After he’d finished his disappointing breakfast, Rain made his way down to the river to shave using his reflection in the water. Tallheart’s razor was wickedly sharp and he didn’t want to cut himself, so he took his time. Once he had finished, he wrapped the blade in the scrap of cloth he was using in place of a sheath and tucked it into a pocket. Satisfied that it was secure, he started walking upstream toward the city. His muscles were stiff from yesterday’s training and he decided that a little jog wouldn’t hurt to help him loosen up.
Jogging was admittedly low on his list of favorite things, but as he fell into a rhythm, he found that he wasn’t suffering nearly as badly as he had expected. His body felt light, and his muscles, while sore, weren’t screaming at him to stop after only a few minutes.
Wow, must be all this clean living. I should find out what is actually in those ration bars sometime.
Soon enough, the trees started thinning out as he approached the city. He broke through the last of them and paused to look across the clear land leading up to the wall. It was still early morning, but the city wasn’t quiet. He saw a large patrol of the watch, easily a hundred strong, leaving from one of the gates. In the distance, he spotted several other patrols on the roads leading away from the city.
Huh, wonder what that’s about. They banned me from the city, not the countryside, but still, I don’t think I want to run into the watch today. Heading back.
He checked his mana. It was only at about a third; his expanded pool would take quite a while to refill even with his massive regeneration. The brief jog hadn’t been nearly long enough to get him back to full. Nevertheless, he still had over a thousand mana to play with.
Magical synergy is great. Ok, let’s see how fast I can make it back.
He stood still and activated velocity, popping open a small window to display the details of the skill. The base was a 31% boost to speed, but he pumped it up to 75% using both amplify aura and channel mastery. Ever so slowly, he started moving his arms, trying to get used to the feeling of the aura. When he’d tried this before at 30%, it had only felt like his limbs were lighter than normal, but now the sensation was even stranger. It was as if his body was moving further than it should, skipping the intervening space somehow. He didn’t really have anything to compare the sensation to. Hesitantly, he took a few steps, struggling not to overreact and lose his balance. He started walking back along the river, gradually getting used to the sensation. Soon, he was up to what felt like a normal walking pace to him; however, the ground was rushing by alarmingly fast. Glancing at his mana, he saw that he had already burned through more than half of it, leaving him with a quarter tank.
Humm, this won’t do. I need more practice. If I tried to jog like this, I’d fall flat on my face. Let’s try this instead.
Rain deactivated amplify and reversed channel mastery, pulling back as hard as he could and dropping the effect down to a 20% speed boost. He adapted quickly and started to jog again. He was hesitant at first, slowly ramping up his speed until he reached what felt like a normal pace. As he jogged, he slowly fed more power into the skill with channel mastery, taking advantage of the fine control that the modifier gave him. Over the course of a few minutes, he ramped up to the maximum that channel mastery would give him, topping out at a speed boost of 40%. The gradual change was much easier to adapt to, and he managed to hold the pace for around a minute. The ground flew by. He gradually drew to a stop before he ran out of mana, guessing that he would fall flat on his face if the skill was suddenly canceled.
Whew! I know it wasn’t that far, but dang, that is pretty awesome. Well, at 40% it is. Maybe I should wear my helmet once it gets stronger…
Rain winced at the thought of tripping while running at highway speeds. He felt very conscious of his fragility, having left his armor in the hut after removing it to sleep. He walked the rest of the way back, drinking from the river and freshening himself up with purify before continuing to the clearing. It would take him around two hours to refill his expanded mana pool, even with winter more than doubling his regeneration. More testing would have to wait.
As he returned to the clearing, he was greeted by the unexpected sound of Jamus’s voice.
Wow, that was fast. He must have finished his quest with Lavarro. Shit. I thought I’d have a few more days to train…
As he broke through the trees, he located Jamus’s orange hat and started heading towards him, but quickly stopped when he saw Jamus was talking to a woman. Her back was to Rain, but it clearly wasn’t Lavarro or her daughter.
That blonde hair... Those clothes... It can’t be…
“Oh, there he is! Rain!” Jamus was waving, having spotted him emerging from the trees.
