General Gaul Macrabius looked over the battlefield, arranged in miniature on the table before him. From here, it looked so much neater than the real thing. The soldiers were represented by carved wooden tokens, the larger tokens indicating larger groups. The enemy Boudosian soldiers, made out of dark chestnut, were constantly being moved as scouting reports filed in. It wasn’t a neat process. The information they had was hours out of date by the time it arrived, and it wouldn’t be updated until another scout could be sent.
“…and if they keep moving at the same pace, they should be here by noon tomorrow,” the scout finished. The Boudosian tokens were slowly creeping towards the collection of alder tokens that represented the last few thousand Craiviran troops still alive under Macrabius’s command. The Boudosians numbered almost three times that number, and they were led by a capable and prescient commander, who had used tactics and force of arms to corner Macrabius’s army against a mountain range.
A group of soldiers, unencumbered, could cross it with some difficulty, but an army was a huge, lumbering beast. Supplies, wounded, camp followers – hell, entire families, so many now bereft of a husband or a son – that would need horses, carts, food…
“We haven’t lost yet,” Macrabius lied, looking over the little wooden tokens that represented five thousand men. Five thousand living, breathing men. The tokens made it so easy to feel detached from them; it was a necessity, at points. War was death, on a massive scale, and a commander that cried for every soldier killed under his command would soon run out of tears. He had seen it happen too many times; brilliant leaders, shining examples of what an officer should be, turned into despondent wrecks by the guilt.
Seeing five wooden tokens removed from the board was much easier to handle than realizing that fifty men had just been killed.
The letter sitting in the bottom drawer of the general’s desk in his tent returned to the front of his mind, and ice ran through his veins at what he was considering. He couldn’t – could he? The war was hopeless; he wouldn’t have received it otherwise. By this time tomorrow, every man in this tent would be dead, his head mounted on a pike, while the survivors were enslaved and worse –
“Gaul,” a voice at Macrabius’s side said. “Your orders?”
Macrabius looked to the man at his side. Six months ago, Commandant Cars Turelve had looked like a jovial man who was hardly bothered by the passage of time. Now, he looked every one of his fifty years. He was gray and haggard, made thin by the diet of rationed supplies, and his once-tidy beard had become a knotted and gnarled mess.
“We fortify and prepare,” Macrabius said. “Any word from the messenger?”
“None. It’s been four days. The man’s probably dead by now.”
Macrabius hit the table, shaking the tokens. “Damn. The bastards won’t even allow us to surrender in peace.”
“They want blood, and they’ll get it,” Turelve said. “You haven’t… received any other letters recently, have you?”
Macrabius had always been an honest man, and he had a reputation as such. It was that reputation that was the greatest tool a liar could possibly have. “No,” he said. “I haven’t gotten anything from the Blackbirds, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Turelve allowed himself a smile as he clapped his friend’s shoulder. “Then perhaps we haven’t lost yet. This is a good place to hunker down and defend; we might just be able to hold them off long enough they’ll get bored and beg us to surrender.”
“That’s the best we can hope for, I think.” Macrabius wasn’t an optimist either. Being an honest pessimist hadn’t made him very popular, and friends like Turelve were in short supply. Especially now. He straightened. “I’m going to check on the wounded. Let me know if anything changes.”
“Yes, sir,” Turelve said. The general left the tent, stepping out into the cold autumn air. Thick, gray clouds hung overhead, and the mornings were always shrouded in mist. Soldiers saluted the general as they marched past, muskets slung over their shoulders. In the face of such certain death, it amazed Macrabius that they could stay so disciplined. Even with muddy ground to sleep on, wet boots to wear, and strips of clothing for bandages, they persevered.
He thought, just for a second, that maybe they actually could hole up and fortify. Hold the enemy off until they had no choice but to accept a surrender –
But then he remembered the letter. That damn letter. Its arrival a week ago had told him that the war was a lost cause, but he kept pretending that it wasn’t, as if hiding the letter from view was enough to make it stop existing.
