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Under the fields of tomorrow

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A glance at the immense fields left no doubts about the state of the crops: weak plants, fragile, and plagued by diseases. Not even the swarms of insects dared attack the crops.
-This is not the work of man- spoke the old Tisebio, the head of the community of the small village, while the wind shook the fragile ears of corn -Such a great evil has never struck this land. The favor of the gods has abandoned us.
-The favor of the roman gods- intervened a stranger, advancing through the crowd of peasants in the back of a horse as white as the snowy peaks of the Alps. He wore a black cloak that almost completely covered his form, including the face thanks to the hood.
The plebeians stood aside, uncertain in the face of the mysterious figure, while the praetor and his guard gave the individual a suspicious and outraged look.
-In the name of the Roman law I order you to identify yourself, man. Who are you and what are you doing here?
In response, the individual gave a disturbing smile that lit up from under the hood, despite the fact that the rest of his features remained essentially hidden.
-I am the voice of destiny, and I come to tell the truth that you Romans keep sealed behind a wall of nonsense.
-Identify yourself- insisted the praetor.
-These fields are poisoned by the will of the gods Rome!- the stranger declared, raising his right arm to the sky and making a half turn with the horse -The Romans wish to possess and dominate the world with an iron fist!
-If you don't identify yourself immediately I'll have you arrested…
-It is the envy of Rome that has struck these fields!- the stranger did not seem to notice the praetor, who was beginning to get impatient. The white stallion began to move at a brisk trot from one end of the crowd to the other as the stranger's words gained momentum. The farmers stared frightened at the man, even old Tisebio did not dare to interrupt him. Even the soldiers of the guard began to feel uneasy, not knowing what was happening or how the crowd would react, and many of them looked almost pleadingly to the praetor to give them directions.
-It was the Romans whom, at the sight of these flourishing fields in comparison to theirs, lifted prayers to their gods which cursed this land and reduce it to misery. It was the Romans, envious of your abundance, who took away the grain with which you feed your children. It was the Romans who, in order to maintain their power, leave you to starve. It was the Romans, to protect themselves, to terrorize you with their deities!
-FANDONIES!- shouted the praetor, angrily. His old face was red with anger and even his dappled horse shook his head nervously -These lands belong to Rome, and as such they are under the protection of the Gods and the might of the Empire! We would never starve our subjects…!
-Liar!- the stranger interrupted him, turning his horse towards the praetor and pointing the accusing finger on the individual -You Romans have exterminated the people and stolen the wealth of this land when you conquered it! You have starved thousands of people and thousands more into slavery, and all to sate your glory!
-Rome conquers in the name of civilization!
-Who is the judge of the actions of Rome then!? Rome itself! It is you who absolve yourselves for what you do to the peoples you so barbarously conquered!- now the stranger's voice thundered, making the air vibrate all around. Even the guards were afraid.
-It is the Gods who judge the actions of Rome!- the praetor replied firmly -And only the Gods have the right!
-Your Gods! Other gods inhabited these lands before Rome, and now they lay dormant and waiting to be released! Never again will the Romans starve these people! No more dark gods will decide the fate of these lands! No more false judges will be the voice of our laws!
-Arrest him!- ordered the praetor, and the soldiers, though hesitant, did as ordered with martial discipline.
-Look, people, the truth of Rome!- continued the stranger, pointing the finger at the guards -Look what do the Roman Gods do to their faithful!
The praetor snorted, fed up with that antics, but suddenly his men dropped lance and scutum to the ground and began to writhe, clutching their hands to their throats or around their body. Soon their armor and their skins began to deform, until in a few seconds they turned into bodies vaguely humanoid, but covered with black hair and bestial traits.
The praetor fell silent in the face of such horror, and stood staring helplessly while the creatures, whatever they were, threw themselves voraciously on the crowd, attacking the unfortunate and making the others flee, all while the unknown man incited the people to rebel against the power of Rome.
-The time has come to take back our lands! We must light our fires and prepare for the cleansing war against the conquerors!
-What did you do?!- the roman officer finally exclaimed, when the crowd was far away and he could do nothing more to stop the monsters.
-I have torn the veil of your illusions! Now the whole world knows the true face of Rome! Now the whole world can be the judge of the atrocities of your empire!
Tired of wasting time in that game, in which the stranger seemed to be in full advantage, Caio Ostilio drew his gladius in preparation for the fight.
-What do you plan to do now? Do you think you can face me!? You are weak, roman, like your dark and lying gods. Don't think you can stand up to me.
-I fought on the Limes for twenty years, don't think you scare me- Caio replied with icy firmness. Then he urged the stallion, calling on Mars to give strength to his arm to bring down the enemy.
Mercilessly the sword fell on the stranger's throat, but he did not react in any way. Just when Caio was about to rejoice he felt excruciating pain for the jugular, and blood filled his mouth. He touched himself with a trembling hand and felt a cut in his throat, even though nothing had touched it. He tried to speak but his voice was drowned by his own blood.
