Oakvale was a sleepy settlement, carrying the same humble air of a rural farming village. But like any other city, it had its fair share of troublemakers. Usually they could be found congregated near the back of the city, milling about the alleys of vacant buildings.
Whenever the clacking sound of animal bones hitting stone sounded out from those dark corridors, everyone respectable steered clear.
“C’mon baby, daddy needs a new pair a’ boots…”
A stringy fellow with wispy dark hair was fixed into a squat within those shadows, clasping both of his hands together and wildly shaking a set of dice trapped between them. After a short few moments of whispering soft pleas to Lady Luck, the man let the tiny cubes fly.
They bounced, clattered, and came to halt at another man’s feet. He was an ugly skeleton of a bastard, his tanned skin looking to barely stretch around the lanky frame of his bones. His entire face wrinkled up into a haughty self-certain sneer when he saw the grand total of only two dots on the dice.
“Snake eyes~” the boney man chuckled tauntingly, flexing out his thin fingers and extending an open palm, “Pony up, Nathan…”
The roguish fellow’s brain seemed to fry, unable to process his rotten luck. After angrily gnawing on his bottom lip to snap himself back into reality, Nathan fished out a pearl necklace from his cloak. It was already undone and missing three beads. Sticking his thumb into the last one in the row, Nathan flicked it off the string and right into the boney bastard’s greedy hands.
“Fine. Fine, ya got me. Motherfuckers…”
More men jeered from even deeper into the dark alleyway, eager to jump in for a chance to throw the bones and claim their prize. Some weren’t too ugly in looks, but all were repulsive in spirit. Nathan puffed out his chest in an attempt to appear more intimidating, not unlike a bird or reptile in the face of a predator.
His luck would turn around, surely. He couldn’t show the hyenas waiting in the shadows not a single trace of weakness, or they would pounce.
“Nathan. I have to talk to you. Privately.”
The rogue looked back, spotting Aaron waiting at the end of the alley. His icy-eyes usually cold and detached, raged with all the intensity of a blizzard. The man himself seemed to be shaking, barely caging a furious explosion.
Right away, Nathan knew how serious the situation was. Even the vultures behind him seemed to understand, and shrunk further into the shadows that hid them.
“I ain’t done with you lot yet.” Nathan spat, turning his back to them and walking over to Aaron. Not bothering to greet the other man, the highwayman paced away. Nathan hustled up and pursued, right behind Aaron as he walked to the opposite side of a desolate shop.
“A-Aaron, whats going-”
The words were caught in Nathan’s throat when Aaron’s calloused fingers clamped down on his windpipe. The bars shattered, and Aaron’s suppressed rage burst from it’s cage. He grabbed Nathan’s shirt with his other hand and lifted the smaller fellow into the air, brutally slamming him into the wall of the building behind them.
“I swear to all that’s holy, Nathan, if my brother dies because you sold me bum medicine…” the furious bandit snapped, “I’m gonna break every bone in your body and fuckin’ skin you alive!”
“W-what? What are you-”
Aaron lifted Nathan off the rotted oak of the wall, only to immediately slam him back into it a second time. Thrown for a loop, it took every bit of Nathan’s mind to try and make sense out of the situation.
“That shit you sold me didn’t work! It’s been three days, and I’ve already given him two vials of it! He’s barely been able to keep down any food, and he’s too weak to fucking stand!”
“A-Aaron, I don’t- that’s the same stuff I’ve been getting for years, I swear! The guy I buy from is trust-worthy!”
“Then why didn’t it work?” Aaron snapped, tightening his grip around Nathan’s throat.
Nathan began to go blue in the face, relentlessly kicking his legs at Aaron’s stomach and trying in vain to pry his fingers away.
“Its… not… the medicine…”
The bandit’s entire shook with rage, but his grip began to slacken.
“Be… reasonable, Aaron… I know it hurts, but… we both know it ain’t the medicine…”
Aaron expression softened. The realization that he was attacking his friend without proper cause seemed to finally dawn on him. He gingerly set Nathan down, turning and pacing around in a small circle. His fingernails dug into his hair, and he scratched at his scalp, refusing to accept the reality of the situation.
