His reinforced sandals clattered against the cobblestone as he walked the narrow streets of the slums of Steinkreis. The stench was unimaginable, the waste and excrements of man and beast mixed with the sweet sickly smell of decay. Flies were feasting on the dead that afternoon, with swarms of them landing on corpses to implant their young in the rotting flesh. Alus muttered prayers as he made his route through the area, tossing a coin or two to those destitute beggars who were still alive. “Help… help me!” A voice moaned from a mound of limbs and cloth that could well have been a group of people before it had collapsed into a collection of human misery. Alus stopped for a moment and watched, before shaking his head. They were all marked to die. As he turned to leave, a pale hand, ravaged by open wounds, shot out and grasped his ankle. Alus grunted, and his sword left his sheathe with a precise motion. A bloodshot eye stared up at him frantically from the pile on the ground, its unintelligible intention unclear even as Alus’ blade swept down and severed the necrotic arm from the moving corpse. He raised his blade again when he was hit from the left, feeling the impact compress his chest just before hearing the thud of bone covered in scabs and blackened flesh smash into bronze. The former beggar, now a horribly mutilated walking nightmare, had approached just as Alus was ambushed by the rotted grasp of the corpse in the pile. It clumsily retracted its arm to strike again. Alus’ broadsword was quicker and slashed into the side of the undead, cutting deep to spill discolored guts over the grimy cobblestone. The walking corpse stumbled into him, flailing with quickly dissipating strength at his armored upper body. Alus thought little of the bloody foam that sprayed from the walking corpse’s mouth as he slammed its chest with a tightened fist, then easily pushed it back, letting it fall to rot where it landed helplessly.
A week later, Alus Saturninus lay on a wooden bunk in in bellow of a large trade vessel sailing for Telan. The fever burned through his body day and night, save for when the Medici arranged cold baths to drive the unnatural heat from his body. Their efforts never helped for long, the moments of clarity passed all too quickly, before Alus’ brain, ravaged by the plague, sank back into demented fantasies. He had been relieved of duty and quarantined on the ship, only visited by those men who pursued illness with more fervor than he pursued his enemies. His skin was covered by blisters. They would start small, then grow and darken until they burst, releasing a greenish black sludge. Those who treated him would lay him on a linen cloth that quickly became soiled by the foul liquids his sickened body released before scrubbing his bunk clean, to keep the sickness from creeping back into him once expelled. The disease maimed him day by day, until he was more severely disfigured than a man maimed by the hammers of K’andar. He was given narcotics, some known to him and some exotic, that would numb the pain and keep him from thrashing wildly as the chief Medico cut into his flesh with his knives. It had happened many times, and the hands that held him down for the procedure of the day were familiar. Alus tried to discern what they did through blurry vision, but saw nothing but masks and heavy robes. One of the masked faces leaned down to his ear after the cutting was done, and spoke to him. “Sir, the rot is at a standstill. It had almost reached into your lungs, but the healthy flesh is holding it back. The gods must be with you, Saturninus. We do not know how much we can do for you, but finally you are not getting worse.”
The rest of the journey was lost in a blur of visions and pain. Alus vaguely recognized that he had been moved from a ship to a cart. The steady pounding of hooves on stone was his companion as the journey took him from the fields of Cinai into the hills of Telborea itself. Those who cleaned his wounds and wiped blood and spit from his lips had no names, they could as well have been one entity to him. None of what they said had any meaning he could remember. He clung to the few hopeful words he could recall, the promise that his body was holding fast against the invasion despite his helplessness. The light of the myriad torches and the noise of the people overwhelmed him as the cart reached the gates of the city of Telborea, and the moans of complaint he could muster were so pathetic that his caretakers covered him with a blanket until he reached his destination.
He was surrounded by stone walls now, resting on a table dressed in cloth. Chants and ceremonies were always heard, the sound resonating though the chambers. He was too weak to move his muscles much, but he could tilt his head back and forth. The room was small, yet had ample walking space on all sides of the table on which he was placed. Candles were lit instead of torches, so the air was easier to breathe. There was a fresh breeze flowing though the room now and then that made the flames dance wildly and the stench of disease to dissipate for a moment, allowing his tormented lounges a breath of fresh air. His mind had started to clear up, though as his thoughts became more cohesive the pain also advanced. Clearly they had stopped giving him narcotics and treatments. He came to believe he had been sent to a restful place to die alone. Alus was at peace with the idea, before he heard footsteps approaching.
Religious symbols were presented on the robes of those who gathered around him to explain the situation. The Pantheon of Telborea had gathered to summon the gods to his aid, when the medicine of man could do no more. Every morning at sunrise incense was burnt in the temple to honor Apollo Medicus to aid his recovery. At mid-day a white goat was sacrificed to Jupiter Optimus Maximus to protect him from corruption. At midnight a black sheep was offered to Pluto, god of the underworld, to keep Alus’ spirit out of the realm of the dead. For two weeks the rituals continued without effect, but then, something miraculous came to be. The unbearable pain kept increasing, and with it came anger. That morning the aides came to change the bloody cloth, and every time they did they would rip open a few of his blisters no matter how careful they were. Alus clenched his jaw as he was rolled over and the bed cloth removed, feeling spikes of pain where the crust that covered his skin was breached. Alus gathered strength and reached out to grab the closest aide, a fine-limbed woman wearing a black mask. His barrage of curses at her clumsiness came out as a series of grunts, but she did not seem offended as she called her colleagues over. Alus blinked as the all gathered and pointed at his arm. They poked it with bronze instruments, all mumbling in amazement. Long having lost the strength of his grasp, the aides held his arm out to keep it from dropping to the floor, and then bent it toward him to show him. The necrotic lesions covering his body had lost their hold, and they were scraped off carefully. Underneath, though it was scarred and unseemly, healthy skin had grown. From that day, every morning came with some improvement until Alus walked out of his temple room, supported on each side by a temple aide, to give thanks to the gods in the chamber of ritual above.
