Noxia 4

“You don’t know much about this area, do you?”

Aaron had his map unfolded and clasped in both of his hands as he walked down a well-beaten trail. As he and his newfound hellhound companion navigated through the rolling hills and verdant fields surrounding them, he pointed down to their position on the map. The entire continent of Luxtania was charted; the bandit having doubtlessly plucked it from the wreckage of one of his one-man raids.

“Nope! Fresh from up north.” she answered, skipping alongside him. Aaron glanced down at her heel, which was already almost fully recovered from her nasty spill at the waterfall, and marveled at her endurance.

The bandit’s eyes returned to the map. They landed on the small kingdom of Graeme, of where they were currently skirting on the eastern border. His eyes traced up to the territory above it, “Where, the Republic of Batavia?”

“Nope.”

He looked higher, “The Colax Provinces?”

“Nope~”

“What, the Kirgiz wastelands? Damn, I’ve heard that place is rough.”

“Well…” the hellhound breathed, folding her paws behind her back as she skipped at her human’s side, “My tribe made it by just fine.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I can’t see anyone but a walking furnace like you surviving in that frozen wasteland for too long.”

“Yup! Everyone I knew growing up was either a monster or some big tough guy… like my pops! He was the coolest, strongest dude in the whole village!”

Aaron glanced over at her, chuckling at the child-like admiration shining in her wide grin. As wild as the woman seemed to be, it seemed like she was still a daddy’s girl.

“You sure look up to him, huh?”

“Hell yeah! I mean, he was a human, but he was my pops! No matter how many times I tried to wrestle him, he always beat me in no time flat… even when all of eight of my sisters and I ganged up on him!”

Nine sisters! Aaron’s head began to spin at the idea of such a crammed household, and the idea of nearly ten little girls just as wild as Valerie sent a shiver running down his spine. Thinking of siblings, his wandering mind thoughtlessly dredged up the fresh memory of his suffering brother for just a moment. Grimacing, the bandit quickly repressed it and distracted himself by asking Valerie another question.

“Yeesh. Nine at once? Just who is your dad, Valerie?”

“His name is Starkard!”

Aaron’s feet froze, and Val stopped right beside him. The yellow parchment of Aaron’s map drooped, revealing his cocked brow aimed right at the confused hound.

“Whoa, whoa, hold on there. Starkard? Really?”

“Yup!” the hellhound cheerily confirmed, “Starkard.”

“As in, Starkard Valentine? The Midnight Reaper Starkard? The Dastard Hero Starkard? Lord of the Four Swords Starkard?”

“Yup, that’s the one.” Val chuckled, “He always told me that he made quite the name for himself down south, but I didn’t think even you’d heard of him!”

“You’re fucking with me.” Aaron accused her, folding his map shut by slapping both palms together, “Every kid on the damn continent has heard of Starkard! He was a living legend!”

“What do you mean, ‘was’? Pops is still alive, living with my tribe!”

“No, he’s not! He killed three-hundred men before bleeding out from his wounds at the battle of Bluemoon Bay!”

“Oh…! That! Sorry, I forgot. Pops said he had a mage friend fake his death because all those nobles and challengers wouldn’t stop bothering him. But trust me, he’s still kickin’ with my mom up north.”

“Val… I’m sorry, but I can’t buy this crap.” Aaron breathed, “Even if he really is still alive, I can’t just take your word that you’re the daughter of Starkard without any proof.”

“Wait, wait! Hold on! I’ve got something that’ll prove it!”

The hound took the pack off her shoulder, slamming it between them. Aaron’s brow only cocked further as he heard the sounds of tin clanking against other hard objects.

Valerie undid the string keeping her bag shut. Prying it wide open, she shoved a paw inside and fished around for something, her tail pressing against her spine all the while.

Aaron bent over, placing his head right next to Val’s as she rummaged through her bag. His face immediately twisted into a mixed visage of aghast horror as he saw what was inside.

