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White Flower

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Wizard had been keeping her distance from him since Hunter had decided to bring the two half-orcs along with them to Groudrey. She had vehemently argued against the idea of questing with 'half-breed monsters'. Hunter had shut her down by presenting his counter-argument in a polite and quiet tone.

Arguing should only rarely be done by shouting, it disgraced both participants. His calm tone as he explained the benefits of added protection the orcs provided seemed to catch her off guard… perhaps she was used to the louder version of arguing? Hunter would not. Shouting was terribly hard on the throat.

She had agreed with reluctance, and since they all began traveling further, she had remained quiet. Hunter had not tried conversation after the first attempt, not wanting to play this petty game. She had lost the argument fair and square, she could at least act like an adult and move on. This seemed to annoy her more than it did smooth things over, but again, Hunter would not beg forgiveness from Wizard for arguing against her. He was right, and that was that. She'd get over it.

The two orcs, on the other hand, were completely affable fellows. Hunter had found out from the both of them that half-orcs were allowed in cities, but they were often persecuted for their beastly bloodline. Shops wouldn't sell to them, no one would hire them for anything but mercenary work and even that was rare, and the adventurers guild wouldn't register them.

Apparently, it was possible for half-orcs to be registered, but that was nearly impossible to accomplish. The guild thought of them as untrustworthy, and registered adventurers tended to think the same.

The only way for them both to join the guild was for an adventurer of high rank to vouch for them, silver rank at least. If Hunter had been silver ranked he'd have vouched for the two green goofs- assuming they were indeed trustworthy- but he was nowhere close to giving his full trust yet. If they did good enough on this mission then perhaps he could ask Goblin Slayer for his endorsement? Sure, they were green, but they weren't goblins. From his impressions of the man, if it wasn't a goblin, then he didn't care much for its existence.

Hunter could be wrong, but the title of 'Goblin Slayer' sort of said it all. Did he ever do any other quests besides killing goblins? He shook his head, turning his attention back to Berlo, who had been telling Hunter about the time he had accidentally 'retarded' his uncle in a headbutting contest.

"Den Ma bashed me wit a rock an' called me stupit." Berlo said, rubbing the back of his head as he spoke.

Brunko chuckled "Yeah dats cause you is the dumblyest."

Berlo growled, flexing his massive legs as if to prepare to charge his younger sibling.

"You ams the stupidliest stupid. Ma bashed you good when you tried ta wrestle grandpops." Berlo growled, glaring under his low brow. "He was ate e!"

"So?" Brunko asked, shrugging his massive shoulders.

Berlo sputtered "He was a humie! Dey be frail and softly, you'd a killed grandpops!"

Hunter turned back to the trail ahead as the two brothers argued back and forth on the ethics of wrestling the elderly, and took in a deep breath of the cool morning air. It had been two days since they had set out for Groudrey, and so far it had been a pleasant trip.

Besides Wizards moping of course. Large pine trees had begun appearing the farther up this trail went. Would it lead all the way up to the mountains? This was the most direct route to Groudrey, he wondered if it would be up in the mountains or at the base of one. He glanced backward, checking on Wizard who was walking behind the group by a few dozen paces. They briefly made eye contact, and she quickly glanced away.

Yes, she was certainly still sour. He turned back ahead, ignoring the orcs constant arguing. He didn't pay direct attention to them, but he found himself oddly comforted by their voices. It made good background noise. Others may have thought that would be distracting, but not to him.

Eventually they reached a point where the land flattened out from its steady incline upwards. That'd be good for the legs recovery, but Berlo didn't seem to care for the convenient flattening of land. Well, Hunter supposed that when your legs were thicker than tree trunks that such petty obstacles were trivial to overcome. Yes, indeed, it seemed that-

Smoke, on the horizon ahead.

There was a steady billowing black pillar smoke rising high above the trees. What on earth? Was there an attack? Perhaps it was benign? It may be a bonfire. They all agreed -even Wizard- that they'd pick up the pace to reach it quickly. Speed walking was something that was very fast if one had long legs like Hunter or Berlo and Brunko, Wizard, however, was being quickly left in the dust, and she had to jog lightly to keep up.

