Tales - Blood From a Stone

Blood From a Stone

The dry leaves crumbled and fragmented underfoot as Thackery, Cyrus, and Nathaniel strode through the fall forest. The noontime daylight streamed through the bare branches above, chopping the light up and distributing it in small pieces, giving the forest a broken, mournful look. They all had their rifles up as they moved in-step with each other, each with eyes in a different direction of the forest. Cyrus risked a glance back at his companions, then broke into a near-silent laugh that brought on a glare from Nathaniel.

“Relax, Nat! I’m surprised you haven’t been giggling like a fool, walking behind cottontop here.” Cyrus gestured at Thackery’s shocked-white hair. “You can glare at me all you like, but it’s not like his hair doesn’t stand out like a bonfire on a crystal clear night in this brown forest. You should really consider a hat, brother.”

A half smile cracked across Thackery’s face. “You would have me look more like you, Cy? Face covered in bramblescratch, bits of leaf stuck in your beard? How you ever took a wife looking like you do I’ll never understand. How is your Rone doing these days? She left you yet?”

Cyrus laughed to himself as he crested the small hill in the center of the forest, pausing only when Nathaniel called up to him. “You’re married, sarge? To one o’ them savages? Why’d you not take up with a nice English lass like a civilized gent?”

Cyrus wheeled back around, his normally close-clipped hair flaring out, giving him the impression of a wolf-man more than a soldier. “You watch your mouth, Nat. That’s my wife you’re talking about.” Catching Thackery’s glance, Cyrus loosened his grip on his rifle, turning his attention back to scanning the far reaches of the forest.

Thackery’s voice carried up the hill, in a whisper Cyrus knew was meant to carry. “We’re out here to patrol, Nat – not to antagonize Cyrus about his wife. She’s a lovely woman – I know you’re new to soldiering and all, but there are some lines we don’t cross.” He heard a half-strangled exclamation from Nathaniel, followed by a quick interruption from Thackery. “Rule one – you insult the man, never his family. We’re brothers in arms. Worst that happens is you might get into a tussle, but then the issue is dropped. Like nothing ever happened.”

Hearing Nat approach, Cyrus turned and gave him a nod. “You want to take the lead on the next stretch? Got a few more hours of walking to do this sweep, and I figure you both would rather a break from staring at my backside sooner rather than later.”

Still pale, Nat nodded, pausing only to mutter an apology under his breath as he took off down the hill. Cyrus barely was aware of Thackery’s presence behind him before his hand came down on his shoulder. He grinned at his friend, leaning in with a much quieter whisper. “Used to be you were horrible dealing with the rank-and-file. Soon enough I’m going to be taking orders from you.”

Thackery laughed – a small and intense burst of sound. “Cy, even if I were giving you orders, I don’t know as if you’d follow them. Or maybe, knowing what I know about you, I’d be able to get exactly what I wanted out of you…”

Cyrus gave him a playful shove down the hill, getting the both of them moving again. “Oh I don’t doubt it. You’re starting to think like an officer now, and that’s all sorts of worrying. Let’s go catch up Nat to make sure he doesn’t run headlong into any trouble without us getting a piece.”

They kept on their patrol, changing their order a few times to keep their eyes and attention fresh, but they had grown tired throughout the day, even though they had stopped for food and water periodically. Thackery had taken up the lead, with Nathaniel as their rear guard – they had long since abandoned their quiet walking, and had kept up a fairly constant barrage of stories and tales, from the real to the fantastical. Nathaniel was keeping them entertained with a rousing tale of the drunken debauchery that ended in his enlistment – all to escape an arranged marriage to his father’s business partner’s daughter, distracting them all from the thudding of earth and snapping of twigs behind.

Their first notification that something was wrong came too late – the roar from behind. Nathaniel began to turn to the sound, his rifle coming around, but it was too little far too late. The bear’s massive paw hammered into Nathaniel’s shoulder, knocking him to the ground with an audible pop of dislocation impossible to hear over the panicked, pain yell coming from Nathaniel, coupled with the discharge of his rifle as his hand reflexively pulled the trigger on his rifle, sending a round past Thackery to explode into a tree.