Junk. Valerie was carrying nothing but a giant pile of worthless junk. Empty and cracked cans and bottles, broken toys and workman’s tools, and animal bones from creatures he couldn’t quite place.

Aaron watched her black paws rummaged through the worthless baubles. Too taken aback to formulate words, it took him a good half minute of starting before he was able to address the issue.

“Why the fuck are you carrying around a bunch of garbage!?”

“It’s not garbage!” she barked, her cheeks puffed out and her eyes spouting flame, “They’re souvenirs!”

If they weren’t already fully cocked, Aaron would’ve raised his brow higher.

“Souvenirs?”

“Yeah! I like to pick stuff up to remember all the places I’ve been.” the hound laughed, “… well, except for the bones. Those are snacks.”

As she continued to sort through the rummage, Aaron pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. He could hardly believe they had hiked nearly three days with the hound lugging around nothing but junk.

“You know, most people would consider a souvenir something that actually holds some kinda value? I dunno: a seashell, a book, a vintage wine…”

“Hehehe! What’s the point of collecting a bunch of fancy stuff you don’t need? All that matters is the memories!”

“Memories?” Aaron asked incredulously, now very confused.

A fanged grin spread on the hound’s face. As demonstration, she yanked out a stuffed rabbit doll. Just as patched as her bag, the dirty thing was missing one button eye and stuffing shot out from every part of its body.

Val took a deep whiff of the doll, her ears wiggling and tail beating.

“Ahh~ see? I can still smell the girl who owned this! Like daisies, and fresh grass… she played outside with it lots!”

She offered a sniff to Aaron, but he declined not so politely.

“Val, that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever-”

“Oh, oh! Here it is!”

Interrupting Aaron, Valerie dropped the old doll and lifted up her bag, spreading it as wide as it could go without bursting. Figuring she must’ve been referring to the proof of her heritage, Aaron shut his trap and took a look.

It was like a shining beacon amidst the pit of rubbish. It was a large ring, sparkling with a radiant glitter. Two serpents of silver and gold intertwined to form a circle, fangs interlocking. A fat, round ruby was nestled in the center of their perfectly symmetrical coils.

Aaron’s heart and mind both raced at equally rapid speeds. His shock and disbelief gave way to a faint memory of his childhood. He was with other boys, up far past a reasonable hour. They crowded around a toasty fire pit, the oldest among them recounting a story. A story of a dastardly mercenary, praised as a hero through his incredible feats rather than his sense of honor. His adventures were countless, but one in particular stuck in Aaron’s mind.

The dastard hero had infiltrated the tower of a wicked wizard, sliced down all of his minions, and decapitated the fiend at the tower’s zenith. As the structure crumbled around him, the mercenary coveted the wizard’s most prized possession as proof of his triumph…

“The Serpent’s Kiss?!” Aaron exclaimed, hardly believing what he was seeing. It fit the description of it to a tee.

“Yup!” Valerie cheered, squeezing it over her finger. Thicker than the average human’s, it took a few moments for magic jewelry’s band to adjust to the monster’s finger and slip over her knuckle. Chuckling like a madwoman, she aimed it right at Aaron and cried, “Boooom!”

The bandit doubled back, defensively holding up his arms. He waited, but the flash of magic never came. His eyelids came unclenched as he heard the hound’s cackles devolve into sweet giggles.

“That isn’t funny, you bitch! That fuckin’ thing can melt your free will like butter!”

Valerie pouted once again, her flames petering away into meek sparks, “C’mon, babe. You know I’d never hurt you. Besides, Pops said it used to be able to control the minds of the weak-willed, but it stopped working right ages ago. Now all it can do is change its size.”

Aaron grumbled and mumbled, placing a palm over his rapidly pumping heart.

“Even if it worked, I dunno how to use magic stuff like this!” she went on defending herself.

“Yeah, whatever. Just keep carrying around a bunch of old, grimey bullshit. It’s not like we’re in a rush to save a kid’s life or anything.”

