Ginger had never seen half the creatures around her outside of traveler’s tales. The other half she’d never even heard of. It would have been a thrilling sight, if they didn’t all look as miserable as she did.
Mrs. Wilmingshire nudged her husband. “Oh, look at that one, dear,” she said eagerly. “Isn’t she a darling?” Her attention was on a dog eared woman with short brown hair who crouched low while she serviced five different cocks with her hands and mouth, constantly switching her attention from one dick to another while keeping all five men groaning in pleasure. Her movements were eager and she was smiling around their cocks, but Ginger could see the bone deep weariness in her eyes.
“Mmmm hmmm,” Mr Wilmingshire agreed. “I found that girl over there rather fetching myself.” The woman he was talking about had hair that shimmered like diamonds in the light as she moaned sensuously, writhing within a pile of men. She had two cocks buried in each of her holes, and she was holding herself open to help someone else squeeze a third into her ass. There were faint whip scars on her legs and back.
All around them, hundreds of similar scenes were playing out. Women of every shape, color, and size imaginable servicing both men and women with the dedicated obedience of harshly trained animals. By all rights, the entire place should have stunk of sex, but instead it smelled almost intoxicatingly sweet, like a garden of flowers.
Ginger had no idea where this was in relation to anything else. Far enough to require another long plane ride, at least. Like the first, she’d spent it in a crate. The insides were more comfortable, and she was placed on her own seat instead of with the luggage, but it had still been a crate. It had been a private plane, populated only by her, Mr and Mrs. Wilmingshire, and Celeste. The servant had been the one to fly the plane, and after they had landed, she had driven the car that brought them here.
Ginger had seen much of the human world since being abducted from her forest. Not in person, but through the television box they so often enjoyed looking at. That was why she knew the word for a place like this: palace. It was a reception hall larger than a football field, and with a dizzying splendor that put even the Wilmingshire mansion to shame. Dozens of servants moved among the red carpeted floor with plates of refreshments, attending to the guests that weren’t too busy enjoying the captive women. Even more were crawling on the ground, all of them naked and beautiful. They were the reason the hall still smelled good: they diligently licked the aftermath of each sexual encounter off of every affected surface before carefully drying them with their hair. They were occasionally groped or spanked by some of the guests, but for the most part they were ignored completely.
A variety of furniture had been placed for convenience while the slaves were used. Some were fancy but otherwise normal furniture: couches, beds, chairs. Others were contraptions of steel, rubber, and leather that were clearly designed first and foremost for sex. Nearby, a blonde girl with gills on her neck hung in the air by her arms, held there by cuffs connected to a high bar. Her legs were up, wrapped around the torso of the man using her pussy. She squeezed tight around him and bucked as he came, all but riding him. As soon as he was done, the next man in a long line took his place to receive the same treatment.
All around the walls were dark screens that she recognized as television boxes. The only boxes that were on were placed not on the walls, but around some kind of round, squat structure at the center of the hall. Men and women were at each of the little building’s many windows, accepting money in exchange for little slips of paper. The lit screen above them were meaningless lists of words and numbers, like “VORONA 5:1” and “EMBER 1:2”.
The Wilmingshires had come to this place dressed in their finest outfits. George was wearing a tuxedo so well fit that it made him look merely staggeringly overweight. Jessica was bedecked in jewelry from head to toe, and Ginger had overheard enough to know that her mistress’s ensemble for the occasion had cost more than they’d spent on the fox’s entire capture and training. Even Ginger, who crawled between her owners on a leash, was made up for the occasion. She’d been hand washed and scrubbed and treated until her skin glowed and her fur shined. The fox had seen herself in mirrors, and knew that even without five of her tails, she looked more magnificent today than she ever had in the forest. She was a very pretty fucktoy.
Only Celeste looked the same as ever as she trailed behind her master and mistress like a silent, cold shadow. That was because she always looked her best, and today was no exception. Her serving clothes were less fancy than Jessica’s most casual outfit, but they were still sharply professional, perfectly fit, and the fox had never seen so much as a speck of dust on them. Similarly, while she wore no makeup or jewelry, she possessed a keen beauty that outshone almost all of the overly made up women they passed by, and earned her frequent hungry looks.
