One - Stranger from the Sky


Jett wished he had a pet wolf. A giant pet wolf, with six-inch fangs and ten-inch claws. Then he could send it at those irritating village boys and make them think twice about vandalizing his hut. He couldn't imagine them wanting to punch holes through the grass walls when they were missing a few fingers or toes. He grinned, picturing the scene inside his head.

The smile didn't fade as he went about his tiny hut, gathering his bow and quiver and hunting knife. He'd lost the early morning hours since he had to spend the time patching the holes in his hut, but it was still early enough that the deer would be just rising from the beds.

He stepped out of his hut, lifted his tanned face skywards and squinted at the brilliant sun. It was fairly low on the horizon, casting an eerie golden glow to half the sky. His smile became wistful. Ma had always loved the sunrise, often waking an hour before daybreak to watch as the sky lightened. When she had taken sick, he had to help her outside, propping her up against the large stump and wrapping her up in blankets so she wouldn't get cold. Then they sat together and watched the colors change the sky. She had passed watching the sun, her gaunt face cast in a soft yellow light and a small smile on her cracked lips even though she had left him behind.

Jett shook the memory away. That was nine years ago and he didn't feel like dwelling on it. Besides, he was older now, able to fend for himself. He was sixteen – not quite a boy, and not quite a man.

Jett eyed the forest line that lay in the near distance. Huge trees loomed upwards, hiding the sun's light from their depths and casting the forested land into darkness. To the superstitious villagers, it was a dangerous, evil place and none of them would dare venture inside. It was just fine with Jett, for the Putarc forest had become both a provider and a protector and he didn't feel like sharing it with the people who had cast him and his mother out of their midst.

He checked the knife belted to his waist, then adjusted the quiver slung on his back. Gripping his strung bow tightly, he drew in a sharp breath. Let's go.

He broke into a light run, his footsteps skimming the ground as he surged forward. The tall grasses seemed to bend themselves out of his way as he flew down the shallow hill and across a small meadow of wildflowers. Within ten minutes, he was enveloped in the darkness of the forest.

He ran through eerie silence, weaving between gigantic, gnarled trunks that stood like grim guardians. Feet light as a feather, legs smoothly stretching out in ground-eating strides, lungs heaving as they forced air in and out - Jett flowed through the Putarc like water through a river.

His passage disturbed a flock of roosting crows and they took off, cawing and flapping like the jaws of death itself were after them. Jett smiled briefly, silently apologizing to the birds for having disturbed their rest. He was careful, too, as to where he set down his feet, not wanting to destroy an anthill or some small creature's home.

He broke past several thin branches, snapping them off loudly as he rushed through, and then - he was surrounded by a small herd of deer as they leapt up from their beds and exploded into a frenzied flight.

This was it! This was what he had been looking for! With Jett right behind them the deer fled, leaping and bounding their way through the forest. They were so close, an amazingly easy shot, yet Jett did not draw an arrow from his quiver and notch it. Lengthening his strides, he kept pace with the fleeing deer, trees and branches and plants flying past in a blur.

For several long minutes the chase kept up, until some deer began drawing ahead of the herd while others began to fall back. The stronger ones took the lead of the flight and the weaker animals began to straggle behind. And still, Jett did not notch an arrow to his bow. He kept running, kept waiting. . . waiting for the right moment.

The animals' sides were heaving, white froth flying from their mouths. They were growing tired. And so was Jett, as his own sides were aching, his legs burning from the effort. But not yet - just a little more, just a bit longer...

A sudden flurry of movement finally separated one deer from the rest as it stumbled. It was an old creature, weak and lame, and it was unable to keep up the pace. This was the one. Jett slowed a little, reaching over his shoulder for a raven-fletched arrow. Trying to ease his heavy breathing, he carefully notched the arrow and drew back.

The bow wasn't all that large, but it took a good deal of effort for Jett to draw it. He was forced to stop and kneel so his aim would be accurate. Fortunately for him, the old deer stumbled once more, this time falling onto its front knees. As it struggled to rise, Jett took aim. With a soft sigh he released the arrow and turned his head away. He knew that it would fly true, as it always did.

There was a faint whuff, then silence. It was enough to let him know that it was over. Quietly, he stood and walked over to where the fallen deer lay. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he saw that his arrow had dug in between its shoulders and pierced its heart. It had died instantly.

"I'm sorry," he whispered softly, feeling a faint twinge of sorrow. At least the old creature hadn't suffered. And perhaps it was a good thing that he had taken this deer; he saved it the horrible death by a cougar or bear, which would have bitten and mauled it to death.

Shaking that horrible image away, he knelt beside the deer and pulled his knife out of its sheath. After taking a deep breath, he began with a careful cut along the belly. Almost at once, he was assaulted with the hot stench of blood and animal as the guts slopped steamily onto the ground. It turned his stomach, forcing him to grit his teeth. He hated the smell, hated the warm blood that drenched his hands, but he forced himself to reach inside. He needed the meat, or he would starve. Keeping that in mind, he managed to push away the nausea.

