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W'P

-O-

A skinny, very young man sat a dilapidated picnic bench in the shade of a tent. He fiddled with his brand-new machete, hands quivering in anxiety. It was his first day on patrol. He had thought he was ready; he's not. He can't do it. He needs something to calm him down. Anything, anyone. Talking with someone would help, he thought. It actually might help a lot to take his mind off of things.

A couple men, just getting off their rounds, sat down at the other end of the table. One of them was a Decanus, it was clear by the helm. The other was leaner and a simple Praetorian guard. He knew neither of their names.

"Salve." He greeted, trying to urge the shakiness from his tone and failing.

"Salve." They both replied with little enthusiasm. The Praetorian looked him over. "You're a rather green one, aren't you?"

"I just finished training two days ago." The recruit answered as respectfully as possible.

The veterans both let out partially amused chuckles. "Need to shake away the nerves?" The scarf worn over his mouth muffled the Decanus' speech.

"Er…"

"Of course you do. I did on my first day as a legionnaire." The Praetorian said lightly, but quietly. Social visits were allowed but frowned upon. "I heard Inculta was ordered down to Nipton, just this morning."

"Wow—uh, I mean, really? Serves them right, I suppose…"

"He took the Hydra with him, too, I heard." The Decanus added, scratching under his headdress.

"Yes, but when does he not?" The guard rolled his eyes a little, breaking official form.

"What is, um, Hydra?" The recruit didn't like the sound of that. The name was Latin, implying membership to the Legion, but he had never heard of who or what they were speaking of.

"Hydra is Vulpes Inculta's shadow." The Decanus said ominously. He leaned forward conspiratorially, and the other two men followed suit. Social chatting was allowed, now and then—gossip about high-ranked members was punishable by lashes. "He never leaves the camp without his shadow. Some say Hydra was killed and came back to life to serve Caesar and almighty Mars. Others, that Hydra's head was chopped off, and it grew back just like the myth."

"Why have I never heard of him?" The green recruit whispered.

"Three reasons." The Praetorian held up the corresponding number of fingers. "The first is, Hydra is Inculta's right hand. And Inculta is the head of the Frumentarii."

"The second reason," The Decanus went on. "Is you are a new recruit. Most green soldiers do not learn of the Hydra for days or weeks."

"And the third?" The young man asked reverently, leaning in even further.

"The most important reason, which you must never speak of to other greens you associate with." The Decanus lowered his voice so it was almost inaudible. "Hydra is a woman."

-O-

Smoke billowed in light clouds from the burning town. Former town. Legion flags were tied up on staffs around the town hall, the yellow bulls shaking in the breeze. Lining the street were crucifixes holding the still living townspeople. Several Legion guards stood around, headed by a man with tinted goggles and the skin of a dog over his head, and features that were pale but sharp as a fox. Behind him a woman stood casually, arms crossed and green eyes glinting. Her ginger hair was shaved sloppily on one side and hanging away on the other. Her forehead had a clear, circular, bullet-shaped mark in dead centre. At her heels was a wild-eyed and dirty hound.

"You mean I'm free? I won?!" A young, obnoxious man with small glasses said ecstatically. In his hands was clutched a little slip of paper.

"Yes." The fox-faced man said. "You are the winner of our lottery. And you may now go free, on one condition: you must tell all you meet of what has happened here, of what you and your…loved ones have suffered. Make sure they know of the power the Legion possesses."

The kid nodded vigourously, his glasses hopping off his nose. "Hell yeah, man! I'll tell anyone who'll listen!" He whooped with joy, turned and ran down the street, away from them.

"Are you sure I can't kill him, Vulpes?" The woman drawled, leaning forward slightly to speak to her immediate superior.

"Yes, I am sure, Hydra." He replied, turning his head slightly. "Someone has to tell the profligates what we've done here, or it will be for nothing."

"Damn." She muttered, watching the retreating form of the kid. Vulpes' mouth twitched in amusement. "Now that the fun part is over, are we going back to the Fort?"

Vulpes nodded and began walking down the main road. "The captured must be brought in to Caesar and tested."

Hydra followed, the frumentarii marching obediently after them. "Such dull work."

-O-

"What?" The soldier hissed. "How is that possible? A woman?"

"Nay. A demon." The superstitious Decanus grumbled. "An underworldly vixen wrapped in the skin of a mortal. Sent to Earth by Mars, to test our resolve."

"But, how did she get into the Legion?"

"Caesar took an interest in her several months ago." The Praetorian explained as the Decanus mumbled a prayer against evil under his breath in Latin. "She was a courier, if any of the rumours are true. Found the Legion and rose with…suspicious speed through the ranks. She's the ring on Caesar's left hand."

"A ring laced in poison." The Decanus ended his prayer and spat out the words like they were the poisoned ones.

"Quiet!" The Praetorian looked over his shoulder. "Do you have a death wish? If any of the frumentarii—if Inculta got word of that…we would all be crucified."

"Why?" The green asked. "Are they…"

"No," The guard replied lowly. "He openly values her as his second. But do not let any of the frumentarii hear this. Everything makes its way up to Inculta and his snake. If either were to know of such gossip we would all be dead before the next sun."

"Come, frater." The Decanus stood and gestured for the Praetorian to do the same. "We should be off before this whelp has our heads. Vale."

"Vale." The initiate replied in kind, and let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. That had not helped his nerves, of that he could be sure.