Eos glanced at my father, then grinned at me. “You definitely take after your dad.”
“Thank you,” I said politely. “Anybody know what these things are? I don’t recognize them.”
“I think,” My father said, surprising me, “that they’re Nûñ’yunu’wï.” He pronounced it ‘nun-yoo-noo-wee’ and sounded a bit bewildered. “They…don’t quite match the description in the legends, but…at a guess, I’d say they’re Stoneclad.”
The name rang a bell in the back of my mind, and I had a brief, vivid flash of sitting at a campfire with my dad when I was ten or eleven years old as he told me the old Cherokee legends. After a moment, it came back to me. “Blind cannibal monsters, lead themselves around with a stone cane, can only be killed by destroying the talismans that animate them or…” I trailed off, rolling my eyes as I remembered the last part “Or being weakened by the presence of menstruating women.”
Dad smiled faintly. “Hey, I didn’t make up the story. I just told it. Never saw one before in my life…didn’t really believe in them until just now. Heck, I’m not even sure that’s what they actually are.” He raised his voice and addressed the creatures again. “Gentlemen, we’re a working bar that serves food. That means the usual Health Department restrictions: No shirt, no shoes, no service.”
“You,” Heracles said to the creatures, his face set in a firm expression of disapproval, “have interrupted a very important, private conversation. Leave now, and we will allow you to do so under your own power. Stay, and we will make you leave.”
“Any idea why they’d be here?” I asked my father.
He shrugged. “I haven’t pissed anybody off lately, at least that I know of. Have you?”
Eos and I exchanged a look.
The lead Stoneclad moved its mouth, producing the distinct sound of grinding stone. Its companions began to spread out a little, moving slowly.
Dad stepped back from the bar slightly. “Don’t suppose either of you ladies are -”
“Hey, a father has to embarrass his little girl once in a while, right?” He smiled and pulled a pump-action shotgun out from under the bar. “Guess we do this the hard way, then.”
Heracles rose, stretched his shoulders, rolled his neck and cracked his knuckles. “A little exercise will do us good!”
Eos and I both hopped off our stools, our casual clothes melting back into our uniforms and armor.
“Let’s try and take this outside, shall we?” Eos asked as electricity started to crackle around her fists.
I drew Cerberus from the back of my belt and expanded it into its basic carbine form, flicking it on and setting it to medium power, which would give me thirty shots before it needed a couple of minutes to recharge. “Let’s. They’ve already made enough of a mess in here.”
“I’d appreciate that,” my father said. “My insurance doesn’t cover ‘acts of mythological creatures.’”
“Some medicine man you are,” I teased.
“Hey, I’m a glorified herbalist who knows more than a bit about healing people and tells all the old stories,” he protested. “I don’t go out and fight monsters like my big strong daughter.”
“This night,” Heracles said gravely, “you will get your chance. Where would they keep their talismans?”
“Not a clue,” I said.
“Could be anywhere on their bodies,” Dad said, chambering a shell in his shotgun. “Or maybe even inside their bodies. At least, if the old stories are right. In the tale I know, the people had to burn the Stoneclad they captured for an entire day and a night to kill it and find its talisman.”
Eos bounced on her toes a little and activated her helmet. “I like a good bonfire.”
I reached up and activated my helmet as well. “Me too.”
“I will bring the marshmallows!” Heracles proclaimed, then took three lunging steps forward and slammed his huge right fist into the lead Stoneclad’s face. It was a shattering blow…literally; the Stoneclad’s face cracked with a loud crunching noise, and half of its head sloughed off and crashed to the floor.
“Ha!” Heracles crowed, then grunted in surprise as the injured Stonclad punched him in the stomach in return. Which admirably demonstrated that these creatures were tougher than they looked. And that was really saying something.
Eos and I opened fire, taking center-mass shots at the Stoneclad to either side of the one Heracles had engaged. Cerberus’ energy bolts left scorched pits on the stone armor plate on the thing’s chest, and identical ones on its un-armored stone skin, so it seemed that 50% power wasn’t going to cut it. I pushed the intensity slider all the way to 100%, which reduced my ammo counter to only 10 shots…but when I pulled the trigger again, the shot blew a fist-sized chunk out of the Stoneclad’s armor and skin alike.
Eos, unfortunately, was having less luck with her lightning bolts. Lightning can definitely break stone, but the intensities she’d need to use to do so were just too much for this kind of close-quarters fighting. “Talia, do you have any of those armor piercing rounds with you?”
“Yes!” I called back, “I just need a second!”
My father appeared beside me. “We’ll cover you!”
Heracles roared and shoulder-blocked the Stoneclad he was fighting, charging forward and pushing it – and the ones behind it – back out the door with a massive effort. That left us with just three inside the bar.
