Aaron’s dreamless slumber seemed never-ending, but morning did inevitably come. The bandit couldn’t say when he passed out, but it evidently hadn’t been early enough. He begrudgingly pried himself from the grass, his head aching and his mouth dry. He had to peel his eyelids open by sheer force of will.
He had never had a worse case of cottonmouth in his life, and he didn’t drink sparingly. He reached for his belt, clipping off his water skin and downing the entire thing in two gulps. He figured he sweated out at least three pounds.
The hellhound he had chanced upon the night prior was still snuggling at his side, just as naked as he was. He felt around, grabbing hold of his tunic, trousers and smallclothes. They had dried to at least some degree.
The sun had yet to fully rise and cold air still blanketed the woods; yet he felt no chill. A low mist ran along the grassy floor and split apart around him like water around a stone. He blinked in confusion, only to realize the hellhound’s natural heat was still encompassing their immediate area.
He supposed he’d have to thank her for staffing off hypothermia.
She mumbled and wagged her tail her tail back and forth, but made no move to pry herself from the grass. Aaron grumbled in frustration, putting his hands on her shoulders and pushing away with all his might. Even with her lose, casual grip, it took his full strength and a few seconds of effort to break away from the hound. But the instant before he freed himself, the monster subconsciously felt him slip away and squeezed him tighter.
For a few short seconds, the bandit feared the hellhound would squeeze him until he burst and splattered his immediate area like a fruit.
“Let… me… GO!” he hollered right into her sensitive ear.
“Yeesh… you don’t hafta yell, babe…” she awoke with a rumbling grumble that would’ve put a grizzly bear to shame. She had stumbled out of dreamland, but refused to release him from her ensnaring hug.
“I need… to go!” he grumbled, now trying to wriggle out of her grasp, “My brother’s medicine! I need… I need to pick it up!”
The hellhound’s ears perked up. She hopped off the human, and with a long yawn, stretched out her sore body. She still found her injured foot a bit too tender to support her weight for long, but she managed to hobble around just enough to collect her scant excuses for clothing.
“Oh, why didn’t ya just say so? Silly human. Hehehe…” she chuckled along with the beat of her tail. She bent over ever so slightly, making sure to squeeze her supple rear into her black underwear torturously slow. All the while, her wolfish tail taunted him by swinging above the tantalizing sight.
Despite himself, Aaron couldn’t help but watch. Gritting his teeth, he extinguished that spark of lust and rekindled his fury at the dark beast. Last night seemed to be a distant blur, and his skin seemed to have hardened against the hellfire she had beckoned him with.
“Just forget it. I have to go to the nearest city from here and get it, then walk all the way back to my cabin. I’ve gotta get moving. Douglas will be worried sick about me.”
The beast merrily hummed in thought as she reattached those two odd iron clasps back over her nipples, “Douglas, huh? Is that his name? I bet he’s so cute! Oh, I can’t wait to meet the little guy!”
The blue-eyed bandit blinked once, astounded. Then he blinked a second time, his eyes resting into a furrowed position.
“What? Are you kidding me? It’s bad enough you pounce on me not a minute after we trade names, but now you want me to bring you home?”
The hellhound looked just as perplexed as he did.
“Of course! Like I said, babe- I’m yours, and you’re mine~” she purred more like a cat than a dog, her hips now wagging in tune with her tail.
‘Oh dear gods in heaven… she’s serious…’
The bandit pinched his nose and tilted his face to the sky. Not even in his wildest dreams did he find himself in such an odd, awkward, and frustrating situation. It made him want to claw off his skin and scream. But instead, he swiftly donned his still moist clothing while fuming in silent rage.
“I’m sorry Val, but it’d never work out.”
“We’d make it work!”
“Look. I ain’t a salt of the earth type of guy. I’ve got nothin’ against sleeping around… and if you find the right person from that, so be it… but for fucks sake, we just met! I’ve got more important things to worry about right now.”
He went to collect the rest of his gear, strapping his sword to his back and wringing out the water in his cloak before slinging it over his shoulder. All the while, he tried to ignore the pretty face twisted up with shock, anger, and sadness that was staring daggers into his back.
“W-what?! You’re just going to leave me behind?” Valerie snapped, the faintest traces of tears gathering at her eyes, “What kind of a man just fucks a girl and leaves!?”
“What kind of girl rapes a guy and demands he take her home?” he huffed in response, setting back towards civilization.