Another toothy grin spread across the hound’s face. The fire surrounding her eyes jumped up to match it’s brightness.

“Wait… you believe me, right? That Starkard is my dad?!”

Aaron’s icy eyes carefully scanned the Serpent’s Kiss for a second time, the brilliant gold and silver standing out against the pitch-black fur of the hellhound’s finger.

“… well, it matches the descriptions from all the stories I’ve heard. And there’s definitely some kinda magic in it, even if it is a forgery…”

He trailed off, eyes tracing up her navel, the swell of her breasts, then finally met with her expectant smile. She only beamed ever further as he stared at her, her tail beating excitedly.

“Fine…” he relented, “I guess I’ll give ya the benefit of the doubt.

He wasn’t sure what hit him first- her paws onto his shoulders or her head into his chest.  Either away, in a single instance, he found himself pinned and at the mercy of her canid tongue. She ignored his protests as she coated his face with saliva after a long series of affectionate licks and kisses.


“Ever been here before, babe?”

“Nope. If I have, I fuckin’ forgot…” Aaron mouthed, tracing his eyes across the quaint little settlement before them, “…which wouldn’t be too hard, all things considering. It doesn’t exactly leave an impression.”

As they crested a hill, Aaron and Valerie came across their first sign of human habitation after almost a full day of hiking. The village looked to be a measly congregation of about twenty or so buildings, evenly divided on each side of the road. It wasn’t uncommon for small communities to sprout up from successful trading posts, and Aaron figured that the village before them shared a similar story.

As they neared the settlement, Aaron noticed a few men and women milling about. Shortly after, he noticed them making themselves scarce.

He peered over to the hellhound at his side, quickly deducing that she was the reason. Valerie wore a blank and unreadable expression. Aaron was unable to tell if she was aware of the terror her mere presence caused, or if she was even bothered by it.

“Val… there’s no national laws banning monsters here from cities of villages here in Graeme… but out here in the boonies, most people aren’t going to take a liking to you.”

“I know.” came her reply. Quick, simple, and emotionless, it sounded rather bleak coming from the otherwise boisterous and frank girl.

“Right… well, don’t worry. I’ll do all the talkin’.”

They reached the center of town, finding it totally silent and still as a stone. Aaron peered around the buildings, taking note of the general store, the tavern, and the  ministry.

“Alright, Val. Let’s see if we can find somewhere to-”

The hound’s stomach audibly grumbled, cutting him off.

“Someplace to eat!” Valerie cheered, already skipping towards the nearest establishment. The promise of meat seemed to be enough to lift her spirits. Rolling his eyes, he followed behind her.

The local tavern wasn’t anything special. There weren’t any horses tied and waiting outside, and as Aaron had gathered from that, business was slow. The few tables in the dining area were empty. A drunken oldester and the plump bartender served as the only signs of human life in the establishment before they entered.

As Val sauntered over to the tables, Aaron found the old man and bartender shooting him the stink eye.

“You got a problem with monsters…?” he asked from across the room.

After a short wait, the bartender tugged at his collar and replied, “No… no, we serve all kinds here. It won’t be a problem as long as you don’t make any trouble.”

Even as he said it, a few drops of nervous sweat rolled down his bald head. But the drunken old man still studied Valerie and him, only his tired green eyes and graying beard visible under the shadow of his straw hat.

Snorting, Aaron joined Valerie at the table. Right as his ass hit the seat a pretty blonde waitress scurried out to meet them.

“W-what will you be having…?” she stuttered, eyes wide with fear and doing her best not to linger on the hell beast before her. The pen and paper she clutched tightly in each hand noticeably shook with each passing moment.

“Mincemeat pie. Ale.” Val sighed, similarly avoiding eye contact with the horrified waitress.

“I’ll have some ale too… and beef stew. Make it spicy if ya can.”

The waitress bobbed her head in agreement so quickly he and Val feared her cranium would roll right off her shoulders. The instant she had the orders jotted down, the waitress retreated back to the kitchen.