A finely dressed but obviously drunk man stumbled towards them, and Ginger tensed as she saw the lust in his eyes as he beheld her. “Georgie! Jess!” He said. “Who’s this beautiful specimen you’ve brought this year?”
“Oh, you mean our Ginger?” Mrs Wilmingshire asked modestly, preening at his praise. “Just a little birthday present for George. You like her?”
“I do, and I’m sure I’ll like her even more once I get to know her better,” he said with a wink. “I thought that selkie of Mordred’s had drained me dry until next week, but I’m feeling a second wind at the sight of this one!”
“Ah, my apologies, Tom,” Mr Wilmingshire said with regret. “We brought her to be part of the game, actually.”
“You did now? Well, that’s quite alright!” Tom crouched down in front of Ginger, and the redheaded fox forced herself to hold still as he ran his hands over her. “Just means I’ll need to make a house call soon, so I can play with her in private and really take my time. Assuming she survives, I mean.” He pulled her mouth open and made a show of inspecting her teeth. “What kind of training regimen you use for her?”
”Oh, we didn’t bother with silly things like that, ” George told him. “We’re not one of those terribly cruel owners who demand victory. We just want her to have a good time.”
“Right, right… makes sense…” Tom stood up and brushed his hands. “I know I’ll certainly have my eye on her. You should probably put her mask on, though, before someone thinks she’s for public use and doesn’t ask first. You did at least get a mask for her, right?”
“Of course, ” Mr Wilmingshire said with a touch of indignation. “Just because we’re not as gung ho about this as some doesn’t mean we’re daft. Our Celeste designed a very fine mask for her, actually, and we picked it up this morning. Show him, dear.”
His wife dug into her purse and pulled out something small and round. One side was pure white, and the other… Ginger gasped. It was her face! Not the human one she was now forever stuck with, but her real face, snout and whiskers and all! Her eyes filled with tears at the impossible sight, and she didn’t even know if they were of joy or sadness.
Jessica gave her a small but pointed look at her outburst, and Ginger knew she’d be punished for it later. But for now, the woman merely pressed the white side of the mask against the fox’s face. There was no string or adhesive to keep it in place, but it stayed on perfectly. So perfectly that after a few seconds Ginger could no longer even feel it on her face, and had to touch it with her hand to confirm it was still there.
“Oh yes, she looks like a right proper beastie now, ” Tom said with approval, then glanced around. “Well, if Ginger isn’t available, I suppose I should…”
Mr Wilmingshire clapped him in the shoulder. “Go have fun, man. We’re going to do the same after we drop her off.” He pointed a thumb behind him. “There was one back there that’s just your type, purple hair, tattoos, and the most amazing cleavage…”
Tom grinned. “You’re a good man, Georgie.” He gave Mrs Wilmingshire a deep but playful bow, and then hurried away in the direction George had indicated.
“Dear…” Mr Wilmingshire said slowly once he was gone.
“We’ll go drop her off straight away so you can hurry back and play with your friend, ” his wife said, her eyes twinkling. “Deep down you men are all just overgrown boys, you know.”
“I saw the way you looked at that lizard girl,” Mr Wilmingshire said defensively, though his tone was good natured. “The one with the long tongue. You’re just as eager to go play as I am, aren’t you?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about ” Jessica declared airily, but she took hold of his hand and guided it under her dress and between her legs. When she pulled his hand out it glistened, and without ever breaking eye contact, she brought it up to her mouth and sucked her juices off of him one finger at a time.
A scream from somewhere in front of them caught Ginger’s attention. There were moans and fake cries of pleasure all around her, but this sound held only pain. She looked and spotted the source: a young woman with chestnut brown hair and beautiful white wings hanging upside down by her ankles from a crude pulley. Her wrists had been bound to rings in the floor, leaving her body completely taut.
The woman cried out again while two men went at her with whips, and her wings flapped uselessly in the air. One man cut lines across her flat stomach and swaying breasts, while the other was slashing up her backside. Although the wounds they left behind looked severe, they weren’t the reason she was screaming. That honor went to the third man, who was slowly cranking the wheel attached to the pulley to stretch her already straining body farther and farther.