The woman turned, and Rain immediately recognized her. She was wearing the same drab tunic that she had been when they had first met, and her face was instantly familiar. Compared to the pale homogeneous sea of rugged townsfolk that populated Fel Sadanis, her light brown skin and slightly slanted eyes were distinctive. He hadn’t thought anything of it when he first met her, but after spending a bit of time in the city he had realized that this society was much less multicultural than he was used to. People like her and Val stood out.
“Ameliah!” Rain managed, blinking. “What...”
“Hello, Rain,” she said, smiling.
“She was making quite a scene in the guild,” Jamus said. “You should have heard the things she was yelling at Halgrave. I’m amazed she’s still alive.”
“He can’t do anything to me, and besides, I’m right. I can tolerate a lot, but abusing his power like that just to make an example out of Rain crossed a line.”
“Wait,” Rain said. “You…picked a fight with Halgrave? Over me? We’re talking about the big blue bastard in charge of the guild, right?”
Ameliah laughed as he described the man.
“Yes she did!” Jamus was grinning. “Ameliah here kicked down the door to his office, literally, mind you, and yelled at him at the top of her lungs for a good twenty minutes. After Halgrave stormed off, I figured I’d introduce myself and bring her out here.”
“Thank you for that,” she said, then turned to Rain with a guilty expression. “I’m sorry I left you in the guild. I should have stuck around to help you get on your feet.”
“No, don’t worry about it. You had already done enough. I need to pay you back for bribing Gus.”
“Damn self-interested layabout. I should have never trusted him to keep you out of trouble.”
“It was my own fault. He did warn me, sort of, but I was a bit drunk at the time and, well… I guess I didn’t think things through.”
“Don’t blame yourself. It’s bad enough that you have to stay out here without dwelling on it.” She paused, seeming to consider her next words. “Changing the subject, the improvement to your language is amazing. I didn’t believe Jamus when he told me about it.”
“Yeah, I can barely believe it myself. A lot has happened since I last saw you. I guess I’d better tell you all about-”
“Hey, who’s this?”
Rain pivoted to see that Val had returned to the clearing, followed closely by Tallheart. Ameliah's eyes widened in surprise, flicking to Tallheart’s antlers. Rain quickly jumped in before Val said anything else.
“Ameliah, this is Val and Tallheart. Guys, this is Ameliah. She’s a friend.”
As he finished, Ameliah bowed deeply at the waist. “Greetings, Val, Tallheart, friends of Rain. I am pleased to meet you.”
Val looked confused by this, but Tallheart smiled and bowed in return. “Greetings, Ameliah, friend of Rain,” he rumbled.
Huh. I guess she’s met a cervidian before.
“Hello,” Val said, offering her his hand as Tallheart straightened. She shook it professionally, then turned to Rain.
“Quite a group you’ve got out here.” She glanced at the shoddy hut and raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment on it.
“Yeah, I suppose,” Rain said. “I’m exiled from the city. Val’s here because he thinks he owes me for saving his life, and Tallheart…well...”
“It’s ok, I get it. It’s not fair, but I understand the necessity,” she said. She turned to regard Val. “Rain saved your life? I’m guessing there’s a story there.”
“Ehhhh, I might have overestimated my abilities. Just a bit. If Rain hadn’t come along, well… Yeah, I don’t want to talk about it. How about you? What’s your story?”
“I’m not all that interesting. I’m just here to check on Rain. I was worried about him when I found out what happened at the guild.”
“Oh?” Val looked between the two of them, raising an eyebrow. “You two have history? You’re...friends?” Val asked, raising the pitch of his voice to exaggerate the question and giving Rain a significant look.
Rain chose to ignore the subtext of his expression. “I’m… not sure what we are,” he said, honestly. “Ameliah was with the group that found me in the woods, but I didn’t get to know her that well. I could barely talk, after all. She was very kind to me, a complete stranger.”
“You’re giving me too much credit. I did what anyone would have in that situation.”
“I’m not so sure about that. The others tied me up, remember?”
“Oh, them.” Ameliah rolled her eyes. “Fine, not what anyone would have done. That idiot Hegar wanted to keep you tied up like a prisoner all the way to the city until I convinced him you were harmless.”