Aaron blinked twice, eyes darting between the kitchen door, over to the nervous bartender, then to the hellhound seated across from him. Looking bored out of her skull, she stared down at the table, rhythmically tapping the polished wood with the tip of her claw.

Aaron found himself in a similarly awkward position. He figured the wild girl would be chatting him right up if she wasn’t being treated as some sort of harbinger of death by the villagers. The bandit glanced around to the amateur paintings adorning the walls, the potted plant wilting in the corner, the bottles of vintage liquor displayed behind the bartender’s wide back…

But he found his traitorous gaze repeatedly falling back to Valerie.

That same irresistible draw that forced him to dive into the water and rescue her returned with a vengeance. He felt like some wild beast had flayed open his chest and was taking it’s sweet, sweet time feasting on his heart.

Without rightly knowing why, he slapped his palm on the table to draw her attention.

“H-hey… don’t worry about these guys, Val. Don’t let them get you down.”

Val didn’t reply. She kept her eyes to the table between them, starting to scratch into the wood with the rapid tapping of her claw.

“If… if these idiots don’t want to let go of their prejudice and don’t want anything to do with you… then… then it’s their loss.”

Aaron could feel his checks burning like coal. He could hardly believe the sentimental drivel pouring uncontrollably from his mouth, but at the moment, anything was better than watching her mope.

As corny as it was, it seemed to encourage her nonetheless. Her cheeks burned black, and her fangs appeared from out of her grin.

“…thanks, babe. But it’ll more than a few nasty looks to get me down~!”

Aaron nodded along. He figured as much. But he soon found her ogling him, her eyes filled with something between desire and admiration.

“Y’know, sitting here like this with you…just the two of us… it almost feels like a date…”she cooed, propping her elbows on the table and leaning forward.

“Oh, shit. If I had known I was going to be on one of those things, I would’ve worn my Sunday best… might’ve even washed my hair.” he grumbled sarcastically, tugging at the dark fabric of his tunic. It was already stained with a thin layer of road dust.

Another sweet giggle that sounded almost unfitting for her somewhat gravely tone. At the very least, she enjoyed his snarky, deadpan jokes. A smile appeared on his lips, glad he was making them for more than just to keep his sanity.

“Y’know, Aaron, I’m going on this big journey with you, but I hardly know anything about you!”

“Enough to hop on my cock, apparently…” he muttered under his breath. If the hound heard him, she wasn’t bothered by his cheeky remark.

“Go on! Tell me little bit about yourself!”

“N-no… no, there’s really nothing that needs saying. My life has been pretty boring.”

“Liaaaarrrrr!” she cried, sticking out her canine tongue at him.

“Really, I don’t want to talk about it.”

Sizzling embers began shooting from her eyes, framing her sour expression with a reddish-orange glow. Determined not to budge an inch, the bandit remained steadfastly silent in his seat.

“C’mon…. please?”

“Look, why don’t you tell me something instead?” he finally gave just a bit of ground, “Then maybe I’ll think about it.”

“Fine, fine. Ask away, babe! I’m an open book~”

Aaron cocked his brow, realizing he knew just as little about her as she knew about him. He wasn’t quite sure on how to feel about the hellhound yet. She seemed just as wild and lusty as all the stories made monsters to be. And yet, despite her boorish behavior, she had displayed a care and compassion directly opposed to that outward temperament taking care of his brother, and coming with him on what very well could’ve been a wild goose chase without a moment of hesitation.

The more pessimistic side of him whispered discouragement into his ear. That the hellhound simply wanted him for a man whore, and she had nothing better to do with her time than to amuse his desperate gamble for his brother’s cure.

Not that the pureness of her actions even mattered. Her heart could’ve been a shining beacon of purity hiding under a wily exterior. Or it could’ve been just as black as her fur. Either way, Aaron knew only a fool would turn down the assistance. Still, the supposed daughter of Starkard was sitting right before him… his childhood self would probably be turning a nice shade of green from envy.