My father stepped in front of me, and Eos closed the gap to stand beside him. His shotgun began to boom, and she resumed throwing lightning bolts. Between them, they kept the Stoneclad from advancing.
Which gave me time to dig a magazine of armor piercing ammo out of one of my belt pouches, slap it into Cerberus’s receiver, and for Cerberus to resize itself into a longer and heavier form, better suited to throwing big metal slugs rather than massless bolts of energy .
“Clear!” I shouted.
Dad went left, Eos went right, and I started shooting.
It turned out that Daedalus’s high velocity, armor piercing rounds were not only sufficient to punch softball-sized holes in the Stoneclad’s chest, they were powerful enough to continue on to put holes in the outside wall of the bar. “Crap! Sorry!”
“Don’t worry about it right now,” Dad said, “keep shooting!”
So I did. I aimed for shoulders first, and in a few moments had literally disarmed the three Stoneclad that were still inside the bar with us. Then I tracked down, and aimed for their hips. As soon as they were on the floor, completely disabled, Eos waded in and began pounding on them.
She might not have been as strong as her older half-brother, but I was hard pressed to tell the difference. Her fists, wreathed in crackling electricity, made miniature thundercracks of sound with each blow. She reduced the first one to a pile of rubble in short order and moved onto the next one as I headed for the door.
My father, watching her work, was obviously both stunned and awed by my girlfriend’s prowess. I tried not to feel too pleased on her behalf…it can take a lot to impress an ex-Marine, after all.
“Dad,” I said firmly, “stay here, see if you can find a talisman in that mess.”
“You got it, honey.”
I peered out the door and saw Heracles busily engaging six more of the Stoneclad out in the parking lot. One was missing an arm, another was missing a head, and a seventh was on the ground, missing both legs. It was crawling towards the door, dragging itself along with its arms, so I shot them both off at the shoulders, then blew its head to flinders for good measure. I didn’t know what kind of regenerative abilities these things had, but at the very least that would immobilize it for a while.
My eyes flicked to Cerberus’ ammo counter in my heads-up display, and it read two rounds left. I aimed and fired both, taking one of the Stoneclad’s legs off at the knees, then I ejected the empty magazine and reloaded with a fresh one from my belt pouches.
“Thank you!” Heracles called over his shoulder as he caught a Stoneclad’s punch in his big hand, shifted his grip to its wrist, and used his free hand to smash the extended arm off at the shoulder. As that Stoneclad reeled back, I blew its head from its shoulders and shot both legs off.
Heracles, meanwhile, was now wielding the dismembered arm like a stone club, using it to bash at his remaining five attackers. It bought him some space, forcing them back, but he wasn’t making much progress and he was now in the way of me taking more shots.
Eos slid past me suddenly. “Hold fire a minute.”
She waded in, going back to back with Heracles, and what followed was the stuff of legend. They punched and kicked, shattering stone bodies, passing Stoneclad from one to the other of them as Heracles smashed arms and Eos smashed legs. Eos made a point of knocking her assailants back from her, giving me opportunities to shoot off limbs. Heracles caught on quickly and began doing the same.
Together, we made short work of our opponents. Once the Stoneclad were all immobilized on the ground, Heracles and Eos pounded what was left into chunks of stone that could never have been identified as humanoid bodies.
My dad appeared beside me in the doorway. “I couldn’t find anything that looked like a talisman on these three. But the pieces of stone are starting to twitch and move towards one another.” He blinked at the sight of Heracles and Eos doing a fist-bump. “Unless y’all wanna do this again in a little while, we need to figure out how to deal with them permanently.”
I glanced at him. “Fire, you said. Right?”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “The old story said they burned the bodies for a day and a night.”
I looked at the mound of rubble surrounding my girlfriend and her half-brother. Then I glanced over my shoulder at the pile inside the bar behind us, which was – as my dad had said – starting to move a little. I turned my attention back to my dad and gave him a winning smile. “Wanna build a bonfire in the parking lot?”
A half an hour later, I shoveled the last load of Stoneclad-gravel into the huge roaring fire that Heracles and Eos had built in the parking lot. Eos had sparked the fire with a bolt of lightning (pun absolutely intended, like I was going to pass up that opportunity), and we’d fed the remains in with the use of several metal snow shovels Dad had handy.
I backed away from the blaze and leaned the shovel against my dad’s pickup, then walked over to the others and took Eos’s hand. She smiled at me and gave me a little kiss.
“Well,” Heracles said, brushing his hands together in a ‘that’s done’ gesture. “That was bracing! If I’d known you kids were having this kind of fun, I’d’ve done this sooner.”
My father snorted.
Eos did too, then punched Heracles on the arm with her free hand. “Sure you would’ve. You were hiding from Talia the same way she was avoiding talking to you.”
