Dogs of War
“Onward!” barked Prefect Salvio Vulpes in Hybic, and his cohort tramped on, passing by a line of armoured legionaries guarding the area.
The cohort was in the quarantined zone now.
Kop Fanga blinked sweat out of his sky-blue eyes and pushed his long, silvering blonde hair out of his bearded, lantern-jawed face. Tall and brawny with wide, prominent cheekbones, he was the apotheosis of a Paeu warrior despite his advancing years. His comrade, Rom Zorda, could have been his brother but for his ginger hair and beard. Once a proud, wild and free people, the Paeux had been conquered by the Commonwealth of Hybor again and again over the centuries since the Time of Witches, occasionally breaking free in a grand revolt only to be annexed again soon after. Most recently, they had been subjugated some twenty years ago, and some of them now fought for the Hyboriss, serving as auxiliary cohorts alongside the legions in battles against Hybor’s many foes, both domestic and foreign.
“Can’t believe Vulpes is bringing us in here,” grumbled Rom Zorda in the Paeu creole, spitting. His wild fiery mane was like that of a lion, his voice as deep as the beast’s roar.
“Hmph,” snorted Kop Fanga, his voice thinner than Rom’s much as his frame was. He glanced up to check the blue-tiled rooftops were clear and squinted as he caught sight of the blistering morning sun, hurriedly looking away before his eyes started to stream. “Wouldn’t be the first time we put ourselves in danger for the Hyboriss.”
Often used as sword fodder in the vanguard to weaken the enemy ranks before the legionaries arrived to finish off the battle, the Paeux were viewed as dogs to be whipped into service by the Hyboriss. Strong individually, they yet lacked the cohesive strength of carefully choreographed teamwork that had allowed the Hyboriss to prevail over Paeu; while the Paeux fought as a cluster of loosely grouped, unarmoured warriors wielding hefty axes and greatswords that required a lot of room to swing, Hyboriss legionaries fought in phalanxes, wielding spears and short stabbing swords called gladii, protected on all sides by tall, convex shields as well as blue-steel laminar armour.
“Aye, there’s truth in that,” agreed Rom grumpily. “If only they didn’t have Timandua …”
While the Paeux had plenty of reasons to hate the Hybroriss, they had one compelling reason to serve them; the Paeux would do anything for their immortal God-Queen, the leader of their conquered nation, the Righ Tuatha, Timandua Brogdog, and the Hyboriss had her in chains. So long as they had her locked away in an unknown location and could kill her at their leisure, the Paeux would serve. Alone among the Paeux in her ability to manipulate the eldritch energies of the world, the Righ Tuatha was a sore loss to their culture and a large contributing factor to their defeat, for the Hyboriss had numerous magic casters. Old enough to remember the night the Righ Tuatha had been kidnapped, Kop Fanga clenched his jaw at the thought. He had been battling the Hyboriss when Timandua had been taken. He wished he could have saved her, and his nation.
“All we can do now is try to keep her safe,” he growled.
Abandoning the thoughts, just as he had his crippled child, Kop brought his attention back to the here and now. Like his fellows, he did not know what to expect in the quarantined zone, so he needed to be ready for anything; all he knew was that a strange sickness had apparently invaded the slums in the Hyboriss town of Cidafi, which had now been cordoned off by legionaries, and Prefect Vulpes had volunteered his cohort to restore order. Vaguely
knowing a Hyboriss election of some sort was coming up, Kop suspected Vulpes wanted to impress the town’s populace so that they might vote him into a position of power. He shook his head; cursed foreign politics.
“Aye, there’s some truth in that,” Rom said again. “I just don’t know what we’re doing here specifically. What is this mysterious sickness?”