He figured he might as well indulge his curiosity.

“Tell me something about your dad. It must’ve been pretty interesting being raised by a living legend.”

“Well… he still likes to collect swords and daggers… oh! And one time, when I was twelve, he helped me win a father-daughter pumpkin eating contest~!”

Aaron sat, his ears pricked up and ready for more. Tales of conquest and misadventure, of quests spanning around the world. But they never came. The hound just sat and stared dreamily at him, her only movement being the tail shaking above her behind.

“Is… is that it? Those are the most interesting things you can tell me about him?”

“Well… he was a really humble kinda guy. Didn’t like to toot his own horn. Maybe the stories about him were all wrong… or maybe he just mellowed out after he met my mom. Hehehe~ no matter how much stronger he was, he could still never tame her. Maybe that’s why he stuck around.”

“B-but that can’t be all you know about him! He’s had enough adventures to fill a whole damned library!”

“He never told me much about any of ‘em. I mean, what’s to know?”

“What’s to know?! What about the time he took down Nicolas the Merciless with nothing but a rusty kitchen knife? Or that time he captured Goliath City with only one-hundred men as backup? Or when he saved the Elf Queen from assassination? And that’s not mentioning the time he defeated the Dragoon King and his Queen without so much as a mount of his own!”

Aaron couldn’t stop himself from going off. How could such a titan of a man’s daughter know so little about his exploits? The very idea was like a pestering itch at the back of his skull.

Valerie was far from offended. The gears in her head ground together, and soon, she bore her glistening fangs in wry grin.

“Pfft! You’re a fanboy!”

“I… I am not!”

His cheeks burned hot at the accusation. So what if he knew every single one of Starkard’s exploits by heart? And so what if he spent half his childhood running around with four crude wooden swords and whacking the other children? That didn’t make him a fanboy! He had a simple deep respect for the warrior. What young boy wouldn’t feel the same about a roguish hero who saved countless lives and refused to play by the rules?

“I bet even he doesn’t even know all of his adventures as much as you do~”

Aaron went redder than a ripe tomato in the face. His thoughts were buzzing with frustration so harshly that he didn’t notice the fidgeting waitress drop off their drinks until she was scurrying away once again.

If her sweeping tail and a fanged grin weren’t enough to show how happy Valerie was, the growing flames around her eyes were. Totally foregoing her teasing of Aaron, the monster dove into her drink. She merrily licked away the foam gathered at the rim of the mug. After quickly lapping it up, she titled it back and chugged the whole thing down in a gulp and a half. Pulling the rim away from her lips, she let out a hearty burp and raised the mug to the air.

“Yo, barkeep! Ya got free refills here?!”

A breath of relief hissed out Aaron’s nose. His thoughts bubbled in turn, and he attempted to change the subject before the hellhound went back on the offensive. No doubt she would try to prod him for a confession on his alleged fanboyism.

“So, why did you leave your tribe in the first place?”

The hound froze, looking like a god had just struck her with a lightning bolt for daring to leave the pits of hell unguarded. Her flames fizzled out faster than embers in a monsoon. With her tail standing at attention and her ears folded down, she nervously scratched at the back of her head.

“I-it was boring! Yeah. That’s it. Too boring~”

Aaron hummed in thought. He himself didn’t like to lie, but he’d do it if the situation called for it. On the other hand, Valerie, it seemed, didn’t have enough silver in her tongue to match its outward flexibility.

“Well, your reasons are your own.” Aaron began, taking a long sip of his own drink. He didn’t like her prying into his business; he supposed that he’d return the favor.

The bartender wordlessly approached, another mug overflowing with foamy booze. The hellhound’s mood took a swing, eagerly gulping it down.

Their meals came out quickly. Too quickly, even if they were the only patrons ordering food. Val didn’t seem to pick up on the implications of their speedy service. That, or she was too overjoyed at the pungent odor of spiced meat to care. The instant the platter hit the table the drooling hound pounced. Disregarding her utensils, she greedily dug into the meat pie like it was the last bit of food on the planet.