No longer wracked by plague, Alus still found himself weak and in pain, though he endured it stoically. Soon he was called to a meeting with the Flamen Dialis, the high priest of Jupiter in Telborea. Alus entered the room, still walking with a cane to aid him, and found it sparsely decorated and highly utilitarian. The Flamen, Decimus Cossus, was seated in a simple wooden chair at a table, and gestured for Alus to join him. Alus limped over and sank down on the chair with some difficulty. He was offered wine which he drank with great pleasure, letting hear a sigh as he lowered the goblet.
“A taste of Elysium, Cossus! They say the healing concoctions they give me help, but I’ve started to suspect it’s horse piss.” The priest on the other side of the table merely grinned and took a sip of his own wine before starting to explain to Alus why he had been summoned.
“It takes the love of the gods to survive what you did, that and a lot of gold and effort. We’ve bled enough goats for a feast on Olympus for you, Saturninus. We’ve prayed and watched and cared for you, and now you’re all better. Honestly I’m surprised we’ve had so few problems with plague, with you soldiers killing barbarians and fucking their women everywhere you go. Expansion isn’t as simple as adding new provinces to our Empire; it brings a backwash of problems with it. One virtue that all of the cultures we have conquered have in common is justice. Saturn has become popular in your absence. Even whores and barbarians come to cult at the shrines, heads covered like proper citizens. That’s why the Emperor decided the cult of Saturn will have a Flamen, and I want you to stand for election.”
“Election? Juno’s cunt! Peddling my achievements like a whore to the people for their petty favor isn’t what I have in mind. I’m going back to the frontier; there are plenty of thugs to put on the cross where I just came from. “ Alus’ outburst wasn’t met with submission. Cossus slammed his surprisingly powerful fist on the table and shouted back at him.
“I speak with the voice of Jupiter and you’ll do as I say or you can rot with your precious crest in the nearest alley! I hope you get the plague again you ingrate pissant! Now you listen to me. It’s going to be a real election, and if you lose you can go back to that hole of shit and mud you spend your days guarding for the Emperor, but I expect you to do everything you can to win. You don’t have it in you to take a loss, so you’ll fight for your position. Do you understand?” Alus realized he had met his match, and agreed. Before long they were making plans for the campaign.
The Telborean capital was built around the river Oloar, and as time passed and the city expanded the natural marketplace that sprung up around the central bridge leading over the river had been enlarged and increasingly taken over by the state. Now the area was an open forum, an area paved with the finest stone, adorned by monuments and statues and surrounded by official buildings. A raised plateau on this forum hosted orators and politicians who presented their arguments to the people, and the forum was usually crowded after work hours. Alus spoke from this stage to the people with a harsh voice, and his appearance was equally bitter. The plague had scarred his skin and added much dread to his countenance; he was no longer an inspiring example to look upon. He presented himself as the veteran he was, with countless victories and self-sacrifice in his bloody past. Alus lacked the oratory talent of his competitors, but his background as a soldier in the Imperial Order was an unmatched merit, and the people applauded his presentations, though they brought few smiles. Justice was at the edge of a blade in his mind, for the reign of Saturn was a time where all men were equal and those who were wronged would seek out those who had offended them with sword in hand. Ultimately the election came to rest upon a single question. If the gods did not favor Alus, he would never have survived the plague, and the marks of suffering were considered signs of piety. Many superstitious barbarians who had gained the right to vote favored him, while those of old Telborean lineage were less impressed.
On the day of election, the votes fell in his favor. A crowd of cheering supporters followed him to the Pantheon where he was inaugurated Flamen Saturnalis and made the official sacrifice on the altar before the statue of Saturnus Primigenius, the primeval Titan. As the blood flowed freely and the sacrificial bull was set to roast over the fire, Alus felt the power of the gods return to him. He shared the flesh of the bull among all those present to bless them with a spirit of justice. Those who had followed him to the vast temple enjoyed the feast as wine was brought in, sponsored by the state on this occasion where the feast itself honored the gods and brought harmony between the mortal and divine. Alus sipped on the contents of his own goblet, accepting the congratulations of other priests and Imperial magistrates who approached with somber frankness. His mind turned from the glorious hall of worship to a darker place, where beastmen and black magic ripped people to pieces at will while tyrants cowered behind walls and soldiers stood waiting for the next hail of arrows to fall. His duty to the Empire was there, where no one else had the courage to fight. Placing his goblet on the altar, Alus excused himself quietly and slipped into the shadows behind the massive pillars of the Pantheon, and on towards the temple chambers. His duties to Saturn and the city of Telborea would not require him to return before Saturnalia. Until then his place was on Thain.