She didn't complain or ask for help, which was good. A little exercise was good for the body. They finally reached their destination only after around half an hour of walking, and Wizard was huffing and puffing. As they drew near, they found what had been causing the smoke. It was the burning husk of a large overturned cart wagon.

It lay in the center of the trail, a large group of ragged-looking men picking through several different chests and barrels as indistinguishable corpses burnt on the pyre that was the wagon. The containers had been placed parallel to the wide trail, some tipped over with their contents strewn about the dirt. Most of the items were tools, things you would find in many different craftsmen workshops.

Hunter grit his teeth, and it was only then that the men noticed them, scampering to surround his party quickly. They all wore what looked to be military uniforms, tailor-fit and made of stout cloth. The clothing was worn down, tattered, and covered in filth, likely from roughing it in the forest. A torn piece of cloth on the shoulders of the men's uniforms indicated to Hunter that they must be deserters. The tear looked deliberate and was in the shape of a shield

Hunter readied his blade, as the men completed their circle, enclosing the party. Berlo and Brunko had taken up positions on either side of Wizard, facing opposite ends of one another. Wizard held her staff aimed at the man closest to her. The bandit took notice of this and took a few steps backward. Not a fool that one. Brunko held his axe ready to cleave, the weapon and his sheer size intimidating the men that faced him. Berlo cracked knuckles as he faced down a pair of men with a hammer and a blade. All in all, there were ten men surrounding them, all wielding an assortment of weapons from bludgeons to blades.

A tall bearded man with an eyepatch pointed his blade at Hunter.

"Lay down yer valuables son. We won't rough you up too badly if ya do."

Hunter glared at the man but didn't speak. The leader sighed as he waved his hand for the men to attack. Hunter darted forward, silvery blade swiftly chopping into the leader's neck and dropping the man to the dirt with a massive spray of blood, coating his leathers from head to toe in bright red spatters.

Another man with an axe swung at him, but Hunter sidestepped the attack, cleaving through the bandits ribcage with his counterstroke. The deserter stumbled a few steps away before collapsing on his face, blood pooling around his body as Hunter glanced back at his companions.

Brunko had charged at the three men while giving an ear-piercing battle cry, swinging down at a man who raised his hammer to stop the blow. The axe connected, cleaving clean through the metal and halfway down the man's shoulder. He dropped to his knees, and Berlo kicked his chest hard, knocking the bandit onto his back and freeing his axe for another swing. One man ran away as soon as Brunko began his terrifying charge, but the other one, a lean man with a broadsword, lunged for Arm-Big.

Brunko would have lost his head if he hadn't ducked it back in time, but he suffered a deep gash across his cheek that also cleaved off the top of his left tusk. Brunko screamed in anger as he swung a powerful blow at the man, who dodged backward, narrowly avoiding being bisected. As Brunko and his opponent continued their battle, Berlo Leg-Huge had also charged his enemies with a yell, massive fists raised. The man with the hammer swung, but the attack was too slow, and Berlo easily dodged it with a sidestep. The orc moved very fast for a man of his size, and quickly entered the hammer man's guard.

The bandit raised his weapon to block a blow from Berlo fists, and indeed it seemed the orc made to strike the bandit's face. Berlo stopped the blow however before it collided, and instead kicked with his massive right leg, his shin colliding with the mans ribs. The hammer man drew a sharp intake of air and collapsed to the dirt, dropping the hammer and clutching his side as Brunko dodged the other deserters blade, countering with an uppercut that knocked the man flat on his rear.

Wizard had cast a bolt of fire at the first man to charge her, setting the poor fellow ablaze much like his victims bodies. The raging inferno that was once a man collapsed and violently thrashed, screaming for help as he was torched. Two more men fled back the way the party had come, kicking up clouds of dust as they fled, shouting curses as they went. Wizard stared at the flailing form, mouth slightly agape as he burned.

Hunter turned back to the three men remaining, who had backed away toward the burning cart, weapons held to ward off Hunter. They stayed close to one another clearly aware of the danger Hunter presented. He slid his blade into the kirkhammer, and brought the massive slab of stone to bear. The men's eyes widened, clearly shocked. Taking advantage of their lapse, Hunter sprinted up to them quickly, and swung hard with the kirkhammer, colliding with the three men as he swung the hammer in a wide horizontal arc.