Cyrus and Thackery both wheeled back, bringing their rifles up, but by then, it was too late – with so much weight behind it, when the bear landed with both paws on Nathaniel’s chest, Cyrus could almost see the life being crushed out of the man. At the sudden and brutal demise of their companion, the two remaining soldiers froze for just a moment too long – the bear had noticed them and was on the move again, charging them through the woods. Cyrus was the first to come to his senses, drawing a bead on the bear, barely taking the time to steady his breath before firing, a gout of flame tearing out from the barrel of his gun. The bullet flew true, but with an inhuman animal intelligence, the bear pitched to the side just before the bullet would have thudded into it’s chest, sending the slug of lead tearing through the skin along it’s arm. Cyrus stood in shock for a moment before he heard a second shot ring out from Thackery’s gun, splintering into the wood behind the bear, all while the bear’s reckless charge continued.

Seeing the bear closing on his friend, Cyrus dropped his gun to the ground, hoping that it would land in the soft pile of leaves by the base of a tree. He let out a bellow, drawing his sword and tomahawk, running towards the bear and clashing them together. When the bear reared up to a full eleven feet, Cyrus drew up short, realizing he was horribly out of ideas and luck. As the bear’s paws thudded into the ground, Cyrus began to backpedal, but the best man can hardly outrun a charging brown bear. Less so when the bear had the blazing blue eyes of a demon and moved with the speed of a diving falcon.

Just as the bear hauled back to put an end to Cyrus, his foot caught on his rifle, sending him tumbling onto his back, dodging chips of wood as the bear’s swipe took out a chunk of the mature aspen. Realizing his chance, Cyrus rolled to the side, putting the tree squarely between them, forcing himself to get ready to deal with the wild beast, to buy Thackery enough time to get away.

The tree delayed the monster not at all – another thud from its massive forepaw caused the tree to creak and groan as it toppled to the side. Cyrus ducked in, tomahawk flashing, as he took a small cut out of the beasts arm – at least, that had been his the plan. Instead, his tomahawk skidded off as though he had attempted to slice a boulder, the impact jarring it out of his hand. He scrambled backward, switching his sword to his other hand, now significantly unsure of how effective it might be. From just behind the bear, he saw a silent Thackery creeping through the wood with his knife drawn. He wanted to shout out to his friend, to send him away, but just then the bear lunged once more, massive jaws snapping for Cyrus’s face – he brought his sword up, more out of instinct than any sort of offensive prowess. The bear’s mouth clamped around the blade of the sword, closing and snapping it in two. He backed up, the hilt of the useless sword falling from his hand, glancing to ensure Thackery was getting away – the fool was even closer to the bear than last time.

Cyrus raised himself up to his full height, rearing up and roaring at the bear, trying to draw it’s attention – his plan worked, a bit too well. The bear reared up to twice Cyrus’s height, letting loose a roar that shook leaves from the trees, silenced the birds in the forest, and rattled his heart, causing a sinking feeling as he collapsed backwards. The bear dropped to the ground again and moved in for the kill, but Cyrus caught a flash of white from behind the bear’s head. Thackery leapt from the base of the ruined tree to land on the bear’s back, knife flashing in the evening light.

Almost immediately, the bear began to twist its head, trying to sink it’s teeth into the man who mounted it like a stallion. Frustrated at being harassed by the white-haired soldier, the bear reared up and slammed backwards into a tree – Cyrus felt his breath catch, sure that his friend would be embedded in the flesh of the tree when the bear came away. The bear dropped back down on all fours, confident in its victory, and began to smugly advance on Cyrus. Movement from up above caught Cyrus’s eye briefly – rather than submit to being introduced to the bear’s scratching post, he had hoisted himself up onto a nearby branch and was stalking along it. Knowing that he needed some time for his friend to get into position, Cyrus fetched up a fallen branch and jabbed forward at the beast.

His sudden aggression was rewarded by the beast flinching, which afforded him enough time to fetch out his bayonet – the blade was sharp and true, but Cyrus was beginning to have his doubts that it would be able to piece the bear’s stonelike hide. He lunged forward again, startling the bear back towards the branch Thackery was perched on.

