A note from Ned Marrow

This chapter serves as a bridge between Acts 1 and 2, passing 5 years of time while giving necessary information on the new world. It is going to be far more expansive than Act 1, spanning nations with Orlantha Quills, realms with our precious bear-maiden, and the growing quest for Jira ne'Jiral. Magic and Religion will make an increased presence as well. Essentially, Act 1 was intended to set the board with the characters.

I ultimately decided that the overall rebellion itself wasn't necessarily important to cover in the main timeline aside from various important moments such as the two battles, the introduction of the Star Bastion, and characters who I plan on bringing back later in this book or future installments. Most important was the creation of the Argent Contemptors, who I intend to be the main organization in Act 2.

However, if people wish to read more on the Rebellion as a whole, I do have outlines available that, if typed into prose, could allow me to make a full book on Oudet's Rebellion with increased lore on the Guilds, the Knights, and the Duke himself. Alternatively, I can possibly add more chapters in Act 1 to discuss various other events that occurred during the war.

As always, I will continuously go back to previous chapters for any additions or subtractions I feel are necessary, which additional chapters if I feel they would work out. I do have a few ideas for showing Gíla exploring the Star Bastion and discussing more details on her people, world lore, her better relationship with the Contemptors, etc.

"When you killed your first man, how did it feel?"

The question, which came suddenly and without prompting from the grizzled man sitting across the table, stirred terrible memories in the woman's mind.

Her vision was immediately besieged by images of a mangled young corpse in the dirt, limbs contorted with its fleshy lips pulled into a most disturbing grin. He had killed someone. That much she had learned from the contract. But she never knew who exactly. Only that it was a significant someone. She held the rapier that ended this life in her hands, and she watched the blood and sinew drip and drop from the metal. Even though the man deserved to die, it was still a horrible feeling she had that day. She said that - or instead muttered it - to the man sitting across from her, drawing an equally disturbing grin.

She recalled this man's name as Caerux Cain, a mercenary by trade and possibly something worse in secret. Not possibly, in fact. Most certainly. While he was not a wholly unpleasant man to look at, he was not pleasant to look at either. He was tall and muscular, as any mercenary should have been, but he had an aura about him that betrayed those rugged aged looks. It was an uneasy feeling that he produced, akin to that one had when in the presence of inquisitive and hungry bears.

Too much like ne'Jiral, she thought to herself, stirring a spoon in the bowl of sludge before her. "It felt like nothing. It was a kill, he deserved it, but I felt no joy from it. No anger. It just was." She had responded in the tongue of the Dekunians, much to the concern of the others in the waystation. She could not blame them. In some ways, she blamed herself for even daring to utter the accursed tongue.

"Seven damn years and these people still have a problem with me?" Caerux Cain chortled, catching the glimpses of hatred from the patrons of the station.

"Your people invaded their home," Orlantha answered without an ounce of emotion in her voice. "Slaughtered their families like sheep. Deposed their beloved Duke in favor of a mad king. Of course they have a problem with you."

Caerux grinned devilishly, and his eyes darkened. "Yet here you sit working with me. Your King offered us something we couldn't refuse, and your people should have surrendered when it was clear they would lose. Rebellions never work out, Quills. We Dekunians know that better than anyone."

Orlantha seethed internally but kept her face blank. She would not give him the joy of seeing her break into a rage.

It had been seven years since Murlay. A task force, they had said. Bait, nothing more. Orlantha had believed it. Or wanted to believe it. She wasn't sure how else she saw the situation, only that it was a chance to achieve her goal since the silver-haired woman first arrived in the kingdom. Galeran had made the offer, giving her deniability if questioned by the target, but she was willing to do it regardless. She was going to get close to Jira ne'Jiral, figure out her intentions in Aslofidor, and kill her. No one else saw it, not even the Drayheller. No one saw the threat that she posed. A simple task like what Murlay would be was the best chance to do it. The march to and from; the battle during; opportunities to uncover and eliminate. It was easy. So close to accomplishing it.

How foolish were they to believe that a king willing to sin like Aslofidor would be so superficial as to send such a standard deployment? It was a warning - a demand that the Duke, rebellious and naive, give up and accept that he could not win with a flock of arcaenomancers against him. Sanctioned by the very Church that outlawed them. Breaking the rules set by our forefathers.

