said “A recent batch of recruits have just arrived. I reckon they will require the...uhm... 'welcoming'.”
Duncan looked over his shoulder, over the back of the chair, casting his hazel gaze upon the man that stood in the doorway. And he smiled weakly, the side of his mouth lifting in a slight smirk, as he looked upon his friend.
This man was almost half Duncan's own size taller than him. A boulder of a man, to say the least, but not with an ounce of fat on his body; it was all muscle. And he never seemed to take his armor off—or at least not all of it. He was still wearing the mighty pauldrons of tattered steel, from which hung a long, ebony cape that scraped around at his feet. The pauldrons were held together by two laces of leather, crossing over his bared, muscular chest, and decorated with monstrous claws and fangs-—trophies of battle. But most impressive was not what hung from his leather or plate, but from his chin. A long, braided beard of grey hair rolled down his chest, and ended in a large, rune-decorated metal braid. It swung from side to side as he turned his head, and seemed to wag whenever he spoke. It was almost mesmerizing.
But his eyes always seemed to demand the attention. They were stern, as powerful as the rest of his body, and merely by being looked at, you could feel the subjugation creeping into you. 'Dominating' and 'indomitable' were two words that fit this man impressively well. And yet, there was a smile on his face. The odd contrast between domination and admiration was almost confusing, as he looked at Duncan, with respect in his eyes and friendship in his smile. But the claws and fangs on his leather bandoliers were not the only remnants of battle upon him. While Duncan only had the scar over his nose, this man seemed as if he was doing his best to get more. Scars of all shapes and sizes decorated his bared skin, and probably some under his armor as well. His hair was long, longer than Duncan's, and collected in a small ponytail that strutted upwards above his head, like a grey-tinted crown.
But it was clear that he was not the man he used to be. Age was beginning to set its marks on his face and body, leaving wrinkles instead of scars, and leaving his hair grey and thin. Although it was clear to see in his eyes that he still hungered for battle, still lived the way of the sword, age was inescapable; inevitable. His voice too seemed to carry the hoarseness that followed when age took its toll, but he didn't seem to mind. Age clearly wasn't going to keep him from the thrill of battle.
But he was far from home. Very, very far from home. This man was a child of snow and mountains; a man of the north, and yet, he was here. In The Wastelands. It was quite literally the southernmost part of the map, because no cartographer had ever gone further... and returned.
“More rookies, Ramund?” Duncan mumbled lowly and slung an arm over the back of his chair, looking at his guest “I pity the sods. Well I guess someone needs to inform them just what hell exactly they arrived in. Besides...” Duncan said, slowly standing up from his chair, scooting it across the brick floor with a pitiful frown on his face “...A captain's gotta do, what a captain's gotta do.”
“Duties and organization, Duncan.” Ramund said, folding his large arms across his chest as his smile widened further “They are what makes the difference between us, and our foes.”
Duncan looked up at Ramund, casting a gaze under his thick eyebrows while he was buttoning his vest together and slowly pinning medal after medal on it “You don't think the demons have organization, Ramund? They have at least as much organization as us—-kill stuff, and do it in the name of gods, be they holy or unholy.” Duncan muttered as he put on his uniform-—a tight, celestial white suit with long sleeves of finely woven silk, and buttons of polished silver. In his opinion, this was way overkill for a captain, but he didn't complain.
“The only difference is that they don't get discouraged by the bloodshed.” He said, as he buttoned the last button and slipped on his gloves “They get aroused by it. Now come on. We've got some rookies to scare.” He said, flashing a brief, forced smile across his chiseled face, as he pushed away the curtains of his tent and stepped outside.
A hard gust of dusty wind greeted him with a hallow moan as it passed by, lifting up grains of sand and whirling them around at his feet. He pinched his eyes together as the sharp light befell him, even though the sun was going down in the desert horizon. He could feel the cold of dusk creeping in from the long-stretched shadows, and he saw how darkness was encroaching across the sky, like a spreading infection. There was a strange contrast between light and dark; the horizon blazed in colors red and orange, but a somber hue of dark blue seemed to grow stronger in the other side of the sky with each passing moment. It was like a war between light and darkness was raging in the heavens above—-and it seemed like the darkness was winning.