All three men were sent flying backward into the roaring flames of the cart with a spray of broken bones and brain matter, but none of them screamed as they were set aflame. They had all died on impact.

Hunter turned back, seeing that Brunko Arm-Big had gained the upper hand on his faster opponent, taking advantage of his greater reach to keep him at bay. Every time the man tried to enter Brunko's guard, he would swing with his massive axe, forcing him to step back and wait. Berlo on the other hand had knocked his other opponent unconscious after the uppercut and ran to help his brother.

The man did not notice Leg-Huge quickly close the distance, and soon, it was too late for the unlucky man. Berlo tackled him to the ground from behind, kicking up clouds of dust as they both struck the dirt, rolling. The wrestling match that ensued was brief, as the orcs strength greatly outclassed the much smaller human. Soon both the man's arms were pinned beneath Berlo's legs, and he thrashed about violently, trying to get out from under the orc's weight.

Berlo didn't even shift from the bandit's attempts. As Hunter was walking over to meet the two half-orcs they began taunting their captured opponent.

"Ha!" Berlo laughed "You so weakly and dumbest!"

Brunko cheered in agreement, following up with a snot rocket to the man's forehead. Hunter briefly wondered if he should intervene, but a few insults and boogers was the least this wretch deserved for his crimes. Hunter took notice of the man who Berlo had kicked earlier, seeing that he was spitting up gobbets of blood onto the dirt. He lay on his side, breathing ragged. His broken ribs likely pierced a lung. He wouldn't be surviving that kick.

Hunter then sighted Wizard, who was staring at the now still burning corpse on the ground. He moved to talk with her, remembering the previous time she had to kill a man.

"You so small!" Brunko laughed jovially "Maybe if you lifted heavy things morerer you wont'nt be such a pansy!"

The two orcs then shouted "YEAH!" in unison, nearly bursting Hunter's eardrums and causing Wizard to wince. He passed them, standing next to Wizard silently as the criminal burned. It all would have been a very contemplative moment for her, if not for the orcs loud jeering in the background. She chose to ignore it, instead tilting her head up to look at Hunter.

"It… It's not easier, but it isn't as shocking I guess." She said, in near monotone.

Hunter nodded. Perhaps this would get the two of them talking again.

"It never really does get easier, you just get over it faster every time." Hunter told her, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Eventually, you get over it so quickly that it almost seems like you don't feel anything. I suppose you could say that makes it easier. What do you think?"

Wizard remained silent for a moment before answering "Don't you think that's a bit… I don't know, bleak?" She asked him "The shock and the guilt afterwards never going away I mean." She looked back to the burning body, and her eyes took on a dark cast "I'd prefer to just not feel anything for the lives I take."

Hunter removed his hand, shaking his head.

"If you were to not feel anything for the lives you took, you'd be no different than a beast."

The fog hit him hard at the word as fresh memories bubbled to the surface, smothering them before they could reveal their secrets to Hunter completely. He did get a few images though... Running through winding dilapidated streets, fighting horrid monsters and twisted men, finding the desiccated long-rotted corpse of an old man on a hillside covered by white flowers in full bloom, and a lone dark humanoid figure atop of that same hill… glaring down at Hunter with glowing red eyes.

Hunter kept his composure but felt cold sweat on his brow. He fought the urge to cover his eyes with his hands. He took a deep breath and continued.

"Only a beast kills without guilt." Hunter said "Keep your humanity, feel the guilt. It will remind you that you're still a person."

With that, he turned to the orcs, striding up to them as another snot rocket was blown upon the man's forehead, smearing it with green slime. Hunter stared at the two orcs, who had taken notice of him.

"Be quiet for a bit. I want to ask this man some questions." Hunter told them.

Berlo and Brunko didn't complain, but Berlo Leg-Huge did not rise from his position atop the deserter. Hunter squatted down next to the man's head and breathed out slowly.

"Why did you do this?" Hunter asked, gesturing to the burning cart.