Oudet refused. Now the Duke was in exile, or dead, or imprisoned. No one could say where the poor man had gone. His capital, Jore, was in ruins, reduced to a sinkhole after suffering an assault of arcaeno. Hundreds of thousands were killed instantly, their bones serving as relics of a foolish age. And the rebellion itself - thousands strong - was scattered. Little more than warbands now. Some were in hiding from their broken minds or had returned to serve the king like Galeran Reynfred and his Eye. One was said to remain held up in the Star Bastion, a rumor that prevented the damnable place from being besieged like Jore was. If anyone was in there, they were lucky.

"Was it the King alone?" some would ask. "Was the King truly so powerful on his own?"

No, why would this have been simple too? Oudet was beaten by the unprecedented invasion of Belanore, Dekun, Veoris, and Tarihr on Aslofidor's behalf. Who could have predicted that the villain could end his alliance drought with a simple act of sin? Who could have expected that the rest of the world would be as moronic as the loyalists? Orlantha could have, had she not been so concerned with the spider, Jira ne'Jiral.

But that, all things told, was her old concern. Jira had not been seen since her precious Drayheller had disappeared in the battle. Wherever she went with her lies, Orlantha prayed that she had met a violent end. Never to return.

Her new concern was set on Caerux Cain, her partner for this lower life of mercenary work she had barely escaped to.

Unsettling. A threat. Chances to kill him lost. Faster than he looks. Could catch the blade in his hand. Perhaps it was that grin that broke across his tanned face that revealed a row of sharp teeth, or the hazel eyes that looked almost like pressed gold coins - or cat eyes. Or the scar underneath his left eye that looked like it had nearly carved through the bone and received a shoddy healing job.

"My first kill felt great," Caerux said, now in the language of this land, pressing the previous subject. "I drove my cleaver into the head of the man that tried to take my father from me. The Grem, some called him. A spirit reaver that haunted the villages for decades, killing and pillaging. When I pulled the blade from his skull and saw his brains spill onto the floor, I knew then that he was nothing more than a man. Hiding in the shadow of a legend and attacking at night with little evidence to trace him. I became a hero, regardless of this revelation. So it felt great."

She remained silent as he dropped his grin and clasped a flushed hand around her bowl of sludge. The breakfast of mulched oats and berries from Dekun that Caerux had brought with him when he crossed the borders. She was hesitant to try it. It smelled odd, like some ripe fruit on the cusp of souring. But she had nothing else to eat, so she brought a spoonful to her lips. It tasted like nothing and had the texture of tar, or what she assumed tar felt like. She must have made a face of disgust because the man laughed and gulped his down quickly and belched, satisfied.

"Best eat up," Caerux chuckled before he clicked his tongue three times. "We got a wolf to kill today."

"Are you sure?" she asked him after choking down the rest of the mulch in a single gulp.

"About what?"

"That it's just a wolf."

The man rose to his feet and cast a mountainous shadow across the table. "I'm sure," he said.

She looked at Caerux and silently wondered how anyone could be that size and that intimidating. He was practically shaped like a boulder of muscles and fat hidden under iron-plated leather, with dreadlocked black hair and a thick beard that came down to the top of his chest. An iron-strong jaw with a forming second chin could be barely seen under all that hair. And while his armor was rather plain for practicality's sake, the chest plate of his armor was emblazoned with a sigil, carved into the metal to resemble a creature native to Dekun. A Drencher. Some massive snake that was cursed to live a mindless evil life. The thought of it shook the woman’s bones as she too rose from the table.

She was a foot and a half shorter than him and was nowhere near as thick but was no slouch when it came to her musculature. Seven years of constant fighting and training had developed her into a veritable weapon. Her arms were nearly as big as Mille the Wolf's, and her legs were twice as wide. Pure muscle. Little to no fat. Perhaps that is why he terrified her so much. In recent months, she was known as the strongest in the county by a wide margin, an added reputation to the one she had already developed long ago. Mostly forgotten by convenience. By gratitude. She was the go-to woman for mercenary work to cut down bandits, thieves, and barbarians using the chaos of the invasion to sneak in and settle their tribes in the deep forests.