Duncan stepped outside, and saw the heavens collide. For a moment there, his eyes rising to the skies above, he felt an odd sense of... serenity? A glimpse of peace—a taste of tranquility. Like the touch of better days, calmer times. But as his eyes returned to his closer surroundings, he realized that it was far out of hand, like a rat spotting a rainbow from its home in the sewers. He was still here... In hell.
Camp Vanguard was silent by now. The torches in the ground cast their flickering light upon the rows of tents that stood, side by side, in strict square grids that spread far out all around him. Flying banners of the Crusade stood atop every tent, and they stood in the hundreds. Hundreds of white tents, all completely identical, stood side by side with a lit torch or two by their entrances. Duncan could see the fiery light of the hundred torches illuminate the tents of Camp Vanguard, and chase the darkness away. But beyond the light of Camp Vanguard, was wasteland. Utter desolation of endless sand and drought. All the horizons looked the same: flat barren land, monotone in its bleakness, and with no signs of life whatsoever. It was like an ocean in the way that there was nothing to see in the horizons, no matter where you turned, but it was very unlike an ocean, since an ocean was made of water. But here, water was treasured, rationed, because here, water equals life. And there wasn't much life nor water to brag about, in these godforsaken regions of the world.
It was quiet, though, now that dusk was heralding the coming of night, and because most of these tents were uninhabited anyway. Duncan saw this as he slowly sauntered down the road, Ramund's heavy steps behind him, and with his hands in his pockets. He smelled the rough smell of the torches' fire, and the thick, omnipresent odor of body sweat-—probably his own. He gazed in through the open entrances of the tents, and some where empty, others with a lone soldier writing vain letters to his or her family, and the occasional grave. Here, in Camp Vanguard, dead soldiers had a small shrine of Morrin, the god of death, placed in their tent as soon as their death was reported-—if it was. It was a fine gesture, a nice sign of respect, but after 1288 days, it had become nothing but a bringer of bad news. A new shrine meant a new death, and another face he would never see again. And just with this little trip through the camp, he counted thirty of the shrines—-and that was just a small part of Camp Vanguard.
And then there were the drunks. Duncan saw one of them, a young lad who clearly had experienced his first encounter with a demon, and was trying to drown it away in whiskey and ale. It was a rather sad sight to see these poor disillusioned recruits when they realized that there was no glory to find here. Most of them would lie tucked away in the shadows of the tents, outside them, slumped up against the walls of the tents with half a bottle of whiskey in their hands and tears in their eyes. Blood usually followed too, since many of their first demon encounters had cost them a limb or two as well—at least it didn't cost them their life. It was funny, though, how the leaders of the Crusade back in Godshill, far north from here, sent more booze than they sent water. Maybe they knew that the rookies couldn't drown their sorrows in water and blood. Smart move.
It wasn't long before Duncan, with Ramund at his heels, arrived at the center of the camp. This was perhaps a sad excuse for some kind of plaza to remind the soldiers of home, since this was where the shops stood (offering anything from board games to booze), where the Gathering Tent stood as the only larger tent in all of Camp Vanguard, and where the statue of Lucius Deum, the high commander of The Crusade, stood. In all his granite glory, wielding an open book in one hand and a sword in the other, he seemed like the last glimmer of glory in this camp. But Duncan couldn't help but feel mocked at its mere presence. Did Mr. Deum here even know what it was like, fighting in the frontier against the armies of hell? It was a dirty job, and this man was probably too fine and dandy to get his armor dirtied with such business. No wonder he still believed in glory-—the only battle he saw where ones through gilded glasses, atop a throne of gold built by lesser hands. If only he knew...
Still, the soldiers seemed to flock around him like were he a god to leave offerings for. Men and women, clad in their armors, would kneel down and pray before their benevolent granite leader, hoping for divine salvation. And maybe it worked. Duncan was a man of faith himself, and he had lasted 1288 days so far. But none of his faith had gone to Mr. Deum here. Duncan didn't believe that men in crowns should decide the fate of men in armor. Men in armor, however, should lead men in armor. Clearly someone here hadn't understood the difference between 'leadership' and 'oppression'. But the propaganda he spread, with his posters that promised glory, still lured foolish young men to the battlefield. Duncan wondered how many ever came home again.