“Mmm. Most humans are not so...trusting of those who are different,” Tallheart said.
Ameliah turned to look at him with a commiserating expression. “I can’t even imagine what it’s like for you. Please know that not all humans are like that. What was done to your people was monstrous.”
Tallheart smiled sadly and nodded. “I know. Thank you for your words, and for your actions.”
“Wow, this got pretty serious all of a sudden,” Jamus said, breaking the awkward silence. “Anyway, I’m free now, and so is Carten. He’s agreed to meet us north of the city in a few hours, so the plan is a go.”
“What plan is this?” Ameliah asked, tilting her head as she looked at Jamus.
“Delving. We think we’ve got a lead on a lair. Nobody else knows about it but us. Well, and Lavarro I suppose, but she’s not likely to bother with it.”
Ameliah looked at each of them in turn, sizing them up. Her eyes lingered on Val’s tattered jacket before she looked back to Rain. “You’re sure you’re up to it?” she asked. “I can come with you, if you want.”
“I suppose we could work something out,” Val said. “It’s a low-level lair. Dark hounds, apparently. My share is going to Rain to help with his debt; I owe him that much at least. How about you, Jamus? What kind of deal did you make with this Carten fellow?”
“He agreed to a fourth. I told him Tallheart wouldn’t be coming into the lair with us, so he insisted on a four-way split among the combatants. My share is going to Rain too, by the way.”
“Val, Jamus, really, you don’t have to-” Rain started, but Ameliah interrupted him by holding up a hand.
“I’ll come along. I don’t need a share.”
“All of you, seriously, you don’t need to give me your shares. I’m sure we can get Carten to agree to a more even split.”
“Quiet. You’re getting my share and that’s that,” Val said. “Besides, I’m just interested in the essence monster.” He looked back at Ameliah. “If you’re coming, fine, but I get to solo the blue when we find it.”
“What makes you think you’ll find one?”
“Freshly opened lair.” Val shrugged. “Depending on when it formed… I’d say the chances are pretty good.”
“Alright then,” Jamus said, straightening the brim of his hat enthusiastically. “We’ll have to be extra careful until we get away from the city. People are all riled up because of the news about the war. We don’t want to run across a patrol on account of Tallheart. Pack up whatever you need and let’s move!”
The group crept slowly through the forest, edging around the city as they made their way north. Jamus was leading under the theory that it was impossible for them to avoid detection entirely. If someone were to spot them, it would be because of his brilliant robes out in front. In other words, he was the decoy. Tallheart, Ameliah, and Rain followed in a group, with Val trailing behind. Rain didn’t think that this formation would be very effective if they ran into a patrol, but as long as nobody got too close he figured they had a chance.
It took them a few hours, but eventually, Jamus led them to the northernmost point of the forest. Rain had no idea what they were going to do now, as they were still close enough to the city to run into a patrol. There hadn’t been much traffic on the northern road the last time he had come this way, but it was still impossible to not be seen. They might just have to take the risk that whoever spotted them either didn’t recognize a cervidian or wasn’t an asshole. Rain didn’t like the odds.
As the trees thinned out, Jamus beckoned to the others, signaling them to join him. As Rain approached, he noticed the sound of snoring coming from behind a small hill capped by a tall pine tree. Jamus led them around it, and the source of the sound was revealed to be Carten, surprising absolutely no one. The huge black-bearded man was leaning against a rock, fast asleep and snoring at an impressive volume. He’d removed his helmet and piled it with his shields in the back of a cart, which was hitched to an annoyed-looking sable horse.
Jamus kicked him, then swore and hopped on one foot. Carten snorted and opened his eyes, blinking up at them. Rain shook his head.
What did you think would happen? The man is in full plate, and you’re wearing cloth shoes. Surprise: Your foot loses.
“Jamus! There you are!” Carten yawned enormously and pulled himself to his feet with a screeching noise of metal. Rain saw that one of the shoulders of his armor had been dented and was grinding against the bare metal of his breastplate. It didn’t seem to slow him down at all, though.
“So, this is our group, huh? Well! Look at you! Little mouse got himself some armor.” As he said this, Carten clapped Rain on the shoulder heartily, almost sending him stumbling to the ground. The chainmail did nothing to soften the blow, but the padded gambeson helped a bit with the blunt force trauma.