“N-no… that can’t be. He was doing so much better! He can’t… he can’t just…”
“That doctor warned you, didn’t he? That it might not work? That Douglas might never recover, even if you did get him the medicine?”
Aaron paused, feeling nauseous. He wanted to curl up; wanted so badly sock Nathan’s teeth out. But he knew that would be a fleeting relief, and an unjust and violent punishment simply to sate his own anger at the innate unfairness of the world.
It hurt more than the gaping wound from the thrust of a lance, but he knew Nathan spoke sense.
“Douglas has the Red Naja disease, right? It’s a slow and painful kind of sickness. The few who contract it don’t survive too often. It can stick with someone for decades, and they can suffer for years before it kills them… the medicine is expensive, but it can be overcome. But for someone as young as your brother-”
“Shut up! Just shut the fuck up, you bastard!” he spat, not wanting to hear any more. There simply had to be away. He couldn’t have taken all those lives just to delay the inevitable.
“Look… I’ll go ask the guy if something could’ve gone wrong with the batch. He’s west in Rauilp. But I really don’t think it’s the medicine, Aaron.”
Aaron’s shaking knees collapsed, and he fell to his bum.
“What am I gonna do? He’s the only thing I have left, Nathan… if I lose him, then… I’ll…”
He slapped his hands over his eyes, trying to hold back the tears, “There’s gotta be a way to save him! There’s just got to…”
Nathan stood in shocked silence, hardly even angry about the fresh bruises on his throat. It would be difficult, seeing as the man responsible was on the cusp of losing the one closest to him.
But something else resonated with Nathan. A solution to the problem. He was far more traveled than Aaron, and far more juicer bits of gossip and lore had reached his ears. The Red Naja had no cure, the medicine was only to suppress the virus until the body could adept and purge it.
But many times, he heard dying, ill men with even greater ailments invoke the name of a certain curio as a last gambit for hope.
“A panacea.” Nathan said, “Panaceas are supposed to cure anything, right? If you could find one-”
“Panaceas aren’t real, Nathan. They’re a fuckin’ pipedream for lepers on their death beds.”
“C’mon, Aaron. I know you’ve lived in this boring little kingdom for most of your life, but I’ve seen some amazin’ things out there.”
“Alright, smart guy. Where the hell would I even start looking for one?”
A wide grin spread across Nathan’s face, “There’s some kinda guru that lives on Mount Enthya. You know where that is, right? East in Var? Well, I met the codger once… I’ve heard he’s one of the most powerful wizards in the world, and he’s an oracle to boot. I’m sure if panaceas are real, he can help you find one… or hell, he might even make one for ya!”
“Are you sure?”
“Look, I swear on my ma’s grave. The geezer knows his stuff. If anyone would know how to cure Douglas, it’d be him.” Nathan assured Aaron, “I met him five years back. His house was full of nothin’ but books and alchemy tables. I saw him toss this massive boulder with nothin’ but a flick of his finger.”
Nathan flicked his own pointer as a demonstration, but Aaron remained unconvinced.
“Alright… lets just go out on a limb here and say this wizard can help me. What am I gonna do about Douglas? I can’t bring him out on the road with me! Not to mention if anyone finds out I was the bandit that’s been attacking around here, he’d be-”
Aaron bit his tongue, not wanting to think about what would happen. Nathan clicked his tongue, clearly frustrated.
“What? There’s not a single person in the world you can leave him with?”
“My ma ran off with some random fuck to only the gods know where. Dad is either wormfood or rotting behind bars. Everyone… my grandparents, uncles… on both sides of the family… everyone’s either dead or wants nothing to do with bastards like us.” Aaron spat, kicking at the dirt.
Nathan released a long, thoughtful hum. He paced back and forth, staring at the bright blue sky.
“Okay. I have an aunt nearby. If you give me the money for his food and medicine, I can convince her to take care of him.”
“What? You’d do that for me?”
“Not for free, of course… you’ll owe me an ocean’s worth of booze. But what else are friends for?”