Aaron marveled at the sight. Where did she keep all that food? A human girl her size wouldn’t have been half as ravenous. He slowly spooned the steaming broth of his stew into his mouth as he watched, barely noticing the burning sensation on his tongue.

Without the hellhound keeping him busy, he was left to chew on recent events. His mind rebelled against his philosophy of crossing bridges as they came and wandered to places it shouldn’t have been concerned with.

Would they have enough money? Was the sage his friend Nathan described even real? If he was, could he help his brother? If so, would he be willing? Could he even make it back in time to cure Douglas? He licked away the sweat gathering above his lip.

If there was one thing worse than having to desperately struggle, it was desperately struggling in vain.

“Babe? You gonna finish that?”

Aaron’s back went rigid. Looking down, he realized he had only eaten about a third of his stew during his stupor.

“Go ahead.” he offered it up, pushing the bowl towards her, “I ain’t really hungry.”

He watched in amazement as the hound chugged down the spicy, steaming stew with the same ease and speed she had used to knock back her drinks. As Valerie licked at her lips and patted her full belly, the waitress approached them, keeping her jittering hands clutching at her apron.

“I-I hope you enjoyed your f-food…”

“Yup! It as delish!” Val cheered.

“How much do we owe you?” Aaron asked, pulling out his coin purse.

The color drained from the server’s face. She slowly backed away, making a pushing motion towards Aaron’s money as if she’d will it back into his pocket.

“No… no, please. It’s on the house! P-please, just hurry up and be on your way… I mean… if you don’t m-mind…”

While he suppressed an outward show of it, Aaron felt a sweet wave of relief flood his chest. His pockets were far lighter than what he felt comfortable with. He had left nearly everything for Nathan’s aunt as payment to care for Douglas while he was away.

Valerie, on the other hand, looked far from pleased. Her satisfied grin raced down into a sour frown.

“What? You think you’re too good for my dirty money or somethin’?”

“I… I just… think it’d be best if you left… please…”

“You giving me orders, human…?”

The serving wench backed away, holding her platter up like a shield- as if it could offer even a slight defense against the hellbeast,  “N-no… I… I… p-please, just leave…”

Aaron nearly slammed his head into the table.

“Val, please! Let’s just get out of here.” Aaron grumbled, shooting up from his chair, “Trust me, its not worth it.”

The hound snorted, shooting the fearful girl such a hate-filled glare that it was a wonder she didn’t pass out on the spot. The plump bartender rushed to her side, guiding her into a chair before her knees buckled out from under her.

“C’mon, babe. Let’s ditch this dump.”

Aaron watched the rippling ebony muscles of her back as she left. He hustled after her, but some small bit of pity demanded he take a final look back at the waitress and bartender. He was met by two furious scowls.

Unfettered by the guilt they tried to shackle him with, he adjusting the cloak around his shoulders and exited the tavern.


Aaron and Valerie, the hound looking dejected and the human defeated, slunk back onto the dirt street.

“Fuck. And I was looking forward to a warm bed tonight.” Aaron spat, “I can’t just keep sleeping in the woods every damned night. Well, maybe the monastery well give us a place to stay…”

Val’s ears perked up at that, “Ooh… neat! I’ve never done it in a church before!”

Totally deadpan, Aaron was about to remind her that he had just taken her virginity a few nights prior, and she had only ever ‘done it’ in the middle of the woods.

But just then, as if to reject their sinful advances, the monasteries’ bell tolled.

The church door swung open, and like frightened foxes scampering out to protect their den, armed fellows spilled out with their improvised weaponry on full display. They were three rough looking young commoners, the tallest one armed with a pitchfork and the other two with hoes. From the firm muscles rippling under each of the men’s dull, dirt-stained work tunics, Aaron could tell he’d have little success in trying to intimidate them.

And from the furious glares they were casting at Valerie, she’d have a hard time convincing them she meant no harm.

