A soft smoke curled lazily over the blood-logged field mere hours after the clash. The sole sound of moaning bodies, corpses in all but name, cut the birds’ best attempt at eulogy. Groans of “GAHHHH-NEEEEEET,” and “PIEEEEAAAAHHHHCE” drew out intermittently, only to be drowned out by last breaths deluged in blood.
Amidst the carnage, a lone group of riders – no more than five in number – trotted down a small, cresting knoll and into a thin thicket of starving pines. There, ensconced beneath a makeshift covering of blankets and forest fodder, laid their General. Jason, the oldest among them, shook the man gently, noting about the General’s head a now blue-knotted wound, the result of a terrible fall just hours before.
“Coach Woodson,” he repeated, softly. Slowly, the old warrior’s eyes opened, darting around to fast assess his keepers. Recognizing them as his own, he let out a deep sigh before speaking.
“Sheeeeeit, man,” he moaned. “The fuck happened?”
“You fell off your horse, like, five minutes in,” Kidd answered. “We dragged you back here for your own safety.”
“Sheeeeeit…. Did we win? I mean, you guys aren’t piled up on some meat wagon. We must’ve won, right?”
“We won,” Kidd responded, cautiously. Pausing, he looked around at his wary countrymen, each battered and bloodied to dire degrees. “Barely. It shouldn’t have been that close.”
Now red with alarm, Woodson shot up in his place, holding his hand to head and inhaling sharply, clearly pained. “What do you mean it shouldn’t have been that close?”
Carmelo, by most accounts the legion’s strongest hand, cut through his comrades and into the General’s view. “I took care of it, man. Ain’t no thang,” he quipped.
“Yeah?” Woodson retorted, the slightest of smiles hooking the corner of his mouth. “You run the offensive we always talk about?”
“I bagged 20. Good day, you know.”
“Where’s Earl?” Woodson bellowed.
“Earl… rode into town,” said Jason. “He spent most of the day galloping around on the perimeter, doing weird horse tricks and shooting into the fray at anything shiny or vaguely in motion. There… there was some friendly fire, a few hundred casualties, but he came back at the end for some easy work.”
Woodson cut him off immediately. “But he’s OK, right? He’s GOT TO be OK! HE’S GOT TO BE OKAY!”
As he attempted to stand, his attendant lot of charges – Jason, Carmelo, Tyson, Raymond, and Camby – moved to keep him down.
“Just stay there, Coach,” Tyson implored. “Earl’s fine. We need you rested up. There’s an uprising happening in the west, out in corn country.”
“Sheeeeit. We going to Indiana? Where are the rest? Where’s Kenyon?”
For a moment no one answered. Carmelo took to rubbing his shoulder, trying not to make eye contact. Finally, with the General’s brow furrowing to a fury all too familiar, Camby spoke.
“He’s, uhh… getting the heads,” he said, sheepishly.
“Heads? What heads?”
“Garnett and Pierce, Coach.”
“Garnett…. They’re dead?”
“We think so.”
“What do you mean, ‘we think so? They’re either dead or they aren’t. What’s this ‘we think so’ shit?”
“Uhh, well, we’re pretty sure,” Camby said. “Look, after you fell, we had them on the ropes – just mowin’ them motherfucker’s down like crab grass. The divisions, man, it’s like there was some telepathy shit goin’ on – guys just knew exactly where each other was. Every time they tried to flank, we’d out-flank them – just ten steps on ‘em every time. And when they tried to take the hill, man, we rolled them fire logs down on them motherfuckers. Shit was in the bag.”
“… The hell do you mean WAS!?” Woodson shot back, now clearly panicked and in full throated screams. “How many men did we lose? How… how many divisions? Where’s Earl? Where’s Kenyon?”
Felton, ever the steady hand, interjected. “Look, things got a little hairy there for a bit. Garnett and Pierce, they…”
“They just what, Raymond?”
“Man, they were deader than dirt. And they just kept getting’ up, their blood everywhere and they was pale as shit, and we kept killin’ ‘em and they just kept gettin’ up! Before we knew it we was down three corps, then six, then twelve. We was reelin’ man. I ain’t never been so scared in my life. I was sick, dizzy. I thought we was cooked, man.”
“Wait, what started it? How the hell did they do that? How’s that even possible?
“Spells, coach,” said Camby. “They had trumpeters up there on the hills blastin’ out victory songs and shit – like, for us! Before we even won! It was some straight up reverse psychology shit – we hear that, and we see all those bodies lyin’ around.”