In all his life, Aaron had never met a man like Nathan. Only he could have someone choking him out embracing him naught but a minute later.
Aaron had never returned to his cabin faster in his life. Behind him, Nathan had to hustle to keep the stride.
“Hey, hey! Slow down there, buddy. I still have got some fresh blisters from my last trek!”
Aaron ignored him, keeping his pace. Nathan grumbled in annoyance, using his longer legs to keep right behind his more muscular companion. Eventually, the two approached the edge of the woods and Aaron’s cabin.
At last, Aaron came to a stop, Nathan nearly crashing into his back. The larger man turned to his roguish friend, “Thanks again for this, Nathan. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully pay you back…”
“Meh. Thats cool.” Nathan sighed, hobbling over and resting his back against the wall of the cabin, “It’s about time I did my good deed for the year, right? Can’t let the old conscious get too heavy.”
The weaselly fellow chuckled, tapping a bony finger against the side of his head.
“Still… I’ll never forget this. Even you’ve got a soft spot, don’t you?”
Nathan shrugged, “Not many folks can turn a blind eye to a dying’ kid… even motherfuckers like us. Now get your ass in there and say goodbye to the little bastard.”
Aaron nodded to his friend, both men past the need for words. Bursting through the front door, he hustled through the halls until he reached his brother’s cramped room.
When he stepped inside, he was met with a peculiar sight.
Douglas clung to Valerie, and she hugged back. Her heat warmed his shivering body, and he clearly found some sort of comfort resting in her fuzzy paws. If it wasn’t for the hound’s clear young age and species difference, they would almost look like mother and child.
He wasn’t exactly sure how to feel about it, but a spark of warmth tickled his chest nonetheless.
“Babe! You’re back.” the hellhound cheered, the gentle thumping of her tail against the straw mattress increasing in pace.
Quite rudely, he ignored Valerie and dove straight for his little brother. As tactless and clingy as the hound seemed to be, she understood why and didn’t complain. Propping himself up with one knee, he brushed a few strands of sweat-soaked hair out of the boy’s face.
“Hey, Doug… I need to go get ya some new medicine to cure you for good, alright? Until I get back, you’ll be staying with Nathan’s aunt…”
“N-N-Nathan’s a jerk…” Douglas shivered.
“Yeah, but he’s a helpful jerk.”
Weakly sighing, Douglas turned and buried his face into Valerie’s stomach. The hellhound only seemed to encourage him, gently stroking the back of his head as he clung to her.
“I wanna stay with Ms. Valerie… she’s really nice…”
Aaron gaped like a beached fish. He never had to dissuade his brother, as Valerie was the one who looked down at him, her crimson eyes smoldering with a soft compassion.
“I’m sorry, Doug. I’ve got to go make sure your big dumb brother doesn’t go and get himself hurt. You know how he is~”
The boy glanced over to his brother, giggling under a tired breath. Ever since he had watched Douglas collapse, Aaron had felt like a heavy iron dagger had been jammed in his heart. Taking what could’ve been his last look at his brother’s smile, he felt just a bit of that weight lift.
“Wait for me, Doug. I love you.”
As he clasped his hands fully around Doug’s soft little one, in that one moment, his entire being felt lighter than a feather. It took the ill boy all his strength, but he managed to smile up at him in return.
“I love you too.”
Standing atop a hill, Aaron took a final look towards Oakvale, and the verdant forest that towered over it not far away. An orange sunset bathed the landscape with soft, beautiful light. This area had been his home for as long as he could remember, the forest giving him and his brother life while the wooden city provided the small taste of civilization he needed to keep his sanity.
A small part of him was saddened to leave them behind.
He adjusted the black cloak around his shoulders, feeling almost naked without the shawl he had always worn with it to protect his identity. He supposed he’d get used to the feeling quickly enough. Reaching to his side, he tossed on his rucksack- some supplies: his sleeping roll, a few spare sets of clothes, and the remainder of his savings. He couldn’t afford to be weighed down by anything garish.