The sour hellhound forked two clawed thumbs towards her chest, “This one!”
Aaron didn’t bother to dignify that with a response. He went on with his path, waving a sober goodbye to the hound. He wouldn’t deny that a small part of him wanted to stay with her- but he knew it wouldn’t pan out well for either of them in the end. He was a highwayman, and she a beast from the pits of hell. That kind of wicked matchup would only end with the hammer of the law thoroughly grinding them both into paste.
Not to mention, he had no clue exactly how he would’ve explained it to his little brother.
“Keep your nose clean, Val. People around these parts don’t exactly take a liking to your kind.” were his grim departing words.
But the hound refused to let him go. Fighting through the searing pain in her heel, she hobbled after Aaron and gritted her fangs.
“Don’t you dare leave me, Aaron! How could you do this to a girl!? I take back what I said about you not being evil! You’re the worst! You big jerk!”
She swung her fuzzy fists in two wild, arcing swings. Hitting the branches around them, she launched a rain of shattered twigs at his back.
The bandit couldn’t stop the annoyed sigh from rushing up his throat, nor the grimace spreading across his face, “For the love of… take a hint, bitch! Piss off! Go find some other bastard to be your fucktoy!”
“B-but you’re the one I want, babe! D-do you really want me to chase you down again?! Even with this bum paw, I could catch you!”
The highwayman halted when he heard the threat. He slowly turned around to meet her gaze, “Maybe you could, maybe you couldn’t… but I know I’d escape if you gave me a head start.”
Puffing out her cheeks, the hound placed her front paws upon her hips and scowled at him.
“Pfft. Like I’d give you one.”
Aaron was starting to grow frustrated, having had just about enough from the clingy dog. She seemed larger than life before, some sort of strange, exotic, and insurmountable beast. It was just then, when he was fuming and staring her down. Ready to tell her off for a final time, did he realize he was a whole head and neck taller than her.
“Okay, fine. You wanna know why you can’t come with me…? Look here.”
The highwayman squatted to one knee, hunching over and reaching next to his boot. The hellhound’s ears perked up, confused as to why the answer would be lying on that very specific patch of grass. Regardless of her doubt, she leaned over and peered down at the spot.
All she saw was his hand shoot up, smashing a palmful of dirt and grass into her eyes. She cried out in surprise, hopping back on her good leg and rubbing the refuse away with her fuzzy paws.
The man didn’t apologize. He didn’t wait to see if she was alright, and he didn’t so much as spare her a passing glance before he took off. The hound howled with rage, dropping to all fours and taking off after him. But with her sprained ankle and the man’s quick pace through thick brush, he quickly outpaced her.
Valerie did her damndest to keep up. While she took every rolling wave of pain emanating from her ankle in stride, the injury completely prevented her from closing the distance between the human and her.
“Don’t you… dare…!” he heard her howl as he fled, turning behind a cypress and taking off into the dense foliage. He could barely hear her over her choked sobs, “…please…!”
The small sliver of chivalry left inside of him did everything in its power to rip him apart from the inside out. And from the pangs of guilt wracking his heart, he felt it was doing quite well. Hurting a woman, telling her off, and leaving her behind with curses as their farewells. Thinking himself dulled to the wiles of women, it strangely tore him up inside. He supposed he could account that to her intense, enticing aura that had nearly consumed him.
It had been quite some time since he felt he was totally justified in any given situation. But deep down, something told him he had made the right choice. He would be no good for her; or she for him. He was a bandit, a blight upon his own people. He’d stumbled across the scar-coated corpses of lonely wolves exiled from their packs more than once. Not even they would accept those that would turn on their own brethren.
Even dogs had their pride, he supposed.
Breaching the seemingly endless woods, a winding dirt road led all the way to a rather large town. It was more wood than mortar, but teeming with all the life of the big city nonetheless.
Just outside of the city, stationed next to the dirt road, a large stone sign sat awkwardly in the grass, displaying its message for all entering to see.
‘Welcome to Oakvale!’ it said.
Aaron paused for a moment as he took a look at the sign. No matter how many times he saw it, he couldn’t help but cringe at the corny name.
The city made most of its revenue from logging oaks. Most of its infrastructure was carved from oak, to the point where he wondered how the entire place didn’t simply go up the instant some drunken idiot dropped his lantern on his way back home.
The bandit would freely admit he never had a flair for any of the finer things in life, even things as mundane as naming schemes- but even he figured he could come up with something better than Oakvale.
