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Chapter 1

227 A.C.
Arcadia Outskirts

Two cloaked figures wandering into a dusty, decrepit town – normally, no-one would bat an eye at the sight of vagrants and spent travellers drifting through the outermost reaches of the nation. Anyone foolhardy enough to travel to Arcadia by foot would have their garments ripped and shredded into rags by the surrounding deserts and canyons. If the wilderness didn’t finish them off, then the thugs of these slums surely would.

That’s why the two men wouldn’t have warranted a second look – if it weren’t for the distinctive points of spears protruding from their rags. A sandy wind swept past, briefly revealing dark skin over lean muscle, and tribal red cloth bound tightly against their bulky forearms.

The Arcadians had a name for these people: outlanders. And outlanders immediately drew the alarm and hostility of everyone from the city-dwellers to the slum-thugs. Even the armour-clad soldiers on patrol were wary: outlanders had a talent for stirring unrest and conflict amongst the citizens, and the sooner they were gone, the better.

Presently, the two figures were purposefully striding towards a lone stall, behind which stood an alarmed, ageing old man. His eyes widened in fear and his long, grizzly white hair flailed about as he shook his head at the sight of the impending giants.

A nearby soldier clad in Fortune Armour watched the scene unfold. He was still new to this area, but he knew his directives: even if an outlander were to intimidate or threaten a civilian into handing over property, they were not to be engaged or arrested unless a riot broke out. It was the best way to preserve the civil peace, they said. It’s also letting these desert rats get away with any and all crime, he thought to himself. He knew his orders – but those orders sickened him to the core.

“W-what do you want from me?!” the elderly stall keeper screamed, “I-I have nothing that interests the likes of you! L-leave me alone, I don’t want to die!”

The two outlanders exchanged a brief glance. At a distance, the soldier couldn’t be sure, but he thought he saw the shorter of the two jerk his head slightly. The larger one simply held his partner’s gaze a moment longer, before turning back and rapping the table loudly as he placed an oversized fist on the rotten wood. The old man jumped from the sound, and the soldier found himself grinding his teeth at the veiled threat.

The outlander withdrew his hand, and the stall keeper’s eyes widened as several round objects clattered onto the table. The soldier caught his breath: outlanders actually offering money? Where the devil did they even get their hands on Arcadian currency? Then again, he thought to himself, they could’ve just as easily pilfered the gold from the foolish travellers who perished in the desert.

“Y-you want to buy?” stammered the stall keeper, before quickly regaining his composure, “well, ahem! Even you outsiders seem to have finally caught onto how things work in civilised society! Very well then, which of my fine wares may interest the likes of you lowly sand people?”

The larger outlander seemed to make a fist. The Fortune soldier was about to draw his firearm from his backpack when he saw the index finger extend from the fist and point downwards, before the outlander seemed to rap his knuckles rhythmically against the table several times, almost like he was pointing downwards. Whatever he was doing, the stall keeper understood it: his short-lived look of smug arrogance suddenly morphed into horror, before quickly contorting into outrage.

“You can’t have that! You don’t have nearly enough money! And even then, as if I’d sell it to desert rats who are brainless enough to ask for it in publi-” the old man caught himself as he suddenly noticed the watchful gaze of the soldier. The soldier would’ve simply liked to have shrugged and looked away, but that wasn’t an option with the presence of two outlanders in the vicinity – outlanders who had suddenly turned their hooded gazes directly at him and the hand that had been inching towards his backpack.

But behind the stall, the old man had been pushed past his breaking point. “A MITHRIL SHARD THIS SIZE ISN’T FOR YOU DESERT RATS!” he screamed as he whipped a stolen pistol out from underneath the table. In a whirlwind of motion, the larger outlander spun around and knocked the pistol out of the man’s grip before a cloth-bound forearm slammed the stall-keeper against the wall by his throat. The Fortune soldier’s arm darted for his own rifle – but an armoured hand grabbed his wrist and stopped him. The Fortune soldier looked around wildly and found the armoured hand holding him belonged to an Atom-clad soldier – his superior officer. “Sir, what’re you doi-“

“You would’ve lost an arm if I didn’t stop you, private,” the Atom replied, “take a close look at your surroundings.” The Fortune soldier looked around, and suddenly noticed the second outlander out of the corner of his eye, much closer to him now than just a few moments ago. He was straightening up, and withdrawing an empty hand from his cloak – a hand that had been ready to skewer the soldier with a spear.

“You were ordered not to engage any outlanders because you do not yet have the skill or experience to handle or understand them,” the Atom officer continued, “they will leave soldiers alone if they pose no threat.” As he said this, the Fortune soldier caught a glimpse of something which made his heart skip a beat – blood-red irises gazing back at him from under the shadows of the outlander’s hood.

“But it is the military’s duty to confiscate contraband mithril –” began the soldier.

“HQ already has that one covered, private.”

It was only then that the Fortune soldier noticed that the old man had been released from the wall and was now gasping for air. The outlander who had released him was now staring intently towards another soldier, standing mere metres away from him. The Thunder Armour’s finishing was scratched and beginning to fade – a clear sign that this soldier was the longest serving member of the Spec Ops unit.

The private noticed that the operative only carried a standard-issue Cutter sheathed at his waist – did he honestly intend to fight the outlanders in close-combat when they were too fast to shoot?

The outlander and the operative stared each other down for a long moment, before the outlander spat on the ground and turned to leave. The old man shrieked insults at the departing outlanders and made to crawl for his pistol. In one swift motion, the Thunder soldier drew his blade and hurled it at the old man, the blade landing mere centimetres from his face. The man gulped and shuddered at the message: shut up before I stop trying to miss you.

The operative retrieved a fist-sized, glowing blue-purple crystal shard from the stall. He placed it inside a black container – an insulation unit – and was turning to leave when the private suddenly yelled at him “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? YOU LET THOSE DESERT SCUMBAGS LEAVE AND THREATEN OUR OWN CITIZENS?”

The Thunder soldier studied the private for a moment, then retrieved his Cutter from next to the cowering old man and continued walking. “Private, I could have you court-martialled for that outburst,” the Atom officer warned, “consider yourself lucky that I’m following suit and turning a blind eye.”

“This is complete bull,” muttered the private, “what the hell is going through his head?”

“One who knows nothing can understand nothing, private. Your encounter with the outlanders today should have been proof enough of that.” So saying, the Atom soldier returned to his post, and the private was left to his own thoughts for the rest of his patrol.

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