Then, finally, he picked up his great sword. He supposed that no one could rightfully convict him of his banditry. His somewhat uncommon eye color and darkly colored cloak couldn’t serve as proper evidence, but the foreign design of his claymore was a dead giveaway. He found himself stuck at what to do with it. It was insane not to bring a decent weapon with him into the great unknown; yet carrying the thing could invite even greater dangers.
Finally, he had decided to wrap it up with cloth, a way of ‘keeping it pristine for delivery’. It might’ve drawn more attention, but hanging it plainly on his back would draw the authorities to him like a horse to hay.
He slung it on, and for whatever reason, it felt several times heavier than what he was used to.
“Hey, babe. Ready to go?”
That persistent hellhound stood behind him, the wild beating of her tail making an audible swishing sound.
“Well… I’m not going to turn down your help. I ain’t that prideful, and I ain’t that stupid. I’ll take all the help I can get at this juncture.”
“Hmph. You’re not going to order me to go with you?”
“…well, I would’ve turned you down anyways… then gone because I wanted to go!” the hound cheered, determinedly planting her paws into the ground and pumping a fist in the air.
“Look.” the highwayman grumbled, “This ain’t gonna be some kinda fun adventure. My little brother is dying. I’m a criminal. And I have no idea if this fuckin’ magic guru is the real deal, and-”
Before he knew it, the hellhound pounced before him, landing on her good paw. She took the opportunity to seize his cheeks while he was still stunned.
“W-what do you think you’re-”
Again, she mashed their lips together. And again, he felt an odd cocktail of helplessness, comfort, and excitement. Her warmth seeped from her mouth, quickly lighting up every fiber of his being. Her canid tongue captured his, and he found himself too stunned to pull away. Too stunned, or unwilling. Even he wasn’t at liberty to tell.
Their lips seemed locked for an eternity. Even the loud pop of their mouths parting didn’t seem to snap him out of his shocked stupor.
“Don’t worry, babe! It’ll be fun as long as we’re together.”
Without any further provocation, the hound scooped up her own traveling pack- a leather rucksack that looked to have more haphazard stitches than cowhide- and pranced down the hill, taking sure not to put too much pressure on her injured foot.
Slapping himself on the cheeks, the highwayman slid down after her. They headed east towards Mount Enthya, the faint light of the sleepy sun illuminating their backs as they went.
The warmth and crackle of the campfire. The cricket’s serenade. The sweet scent of burning pine, and hearty smell of roasting meat. Roughing it outdoors did have some advantages, Aaron always consoled himself.
Aaron was well aware that nothing in life was free. If a man was given everything he ever desired in one sitting, he’d quickly grow bored and disillusioned. Even the most paltry and base of pleasures could seem worth celebration with a little dressing of sweat and tears.
This was the greatest part about camping for Aaron. The chance to kick up his sore feet and relax after a hard day of grappling with the elements. Of course, he was fully aware he’d have to get up in the morning and start the miserable cycle all over again. He tried not to pay mind to that looming march. If there was one lesson he could say he took to heart from his father, it was to suck it up and weather the storm when shit got rough.
He absentmindedly grabbed some of the meat off the roasting spit, blowing away some of the steam and taking a ginger bite. As he chewed, he stared right into the campfire. His eyes shimmered, as if he could find the answer to all of life’s questions amidst the smoldering embers.
A loud burp broke him from his thoughts.
“Urph! ‘Scuse me!” Valerie laughed from his side, merrily chomping down on the picked bones of the deer she had hunted down for supper.
“That ain’t very ladylike.” he sighed through his next bite.
“Hmph. Well, you’re not exactly a model gentlemen either.” she shot back.
“Didn’t have any room in my pack for my shining armor or white steed.”
“Oh, that’s just fine, babe.”
Aaron downed his next bite of meat right before the hellhound tackled him to the ground. Thankfully for him, he somehow avoided choking on it as it went down.
“I like playing dirty~” the hound playfully growled down at him, her eyes alight with the scarlet fires of hell.
“I don’t want to have sex.” he told her as bluntly as a man could. She tried to press herself closer, but he placed the thick sole of his boot on her stomach to keep her away. Chortling the entire time, the hound hopped off and sat opposite to him.