As they neared, the trio split, revealing a shrunken little man hiding behind the fellow with the pitchfork. He wore robes of a bold blue color, nearly as striking as his deeply lined and furrowed face. He hobbled forward on a staff of oak, punching a shallow hole in the earth with each movement forward.

“What do you think you’re doing in this village, monster?” the old man asked, his frail voice shaking as it struggled to fully contain the vitriol he threw the black beast’s way.

“Well, I was gunna get a bite to eat and turn in for the day with my babe here…” she began, forking a clawed thumb at Aaron. He awkwardly grinned and waved towards the three farmers and the elder. They looked far from enthused.

“Get out of here, you filthy mongrel! You’d better not make us escort you…” one of the men snapped, slapping the shaft of his hoe in his palm.

The six of them stood off for what seemed to be hours. Valerie was planted with her lower paws in the dirt, as obstinate as a brick wall. Aaron couldn’t say exactly why Valerie refused to budge- she didn’t seem to be terribly prideful. And she had already expressed that she wanted to leave. Perhaps she made it a point to refuse the orders of bigots, or humans in general. Or maybe she was simply rebelling for the sake of rebellion, no different then a child throwing a tantrum.

Aaron finally took note of the priest’s blue robes. Then, he glanced up the monastery, seeing the symbol of an iron flower crowning it’s spire.

“Hey, aren’t you with the Hyacinth Orthodoxy? A priest, right?”

“I am. And what of it?”

“Nothin’. I just remember hearing another one of you bastards bragging about how you were the ‘most tolerant and loving people in all the cold, cruel world’…”

“The Almighty Goddess Vedia told us not to judge others on appearance alone, yes.” the priest spat through grit, gnarled teeth, “That’s why I don’t judge your harlot’s kind on their freakish bodies. I judge them of their foul actions.”

“Hey! What have I ever done to you?” Valerie barked in protest, “Y’know… expect for spooking that tavern girl.”

The priest slammed his cane into the earth once again, as if to punctuate his ultimatum, “Leave now, beast. Your ilk aren’t welcome here. If you don’t, then things will get messy… I think we’d all rather it not come to that.”

Aaron looked over from the scowling farmers to the hellhound clinging to his side. She put on a tough face of defiance, complete with two searing jets of flame from her angled eyes. But he couldn’t help but notice the small traces of steam traveling up with the flames as her tears were evaporated.

“Fine. I didn’t want to hang around this hodunk little shit town anyway!”

Before Aaron had a chance to protest, Val spun around, dragging them both down the path and out of town. The bandit watched as the armed men unwound, the relief clear on their demeanors. The aged priest, however, still leered at them until they were totally out of sight.

“…humans can be real jerks…” Val sniffed, finally letting him go.

“I know.” he replied, rubbing his sore shoulder.

“N-not that I care what they think.” she quickly tried to save face, puffing out her chest and squaring her paws into the dirt.

“Sure you don’t.” he sighed, shielding his eyes and looking towards the sun plummeting in the distant. It was coming uncomfortably close to setting, “Anyway… it’s getting late. Let’s just find a nice little spot to settle down and we can keep moving in the morning.”

“A’right.” Val sighed. She turned to move down the path, but just as she did, her triangular ears pricked up. Her tail, tucked between her legs, shot up and slammed into the base of her spine. Aaron stood at attention, blinking in surprise as she pointed over his shoulder.

“Someone’s coming…!” she warned, her eyes flaring up.

They both faced the path, watching a figure race from the tiny settlement. As he came closer and closer, Aaron realized who exactly it was- the bearded old man from the bar. The fellow kept one hand atop his straw hat as he raced towards them. Aaron couldn’t quite be sure whether or not the bastard’s face was red from the booze or the exercise.

“What do you want, gramps?” Val rudely barked at him, having had quite enough bigotry from the villagers.

“Please… please…” the old man wheezed, desperately sucking in air between his pleas, “ I’m begging ya! My name’s Franklin, and I need yer help!”

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