But even he couldn’t deny there was bit a rustic charm to it.
An obnoxiously loud moo gartered his attention. He looked over to the side of the road, finding a cow grazing alongside it. A stray from a nearby farm, he figured. The sun was setting- surely her master was already in a frenzy looking for her.
Aaron gently tried to reach out and stroke her snout. The bovine mooed loudly in disapproval, her bell shaking as she trotted a few feet away. The bandit spit in the beast’s direction in a show of his disdain.
“Never had a soft spot for farm animals anyway…” he sourly grumbled.
His clothes had dried out after his long hike under the sun, but his cloak and shawl were still noticeably wet. Not that it mattered much to him- dead giveaways of his career in banditry that he’d need to part with. He left them lying in their usual hiding spot, a large hole hidden behind a small thicket just outside of the city. Placing his signature weapon in as well, he covered the hole with a blanket of moss and set off backup the path.
The gate was just about as unimpressive as the city was. With a base of a mismatched stone and body of shaved oaken trunks, the battlement-free wall surrounding the town was built only to repel vagabonds and wild animals. Even a budding mercenary force with the proper equipment would have no trouble taking the city in less than a week.
Aaron stopped before the gate, meeting the inquisitive gaze of a town guard. He was the usual fellow, a stout man barely able to fit into his leather armor. The shaft of his spear was far more weathered than its pristine tip, a clear result of his using it as more of a walking stick than a weapon.
“Oh. It’s just you, Aaron. What brings you to Oakville today?”
“Oh, you know. I’ve finished salting my meat and stitching my furs for the week. Thought I might as well knock a few back and catch some winks at the inn before I head back to my cabin.”
“Ah! Good call, friend. Might join you if my fuckin’ lazy ass partner ever shows up to take my shift…” he grumbled. Aaron so badly wanted to let the plump fellow know it might’ve been best for both of them to watch the gate at once to prevent anyone from sneaking up on either of them, but decided to mind his own business.
“Yeah. I’ll see ya, then-”
“Wait!” the guard cried, “‘Ave ya heard the news?”
Aaron paused for a long moment, already knowing damn well what the guard was going to say. But he feigned ignorance long enough to act like he was pondering the answer. Eventually, he responded.
“You’re talking about this bandit fella stalking around the woods, right?”
“Damn right I am. Fellas been doing this for three fuckin’ years, can ya beileve it? They still haven’t caught the bastard; he was just goin’ after merchants and lumberjacks at first, but now he’s going after carts of noble families! Can you believe it?! Fella must either be gettin’ crazy or plum arrogant.”
‘Or maybe he just knows he won’t be doing this for much longer and is going for more risky but higher paying targets,’ Aaron wanted to respond. He wisely decided to keep his mouth shut, however.
“He must know the woods like the back of his hand to avoid the law for so long…” the guard mused, rolling the shaft of his spear between his fingers, “Y’know… I overheard the chief talkin’. He says you’re one of the prime suspects.”
Aaron’s eyes widened in surprise that was only half mock, “What? Doesn’t the bastard carry around some big fuckin’ sword form Ohgam? I can barely afford these fuckin’ clothes on my back. My deadbeat father barely left me two coins to rub together. How could I afford something like that?”
“…here’s the thing, buddy. You live nearby the woods…”
“There are plenty of other bastards living in huts and cabins even closer to the woods than me! And not just wrinkled hermits, either. A lot of them are young lumberjacks.”
“He says there’s one thing that make him suspect you,” the plump guard lifted a single sausage finger in demonstration, “He says that the only feature victims were able to report were his eyes. Blue like ice. Like the Demon God himself. Like yours.”
“And that’s why I never went crawling to an orphanage.” Aaron spat, “Nuns would’ve beat the wickedness outta me ‘till my eyes were a nice shade of green.”
The guard’s chest heaved with laughter, “Don’t worry. I don’t think the chief will book ya- not enough evidence. Besides, we’ve still got plenty of deadbeats in these very walls that look more suspicious than you. C’mon in, bud.”
The gate was already open, and the stout fellow shuffled out of the way to free up the path. Giving him a friendly smile, Aaron walked by and entered.
The instant he was out of earshot, the bandit sighed with relief. Lying never did suit him. With the sunset’s soft rays swiftly dimming, he looked around the crowds of people. Dirty lumbermen coming home from a long days work, merchants closing up their shops, and laughing children rushing home before the darkness set.
