Rain sat on a stump gnawing at a ration. The strain on his jaw was helping him ignore the twinge in his leg. Jamus and Tallheart had wandered over to the site of the burned-down building and were discussing something in voices too low to carry.
Rain didn’t know quite what to make of the antlered man. He was the first person Rain had met that clearly wasn’t human. Apart from the antlers, he looked pretty normal, if a bit on the large side. The armor made it difficult to get a read on his build, but Rain was sure that the man could snap him in half like a twig.
He decided to let me stay here, though, so I probably don’t have to worry about that. Humm, ‘Until I decide otherwise’, he said. I better try to stay on his good side then. Jamus seems to trust him at any rate. What is with the antlers? Are there more people like him?
Hearing his name, Rain got to his feet, wincing at the pain in his leg. It was feeling better than when he had woken up under the hedge, but it was still pretty sore. He made his way over to the other two, trying not to limp too badly.
At least I will heal. That strength ring probably saved my ass. Maybe literally. That asshat threw me down the guild steps pretty hard. Would I have broken my tailbone if I landed on the stone like that without the extra health?
Rain joined the other two looking at the ruins of the small shack. The roof had caved in and only one of the walls was left standing. It hadn’t been a large building, but there was a significant quantity of ash and charred wood lying about.
“Rain, I have to go back to the city. Will you be ok here?”
Rain nodded to Jamus by way of reply. “Thank you,” he said, having been expecting this. He offered Jamus his hand to shake. This time, the mage accepted his thanks, grasping his hand firmly.
“You’re welcome. I’ll come check on you in a few days, maybe a week. Lavarro didn’t say where we are going.”
“Why does she do that? Why don’t you complain?”
“Part of the contract.”
“Contract? Not to complain?”
Jamus smiled. “She hired me to go with her on some quests. Carten too. That is why the ‘no complaining’ thing is part of the agreement, by the by. She doesn’t need our help with the monsters. She wants Mahria to learn what it is like to fight with a party.”
“So, you aren’t a real team? With Lavarro?”
“Not really, no. Carten and I are <somethings>. We <something> from team to team. It is more common than you would think. I owe her two more missions. I don’t know how many Carten <something> up for. Once I am done, I’ll come help you pay off your fine.”
“No, you don’t have to do that, I...”
“Quiet. I don’t mind. After adventuring with Lavarro, it will be a <something>. Oh, that means a break from work, a vacation.”
Tallheart injected himself into the conversation. “If you are going, go. I have work to do.”
“It was nice seeing you too, old friend.”
“Yes, but you still talk too much,” Tallheart replied, turning his back to the pair and moving towards the ruins of his hut. Rain watched him as he started knocking down the remaining section of the wall. He was pulling it apart effortlessly with his gauntleted hands.
“Jamus, who is he? Why does he live out here?”
“He is an old friend. If you want to know his story, ask him. I really have to go. Just try to make yourself useful, ok?” Jamus clapped Rain on the shoulder, then turned and started walking back towards the city. He gave a small wave, then disappeared into the trees.
Make myself useful, he says. I can do that.
Rain walked over to where Tallheart was working. He had finished demolishing the wall and was piling the larger pieces of wood off to the side of where the hut had once stood. There was a good amount of soot in the air from the wall’s collapse and his armor was covered in it.
“Tallheart. I can help.”
“I will use a spell. It is harmless.”
Tallheart didn’t respond, tearing apart a large section of the fallen wall and tossing the pieces onto the pile.
Ok, I guess he doesn’t mind then. Let’s see if I can do this in one go.
Rain had briefly reviewed his notifications after he had woken up, but hadn’t been in the mood to think about them too much. Jamus had found him before he could work up the motivation to crawl out from under the hedge. The level up and the ranks in refrigerate, purify, and winter hadn’t been enough to overcome his melancholy.
Now in a significantly better mood, Rain walked to the center of the former hut and kicked a few pieces of wood out of the way to make a place to sit. He slipped the ration bar he was still carrying into a pocket and sat down in the ash, preparing himself for the loss of all his senses.
He left the skill on for a good minute, using all of his modifiers. He stopped when his mana started to get low instead of draining himself dry. Opening his eyes, he surveyed his handiwork. The rubble of the hut surrounded him, but the ash was completely gone. The wooden scraps were jagged, but clean. It seemed that his aura was now strong enough to scour away the burned wood, leaving only the larger, unburned fragments behind.
Nice. It couldn’t do that before. It definitely is getting stronger, even if there is no number on it.