Macrabius banished it from his mind and kept on walking. His men needed him.
Hours later, Macrabius staggered into his tent, feeling ten years older than he had been at lunchtime. Those bastards, he thought. Those stupid, stupid bastards. Even after all my failures, they dare to respect me.
He dropped behind his desk and let his head hang. Visiting the wounded was a necessity; the general had to at least pay lip service to his soldiers, he had always thought that, but it was so emotionally draining that he always felt dead inside afterwards.
It would be so much easier if they would just hate him. But no. They stood and they saluted. Even with legs lost to rot, even with arms cut short at the elbow. They respected the great General Gaul Macrabius, or at least the legend of him. The common soldier that had wrestled his way up the chain of command by sheer force of will, the example of what a man from humble origins could become with enough hard work. In truth, it had more to do with being the most senior officer in the field after the untimely death of a superior. Macrabius hadn’t fought his way up, he’d been pulled up by his own bootstraps by stupid luck. Most would consider it good luck. Macrabius wasn’t among them.
Those men had to survive. He would see to it at any cost.
He opened the bottom drawer of his desk, and pulled out the envelope that had been poisoning his thoughts for the past week. The black wax seal was pressed with the image of a blackbird, caught in the midst of dropping out of the sky with broken wings. Still it looked up, beak open as if it was asking what it had done to deserve its fate.
The emblem of the Fallen Blackbirds. The pillagers of Vashes, the holiest city, the mausoleum of God. The most evil band of mercenaries to ever sell their steel, damned and cursed for their sins.
Macrabius broke the seal and opened the letter.
To the esteemed General Gaul Macrabius,
Firstly, we of the Fallen Blackbirds Mercenary Company would like to offer our most sincere condolences for the untimely loss of your eight thousand, one hundred and seventeen men. Truly, that is a terrible loss of life, and the way things are going, the other four thousand, nine hundred and eighty four will soon follow them.
Our reputation, I am sure, precedes us. You know what we’ve done, and the curse placed on us after our desecration of the Holiest City. Any child in the street can sing the song for you, if you ask. No such thing as bad publicity, as they say.
By receiving this letter, you must be aware that you are up shit creek without a paddle. Or a canoe. And it’s not so much a creek as an actual ocean of shit. You did your best, but it wasn’t enough. You’re going to lose, and it will be bloody.
That’s where we come in.
For a nominal fee, you can contract the Fallen Blackbirds until such a time as every soldier on the other side is dead. We are nothing if not efficient, and can promise that the fifteen thousand, two hundred and fifty-nine soldiers under your enemy’s command will be dead within three days. And all it costs will be the souls of the eight thousand, one hundred and seventeen men who died under your command. They gave their lives for you, why shouldn’t they give their souls as well? A soul isn’t even that important, really. And it will go towards a good cause: our freedom. Again, I am sure you know the stories.
There, General, are our terms. All that we need is your signature on the line at the bottom. The price may be high, but I assure you: we are worth it. So sign your name, and let the Blackbirds do their work.
Owner, Founder, and Commander of the Fallen Blackbirds Mercenary Company
Macrabius sat and stared, thinking on the gravity of the decision he had to make. Sell the souls of eight thousand to preserve five thousand. Or burn the letter, and allow them all to die. It wasn’t a question of ‘if, but ‘when’. The curse of the Blackbirds gave them the prescience to know the fate of an army, and it limited them to selling their services only to the losing force. The conditions were strange, but then, so were all the curses and blessings given by God since His death.
Treaties, though, treaties were much more straightforward. By hiring the Blackbirds, Macrabius would be breaking some big ones. Nobody had summoned the Blackbirds for almost a century, since the treaties had been signed. It had been almost impossible to have wars if the losing side could hire a force of a thousand undying soldiers to utterly eradicate the enemy. The treaties forbade the Blackbirds from being hired, and made it a requirement that all surrenders had to be accepted.
