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A Wolf In Any Other Clothing

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Three

 

"So what did'ja find out. Rowan?" Ryo haphazardly tossed his keys on the table by the door and they skidded in amidst the accumulated mail and junk that seemed to migrate there. He stepped aside and let Seiji pass by him on the way in before shutting the door and casting Rowan half his attention.

"Something's out there killing livestock. Don't know if it's White Blaze or not."

"White blaze does not kill livestock, dude." Ryo said, frowning as he followed Seiji's ascent of the stairs with his gaze.

"Yeah, well what does he eat when he's gone months at a time? He sure as hell don't hit the local butcher."

Ryo didn't bother to grace that with a reply. He walked into the kitchen and laid the small white bag with Seiji's prescriptions on the table.

"Doc stitch him all up?" Rowan asked, following him in, fiddling with the fletching on a short, cross bow arrow.

"Yeah. He's infected."

"With what?"

"The scratches, Rowan. Doc, said it was real bad. I guess White Blaze has got a pretty serious set of claws."

"Well, no shit, Ryo. He's a tiger. He's a fuckin' mystical tiger."

"Yeah, well ---" Ryo couldn't think up an answer, couldn't help but feel guilty that his tiger had mauled his --- well, mauled Seiji, when Seiji had only been trying to help. "Doctor gave him some antibiotics and some pain pills and told him to take it easy a few days." Not to mention the fever that Seiji hadn't mentioned and the fact that Ryo felt like a complete shit for hitting him and that Seiji hadn't spoken two sentences to him all the way to and from the doctor's office in town that hadn't been practically forced out of him. Now Rowan suggested White Blaze might be offing livestock. That somebody might have had a reason and a right to shoot at him. If that were the case -- it was just too depressing to think about.

"So what are you doing, Rowan?" he asked, finally taking in the collection of Rowan's killing material laid out on the kitchen table.

"Oh, goin' hunting."

"Hunting what?"

Rowan looked up from under his ungainly fall of hair and grinned. "There's something else out there. At least according to the guy that maybe shot White Blaze."

"You know who shot him?" Ryo took a sudden step towards him, fists clenched.

Rowan arched a fine brow. "Yeah, and I'm not telling you, man. The guy wasn't out of bounds. So just live with it. But there was another something that he saw taking off from the scene of the crime. So I'm gonna go out and see what I can turn up. Wanna come?"

Ryo opened his mouth. Shut it thoughtfully, eyeing Rowan's hunting bows. He wasn't much for hunting. He didn't do well with facing down doe eyed things with the contemplation of ending their lives. He had never accompanied Rowan on one of his outings before, but this was different. This was a matter of proving White Blaze innocent.

Slowly he nodded. "Okay, I'm up for it."

 

Seiji's head hurt. He tried to ignore it, but it came at him from duplicitous angles, slipping past his defenses. The arm throbbed, as if each and everyone of White Blaze's claw marks had a life of its own. He grimaced and settled deeper into the chair, repositioning the book he had been fingering but paying little real attention to. The pain was welcome. It was just recompense for his own stupidity. Ryo's short burst of anger had been justified, even though the method of it had shocked him. He wished Ryo had the capacity to hold onto a grudge for more than the breath it took to air his grievances. It would have made Seiji feel better. It would have reaffirmed his own definitions of righteousness. It would have made the guilt a little less. It might even have alleviated the bitter self-incrimination that he forced upon himself. But he doubted it. There were some things that honor and his sense of responsibility would not let slip away so easily.

It wasn't so much the decision that bothered him. The choice to release a thing that could have -- and when it got right down to it -- had helped them out of a difficult situation, had not been a bad one. Letting it seep past his control, past his not inconsiderable strength of will -- that was unforgivable. That bothered him to no ends. That kept him from sleeping at night and kept him at odds with Ryo, because Ryo didn't understand. Ryo's sense of honor was not that rigid. Ryo would just as well pretend it hadn't happened and Seiji couldn't do that. He could not, as Ryo had so inelegantly put it this morning, let it go.