There was an ugly sound as her ankles dislocated, and the man cranking the pulley stopped. “That’ll do for now,” he said as he shoved his cock down her throat and began using both hands to thump her head violently against him, treating her throat like a cheap fleshlight. “Every last drop, bitch. You spill a single one, and we find out how many cranks it takes to rip a limb right off.” She made a muffled, whimpering sound of obedience.
Mrs Wilmingshire sniffed. “Barbarians. Honestly, what a waste of a good animal.”
“Well, yes, but we don’t know the full story,” her husband said, though he looked uncomfortable. “If her owner decided she was disposable, presumably she did something to deserve it.” He glanced down at Ginger and scratched her beneath her chin. “Don’t you worry sweetums, we’d never do something like that to a good girl like you. You’ll be our lovely cum pet forever and ever.”
As they passed by the woman, Ginger saw a tattoo inked on her forehead in thick black letters: MEAT.
She spotted several more women with the same tattoo as they walked. All of them were being treated as brutally as the first. One was laying on her back, fucking the man in her cunt with raw desperation as he idly carved her chest with a knife. Another, whose body was covered from head to toe in tiny burns, pointed a trembling finger at one of the few undamaged patches of skin on her stomach, showing the woman lighting the cigarettes where she should put the next one out. Ginger had been through worse tortures than any of them, but she’d been able to heal from all of it. None of the women she saw seemed to share that ability. She would’ve helped them if she could, but she could no more do anything for them than they could for her.
She was grateful when they left the last of those women behind and reached their destination at the end of the great reception hall, where two heavily armed guards watched over a spiral staircase going up. They glowered as the Wilmingshire’s approach, but stepped aside respectfully when Jessica presented them with paperwork from her purse.
At the top of the staircase was two more guards who also needed to see Mrs Wilmingshire’s papers, and ashort hallway with only one door. The room they entered was similar to the reception hall they’d just left, but much smaller and less populated. Like her, all the slaves wore masks, each one unique. Unlike the downstairs, none were being raped. Instead they knelt in positions of subservience, some with owners standing next to them and some not.
Many of the women were breathtaking in their appearance. A green haired woman with horns and leathery wings that wore the snarling face of a dragon. A seven foot tall woman with a giraffe mask, a horn protruding from a hole in its forehead, and a luxurious mane of bright orange that cascaded down her shoulders and reached the small of her back. A woman with ivory white skin and long jet black hair, whose body was wrapped in massive wings of the same dark color, face obscured by a raven mask. A golden haired woman with a mask like a butterfly and a body so perfect that even Ginger felt her pulse quicken at the sight.
“Oh, my word,” Mrs Wilmingshire whispered to her husband, Ginger’s sensitive ears catching her words. “Do you see the one in the corner? Isn’t that…”
“Shhh now,” Mr Wilmingshire said in an equally low volume. “Some people are more fortunate than others, my dear. Not everyone can afford an exotic pet. Best not to stare.”
“But she’s-“ Jessica cut off as one of the other owners approached, his slave crawling behind him to keep up. He was a young man who at first glance seemed as well dressed as anyone else here, but on closer inspection his clothes were slightly mismatched and rather ill-fitting.
“Can’t help but notice you had an eye on my Betty,” he said cheerfully. “She’s a real beauty, isn’t she?” Betty was a young, dark haired girl with bronzed skin wearing a feline mask, with a tail between her legs and cat ears sticking up out of her hair. Except… the ears looked stiff and not at all lifelike, and there were bits of dried glue in her hair. The tail looked a little more like genuine fur, but from the way it hung limp except when the girl’s ass swayed, Ginger was fairly confident it was attached to a butt plug. Even her eyes, which looked shaped like a cat’s at first, had pupils whose color was a little too uniform and unnatural. Contacts, almost certainly.
“Yes,” said Mrs Wilmingshire, adopting a polite expression. “Such a fine specimen would the prize of any household. You must be quite proud of her.”
“Oh no no no,” he said quickly. “She’s not all that special. I’ve got lots just like her back home. Lots.”
“Right,” Jessica replied smoothly. “Well, it was a pleasure to meet you and Betty, Mr…?”
“Glendale,” he said proudly, as though he expected them to recognize the name. “Martin Glendale.” He paused. “Of Glendale Automotive, one of the fastest growing car suppliers in America? Number one in more than six states?” He launched into a badly off key melody. “When you wanna get there, then you need a Glendale-“
“Yes,” George interrupted. “Yes, of course we’ve heard of Glendale Automobiles-“
“Glendale Automotive,” Martin corrected quickly.
