Demon Bear: Snow Covers Blood

December 04, 2017:

Zatanna Zatara, on the trail of the Demon Bear, discovers its thralls. John Constantine shows up to assist her in the most robust armor possible.

Blue Mountain, Westchester County, New York

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

For one such as her, it is a simple enough thing to get to Westchester County.

The site of the fight with the Demon Bear is cloaked with the miasma of expended magical power by the time she arrives, a whispered word and a picture enough to set her upon it with determined steps and a mouth set in a grim, but determined line. What had once been the outside of John's Brooklyn flat has dissolved into lengthy shadows, silhouettes of dying trees extending greedy limbs upwards for a moon well beyond its reach. Here, the familiar sounds of New York City are as distant as memory, overtaken by the unmistakable signals of flora - the rattle of skeletal branches against one another, the rustle of leaves.

Breath leaves Zatanna's mouth in thin, white wisps, hinting at those pivotal moments before Winter's arrival and dimly, she is reminded that a year has passed since she has returned to the States. Given the pace of her life, it feels more than a dozen months.

She is dressed comfortably for the climate; a black double-breasted, military-styled coat is pulled over dark jeans and boots, pale fingers encased in gloves made out of supple kidskin of a like color. Her hair is as always pulled in the messy, artfully haphazard twist she favors, though she has taken to adding some color in her overall monchromatic ensemble - a crimson scarf is wound around her neck, its lengthy ends tucked securely within her collar. Slipping her hands in her pockets, she takes a look around, examining the imprints left by the Demon Bear's influence.

Her encounter with the Scarlet Women and her new connection to the Beyond enables her to do this now, to see the auroras Magic has left behind. Like drops of luminol to bring forth the presence of bloodstains, her augmented sight enables her to peer into the ephemeral latticework of days-old spells, following where it leads. Much like a wanderer enthralled by faerie lights, she tracks it into the depths towards the world of the Other, perhaps never to return.

But return she must. She's here not only because she wants to understand what precisely what happened to Jane, but to appease the curdling seed of white-hot anger burning within her ribs when she remembers what happened to John. Not that he would tell her, he was never so forthcoming about his trials as she, but the fact that he doesn't want to talk about it, leaving only the recollection of the argent drops of sensation he transmitted during his encounter with the Demon Bear, was a hint enough, as he was never one to revisit the horrors that he has experienced except in dreams. And those dreams have returned, rattling the frame of the bed they share; she remembers watching the corded muscles of his back stoop in the dark, his face in his hands.

It tipped its hand when it tried to convince me that you died, he had said.

If nothing else, that was enough, to attempt to unravel him with one of the things he fears the most. With the way things feel here, in this place, she is not convinced it is over, and the desire to end it with her own two hands was so overwhelming that she didn't even try to resist returning to the scene of the crime in an attempt to see what she could find.

It is not yet December, but as Zatanna Zatara walks through the silent forests on the slopes of Blue Mountain, a slow snow starts to fall anyway. The flakes drift soundlessly through the air, heralding the start of winter and the death of light and warmth.

They fall on the site of the Demon Bear's attack, but not even the fresh whiteness can cover the taint of magical power seared into the earth here.

The magical energies reek of corruption, of soul-magic. They linger even all this time after the Bear has departed. When Zatanna opens her senses, widens her eyes to take in the pulse of the world around her, she can see… more. Threading out from this epicenter of magical force, she can discern paths in the snow.

They seem to suggest the Bear… dissipated, almost. Pieces of it seem to have gone here, and there. There are aspects which have returned to New York City, aspects which have gone southeast deeper into Westchester County, aspects which have gone west and north into the wilder parts of the state.

Then there is one trailing, glowing line of energy that just… stays put. It prowls around and around the slopes of the mountain, as if in sentinel. Or waiting.

It leads further up the mountain, up the parts of its forested side where there are no trails. Where it goes, the snow thickens.

Snow flicks and rains down from one overhanging pine branch.

It wisps free from bark, displaced by the hops of a small bird, stretching and shaking the falling snow from its black wings. It makes a single, short, calling cry: directed straight down on Zatanna Zatara.

The little bird takes flight, and with an opening of its wings, circles once and lands on the ground in her path, just a foot from the young woman's feet. No bigger than a sparrow, and pure, chitin-black, the animal weeps of pure magic.

It turns its head on a twitch, angling it up and twisting it to one side, so that it can focus one shining, blinking black eye up at her. The songbird calls again, a short, beseeching chirp, the wind moving through the ends of its inky feathers, ruffling its long tail. It looks at her as if to implore.

Then it turns, hopping two steps away that leaves bird tracks, and draws its little beak to make a single, straight line, through the driven snow. It leads up the direction of that mountain.

The songbird whistles again, and takes to the air.

"Well, this is weird."

Zatanna takes a knee, gloved fingertips tracing ropes of magic that only she could see. Eyes move from the epicenter of the trouble, and out further away. Whatever had been here was split into fragments, and she can feel them calling at her from separate directions. While it would sound implausible - what is dead can never live again, she comes from a world where impossibilities are proven not to be such at a relatively consistent basis and really, she has yet to find a way to /truly/ kill a demon.

If that's what this is.

The presence of soul magic is already worrisome. She makes her mental notes and straightens. An index caresses another line that she manages to find, following its progress with her stare as it twists around the mountain…and up.

And then, the bird.

She nearly jumps out of her skin when it takes flight, landing on the ground and fixing her with an obsidian stare. Her augmented sight peels back the veil, watching the ebb and flow of Magic caress its feathers. It means for her to follow. The expression on its face is so human that it is disconcerting. Goosebumps prick the back of her neck when it draws a straight line with its beak, so perfect that she doesn't need a ruler to know.

