|Experimenting with importing Io and Urufu into the Arena RP world. They're probably a little different than you remember them, if you ever knew them from back in the day. Well, okay, Io's a little different. Urufu never changes.|
"You know, what I really can't wrap my head around is why they're all afraid of you."
"And poor sense."
"Well, I am the one with an oversized butcher knife strapped to my back." She grunted slightly, heaving a battered and very plain travel chest over the edge of the wagon as her companion sprang down from the back.
"And I'm the one with large fangs and a spring-loaded jaw."
"You're a talking dog."
"That was uncalled-for."
Io debated for a moment risking her friend's further indignation by listing the advantages of selling her to a circus act and finally decided against it, concentrating on moving the surprisingly heavy chest onto a convenient heap of crates. "I didn't think we'd have to sell all this so soon."
Her companion ambled over and set her chin on the edge of one of the crates, stretching her canine muzzle into a slightly unnerving grin. "I'm surprised we lasted this long, personally."
"Then we'd better make a hefty profit or we'll never make it back to the Frontier."
"We will!" She lifted her head and gave herself a shake, wagging her tail ironically. "Not that the place is a real prize, anyway."
Io smiled briefly and humorlessly to acknowledge the sally and gazed thoughtfully at the chest and crates, considering her options. The wolf finally roused her from her thoughts with a brief bark. "Oy, boss-lady wants a word with you."
'Boss-lady' was a middle-aged woman of solid build and toned muscle. She was busy looking at the wolf with disapproval when Io stepped into her field of view, melting the disapproval away to replace it with intimidation. Io attributed the reaction primarily to her height and red hair, but the primary catalyst was her bland lack of expression -- the other two features were gravy.
"Iowyn." The woman bobbed her graying head. "How's the hunting been?"
"As well as can be expected. How's the weather been?"
"About average." The pleasantries aside, she slipped back into her native tongue. "The track is south of here a few miles. It runs straight into the canyon. Pelts and skulls would be good, but they aren't necessary."
"How many?" Io responded in kind. The wolf was watching them both with irritation and curiosity, but she flounced away and bounced back into the wagon instead of complaining. From long experience, she knew it wouldn't do her any good.
"Eighteen or so. Maybe twenty."
"Feh." Io frowned. With the extermination fee and the number of pelts the woman offered, she wouldn't have to sell so early, but it would push them back at least eight hours. Mido snapped her fingers to draw her attention, and she glanced up.
"We'll double the extermination fee. I need them gone, Iowyn. They're hurting business, and they made off with one of our babes just last night."
Cards on the table, then. Io sighed. "The wolf needs a place to stay."
At this, the woman grimaced, and Io permitted herself a brief, unsympathetic grin.
"She isn't so bad once you get used to her -- though I can't think of anyone who's gotten used to her."
"Feh. There's an empty stall in the stables, but if one of our horses --"
It was Io's turn to wince, and she raised her hands hurriedly to placate her. "You'll take it out of my pay. We'll be more careful this time."
Mido gazed at her silently for a moment, then nodded, glancing at the wolf, who was sprawled on her back in the cart and lolling her tongue comically. Her eyes narrowed with disapproval. "I'll be waiting for good news." That said, she walked away, footsteps crunching crisply on the gravelly dirt.
Io waited until she was well out of sight, then turned back to the wagon and her companion, who had ceased lolling and was watching her expectantly. The red-haired human jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "She says you can stay in the stable."
The wolf gave her a suspicious look. "You were talking about me again, weren't you?"
"What does that have to do with the price of tea in Minsterton?"
"You were talking about me!" She drew out the vowel sounds ridiculously, tail slapping the wagon bed. "It couldn't have been anything nice."
"It wasn't." Io trotted back to the travel chest and carried it back to the wagon. "We talked about how your fur just didn't have that healthy gleam anymore, and --" She dropped it inside. "-- you need a bath or two."
