Tasala slumped down by the fire, chewing on the burnt leg of week old meat in his hands. Tough, the first hints of rot coming through in the taste. It was nourishment, but only just. His unit had been chased all across the central plains of Karlak, never given time to stop and rest, and was now so battered and bruised that it was at less than half normal strength. Most of the other half, well… the other half was chasing them. Tasala had seen one of his friends kill another, hacking at the head until it had been a pulped smear on the ground. One had been dead then, and both of them were dead now.
The necromancers and channellers who’d risen against the emperor had been waging a war for five years, pushing inward from the northern border, each year another chunk disappearing under their control. This year… this year was the worst of all. The undead were all the way to the fertile plains, and that meant no crop for the kingdom. Another year like this one and they’d lose not to the undead, but to starvation. There had already been circumstances of cannibalism to stay alive, and the coming days promised more.
Troops were free for the necromancers. They dug up graveyards, slaughterhouses, old battlefields, wherever there were dead bodies. The kingdom had been warlike enough to make the supply limitless. Tasala had seen, and smelled, some of the rites to their god, needed to bring the dead to life. The sorcerers liked performing the rites across from the living, letting the human soldiers know that the horde grew every night. The next morning, the channellers would be marching the newest warriors out to fight.
The living had seen every conceivable beast by then, from freshly killed warriors to farmyard animals. Tasala and the troops with him had laughed when they’d first seen the chickens. “We’ve won this war now, they’re reduced to fighting us with food!” Joy became fear once the tactics became apparent. The undead troops would attack, and while the living were occupied with those their own size, the chickens would peck at their feet and legs. The necromancers had pulled out the beaks and replaced them with nails, spikes, bits of broken blade, anything that could wound. Rusty and filthy, anyone injured by one of these weapons would have wounds that festered and rotted, making them a heavy drain on the living’s resources.
Tasala continued to gnaw on the meat, the sour taste overcome by the fear of starvation, the knowledge that the next meal was a day or more away. He and his soldiers had fought today, and lost, again, forced back further across the plains. The generals had thought they could hold the undead cohorts here, for the rotting soldiers moved slowly and disjointedly, the necromancers who kept them mobile unable to control the whole army at once. So, raiding parties had been sent out, Tasala among them, to harass the supplies coming for the living leaders of the dead army.
They had failed. The supply trains were not wagons and mules, but long strings of undead soldiers marching to join their brethren at the front, carrying the supplies with them on crude carts. Once attacked, they dropped the supplies and pulled out weapons, winning the battles by weight of numbers. The deep raiders dwindled, eventually forced to flee by hunting groups of undead or caught and wiped out.
Harassing attacks on the main army had served no better. Through long experience, the living knew that ruining the head or chest of an undead destroyed the store of magical energy that kept it powered. The first two raids had gone well enough, only a few men lost to infrequent resistance, and large numbers of the undead smashed by bullets from the slings and crossbows the cavalry now carried.
After those first two, the dead had come back with their own counter: rotting corpses of swift animals. Horses, deer, even birds were seen among the undead ranks. Those large enough carried riders with bows and arrows or javelins, matching cavalry to cavalry. All of the animals had their front legs and forward torso studded with spikes, crushed glass, or blades. Those carrying no rider simply picked a living cavalryman and ran into him, impaling man and mount. These wounds didn’t kill unless the dead had gotten lucky, but they crippled, removing any hit from the field of battle for months, maybe forever.
Tasala’s legion had been one of these raiding parties. They’d had a successful raid today, cutting a great swath through the flank of their enemy, but as they rode away a pack of these devilbeasts, hidden in a thicket along the route home, had swarmed into the cavalry, leaving almost a third of the raiding force as casualties. After that débâcle, his cavalry unit had only four of every ten men healthy for duty, barely enough for them to remain operational. It was a ratio that was sure to get worse.