From the opposite end of the thicket, another rider approached, alone. It was Pablo, the Argentine. Commissioned ahead of the campaign, Pablo had become at once an honorary legionnaire and a mascot, with the sayings and smiles to cut even the din of death.
“Shit, Pablo!” Woodson shouted, hopping to his feet with such force of will that the men could scarce be bothered to stop him.
“Coach! Mates team! I am, as they say, living!”
An audible sigh rose from the group. It had been hours since they’d seen their beloved mercenary, even longer since he made his presence known during the engagement’s first moments. He joined them now, exchanging handshakes and quick embraces, before turning to the General. “Woody Coach, your head! It grows grape bowl!” he said.
“Ahhh shit, it ain’t nothing’. How’d you do out there, Pablo?”
“I make early fire from pants! Then, arrest. Then, more pants fire!”
Sensing the General’s confusion, Kidd interjected. “Pablo’s trying to say he did some serious damage manning the cannonade. Then he took a nap, then came back and did some more damage. Then he took another nap late in the battle. We’re not really sure why.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re OK, Pablo,” Woodson grumbled, before turning to the rest of the crew. “I’m glad you’re all OK. Alright, we make camp here, hope Earl comes back with his bits intact, and we head out tomorrow.”
Another rustle, this time from the direction of the battlefield. The men drew their arms, forming a wall between them and their beleaguered General. Before they could make out the horse-mounted figure, the outline of a severed head, and the unmistakable sound of slowly-dripping blood, revealed the identity of the rider.
“Kenyon!” yawped the General.
“Sup. So, uhhh, I got these here heads,” muttered Kenyon, tossing the one in his possession onto the ground. “There’s Garnett. Pierce is in Cope’s girly-ass backpack.”
Just then, Copeland – a squire who’d fought in many a battle, but whom circumstance doomed to tend the wounded in this day’s joining – strode in behind. Reaching back and into the aforementioned sack, full of flowers by dint of its mark as rookie totem, Copeland pulled out the head of Pierce, the other half of the enemy Janus. The two riders dropped the trophies in unison, near enough their comrades’ sights to elicit gasps at once relieved and recalling dread.
There they stood, all sixteen eyes cast upon the men who’d made so many of their lives an endless hell. They’d fought these men – and many others in that much-heralded army – myriad times for control of the region, only to be beaten back in all but the most trivial of clashes. Even on this campaign, after Carmelo had guided the troops to victory after victory, here these old nemeses were again, old and spent and shells of their conquering selves. But dead? They wouldn’t believe it. Not until this moment.
A few more solemn moments past, Carmelo – the one who’d suffered the most at the enemy’s hands – approached the head of Garnett. Bending over with his healthy right arm, Melo cupped the skull like a melon, bringing it up so that he could meet its eyes, in all aspects of their madness, one final time. Just then, Carmelo felt his hand quickly warming to a burn. Dropping the head, he jumped back, only to watch as the pupils seemed to dart down from the skull. The mouth opened bearing the beast’s trademark fangs, and suddenly the head was suspended in air. The gathered now recoiled, arms drawn, Copeland’s backpack shook and, with a quick upward thrust, ejected the head of Pierce, which sped through the air and to his comrade’s side.
Within seconds, both saw their bodies reappeared; their weapons of war, .45s and mases, back in hand. The men stood there stunned, shaking, unable to aim their wares, let alone fire them. The undead began to cackle through bloody spittle. From their heads spat blue flames so huge and smoldering as to burn from many paces the men’s quivering skins. Faces fully sapped of color, the men stood motionless, as if resigned to death — this impossible death, the only one they could have known. A bright green aura — “Celtic Hellfire” to the few who’d seen it and stayed among the living, and the final sight of many more — enveloped the hellbeasts. This is how it ends.
Then, a pair of faint whistles from the northern-most quarter of the thicket. None could be sure which came first, but as the cutting air caught their ears, two long daggers – one for each enemy head – split the dead’s respective eyes. With a joint, blood-curdling scream, a pair of conflagrations, high and loud and hellish and long, sent them upward and outwards and gone in green smoke. Stillness. The specters ethered, the group looked towards the noise’s source. There in the middle distance, backed by nothing save the setting sun, stood the man they called The Faded One – given name, Shumpert.
Shumpert approached, and the rest of the men said nothing. There, beneath where the demons had taken final leave, lay a single, white headband. To whom it belonged, they all knew — knew as well as they’d known terror all those many years. Favoring his still healing leg, Shumpert kneeled down, scooping the headband up with a single finger. He glanced first at the headband, then back at his brethren, and then finally to the headband once more and with a drawl all present knew to be that of a man who’d earned more stripes than any that long hard day, uttered but a single word.