The wolf sniffed. "What a thing to suggest. I bathe as often as you do. Were you really talking about me?"
"Liar!" the canine declared gaily. "If you weren't talking about me, then what were you talking about?"
"The price of tea in Minsterton."
Io grimaced, reaching into her pocket for a small cardboard box, which, upon retrieval opened to reveal a stash of cigarettes. The wolf watched her with some disapproval as she selected one and lit it with a sparker.
"Smoking's a filthy habit, you know."
"So's murder." She gave the wolf a bland smile.
They were silent for a the few minutes it took her to finish her cigarette, which she mashed out on the edge of the wagon before dropping it to the ground. The wolf wiggled a little, her patience run nearly dry.
"So, are you going to tell me --"
At this, the wolf jumped up, bristling slightly, tail rigid and ears flat against her head. Io paid her very little heed as she broke into a short tirade, punctuated by barks and yelps of irritation. "Stable? Stable? Order me around like a common house-dog, will you -- that's just out of line --"
"Go to the stable, Wolf," Io repeated herself, not even bothering to look in her companion's direction.
She whuffed indignantly, leaping down from the wagon with another flounce -- she'd gotten very good at them. "I don't think we're friends anymore."
"I'll try to contain my dismay," Io responded drily, shooing her away with one hand.
She stalked away with great dignity, nose almost as high in the air as she could get it, and vanished around a corner shortly, tail flicking once. When she was sure the wolf had really gone and wasn't going to slip back and follow her, Io walked over to the horses and unhitched one of them, smiling faintly.
"She'll get over it."
The horse, a hardy mare whose master had named her -- rather inappropriately -- Honeydew, blew in Io's face and pricked her ears inquisitively. Her companion, a roan named (almost as inappropriately) Feather, whinnied and pawed the ground.
"Sorry, Feather, she's faster than you." Io led the mare away from the wagon and sprang to her back. She'd never owned a saddle, and it had only taken them a few days to get the general idea -- they were surprisingly intelligent, for horses. She double-checked her weapons and flicked her gaze southward, nudging Honeydew into a brisk trot.
The track, a broken trail of dirty pawprints and gouts of shed -- and torn -- fur, started exactly where she was told it would start and ran almost due south, vanishing after a few miles into a stone-floored canyon pitted with caves and outcroppings.
"Perfect." She slowed Honeydew to a halt and dismounted. "I'd stay put, if I was you," she remarked, laying a hand on the pale scar that represented the horse's last encounter with one of the Frontier's monsters. Her meaning across, she proceeded into the canyon alone.
To her surprise, no yipping or baying greeted her first footsteps, and she paused, the reason for their absence becoming clear momentarily. An echo of snarls and whines bounced indistinctly off the canyon walls from farther inside. The pack was fighting over something -- probably food. Following the sounds, she made her way forward, but soon that became somewhat unnecessary and she simply followed the blood.
The fighting had reached a fever pitch by the time she reached them -- twenty-one, all told -- and the prize for the winners became clear on a second glance. Io sighed wearily. The babe wouldn't be returning to his parents. Mido probably would have doubled the price over again, she thought with some regret, then turned her attention back to the canvid, who were still squabbling and hadn't taken notice of her.
Food was a rare commodity on the Frontier, but times must truly be hard for them to raid the few human settlements there were. They were raggedly thin, skin stretched tight over their bellowed ribcages, and a madness of desperation showed in their every snarl and snap. Ugly beasts to begin with, starvation made them skeletally hideous, the tendrils that sprouted from their shoulders cracking hard, like solid bone, against whatever surface they struck.
Io shrugged, placing one hand on the hilt of the broadsword strapped across her back. With their distraction, exterminating the lot would be no challenge.
And she did so.
Her first charge, silent and swift, mowed down six of them, and she was halfway into a second attack before the frenzied canvid realized she was there. It took another sweep before they organized their resistance, and by then there were only seven left. Two of them died in mid-charge, and the other five broke and fled.