With a shake of his head, he tore his gaze away from the glorified statue of their oppressor, and marched silently through the crowd that was beginning to gather. Young men and women in armors walked around, steel clanking with each step and with the arid wind sweeping at their feet-—Duncan could already now see traces of disappointment and fear paint itself across their faces. But he had to ignore it. He had been in their shoes, and he knew how much it meant to see a leader who still believed in battle. And when Duncan walked in through the entrance of the Gathering Tent with Ramund, he tried so hard to be that leader.
As he stepped inside, pushing away the curtains of the entrance, he felt a dozen eyes falling upon him. He, draped in his celestial white captain's outfit, suddenly found himself standing before some twenty new recruits, all clad in their armors of leather and steel, and with hope and anticipation in their eyes. Even a few smiles, he saw. But he had been on this spot far too many times to still believe those smiles would linger. Every time he stepped up on this stage, before this group of recruits, he felt his heart wrench and weep. Another twenty souls, another twenty healthy young men and woman, all lined up for the slaughter. In the seconds of silence he held, standing before the recruits gathered before him, sitting on chairs, side by side, he saw all these faces, and he knew that getting to know them was a fool's errand. But every time it hurt him to see it. Why was it that young, healthy and strong men and women were sent here to die? Would you feed the finest apples to the hounds? Would you leave the largest fish on the beach to suffocate? It didn't make sense. And now he was here to introduce them to their undoing. How poetically painful.
He looked to his right, and saw a face that appeared here every time. Those piercing green eyes—that omnipresent leer on those dark lips. A Dark Elf, yet clad in the brightest of armors in all of Camp Vanguard. Gilded rims decorated his pauldrons and his greaves, and medals covered almost every inch of his chest. His long, dark brown hair rolled down his chest in thin strips, and his smirk seemed to grow as Duncan and Ramund stepped inside. He was standing by the side of the stage, arms folded across his chest, and back leaned gently up against the wall of the tent.
“Evening, Duncan.” He said, his voice deep, yet diabolically... slithering.
“Evening, general.” Duncan said, and performed a stiff salute, as per routine. And that was that. No more words were exchanged between them, save for the quiet chuckle that escaped the generals mouth. Meanwhile, as Duncan turned to the crowd and cleared his through with a cough, Ramund slowly faded away into the other side of the stage, just opposite of the general. And he too folded his arms, looking towards the crowd, and remaining quiet.
“And good evening to you as well, recruits.” Duncan said, raising his voice to the crowd as he stood there, before the crowd of hopeful young recruits “I am Duncan Montgomery Ross, but you will simply be referring to me as 'Captain' from hereon. And this over here, to my left, is Ramund Bjornson, my sergeant and second-in-command.” Duncan said, gesturing towards Ramund who lifted his hand in greeting and presented a far friendlier, and truer smile than Duncan's “But you will just know him as 'Sergeant'. Understood?”
“Understood, Captain!” the crowd immediately burst out simultaneously in response, raising their hands to salute against their foreheads. Their armors rustled and battered in perfect sync, like a symphony, and it was almost pleasing to see how well-trained they had been. Clearly he wasn't dealing with complete rookies—-maybe they had even seen battle before, if he was lucky.
“Good.” Duncan said, and clapped his hands together, forcing forth a practiced and impressively genuine smile—even though it wasn't “And now that we've gotten the introductions through, let's go straight to the briefing. You all know why you're here: to fight demons. That's what you signed up for, that's what The Crusade is all about, and that's exactly what you'll be doing soon enough.” Duncan said as he took a few steps back and stopped up beside a small piece of hanging string from the ceiling “Now, fighting demons does maybe sound a bit gruesome and dangerous, and I'm not going to lie to you—-it is. But I've been here for 1288 days now, and I haven't lost a single limb yet. Want to know why? It's simple really. I go by a very famous and useful saying.” He said, and slowly gripped the hanging string, eyes still locked upon the crowd before him.
“'Know thine enemy'.”
With those words, he pulled the string, and a large sheet immediately unfolded before them, dropping down from the ceiling like a painting without a frame. Everything went silent in the room as the drawing was revealed, and all eyes that before stared at Duncan, now gazed upon the picture.