This is when she notices the presence of snow, so engrossed in her tracking that she hadn't even realized the season's abrupt shift. Flakes of fine white cling to her cheeks, the darkness of her clothes, all which find empty air when toes lift from the ground in a thoughtless hover. There had been a time when she would need to concentrate to get the most of her levitation - now, it's as natural as breathing.

She drifts through the trees, follows the slope of the mountain path as she traverses up and up and up, to follow the trail that lingers, in the thirsty search for answers.

That tiny blackbird circles Zatanna like a devoted shadow, before it wings ahead, taking to the sky with an encouraging call to invite her farther.

Up the mountain is not at first so steep, not so perilous, but the snow clings deep and the craggy rocks crumble of stepped on too quickly, too boldly. Snow falls down on her, and as the young woman ascends, the chill needles the air — brings in a cutting, biting wind to blow through the tresses of her black hair.

At the least, however, it is not a daunting journey taken alone. That little bird is there, in the air, or perched up on some outcropping of rock, calling down to the young magician, bidding her forward and up — up, always up.

Sometimes the path diverges up the mountain, severed by the tall growths of trees, but the bird lands to write more perfect lines in the snow: this way, that way, forward, forward. It leaves tracks in the snow as it turns hopping circles, wings outstretched, as if to beg her forward.

Its wings open, and it cuts back into flight, singing her to keep going. Not much more. Not much longer —

The air thins in that long walk up, the long spine of the mountain bringing Zatanna to a flat, domed-in clearing, crowned by the stars above and encircled with a view of the forest spreading below. There are still trees here, and thick, and this safe, little pocket is the only ground not slippery and steep. Flat enough to show something new:

There are prints left in the snow. Predator prints. Wolf prints. Far, far bigger than they should be.

There's a whistle.

The songbird is back, drifting down, opening its wings to try to land its little body down on Zatanna's shoulder. It fluffs up against the cold, turning its tiny head this way and that, eyes blinking. Something is in its beak, and it offers it like a gift.

A small piece of bone, still dripping of blood and ripped tendon.

The snow falls. It falls over the mountainside, over the trees, over the low, snaring brush, and over the clearing marked with paw prints deep enough for Zatanna to step into.

There is a hollow spot in this little space, back against the side of the mountain. It has a scooped, tended quality, like somewhere that something might habitually return to rest. A home, as it were.

Whatever it is, it's big.

The smell of magic comes drifting in on the wind. There is a faint sense of being watched. The snow sighs across the ground, blown by the errant winds that whip past this high up.

The periodic gusts almost disguise the approaching sound of vast footfalls in the snow.

Somewhere just slightly beyond the treeline, something moves, drawing closer to the songbird's piping call.

She follows. And really, stranger things have happened before.

The journey takes her to a place where the air is thinner and the speed of her ascent does not allow her to get used to it, lungs laboring under the strain drawn by the sudden change in elevation. But Zatanna persists, because when has she ever not. The creature wants to tell her something and she is presently trying to discern what it is, and the only way she can do that is to spring the trap and let the Powers sort out the rest. She has always been reckless, so willing to throw herself headfirst into anything and everything that could provide her with the answers she needs. Especially now, when she clings onto that ember of hard anger.

She finally finds a plateau stable enough to land, ice-blue eyes catching the tracks. Furrowing her brows, she drops on one knee, spreading her fingers outward and close to the paw prints she finds. They don't look like a bear's; a city girl at heart, she knows very little about wildlife, but every instinct tells her that this is something different.

The whistle calls her attention again, and she straightens. Steps lead her towards where the bird is perched, and when it signals with its bloody offering, she does not hesitate when she reaches out to try and take it, to examine it.

Was someone here…? Was it human or…?

She would pry further, to scry for the bone's origin, but her attention is ensnared immediately when something approaches. She smells it before she even hears it, potent magic tickling her senses, running across it like a feather and carrying with it the voltage of a large battery. It jolts every sense awake, triggers the flood of adrenaline in her blood and she spins around to stare directly at where she thinks it is emanating. The sensation of being watched has her taking several steps back, her arm bending behind her to withdraw her obsidian obelisk, its sheen even darker under the light of a silent and watchful moon.

"Who's there?" she calls; her spare hand twists in the air, a silent spell constucted from signaled letters.

The bird lands back on the snow, blinking its black eyes, shifting and raising its feathers. It cranes its head curiously, and looks up at Zatanna as she entreats the air, the mountain, the trees, the night that question.

It chirps back. Then it drags its beak one last time in the snow. A long, straight line —

Only the line, this time, angles and turns, joined with more, guided by the bird it slowly spells.

D I E

The songbird opens its wings and takes to the air. Its song comes now — louder than before, strong, not of this world, carrying through the trees in a low, morose melody.

The trees, between blinks, rearrange around her. Where was rock at her back is a perilous drop. Where there was a path, there is only a steep incline, not the route she took, something strange, something new. Where there was white snow, there are more monstrous tracks, dragging smears of blood.

Who's there? Zatanna says.

No one answers, save the bird. It spells three letters, and takes singing to the air.

The world twists with its song. It flips and inverts, rock dropping away into nothingness and paths winding away on themselves into strange new shapes. Shadows pull long in the rearranging of the world, fanning out across this reformed space.

Finally, someone answers Zatanna out loud. A deep, canine growl rattles through the air, emanating from the trees, and that dark shadow moves between them even as they reorder themselves, breaking into a run —

— and plunging straight down into the darkness, pooling seamlessly into it like oil.

For a few moments, there is no sound. The world holds its breath as it clicks slowly back into its new configuration.