“That skill. What is it?”
Rain stood, turning to look at Tallheart. The man had stopped working and was watching him. His armor, though still battered and scuffed, was shining in the mid-morning sun.
Rain grinned. Seeing that the antlered man had resumed working, Rain moved to help him with the rest of the debris.
“So. You are a mage.” Tallheart stated after the two had worked for a few minutes. It wasn’t a question.
“Something like that.”
“Good. Mages are useful.”
“And you? Are you a warrior?”
Rain wasn’t taken aback by the curt response. He had expected it based on how the antlered man had been speaking to Jamus earlier.
Not a big talker, this guy.
“So then, your armor...”
“I wear it, always. It is strong. I made it that way.”
“Made it? So you are a smith?”
“Something like that,” Tallheart replied, echoing Rain’s earlier words.
Ok, so he does have a bit of a sense of humor. He is just very… direct.
The two continued working, Tallheart seeming to be content with the silence as the pile of wooden scraps grew. Feeling a bit awkward, Rain focused on the work, looking for anything salvageable in the wreckage. There wasn’t much. He did find a few small metal items that had survived the fire, which he set off to one side.
“Enough,” Tallheart said after an hour or so, just as Rain was about to throw in the towel. They had reached the point of diminishing returns, the remaining scraps of wood not being large enough to bother with.
“What now?” Rain asked, re-activating his purification aura to wash away his sweat.
“I do not want to sleep outside. We will rebuild.”
“Ok, sure. Do you have any tools, or...”
“I have what you see.”
Shit, how do we build a house without any tools?
“Go and cut down a tree, then bring it back here. I will think of something.”
What does he want me to do? Punch it down?
“I can’t do that. I don’t have an axe.”
“Fine. I will get the tree. You think of something.”
Rain stood on the packed dirt where the hut had been, looking around as Tallheart walked off towards the forest. He had no idea how they were going to build anything without any tools. He looked at his belt knife, then the pile of metal scraps. There wasn’t anything there that could be used to cut or shape wood.
He said he made his armor. He couldn’t have made it out here, not without a forge or a workshop or something. He can’t be living this way by choice. Ok, so other than my knife and whatever he is carrying, we don’t have any metal tools. I suppose I could try to make a stone axe or something, but that would take forever.
Rain jumped at a loud boom that came from the direction of the forest and was accompanied by the sound of wood splintering. He looked up to see a medium-sized birch tree falling, cut down at the base. Tallheart watched it fall, then grabbed a branch and started dragging it back towards him.
Ok, no tools, but we do have a man who can cut down a tree in a single hit. That could go a long way. How did he do that? He didn’t actually punch it, did he?
Tallheart reached the bare dirt and dropped the tree. As he did, Rain saw a small hammer hanging at his waist before it was covered again by his cloak. The bottom of the tree looked like it had been smashed, not cut cleanly, so Rain decided that the hammer was the probable cause.
“Did you think of anything?” Tallheart asked him.
“No, not yet. I have some ideas, but without any tools… Do you know how to build a house?”
“Maybe we could dig some holes and put the trees in like a… a...”
“Say what you mean.”
“Sorry, I don’t know the word.”
“Humph,” Tallheart snorted. “Stick the bottom in the ground and stand it upright?”
Rain nodded. “I guess. We would want to take the… branches… off first. We also don’t need it to be so tall. Cut it to three meters, maybe four?”
“A meter is about… here, let me just show you.”
Rain walked over to the tree, pointing to a spot on the trunk. It wasn’t a very big tree, but it was big enough to have a large, straight section of trunk without any branches up to the point he had indicated.
Tallheart turned to regard the tree. He walked over to the trunk and reached to his belt, retrieving his hammer. It had a short handle and looked like a smith’s tool, not a weapon. Tallheart motioned Rain back from the spot he had indicated, then swung the hammer down at the tree with the full force of his body. It hit in an explosion of splintering wood, breaking the tree completely in two.
Tallheart grabbed the trunk of the tree and walked it upright while Rain looked on in amazement. The man’s strength was ridiculous, greater by far than either Ameliah’s or Carten’s.
“Um, over there by the edge, I guess. We need to dig a hole first.”
Tallheart surprised Rain again by lifting the tree trunk completely off of the ground as he walked over to the indicated spot. He dropped the trunk unceremoniously and knelt to consider the packed dirt. Choking up on his hammer, he drew it back and placed his other hand on the ground to steady himself. He then punched the ground with the hand holding the hammer, making a deep whump sound and causing the earth to shake. He retracted his arm, which had sunk into the dirt down to the elbow.