…A condition that the Boudosians had broken. The messenger with the surrender should have delivered it and returned by now; the fact that he hadn’t…
The treaty had already been broken. And not by Macrabius.
It pained him how easy it was to sign his name, selling the souls of fifteen thousand dead men. Fifteen thousand was nothing but a number. Nothing but a number.
For a moment, nothing happened. The ink dried, slowly seeping into the paper. Then, new words appeared at the bottom, rising to the surface as if the parchment was a pool of water.
Thank you for your patronage. We will begin immediately.
Eight thousand, one hundred and eighteen corpses opened their eyes and screamed.
In the shallow mass graves dug by the Boudosians, the screams were muffled by the dirt. On the forgotten battlefields, the screams frightened the hungry ravens away. In the hospital tents of the Craivirans, a man dead for barely a minute screamed. In a den of wolves, the scream of a messenger’s corpse gave the predators pause, but not enough to make them stop eating. The surrender that could have ended the war lay forgotten in the dirt.
As the corpses screamed, a shape made of pale mist streamed from their mouths. Each misty shape looked like a man with a tail where legs should have been, before it flew away and vanished into the air.
The Boudosians heard it. The Craivirans heard it. General Macrabius did not.
He buried his own knife between his ribs and joined the scream.
In the black, empty realm of death, a mouth like a canyon opened to admit a stream of pale, screaming mist that poured in from nowhere. The mist poured in like an exhalation of smoke in reverse, with limbs reaching out for purchase and tormented faces screaming. When the last of the mist was gone, the mouth closed.
God smiled in His sleep.
As soon as the screams ended, there was noise all around the main camp of the Boudosian Royal Army. A song, a child’s nursery rhyme, accompanied by the drumbeat of marching feet.
“Blackbird, Blackbird, how do you do,” sang a man’s deep voice. Stomp, stomp. “Vashes is ashes, all thanks to you.” Stomp, stomp. “Blackbird, Blackbird, I’ve heard it told,” Stomp, stomp. “You burned all the churches and stole all the gold.” Stomp, stomp.
The screams, the songs, they were the heaviest damage that an army could suffer. Soldiers that had once been confident in their victory scrambled in panic, collecting arms and armor, though they knew it would be useless. Still, the song continued.
“Blackbird, Blackbird, is the story true,” Stomp, stomp. “That God woke from death just to curse you?” Stomp, stomp.
Wars would only end when one side finally gave up, tired from constant fighting. An army with morale, with belief, would fight until the bloody end. Break an army’s morale, and you break the army. That was how the Blackbirds had always done it. They committed atrocities to frighten their foes, to put them off balance, to make them weak. It had always worked.
“Blackbird, Blackbird, did He really say,” Stomp, stomp. “You were damned to the world’s last day?” Stomp, stomp.
Men in their purest form appeared out of the mist, their leather armor the only skins they wore, swords and spears held in hands without muscle. Bones clattered as they moved, surrounding the camp. One skeleton stood out from the rest, carrying the standard of the Blackbirds, the plummeting blackbird on a solid gray background. He led the song, and drummed the ground with the end of the standard.
“Blackbird, Blackbird, I have heard it said,” Stomp, stomp. “Your pay is from corpses, the breath of the dead.” Stomp, stomp.
A Boudosian captain turned his musket on himself to escape. He wasn’t alone; they all knew the stories. The Blackbirds had once been mortal men, but that was before pillaging the mausoleum of God, and receiving the curse of immortality.
“Blackbird, Blackbird, check your coffers please,” Stomp, stomp. “A million souls debt, and then you’ll be free.”
The last stomps came down with the force of hammers, and there was silence. The skeleton with the standard, Commander Harq Vashtel, grinned the lipless grin of a skeleton. “Kill ‘em all, boys,” he said.
A roar went up from a thousand throats without skin, and a thousand pairs of feet charged.