I’d be singing—something inspiring, a battle anthem—but I haven’t drawn so much as a breath in years. You’d think, with the power to conquer death itself, a necromancer could at least pump some air into his puppets’ lungs. But no. Waste of energy, that. Useless in battle.
Useless in battle! Well maybe you should have considered that before enslaving the corpse of a bard!
I used to be an artist. These shredded vocal chords once serenaded the fairest princesses, these cracked fingers once plucked the most delicate melodies from the strings. Now I’m affectionately known as meat. “Send in the meat,” he orders, and I slog into the front lines alongside what I’m pretty sure used to be a hog keeper. He certainly smells worse than the rest of us, which is saying something, since we’re all literally rotting to pieces and—oh yeah, we aren’t technically supposed to be able to smell anything because breath is a waste of energy, useless in battle.
Seriously, how much magic does it take to operate a diaphragm?
I notice Mister Hogs, as I call him, making complicated gestures with his fingers—the voiceless language we came up with between the two of us.
You should talk to her.
I tell Mister Hogs he is a cruel man.
You know what I mean, he replies. Teach her our language, then you can tell her how you feel.
Her. In this shambling horde she blooms like a rose in a winter garden. I suppose I should back up a little and explain. In life, she was a princess—the most beautiful I’d ever serenaded. But of course, since I was just a bard, it was a romance doomed to languish in my imagination. I don’t think she ever even noticed me as anything but the night’s entertainment. I thought I’d seen the last of her.
Then, some time after I’d fallen into the necromancer’s service, we attacked a heavily armed caravan. I wasn’t…cohesive for much of the battle. I never am; I was a bard, not a warrior! But once the fighting was over, as I lay there awaiting repair, I saw her, the princess of my dreams, cut down by the necromancer’s wights.
She’s one of us now, and as lovely as ever. The mold patterns on her sallow cheeks, their hypnotic metamorphosis as she unhinges her jaw in a silent scream…
Look, becoming an animated corpse alters one’s standards somewhat.
Well, no more time for fantasies. I don’t know the name of the village we’re attacking. I’ve stopped keeping track of things like that. Mister Hogs and I are in the front rank, as usual, so I have a clear view of the village’s defenders.
I don’t know why the necromancer insists on putting his worst fighters at the front. He denies me breath because it’s useless in battle, and then hands me a spear. As if I know how to use one! Between Mister Hogs and myself, we have a grand total of zero kills. I even think we hold the record for shortest TAiB—that’s Time Animated in Battle for those of you who still possess the power to animate yourselves. I mean, it’s the meat’s job to be expendable, to bog down the living while the wights do most of the killing, but I don’t see how helpful I am when I get staked to the ground by a pitchfork one second after the fighting breaks out.
One thing never gets old, though: the look on our enemies’ faces. For a wimpy little bard, it’s a pleasant change to watch people cower before me. It never lasts long, though. That TAiB I mentioned earlier, you know? One minute they’re practically begging for their lives, the next—oh, there it is. That’s my body teetering above me without a head. Now I get to sit here and wait for the necromancer to sew me back together. At least Mister Hogs is putting on a good show. He—wait a minute, he actually got a kill! Mister Hogs, the fattest, smelliest chunk of meat in the army! Maybe there’s hope for us meat after all…oh, who am I kidding. And there he goes, rolling across the battlefield, spilling his ample guts behind him.
But his small, brief success has given me hope. If he can kill an armed opponent, I can find some way to express my love to the princess.
My princess. She’s here, somewhere, fighting and re-dying on the same battleground as me. Even as I lie here headless—or bodiless, depending on your perspective—that knowledge gives me joy. I can tolerate being splashed by the reeking gristle of Mister Hog’s umpteenth demise, because at the end of the night, once our limbs are working again, I have a plan. Something far more impressive than crude sign language. Something that will allow my bardly talents to shine.
I mean it, says Mister Hogs, you should talk to her.
I grin at him. The necromancer has done a fine job stitching him up, although he seems a bit thinner than before. I guess no one can be expected to hunt down every last scrap of spilled viscera, especially when Mister Hogs has so much to spill. Talk, my ample friend? I intend to sing!