Then a great black shape pours straight out of the shadows between the trees, over Zatanna's head. A snarl rends the air as something vast, with blazing blue eyes and bared white fangs, descends straight down to try to close its jaws about her body.

DIE.

She catches the message before it is obliterated in blood, barely visible from the garish splashes left by how many victims have been lured here by the mysterious bird. Under the moonlight's pall, the streaks look black.

Zatanna doesn't wait. White-blue sigils light up her obelisk, wreathed with just a fraction of the power she contains inside her, but it cracks under the strain to contain it as rivulets of scarlet thread through the searing, white-hot color. A circle of protection flares to life underneath her feet, and one for projection coalescing in front of her, bearing marks pulled from different disciplines, a pastiche of Viking runes, Egyptian hieroglyphics…and those that are older, still. Even when not here, John Constantine continues to influence her work, even while she tries to find her own voice within the shadows of magical powerhouses.

"Sorry," she says, to the bird and the presence. "But I was never good at doing what I'm told."

And then, the shadow descends. Like the Abyss given life and monstrous form, it spills from the trees, descending upon her. All she sees, for a split second, is darkness and teeth.

Words cast backward leaves her lips; her protection circle leaps to interpose itself between her and the massive beast. A hand moves, tracing sigils in the air, a wave of power erupting from between fingertips to spill forward and slam into its chest, in an attempt to send it back and away. She needs the room to maneuver - she will not do herself any favors falling off a cliff, which is directly behind her - a steep drop that she won't survive if she was ever knocked unconscious before falling.

If successful, she will move, away from that perilous edge, but the battlefield is small, something she's already taking into account when she prepares her next maneuvers.

Fangs flash within inches of her. They get so close Zatanna can feel the wash of heat chase away the cold.

Then her protective circle leaps from the ground, slamming up towards the beast and forming the array within which she scribes her spell. The resultant shockwave slams into the monster, sending it careening back into the dark. With an unnatural grace it turns in the air to land on its feet, skidding through the bloody snow a few long yards before it comes to a stop.

It is still, a few moments, and in that time Zatanna gets her first good look at the creature to which the songbird has led her. It is a wolf in the way a roc is a bird: a monstrous, fantastical version of one, standing many times Zatanna's own height at the shoulder, black hackles bristled up and white fangs bared in a soundless snarl. Its left front leg is a writhing mess of shadow, the darkness almost viscous in quality, dripping relentlessly down from the creature's shoulder.

Its eyes are relentlessly blue. Blue as sea ice shot through with light from a clear sky.

I was never good at doing what I'm told, she says.

No. The voice shakes through every shadow in the clearing, the kind of harsh jagged sound one might expect to be produced from the snarling throat of a wolf. You never were, Zatanna.

The creature bounds forwards. One, two, great distance-eating leaps… only it doesn't precisely land on the second. It sinks as if stepping on water, plunging seamlessly into a shadow across the ground with the ease of a creature in its natural environment. It seems to vanish wholly in those moments, the stink of its magic fading into nothing.

It does not reappear up until it's bursting horizontally out from a random throwaway shadow along the trunk of a tree, snapping at her back to break her spine in its jaws.

The creature in front of her is Fenrir; destroyer of worlds, devourer of gods.

For a moment, Zatanna does nothing but stare, her heart drumming against her bones. The shadow the creature casts is almost all-encompassing, eclipsing all light that spills from above. Terrifying and beautiful in equal measure, it takes her breath away, but her awe is cut short when those eyes turn to bore into hers, freezing her into place. They look familiar.

And she is more than familiar to it. It knows her, and calls her by name. Briefly, for the first time since this fight started, doubt suffuses into her pale features.

"How…?" she murmurs. A moment of weakness. Enough for the wolf to strike.

It vanishes and quick eyes leap from one point to another, suspicious of any shadow, before its maw comes alive and slipping from a tree. She is moving when this happens, but not far enough that fangs manage to gouge into her back, and tear off half her jacket. Blood splashes on snow, a viscous black river cutting through ice. She stumbles and nearly falls on her knees.

She knows it will strike again.

She screams a command and light explodes from where she stands, reflecting off white frost and worsening the effect. Power ripples through the ether, pulls up from underneath the frozen surface and surges upwards. The ground crumbles underneath their feet in chunks of rock, craggy platforms of ice and snow. She means to take this entire side of the mountain down….and the two of them with it.

As they fall, she lands on a suspended piece of cliff, preparing her next strike.

Maiden falls with monster.

The cliff where Zatanna lands is a small sanctuary against a fatal fall: deep welling shadow reaching from all sides, with only the bleached-bone moon bathing the world in silver. An entire sea of forest, spreading out for all the eye can see. So much life, and too far to touch. Here there is only her —

— and nothing else. The wolf does not join where she lands.

There is a moment of silence and falling snow. Then, the sharp, too-close call of birdsong.

On both sides of the cliff, braiding out from the steep rockface, grow overhanging trees. That little songbird gleans, upside-down, from one branch, fluttering its wings, twisting its head to fix Zatanna with its black mirror eye.

It sings.

The trees around her begin to shudder, begin to move — and their branches crack and splinter with eery life, before they needle down at her. They try to impale her, bloodily, brutally, through the hands, around the feet, trying to hook around and pull back, pull taut: to arrange the sweet little doll on her marionette's strings.

Hold her still, as good dolls are, as something comes for her —

The monster stops, long enough for her to get a good look. The moonlight glitters off the long guard hairs bristling up from its back, and lights the creature's glowing blue eyes. Those eyes are the only points of light and color in a hulking creature otherwise black as pitch. They follow her unblinkingly, as the creature…

…speaks her name, in a voice that is not a voice. Those jaws do not move, but sound comes growling out of every shadow around her.