Far too wholesome a sight for the man he was looking for.
It was dirty back alley, well out of the way and possessing nothing for anyone to have a proper reason to be there. No trash was spread around, but mold and mildew grew unfettered by man. It was there, shifting impatiently from foot-to-foot, was a bronze-skinned weasel of a fellow in a burlap cloak.
“You’re late…” the man whined, brushing a few strands of his shaggy dark brown hair behind his ear.
“Keep your pants on, Nathan.” Aaron shot back with a huff, “Where’s the medicine?”
“That all depends, my friend. You got my payment?”
“Still always thinking with your purse first, eh? Guess I can’t expect any altruism for you just yet.”
“Hey, don’t be like that, Aaron. I know I owe you one or two, but I’ve still gotta eat. This stuff isn’t easy or cheap to come by. I can only stick my neck out so far.”
Nathan’s thin lips curled into a playful sneer. Rolling his eyes, the bandit reached into his pocket for the jewelry he had stolen from the noble girl. Feeling around, he jumped a bit as he realized the ruby ring was missing- he had never gotten it back from Valerie.
“Shit. Don’t tell me you dropped it.” Nathan grumbled, seeing Aaron’s reaction.
“N-no. Just misplaced something.” he replied quickly, pulling out a pearl necklace. He tossed it over to the roguish fellow, who snatched it from the air and took his sweet time admiring the shine of each glittering sea-jewel.
“Nice, nice! You got quite the haul this time, buddy. I told ya that chick would be loaded… did her guards give ya any trouble?”
The bruises and cuts Aaron still bore from the previous day would serve as testament to the contrary, but he replied with, “Nah. Piece o’ cake.”
“That so? Either way, this’ll get me some good eats for awhile. I think I might owe you a drink, my friend.” the roguish fellow chuckled as he pocketed the pearls.
“Just give me the freakin’ medicine, then we can shoot the shit all you want.”
Nathan’s cloak parted like curtains on a stage, his boney fingers rising out to present a hardened leather box. Aaron gingerly accepted it, cracking it open to find a set of five vials filled with a thick red syrup.
“That should last the teensy fella for the rest of the season, and the entire summer.”
Aaron looked back up, a smile spread across his lips, “Yeah. Thanks again, Nathan. I know it ain’t easy getting this stuff… but Douglas has been getting better and better. Hopefully, this’ll be the last dosage he’ll ever need.”
Nathan threw back his head, placing the back of hand of his forehead in mock disappoint, “Ah, really?! Man. I was hoping to keep this cash wagon rolling for just a bit longer.”
Clearly unamused, Aaron’s smile plummeted into a grimace.
“Kidding, kidding! I hope the lil’ guy gets better. Yeesh, man. You know I’m a spiteful cunt, but I wouldn’t wish a kid sick just to line my pockets.” Nathan quickly defended himself.
“Yeah. Whatever. Just get me a damned ale and I’ll be on my way.”
“Sure thing, bud.” Nathan cheered, hopping to Aaron’s side as they made their way out of the alley.
Checking to make sure no one spotted them dealing their shady business, they quickly and quietly darted out with the precision of sneaky rats in a castle’s storehouse. Nonchalantly walking back onto the beaten clay streets, the two made their way to the local cantina.
“So…” Nathan began, “You’ve always shown up on time to our other meetings. What kept you so long this time?”
Aaron juggled around whether to tell the truth. Eventually, he could see no harm in it. After all, Nathan already knew he was a bandit. Any other secrets would seem paltry in comparison. Still, he had a bit of trouble putting it into words.
“Well… I was just coming back after the haul, and well… I sorta ran into this girl…”
“Ohohoho?!” Nathan suddenly shot up, hooting wildly, “Aaron, you dog!”
Aaron cringed a bit, “D-don’t say dog, please…”
Nathan pursed his lips, “Why not? You gotta problem with being called a- wait… did you… did you fuck a dog?”
“N-no! Of course I- w-well, I guess she was kinda part dog…”
Nathan nearly went wild. He giggled like a schoolboy who had just gotten his first glimpse under a skirt.
“Holy hell! You actually fucked a monster?! No shit? How was it?”
Aaron nearly planted the smaller man into the ground before he wildly whipped his head back and forth, checking to see if anyone overhead him.