“I’m still mad at you, ya know.” she growled, sounding more playful than irked. She trained a claw at his chest, wagging little circles in the air.
“For what? Trying to run away from you in the woods, or not letting you into my cabin?” grunted the highwayman as he rolled back on to his bum.
“Well, get over it.”
The hellhound’s eyes narrowed, her flames becoming more streamlined and intense. A wry little grin revealed her glistening fangs, and she plopped off of him and sat at his feet.
“Ooo~ I see. You’re a stubborn tough guy who likes doin’ stuff the hard way. Ya want me to pin you down ride you like a bronco again, huh?”
“What, you mean like how you raped me back at the stream?” he snapped through his next bite of meat.
“Nah. I could if I wanted to, but I think it might be more fun to see you try and take the lead this time.” she giggled, laying back and spreading her legs, “Besides, it wasn’t rape. You came~”
The color drained from Aaron’s face. He was unsure of where in the hell she got that idea, or even where to start going into the many things wrong with it.
“For the luvva- look, just… just… gah! It’s not like I hate sex or somethin’, it’s just I’m not in the mood right now!” he hollered, scarcely believing he was forced to pull the same card that nearly all of his past girlfriends had hiding up their sleeves.
“Hehehe… well, I guess I could wait a day or two.” the hellhound sighed, her tail thumping against the dirt, “But no more than three! Got it?”
“Are all monsters nymphos, or were you just born with an inflated libido?” the bandit groaned, blown away by the girl’s sex drive.
“All I’ve met.” the hound confirmed with a wink, “So… when do you want to do it? Tomorrow morning? Tomorrow night?”
The bandit shrugged, “I dunno. Just wait until I’m hammered, I guess.”
The hound pouted, “Ah… fine! But don’t expect any mercy from me! You’ve made me wait too long already!”
Aaron didn’t reply, more out of a lack of anything meaningful to say than the blockage of food his mouth. He leaned over, gnawing on the last few bites of his dinner. Wiping his hands off on his trousers, he looked up only to meet the toned thighs of Valerie.
“Babe… you need to know one more thing before we move on.”
Up until that point, he had only seen her eyes sparking with either a smug playfulness, carnal desire, or in the rare instance with his brother, a sisterly care and concern. But now, those concentrated infernos glowered with an unbreakable determination and fiery resolution. The monster girl’s sudden seriousness unnerved him on some deep level.
“No more bandit stuff! I’m protecting you now, so there’s no reason to attack folks without a good reason.” she declared, tail pricked and clawed finger upraised, “If you’re hungry, I’ll catch something tasty for you! If you need money, we can take jobs together! If you’re lonely, I’ll give ya more snuggles than you can handle! And if you’re horny-”
“I get the point.” he cut her off before she got carried away, “But thanks.”
Aaron stood up, kicking dirt to put the dying embers of their campfire out of their misery. Making sure their eyes met, he turned to Val. He flushed as he struggled for the right words to say.
“Val… look, I know things haven’t exactly been goin’ swimmingly between us… so… thanks for helping me out with my brother. I mean it. I really appreciate you coming with me. I’m not sure if I’d be able to do this on my own.”
He couldn’t rightly tell, but he was fairly certain he saw her ash-colored cheeks flush a deeper shade of ebony. In any case, the flames around her eyes flared up as he said it.
“S-so… in other words… you need me?”
“Yeah. Sure.” he muttered, turning his back to her and turning in for the night, “Whatever floats your boat, Val.”
He set down his pack and sword, yanking out his sleeping roll. Finely stitched leather and fur unrolled as he laid it against the grassy earth. Leaving his boots to the side, he wiggled his way into the bag and let his heavy eyelids plummet shut.
It wasn’t but a moment later he felt someone remarkably hot and fuzzy worm her way into the furs with him. Aaron grumbled in annoyance, but didn’t resist. Figuring his odds of wriggling away from her were nil, he surrendered to her whims. He sighed deeply, settling himself into the super-heated hound’s body. At the very least, her toasty embrace was something he could get used to.