Io scowled. Ah, no, my ugly friends. She thrust the sword point-first into the dirt, where it towered to nearly her height, and snatched her pistol from where it was holstered at her side -- five shots ended the pack's flight. I like my bounties in full.
When she had confirmed the deaths of all present and was relatively certain that no more lurked in the shadows, she set about collecting the bounty, a full set of pelts and heads -- they would decay into fleshless skulls within the hour, devoured by the hungry air of the Frontier. A small whimpering sound diverted her attention just as she was heaping the last pelt and she swore mentally, bending her ears to track the sound and wishing -- for a split second -- that she had the wolf with her to track the scent.
Fortune, however, chose that moment to smile on her, as a movement at one of the shallow openings revealed a canvid pup, barely three weeks old, tussling with one of its sibs.
"Of course." Io gave two short, sharp whistles over her shoulder. With any luck, the horse would hear her and bring the few things she had slung over her back.
The sound also got the attention of the pups, who ceased their squabbling immediately and faced her, fur bristling and tentacles waving. Three more bounced out of the hole, curious to see what had frightened their littermates. Io glanced down at herself with an ironic smile, taking in the blood and fur that spattered her, and took a step forward. She had several options available to her at this point, most of which involved adding them to the bonfire that their parents were soon to make. The cubs shuffled backward, one falling over with a squeak, the two at the fore still making their gurgling growl sound in an attempt to be intimidating.
"Sorry, you don't scare me much." She crouched down in front of them, extending her hand in what she supposed was a foolish and unprofessional move. To her surprise, the pups stopped growling and snuffled at her warily, tentacles shifting clumsily forward to feel her hand. It was going quite nicely until one of them bit her.
She checked the bandage one more time, scowling at the yipping, squirming burlap sack that she'd slung over Honeydew's back in addition to the one that held pelts and the other that held skulls. The wound wasn't seething yet -- she might actually have enough time to get back to the settlement and get some medicine on it. Honeydew gave her a reproachful look as the sack gave a small heave, and Io gave her a hard look.
"They didn't bite you, did they?"
They were worth a small profit at the Arena, if they made it there intact. Common as rabbits on the Frontier, they'd never spread beyond it, and Io didn't know that anyone had supplied the beastmasters with one, much less five -- cubs, three females and two males. She'd almost snapped all their necks anyway. Vicious little animals.
A twig snapped, and she glanced up. The bonfire was dying, and full night was coming on rapidly.
"Back to base, Honeydew." She swung herself up, and the horse made a melodramatic "oof"ing noise as she settled in place. "Don't get smart with me, horse."
The trip back was blissfully uneventful. Even the sack of puppies fell silent after an hour or so, as they apparently found the situation conducive to a nice, quiet nap. As she approached the waystation community, she noticed an attentive head silhouetted against the yellow warding-lamp, ears pricked for the sound of returning hoofbeats. She had been forgiven, it appeared, but probably not for too much longer.
"Wolf," she said cordially, swinging down from Honeydew's back and fishing around the back of the wagon for the spare cage she knew should be there.
The wolf had scented her long before taking in the sight of her bloody clothes, but she still waited for the correct moment in order that Io receive the full effect of her righteous indignation. "You went on an extermination without me!"
"You wouldn't have liked it," the human said blandly, yanking the cage open. "Canvid."
"Eugh," said the wolf, glancing at Honeydew curiously for an explanation of the renewed yipping noises from the burlap sack.
"Five of them."
The wolf grinned at her. "That almost makes up for it!"
"Sure." Io trotted back and swung the sack down, to Honeydew's evident relief. She unwound the twine that bound it closed and dropped it unceremoniously inside the cage, slamming the door shut and locking it tight. "They're eight months away from breeding age. One less problem for us."
The wolf ambled aside, golden pelt rippling in the half-light. "Keeping them fed could be a trick."