It seeds doubt in her mind. The moment of hesitation is brief, but just enough for the monster to capitalize upon.

It bounds forward, soundless, ghosting across the snow… and vanishing. Her quick mind works, eyes flitting back and forth, assessing every errant shadow as a threat… and snapping sideways when the wolf comes pouring from a shred of darkness laid across a tree-trunk.

Its fangs taste blood. The wolf veritably pants with excitement, trying to take her more fully in its jaws—

—only to recoil as light blasts outwards from her. Temporarily blinded, it reels back, before fully losing its footing as Zatanna eradicates the field beneath them in a splintering of rock. The wolf scrabbles to a more secure position on a slab of stone sliding down the crumbling mountainside, regaining its balance. Regaining its bearings.

Regaining its lock on her.

It turns, finds her, and gathers in on itself like a spring, lunging towards her. It rebounds off another tumbling chunk of ice midway, springboarding sideways off it to increase the forward momentum behind its snapping jaws.

She hears the song before the nightmarish rustle of branches that suddenly come to life. Zatanna spins around when she sees the shadows move, and her defenses come up immediately. The pain, searing, blinding, worked into flesh rent open and spilling her life on the snow, aids with the focus necessary to do what she must. The wolf had distracted her, claiming it knows her. It has to be a trick, a ploy. She will not be distracted by it again.

Especially when it and its avian friend seem insistent that she die here today.

Black lines criss-cross in open air, and her protection spells do the work of shattering each branch that comes her way. They draw sparks, all the more bright and fringed with blue, glancing off her shields and sending glowing filaments to join the flurry of snow stirring around her at every movement. The clash would be beautiful, if it wasn't so deadly.

But a tendril manages to sneak through her defenses and the brutal point spears savagely through her calf, and nails her into the ground. Black wells from the wound, spattering on snow. A spell through gritted teeth dislodges the offending limb, staggering backwards…

She sees the shadow on the ground first, and she reacts immediately. At the wolf's mid-leap, she shouts out a word and a blast of bright and brilliant power fires out of her fingers like a laser, burning through tree trunks and aimed for the creature's center mass.

The single word blasts through the air. It attains a kinetic force midway, and the wolf YELPS as it's struck center-mass by the brilliant beam.

It's sent flying back, slamming against the mountainside, rock raining down from its point of impact. Tumbling down the sheer scree, it's soon enough lost to sight in the collapsing fall of debris.

Surely it will fetch up somewhere. Whether it will be in condition to come back for her… that's the question, isn't it?

This angers the songbird.

That lulling song fractures and goes shrill, and the feathers lift angrily off its tiny back as its spreads its wings.

The gleaning bird lets go of its branch, folds its wings, and drops, plummeting down after the monstrous wolf.

The song ended brings the tree — impaled through Zatanna's leg — to go still, no longer pulling and twisting with unnatural, savage life to worsen the wound. However, it's not going to be an easy thing to pull out from her own flesh.

Silence fills the side of the mountain.

She doesn't allow herself to feel relief when she watches the wolf tumble into the ether, to vanish into the darkness for the gleaming songbird to follow. Zatanna grits her teeth at that, turning her eyes down to her impaled limb.

"Ugh," she murmurs, touching her obelisk upon it, murmuring a backwards word to let the branch crumble to dust, and set her free. Even the act is painful, not when a hole has been punched through precious tendons and muscles. Dipping her finger in her own blood, she uses it as ink while she has the opportunity to act, to scrawl out a few words on the snow:

EM LAEH

She can feel it work, at least for her leg - whatever is happening, she can't be immobile and having a hole through her leg would spell disaster for any attempts at following the strange animal couple. Through the opening torn through her jeans and fishnets, she watches the garish display of torn flesh knit together; the pain is indescribable and she swallows a scream, clutching at her leg while the hole continues to refill itself. It takes a few minutes, leaving a circle of reddened, but tender flesh.

Straightening, she casts another spell - a bubble, this time, for her to step into and use to drift a few inches off the ground, to follow whatever tracks are there to see.

Some distance down the mountain, a wolf lays on his side. A bird picks and hops through his fur, warbling a little tune for him, stitching his injuries with the weave of magic.

Presently, he rises. The bird settles between his shoulders, and both disappear into the dark.

Zatanna, in this time, is given a small reprieve. Time to repair her injuries, to ease her way down the mountainside, and to begin her search anew. This time, she casts a bubble to step into, moving about within the protection of the sphere as she follows the sickly, corrupt smell of the Bear's drifting magic.

The forest is silent around her. Snow drifts, flakes sliding down the sides of her personal force field.

She passes between the trunks of two great trees, presently. She's almost clear when Something rears soundlessly out of the darkness between them, white fangs flashing. The great wolf bites into her shield…

…and the sharp stench of magic FLARES in the night as its fouled energies attempt to cancel Zatanna's sorcery.

And from atop the withers of the wolf, clinging footholds among its thick, coarse fur — returns the songbird as well, riding its back.

Eyes fixed forward on Zatanna, the little bird sings, a low, haunting song. The wounds ripped along the great wolf — lacerations from her magic, burns pulled open raw flesh from its split hide — begin to thicken and close, healing over, regenerating to each sinister note.

It opens its wings, flaring all its feathers, and traps a tuft of the wolf's long fur in its beak, joining to it: Zatanna will sense a sudden, outpouring transfer of magic, the songbird imbuing its own draught of power straight into the wolf whose crushing jaws bear down.