After gingerly pulling out the guts, he dug around for the best stuff. The liver was first, as his mother had taught him years ago that it contained all sorts of minerals and vitamins that would keep him healthy. The next were the heart and kidneys, and these he wrapped up in a woven sack along with the liver.

It took him some time to cut long strips of meat from the flanks, but after a half hour he had all he needed. The rest would go to waste. Hoisting the two packs onto his shoulders, he sheathed his blade and picked up his bow and quiver. No doubt some wolves had gathered the scent of blood by now; it was time to leave.

Jett cast a last glance at the carcass. Within a few hours, whatever remained would be devoured by carnivores. He blinked; perhaps the remains wouldn't go to waste, after all. A little heartened, he shifted his load and broke into a trot.

** *

They were waiting for him at the base of the grassy hill. And judging by their little smirks, they were the ones responsible for damaging his hut. Jett stopped several yards away from them, eyeing the four boys warily.

One of them was the son of the village Elders; he was a big, stocky boy who had both brawn and brains – a scary combination. He went by the name of Hieb, and had become the leader of a little group whose sole purpose was to 'make the outcast's life miserable' when they were bored. No doubt he was bored now, considering that the fields were all planted by now.

Jett restrained himself from taking a backwards glance at the Putarc, his only 'safe zone.' If he had to, he'd run, but he didn't really feel like it with the heavy load of deer resting on his shoulders. So he bit back the nervousness and did his best to keep his voice from wavering.

"Um. . .why are you here?"

The four teen-aged village boys exchanged looks, then broke out into wide grins that showed more tooth than necessary. Hieb brushed pale yellow hair out of his eyes. "Do we need a reason to pay a friendly visit?"

Jett said nothing. He shifted his weight onto his back foot, tensing slightly. This, he suspected, was probably the farthest thing from a nice, neighborly visit.

"Oh come now," Hieb frowned a little, "no need to be so frightened. We only came to see if you needed help with anything." The frown suddenly became a predator's smile. "Perhaps we can help with some maintenance. . . how's your little hut doing?"

Oh no. They wouldn't. Jett tried not to let the horror dawning inside show on his face. It would only encourage Hieb. No, the best thing to do would be showing some confidence. Show the village boys that they didn't scare him and maybe they'd back off.

He straightened a little, gathering courage. "It's fine," he said coolly. Or tried to, because his voice squeaked on the last word, totally ruining the effect.

Hieb's smile spread. "Really? Maybe we should take a look." He took a step, as if to make his way up the shallow hill where Jett's hut lay defenseless.

"N-no!" Jett darted forward, hastily putting himself between his beloved home and the boys. He lifted his free hand, the one that wasn't supporting the meat on his shoulders, and held it between them. As if it would do much to hold them back. Especially with it shaking pathetically, like it was a tiny flag caught in a tornado.

Jett eyed it in disgust. How shameful.

"Come on, now," Hieb's voice sneered, "we're just here to help, right?" He glanced at the boy to his right, a stocky boy who bounced eagerly on the balls of his feet.

"That's right," Stocky agreed, eyes alight with a cruel gleam. He sure did look like he wanted to help, Jett noticed unhappily.

A third boy snickered before suddenly skipping forward. Jett backed up hastily before the boy could get into his personal space. He noted with alarm that the other three had also moved closer, and backpedaled again.

"S-stay back!" he weakly protested. "I don't need your help!"

"Sure you do." They kept advancing; he kept stumbling back. At this rate, they were going to chase him up the hill where they'd probably put even more holes in his hut. And while they were at it, he bet they'd put some in him, too.

Jett shot a look at the Putarc, his haven and his refuge. It had never looked so inviting, so welcoming. Only problem was, the four village boys were between him and it. And he was between them and his hut. If he dropped his heavy load of meat, he might be able to dash around them – he knew he could outrun them easily if it came to a chase. But a lot of the meat was going to his winter stockpile and he had no desire to part with it.

He suppressed a low moan, already feeling the pain that was undoubtedly coming his way. Where were the giant pet wolves when he needed them?

"I mean, take a look at yourself," Heib gestured at him. "So small and helpless. A little boy all alone in a big mean world. You need all the help you can get."

Jett closed his eyes against the onslaught. He didn't know why they felt the need to come here and bother him; he didn't want to know. He just wanted them to go away and leave him alone. Who cared that he was born of an outsider, of whom he never knew, or even met? Why was it such a big matter, anyway? Couldn't they just accept him, even though he was different?

Fat chance.

The villagers were so stuck up on their rules that they would never even dream of bending them. His mother had a fling with an outsider. That made him an evil bastard child. And they couldn't allow such tainted blood inside their village, oh no – that would bring great ruin to their pure standards.

Hieb suddenly lunged forward, snapping out a hand to grab the front of Jett's shirt. Startled, Jett stumbled back, losing his grip on his load. His two bundles of venison fell to the ground and he would have followed if it weren't for the strong hand holding him up.