“Pipe down, dipshit!” he snarled, “Do you know what these villagers would do to me if they found out I fucked a monster? I know it ain’t technically illegal, but a mob would have me dangling from a tree by sunrise!”
“Shit, shit… sorry. I’ve always seen ‘em around, but never had the balls to go up and chat one up. Always figured it’d be fun, but I don’t want to take the risk of finding out if they actually do eat ya after they’re done riding your dick.”
“Well… the one I was with seemed nice enough… even if she was a bit clingy. The crazy bitch just pounces on me then acts like I owe her a wedding ring the next morning.”
“Feh. Women are women, I suppose… even with all those extra bits, we still have no chance of understanding ‘em.”
That drew a hearty chuckle from Aaron. The two eventually approached the cantina, squeezing into the small bar and mingling among the sweaty and exhausted woodworkers. They both enjoyed a pint or three and a bit more, pushing aside whatever woes pestered them till the morning.
Even as Aaron drank his fill of ale, he felt unsettled. For a reason he just couldn’t pinpoint, the ghost of that beast girl’s warmth haunted him and refused to leave. His body craved it; needed it. No matter how many drinks he slugged down, he felt frigidly cold without it.
Eventually, he placed the blame on his drunkenness.
There was nothing quite so sobering as a long walk through the fields. Nothing quite so miserable either. At the very least, the fresh air, thick with dew, was ripe for the tasting. Aaron marched along the edges of the woods, looking out towards the hamlets speckling the farmlands in the distance. Even then, he watched rugged fellows with graying beards till the lands around it.
Humble lives, they must’ve lived. He wondered their stories. Retired soldiers? Born and raised on the barnyard? Did they have families? Were their children grown? Did those kids plan on following their father’s footsteps, or leave the life of toil and muck for greater things?
He winced as he stared down at them, for a reason he wasn’t quite sure of.
The bandit walked on, reaching a humble wooden cabin tucked cozily right into the corner of the forest. A sense of comfort and belonging buzzed in his chest. He was home.
He nearly pranced up to the door. He hung up his cloak and shawl, still laden with traces of water, up on the fence on his way. He raised his fist, tapping just above the knob with a quick succession of three sturdy knocks.
He heard tiny, naked feet tap against wood. The delightful sound grew louder and louder until it came right up to the knob, then stopped entirely.
The lock clicked, and the door swung open. And there to meet him, smiling more brightly than the summer sun overhead, was his younger brother Douglas.
They both bore blue eyes and hair that would belong to a more grizzled old man, but that was where the similarities ended. Aaron’s face was hard and sharp, and that wasn’t entirely as a result of his various poor life choices. Douglas’s was round and energetic, bounding with the endless energy of youth. And yet, the boy seemed far more pale in comparison to his older sibling.
“Aaron! I missed you!” the younger brother cheered, throwing himself into Aaron’s awaiting arms.
“Yeah. I missed you too, Doug. I’m sorry I’m late- boss man had me working overtime to count stock, and I had to stay at the inn.”
It didn’t matter how many times he told that lie, it still felt a hefty pang of guilt tug at his heart. Perhaps he would tell Douglas one day.
He ran his fingers through the boy’s iron locks, gently patting his head. Douglas retreated back into his room, immediately springing back out with a miniature canvas in his arms.
“Look, look! Look what I my made while you were gone!”
It took a second to recognize just what it was- a smiling sun hanging in a cloudless sapphire sky. The astral body happily cast his rays down on a tiny village below.
Aaron spared a smile, and it wasn’t just baseless flattery. Some may have called it a tad crude, but Doug’s unique style and warm use of colors were far beyond what the average child from his station should’ve been capable of.
“It looks great, Doug. I think we might need to hang it up in the kitchen!”
A small part of Aaron was ashamed. Ashamed that he was somewhat envious of his younger brother. Ever since he could tell up from down, it seemed the only things he was ever good at were swinging a sword and bar brawling. That, or knocking back liquor and eating punches like a champion bareknuckle-boxer.
Douglas, on the other hand, seemed to excel in every area he was given. Art, music, literature – whatever he got his hands on, he seemed to become proficient as one could be without a proper instructor guiding them.
Sometimes, it was hard to buy they were cut from the same cloth.
“If only he wasn’t always so sick…” Aaron muttered grimly under his breath, “He could do anything…”
He knew full well he already wasted his life. He figured he could at least use that sliver of it to make sure his younger brother had a brighter future than he had.
“C’mon, Aaron! I’ll go pick a spot!”