Then this man came along some odd days prior and had yet to leave. He was stronger. He was much stronger, physically and mentally, and had enough dominating willpower that most did as he commanded on some primal instinct to survive. Oddly, he reminded her of the bear-maiden, Gíla Arsinoe. Though that woman had the willpower of a sickly cat, she was imposing with her size and strength. Somehow, Orlantha felt that Caerux Cain could best her with as much ease as that giant Hans had.

He recruited her without issue to help him solve a problem she would typically solve alone. She joined him, not the other way around. She felt, in some ways, weaker because of that. The woman grunted at the thought as she picked up her rapier leaning against the table and wrapped the sheath around her waist, ensuring the blade was resting on her left hip. Right-hand dominant. Orthodox. Something I'm used to.

“How can you be sure it is a wolf that we hunt?” she asked him as he retrieved his own longsword, or what he called a longsword. It was actually a greatsword by her standards, but he wielded it with little effort in one hand. “We have no details other than a brief description from a night watchman drunk off his gourds.”

Caerux grinned and fastened the leather bracers around his thick wrists. “Trust me, I know. It’s furry. Runs on all fours. Looks like a wolf and eats the sheep.”

The woman fastened her own bracers across her considerably thinner wrists and looked to him with a curved brow. “What if it’s a werebeast? I've heard talk of them across the county for months. Coming in with the Veorisian barbarians after the arcaeno began spreading. Preying on travelers, farms, and even towns. Holmgan has them too, according to the trade talk."

He scoffed and adjusted the straps of his iron pauldrons, “Talk, as you said. Tale as old as time, sure, but a false one. They’re always just wolves. The only monsters in this world are them Drayheller bastards. Besides, I disproved one legend, and we will disprove this one together.”

The woman shrugged with as much indifference as she could muster to match his own towards the situation. He shook his head, muttering some words along the lines of “why does she try?” to himself. Her lips curved momentarily before flattening again with apathy. She resigned herself just to follow him at a distance as they left the waystation. The bartender offered a meek wave when she looked back to assure herself that she did not forget anything. He was glad they were going.

After her eyes readjusted to the bright orange sun in the sky, the woman sighed with hidden despair. The outside country was once the greenest land she could imagine, and it had surprised her every time she looked upon it. Once, it was dotted with long-standing family farms for grain and cattle and cottages of the finest wood with smoking chimneys and playful children running around them, usually chasing chickens or sheep. Avoided the rebellion for the longest time. Survived with their families intact. Better than most. Even more comforting to look upon were the plants of so many colors that she was unsure some were even real, an illusion cast by some arcaenomancer in the nearby forests.

Now, it was a gray place choked by the acidic energies emanating from the ruins of Jore. Dark vines crept across the road, hindering travelers seeking refuge from the bandit-infested routes. The sky, lit by orange, was lifeless and pock-marked by black clouds, and what people were left with their homes petered around in dying fields of rotted crops. There was a fetid stench in the air as well, something oozing blood beyond her vision - it sickened her. All of this sickened her, and she could do nothing about it.

A trial, the church had said during the announcement of the Duke's defeat. A trial from God projected through his chosen disciple in the King of Aslofidor. That is what this new land was, and no one - not even the invaders - argued such a proclamation. The efforts of Oudet. His dream for the salvation of our souls. Driven away to leave nothing but sadness and horror. She remembered the face of the man who led that announcement, flanked by his newly formed militia in black-orange plate armor. The Lambent Order, they called themselves. She had wanted to hate him and was close to charging him on his stage to gut him like a fish. Her heart had thumped and thundered, her blood ringing in her ears, her teeth gnashing in pure anticipation. But it became clear to her the more she listened from her spot in the alleyway that he was a man of true conviction. He actually believed in what he was saying, and the more she listened, the more she felt herself being drawn to him by some magnetic od.

That is when she fled and abandoned all thoughts of continuing the rebellion.

“Come,” he said with a low tone. “The watchman said it ran off to the south, so that is where we’re going.”

She gave no response beyond following his lumbering strides down the beaten dirt path from the waystation. It would eventually take them to a side path towards the forest. For now, she walked with the giant a little ways behind him. His steps were lightning cracks, and each only worsened her mood. She looked with saddened eyes as the people who had come to know her and value her moved to avoid them. Frightened by this outsider. This giant. This stranger. It was disheartening until a lone child from the surviving cottages at least had the courage to wish her well.

