Gods, why do you hate me? Gangrel asked the heavens. There was no answer from above—as usual. Gritting his teeth, the red-haired man turned back towards his group.
Still nearly a week's march from civilization, the Shepherds were running low on their supplies. Rather than wait for their food and water to run out, Chrom had ordered that the Shepherds spend the day foraging for anything to eat and refilling the water jugs. Frederick had been in charge of group organization, and Gangrel swore that the Great Knight had either a cruel streak or an ironic one: of all the people the Mad King could have been paired with, it just had to be Stahl and Nisha, didn't it?
It was official: the gods hated him. Or liked watching him suffer.
He wouldn't have minded if it was just Nisha: she was clever, dependable, and the only person the trickster felt safe watching his back. But of course, that boy would be accompanying them. An untested youth, Stahl would slow down the entire process, of that Gangrel was certain. The only benefit would be that white horse, to carry whatever food they could find in the Valmese wilderness.
As the two Ylisseans secured several bags to Stahl's mount, Gangrel sharpened one of his knives, refusing to look up from the whetstone. When he was satisfied with the blade's razor edge, he took another one and repeated the process.
"Are you coming?"
The Plegian glared at Stahl with more hostility than strictly necessary, reluctantly standing and trailing after the tactician and paladin. The cover of trees—which had been very light around the Shepherd's camp—thickened to such a degree that all direct sunlight was blocked out. Almost immediately, Nisha found something.
"Alright Stahl, quiz time," she announced, pointing at a less-than-extraordinary plant. "True or False: the entire plant is edible."
The young man studied the plant for a moment before he answered confidently.
"False! The root is edible—if a little bitter—but the leaves are poisonous! Okay, your turn. True or False: those mushrooms could kill you."
"True; those are Destroying Angels."
Gangrel rolled his eyes as they continued, occasionally picking a plant and placing it in the packs. Seriously, were they going to be like this the whole time? So much for quality time with Nisha...
Wait, the trickster halted his musing, shaking his head. Where did that thought come from?
Now that he really thought about, some time alone with the tactician somehow sounded appealing. Very appealing. He could imagine the scene—a much more interesting alternative to the real foraging experience. If it were just the two of them, they would be trading witticisms endlessly, perhaps not being as efficient, but having a much better time. She would be laughing at something he'd said, and then—
"Hey, are you going to help?"
Stahl's voice brought him back to reality. The paladin was looking up from the ground, his arms full of roots and leaves, the dark-haired tactician beside him doing the same. The only difference were their expressions: Nisha watched him with a slight smile, clearly at ease. Stahl's face, on the other hand, was mostly blank, but Gangrel could see that he was fighting a scowl. Feeling impish, the Mad King decided not to let this opportunity to annoy the brunette Ylissean slip by.
"Thank you for offering," he drawled. "but I think I'll pass; I'm no expert in botany after all."
"That's okay," Nisha said, cutting off whatever Stahl had been ready to say. "I'm not a specialist myself. But hey, if Risen attack, at least one of us is paying attention."
"Yeah, so when we die, at least someone can carry the news back to camp," Stahl said, his voice flat. Nisha blinked in surprise and turned to face the young man, looking confused. Stahl didn't seem to notice for a moment—he was far too busy glaring at the Mad King—but when he did, he dropped his gaze, flushing with shame. Gangrel let the younger man feel the mortification of what he'd just said before he continued.
"Oh yes, that's one option," he agreed smirking, "but I would prefer to save your skins rather than let some pathetic corpses take you. Chrom's expression would be priceless when he heard that I rescued you! Bwahahaha!"
Nisha pondered his statement for a moment, her smile widening as she pictured the scene before laughing herself. Now it was Stahl's turn to be confused.
"I don't get it," he said, furrowing his brow. "What's so funny?"
"Clearly not your sense of humor," the Mad King shot back.
"Okay guys, that's enough railing on each other," the tactician said calmly, coming off her moment of humor. "We're all on the same side here, so let's act like it."
"Okay," Stahl said reluctantly.
