|A one-shot piece I started on a whim. Wanted to work on Mia and Drey, mostly, though I started the setup with some other characters. Mia and Drey hunt demons! Panzer is just trying to make a living. Natori is a bitch. Etc.|
The winter sun shone pale above the ruined city, casting its insubstantial light over broken stone and rotting rooftop. Skeletal trees reached weakly toward the heavens, branches rattling in the weak wind, but their prayers, if such they were, went unanswered -- word was nothing green had grown in the city since its destruction.
It was faint at first -- a slow, steady patter from just outside the city boundaries, growing steadily louder. The trees creaked as if to warn the intruder away, and he stopped just past the city gates, pulling back on the reins of the large, orange-feathered bird he rode on. His gaze flitted uneasily from shattered fence to rotting hedge, seeking out the ghosts he was certain were watching him, and he huddled deeper in his coat, though it did little to ward off the chill.
"Meeting in a place like this," he muttered, peering over his collar at the empty streets. "Just how morbid is she?"
No voice answered him, and he gave a brief, huffing sigh, nudging his mount forward and deeper into the city. She hadn't told him where to meet her, but it was a safe bet he could wait near the gate and she'd find him there.
It was also probably safer for him in general, he mused as he pushed farther down the worn stone street. He glanced from right to left and back again, taking in a shattered hedgerow, a crumbling well near a cluster of broken-down shacks. He shook his head, moving on toward the city center and the remains of the castle beyond.
He had just passed what probably used to be elaborate statue, now a few cracked chunks of stone on a worn pedestal, when a woman's voice rang out behind him, strident and confident.
"I wouldn't go any farther than that. Do you have any idea where you are?"
He whirled his peco smartly, relief on his face. "Nat -- what the hell kind of sick joke --" He trailed off in surprise, as the woman standing firmly on a half-fallen wall across the street was not, in fact, who he was expecting. "Who.."
She wasn't particularly tall, but she was athletically built and somehow incredibly imposing -- though much of that could have come from the fact that she had an arrow knocked in her bow and pointed directly at him. Her hair hung loose, cut straight along the line of her jaw, and her eyes were hard as stone, telling him as though she'd spoken that the arrow was no idle threat.
"I'll ask again," she said, much as if he'd never spoken. "Do you have any idea where you are?"
"Of -- of course," he blurted without thinking. "This is Glast Heim -- how could I not know where I am?"
Her scowl only deepened, but she did relax her grip on her bow, breathing out an impatient sigh. "Then, like I said, you'd best be on your way. This place is dangerous."
"I know that, too," he pointed out, and she gave him an impatient look, slinging her bow over her shoulder.
"Then I shouldn't have to tell you again," she growled, but a soft, mild voice interrupted her before got much farther.
"Maybe you should explain it to him, Mia," it said, and he lurched, hauling back on his peco's reins in surprise when a man's head and shoulders appeared beyond the wall. He lifted a hand in a friendly wave and leaned against the wall, resting his arms on top of it. Beyond that, he was unreadable, a mask covering his features.
The woman looked down her companion, expression resigned.
"Who are you?" asked the man on the peco, and she looked back at him, some annoyance returning to her expression.
"Mia Wolfe," she answered him shortly. "Payon's Red Dog, if you want how the demons know me."
"P.. Panzer Jakes," he returned reflexively, but she brushed his introduction away.
"I didn't ask." But she heaved a sight and sprang from the broken wall, planting her fists on her hips as she watched him with a level gaze. "Word is there's gonna be a gathering tonight, Panzer," she said conversationally. "My partner and I are here for the hunt."
"Hunt?" Panzer said blankly.
"Demons, Panzer," she answered him, a grin curving her lips for the first time in the conversation. "There's supposed to be a regular demonic hoedown in the castle courtyard, folks coming in from far and wide." She clearly took note of his paling complexion, as the grin took on a vicious edge. "Now, I don't know if you have any ambitions toward becoming some demon's dinner, but if you don't, I'd hightail it on out of here."
"I'm supposed to meet someone here --"
"Do I look like I give a shit in hell what you're doing here?" she snapped, folksy edge abandoning her voice entirely. "I'm telling you to get your butt back to the gate and go home."
His shoulders jerked at her tone, but he shook his head sharply. "Look, I'm not planning to hang around --"
"Then get going already."
The man nearby her shook his head, as if to suggest her actions were those of a fractious child. Panzer was not terribly comforted by it. Even if his face was hidden behind a mask, he was fairly sure the man was smiling.
He backed away another step, however, frowning. "All right, already. I won't go any farther."