"Piss off you southron dog!" The man spat in a strikingly familiar accent.

Hunter frowned, though the man wouldn't be able to see it through Hunter's laced up collar.

"Where are you from?"

"I'll not tell you a damn thing bastard! If you're gonna end me, just get it over with!"

That was the same accent Artificer spoke with. Hunter was certain of it. Did that mean that he was from the same nation as Artificer? Hunter stood up. He wasn't going to waste any more time on this scum. He'd told Hunter outright that he wasn't going to say anything, so Hunter wasn't going to bother. He opened his pack, and began rummaging through it for some rope to hogtie the bandit.

"W-wait!" The man shouted, sounding panicked "I'm from Notan! My name is Jerale! We just wanted some food, there ain't any in the forest anymore, the Beast scared all the animals away." He spoke quickly.

Hunter almost cocked his head. Why was he spilling the beans now? He looked down at his hands, which were still deep inside his pack. Oh… Jerale thought that Hunter was going to torture him. Hunter wouldn't be party to such an atrocity, despite Jerale's crimes, but the threat of torture wasn't really that bad, was it? Not when applied to men like this.

"Tell me more, or I'll get out my oils and clippers!" Hunter shouted, Jerale's eyes widening with honest terror.

"I deserted! Me and these didn't wanna keep fighting the Soulborne!" Jerale shouted as Hunter pretended to rifle for those tools.

Hunter's teeth clenched at the word, his anger flaring to a level he didn't think possible. The Soulborne! The fog worked very hard to suppress this memory, but it wasn't easy for it. That name again... what was it!? What were the Soulborne!? He hated, HATED that word so very much. He nearly cracked his teeth from the force of clenching.

Fuzz

They took everything from him!

Fuzz

The vanguard of the fog!

FUZZ

Hunter fell still, anger vanishing in an instant. Were these the same Soulborne that Sumen had told him about in that previous memory? It had to be; the odds of this being a coincidence were too low. This was important. He needed to question Jerale further, he'd beat the information out of the bastard, he'd-

Hunter took a deep breath, calming his again rising rage. He wouldn't torture, it was a profane act.

"Who are the Soulborne?" Hunter asked, tone low and threatening.

"They haven't stretched down here yet then?" Jerale asked, head hitting the dirt "They just keep coming… we keep putting them down and they just keep coming back. Again and again, and they get stronger the longer they exist. Our leaders didn't know what to do, so we fled. We couldn't fight them anymore.'"

"You are a craven." Hunter told him simply "You abandoned your posts and your people. You preyed on those that could not defend themselves. You are scum."

Jerale sneered at him "Like you'd understand, you've never faced a foe like them. There's no hope. You may not like it, but we did these folk a favor by killin' them quick!"

Berlo and Brunko looked to each other, brows furrowed. Wizard had walked up behind Hunter, glancing at him nervously as he rummaged through his bag. He found his rope, and measured out the appropriate length, slicing the pieces off with his belt knife. He handed the pieces to Berlo, who took the rope hesitantly.

"Bind him." Hunter told him, tone flat.

Berlo nodded slowly, shifting his weight atop Jerale as he tied the man up easily with his greater strength. With Jerale's wrists and ankles bound tightly, Berlo stood from the ground, dusting off his bare chest and stepping away, still remaining quiet.

Hunter sat the man up, and glared into his eyes.

"Where did they come from?"

"Why do you care?"

"Answer me. My patience runs thin." Hunter almost growled out the words.

It must have had the intended effect, for Jerale's eyes widened and his jaw dropped slightly.

"I don't know much," Jerale started with a stutter. "The fog, they came with their monsters and the fog."

Hunter stiffened at the words.

"Atop Cragantor, it descended onto our towns, our cities… The Soulborne were its vanguard."

Hunter looked to the orcs and nodded to the unconscious man who Berlo had knocked out earlier, handing them another length of rope. They moved quickly, shooting one another a brief glance before turning back to the task ahead. Hunter breathed in deeply and exhaled.

"When was it that this started?" He asked Jerale, voice firm.