Lending strength for it to break her wards, break through her protection, to try to shatter it to get through —

Like a particularly dog that's found a ball, the Devourer of Worlds is suddenly there, jaws opening around her shield-ball and biting into it. The contact generates arcs of electricity as fangs attempt to crush her protections. Zatanna would be confident about its integrity, were it not for the alarming presence of a nullifier; she can see her ball cracking, like a glass ornament being crushed under a boot, and she has seconds before it shatters completely and she'll be swallowed.

Her spell is a little frantic when it leaves her lips. It allows her to phase out of her bubble just before it shatters, ephemeral shards dissipating in the cold wind. The stink of the Demon Bear's magic rakes at her nose.

"Who ARE you?!" she demands, unable to help it. It is just one of the many questions that she wants to ask, but if answered, this will at least give her a hint as to what she is actually dealing with. Sharp eyes trace the disappearing lines of fresh injury on the giant wolf's hide, lips pressing in a thin line when she finds the bird perched on its shoulder…and the haunting melody it provides.

What she calls next is fire. The ball blossoms from the tip of her wand and sends it shooting like a bullet towards the bird clutching at the wolf's fur.

Who ARE you? screams the magician.

The songbird's haunting call snuffs out. It holds within the wolf's fur, feathers lifting off its body, its wings spread in silent threat. Distant light glints against its mirror eyes.

It offers no answer — but to begin to shriek, bloodcurdling and shrill, again and again and again — calling something out of the dark hither. Shadow wisps off it, streaming dark from the ends of its feathers, from the hook of its beak, summoning all the closing darkness of the forest night — pulling the very shadow off the mountain to feed into the body of the wolf.

Nourishing it. Strengthening it. Making it every bit the monster that, within seconds, will break her magic and /consume/ all Zatanna can provide. Flesh and blood and soul not made of this world.

The bird cries out, an insistent call for the wolf to make its strike —

— when Zatanna makes a clever reprisal, avoiding all of the wolf and aiming for the the tiny songbird making throne of its back. Fire burns out the crawling, closing, worming darkness, and hits the bird true.

It chirps in shock and pain, knocked straight off the wolf's shoulders. Unable to find its wings, and burning, crying, it falls down into the night.

Shadow feeds the monster trying its best to shatter Zatanna's shield. Sick magic bolsters its strength, until its black fur electrifies with raw power.

The bird on its back shrieks, over and over, and all the darkness of the world pulls inward like the tide — like the sucking spiral of an event horizon. The monstrous wolf's fangs bear down with greater and greater force upon Zatanna's barrier, crushing inwards… and eventually crumpling that shell in its jaws like an eggshell, with a crack of shattering energy.

Zatanna isn't there anymore. The wolf shakes its head in a momentary frenzy of frustrated bloodlust, scattering the sparking remnants of her spell to the wind.

Who are you?!

The wolf steps a heavy pace forward, left paw first, claws biting into the snow. Its head thrusts forward, fangs baring.

WINTER, comes the snarl, emanating from every piece of darkness. The driving snow clusters in its black fur, crowning its lowered head. And all of you will freeze —

Fire takes the bird clean off its back.

Clever Zatanna. She aims not for the huge, overbearing target, but for the little creature hidden in the beast's pelt. At the bird's first cry of pain, the wolf abandons the young magician immediately, leaping clear from the mountainside to plunge down into the dark after its fallen companion.

After a time, the snow stops.

She doesn't know what the bird is doing, but over the course of the bout, it has made itself an incredible threat. Even while in the bubble, she could feel it as it uses its strange command over her dark environs to replenish and feed the beast. Like how vampires are with blood, ice-blue eyes widen as she watches shadows pour into the wolf, as slick as oil.

And so Zatanna does what any self-respecting magician would do in this situation - she sets the dangerous avian on fire.

The roar of the wolf and its strange, non-moving jaws echoes across the mountain, rageful and unforgiving enough that waves of power dislodge melting snow and ice caps off the top of the peak, a rush of frost sluicing its way through the side of the elevation and towards where she stands. As the domineering feral shadow abandons the kill in favor of rescuing the bird, the resulting avalanche takes up the rest of her attention. A hand comes up, just in time for a wall of snow to crash upon it, sliding around her like surf on a rock.

By the time she has extricated herself out of her predicament, both bird and wolf are gone. She rushes to the end where they have vanished, peering below.

He claims that he is Winter, and that all of them would freeze. She wonders if the demon has elected to take the shape of the encroaching season, to unleash god-knows-what on the fair state of New York.

But she can't help the nagging sensation that she is missing something important. Something familiar.

She'll have to think about it later, once the pain has faded and once adrenaline has given her mind enough peace to cobble the pieces of this strange encounter together. But for now she picks at the ledge, to see if she can find anything useful…

Silence descends. It's a frozen sort of waiting silence, especially now the snow has stopped. It's the kind of silence that gives someone time to think.

What did the creature mean? Winter… has the Bear formed some sort of aspect to represent the season? Do these words portend something about its plan? A great Fenrir would not be an unusual avatar to choose for such a thing… wolves have ever represented the wild, killing savagery of the freezing months.

It's a thought that troubles Zatanna as she tries to pick her way to the ledge. To look for anything she might find that would be useful.

There is nothing. Nothing up until something surges up from the depths, soundless and furious. Vast jaws snap open… and shut, trying to close on the young magician. To shake her with violent force, and sling her back into the far rock face of the mountain, hard enough to send snow tumbling down from its tenuous perches along the jagged cliff ledges.

Claws dig into the solid rock as the enraged creature scrambles back up onto the ledge, panting its fury into the night in steaming breaths. Its left foreclaws groove deeper than the right. A deep snarling attends it as it gathers itself, fully ready for the kill after this unconscionable slight.

Between a rear pair of its fangs, a familiar small bird tucks away, injured but safe.