She watched him silently, clearly unwilling to accept his word until she saw him well on his way. He gave her a hard look -- she ignored it -- and turned his peco toward the entry gate, pushing it into a hurried trot. Once he was sure he was past the range of their vision (and hearing), he stopped, looking over his shoulder with a scowl of contempt.
"Payon's Red Dog," he mimicked. "Of all the pretentious crap …"
He did, however, continue to the entrance of the ruined city, stopping just past the gate and finally dismounting, leaving his peco tied to the remains of a metal railing. It was perhaps a half-hour later -- after much scuffing and growling and many thoughts of abandoning the meeting entirely -- that a rattle of wagon wheels sounded down the road. Shortly, the wagon itself appeared, led by a tattered, aging specimen of a peco and driven by a young woman dressed with the clear intent of exposing as much skin as possible without being indecent. She pulled the wagon to a halt and tied the reins off absently, swinging down from her seat.
"Late again," Panzer growled, and she gave him a dismissive look over the top of her dark-tinted glasses.
"You keeping score?" she retorted, then dug in her shorts for a cigarette, sighing wearily.
"Yeah, maybe I am," he snapped, continuing when she didn't answer. "And what the hell's with meeting here? There's some crazy woman with a bow in there, says she's here to hunt demons. Demons, Nat!"
"She's already here?" She glanced past him into the deeper parts of the city, then turned back to see his dumbfounded expression. "Shit, Jakes, what kind of attitude is that when I'm doin' you a favor?"
"What the shit kind of favor is leading me to a haunted city and nearly getting me killed?!"
She gave him an impatient look, fumbling for her matches and coming up empty. "You're the one bitching about how you can't make enough money."
"And how is this --"
"Spoils of war, Jakes." She fixed him with a cool, blue-eyed stare. "Her ladyship the Red Dog of Payon kills demons. I supply her with information on where to get them. She does her business and sells me any spoils at a set price. I take the goods to market and profit."
"You're scavenging from demons?"
"I ain't. She is." Nat grinned at him, finally finding her matches, and lit her cigarette, taking a long drag before exhaling the smoke toward the sky. "She's doing the dangerous work, we just make the money."
"You're crazy," Panzer said, half turning as if to fetch his peco and leave.
"It's a sure thing, Jakes … you positive you don't wanna hang around?" Her tone seemed to indicate she didn't care one way or the other.
He stopped but didn't turn. "What the hell are demons carrying that'll make you any kind of money?"
She grinned in her usual, predatory way. “You'd be surprised what demons squirrel away. You'd be surprised what bits of them are worth, too.”
“Bits of them,” he said, expression wary.
She gave him an impatient look, letting a stream of smoke spiral toward the sky. “Tanners use animal hides, right? Well, demons have a few useful body parts too. Mostly for alchemists and brewers, I admit.” She glanced toward the city's center. “They pay good coin for it, though.”
Panzer attempted not to look revolted by the idea. “This better be a sure thing.”
“You're welcome to take off,” she retorted. “Your loss.”
He didn't answer, but he didn't leave, either. Instead, he looked at the sky, where the sun had finally begun its downward journey, and the stars were barely beginning to show in the darkening sky.
"Damn gawkers," Mia growled, resting her arms on her knees and glaring silently toward the city's central square.
"Are you still angry about that?" her companion asked. The sun was long since set, blanketing the city in darkness, and to the best of their knowledge, the young merchant on his peco had fled the area as ordered.
"People need to stay out of places they don't belong," she retorted, eyes following a bare flash of movement across the broken cobblestones. They returned to him when it turned out to be nothing more than a drifting leaf. "I can't watch their butts for them, Drey."
He didn't reply, only reaching out to touch her shoulder gently.
He wasn't rewarded with a response, as she leaned forward, crouching lower behind the broken wall that hid them.
A dusky figure crept into the slanted moonlight pointed ears twitching cautiously as its eyes darted from shadow to shadow in its wide, flat face. Mia bared her teeth in a wide grin, watching the scouting demon scuttle around the square, checking under rocks and behind debris for potential infiltrators. They had a brief moment of unease when it bounced near their hiding place, wings flapping wildly, but it stopped three feet away, apparently distracted by a few blades of grass that blew gently in the breeze.
Satisfied that all was safe, the deviruchi trotted back to the middle of the square and raised one stubby arm to signal to its companions.
Mia hunkered down again, muscles tensing. Drey touched her shoulder again, and she relaxed just slightly, touching his hand. The shadow of a smile graced her lips -- reassurance.