It was a large, very accurate profile depiction of their enemy: the demons. It was truly the work of nightmares, this thing. It was a horrid creature, bi-pedal but crouched forward with an odd, spiked hunchback. Twin claws the size of swords stood from its hands, two of them, large and sharp enough to split a man's head from his shoulders. Its maw was like the gateway to hell, riddled with jagged teeth and with purple saliva smothering its mouth. According to the scale depiction, this thing was supposed to be just slightly lower than the average man, but above the drawing, it wrote 'TROOPER'. Gods knew how many there would be out there, waiting for them.
“You'll be seeing plenty of these, recruits.” Duncan said, tapping the sheet a few times with his index finger “Don't be mistaken; these creatures will not hesitate to kill you at sight, and they have absolutely no sense of mercy, reluctance, or fear. That is something I want you to learn from these. They will show you no mercy, so why should you show them any?” Duncan asked rhetorically, before pulling at the string another time.
This time, another sheet unfolded, covering up the last one and introducing the recruits to a new way to die. This one, a demon too, was almost thrice the size of the last one. It was a hulk, a menacing abomination, with clawed fists the size of a full-grown man's head, and strong enough to effortlessly squish one to pulp. This one had the headline of 'JUGGERNAUT', as if someone had done their best to make it sound as intimidating as possible.
“Thankfully... you won't be seeing these all that much.” Duncan said, inclining his head “They are the result of troopers somehow being fed with additional demonic energy, and given enough time to evolve into this atrocities. They are strong enough to wipe out an entire squad single-handed, and much faster than you think. But don't forget the saying: 'know thine enemy'!” Duncan said as he pointed towards a small highlighted area on the juggernaut's chest “Right here, is where you want to strike. The creature's exo-skeleton is soft and weak right here, and a firm strike will lead your blade right into its heart. So if you ever are so unfortunate to stand face to face with one of these, fight not just with your body, but your mind as well.” he said, his gaze wandering from face to face, before he stepped back to the string in the ceiling. “And this leads us to our final presentation...” Duncan said, pulling the string a final time.
As yet another sheet fell and covered up the last one, yet another demon unfolded before them. This one, with features sleek and sharp, had much taller spikes on its back, but was only slightly larger than the trooper. It wielded the same twin blades on its hands, but they seemed more like large needles, than blades. This one carried the name of 'LURKER'.
“The lurkers...” Duncan said, arms folded as he looked upon the dreadful creature “The juggernaut may be large, the troopers may be many, but these are the real killers. They possess an uncanny ability to blend in with their surroundings, become invisible, and impale unwary soldiers. But although they become invisible, you can still hear their footsteps, so stay on your toes, and you might be able to outsmart it. And once you have... then you've got the advantage.” He said, as he pointed towards its twin blades “See these? They are pointy, like rapiers, while the troopers' blades are like broadswords. The lurkers are unfit for face-to-face combat, since they can only fight with thrusts-—not swings. If you end up in face-to-face combat, remember one thing: get close. Once you're too close for it to stab you, it'll be a piece of cake. It is only dangerous, while you don't know it's there.” Duncan said, before turning to the crowd, a blank and rather professional expression on his face.
The silence followed. The soldiers before him suddenly seemed so discouraged—-where did their smiles go? Maybe now they realized what they had signed up for. Duncan saw this, he saw how the faces that once smiled now were just riddled with fear and regret. He had been there himself once. He remembered sitting in that chair, feeling that exact same thing, 1288 days ago. And now he had inflicted that same fear upon these poor rookies.
Duncan sighed, and his shoulders dropped “I guess not.” he said, as he pulled the string a final time, rolling all the sheets back up, before he took his somber leave.
Outside, sitting on a bench with his head in his hands, Duncan stared down in the crisp earth below him, idly kicking away patches of sand, while he couldn't kick away the sadness that lingered inside him. The way those smiles all faded, one by one, the way that their enthusiasm, their joy, all seemed to wither away and die when reality struck them. And this wasn't even the real thing. Those some twenty souls... broken. By his hand.
Duncan quickly looked up as he felt the entire bench quake, and saw Ramund take his seat beside him. Their gazes met, and Ramund smiled, patting Duncan twice on the shoulder with his large hand.