He looked out the window, at an afternoon shaded by a curtain of clouds. It was likely to rain. He felt the oppression in the air. He could just see the battered chassis of Kento's car, the hood up, Kento himself immersed under it. He and Rowan had been long gone by the time Ryo had bullied Seiji into having the wounds looked at. Seiji was surprised every time the chevy made it back all parts intact. He rather missed the sight of his shiny, new car in the driveway.There was a soft knock on his door. He didn't bother to answer, but the door opened anyway and Ryo slid halfway in, fingers holding to the edge of it like it was a shield. Like he needed protection from Seiji's miserable self.

"Umm, Rowan an' me are going hunting."

Seiji lifted a brow. Ryo didn't hunt. He refrained from stating the obvious. Ryo would get around to explaining. Ryo did.

"He thinks there might be some rogue animal out there killing livestock and that's why White Blaze got shot at. We're gonna go look. Just wanted you to know, is all. If you need anything, I told Sai what the doc said."

Wonderful. All he needed was Sai with a nursing mission. Seiji sighed and folded the page down on the book.

"It's going to storm."

Ryo's brows drew, he glanced out the window warily. "Is it?"

"Just -- be careful, all right?"

Ryo blinked at him, surprised at the warning. Or perhaps surprised at the weary tone of Seiji's voice. Then he broke into a grin, that beautiful, blinding smile of his that always made Seiji stare in spite of himself.

"When am I not?" And he went away, much more confident than he'd come. Seiji shut his eyes and wondered why he felt uneasy. Probably the blood poisoning.

 

They drove a good ways from home, out to the general territory where a good deal of the livestock slaughtering had happened. The localization made sense. A predator set up territory. A predator defended it.

"You know, this isn't that far from where I wrecked Seiji's car." Ryo remarked, as he pulled the jeep off the side of the road onto a leaf covered strip of siding. It wasn't. Maybe five miles back down the highway. It made him nervous thinking about it. He focused his attention on pulling gear out of the back of the jeep. Not a lot of gear. Just a canteen that would clip onto his belt and one of his sharper practice Katana's. He wasn't a bowman, though he wasn't half bad at hitting what he aimed at. One had to figure that anything that Rowan couldn't take down with one shot, might have to be dealt with close up. The sword was better for close encounters. He strapped it onto his back, and waited for Rowan to finish sorting his gear, putting various odd items into the pockets of his quilted hunting vest. He had a quiver of white fletched bolts at his side, fastened to his belt like a holster, and a sleek, twin release cross bow in his hand. He announced himself ready to proceed.

Through the woods they tromped. Past the initial undergrowth at the edge of the highway and into the shadowed, muffled quiet of the forest. Pine needles and browned leaves silenced their footsteps. He had vague, wavery visions of being hauled through the woodlands of hell not so long ago,. Indistinct memories filled with pain and disorientation. He had not been at his best during that trek. The nightmarish creatures of hell had seen to that.

"I think there's a game trail about a mile that way." Rowan indicated a direction. "That's as good a place to head as any."

Ryo let him take the lead. Rowan was the hunter. Rowan knew the woods. Rowan, who was generally very chatty and not quiet doing it, kept his silences. And when he did speak, it was softly. His eyes were very attentive to the nuances of the wood. He pointed out various things to Ryo. The track of a deer here, the huddled form of a roosting owl there. Ryo never would have seen them.

"How many people have lost animals?" he asked, automatically using the same soft voice that Rowan had taken up. It seemed criminal to break the vast silence of the forest.

Rowan told him what he'd learned in town that morning. Rowan told him about the strip club and demented little present he had brought back home to Sai.

"Rowan, you are such a prick."

Rowan shook his head, a helpless grin splitting his face. "Oh, man, I wasn't gonna let him eat it. I swear. I just went to the bathroom for like two minutes and came back and he had the thing in his mouth. I almost died."

"You will die when he finds out."

"He's not gonna find out. Because you can keep a secret."