Holy fucking shit.
Tallheart scooped out some of the dirt, then repeated his hammer punch a few times, widening the hole. Standing, he picked up the tree trunk once more. He slammed the end down into the hole with great force, sinking it deep into the earth. He released the trunk, which was leaning slightly, but nevertheless standing upright. Scowling, he pushed it straight, then kicked dirt into the hole and stomped it down to lock the trunk into place.
“Good. This will work for the frame. I will go get more.”
Tallheart walked back off towards the forest, leaving Rain staring at the three-meter section of tree trunk sticking out of the ground. It hadn’t been a massive tree, only about as wide around as his thigh, but the strength required to manhandle it like that was absurd.
Who the hell is this guy? Or what?
By the time they stopped to rest for lunch, the outline of the new building was starting to take shape. Tallheart had sunk four large trees into the earth to form the corners of the building with several smaller ones in between to serve as posts for holding up the walls. Those Rain made by wedging in thin branches that Tallheart had removed for him. He wove them in like strands in a wicker basket.
This was nothing like the construction that Rain knew. It was clear that they had no idea what they were doing, but Tallheart seemed willing to try anyway. Rain was doubtful that the building would be able to keep out a light breeze, let alone any real weather.
When Tallheart called a halt, Rain sank down in relief, the soreness in his arms having eclipsed the pain in his leg.
“I will eat by the river. Do you have any food?” Tallheart looked at Rain as he said this, expression unreadable.
“Just ration bars. Jamus gave me many. Do you want one?” Rain asked, getting back to his feet and walking towards where he had left his pack.
“No. I cannot eat those.”
“Yeah, they are more like rocks than food. The taste is boring, too.”
“It is not a problem of taste. They contain animal <something>. I cannot eat them.”
“Oh, you are a … sorry, I don’t know the word. A person who won’t eat meat?”
“Not won’t. Can’t. I am not like you humans.”
“Sorry,” Rain said awkwardly. “I don’t have anything... not meat. Just some jerky.”
“I will be fine. Come, the river is this way. We need water.”
Rain followed Tallheart toward the river, which turned out to be only a few minutes’ walk away from the clearing. When he reached it, he refilled his waterskin and took a long drink after purifying the water. He looked for a spot to sit and fished out his half-eaten ration bar and a bit of jerky from his pack. Tallheart had waded into the river and was pulling up some greenish plants from the water. They looked like weeds to Rain, but to Tallheart they were apparently edible. He joined Rain on the side of the river, chewing a mouthful of soggy plant matter.
“What are those plants?”
“It is just water <something>. Here.”
Tallheart passed Rain one of the fibrous stalks. Rain inspected the plant, then hesitantly tasted it.
Huh, tastes a bit like grass.
“I don’t think I can eat this,” Rain said, using his knife to trim off the section he had bitten into. He then offered the remainder of the plant back to Tallheart.
“I would not expect you to,” the man replied, taking back the stalk and biting into it. Rain looked at the jerky he was holding, feeling a bit guilty.
“You don’t mind if I eat this here, do you?”
“Why would I?”
“Well, it is meat, and I thought that… It doesn’t bother you?”
“You are human.”
Ok then. I guess he is fine with it.
Tallheart stared at the water, chewing his meal. From the set of his shoulders, Rain thought he looked a bit sad, but it was hard to tell with the armor. Something had definitely changed since the morning. The man was quiet, seeming lost in his own thoughts.
“Do you like them? Do they taste good to… people like you?”
Shit, please don’t get mad. Rain winced, realizing how his question might have been received just after the words had left his mouth. He had no idea about the racial politics of this world, so he was trying to be careful. Offending the antlered man seemed like a really bad idea.
“No. They do not.”
“Oh,” Rain said weakly.
The two ate in silence, Rain watching the water flow past and listening to the sounds of the forest. It was cold near the river, the sky cloudy and overcast. The sound of the birds was peaceful, but Rain was feeling on edge from the mood that had fallen over his companion. As time went on, the silence between them deepened until even the river seemed shallow.
Tallheart finished his meal, but made no move to leave, staring down at his feet. Rain decided to finish his ration bar as quickly as possible instead of trying to start up another conversation.
“I did not burn down my shack because of a spider.”
“What?” Rain asked, slightly confused by the abrupt statement.
“I burned down my shack, but it wasn’t because of a spider. That was a lie.”