Kop did not answer; he did not know. He hefted his greatsword higher; while burdensome to carry, he would rather not be caught by anything unawares. Crudely forged of iron with a three-and-a-half-foot-long broad blade, a foot-long hilt and a wide crossguard, the greatsword was a monster of a weapon that required a monster of a man to wield it. At almost seven feet tall, Kop was that monster. He was uncomfortable in the slums’ rank, narrow alleys, wide enough for only two, where he had little room to swing his mammoth blade and the fetid slime on the streets coated his bare feet. Like the rest of his cohort, excepting Vulpes and another, he was garbed only in a fur kilt; thankfully, Hybor was even warmer than his homeland. He missed the wide open fields and endless forests of his homeland, Paeu, where even the kilt had been optional. Here in Hybor, the women would faint at the sight of a nude man in the streets – he knew from experience. Living in a city of stone, he felt prematurely entombed.
But he would do what he had to for Timandua.
“Keep your eyes peeled,” Prefect Vulpes barked in the clip-clop tongue of his people, leading from the rear. “Rumours say the people in the slums have been turned feral, that they are little more than wild animals.”
“Great,” muttered Rom in his own lyrical home tongue, peering into the shadows all around, which increased second by second as clouds rolled in. “Didn’t tell us that before we got here, did he?”
Like a Hyboriss century, the cohort consisted of eighty warriors, plus Vulpes and another Hyboriss named Colonius Setifer, who held the rank of Optio and carried the contingent’s standard; a pole topped by a blue-and-green chequered pennant that signified a Paeux auxiliary cohort. Supposedly, it was different enough from other cohorts’ flags that Hyboriss officers could distinguish between them, but Kop had seen no difference. Kop and Rom were stuck at the back of the unit with their fellow Paeu warriors in front and Prefect Vulpes and Optio Setifer behind.
So, when the turmoil began, they could at first only hear it; it began with a giggle. Then, alarmed shouts resounded down the alleyway as the Paeux at the vanguard ran into trouble. The clash of iron on iron resounded down the alleyway alongside the thudding of bodies hitting bodies, quickly followed by the animalistic shrieks of the wounded and dying as half-clad men and women began to fall. A fusty waft reached Kop and Rom, and they blanched.
Craning to peer over the heads of their fellows in front, Kop and Rom caught their first glimpse of the unfortunate inhabitants of the Cidafi slums and flinched at the sight. The small crowd of Hyboriss men and women were as near-naked as the Paeux, their garments filthy, stained with their own waste and hanging in tatters from their scarred, dirty frames. They were all wide-eyed despite the bright sunlight, their bloodshot eyes showing the whites, their pupils engorged to the extent that they appeared to have no irises; only black holes in the centres of their orbs. Their faces were all split in grins, and they appeared to be giggling. All were wounded and looked as though they had been tearing out their own hair in patches and clawing at their own visages. The most unnerving part of the sight of them, however, was the cysts.
Disgusting, fist-sized, blue warts shone with an unearthly glow on all of their bodies;
some folk were pocked with a handful, some only a couple. Every wart looked ready to burst. One man had dozens covering his frame, and as Kop caught a glimpse of him, some of his pustules popped, spraying coruscating cerulean pus onto the Paeux in the vanguard and making Kop gag. He could smell the horrendous stench from where he stood, yards away; sickly as rotting flowers.
Spitting bile on the floor, he looked again and wished he had not. A man and woman in the vanguard had been spattered by pus and were screaming as if it was caustic, clawing at themselves as it to scratch the world’s worst itch. After a few moments of this, however – Kop could not have said how long exactly, for he lost track of time in his mesmerised trance – the pair stopped shrilling and raking their own flesh with their fingernails and turned to face their own comrades. Strangely, the diseased townsfolk stopped mauling them then and turned their attention on squeezing past them to get to the other soldiers.
The man and woman, on whose bare flesh pus still glowed, regarded the rest of the cohort with wide, bloodshot eyes and enlarged pupils; then, they joined the bloodthirsty townsfolk in pouncing on the surprised Paeux. They swung their weapons wildly without any vestige of skill, until they were disarmed; then, they simply began smacking their fellows barehanded with feral blows, clawing at and even biting them. Kop was not sure, but he thought it looked like they were giggling uncontrollably as they savaged those who had been their friends moments before. He felt a chill wriggle down his spine like a centipede.