If nothing else, what happens next is akin to one of those monster shark movies that she has seen countless times on television. A hapless victim thinks that the danger is over and so looks over the edge of a boat, or a dock, and into the water, to ensure that the coast is clear, only for the beast to leap up at the last moment, jaws closing in like a cage.

Pain addled, still, Zatanna can only widen her eyes when the thing leaps at her from the darkness, fangs and grinding teeth closing over half her body as paws hit dirt. Her scream pierces the air, rips through the astral plane, as gouts of blood paint the surrounding snow in unforgiving black. Droplets spray outward when it shakes her.

Another viscous arc punches out of her body when Winter finally lets go, and in her hazy vision, she watches the world tilt in sharp, consistent angles before ice crumples against the side of her face. Pale, dressed in black, blood looking like so under the light of the moon, she blends in her surroundings easily. But her eyes remain open and as pain screams through her body, trembling fingers dig into a layer of frost underneath.

The shield that she used to hold up the earlier avalanche breaks at that. While the wolf's jaws won't kill her, the rampaging wave of snow just might.

Zatanna's pain is a thing with substance and sharp edges. On the astral plane where the intangible becomes tangible, it rips across distances like barbed lightning, racing along the conduit of the silver thread that binds her to someone else — someone who keeps odd hours, and spent most of the prior evening awake, sifting through information about the Checkerbrick Building and its problem with ruptured ley lines. Eventually and very much in spite of himself, John Constantine had finally succumbed to the need to rest. He'd peeled himself out of most of his clothes and collapsed into bed without even bothering to peel back the sheets and blankets.

That sharp cry of pain sounds inside of him like an air-horn and snaps him bolt upright in bed. The first javelin is followed by radiating suffering, and the ghostly scent of blood fills his nostrils. Cold, too. How long as she been bleeding? How close to death is she…??

There's clearly no time for a leisurely effort at getting dressed. He roll-stumbles out of bed, practically into the wall of his bedroom, but that's just fine: the moment he plants a hand on the wall it opens for him, taking him to the far point of the tether. Very much in a pair of boxers and array of occult tattoos and not, it should be said, a whole lot else to speak of, John stumbles into some kind of tundra hell, the cold hitting him like a full-body slap.

He would instantly begin bitching if he weren't so focused on finding Zatanna.

The world changes at the seams, in an instant becoming the steep, icy rock framing a fatal mountain fall, with the world far and below spreading out in upstate forest, watched by the sallow moon and an endless field of stars. In the last few days before December, the midnight cold comes sharp and painful —

— and worsens in closing proximity to that monster wolf.

Snow falls thick, even from a clear sky, and the driving winds worsen the ice that hails down in unforgiving winter.

In the jaws of the wolf, the little songbird is still alive, burned in many places, its black feathers singed and bent. Propped up against a tooth far larger than it is, it lays with open, limp wings, no strength even to fold them back against its trembling body.

Its black eyes squeeze shut then squint open, hurt, suffering, but with enough strength now to sing one low, hushed song.

The songbird's call pulls in a circling, whipping storm, ceilinging the mountain and blocking the moon from the sky. The temperature drops hypothermic. The snow batters agony, so hard to see —

Blood paints the wolf's jaws. The creature watches Zatanna for a moment, head tilted in that curious and eager way dogs have of regarding their food dish.

Then it licks the blood free, and starts to advance.

The songbird, carried along, starts to sing. A storm comes rushing in, the wolf walking silently at the vanguard of the whirlwind of sleet and driving snow. Each step of its left forepaw leaves behind drips of that slithering, dragging shadow that wreathes the limb, and left behind in its prints is a sheen of solid ice.

It only stops when another flare of magic hits its senses. A snarl escapes it as its head swings around. John emerges, really… not too far from the bloody Zatanna.

You should not have come, John Constantine, the shadows relate.

The beast's eyes flick back and forth, considering… and then it lunges for John, a dead-on charge, testing this new intruder. Each of its strides kicks free the stench of corrupt magic, the same stench that attended that Demon Bear.

A familiar signature registers in her senses. A slender index finger twitches. It sinks into the snow, tracing shaking lines - but it will have to do.

A barricade of ice spikes suddenly explode from the bloodied ground, deadly tips angled towards the charging wolf. They rise too early, the wolf will be able to avoid it if he moves fast enough, but the aim wasn't to injure, or to kill, but to buy John the time to maneuver.

A single eye is visible and open through drifts of tangled raven hair, but her lashes are heavy, the lid pulling slowly shut.

Things go — as they do — from bad to worse.

The last time John found himself steeped in this scent and the twisted, sickened sensation of whatever off-brand demonic blight this is, he'd had options. Once he'd roused from the depths of the nightmare it had induced in him, he'd been wearing the fundamental pieces of his kit: his coat, warded in a thousand ways against infernal magic, and in one of the pockets of that coat the lighter that Zatanna gave him a year ago. The latter had been his weapon of choice. Its purifying flame, driven by his wrath and a cantrip that utilized the falling snow, had driven back the shadows, torn him free of the fabric of the dark.

Tonight he has no such accoutrements of craft — only himself, a body battle-scarred and hammered hard on the anvil of suffering. Tattoos on skin that is rapidly losing sensation beneath the icy pin-pricks of snow landing on his shoulders and back to dissolve into warmth-sapping droplets of water, feet that ache from the frozen drifts underfoot.

His mind may be the most formidable weapon that remains to him, but in these first few moments it's of no use at all. The scent and bitter cold thrust him backward through time to the raw, bloody memory of his experience within the shadow of the bear. It had torn at scar tissue and scabs on his psyche, created fissures in long-calcified defenses against who and what he used to be. There are still pieces of him scattered by the vivid reminder, things he has yet to re-collect.

