torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
December 10-11 2010

Disclaimer: as if. Written for MsCongeniality in yuletide 2010. Beta by elynross. Do not archive without permission.

hungry as winter

The land was bleak down here, low, dry hills caught in the bitter cold of some winter or other. There was a bare dusting of snow on the hard-packed dirt on the windward side, and drifts piled up waist-high in the lee. They had trouble getting around, and Tenpou wondered why he hadn’t brought any gloves. The skin was beginning to crack over the knuckles of his right hand, and the discomfort only increased when he flexed his fingers.

At least it was easy to track the monster's enormous paw prints through the snow. He tried to guess if the wind would pick up, or if more snow would fall, obscuring the trail. The sky overhead was dirty white, the same color from end to end. Their dark uniforms stood out sharply. Tenpou made a mental note to investigate winter gear.

His adjutant Ryuzen came running up to him, slipping and sliding a little when the snow cheated him into believing the ground was even. Ryuzen never walked if he could run. He was red-eared with cold, but his eyes were bright. “Marshal!” he said cheerfully. “Fifth squad’s got it pinned down! This way!”

He turned to lead the way, then looked back over his shoulder to check whether Tenpou was following him. Tenpou smiled a little. “Ah. I’ll just let you show me, then." He went after Ryuzen, half his mind on his footing and half on wondering what pinned down meant, under the circumstances. As he walked, he adjusted his sword belt, and one knuckle actually started to bleed when he caught the chapped skin on a buckle.

Tenpou heard the monster before he saw it. Huge roars shook the ground under his feet, and Ryuzen's quick grin was almost excited. Tenpou wondered if he'd be able to smell it, too, but the cold air burned cleanly in his nose.

A small creek had dug deep between the shallow hills, creating a canyon that was closed off by a rockfall at one end. The monster was trapped in the canyon and howling its displeasure; it was huge, as tall as three men and with a body that mostly resembled that of a bear, but had too many additional limbs. Its fur was long, shaggy, and dirty.

Fifth squad was just outsiden the mouth of the canyon, and a protective barrier kept them from falling prey to the claws and teeth. The men were shouting at each other, and Tenpou drew to a halt and frowned as he saw that the gun that fired the knock-out drugs was lying just inside the canyon mouth, on the wrong side of the barrier.

He started walking again, lengthening his stride so that he overtook Ryuzen and reached the arguing huddle of fifth squad ahead of him. "What is going on here?" he asked softly. "Push the barrier inward so that you can reach the gun. Stop yelling at each other like children."

"Marshal!" Lu, fifth squad leader, straightened up and faced him, looking a little uneasy. "There is a problem."

"I would have to agree," Tenpou said. "It seems that this squad lacks initiative and the ability to take independent action."

"Sir." Lu looked embarrassed, but he stood his ground. "We cannot move the barrier."

Tenpou turned his head and looked more closely. "I see." The barrier had become entangled in a naturally-occurring obstacle where the flow of the earth's power rose close to the surface. It was stuck, the way a physical object would get stuck in the branches of a thorn bush. "Then take it down and reconstruct it in a better place."

"Sir!" Lu looked a little white around the eyes, but he turned to the rest of the squad and began to give orders: who would take the barrier down, who would work together to put up the new one.

"Sir." That was Ryuzen, sounding oddly diffident. "Your hand's bleeding." He held out a pair of black leather gloves. "Please accept these."

Tenpou took the gloves, but then stood weighing them in his hand. "I'll just get blood on the lining." Nevertheless, he pulled the gloves on slowly. They were still warm inside from Ryuzen's hands. He hadn't even noticed his fingers growing numb.

Fifth squad milled around, still looking entirely too random in their actions for Tenpou's peace of mind. Next to Tenpou, Ryuzen bounced a little on the balls of his feet. "I can get the gun," he offered. "When the barrier goes down. You know I'm fast."

"Bears have an unexpected turn of speed," Tenpou said thoughtfully, watching the monster that was pacing not far from the barrier with a shambling, deceptively bear-like gait. "In fact, over short distances--"

The barrier suddenly disappeared. Someone in the squad cursed. Ryuzen took off towards the gun that lay in the snow. Tenpou looked up and saw that the monster had also noticed the barrier's absence and was moving towards the mouth of the little canyon. It was fast; it was faster than a bear, faster than a running soldier who thought he was invulnerable.

"Ryuzen!"

All the cry did was put a stutter in Ryuzen's stride. He hesitated and almost stumbled, and then the monster was on him, heavy, bear-like jaws snapping shut, biting and tearing off his head and most of one shoulder.

Tenpou's vision whited out around the edges. He could hear cries and screams from the squad behind him, but they were thin and distant, as if he'd been lifted away to stand alone on a mountaintop with only the wind for company. He lifted his hands and flung them out, and a barrier sprang into existence between the squad and the monster, clearly visible to the naked eye, sizzling silver in the air. Someone swore, the words all but drowned out by the droning hum of the barrier and the sound of the bear-monster eating, grinding Ryuzen's skull between its long yellow teeth.

He could smell blood on the air now. Blood and brains.

Tenpou ran, throwing off his sword belt as he leapt forward, because the sword would only get in the way. He flew forward over the snow, barely touching down in a couple of Ryuzen's footprints, running faster than a bear, faster than a monster still intent on its feast. He passed so close by the bear-monster that he could have touched its fur, threw himself down and rolled as a huge paw swept through the air where his head had been, and came up holding the gun.

The monster roared out defiance in a stream of bad breath and the stench of blood. Tenpou fired. He fired again. The monster reared and caught him across the chest with one paw; it was only a graze, and the last thing he remembered thinking was that it was odd that a mere graze would bleed so much.

* * *

At the back of Kanzeon Bosatsu's palace, away from the more public spaces, was a rarely-used small garden with soft grass, a few gnarled trees, two artfully placed rocks, and a spring of burbling water. Konzen Douji lay sprawled under one of the trees, leaning on a silk pillow and eating pomegranate seeds one by one from a hammered gold dish.

Tenpou walked out and plopped down gracelessly under the next tree, leaning back to keep the sun out of his eyes. He reached out and took a few seeds for himself. Konzen slanted a look at him. "The military review thing is in the main front courtyard over there." He waved a languid hand. "Quite far from here."

"I'm regrettably on sick leave." Tenpou glanced down. The bandages were neatly hidden under his uniform, and the uniform in its turn hidden under a lab coat that had seen better days. A fairly substantial graze, they'd told him, after they'd carried him back through the dimension gate. Goujun had paid him a visit not long ago to ask why the entire fifth squad went around looking like beaten dogs; Tenpou had not found it in himself to be able to explain.

Being flat on his back in bed while the Dragon King of the West glared down at him had made him resolve to regain his health and leave the room as soon as possible, though.

"And this is quite far from your sickroom," Konzen pointed out. "It's only a ceremony. Someone would bring you a chair." It was quite clear from Konzen's voice that he didn't care about ceremonies or chairs.

"Are you trying to keep these to yourself?" Tenpou stole another pomegranate seed. The taste was lush and refreshing on his tongue, so he bit down on the seed itself for the bitter crunch.

"I don't care," Konzen said, and there was true indifference in his voice as he rolled over on his back to lie with his arms spread, staring up through the branches. "Just don't want you bringing the memorial service speeches out here, telling me what a wonderful military idiot you lost."

"No." Tenpou fished his cigarettes out of the pocket of his lab coat and lit one. That was the taste he craved, dry and sharp and sweetly perfect. "Let us talk about something else." He put the cigarettes back in his pocket, wedging the packet down next to a pair of soft leather gloves.

* * *

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