Ryo canted him a look. "Dude, that is so awful."

Rowan's shoulders shook with laughter. He clamped an arm across Ryo's shoulders, using him for support. "I know. I had to avoid him like the plague all afternoon, 'cause there was no way I was gonna keep a straight face."

"If Kento knows, Sai will sooner or later." Ryo predicted. "Kento can't keep a secret."

Rowan glanced up at him, frowning thoughtfully, then the grin seeped back. "I am soooo in trouble."

"No shit."

"At least I didn't hit him."

Ryo sniffed. "It just sorta happened. He pissed me off.'

"Yeah, that happens."

"I popped two stitches and he was bleeding all over the place by the time we got to the doctor's office. It was really weird though, instead of getting angry he just sort of backed down and got really --- cooperative."

"Ha, maybe you ought to hit him more often."

"That's not funny, dude."

Rowan opened his mouth to reply, then paused, his eyes traveling past Ryo's head.

"What?" Ryo turned to follow his stare. He was looking at a pine tree upon which were a series of deep rakes placed about two feet above Ryo's head.

"What're those?" he asked warily. They were very widely spaced marks, wider than White Blaze's claws.

"Bear marks?" it was almost a question. Rowan stepped closer to the tree staring up at the marks. "Damn, they're high up. And big. I didn't think anything roaming these woods had that reach. Not too old either." He moved back looking around the ground for tracks. But there were none. Rowan shook his head and started off.

"C'mon, lets keep moving."

Ryo paused a moment, still staring at the marks, then followed. A droplet of water sifted down past the leafy canopy to strike his hand. A few spatters moistened the leaves. Not heavy rain, but sporadic fine mist that gathered on the leaves and dripped down. He had no notion how far into the forest they had trekked. He thought about asking Rowan, but Rowan seemed suddenly engrossed in the woodland around them. Rowan did not seem to mind, or even notice the rain. Ryo followed in silence, taking more of an interest himself. Noticing all of the natural hiding places, the leafy foliage that sprang up in clumps between trees, waist high in places, the dark thorny bramble that an animal might force its way through but not a man. Fallen trees, moss covered and rotting, some hollowed out, some falling to pieces, eaten by time and insects. He had a sudden apprehension about snakes living in the lees of such logs.

"Rowan." He called softly, now very interested in watching the ground where he stepped. "Are there snakes around here?"

"Hummm? Oh, some. Most of 'em aren't poisonous."

"Oh. Great."

"Fuck." Rowan said.

"What?" Ryo almost reached for his katana.

"What in hell's that?" Rowan had started trotting forward. Whatever he had seen did not have him arming his bow, so Ryo figured it couldn't be that dangerous. He kept his hand from the hilt of his sword and followed.

There was a large dark lump half obscured by the ferny foliage ahead. The smell of rotting flesh became painfully apparent after a few steps. The rain, had chased away some of the flying insects, but the crawling ones still roamed freely. All Ryo saw at first glance was gaping flesh and crawling maggots before he gagged and took a few hasty steps backwards. Rowan had a stronger stomach. Rowan leaned over the carcass, muttering curses.

"Sonuvabitch, this reeks."

"What the hell is it?" Ryo kept a distance of a few feet, peering through the ferns at the portions of it that were easily visible.

"Its a fucking bear. Its a big fucking bear. Something ripped it to shreds. Will you look at this?"

"You look at it. Its making me sick."

Rowan cast a glance over his shoulder. "Sissy. Like you haven't seen a little blood before."

"Yeah, well the maggots make it, okay?"

"Maggots. Snakes. How'd you ever survive the Dynasty being so squeamish?"

"Shut the fuck up, Rowan." Ryo growled and forced himself to step forward and look down at the carcass. It had been shredded but not eaten. Not by anything big at any rate. It looked like little things had been working at it. He tried to avoid the details and looked at Rowan's intense profile instead.

"So what hunts bears?"

"Men." Rowan said bluntly.

A man hadn't done this. Bullets didn't make wounds like this.