The confusion on his face is priceless, and I offer no further explanation before shambling off down a side passage. The necromancer controls a vast cave system in the mountains, some of it natural, some of it clawed out by his slaves. It is his fortress, the base from which he launches his relentless assaults upon the living. These jagged peaks have become a symbol of terror throughout the land.
I suppose that’s one of the perks of being dead. The worst that can happen to you has already happened. What’s left to fear?
It’s an encouraging thought, and it carries me to one of the deeper caves where the necromancer has set up his forges and armories. The place is crawling with wights, but they pay me no mind. I’m just the meat, and they’re too busy repairing their armor and sharpening their swords to notice me.
Wights. If they had any autonomy, I’d say they were the most self-important snobs I’ve ever known. More arrogant than any lord I entertained in life. And just because they get to wear armor! I bet even I could stay animated more than five minutes if I covered myself in metal. But apparently metal’s expensive, even for a necromancer. If anyone ever tells you that death is the answer to all your financial problems, don’t believe them.
Anyway, I quickly find what I’m looking for—a handheld bellows—and from there it’s back to the upper caves, where my fellow meat wanders aimlessly through the darkness, ready to tear apart intruders or march out on the necromancer’s orders. My princess isn’t hard to find. She lingers near the entrances so she can gaze out at the stars, perhaps remembering the happiness of her past life. The wind snatches at her hair, and a wispy lock breaks free.
How long has it been since she last heard a tender human voice? Time passes unmarked in these caves. It may as well have been an eternity. I can’t wait to see the delight on her face!
I raise the bellows to my mouth and shove the tip down my throat. It won’t be my most elegant performance, but it will work, I know it! I take a moment to decide on my song…yes, the one I first sang to her in life. Perhaps she’ll remember it! And then I compress the bellows, forcing air into my lungs for the first time in ages.
There’s a pop, a spray of pink. I look down and see a pair of fresh, ragged holes in my chest.
My princess turns and stares at me, then stares at the organic bits splashed all over her arm.
My embarrassment is unbearable. I shamble away, and am lost in the darkness.
How’d it go? asks Mister Hogs. Then he notices the bellows in my hand and the holes in my decayed torso. I could have told you that would happen.
My chest feels crushed, figuratively and literally. I’m doomed. Doomed, in death as in life, to pine forever after an angel beyond my reach.
Forever is a long time, and we have all of it available to us. You’ll have another chance.
What woman would give me a second chance after that? I got my lungs all over her arm!
Mister Hogs can’t laugh, but his grin is a vile thing. His gums are green. I’d have liked to see that. But stop being so dramatic. After all the gore we’ve slogged through, do you think anyone cares anymore?
He can’t possibly understand. He was a pig keeper in life. The grotesque was mundane to him even before he became a pile of rotten guts. He can’t grasp that some of us crave to rise above the filth of our undead existence.
We feel it at the same time: that iron-cold weight in our minds, the prod of the necromancer’s will as his voice booms within our skulls. Another raid. Mister Hogs and I make our way out to the surface, spears in hand, and join the endless ranks of corpses. This is our fate. Countless battles, a never-ending war against the living, waged for reasons only the necromancer himself comprehends.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if the necromancer was destroyed. Would we be free of his will, or would we crumble to dust without his magic to sustain us? And if crumble we did, would that be any worse a fate than we suffer now? I gaze over the endless horde around me, faces anonymized by death, gazes empty…
And there she is, shining among them, looking directly at me.
Amidst this sea of death, apathy, and despair, her smile.
Maybe Mister Hogs is right. I’ll have other chances. Eternity is ours. Maybe when the battle is over and the necromancer has stitched us up, I can try again. I’ll find her in the wind under the stars, and I can pretend to serenade her.
Pretend, because breath is a waste of precious magic.
Well, let me tell you something, my necromantic liege: one day you too will meet your mortal end, and on that day you may be singing a different tune.
Metaphorically, of course.