“Oh, ok.” Why is he telling me this?
“I can tell you have questions. Ask.”
Well, if he brought it up, I suppose it is a safe enough place to start.
“Ok, why did you burn down your shack?”
“I do not know. I think... I did not have a reason.”
“But…” Rain stopped himself. He sounds so sad. What brought this on?
“Ok, so you were going to go to the city or something?” he asked instead of pressing him for a reason.
“No. I cannot go to the city.”
“Somewhere else then?”
“There is nowhere else.”
“Not all humans are like Jamus. I am not welcome.”
“Sorry...” Rain looked down at his boots uncomfortably.
“I do not blame you for the actions of your race.”
“So, humans and cervidians… aren’t friends?”
“What about... other cervidians? Could you go live with them? In a cervidian city?”
“My people are...” Tallheart paused, then continued in a soft voice. “There are no cervidian cities. Not anymore.”
Shit. And I thought I was alone in this world. What the hell happened to his people? Is he the last one?
The silence stretched on as Rain considered his next question. Tallheart’s face was stony and his mood seemed to have darkened even further. Rain shivered. If anything, it had gotten colder since the morning.
“Tallheart?” Rain asked, catching the man’s attention.
“Why are you letting me stay here? How do you know Jamus?” he asked to change the subject.
“We met two years ago, soon after I first came to this forest. He was kind to me, and he asked me to help you. That is enough. You may stay with me until Jamus comes back. After that, I do not know.”
Tallheart stood abruptly. “We should finish the hut. It will be a cold night.”
Rain scrambled to his feet and joined him as he stumped back towards the clearing.
By the time that the sun started to set, the two had managed to complete something that could have charitably been called a shack. It was full of gaps and the roof was just piled leafy branches, but it had four walls and a doorway. There wasn’t much room inside, but Tallheart could lie down without bending his knees or hitting his antlers on the far wall.
Rain had swept out the inside of the hut with a leafy branch, then dug a shallow hole in the ground. He filled it with leaves to make himself a slightly softer place to sleep. Tallheart had left his side bare, refusing when Rain had offered to do the same for him. Rain’s bed was completed with a pillow made from his old shirt, stuffed with leaves.
Rain and Tallheart were standing outside the hut, surveying their handiwork.
“It will do,” Tallheart said with a resigned sigh.
“Looks pretty awful, but I don’t think it will fall down,” Rain said with a shrug.
“Thank you. For today. You are... a good human.”
“Thanks, I guess. You are a good cervidian. You are the only one I have met though.”
“Humm. Yes. Where are you from that you have never heard of my kind?”
“Far. Very far.”
Tallheart looked at him silently. Rain considered how much to tell him. He was still hesitant to reveal that he was from another dimension or world or whatever the term was. He wasn’t sure if he could trust the antlered man. He didn’t feel threatened by his strength anymore, not after spending the day with him. Tallheart seemed to be a quiet, gentle man filled with a deep sadness in his core.
He told me a little about himself, so I think I will do the same. Trust has to start somewhere.
“I...” Rain started, then cleared his throat. “I am from… somewhere very... different. I do not know how far it is. I was… brought here. By magic, I think. I did not know the name of the city. I had never heard the language before.”
Tallheart nodded for him to continue.
“I woke up in the forest. Adventurers found me and brought me to the city. I joined the guild... maybe a week ago? I have lost track. I did a few jobs, but then I tried to make some money and... angered the Watch. Someone told… shit, I forgot his name. Someone told the asshole in charge of the guild. He fined me 500 Tel and kicked me out of the city. Now I am here.”
“Humm,” Tallheart seemed to consider.
Rain shifted uncomfortably. He hadn’t even told Jamus this much. Somehow, he felt that his secret would be safer with Tallheart than the slightly eccentric mage.
“I have heard of teleportation magic, but nothing that strong. To not have heard this language… To have never heard of a cervidian… Your home must be very, very far.”
“I believe you. No one could fake an accent like yours.”
Tallheart was smiling softly, the first sign of levity Rain had seen from the man since their conversation at the river.
“You should sleep,” Tallheart said. He turned and started towards the forest.
“Where are you going?” Rain asked.
“Do not worry. I will return. I must relieve myself.”
“Oh, hang on.”
Rain activated purify. He held the spell for around a minute as Tallheart’s expression cycled from mild curiosity, to puzzlement, then to pure disbelief.
“Rain? Remember that I said you could stay until Jamus returned? I take it back. You can stay as long as you want.”