Laughing joyously, the younger brother raised his painting above his head and took off deeper into the cabin. Wearing a soft smile, the older brother waltzed after him.
Into their simple kitchen, past the dining table and right up to the all opposite of their singular window. Aaron set down the painting and turned to Douglas.
“Alright, alright. I’ll get right on that and start dinner. But first…”
“Medicine…?” Doug sighed dejectedly.
Aaron already had the vial out, “Sorry, little brother. Don’t worry; you’ll get better soon. Then, you won’t have to slug down this nasty crap anymore.”
The boy’s eyes never left the floor, but his smile returned to him when he felt his brother’s calloused hand tenderly pat his shoulder. Carefully accepting the medicine, Douglas braced himself, pinched his nose shut, and downed the red syrup in three gulps.
The medicine slid like a slug down Doug’s throat, making him convulse and shiver. His brother dropped to a knee, hugging him close until he stopped.
“You alright, Doug?”
“Alright. Now go out and play for a bit, ya little twerp.”
Dinner was simple. A thick slice of seasoned beef, with peas and carrots on the side. Aaron always preferred substance over flare, and that was abundantly apparent in his dull but passable cooking.
His eyes rested on his brother’s new painting as he sliced into his meal. Others surrounded it at all sides, from stylized landscapes to cartoonish portraits of the two of them. His fork, impaled with a cube of beef, touched his lips.
But he just couldn’t bring himself to bite it. He glanced over to Douglas, watching the pale boy prod at his meal with a fork. Not a single bite was taken.
“What’s wrong, Doug? I know I ain’t exactly a king’s chef, but you’ve always eaten what I’ve cooked up before.”
“I-I don’t know. I’m just not really hungry, I guess.”
Douglas continued to poke at his peas, aimlessly rolling them around his plate. His eyes were glossy and distant, and he limply kicked his legs under the table. Aaron’s heart sped up a few ticks as he sensed something was amiss. He lowered his fork, leaning towards Douglas.
“Are you sure you’re-”
A thundering bang resonated throughout the house. A fist against wood, coming right from behind their front door. The knocking was obscenely loud and violent, enough to rattle their silverware.
His fork and knife went clattering against his dish, which was just about the size of his eyes at the moment. Only one thought raced through his mind – the town guard had come for him.
Both his heart and mind went spiraling into overdrive. Did they just want to question him? Did they find some definitive proof it was him, and would they try to book him on the spot? He couldn’t rightly try to sneak out the back and take a sick little kid out on the road for greener pastures.
“Aaron… do you want me to go answer it?”
The bandit blinked, looking towards Douglas. The concern was clear on his brother’s face, but there was something else amiss on his expression. The knocking continued, and for a moment he feared their door would be blown clean off the hinges.
Aaron grumbled as he pushed himself away from the dinner table. Whatever it was that was ailing his brother would have to wait until he dealt with their obnoxious and uninvited guest.
“Don’t worry, Doug. I’ve got it.”
On his way, he grabbed his blade from its spot hanging on the wall. He tucked it the chimney, both hiding it and making it available for quick access if it was needed. A deep inhale, and deep exhale. Whoever it was that was wanting to enter, he’d have to use the scant traces of silver in his tongue to their full advantage.
Or else, things would quickly get messy.
Whoever it was that was pounding at his door heard him coming. A shock, considering how much of a noise they were making. The path to his front door always seemed like a warm, inviting hallway to a grandiose palace to him. But now, as he crept closer and closer from the opposite direction, it felt like he was being escorted to the gallows.
As he neared, something else crossed his mind. If the Oakvale City guard had come to arrest him, wouldn’t they be shouting out verbal warnings? Or bust down the door outright?
The highwayman cautiously reached for the knob, half expecting the door to be battered down right as his fingers made contact. But he felt his palm touch down on the cool brass with no incident, and with no other option, his fingers touched the lock.
“Who is it?” he growled out before twisting it open.
“The fairy freakin’ godmother! Open up, you jerk!”
Aaron immediately unleashed a loud groan, perhaps more perturbed than he had ever been in his entire life. That somewhat gravely, somewhat perky voice had dropped into a low tone of similar annoyance, but he recognized it nonetheless.
He swung the door open, finding a curvy silhouette blending against the dark backdrop of the night. His eyes were immediately drawn to the shadow’s, which crackled with an upset hellfire.