If Zatanna hadn't retained enough strength to intervene, he might have met a similar second fate, but gleaming spines spray upward out of the ground in front of him like the tips of spears against a cavalry charge, a deadly fan that jars him out of his fugue. His nights-ago wrath returns with all of the force of a detonation, filling his chest with fire. He snaps his head to the side: there's nothing, nothing, a cliffside, nothing at all, a rumble of snow on some higher peak where Zatanna's barrier to an avalanche is failing, only open air and darkness and death-

He leaves rents in the snow as he backs up to the cliff's edge, a dangerous light in pale eyes. Hands out, splayed, prepared to grasp the thing and send them both over the edge if that's what it comes to, it's possible to glimpse the faintest golden aura sheened over the contours of his frame, magic pulled to the surface, drawn out of some deeper well.

The great wolf does not seem to fear the fall. John Constantine backs to the edge, and the maddened creature follows, plunging towards the magician with bloodlust glowing out of its blue eyes.

The only thing that stops it is the sudden barricade of ice, Zatanna's last expended effort. It stops so suddenly it skids in the snow, scrabbling to redirect its momentum and reorient, but as it is the very tips of the razor-sharp ice rip the thing's right shoulder open. Blood fans out in a red spray, staining in the snow.

Shocking, really, that a creature that seems made of magic and shadow would bleed. Even more shocking that the blood seems to be… familiar, in a way, its signature like something the magicians have been around before.

There's no time to really think in depth about it. The monster has regained enough of its footing to leap clear over the barricade, confident that those spikes cannot impale it now their mistress is falling unconscious. Black fur, blue eyes, bared white fangs the length of John's arm… it descends towards him in a pounce, uncaring if they both go over the edge.

Its vast, unnatural form bleeds with magic. The writhing shadow about its left leg streamers with its sheer velocity, hints of silver showing between the slithering darkness.

Surely it must be a feint.

The man in the trenchcoat (even sans trenchcoat) has a reputation for conniving and trickery, and this must seem like the simplest ruse imaginable; edge up the brink of the world, bait an attack, slip away at the last moment and turn to watch his attacker sail from the lip into the jagged darkness beyond. Yell something over the edge, smug and sharp, before spiriting away the broken body of the Zatara heiress. Easy!

Too easy. Too predictable. And even if that had been his plan, the sense of it would have evaporated as small details begin to accumulate, breadcrumbs dropped along a path leading to a terrible conclusion that he has yet to assemble in any conscious way. The blue eyes, the silver gleam, the familiarity of the spilling blood. The winter hunter.

It's not without good cause that the man once called the Winter Soldier once cautioned his lover as to the wisdom of putting full faith in John. There are some situations, he'd suggested, in which the only certainty would be that John would do what he felt needed to be done, the consequences — for him, or anyone else — be damned. On the rather short list of such situations had been 'any kind of threat to the young woman presently bleeding to death in a bank of snow on a god-forsaken mountain.' If he weren't so preoccupied with trying not to die, he'd probably have some choice words about that: A mountain? What?? WHY? Questions for later, if there is a later.

For either of them.

Because it's not a feint. Not exactly. The wolf's powerful, hulking silhouette bears down onto him like a piece of some infernal sky shaken loose, leaking blood redolent of better memories, a sharp chill like a cloud of knives, and clots of corrupted shadow that reek of familiar trauma. John sidesteps once and then vaults forward, twisting his body sideways, curling his fingers into snarls of oily not-fur at the beast's throat and shoulder towrench as both find themselves iminently poised on the verge of spilling out into the empty vastness of an unsurvivable plummet. Wards on his skin crackle and spark in contact with demonic energy, the very thing they were designed to protect him from — but none of them were quite designed for this specific souring of magic, from a tradition unlike most. The golden energy built up over the battery of his body discharges, firing like a luminous bullet across the space between he and Zatanna to give her the only protection he's able — a shell of shining magic, a transparent canopy to defend her from the elements and the slurry of descending debris in what he can only hope will not become a coffin.

All the while, the skies overhead churn in answer to a strange song he can hear, but hasn't until this moment understood. A delicate little music-box sound that burbles up out of the throat of a monster: how can that be?

Then blood, red and natural in defiance of all other evidence, paints John's thigh as he struggles to grapple something terrifying. The moment it makes contact, he understands. Understands too much. The hex he constructed inside of James Barnes may have been dismantled, but in its making they exchanged blood and some things remain. Not only can John sense Barnes, he can sense himself — the trace amounts of his own essence that Barnes carries, now and forever.

The resonance is immediate and it strikes the Englishman like a fist to the diaphragm. Not once. Many times, all in a virtually-simultaneous flurry. Shock. Frustration with himself, for not seeing it sooner. A pang of worry for Barnes and Foster, and over the nature of the bodies they brought back: who and what are they? And then, more than anything, that bottomless anger, uncapped, glacial, and apocalyptic.

Heedless of the possible damage to himself, he struggles to thrust his arm into that space all canines have — the place behind the teeth where there are only gums, and canny veterinarians know they can wedge a dog's mouth open, so long as they don't slip and let the teeth find purchase. He uses force enough to chisel all of the wiry muscle of his upper body in stone, and his questing hand has no good intentions. The tragedy of it all twists grief around his ribs, but grief does nothing but make John more dangerous.

"NEVER AGAIN, BARNES! I fucking warned you!" His teeth grit as sharp enamel grazes flesh. It's not any sort of deterrant at all. "A BIRD FOR A BIRD, HOW'S THAT FUCKING SOUND?"