“I’m going to assume this will end the matter?” My dad asked hopefully. “Not that Heracles has been anything but a good customer, and I’d be glad as heck to see you all regularly, but…the big guy there moping around the bar and crying in his beer was starting to drive away customers. And this was kinda hard on my bar…”
“I was not crying in my beer,” Heracles said with wounded pride and a distinct lack of conviction. Then, more firmly, he added, “We shall, of course, help repair the damage we caused tonight.”
I glanced over my shoulder at the bullet holes in wall on either side of the door and winced. “Yeah.” I let go of Eos’s hand and walked over to Heracles.
He looked down at me and smiled tentatively. “I believe the modern saying is, ‘Are we good?’”
I smiled up at him. “Yeah, we’re good.” I held out my hand to him.
Instead of taking my hand, he engulfed me in a hug that lifted me off my feet and made my ribs creak. “Good!” He set me down gently and laughed when I pretended to stumble a little and rubbed my ribs.
We watched the fire for any signs of movement from the pile of stone we’d poured into the middle of it. When we hadn’t seen any after an hour, we all started to relax.
“So,” Heracles said finally, “this matter of you dating my little sister…”
Eos stomped on his foot hard enough to make him grunt.
“I approve!” He said through clenched teeth. “I approve! Gods’ teeth, you’re a little hellion,” he said to Eos.
She beamed at him.
My father and I laughed, and he looped an arm around my shoulders. “For what it’s worth,” Dad said, “I approve too. And I was serious before, I’d really like it if you’d all come ‘round regularly. Have a few drinks, have dinner with your old man…” He squeezed my shoulders gently.
“We will,” I promised. “At least once a month from now on.”
Eos nodded. “I’ll make sure of it.”
“And I,” Heracles said, leaning to one side a bit as he took his weight off the foot Eos had stomped on, “shall continue visiting as well. You have an excellent selection of very good beer.”
My father beamed. “Coming from you, that’s quite a compliment. Now, how do we go about fixing my bar?”
I grinned. “I know a carpenter who owes me a favor. Let me make a call.”
By the time the sun had risen and a local police cruiser pulled up, Eos and I were back in civilian clothes and my carpenter friend had been and gone, making short work of the bullet holes and repairing the door. He’d made the repairs so quickly and with such little fuss that, after his departure, my father – admiring the fact that his bar looked exactly the same as it had earlier that evening, with no sign at all that anything had happened there – had commented, “Damn, that guy is some kind of miracle worker.”
Eos had snorted a little laugh. “You have no idea.”
Dad was just coming out of the bar with a tray of eggs, sausages, and toast as the state trooper – that’s what he was, based on the markings on his car – climbed out of his cruiser. He looked at the three of us sitting in lawn chairs we’d dragged over by the front door, then at my Dad as he set the tray down on a small folding table. “Morning, Dave,” the trooper said as he walked around the roaring bonfire. “What’s up with the fire hazard?”
My father smiled. “Morning, Joe. No fire hazard. Just having some breakfast with family.”
The trooper glanced at the three of us again – Heracles lifted a glass of orange juice in salute – then back to my father. “Uh huh. You have an open fire permit?”
My dad nodded. “It’s inside the bar, I’ll go get it. Have you eaten yet? There’s enough food there for an army.”
Heracles shrugged and rumbled, “‘Twas a long night, and we’re hungry.”
Eos kicked his ankle – of the same foot she’d stomped on earlier – and he winced.
Dad shook his head and went inside, but I saw that he was smiling.
The trooper stared at us as we shuffled over to the table and started collecting food. Finally, he nodded to me. “Talia, right?”
I looked at him curiously and nodded. “Yeah…”
He took off his hat and smiled. “You probably don’t remember me. Last time I saw you, you couldn’t have been older than…ten or eleven, I’d guess. Joe Cornsilk? Your dad helped me fix up my car that summer, and you were always trying to see what he was doing.”
I smiled and nodded, shaking his hand. “I do remember. Nice to see you again…” I quickly glanced at his rank bars, which marked him as a lieutenant “…Officer Cornsilk.”
He chuckled. “Newly minted just a few weeks ago. But thank you for checking. If you don’t mind my asking…there were some reports of gunshots out in this direction early this morning. Folks figured it was hunters – we get a lot of out-of-season hunting, unfortunately – but I wanted to double-check. How long have you and your friends been here?”
His eyes left me and moved over the front of the bar, and I was profoundly glad we’d gotten the front of Dad’s bar fixed up so quickly. “Since late last night,” I said. Then I gestured to Eos. “This is my girlfriend Eos, and her brother -” My brain seized up for a moment. Was I really going to introduce him as ‘Heracles?’