“Valerie…” he snapped, pinching the bridge of his nose, “What the fuck? How did you even find me? I made sure to cover my tracks!”
The hellhound’s full lips curled into a wry grin. She proudly tapped her button nose and sniffed as a demonstration.
“Hehehehe~ I’m not some stupid old bloodhound. When I know a scent, I can pick it up from miles away!”
“Well, I’ve gotta at least respect your persistence… if nothing else…” Aaron spat after another irradiated sigh, “Please, just go away.”
“Nope.” the hellhound said plainly, attempting to invite herself in. The bandit quickly shifted his position, using his body to block the way inside. The hellhound playfully growled at him, running a sharp claw down his chest.
“Oh. You wanna play it the hard way~?”
Every fiber in Aaron’s body screamed at him to slam the door in the hound’s face.
“Aaron…! What’s going on…?” the bandit heard his brother call from the kitchen.
“Nothin’, Doug!” Aaron called back, “It’s just a beggar. I’ll handle this, just finish your dinner.”
He looked back, seeing the hellhound’s expression shift. Her eyes glinted reddish-orange as her flames shot higher. Looking at her giddy smile, Aaron was certain she’d be bouncing on her heels if one of them wasn’t sprained.
“No. You ain’t comin’ in here. Shove off.” he spat once more, as adamant and unyielding as an iron wall.
“C’mon…” the hellhound whined, bursts of flame jetting from her eyes, “This is your last chance to take the easy way, babe…”
Aaron might’ve been horrified of her when they first met, but now he saw her as nothing more than some clingy, stubborn girl who didn’t know when she wasn’t wanted. Undaunted by her growling tone, he jammed a finger into her collarbone.
“Listen here, you-”
The bandit heard his brother call from the kitchen once more. But he was so wrapped up in his argument with the hound he didn’t pick up the weak, pained tone in Doug’s voice.
“Damnit, Douglas, I told you I’m busy! Just wait in the kitchen!”
He turned back to the hound, leering down at her. Their glares clashed, the hound girl adamant to enter and the human remaining as a rigid bulwark in her path. Neither wanted to bend, and while it looked like it from the way they were staring at each other, neither wanted to resort to violence.
Valerie squatted to her knees, looking ready to spring atop of him. Just as Aaron was about to warn her against it, they both stopped dead in their tracks.
She saw it first. Her face, fangs grit and brow furrowed, quickly reformed into an expression of stunned horror. Aaron was confused at first, but then saw her eyes weren’t focusing on him. Rather, past him, under his spread arms and down the hallway.
Without thinking, he turned his back to the hound and stared into the cabin.
Douglas limped around the corner, his pale skin looking clammy and shining with sweat. Both his hands pressed down on his stomach, and he made a small squeak of pain with each rigid movement.
“A-Aaron… I don’t feel so goo-”
Bile spilled from the boy’s mouth, silencing him. The boy wobbled back and forth, then collapsed onto his back.
Aaron could barely process what was happening. The whole world seemed to blur and buzz, until he could only hear the faint thumping of his heart in his ears. The hellhound wasn’t there anymore, only his brother, dying on the ground. Without thinking, he dashed for him.
He would’ve bore any pain for Douglas. He would’ve crawled across miles of broken glass; suffer the stinging kiss of the flail every day for the rest of his life. But seeing his brother dying, gasping for life, was an agony too great for him to handle. It was a dagger to the gut, a million icy needles digging into his every pore.
The bandit scooped up his brother’s body, dashing to his room. He nearly rammed the door off its hinges as he burst through, setting Doug down on the bed. He tucked the boy’s shivering body under the wool sheets. He cupped a hand over Doug’s forehead.
“No… no, he’s burning up…”
The bandit yanked open the nightstand cabinet, jamming his hand in and pulling out the next vial of the red medicine. With a shaky hand, he popped the cork and pressed the vial up to Douglas’s lips. He slipped his coarse fingers under the boy’s head, tilting it back and letting the surrounding syrup flow down his sibling’s throat. Doug coughed it up and then something else not a moment later, and Aaron was unsure if the dark red color of the vomit was due to the medicine or blood.
Burning tears fell from his cheeks. His chest heaved with each heavy sob. Taking his baby brother’s cold little hand into his own, he buried his face into the sheets so he didn’t have to look anymore.
Aaron felt a comforting heat at his back. The beast from hell gingerly clung to him, trying to smother his sadness. He let her stay there, too defeated to reject her.