Thackery had called Cyrus many things during their friendship, but a coward was never one of them, even in jest. The only way they would survive this particular encounter would be working together, despite events turning faster than they could communicate. While Cyrus brandished his blade in front of the bear, holding its attention, Thackery coiled like a snake, then sprung down onto the bear again, his dagger out and stabbing. Cyrus watched his friend leaping as he hopped back out of range of the bear, setting it slightly off balance. Thackery’s knife plunged into the creature’s hide at the back of it’s neck, causing it to bellow in rage and pain. As it’s head swivelled to try and bite him, he jabbed the dagger into the creature’s eye. Panicked, the beast rolled over onto it’s back to crush Thackery, revealing the hardened armored plating on it’s belly.

Infuriated at losing his friend, Cyrus slashed over and over at the bear, sending sparks flying every time the bayonet scraped against the beast’s armored skin. He jabbed at it until his bayonet snapped, leaving the body of the blade in the bear’s gut. Eventually, the when the body stopped moving, Cyrus collapsed backwards onto his ass, staring numbly at the ground, unwilling to believe that he had lost a soldier and a friend on a simple woodland patrol.

His heavy heart jumped to his throat as he felt something settle on his shoulder, causing him to spring forward, bringing the shattered stub of his bayonet up in a defensive position as he wheeled around. He stopped, dumbfounded, as Thackery, dirty and bruised, stood before him, his own knife dripping black with blood. There was a short laugh shared by the two men before a quick embrace, before they collapsed to the ground in exhaustion. Staring at the carcass of the demon before them, Cyrus stammered at Thackery, “How did you survive? That thing fell directly on top of you!”

Thackery smiled, tugging at his white locks. “Not my time, Cy. There was a little ditch just big enough for me to squeeze into right where it slammed me. Gave me enough time to lever my knife into its skull. This little thing is pretty lucky, I’ll say.” He brandished the small dagger he had picked up some years ago, admiring the way the blade shined through the blood covering it. He reluctantly began to clean it with a bit of spare cloth he kept around for precisely that purpose. He nodded at the broken bayonet jutting out from the hide of the bear. “You know, you’re going to have to buy a new one of those, and a sword to boot. Nobody is going to believe you broke both of them fighting a bear.”

Growling, Cyrus shoved Thackery hard enough to bowl him over. “Away and boil your head, cotton-top. That weren’t a bear and you know it. No bear alive had a hide thick as rocks, able to turn away raw steel.” He looked at the corpse lying before them, thinking back to how easily it had crushed the life out of Nathaniel. “None alive. We should be dead, same as Nat.”

Mischief twinkling in his eye, Thackery stood and turned to Cyrus. “Nonsense. We’re alive and well. Destined for great things. Take more than a bear to keep us down, stone skin or no. I always have a mind to worry about whatever we come up against, because we’ll always come out ahead, right?” Cyrus took the offered hand and pulled himself up onto his feet. “Come on now, we’ve got to make a stretcher and take poor Nat back with us. After they see what happened to him, maybe they’ll believe the story about the bear.”

Cyrus looked back at the body of the bear, then at his friend. “No, I doubt anyone will believe this. I barely believe it. I can hardly blame them, either. You and I show up and spin this tale around the campfire and it’ll get repeated and take on a life of it’s own. It’ll be a fourteen foot tall bear made of iron before you can blink.” He sighed and began collecting the debris of his weapons, leaving the blade of the bayonet well alone. When he got to his rifle, he sat down and gingerly took it apart piece by piece, running his fingers over every part to ensure that nothing was out of place, while Thackery set to looking for suitable staves of wood to carry the corpse of Nathaniel.

Satisfied his rifle survived it’s tumble in the leaves, Cyrus began bundling Nat up to transport him back to camp. He started by closing his horribly bloodshot eyes, then wrapping Nat’s coat around his chest to spare anyone else from the horror of seeing the cracked ribs and blood pooling in his abdominal cavity. When Thackery finally joined him with the staves wrapped around a coat, he grinned as they shifted Nat onto the stretcher. “Cy, just think about the legend that could grow out of this. You wrestled with the bear, in the end roaring so loud that it ran terrified, straight into my knife. You know I can’t resist a good story.”

  • Rase Cidraen

Tales - Blood From a Stone

Arcanum 1780: A New World RaseCidraen