At least I didn’t take damage that time, Rain thought, checking his health bar. “Hey Carten. Little mouse? Since when am I a mouse?”
Carten just laughed. “Who are these?” he asked loudly, gesturing to the others.
“Oh, right, sorry. Carten, this is Val, Ameliah, and Tallheart.”
Carten greeted them and offered his hand. Val’s fingers clearly took some damage when the two shook, but it was Carten who looked like he was in pain when he tested his grip strength against Ameliah. Her small hand looked tiny in his meaty grip, but she didn’t back down.
“Wow, ok,” he said, releasing her hand and laughing. “Now I feel insecure. Where’d you find this one, Rain?” Carten was beaming enormously as he looked at Ameliah.
“She kind of found me.”
“Hah.” Carten turned to Tallheart last and offered his hand. “Never met a deer before. Nice to meet you.”
“Carten,” Jamus admonished, “that term’s not polite.”
“Right, right, sorry.”
“It is ok, Jamus, I am not offended,” Tallheart said, shaking Carten’s hand. Rain did smile to see that Carten was flexing his fingers with a pained look on his face after Tallheart released him. Rain wasn’t sure, but he thought he detected a hint of smug satisfaction in the antlered man’s expression.
“Well, if we’re going, let’s go,” Carten said, gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb.
“What are we going to do about Tallheart?” Val asked, nodding to his antlers.
“Humm,” Jamus considered. “Maybe you could ride in the cart until we get far enough from the city? We could throw a blanket over you or something.”
“Very well,” Tallheart said, looking at the cart. Rain inspected it as well while Carten recovered his equipment. The worn boards were crusted with dark material. Moving closer, he detected the telltale scent of manure.
That won’t do.
He activated purify with all of his modifiers, including aura focus. Rain couldn’t see while he held the skill, but he amused himself by imagining his companions’ reactions to the veritable nova of purification that he was releasing. He held it for thirty seconds or so, which was frankly excessive. The skill was so powerful now that small messes like this were cleaned almost instantaneously, even without modifiers.
He opened his eyes to see that the cart was spotless and that both Carten and Ameliah were staring at him with disbelieving expressions. Val looked annoyed and Jamus was laughing. Tallheart, as usual, was subdued, but he nodded to Rain in thanks as he climbed up into the back of the cart. The wood creaked as he set down the anvil which he had been carrying all this time.
“By the depths...” Carten trailed off.
“I’ve been practicing since you last saw me,” Rain said, smiling.
“You don’t say. Fuck me.”
“I thought the idea was not to draw attention to ourselves,” Val said, giving Rain a look. “That was hardly subtle.”
“Oh, come on. You can barely see it in the daylight.”
“Not true. At least, not when you use it like that,” Jamus said, still chuckling at Carten’s expression.
“Rain,” Ameliah interjected, “how did you do that?”
“I’ve got purify with aura focus, just like you. You used it back in the clearing with the musk wolf, right?”
“Yes, but that wasn’t long enough ago for you to have leveled it up that much. It took me over a year to get to that level of power.”
“What can I say? It’s just so useful. I use it all the time.”
She hesitated. “Well, yes, it is, but don’t tell me that’s all you’ve been practicing this whole time. Please say you’ve got something to defend yourself.”
“Oh, I’ve got other stuff too. I’m kind of an aura specialist now, I suppose. I’ve got refrigerate and immolate for damage, and Val here got me this armor to keep me from getting killed by a passing breeze.”
“I see...” Ameliah said guardedly. “Maybe you should fill me in on the details.”
“We’ll have plenty of time for stories when we stop for the night,” Val said. “Let’s get moving.”
“Yes,” Jamus agreed. “No telling when a patrol might come along. Tallheart, get your head down. Everyone, pile your stuff in behind him. Rain, give him your blanket. We should be good by the time we stop for lunch. I brought some more potatoes, and we can eat the rest of that lago if it’s thawed by then. I also got you some more ration bars, Rain. I know how much you like them.”
Rain sighed. “Great. Thanks, Jamus.”