“Come back safe, Orlantha!” the young boy shouted over his farm’s fence.

“Orlantha?” Caerux mused. “So you did give me a fake name.”

She sighed and clasped a hand on the pommel of her blade to steady it. “You did not want to learn my real name, remember? ‘I don’t learn real names. Better that way for when they die.’”

Caerux laughed mockingly. “Oh right. I did say that, didn’t I? Well, I know it now, so forget that rule. Orlantha...Or-lan-tha. What are you anyway?”

“What do you mean?” she asked, gazing again at the farm folk who ushered their kids away from the road.

“Aslofidorian? Veorisian? Tarihrian? You ain't Dekunian."

She did not answer him, and no more words were spoken between the two until they reached the forest. And then, no more words were spoken between them at all.

The woman was a fair color, darkened somewhat by her time in the sun. Her hair was cut short for maintenance, resembling a stringy cloth of flower red, and her eyes were a very disconcerting green. Eyes that sat very comfortably on a well-structured face, which was triangular and boasted the features of humans, though her blood reeked of something foul. Something else. Something close to arcaenic. Her muscles rippled with veins and definition even as she lay in the mud, and her neck was quite possibly forged from iron by a Grurant smith. Her upper body from the biceps up was practically bursting through her leather armor, and against any other in this county, she would win. Uncontestedly. Yet the man previously in her company was even larger and quite a deal more formidable in combat, for as long as that lasted at least.

So why was it that she was not the one to end up strewn across the trees and rivers and in so many unsavory pieces as the one from Dekun did? Why did she live and he did not? What was keeping him from correcting this?

The man in the green hat, who had introduced himself as Milligan before the dead giant had attacked, scratched his chin hidden under a scraggly patch of blonde hair and grunted before wiping the blood from his hands on a mossy treetrunk. Blood and gore dripped from the dark green, and his nails were left caked by the last bit of sinew that had kept the man's head connected to his eviscerated torso. Again, he asked himself why this was not also happening to the warrior woman, who began to stir uncomfortably from her state of unconsciousness. This had only lasted roughly half a minute by his estimation. The slaughter of the brutish man likely felt like an eternity to the deceased fool, but people like the man in the green hat did things fast.

Being cursed does that to you, he would say.

The woman sat up suddenly and pointed her muddy sword at her assailant, who looked on from his distance with a cocked brow and a sharp grin. The blade would have gleamed in the sun from its excessive polish in the sunlight. In the forest, it resembled a dirty stick. So he had to ask himself, was she even conscious of her actions or just acting out of some primal reaction to danger?

“Tried that before, yeah?” he said, making sure he communicated in her language, flashing the fangs that adorned his upper teeth. His accent was liquid and flowed from his mouth as if the orifice was a pitcher full of wine. Smooth, refreshing, yet enough of it was dangerous and could lead to deadly ramifications. “Didn’t work out for ya.”

The woman struggled to her feet, lidded almond eyes half-closed and her bow-shaped lips agape to breathe. The air was thick around them, too thick, he would add. Like it was an invisible mound of dirt smothering them. Grave-like. Likely why they moved so slowly when he attacked them. Her breathing was harsh and heavy, and her muscled chest rose and fell quickly. She began to look around, and Milligan chuckled. A dark sound.

Holding up the decapitated head of the brutish Dekunian, face frozen in pain and fear, the assailant showed another flash of fangs. An attempt to intimidate, but if anything, the realization that her companion was dead seemed to only embolden her, which he found quite intriguing. “Your friend is dead. Dead-dead. Parts of him all over the forest now.”

The woman, who slowly began to regain some controlled breathing, shrugged her shoulders. “I can see that,” she said.

Milligan shook his head, the hat remaining perfectly still, and his eyes - which she would note as orchid purple - brightened at the gory recollection of the man’s pitiful death. “He did not. Died a fool’s death, which you have thus far avoided. Why did you come in here?”

“To hunt a wolf,” she stated matter-of-factly, finding a good balanced defense stance.

“There ain’t no wolves in this part of the forest no more,” Milligan said. “All gone. Left for the other parts. It's a big forest, these Dunwoods.”

She took a step closer, which he did not care to even acknowledge. He could not kill her, for whatever reason, but she most certainly could not kill him. Why bother worrying about what the woman does?