"A couple of weeks ago…" Jerale started "Just came out of nowhere in the middle of the night, descending from atop Cragantor."

Hunter's eyes widened. That was around the same time he had first arrived in this new land… were his and the fog's appearance connected in some way?

Hunter nodded at his answer "Where is the mountain and is there a way to get to the top?"

Jerale shook his head "Just look at a bloody map, I've never been there and never cared too. I don't know where it is exactly… I just know it's the biggest rock we got in the northlands. As for reaching the top… Impossible." He said with a shake of his head "Cragontor I've heard it's more a pillar all the way up, purely smooth. There ain't no scaling it, so no point in trying to figure out the fog." Jerale said, laying back down with his head resting on its side.

The deserter's eyes were indeed empty. As if his very soul had been stripped from him-

Fuzz

Hunter bit back a curse at the obstruction of his memories. He took another deep breath and asked his final question.

"You mentioned something about a beast in these woods? Tell me of that."

Jerale shook his head "I ain't seen it myself. I've heard it described though, thirty feet tall with eyes on fire and a fur coat made of steel wires."

Hunter furrowed his brow at that.

"It came just after the fog did, and it's a hungry devil." Jerale explained, "It's been eating all the game and leaving nothing for anything else. It tears up crops and crushes barns after eating whatever lived on that land."

That sounded more like some tall tale rather than an actual creature, but Hunter didn't actually feel that such a description was outlandish. It made him wonder what creatures he'd seen in his past that'd make a thirty-foot tall steel wired fire-eyed monster plausible… Then again, a creature such as the flesh cave should no have ever existed. If the flesh cave could exist, then pretty much any other monster could as well.

He stood up and grabbed Jerale's ankles, who then promptly began spitting and cursing at the treatment. He dragged Jerale to the center of the road and looked up to see the unconscious man being dragged to the center by Brunko Arm-Big, who glanced nervously at Hunter as he lay the deserter next to Jerale. Hunter briefly considered waiting for the man to awaken but quickly decided against it. It was unlikely he would know more than Jerale, and Hunter didn't want to waste time.

He knew what he had to do now… at least for the most part. Hunter would finish his current quest; investigating Groudrey, and then he would find a way to reach the top of this Cragontor. Surely there must be some kind of way to teleport to the top right? Maybe Wizard would know of such a spell? Hunter nodded to himself.

The party left quickly after that, leaving a note tied to an upright stick in the ground. The stick was placed just behind the two surviving deserters, leaving the note elevated above their heads. Hunter doubted that the other bandits would return to save their allies. Such cowards cared not for their countrymen. The note detailed their crimes, written by Wizard's hand.

As the group went on their way, Wizard quickly strode up next to him.

"You weren't really going to torture him I'm guessing?" She asked him.

Hunter shook his head.

"No, I can't let myself fall to such a vice. They were scoundrels and deserve what they get, but I cannot bring myself to do something so heinous." Hunter said "It affects you as much as the person you're tormenting, twisting you into a vile creature."

Wizard nodded then, seemingly relieved. The two half-orcs hung back a bit, whispering to one another, this time however they weren't clearly audible. They both did seem concerned about something, however, based on those frowns.

Gradually they moved closer as time passed. Hunter wondered how he'd clean off his outfit tonight. If they couldn't find a stream then-

Berlo cleared his throat behind Hunter, who turned to look at him.

"So uhh, whats were ya gonna do's with the oil and clappers?" Berlo asked quietly.

Hunter frowned.

"Why do you have your voice lowered? Are you alright? You didn't take a blow to the head did you?"

Berlo shook his head, and Brunko blurted out "You ams scary like when you askin's questions boss."

Berlo and Brunko were unsettled by Hunter's tone? Maybe it was the empty threats he made to Jerale that unnerved them? Hunter waved a hand.

"Do not feel nervous my friends, I needed to find out what that sludge knew, but I wasn't really going to hurt him." He explained "But having him think that I might served to aid me. Now we know to look out for the Beast."

Wizard cocked her head at Hunter's answer. She gave him a look that seemed to say 'we'll talk about this more later' and sighed.

"So yoos weren't gonna oil im' up or nuffing?" Brunko asked "Or clip off his softly bits?"