“Right, right, Glendale Automotive. Stand up place, that’s what I always hear. No finer spot to get a new vehicle.”
Martin seem to relax slightly. “That it is! We have some fantastic deals for older models as well.” He leaned in. “In fact, we just got a shipment of some 1970 Model T-Birds in. Barely touched, less than ten thousand miles combined.”
“Really now?” Mr Wilmingshire asked, suddenly sounding genuinely engaged.
“Yes indeed,” Martin said eagerly, pouncing on the man’s interest. “Now, I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m already practically losing money selling them at used car prices. But you seem like good people, so I’m willing to put profit aside and offer you the friends and family discount of-”
“That sounds lovely,” said Mrs Wilmingshire loudly, “But we really must be getting our Ginger squared away. If you’ll excuse us…” She took her husband’s hand and gently but firmly led him away. “Used car salesmen…” she muttered when they were out of earshot. “What is this place coming to?”
“He didn’t seem all that bad to me,” Mr Wilmingshire said. “Besides, my dear, we see his type here every year. New money looking to make inroads with old money. He’ll be gone next year.”
“He’d better…oh, Mr Mordred!” Jessica waved a hand at a short man with a Mediterranean complexion standing near a blue eyed, dark haired girl in an otter mask. “Now he’s the proper sort of person to be here,” she confided to her husband as they came near the man. “Distinguished and mature.”
Since she’d entered the palace, Ginger had been assaulted by a cacophony of different smells, most of which she’d never encountered before. They had all blended together into a sort of undefined stench that permeated everything with no individual source. But not this Mr Mordred. His scent was like a scream that rose above the general din. He stank of death, and Ginger instinctively recoiled from him.
“Just Mordred will do, actually,” he said, giving them a smile that never approached his eyes as he offered his hand. “And I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
“Mr and Mrs Wilmingshire,” boomed George, taking the man’s hand. Ginger nearly gasped out loud at the way he touched Mordred without any reservation. She knew humans had terrible senses, but how could they not feel the sense of death and disease radiating from this man? It was like watching prey carelessly stick its head in a predator’s mouth. “And no, I believe this is our first time meeting you, but we’ve heard all about you from our friend Tomas Baily. He swears by your establishment.”
Mordred nodded. “Yes, Mr Baily. One of our regulars at Avalon.” He glanced down at Ginger, and when their eyes made contact it was like bugs crawling in her fur. It took everything she had not to shudder. “And who is this creature? You don’t see too many kitsune around here.”
“This is Ginger,” Mrs. Wilmingshire said. “We had her imported from Asia last year. I had to do business with an absolutely dreadful fellow to get her, but she’s a good pet. When she remembers her place, of course.” She looked past him at the girl with the otter mask. “And that must be one of your esteemed selkies then?”
“Yes,” Mordred said absently, his attention still on Ginger. She looked away, her stomach churning at the thought of meeting his eyes again. “Snowflake, one of my feistier whores. I’m hoping this will teach her a little humility, if she survives.” Then, to Ginger’s horror, he grabbed hold of her chin, the touch making her shudder with revulsion, and forced her to look back up at him.
“Kitsune are very tricky creatures, you know,” he muttered as he looked into Ginger’s eyes. She tried to close hers, but her body wouldn’t obey. Not just her eyes, but all of it, her entire form going limp, held up only by his grip. Trapped inside her own head, she couldn’t even scream as the monster loomed over her. All she could do was keep staring unblinkingly into those terrible eyes, which seemed to grow larger and darker the longer she looked at them. They filled her entire vision, becoming yawning black pits that she would fall into forever. “You can never be too careful with them.” The world around her was gone, replaced with darkness and death and cold as she fell and fell and fell…
And then he broke eye contact with her and the feeling vanished. “But I can see you have little to worry about from this one,” he said, letting go of her chin and letting her sag down. “A kitsune with no foxfire is just a furry fleshlight.”