Fortunately, the man himself stepped forward and offered a huge hand. “Hank.”
Officer Cornsilk shook it, smiling. “Nice to meet you, Hank, and you Eos.” He blinked in surprise as Heracles offered him a plate of food and a fork with the other hand. “Thank you kindly,” he said as he took it. “I did kinda dash out here when I heard about the shots fired report.” He shook his head. “Our station has a tendency to ignore those reports unless someone’s actually hurt, which I’m trying to fix. Did you all hear anything?”
Eos nodded. “Yeah, we heard some shots really early this morning. Sounded like a shotgun to me.”
‘Hank’ and I both nodded.
Officer Cornsilk eyed her curiously.
Eos smiled. “My dad used to take Hank and me skeet shooting.”
“Ah,” Officer Cornsilk nodded, then took a bite of his eggs. “Delicious…were the shots close by, or…?”
Eos shrugged. “Tough to tell. Lots of echoes.”
He nodded again and sighed. “Yeah, that’s what everybody else I’ve spoken with so far said too. Probably just some out-of-season hunters after all. No sign of anything else, but I have to check.”
We all murmured words of understanding and agreement.
Dad returned then with a bundle of papers, shuffling through them before coming up with one and holding it up for Officer Cornsilk to see. “Open fire permit.”
Cornsilk smiled, barely glancing at it. “Thanks, Dave. Just procedure, you know.”
Dad nodded and folded the papers back up, tucking them under his arm. “I do.”
Officer Cornsilk left about a half an hour later – after finishing his breakfast and a cup of coffee – and we all relaxed and sat down to keep an eye on the bonfire. None of the stone fragments moved.
A little after noon, Dad opened up the bar for the day, and customers began drifting in and out. There was a bit of a party atmosphere to the whole thing because of the bonfire, which was helped along when Heracles gleefully pulled out and fired up a couple of large grills to keep a steady flow of burgers and hot dogs available. Dad went and got a few hours of sleep in the late afternoon, while Eos and I tended bar and took turns keeping an eye on the bonfire.
I remembered a few of the people who stopped by for a drink and some food from the summers I’d spent with my dad when I was little, and I got quite a few words of congratulation about managing to land such a beautiful girlfriend…and, after one epic drinking contest later in the evening, for landing a girlfriend who could hold her beer so spectacularly.
I felt it was cheating…it’d take an awful lot of beer to get an Avatar drunk, after all…but I didn’t say anything because Eos was having a good time and there was a teasingly friendly atmosphere to the whole thing. Nobody got hurt, everybody went home happy, so who cares why she really won.
The last few customers left around one o’clock the next morning, and we all settled down by the bonfire again to watch and wait. Heracles kept the fire fed, and Eos dozed off with her head on my shoulder around two.
Dad sat down next to me, leaning forward to look at Eos for a moment before shaking his head and smiling as he relaxed in the chair. Very softly, he said, “Are you happy, honey?”
I shifted a little and slipped an arm around Eos’ shoulders. She murmured wordlessly and relaxed against me. I smiled. “Very happy.”
Dad nodded and sipped his coffee. “I’m glad. Your mother told me where you’d been assigned, but not why, you know.”
“Welcome to the club,” I murmured. “But it’s all worked out well so far. It definitely wasn’t what I was expecting, but…”
He smiled. “Yeah,” he said softly, “life has a way of throwing you curve balls. I mean, when I left to join the Marines, I never expected to be back here running my father’s bar and learning to be a medicine man like him. But the service changed me. When I got out, there was nothing else I could think of doing…I felt like I was adrift and needed to ground myself again. Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else. Was it kinda like that?”
I huffed a little laugh. “Kinda. Just…a lot weirder.”
“Sounds like an understatement.”
We both laughed softly. Heracles glanced over, smiled, and we exchanged a friendly nod. Relationship repaired, all caught up with my dad, girlfriend approved. It didn’t get much better than this.
A little after four in the morning, the fire shifted and something tumbled out, coming to rest not far from where we were sitting. It was little figure of a man, carved out of smooth stone and about three inches tall. Two more joined it a moment later.
“Talismans,” my father murmured.
Eos sat up and stared. “What do we do with them?”
“Destroy them,” Dad said quietly. “Shouldn’t take much.”
Heracles rose, walked do them, and stomped his big work boot down on the first one, grinding it under his heel. When he lifted his foot again, there was nothing left but gravel. He nodded and repeated the process as more of the little figures tumbled out of the fire, and it wasn’t long before the whole thing was over.
“Think we’ll ever know who sent them?” Eos asked.
I shook my head. “Not likely. But at this point, I can make an educated guess.”
Eos glanced at my father, then grinned at me. “You definitely take after your dad.”