"Fine," Gangrel shrugged, still smirking. He noticed a faint movement by a bush and drew one of his knives. When the leaves rustled again, he threw the blade, feeling a sense of satisfaction when he heard a small squeak from the foliage. He walked over to the bush, pulling his knife free of a rabbit. Picking up the small creature, he held it for the Ylisseans to see.
"True or False," he asked, grinning wickedly. "I just proved that I'm not a total waste of space."
"Both," Nisha answered. "You proved your use on this trip, but you didn't need to kill that rabbit to prove your worth."
Stahl rolled his eyes, and Gangrel almost joined him; it was definitely something she would say.
Their efforts of hunting and gathering proved fruitful in the hours the threesome spent in the woods—in a very literal sense too once they found a small pear tree. Soon, all the packs they had were filled to capacity.
"We really struck it lucky, I think," Nisha commented, looking at the bulging bags with satisfaction. "Stahl, you don't mind if I borrow Ranger and deliver what we found back to camp, do you?"
"Of course not," the verdant paladin answered cheerfully. "Go right ahead."
The tactician easily mounted the white horse, taking up the reins in one hand. She looked down at the two men and issued her instructions.
"Wait here for me to come back; I shouldn't be long. Don't kill each other."
"Yes ma'am," Stahl replied, giving a two-finger salute. Gangrel just rolled his eyes. Nisha smiled and turned the horse around so she could ride away. As the tactician vanished back into the forest, the young man sat on the ground, resting against a tree.
"I taught her to ride you know," he said. "Back during the peace. She learned quickly--much faster than I was expecting. Guess it's part of her job to adapt to new situations, though."
"Did I ask?" Gangrel snapped, folding his arms and shifting his weight to one leg. With Nisha gone, he didn't have to play nice to the Ylissean whelp, and he was in no mood for more of Stahl's mindless chatter. Unfortunately, the boy took the question literally.
"No, but your face did." The former king raised an eyebrow, and Stahl hastened to explain: "I'm good at reading faces; you didn't know Nisha could ride and were curious where she had learned."
"If you're such a mind reader," Gangrel growled, getting more annoyed by the second, "then there's no need for you to talk, is there?"
"I don't read minds; just expressions," the younger man corrected. "If I could read minds, I'd know which of us won that risen-slaying challenge."
Can he not take a hint and shut up? Gangrel wondered. Apparently not, because he just kept talking, prattling endlessly.
"I seriously can't tell who won that; we're both pretty quick when it comes to battle, and I was on horseback, so I could cover more ground, but you were right in the thick of the action, so—"
"I put thirty-three risen in the grave that day," Gangrel snapped, fed up with all the talking. "How many can you claim?"
"Thirty-nine," Stahl answered, smirking. "Looks like I win."
"And how many of those were dead before Nisha was gutted by a berserker?"
"Then I win," the trickster said smugly. "By six bodies."
"That doesn't count!" the brunette argued, getting to his feet. "I killed more risen total!"
"You were on the battlefield longer! I was saving our tactician's life while you were killing the rest! If anything—“
The Mad King's tirade was interrupted by a low growling sound. Both men turned slowly and saw a large bear staring at them. It rose up on its hind legs, sniffing the air. Seven feet tall, it was taller than both the men and clearly much stronger. Gangrel cursed himself for not bringing his Levin sword. Stahl was clearly having similar thoughts.
"True of false," he whispered, his voice oddly high. "I really should have brought my lance."
"Do I have to answer?" the red-haired man snapped, keeping his voice down. The bear swung its head towards them, dropping back down on all fours. "I have a better question: why aren't we running?"
Right on cue, the bear roared and charged. Gangrel and Stahl both turned and ran back into the trees. The Mad King could hear the heavy pawsteps of the giant predator closing in and changed direction at top speed, zigzagging away.
"We need to split up!" Stahl yelled. "It can only chase one of us!"
"Who put you in charge?!" Gangrel hollered back. He saw the young paladin grit his teeth at that, but continued to chase the red-haired man through the forest. As the pair made a sharp turn, they heard three hundred kilograms of bear slam into the thick trunk of a tree, roaring in pain and frustration. Taking advantage of their moment of safety, the trickster scrambled up the rough face of a giant rock, allowing himself a minute to breathe. A few seconds later, Stahl joined him.