"Look. Whatever did it, crushed its freakin' skull. Popped the eyes right out of the sockets."

Ryo took a breath. Gagged on the smell and had to back away. For some reason, a fleeting vision of the thing in his dream came back to him. Huge, fleetfooted -- predatory in the extreme. Something out of hell. God, but they were close to where the gateway to hell had been. Held open all that time by the power of their armors.

"Rowan," he asked softly, eyes flickering about the trees and all the enigmatic shadows. "Do you think something could have -- slipped through the gateway from hell before we got back?"

Rowan's head snapped up. His eyes flashed almost indignantly. "Oh, don't go morbid and superstitious on me. Nothing came through. It was all we could do to open the damn thing again, remember?"

"I had a dream ----"

"And you'll probably have a bunch more, Ryo. You got fucked up. You're gonna have nightmares. It doesn't mean anything. It got in a fight with another bear, is all. A bigger bear."

"The one that made those marks back there?"

"Yeah, maybe." Rowan's breathing was harsh. He stepped back from the carcass. "Its gotta be."

"How old is this kill?"

"I dunno. A couple a days from the smell."

"Why hasn't it been scavenged more than it has?'

Rowan swallowed nervously. "I dunno, Ryo. It ought to have been."

"Maybe something has scared off all the other animals."

It is sorta -- quiet." Rowan reluctantly agreed. He tightened his hand on the cross bow.

It was getting dark. Ryo suddenly had the very strong desire not to be out here in the dark. "Maybe we should start back. Come out again tomorrow?"

Before Rowan could answer a crack of thunder split the air, reverberating through the forest, making the very ground shake. Rowan jumped, whirling about in alarm, eyes gone a little wild.

"Fuck. Fuck. Fuck." He ground out, catching his breath. The rain started in earnest, as if the thunder had been a signal to release the deluge.

"Lets go back, Rowan." Ryo yelled through the sudden, violent downpour. Leaves and small branches came down with the rain, buffeted by a wind that wailed out of nowhere. His hair plastered to his face and neck, his clothes hung heavy and dripping all in a matter of minutes. Faintly he could still hear the occasional curse from Rowan, as they pelted through the woods.

With the rain, came a concealment of late afternoon light. The forest was cast in a rain shrouded gloom. A crack of thunder and again the ground shook. Where ever the lightening had hit, it was close. Rowan caught Ryo's arm when he veered the wrong way, steering him back on course. He could hardly see Rowan through the downpour. A sudden flash of brilliant light and the deafening boom of thunder. Lightening hit a tree not twenty feet in front of them. Ryo yelped and skidded to a halt, dragging Rowan with him. The both of them went down, knees buried in the wet mulch the storm had made of the ground, blind and covering their ringing ears. The tree screeched as wood splintered and crashed to the earth. It was only luck that it fell away from them. Even through the rain the smell of burning wood was thick.

Ryo pushed dripping hair out of his eyes, blinked repeatedly to clear them of dancing spots and looked up in time to see something moving in the darkness. Something large and silent that smelled of wet fur.

"God." He clutched at Rowan's arm, hauling him up, scanning the woods for another sight of whatever it was he'd seen lurking the shadows.

"Something's out there."

"What? Where?" Rowan scrubbed at his eyes with his knuckles, shaking the hair out of his face.

"I dunno. I saw something moving through the trees."

Cautiously, Rowan pulled a pair of arrows from his quiver and loaded them into the cross bow. Ryo drew his blade, a sibilant whisper of steel sliding against steel. The heft of it felt good in his hand. It made him feel safer. Made him feel like predator instead of prey.

Nothing moved in the woods. No sound save for the rhythmic fall of rain, the rustling of leaves and branches overhead.

"Rowan," he asked softly, totally bereft of any sense of direction. "Which way?"

It took Rowan a moment to get his bearings. Ryo had no notion how he did it, in darkness and confusion.

"That way." He gestured with the crossbow.

Through deluge and darkness they started moving again.

 

 

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