The brawny boy sneered in Jett's face, tightening his hold so that there was no hope of escape. Jett went limp, barely realizing that his feet no longer touched the ground. He squeezed his eyes shut and prayed for a miracle.

That was when something fell out of the sky.

Something big.

Something dark.

It landed a few feet away, thudding into the ground like a heavy sack of potatoes. Everyone froze. Jett slowly opened his eyes, wondering if his wish for a miracle had actually happened.

The village boys and Jett warily eyed the black thing. It shifted, rolling onto its back, and with a shocked gasp, Hieb suddenly released Jett. His eyes had grown wide, his face slack in horror.

"This...this is-" He stammered fearfully, shrinking away from the black form. "This is one of them-!"

"Hieb?" One of the other boys looked confused.

Heib whirled on him. "You remember what my father was telling us about? Those evil monsters that destroy everything they touch? This is one of them!"

"No way…" Now the boy's eyes had grown to the size of plates, all color draining from his tanned features.

Jett stared at the black form in confusion. "It's a man," he said, partly in wonder, partly in shock. How could they call another person a monster? Although, by the strange clothing and armor the man wore, he supposed they could mistake him for something else. The man let out a faint groan and shifted once more, causing the village boys to leap back in fright.

"It's still alive!" Stocky exclaimed.

"He's hurt," Jett observed, taking a few small steps closer to the man. He hesitated, then looked up at the sky, trying to figure out why and how the man fell.

"Let's get my father," Hieb decided, stepping back. "He'll know what to do." With a chorus of nervous agreement, the village boys ran off after their leader, who had begun to sprint back to the village.

Jett eyed their departing figures, slightly disgusted. He had grown used to their bullying, even understood it to a tiny degree – but when a wounded stranger fell out of the sky, they act like idiots and call him a monster? Well, they already were idiots, Jett thought, but that still didn't explain their actions.

But...what did they mean? "He's one of them!" What was them?

Gazing down at the stranger, Jett figured he was some kind of soldier. The man wore the strangest armored outfit that Jett had ever seen. Heavy knee high boots with two-inch soles. A dark gray jumpsuit that was rather form-fitting which, Jett saw, did very little to hide the man's extremely well-muscled form. On top of this, the man had strange arm-guards that covered his forearms; these had three spikes each set into the sides of them. Other pieces of armor were set on top of the strange gray suit, such as a vest-like piece that protected the torso, and further thigh and arm plates. A crested helmet, the same pale gray as the rest of the armor, completely hid the head from view.

Never before had he seen such a peculiar person. Still, only one thing mattered now: the man had fallen from the sky, he was injured and unless he didn't disappear from here, the villagers were likely to kill him. That left Jett with only once choice.

He had to make the man disappear.

So, he gathered his load of meat and deposited it on the man's chest. He didn't fancy making more than one trip. Then he grabbed one of the man's wrists with both hands and pulled with all his strength. Despite his exertion, he only managed to shift the man a few inches. Jett paused to level a flat stare at the unconscious lump of deadweight.

He is heavy! Still, if he didn't manage to hide him, the villagers would -

Jett gritted his teeth and yanked on the man's arm once more. He would not let the villagers kill this man!

Twenty minutes later, Jett had dragged the man to the top of the hill and another ten minutes later, had the man hidden away in his small hut. After rolling the stranger onto his pallet of dried grass, Jett knelt beside him. The pallet, having been made for Jett's five-foot-two frame, was far too small for the stranger. Gray clad arms and legs sprawled onto the rough dirt floor, dwarfing the tiny bed.

Suppressing an irritated scowl (was he really that small?), Jett tried to pull off the man's helmet. To his surprise, the helmet did not budge - it was almost as if it was glued to the man's head.

Giving up with a faint sigh, Jett rose and turned his attention to drying the meat that he recently acquired. He dug around for some water, gathering enough to fill a small pail. Unwrapping the heart, liver and kidneys, he carefully placed them in the water. They'd stay there to soak for a bit.

Outside his hut, he got a nice fire roaring and began sorting out the rest of the meat. A sudden loud croak from above caught his attention; he looked up with a smile.

"Hello, Ravia," he greeted softly. In response to his words, a large black raven swooped down from the sky, deftly landing on his shoulder. The raven fluffed her wings a little before fixing her beady eyes on the strips of meat that lay in front of Jett. She uttered a little caw.

"You've been out by yourself the entire day," Jett smiled, "and you're telling me you didn't feed yourself all this time? You're a little beggar, Ravia," he fondly tickled her feathered back with his fingertips, then tossed a small piece of raw meat towards her. She darted her head forward and caught it neatly in her beak. With another croak, she jumped deftly to the top of his head where she settled down amidst his dark hair.

Jett gave a soft chuckle before returning to his work. And as time drew on, he nearly forgot about the stranger in his hut.