Savages

The wind howled. It cut at Piandao's face, dug claws into chinks in his armor, jammed knives down his throat with every breath. Frozen blood crackled against his forehead; he needed to get back to the ship and get his injuries treated. He knew it like he knew the corpse-white cold of the North would kill him if he didn't move.

Hizoka lay sprawled in the snow, one side of his skull smashed in by a Water Tribe club, and Piandao couldn't stop staring. There was a circle in the side of his skull, a little bowl that had already caught some of the gusting snow in it. Bronze eyes were open, ice-bright, accusing.

Piandao had no firebending. He had no firebending, and his friend lay there dead in the red snow. There were no fires for Hizoka, for Kurou, for Nao... It would have been all right, Piandao thought, if he could burn them. It would be-

(Nao's roar and the whoosh of flames, consuming three of the Water Tribesman, but Nao was down on one knee, and one of the waterbenders raised his arms. Piandao slapped the javelin of ice aside with his sword, and the next one struck him hard in the helm. He fell, his head ringing, and Nao was dead by the time he could climb to his feet again.)

It wouldn't be all right. He cradled his face in his hands, the boiled leather of his gauntlets melting the frozen blood. It flowed wet and sticky down his face. Dimly, he was aware that he hurt. His body ached from cold and battle. Wounds stung him.

Hizoka didn't hurt anymore.

He dragged his gaze up from his hands, stared out at the battlefield. White. So much endless, blinding white under a hateful blue sky. Splashes of red, streaks of black, but mostly it was just white.

And blue. Blue dragged his eyes to a fallen Water Tribesman, face black and crumbling in the wind. Kurou. Kurou liked striking for the face.

Kurou had been dismembered by ice-saws.

"Savages," Piandao croaked. Speaking sent a jolt through him: pain and something else. He blinked, ice on his eyelashes crackling and falling, then stumbled to his feet. "Savages!"

He dug his sword into the snow to keep himself from falling. A thousand needles stung his body with each movement, and the biting cold of the wind struck all the deeper. He ignored it, staggered over to Kurou's kill.

"Savages," he whispered. "I can't even burn my friends to keep you from eating their hearts. Filthy, murderous savages."

He brought his sword down, cracking the corpse's breastbone. He stared, breathing hard, then twisted his sword. The crackle of bone breaking made him bare his teeth. He heaved his sword out, raised it to strike again, stopped, stared.

The Water Tribesman's flesh was the wrong color. It looked... cooked.

He dropped to his knees, sword tumbling into the snow next to him. Cooked. Kurou had cooked the man with his firebending. He'd-

Piandao reached for his belt knife, fumbled it out of its sheath, and hacked at the corpse's chest. He cut through the thin remains of blue leather, through dark skin, and darker meat. He stabbed the knife into a lung, cracked ribs with his hands and yanked them out of the way.

His hand closed around the Water Tribesman's heart. The sound of tearing flesh had never seemed so loud as he pulled it out.

The heart was hardly bigger than his closed fist, and it looked just this side of raw. Good. He detested overcooked meat, and too many people forgot how lean heart meat was. He blinked, gave himself a little shake. Cooking hippobeef heart wasn't anything like accidentally cooking someone in battle. Not even a little bit.

The Water Tribe, he thought, would think it was exactly the same. His lips pulled back in a snarl. Savages.

He sank his teeth into the heart. The first bite hurt his jaw to chew, so he took a smaller bite for the next one. He chewed, and the texture on his tongue was hard muscle, like the heart of a wild boarcock rather than a common piggoose. He swallowed, and the meat slid down his throat and settled in him.

He devoured the thing. It tasted gamey, and a little too undercoocked.

Piandao picked up his sword, jammed it into the snow, and levered himself upright. He spat red onto the white snow, then turned in the direction that would take him back to the ship.

"Savages."