It did not take long before the whole cohort broke, and Kop and Rom were thrust ahead of the pack as the Paeux fled for safety, fear written plain upon their faces and heard clearly in their hollers. Along with the Prefect and Optio, they ran back the way they had come, the rest of the cohort behind them. Rather than risk the embarrassment of fleeing straight back past the legionaries whom they had not long passed, however, Vulpes took a sharp left turn and led them in another direction, staying in the slums. The Paeux, never known for being strategists, were too scared to think clearly and followed the Prefect without hesitation.
Pelting at full speed lest he be trampled by his fellows behind him, Kop heard all manner of gruesome noises at his back as he went; panting and thudding footsteps, occasionally a skirl of iron on iron, but mostly just the thumps and screams as his fellows were taken down by the pursuing townsfolk, whose never-ending giggling set his teeth to itching. He risked a glance back after a while, when he began to flag, and was disgusted by his own gratitude at the sight of the diseased townsfolk having fallen behind on account of stopping to fight over the right to feast on the flesh of his dead fellows. It looked as though the cohort had been cut clean in half; their blood painted the street.
Zigzagging through the alleyways and praying not to run into anymore warped townsfolk, the remnants of the cohort managed to lose their pursuers for a time. Vulpes led them to one of the larger buildings in the slums, which were predominantly constructed of crumbly grey stone. The one into which they limped had whitewashed walls with bloodstains. The tenement proved to be a slaughterhouse with thick, double wooden doors and a bar to lock them. The Paeux hastily put the bar in place and checked for other entrances, barring them too. Then, they slumped down to lick their wounds and grumble to one another very quietly.
Vulpes remained standing, whispering to the small Optio, Colonius Setifer, both with heads bowed. Despite his being a Hyboriss, Kop had come to like the Optio for his omnipresent calm and sense of humour. Kop and Rom approached them, Kop being one of the most proficient of the Paeux in the complicated Hybic language and Rom being nosy. They were a stark contrast to the officers with their towering stature, braided beards and the
greenish woad smeared over their bared, bronzed, muscular bodies. The officers were pastier despite their hotter homeland, shorter and weedier, covered almost entirely by cloth and blue-steel and both carrying the tall, rectangular, convex shields that were the hallmark of the Hyboriss phalanxes. Kop thought they looked like blue beetles with their metal helmets and leather kilts.
Colonius nodded to him as he neared, his wide open, shaved face, sea-green eyes and short sandy hair making him look almost naïve in his youthfulness. “Glad to see you’re still with us, Kop.”
Kop saluted lazily as he pondered his phrasing, then said carefully in Hybic, “That was a fucking nightmare.”
Vulpes bristled. His face was only partially visible through the keyhole-gap in the front of his helmet, but what little Kop could see of it turned red.
“You will address me as Prefect, savage!” he snapped in his home tongue, enunciating far more clearly than had Kop. “This plume identifies me as such, as well you know!” He gestured up at the ridiculous blue horsehair plume atop his helmet, running from ear to ear. “You will be told the new plan as soon as necessary. For now, stand down, soldier.”
“Where is Ketartus?” Kop asked after a blood-boiling moment. “Why is our Signifer not with us in this fight?”
“None of your damned business, savage,” Vulpes hissed, eyes as wide as the afflicted. “Now, stand down!”
Kop glowered at him for a moment, then turned his back on him and walked away before he did something he regretted.
“What an absolute turd,” Rom commented in Paeu creole.
“Mmhmm,” Kop hummed his agreement in the same tongue. “I don’t see anything else for it. We’re going to have to empty the slums.”
“You mean evacuation?” asked Rom.
“I mean extinction.”
“Vulpes is going to order us to wipe the townsfolk out. What else can he do? Unless there’s a cure for this … we can’t let it spread.”
Rom’s jaw hung slack.
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