His words sickened Ginger even more than looking into his eyes had. No foxfire? It had never obeyed her, not in all her centuries of life, and she’d been told that losing it was the price of becoming a gumiho, but she’d still had some tiny hope buried deep that perhaps one day would be different. That perhaps it was still slumbering inside her, or there was some trick to it her parents had failed to teach her before they died that she could someday learn. But if this thing that called itself Mordred could look at her and see that she was empty and worthless… she hung her head to hide the tears as they dripped down.
There was more small talk with Mordred, and with several other owners, but Ginger wasn’t listening to any of it. She didn’t start paying attention again until she felt Mrs Wilmingshire tugging her leash to urge her forward. Her owners had stopped in front of a window in the wall, where a bored looking man was looking down at her. “This her?” he asked, and looked down at some papers. “Ginger Wilmingshire?”
“Indeed,” Mrs. Wilmingshire confirmed.
The man wrote something down, then handed two small metallic items over to the woman. “Receiver and transmitter,” he said.
“Come again?” she asked. “You’ll have to forgive us, we’re not very good with technology.”
He sighed, and pointed to one of the things in her hand. “Receiver. You stick that in her ear and it will bond with the mask.” He pointed at the other thing. “Transmitter. Lets her handler talk to her.” He took in her blank expression and sighed again, then pointed to the doors that lined the room. “Each player get a private room where they can monitor what’s going on and use the transmitter – that – to give their game piece directions and advice.”
Mr Wilmingshire’s eyes lit up. “Fascinating! I must admit, we never really paid much attention to the specifics of these things. I always assumed the owners just sort of watched, but this means we practically get to participate too!” He chortled.
“Yes,” the man said flatly. He glanced at his watch, then raised his voice to address the entire room. “Mr Emmeck will be arriving in a moment to begin interviews, so we’ll need all players to clear the area. Proceed to your private rooms or go downstairs to the public viewing area.”
Mr Wilmingshire knelt in front of Ginger. His wife handed over the receiver, and he pushed it into Ginger’s ear. Just like the mask, after a few moments she could no longer feel it. “We’ll see you in a few days, sweetums,” he said. “I really will miss you, you know.” His fingers were idly playing with her nipples, flicking and pinching them. “All these other girls are lovely, but I can’t fuck any of them half as hard as my favorite cum pet. We’ll have a lot of catching up to do when you get back.” She nearly gagged when he kissed her directly on the mouth, his tongue worming between her lips to lap at her. “You have fun now.”
Mrs Wilmingshire stroked her hair. “And be a good girl,” she reminded the fox. “There is no shame in losing, but you are a Wilmingshire, and must not act in ways that would disrespect our family name.” She turned to her husband. “Well, should we go find our room?”
“We could do that…” Mr Wilmingshire said slowly. “Or… we could go find you that lizard girl.”
“And maybe a certain purple haired haired pet while we’re down there?” she teased.
“Well, if we happen to see her along the way…” he said with a smile. The two disappeared headed back downstairs hand in hand, Celeste walking quietly behind them To her disgust, Ginger found herself almost sorry to see them go. They were horrible, but they had become a familiar kind of horrible. Not like whatever was going to happen next.
“Mr Emmeck is arriving in the staging area,” said someone right next to her, and she jumped, looking around to find no one there. “I repeat, Mr Emmeck is arriving in the staging area.” She put a hand up to her ear. It was that receiver they’d given her.
A door opened and several people dressed in more casual clothing than she’d see anyone else wear came into the room, wheeling large cameras in with them. As they began moving them into position, someone else strode in behind them. He was an older man, early fifties with more than a touch of gray in his hair and mustache, and wore a flamboyant white outfit that almost seemed to be nothing but ruffles. He clapped his hands once and rubbed them together. “Good morning, my girls!” he said jovially. “Who is ready for the most exciting time of the year? Places now, places. All of you line up by the wall, there. Don’t worry about order, just find a spot and let the cameras worship you.”
Ginger allowed herself to be herded along with everyone else until they were all grouped together and kneeling submissively, more than forty in all. Uncomfortable about being near so many people, she chose a spot on the edge of the crowd. All the cameras were pointed in their direction, and she found it strangely intimidating. Being raped by total strangers had become part of her everyday life, and yet she was somehow nervous about being watched. She looked at the other girls, trying to see if any of them felt as anxious as she did, but their expressions were impossible to read behind their masks.