“Ho Duncan; you did well in there!” He said, his voice filled with the same vigor and devotion that never seemed to fade from him.
Duncan snorted slightly and looked back down at the arid ground below him, head hanging morosely “True; I did well in breaking their spirits.”
Ramund leaned forward to look at Duncan's face, his own still decorated with that omnipresent grandfather's smile “They will recover, and their vigor will live again. Was your spirit not broken too when you were the one sitting in one of those chairs?” Ramund asked, inclining his head towards Duncan, who turned to look into his eyes.
“...I guess, but what does that have to-—“
“And what day are you on now, hmm?” Ramund interrupted.
“My point stands.” Ramund said, sitting up and folding his arms across his bulky chest “Early broken spirits do not result in an early death. Clearly that has been true for both of us, brother.”
'Brother'. Something Ramund had figured he would begin calling Duncan. Maybe it was some kind of northern tradition-—brothers in arms and all—-, so Duncan didn't complain. In a way, it was rather flattering too.
Duncan looked up at Ramund, and uttered a short chuckle “Well no, I'm just lucky that I'm not dead yet, while you... well, your spirit never broke in the first place! You've only been here one year less than I have, and in all that time, you've always been able to smile in the face of war, no matter how gruesome it gets. I have to admit: it's quite admirable.”
Ramund chuckled loudly, his rumbling voice like thunder “Duncan, the answer is simple.” He said, and looked down at Duncan “You think death is bad; an end to your story. But you are wrong, brother. It is but an end to a chapter. I know, that when I shall fall in battle, Fennerheim will await me in the afterlife. The great King Fenner will greet me into his magnificent halls, and there will be feasting and boasting, endless banquets and ceaseless fountains of the finest mead! That, Duncan, is why I do not fear death.”
Duncan couldn't help but smile a little, maybe even a genuine smile for once “Sounds lovely. Here's to hoping that my gods have something similar in store for me, once I lay down and die.” He said, flicking away a little pebble with his finger.
A small silence followed, as the people in the center of Camp Vanguard slowly began to dissipate. The night was slowly taking over, suffocating the waning sunlight with its all-consuming darkness. The last tendrils of light were beginning to fade, escaping under the horizon in a flare of red and orange, before leaving nothing but a hallow blackness behind. But the light of Camp Vanguard lingered, the torches blazing brightly as always, and with candles encircling and highlighting the statue of Lucius Deum. And in that light, Duncan saw the men and women in armor kneel down, tears in their eyes, praying vainly for the salvation they would never have. Some even lay some of the dog tags of their fallen comrades by the feet of Lucius, weeping and praying for a safe transcendence to the afterlife. It was sad to see how there were more tears than water here-—and more spilled blood than booze.
Duncan sighed. He crushed a few brittle sandstones between his fingers before muttering lowly “Sometimes I wonder what the point is, Ramund...” He said, his voice burdened by discouragement “We throw ourselves into battle, searching for this fabled 'glory' that we were promised, but find nothing but death and destruction. After these 1288 days, I've never seen the promise of victory at the end of all this-—no light at the end of the tunnel. Why do we fight, if there is only promise of defeat without victory?”
Ramund looked down at Duncan once more, clearly quite annoyed by Duncan's faltering spirit “We fight because we must, brother.” Ramund said “We fight because if we didn't, the demons would spread across the land like a voracious disease. Comfort yourself in the thought that every day we fight, we save a life elsewhere. As long as Camp Vanguard stands, each day will be a victory. Each day is one more day where the demons have not torn the world to pieces. You, of all people, should know that better than anyone.” Ramund said, before laying a hand on Duncan's shoulder again “Now I suggest you get some sleep before you degenerate your spirit further with such ill palaver.” Ramund said, and flashed a comforting smile.
Duncan looked at Ramund, saw his smile, and seemed to mirror it. He then patted Ramund twice on his shoulder too, and stood up “You're right. It's getting late anyway.”
With a quick spin of his heel, he turned towards Ramund, and performed a stiff salute before him “Good night, Sergeant.”
Chuckling lowly, Ramund performed the same salute, leading a flat hand to his forehead “You too, Captain.”
With those words, Duncan slowly sauntered away, bathed in the light of the torches, as he disappeared into the maze of Camp Vanguard.