Hunter gave a small chuckle "Of course not, I just let his imagination do the work. Apparently, it did its job."

Berlo and Brunko looked at one another grinning stupidly. That certainly was a shift from their earlier attitude.

"YEAH!" They both shouted in unison, slapping their hands together.

Hunter winced at the noise. If the Beast Jerale spoke of was anywhere nearby it would come for them. Two unruly half-orcs would make a fantastic dinner bell. Indeed Wizard fixed them with an angry glare, which caused their laughter to die down at their noticing of it. They moved further up the trail, the weather dropping slightly but not so much that the party was concerned. If anything it was a boon compared to the burning sun they had been traveling under.

They kept going until the sun began setting and began looking for a campsite off of the trail. It didn't take long for them to find a somewhat flat patch of land along the steady incline upward, and they set up their camp. Hunter told the orcs to 'be quietly' which they seemed to understand well. They still spoke, however, their voices loud whispers. Hunter built the fire as Wizard got the tents set up, and after the large tepee of firewood the orcs had gathered was assembled, Wizard set it aflame with the spark spell.

The flame roared to life quickly, illuminating the dimming surroundings of their camp. Hunter was worried that the Beast would be able to spot them easily if it was prowling about, but he wasn't too concerned about that happening. With him not needing to sleep, he would stay awake all night to listen and watch for any signs of the creature. Hunter didn't think that he was blind, so he was pretty confident he could spot a thirty-foot tall monster with flaming eyes, even in the dark.

The two orcs plopped down on either side of him, leaning back on their palms and looking to the blanket of stars above with wondrous looks in their eyes. They looked almost childlike in their glee, their love for the 'pretty twinklies' made obvious not only by their claims that it was so. They stared the same way at the two large moons above, their green and pinkish hues casting further light down upon them all.

Wizard sat opposite of all three men, plopping down with a sturdy leather book by the firelight. She turned to a page she had marked with a black ribbon and began reading studiously. If she still wanted to talk tonight, she wanted to wait until the orcs were in bed. Hunter had thought that packing a spare tent would be a wise purchase, so the brothers were sharing that one. Hunter cleared his throat, removing his glasses and undoing the laces of his upturned collar.

He breathed in raw unfiltered air through his nostrils, smelling the fresh pine all around him. He took in the smell gratefully, happy that the wind did not blow too hard this night. The last thing he wanted was a faceful of smoke. He gently nudged Berlo, who shot him a surprised glance, eyes wide and jaw slightly agape.

"So," Hunter began "Where are you from?"

He hoped he wasn't intruding too far on the orcs privacy, but Hunter was genuinely curious as to where the half-orcs came from.

"We ams from further down south, cross da big rivva Daliwo."

Wizard looked up sharply from her reading to stare at Berlo, looking slightly shocked.

"You pronounced that correctly." She said, regaining her composure so quickly that Hunter was almost convinced she hadn't been surprised "Past the river Daliwo is where the Orclands reside."

Berlo and Brunko both nodded, grinning at Wizard happily.

"We come from da tribe-fort Tanalom!" Brunko announced, hand on his chest proudly "Bestest fort town anywheres." He finished with a confident nod, which Berlo flashed a thumbs up to.

Wizard nodded to herself, seeming to accept that answer. Tanalom huh? He'd never heard it mentioned, but considering that Hunter was… new around here, that wasn't surprising.

"How big is Tanalom?" Hunter asked.

Brunko then stretched both hands high in the air from his sitting position, grinning as he said "Thiiiiiissss big!"

Hunter stared.

Wizard stared.

Berlo laughed.

"Humies and orcs both live dere togetha," Berlo explained "A lots of humies and orcses, bigger den most cities we been to."

"Lotsa half-orcs too!" Brunko said, nodding eagerly "No one was means to us there! Well, least nots until- I means... Er, anyways if they was means..." He continued, trailing off "Well den we gave em a smash and laughed abouts it layta!" He finished, picking back up his jovial tone.