“So what has been killing the sheep and cattle? You?” she asked.

Milligan tossed the head into the mud, hoping to get a reaction from the woman. He received none, and he tapped his foot on the ground once, twice, thrice before saying: “Me. A man has to eat in these times. Plus, I need supplies. I got a trip coming up.”

“Is that why you killed Caerux so quickly? Were you just hungry?” she asked.

He shook his head and clicked his tongue a few times, a thin strand of red shooting from his mouth. Then he answered truthfully with: "No, he just annoyed me. Big fuck like him shouldn't have been coming at me as he did."

She was silent for a moment and then took another step forward, her defense still locked and ready. “Why then am I still alive?”

He shrugged and rose to a standing position, stretching his back out to a symphony of cracks. Relief shot through his body, bringing out a light sigh as his gaze turned from the woman to the trees above and around. Green spruces. Thick canopies with the chirping of birds and insects all around. “No idea...can’t bring myself to kill you. Want to, but I can’t,” he said as his eyes caught the blurry image of a quick robin streaking through the leaves, trying to avoid his gaze. He let it pass without incident.

“I see,” she pondered, her grip loosening only for a split second before it hardened once more. Mud slopped beneath her feet and had started to solidify on her blade, caking it in the dry earth. “So, what is your name again? It started with an ‘M,’ correct?”

“Yes. Milligan. Now yours.”

“Orlantha,” she said truthfully, and he knew that she knew that he knew she was being honest. Why bother lying to a man that apparently could not bring harm to you? Why anger him further? He smiled at this knowledge, and it was a devious smile. He was sure.

“Lady Orlantha...” He bowed and removed his hat, holding it out respectfully before replacing it atop his crown. Nothing adorned his head save for the light fuzz of blonde hair, barely visible in the dull sunlight of the forest. “I can't kill you, but you are fascinating. Something in your blood, I think. Maybe. Anywho, I have a trip coming up.”

“You said that already.”

Milligan shrugged and grinned. "Yes, I did. I must be leaving soon. Lots to do and many places to go. I'm looking for something, you see. Someone's planning to kill my father, and I need to stop it. Saw it in a dream o'mine. Can't allow some bastard to kill my father, even though the man's a right prick on a good day."

Milligan stepped forward, quicker than Orlantha could likely see. She held her blade point to his face despite the distance between their abilities, unflinching. In her eyes, he saw the fires of an old purpose long dead for years. “Unfortunately, I can't let you leave until I know you will stop eating the county’s livestock.”

He remained silent after this, his purple eyes locked onto the point of Orlantha's dirt-caked rapier. He pursed his lips and hummed as an idea came to mind. "You are fascinating, Orlantha. I'll give you that. I like it. You'd make the trip less arduous and boring and blah. If I tell you who my father is, would you like to come with me?"

Orlantha grunted. "I doubt that your father's identity would change matters."

A fanged grin, wider and deeper than before. "You haven't heard who he is."

A note from Ned Marrow

Now that Act 1 is completed, I will be moving to a much more manageable and predictable schedule of posting a new chapter once or twice a week. I am aiming to at least post once a week every Friday, with secondary chapters on the following Saturday. This gives me a much easier timeframe to work, especially with the more expansive nature of Act 2, and gives you a timeline for each new post rather than guesswork. I also feel that posting on Friday and Saturday allows you to enjoy the chapters more over the weekend rather than have to deal with weekday work schedules and the like.

And of course, let me know what you thought of this chapter, if you liked it, what I should change, etc. Do you like Milligan? How about Orlantha? Also, let me know if you would like to see anything expanded upon in future chapters!

About the author

Ned Marrow

Bio: Hello, everyone! Thanks for stopping by.

I am an aspiring author with a heavy interest in High Fantasy, Grimdark Fiction, Dark Fantasy, and Science Fiction works. My favorite of those is most likely Warhammer 40K works, especially the Horus Heresy novels.

Most of my writing before I began posting my official work online has been short stories for college classes and personal enjoyment, plus some forum writing across fandom boards. My current goal with this is to just write something that people like and want to read more of, and of course further develop my skills as a writer.

I hope you enjoy your stay here and what I create!

Schedule: 1-2 chapters a week every Friday/Saturday at 12:00 P.M. EST.

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