"We need a plan," the younger man panted. "You should distract it; I can't run as quickly in full armor."
"Why me?" Gangrel complained. "And what am I supposed to do once that thing catches up with me? I can't run forever."
"Climb a tree?" Stahl suggested, shrugging helplessly. "I don't know! But if you distract it, I can go find Nisha; she has an elthunder tome on her."
"I'm not convinced," the Plegian replied dryly. "There is no way I am being used as bait or climbing a tree!"
"We don't have time for your acrophobia! Either you distract the bear, or we're both dead!"
A loud roar sounded at the base of the rock and they both looked down at an enraged bear, attempting to claw its way up the stone surface.
"Time's up." Stahl grimaced as he said it. Gangrel swore viciously, cursing the gods. He hated to admit it, but it was a better plan than anything he had thought of, even if it did mean risking his neck. Didn't mean he had to like it though.
"I'm never forgiving you for this," he snarled. The Ylissean nodded in acknowledgment, and the Mad King half jumped, half slid down the opposite face of the rock, running as soon as his feet hit the ground. The distraction worked, and the red-haired man knew it when he heard the bear stop trying to climb the rock. He cursed again.
The one advantage Gangrel had was his speed and that would not be enough to avoid the bear forever. With his limited options, there was really only one thing to do: obey Stahl's suggestion and climb a tree. Unfortunately, the Mad King had little to no climbing skill or experience—he'd lived in a desert his whole life after all. This was going to be a painful experience.
I am never leaving camp without a Levin Sword again, he thought, grimacing as rough tree bark bit into his hands. After much struggle and effort, he found a branch large enough to easily balance on. Panting he looked down and saw the bear glaring up at him ten feet below, standing on its hind legs. The large predator considered its prey, high above its head, for a long moment, as if deciding whether or not it was worth waiting for. The bear made its decision, placed its paws on the trunk, and began to climb.
Oh gods, it's coming after me, Gangrel realized with horror. He turned his head, looking up at higher branches for any way to escape. But the thought of going any higher made his heart pound and feel dizzy. He looked back down at the bear.
Naga, I hate you.
As Gangrel cursed the gods one by one, Stahl was running through the forest, calling out Nisha's name as loud as he could while moving. He heard familiar hoofbeats and yelled again.
"Stahl?" the tactician pulled Ranger to a stop and dismounted, jogging to the distressed paladin. "What happened? Where's Gangrel?"
"Bear," Stahl gasped. "We split up. It chased after him, so I came to find you."
"C'mon," Nisha ordered, remounting the horse, helping Stahl fit in the saddle behind her. "Where did you leave him?"
"Back by a large rock, maybe seventeen feet tall."
"How far do you think he ran?"
"No idea. Hopefully he made it up a tree in time."
Nisha turned back in the saddle.
"Don't you dare come near me!" Gangrel yelled, hoping the bear would be intimidated. It paused in its climb for a moment, but continued its ascent anyway, coming ever closer.
His chances of escape were getting narrower by the second, forcing one option after the next into oblivion. The only way he could get away with no injury—hopefully—was if he jumped straight down. And there was no way he was doing that. He'd already scaled another five feet, and could go no higher
"I hate you Stahl!" he yelled to the heavens.
"That's a shame."
Not expecting an answer, the Mad King whirled around and nearly lost his balance. Waiting under the tree—on a white horse, ironically—Nisha and Stahl both held weapons, ready to attack. Taking careful aim, the dark-haired tactician used her tome, hitting the bear between the shoulder blades with a bolt of lightning.
The bear roared once in pain and rage before it fell out of the tree, landing in a heap of brown fur. Taking no chances, Stahl dismounted and ensured that the bear was dead by stabbing it with his sword a few times. Satisfied, the young woman looked up at the frazzled Plegian.
"Come on down," she called. Gangrel watched her for a moment, then looked at the branches around him, then back down.
"That might be a problem, tactician," he said slowly. This drew Stahl's attention as well, and the two Ylisseans watched him curiously from below.
"Why?" Nisha asked. The Mad King gritted his teeth, frustrated and embarrassed.
"I...seem to be stuck."