Berlo looked to his brother wide-eyed with surprise. He then furrowed his brow and scanned Hunter's face, seeming to look for some kind of reaction. Had Brunko just lied to him? The orc had trailed off when talking about dealing with people that had been mean to them… had they done something to be exiled? They claimed to be seeking registry with the adventurers guild… but was that the whole story? Hunter decided to latch on to this until he discovered the truth. Hunter didn't like the thought, a part of him wanting the orcs to keep their privacy should they want it. Yet… something was off. It was more important that he found out what they were hiding. It may be crucial information.

Hunter was not sure how that could be, but he felt it was necessary to know who exactly he traveled with. What do they have to hide? Berlo and Brunko seemed like honest fellows by nature, so just a little bit of prying should loosen their tongues.

"Are you lying to me?" Hunter asked Brunko, staring right into the big orcs yellow eyes.

Those yellow orbs shifted uncomfortably, looking anywhere but Hunter's eyes, seeking escape. Sweat broke out on Berlo's forehead as he watched quietly. Wizard closed her book loudly, which caused the two brothers to jump in unison.

"Are you lying to us?" Wizard asked, tone firm as she glared into Berlo's eyes.

The orc shied away from that gaze, instead opting to stare at the ground. Hunter did feel a bit bad about this, but if they were lying to them about some kind of crime they committed… well, Hunter needed to find out.

Brunko gulped loudly, and spoke in a ragged voice.

"We… we ams exiled… We smashed a git too hards in a fight an killed im'" Brunko looked to the dirt, ashamed.

Berlo's head sunk as well and spoke with clear anguish in his voice.

"We didn't means to do it!" He sobbed through clenched teeth "He was smashin' ups granpops shop… we ad' to do somethin'!"

Berlo and Brunko then began both speaking their story, but they both spoke quickly and over one another. It also seemed like they were jumping from place to place in their story. Hunter put his hand up, causing the brothers to stop their rapid-fire babbling.

"Calm down," Hunter said "Take a breath, then start from the beginning. I won't say anything until you're done talking, but you need to slow it down. Only one of you speak."

Berlo and Brunko looked at each other, and looked back to Hunter, nodding slowly.

They then began their story, Berlo and Brunko slowing the pace, which Hunter was grateful for. They were both born to an orcish father and a human mother, they both insisted that their mother was by far the tougher one. They led a normal life in Talalom, as normal as life could be in a tribe-fort anyhow. The humans and orcs that lived within its strong walls maintained peace between one another quite easily, for the humans they lived with were a tribe of nomadic peoples native to the Orclands. As such, they shared similar views when it came to governance.

That being whoever could smash the hardest or could get smashed and remain standing should be in charge. This 'Tribe-Lord' could be either human or orc, and their rule lasted until death. The man Berlo and Brunko had killed accidentally in defense of their human grandfather's weapons shop was the Tribe-Lord's only son. He had been a purebred orc that went by the name of Groba Thick-Toes. Despite the ridiculous name, the Tribe-Lord's son held a lot of sway within Tanalom.

Sway that Groba would abuse regularly. Often walking into shops and grabbing whatever… and apparently whomever he wanted. This continued without consequence, until the day Groba chose their shop to ransack.

As Berlo and Brunko returned from their daily tasks, they found Groba, standing in the center of their grandfather's ruined shop. Splintered wood and scattered weaponry had been strewn about the floor as if a miniature storm had torn its way through the shop.

Groba had been holding their elderly grandfather aloft with one massive hand, slowly crushing the old human's throat. The two half-orcs hadn't hesitated and beat Groba to death.

The two brothers had not meant to take it that far, but they had both panicked, and by time their work was done... there had been almost no way to tell who Groba was.

The thick toes had been a dead give away however, and not wanting their family to be punished for their 'crime' they had both admitted to it.

Oddly enough, the Tribe-Lord wasn't too upset by this development. He had been saddened by the loss of his son, but apparently, Groba had been more a thorn in his father's side since he reached adulthood.

Berlo explained that Groba had been deeply involved with a powerful gang in Tanalom. This was where Groba's casual abuse of power came from, knowing that none; not even his father, would dare lay a hand on him.