“Perfect,” praised the man. “Absolutely perfect! Now just stay like that and let me do all the work, my little chickadees.” He stepped in between them and the camera, and accepted a microphone from one of the cameraman. “Alright everyone, we are going live in ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three…” Lights on the cameras blazed on, and Ginger flinched in surprise.
“Welcome!” said the man, speaking into the microphone. At the same time, his voice came in through the receiver as well, creating an uncomfortable doubling effect. “To all of you watching at home, and those of you right here in The Paradisium, thank you for joining us this year for what promises to be a match like no other! My name is Vin Emmeck,and I am delighted to be your host once again. Now I have to tell you, folks, I have seen this year’s batch of girls, and they look like real fighters. They’re tough, they’re smart, they’re resourceful. I think we’re gonna have a reaaaaaal close competition this year! And any one of these girls could be taking home the trophy!”
He turned around to face them. “But don’t just take my word for it! Let’s talk to these lovely ladies and see for ourselves!” He strode forward, and Ginger had only a single horrible second to realize that he was headed right in her direction before the microphone was pointed at her. “Let’s begin with this stunning and, dare I say it, foxy competitor! Introduce yourself to your adoring audience, honey!”
Ginger stared wide eyed into the camera, her throat dry. Her mouth worked, but nothing came out. Emmeck looked back at the camera and winked. “It seems she’s a little shy, folks! It’s alright, honey, we’re all your fans here! Tell us your name!”
She swallowed hard. “Yip yip,” she said quietly. Her owners had been very clear that she was not to speak, and they would be watching.
Emmeck chuckled. “Yip yip, huh? I don’t think I remember seeing a name like that on our roster…” He put two fingers on the ear piece he wore. “I’m being told that this is Ginger! Sweet, shy Ginger! Can you tell us a little about yourself?”
Emmeck turned to the camera again. “Now how’s that for a one track mind?” he joked. “Is this your first time at the Paradisium?”
Ginger nodded, grateful for a question she could answer without speaking.
“Aha!” declared Emmeck. “An actual answer from our Ginger! And how do you like it so far?”
“…Yip yip.” Ginger was grateful she had the mask to hide her blush, even moreso when she heard scornful laughter, not from Emmeck or the cameramen, but from one of the other women. It was the otter masked woman, the selkie that the creature Mordred had brought.
“Awwww,” said Emmeck in mock distress. “We’ve lost her again, folks! Here, let me try to bring her back! Ginger! What do you get if you take a yip and multiple it by two?”
The fox’s cheeks were burning so hard now she was no longer certain the mask could hide them. “…Yip yip…”
“Correct! See folks, interviewing is an artform: it’s all about asking the right questions! Ginger, if the lovely Miss Yip Doe falls in love with and marries the brilliant Mr John Yip, what will her new name be?”
“Correct again! Last question! When someone is riding that sweet foxy body of yours, and they’re having the time of their life in your tight furry cunt, and they want you to go faster and harder and really knock their socks off, what do they tell you?”
“Correct! There you have it, folks! The brilliant and talented Ginger! With a brain like that, who knows what she can accomplish?! But let’s move on to our next lovely lady…”
The next woman had no trouble answering Emmeck’s questions, and neither did the next. Ginger felt utterly humiliated, and for a time she didn’t even hear what was going on around her, too caught up in her own head. It wasn’t just because she had made a fool of herself on camera, though that was certainly a big part. She had assumed that all the other women had roughly similar experiences to hers, but that wasn’t the case at all. They might be slaves, but they were at least allowed to talk, to be people. Even among fellow slaves, she was pathetic.
Emmeck had gone through nearly half the women by the time Ginger caught the sound of laughter and started listening again. He was interviewing Betty, Martin’s “cat girl”. “I’m sorry,” he said with exaggerated politeness. “I think I need to hear that again. What’s your name, honey?”
“My name is Betty, meow,” she told Emmeck, her voice soft and meek.
“Betty… meow?” he asked with a grin.
“Yes meow,” she confirmed in a serious tone, and this time Emmeck wasn’t the only one to laugh.
“We are delighted to have you with us today, Miss Betty Meow,” he said when he’d recovered. “What do you think of your chances, hmm? Are you going to be the cat that catches the canary?”
Betty bowed her head. “It is an honor to compete, meow. I will do my best to make my owner proud, meow.”