He soon lost his strength and fell off the horse, which continued its run as he rolled helplessly to the ground.
-Now, Roman, you see the true power of my Gods- said the stranger, approaching. Caio could not see him, nor turn his head to look at him, but he could feel his step across the ground.
-Soon a new crop will be sown, and thanks to your blood it will grow bigger and more prosperous than ever. And know that soon the blood of Rome will flow over the entire world, to bankroll the new life that soon shall rise.
Then Caio heard the call of Pluto and left his body to descend into hell, tormented by the words of his enemy.

The small abandoned hovel afforded enough view of the great pyre to convey a sense of uneasiness to the custodes gathered inside. In a week's stay in the region they had seen dozens of those bonfires lit every night in the fields, and thousands of people who went to dance around them invoking dark names and then disappear into the night leaving behind dead and dying, exhausted by hunger and the heat of the dances. The smell of death also enveloped the village, which by now the inhabitants had left: dozens of corpses were scattered on the streets, abandoned together with the village, giving a macabre note to the atmosphere.
Most of the farmers in the area had started living on the streets, gathered in bands or in the forests with their new prophet. In the big cities the situation had not yet degenerated but the hunger due to the poor harvest was beginning to press on the throats of the most needy, and the governor of the province was afraid that a revolt would soon break out.
Cumar took his bearded chin in his hands, lost in thought. Upon their arrival, he and his contubernium, on a mission for the Cohors Auxiliaria Arcana, had received a cold welcome from the inhabitants and various hostile armed groups, often hungry people who wanted their provisions so as not to starve. When they had tried to establish contact with the followers of the stranger in the black cloak they had received curses shouted in an unknown language, and then the unfortunates had become creatures half man half beast and attacked them.
Negotiating with the cultists was evidently impossible, which reduced the possibility of finding alternative solutions to a massive military intervention, but also dealing with the governor, who begged every day to receive troops from Rome in order to exterminate the rebels, became increasingly complicated.
-So?- Aetius said at that moment, interrupting his trail of thoughts. The handsome young Roman, usually always calm and seductive, was now totally transfigured into an individual filled with impatience.
Cumar had not been very convinced when the Praetorian Guard and the Magisters of the Cohors had chosen Aetius, an unknown individual with a handsome face, as "diplomatic and martial support" to the expedition, especially for his reputation as a womanizer and his love for luxury, but he had not been in a position to argue.
Faced with the protests of the young man, Aulete, the Egyptian sage, raised his head from the seeds he was analyzing and gave his companion a reproaching look, ordering him not to disturb him. Aetius then snorted and started going back and forth, unnerving even Cumar with his pace. The Syrian stood up, wanting to shake the anguish from his limbs, and headed out of the hut, reaching Electra. The Liberta gazed impassively at the great fire in the distance, standing in the center of the village square without fear of being seen or identified by thieves.
-Is everything quiet?- Cumar asked, standing beside her.
-No- she replied bluntly -Nothing in this place seems peaceful. There is something in the earth and in the air that makes my wrists tremble. I can feel it.
-We are all nervous, I find it understandable given the atmosphere- the Syrian replied, trying to reassure himself rather than his partner.
-You should go back inside with us, alone out here is dangerous- he added then. Elettra replied with a mocking cry. A breath of wind messed her blonde hair and she snorted in annoyance, forced to tie back the bun to prevent her hair to go into her eyes when she fought.
-I lived for most of my childhood in the sand pits of the arenas and amphitheaters, killing friends and enemies alike. Being out here is nothing compared to that.
Cumar nodded, a little ashamed at the ex-gladiator's words, but still invited her to follow him inside insisting that everyone's ears were needed.
-The seeds are free of impurities or poison- Aulete welcomed them on their return.
-And there are no signs of illness either- echoed Clelia, the Mauretanian girl.
-It is not the seeds that spoil the harvest- the bald man ran a hand on his head, as he always did when he felt uncomfortable, and made his eyes migrate to those present in the hut as if expecting some reaction.
-This is important- Cumar reflected, stroking his chin again as he walked towards the center of the room, near the torch lights -If it's not wheat, then what could it be?
-Contaminated wheat replaced the healthy one- Aetius speculated , but Aulete shook his head.
-They would have noticed. And besides there is not enough spoiled grain in all of the empire sufficient to sow these fields- the man's eyes were unfocused, as he always did when he was accessing his extraordinary encyclopedic knowledge.
-Maybe it is the result of an unexpected drought, impoverishment of the soil- Cumar suggested, but Clelia, who understood nature and soil, rejected his hypothesis.
-The land is fertile and rich, and the climate warm and wet- the girl stood up, smoothing the dress under the armor and looking at him with her dark eyes -I fear that the gods have really cursed this land.
-Impossible- Cumar replied, hard -The Gods have not cursed these lands. The Cohors’ augure spoke clearly.
-If only our augure would deign to wake up…- Aetius commented, referring to Theodora asleep against the wall.