The gang was known as 'Iron Toofs' and from what Hunter could gather from Berlo's explanation, they were the real power within Tanalom, using their muscle to rule the streets. Groba had been their mouthpiece to the Tribe-Lord, threatening to upend his rule if he didn't overlook their crimes.

These threats had worked apparently, considering all the things Berlo had told him of Groba's behavior. Hunter found himself furious at Groba and his bullies, and the Tribe-Lord's lack of action against these cretins. If all-out war in the streets was what was needed to cull these villains then that was what needed to be done! Better to die fighting to live free, rather than be subject to slavery in all but name.

His anger came to a near boil when Brunko finished the story, his tone somber. The cowardly Tribe-Lord had named them 'Hated' and cast them from the fort, never to return. As hated, they had the backs of their necks branded, so other Orclander's would know what they were if encountered out in the wilds. They both turned their necks to reveal the brands. Both were dead center on the nape of their necks, the white scarred flesh shaped like a triangle with a small circle in its center. Being one of the hated was considered a fate worse than death, for any Orclander who saw it knew to cause the brand's bearer as much suffering as possible.

On their long journey to escape the Orclands, they had been cursed at, stoned, whipped with razor cord, and all manner of other horrors. Hunter hadn't seen any scars from whipping, and he pointed that out to the two.

As it turned out, orc flesh was incredibly hard to scar permanently unless one used fire or in their case, a heated brand. Hunter was interested by this, but he'd prune them about it another time. Hunter wondered why they hadn't been outright killed for their status as 'hated'.

Berlo explained that, as hated, they were not to be killed. The purpose of the brand was to cause the bearer as much misery as possible. Death was a release from being hated, and no relief was to be provided to creatures so low.

Hunter understood why the Tribe-Lord branded them as hated. Hunter didn't like it, but he felt like he understood the Tribe-Lord's reasoning. This was about saving face and appeasing the Iron Toofs. Berlo and Brunko didn't say it, but Hunter felt that was the reason. It was worse than death after all.

He found himself clenching his jaw, and the half-orcs took notice of this, and hung their heads in shame.

"We eard dat past da river, the hated aren't known for wot dey is..." Berlo said, trailing off.

Brunko then sniffled, an odd sound from the large man "But they hates us down ere' too... don't even hafta see da brand first..."

Berlo nodded grimly at his younger brother's words and put a hand on his shoulder. Brunko then shadowed his brow with his hands, but Hunter could still see the tears falling, reflected by fire light.

"We eard of da venturin build, and we thoughts dat... we thoughts that da humies wouldn't hate us if we became heroly like. But dey don't wants us."

Brunko sobbed "Nobody does..."

Berlo nodded again, face softening as he looked back to Hunter "Now dat you knows we ams hated, we'll gets goin'"

Berlo moved to stand, and Hunter opened his mouth to halt them. Surprisingly, Wizard cut him off.

"Now you sit back down right now!" She ordered, eyes glaring.

Berlo froze under that gaze, but quickly shook it off, sitting back down hard. Brunko wiped away tears and looked up to Wizard, his yellow eyes glistening. Wizard took a deep breath, and let out a long sigh, sounding slightly frustrated.

"We've hired you as help..." She said "You can't just up and leave whenever you feel like it." She pointed at them, wagging her finger "You're going to stay with us, and I won't hear any arguments. You are under contract after all." Hunter did not remember any such contract, but he did not interrupt her.

She let her finger drop "I intend to have you stay with us... at least until you get officially registered by the guild. Don't go thinking you can quit whenever you want." Her eyes shifted to Hunter, and he smiled at her, a knowing smile.

The glare she gave him could have scared away a bear. Berlo and Brunko both looked to each other, then back at Wizard.

"You gots it boss!" Brunko proclaimed, standing while rubbing at his eyes "We'll smash up anyfing you want!"

Berlo nodded eagerly, a goofy smile stretching from ear to ear "Dats right boss! We ams yers to demand!"

Hunter smiled again. What happened to him being the boss? Wizard averted her gaze from the two happy orcs. The rest of the conversation went on, the dreary mood lifted. Though most of it was one-sided, as the orcs kept speaking to Wizard, Hunter almost completely forgotten.

 

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