That faint, caged-bird song — filtering out through the bars of a wolf's silvery fangs — twists and warps.

Magic moves against magic, and the songbird feels that fractal re-sculpting of its reach: feels those wards negating and unravelling the reach of its song. Of itself.

Inside the darkness of the wolf's jaws, the songbird struggles to move, its outstretched, broken wings lifting briefly — and flattening out with the slumping exhaustion of a suffering animal. It turns its little head, and feels in the dark for the soft flesh between those fangs, and needle the tissue open in one, tiny spot with the points of its peak.

The songbird lays its trembling body down over that welling cut, nesting on it, closing its eyes and softening its morose song: too wounded to do much more, it gives what it has left to the wolf. Lets magic feed of magic. Lets its keeper wreath with climbing power: could it be enough to silence those wards? Enough to push forward, and into, that negating field of magic?

The song coaxes the wolf on. Heals it. Nurtures it. Empowers it. Promises it: she will protect him. He can throw them all off the side of the mountain now, and she will always protect him.

And then John Constantine feeds his arm into the jaws of the beast.

Magic tracks off his flesh, off his blood: off all five of his fingers. It is a corruption into the wounded bird's sanctuary, a thief invading into their quiet communion. The bird cries out, startled, furious —

Among fangs the length of his arm, the magician's hand finds purchase. A little spot of yield in all that death. The songbird is small enough to fit inside his hand.

Jane Foster, made too small for this world; only months ago, a shadow of herself on the the stand, sitting like a knot in a courthouse chair too big for her, and letting her entire life bleed out of her like a gouting wound. Out for all the world to know. She looked so small then, so thin, hollow-boned and breakable, her arms crossed in on herself.

Wings cross inside his fingers, folded in painful ways, and the bird buckles inside his hand, caged by wards, captive. It cries in pain.

Only John Constantine would wrestle a massive wolf, with his bare hands, in nothing but his underthings, in the snow.

It is just shocking enough that it works, for half a moment.

The great blue eye closest to John turns to regard him from much too close, nothing in those irises but maddened corrupt rage. Well — not entirely nothing. There's a glimmer of something familiar there, something familiar that rhymes with the signature of that spilled blood, the glinting silver between the writhing shadows cloaking his left foreleg, and the snow driving all around them in an early onset winter… in order to form into one devastating realization.

John Constantine erupts in rage.

His response is at once apocalyptic and self-destructive, the magician forcing his arm, Tyr-like, straight into the jaws of the wolf. The creature howls in mingled pain and fury as John unkindly forces its fangs apart, searching for one thing and one thing only in its little hiding spot…

A bird for a bird, Constantine says. A half second later, Jane starts to scream in pain.

James howls in incoherent fury, The wolf's head turns sharply, jaws seeking to clamp down over the right half of the magician's body. Fangs grind down to force him to let go, before with a violent swing of his head the monster tries to break John against the side of the mountain.

There was only ONE END, that snarling voice emanates from the dark, now painfully familiar, to seeking It out. The capitalization on 'It' is near-palpable.

But the weak flutters of the bird in his jaws decides him. The wolf turns, and within two loping strides throws himself straight back through the shadows from which he originally came. The strong stench of magic flares again… and fades.

Questing fingers slick with wolfspit finally find something soft in the icy cavern of blades that is the mouth of his foe, and waste no time in closing on their object. There's little care for the feathers that bend against his imprisoning fingers, or the pressure bearing down into the hinges of wings set askew. He could have crushed her then and there, and everything in his hand — every last furious pulse of blood driven by his straining engine of a heart, every nerve, every creaking bone — wants to do that. Concentrate the hurricane of himself down to a point and reduce one small, vulnerable, downy body to little more than feathers in paste, little bird bones like snapped toothpicks made of glass. The little bird cries out in pain and far from dissuading him, that prey sound only whips the animal urge to a maddening pitch, some sort of reptilian reflex buried deep in the rarity of John in a violent mood.

It's a testament to many things that he does not. The effort, the will required to resist that animal urge is immense.

He hardly has time to feel anything at all about the bird and its pitiful sound. Pearl lances run him through. Blood erupts from deep wounds, spatters the stone and snow where he's slung sideways into it. Somewhere in the chaos of his pain, he loses his hold on the bird.

Even bitten and grievously wounded, John finds it in himself to roll over, getting his hands beneath his shoulders, every breath sending up embers and sparks of red, baleful pain through his core. The entire sequence of events must seem suicidal, but John is the very definition of a survivor, often in spite of himself. In all of his many and varied sufferings, he's never tried to kill himself. Not once. Now is no different. He may die, but if so he'll perish throwing everything he has into staying alive — and making the other guy pay for the privilege.

He finds his knees, reaches out with one blood-slick hand to close it over the broken shaft of a spine of ice, and gradually gets to his feet. His right side is a mess of glistening darkness, red blood gone black under the blue light of the moon, and the rest of him is wet. Between his mood and the mitigating numbness wrought on his bare, frozen body, he's bizarrely prepared to carry on the fight.

…He won't complain when it turns out that he doesn't have to.

The wolf retreats to attend to its injured passenger, and John stands in the sudden silence for ten seconds before finally dropping the icy weapon in his hand. Each rise and fall of his chest and ribs sends another pulse of blood spilling out of him, the heat like a scalding brand. He steams. It steams.

It's going to fucking suck when the floor of his adrenaline falls out from under him.

Knowing that, he wastes little time in collecting Zatanna in spite of the shrieking protest of his injuries, and with more effort than he would ever admit to anyone, he reopens the way back to the flat. All that remains of the conflict on that cliff's edge are smears of blood and a foul odor, and soon enough the falling snow and ceaseless wind will erase those, too.

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