Many of the women, like Betty, acted reserved and quiet, clearly afraid of the situation. Some of the others, though, didn’t even sound like slaves, their voices brimming with confidence. “You wanna know the reason Ember keeps winning, Vin?” asked a green-skinned woman in a shark mask. “Because she keeps getting lucky. But this is the year her luck ran out, because this time I’m here.”
“Bold words from the fearsome Storm Hag,” Emmeck said. “And from the bets already placed today, it seems like many people out there agree with you. But we’ve seen a lot of girls test their mettle against Ember, and she’s left all of them in the dirt. What makes you different?”
“Difference is I’ve already won,” Storm Hag said smugly. “Just last month, I went on a blind run through perfect recreations of the last four games, and in every single one I outperformed the sparrow’s record. That means I’ve already beaten her four times running ; this year’s just gonna be the first time I get to do it in person.”
The woman in the butterfly mask, the one who had made Ginger’s heart race, merely seemed bored. “I am here because my master wished it to be so,” she said coolly, as though there were no other possible answer. The woman called Gossamer held herself with an air of refinement, somehow making her kneeling position look like one of elegance and power instead of submission. “Do you have any questions that are not a waste of my time?” Even Emmeck didn’t seem immune to her scorn, stammering out an apology before moving on to the next woman.
The interviews were nearly over when, without any warning at all, a blue haired woman in a jackal mask scrambled to her feet and ran for the exit. Ginger expected Emmeck or one of the others to chase after her, but they just stood there and watched as she sprinted with as much terrified speed as any prey animal Ginger had ever witnessed.
She was only halfway to the exit when she collapsed to the ground in a heap, like a puppet with its strings cut. She flopped onto her back and Ginger saw that the eye, nose, and mouth holes of her mask had all vanished, replaced by smooth white. She clawed at the mask with bloody fingers as she suffocated, but it was as unyielding as steel. Everyone watched, unmoving and silent, as her struggles slowed, and finally stopped completely. Moments later, the jackal mask crumbled away like powder to reveal her face, frozen in a look of terror.
A few servants came in and collected the body.
“Well, folks, I guess that’s one contestant already eliminated!” Emmeck said after they left, sounding completely unperturbed about seeing someone die in front of him. “And my apologies to those of you who’d placed your bets on what’s her name! They can’t all be winners, right?” He began interviewing the next person as though nothing had happened. The remaining women’s responses were understandably muted, which made the fox feel just a little bit better. She wasn’t the only one horrified by what had happened.
While he talked, Ginger surreptitiously let her hand creep up to the edge of her mask. An experimental pull confirmed what she’d feared: hers wouldn’t come off either. Whatever signal or trigger had caused the jackal faced woman’s mask to murder her could kill her just as quickly and easily. The shame she’d felt before vanished, and even her grief for the poor unnamed woman dimmed. What mattered right now was surviving.
“Well, that’s everyone, folks,” Emmeck said after interviewing the last woman. “All the fabulous contestants for this year!” He scratched his head with a look of feigned puzzlement. “But isn’t there someone we’re forgetting? Like some sort of, I don’t know, queen of flame and sky…?” His voice began to grow in intensity and volume. “The mistress of the inferno? She who cannot fall? The wielder of the eternal flame? The living storm? The one, the only, the first four time champion in the history of the Paradisium…EMMMM… BERRRRRR!”
The lights went out, bringing total darkness to the room. But only until she stepped in.
Unlike all the other women, she wore a cloak of ruby red feathers that clung to her, highlighting her sleek form. Her golden bird mask was covered in streaks of red that were somehow both flame and feathers at the same time. And her hair… her hair was on fire. Ember illuminated the entire room as she burned, light and shadow swirling as her flames flickered and danced. She looked larger than life, like a goddess descended to the earth.
She accepted the microphone from Emmeck, but she didn’t face the camera like all the others had. She faced the girls instead. “Many of you came a long way to be here today,” she said, her voice hard. “Many of you have suffered for this opportunity. Many of you have paid dearly. To all of you who have trained for this, studied, worked yourself to the bone day after day pushing yourselves for the sake of victory, I’m sorry. This isn’t your year.”
Ember tossed the microphone back to Emmeck, and then the phoenix spun on her heels and left without looking back.