-Oh shut it- Clelia retorted but Cumar did not care, because in placing his gaze on the young greek girl he had noticed that something was troubling her: she was trembling, and her face seemed pale. The Syrian remained focused on her, having a bad feeling, and wondering if it was appropriate to awake her from her sleep. But he quickly turned away from the thought: if the gods were sending a message to the girl, their will had to be respected.
-What if it was something under the ground?- Electra said at that moment -Something that rises from under the ground and poisons the crop?
-Pfft, absurd- Aulete replied, focusing his gaze on the Dacian woman -How could something from underground rise up and poison the crop?
-A Celtic dragon!- Theodora exclaimed at that moment, waking with a startle. Taken by surprise Cumar and the others turned to look at her: the girl had long brown hair dripping with sweat, haunted brown eyes and a pale face, and in that light, with that atmosphere, she looked haunted.
Clelia was the first to recover and approached her companion offering her a flask of water, which Theodora gladly drained. She looked as if she had migrated trough the desert of Arabia for a week. Little by little the contubernium recomposed and the members arranged themselves in a semicircle in front of the young augur, waiting for her response.
-What were you talking about before?- Aulete asked, his eyes attentive and fixed on her.
-It is a Celtic dragon that poisons the fields: it has the body of a snake and the head of a crocodile. He built the lair in a complex labyrinth of underground tunnels, which allow him to move quickly from one end of the region to the other. He obeys the orders of the stranger who killed the praetor, and him in return protects it from retaliation from the inhabitants of these territories.
-Did you see his face?- Cumar asked.
-No. Not even in a dream have I succeeded. But the Gods showed me the dark forces that possess it, and there's nothing to laugh about- Theodora paused to take another sip. After the trance she was recovering quickly, proving his unwavering vitality.
-So now we know how to stop the famine- Clelia intervened -We can kill the dragon.
-But how will we find him in the tunnels?- Electra asked -We will be at his mercy.
-A creature of this size cannot feed underground: it must necessarily go out to hunt, thus leaving traces that I can follow to its lair- Clelia explained, her eyes shining. Being born in a nomadic tribe under imperial protection, the girl loved to hunt and she was very good at it.
-In this way it will be easy to trap him and deprive the stranger of a precious ally- Cumar reflected, convinced. But he was not relieved for that: the stranger was still elusive, and if other gods were really helping him in his plans, he would be a tough nut to crack. The risk of a massacre hung over his conscience like a boulder, leaving him unsure of his chances of avoiding catastrophe.
-Incredible…- Aulete murmured, his eyes shining -Never have I witnessed a similar behavior by a dragon.
-Looks like you were wrong in your suppositions- Aetius teased him with an ingratiating smile, which in the frame of his brown beard made him almost irresistible.
-I know, right? It is fascinating! I have to study this case, it will lead to a big breakthrough in the study of these creatures!- the wise man replied, leaving the young Roman with the bitter realization that the other did not care about being right or wrong, but only about the knowledge.
-Yeah. If it wasn't for Theodora we would still be moving in the dark- Clelia said, winking at Aetius. The man responded in kind, appealing to all his charm. The young woman's ebony face turned a faint blush and she looked away, grabbing her long braid and beginning to caress it reflexively.
Aetius felt somewhat encouraged by this behavior, but before he could launch an offensive Electra placed a hand heavily on his shoulder and bent down to whisper in his ear.
-What are we waiting for!?- Theodora exclaimed at that moment, jumping to her feet with spears in hand and emanating youthful vigor from all pores -Let's go immediately to find that snake and give it a lesson!
-Calm down- said Cumar, raising his hand to calm everyone -It is late, if we start traveling right away we won’t get far. Better postpone our efforts until tomorrow.
-But…- the young woman started to protest. Seeing her so energetic and determined the Syrian doubted he made the right call, but his prudence prevailed.
-Let's rest and refresh ourselves, supplies are scarce. Tonight the Gods will watch over us, we can rest assured. Put out the torches and please, do not turn on other fires: we might get found out.
-ROMA INVICTA! ROMA AETERNA!- the custodes exclaimed in chorus, before preparing for the night.
-Damned rebels- Aetius said as he laid out the bed -They should all be put to death.
-Who made you judge?- Electra scolded him -You don't know what these people have suffered from the governors and praetors.
-These are subjects of the Empire, they should respect the law and obey its dictates!
-The Roman law is only right with the Romans!
-They ARE Romans! All the inhabitants of the Empire are Romans!
-That's not true and you know it!
Both individuals’ faces were red, and they stood staring at each other with fury. Electra was clearly taller and bulkier, but in Aetius's eyes there was a strange light, dark and disturbing, that incited violence.
Clelia tried to get in the way but shortly afterwards Theodora too, with her hot head, joined the discussion and for a moment it seemed that the flame of discord was burning among the members of the contubernium. Without thinking much Cumar took the last torch and put it out, and little by little the others, left in the dark, withdrew to their beds.