Io shrugged and gave the cage a shove. It skidded into one of the other shrouded containers, which gave a grunting roar of objection. "They've been living off less than our scraps -- they'll make it."
The wolf flattened herself into the wagon, and Io glanced toward the station house just in time to see Mido framed in the doorway. The woman approached, gaze wary in the darkness. "The boy?"
Io shook her head. "Dead when I arrived -- I burned him in a separate fire." It was a fairly harmless lie. There was almost no possibility that the settlers would chance a former canvid den to see if she was telling the truth.
Mido gave her a long look, then nodded. "How many?"
"Twenty-one, all told. Pelts in fine condition, skulls accounted for." She gestured to Honeydew, who whinnied -- her way of saying she wished they'd finish the transaction and get the unwanted burden off her back. Io moved over and patted the horse absently, watching the woman do the calculations in her head.
The normal price for a canvid pelt was fifty, because they were so common -- the skulls made for twenty extra. At double, she probably had enough to get most of the way to the Arena. She guessed that Mido regretted her generous offer, because she counted both skulls and pelts twice and looked unusually sullen as she counted out the coins. Transaction completed, Io turned away to hitch Honeydew back to the wagon, but a questioning cry from the doorway of the station pulled her gaze back toward the light.
A man and a woman hesitated on the threshold, faces taut with anxiety. Mido seemed to shrink into herself, shaking her head silently. The woman made a keening sound, and Io turned away to see the wolf watching her.
The wolf gave a lazy shrug and turned her face back to the doorway, where Mido was offering the bereaved parents the pelts, which they refused. Io finished hitching Honeydew and swung up into the wagon, clucking for the two horses to move.
"Every so often," the wolf remarked as they drove out of sight of the waystation town, "something happens that makes you think you can pretend to care about these small people and their small lives."
"Every so often," Io agreed, wishing she could have another cigarette. But she only had four left, and they had to last until she was back from the Arena.
"Every time we come here, I'm reminded of why I hate being around people."
The wolf was crabby. Five weeks' travel had brought them to the bustling center of commerce and battle that made mothers wish their sons would join the army, and she'd been told, firmly and repeatedly, that they were not going to participate in any of the spectacular blood-letting activities. Said activities were the only thing that made the crowds worthwhile, in her humble opinion. She felt cheated.
"No call for replacements this time.. they're always open to new blood, though." Io was ignoring her, reading over the bulletin board in the entryway. Where there was a board to announce matches and offer challenges, this one was primarily for want ads and general notices -- as well as fairly ineffectual warnings about criminals in the area.
She gave the human a dirty look. "This had better be worth the --"
Her tirade was cut short by a sharp and rather vulgar exclamation from her companion. It was followed by a fierce slap to the wall, which was evidently a toned down punch, as her other hand was clenched at her side.
"Eh? What? What?" The wolf bobbed her head, trying to see the bulletin board, despite the fact that she couldn't read a word of it. "Did they decide they're not taking outside sources anymore? That's suicidal --"
Io's fist relaxed, and she glanced down with a grin that was almost as unnerving as her short fit of temper. "The old man's watching out for us."
She slapped her knuckles against two of the posters in the reserved spot the guards kept open for criminal listings. "He's put out a warrant on us."
"He's what?!" The wolf reared up on the board, peering at the posters she'd indicated. "Oh, lovely likenesses -- he's got your scowl down to a tee -- what charges?"
"Theft.. destruction of property.. guess I can't argue with those." Io grinned ironically.
"What about me?" She peered at her poster, tilting her head sideways at the snarling caricature. "What am I down for?"
"Eh?" She gave her companion an indignant look. "Murder? I didn't kill anybody he knows!"
Io shrugged and reached up to tear the two posters down, tearing them quickly in two and tossing them away to spin with the rest of the debris that littered the open hall. "Guess we'll have to work quick."
The wolf gave a sigh, dropping to the floor and heading back to the wagon. "And here I was hoping I'd at least get to watch a fight."