Thanks for reading! Me and my cowriter Darinost are slowly combining blogs and comment sections, so feel free to join us all on discord to discuss stories!
It was difficult to track time within the silk cocoon. Nadia was dragged roughly across slopes and up and down cliffs, with no sense of what direction she was being taken. She spent the journey focusing on keeping her heart rate up. The faster her metabolism, the faster the poison would leave her system. Luckily she had more than enough terror to keep her from relaxing.
The really stupid thing about this situation, she reflected, was that some tiny part of her was still hoping her sister would show up to rescue her. As though she hadn’t been the very source of so much of her torment over the years. Tanya was as much her mistress as Ilya was her master. They both regularly tortured and raped her, together or apart. Nadia’s tongue was as familiar with the contours of her sister’s pussy as it was with the bumps and veins on their father’s cock, and Tanya was even better at making her scream than he was.
But there had been a time when things were different. When they were just children, the two of them had been inseparable. Her memories of back then were fuzzy, but she remembered Tanya as a kind and gentle girl who’d never flaunted her superiority. The other children were frequently cruel with each other – Paragon encouraged direct competition, pushing them to see their siblings as enemies that they had to beat to survive instead of hating the system itself that they were all trapped in – but Tanya hadn’t been like that. For the first decade of their lives, Nadia had trusted, relied upon, and loved her sister, and she still believed Tanya had genuinely loved her back during those days.
All that changed after Ilya gave Nadia her wings. It was the one and only time that Nadia had received something that Tanya hadn’t, and it had sparked jealousy in the girl. It was like a switch had been flipped in her head, and all trace of the loving Tanya had vanished. She’d never forgiven Nadia, and from that point forward, things were completely different between them. Nadia had tried countless times to explain that their father’s gift of the wings had been no kindness, that there had been a significant chance that attempting such a large graft would kill the recipient, and he’d chosen her for it because he’d considered her the more expendable twin, but Tanya wouldn’t listen.
No matter how much her sister abused her, though, Nadia couldn’t shake off those old memories. She knew it was ridiculous to hope that Tanya would one day change back to the way she’d been, but she couldn’t help it. She missed her sister.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a soft constant chittering in the background, the first sound she’d heard since her capture. It grew louder as she was brought closer, until it surrounded her on all sides. “I was right,” Ilya said as she was hoisted up into the air. “They’ve made a nest where some of the large webs meet to form a crevice.” All movement stopped. Nadia’s cocoon hung in midair, dangling from a thread and softly swaying. She tested her limbs; they were still a little sluggish, but she was mostly recovered.
“You’re surrounded by thirteen or fourteen of them,” Ilya growled. “The paralysis has worn off, right? Even a pathetic cunt like you should be able to take the lead with a windfall like this.”
Nadia took a deep breath.
Then she activated her fox marble.
The silk cocoon twisted and distorted, then ripped apart from the inside. The fox that fell from it had nine tails and blue fur very nearly as dark as the wings that still adorned her back. There were spiders all around her, and Nadia launched herself at the nearest, knocking it onto its back. Her claws and teeth easily shattered its carapace and shredded its organs, and she bounded to the next one. A few of them spat webbing at her, but a single flap of her wings took her out of harm’s way.
Claws raked at the vulpan as she slaughtered her way through the nest, but now that she was in this form, she barely noticed the poison coursing through her veins. She had hoped to make it through the entire competition without ever having to do this. There had been multiple times over the last four days when her marble could have helped her, but every time she’d made excuses to justify avoiding it. She hated the feeling of transformation; this fox thing wasn’t her, and every time she changed she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to find her way back.
Sometimes she thought that this marble was the most violating form of rape her father and sister could have ever hoped to inflict upon her. They were still using and defiling her body for their own gain, and with no care for how she felt about it. The only difference was that instead of using it to orgasm, they were using it to help them win this stupid game. Nadia felt like an animal being put to work.
In a matter of minutes, she’d torn every last spider apart. She’d hoped that the violence might at least make her feel a little better, but it didn’t. The Paradisium must have gone through enormous expense to bring these creatures here, but that didn’t mean that they actually cared about them. They were happy to let them be slaughtered for entertainment, and when this was all over, the spiders would probably just be left down here to starve to death. They hadn’t asked to become a part of this, to have their lives irrevocably changed and ultimately thrown away for the sake of people who hated them and would never offer the slightest respect for their service.
Nadia could relate.
Her form shifted back into a young winged woman, and she set to collecting the ribbons left behind.
Snowflake cursed when she saw the three women together. At first she thought the koala had lied to her, but the freak was plastered with black goo and bits of web. It was obvious she’d gotten into trouble with the spiders, but the other two must have rescued her. She considered turning back and attacking Crikey after all, but there was no guarantee the woman was still anywhere near the elevator, and this awful place stank too much of spider to track anyone. Besides, she reflected, there wasn’t really much difference between attacking Ember alone and attacking her with the other two. The cat had shown herself to be utterly useless, and the freak wasn’t much better. All this really meant was that she’d get even more points for putting the phoenix in her place.
For a while, she watched them from a distance, planning her ambush. She was concealing herself with her illusions again, and unlike Crikey, none of them seemed aware of her. Keeping her illusions going while she moved around was far more taxing than holding still, but once these three were out of the picture along with the raven, there would be no one left that she could use them on anyway.
After twenty minutes, an opportunity presented itself. The patch of web they were traveling on was a sparse one, with several feet between each strand. The three women had chosen to crawl across for safety, clambering across the lines as though climbing a horizontal ladder. Ember led them, followed by Betty, with the freak in the back. Their heads were down, and their attention focused on not falling. None of them were prepared or in any position for a fight.
Snowflake used her nails to slash right through one of the strands.
Ember had been using it to support her legs, and when it collapsed, she fell with it. Her reflexes were quick enough to grab at the line in front of her and turn her fall into a swing, ending with her body dangling beneath the line, arms lifted and holding on for dear life. Betty wasn’t so lucky. She’d been holding the fallen line, and she tumbled forward and down until her movement was arrested by Ginger behind her, who latched onto her legs with her tails to save her. The cat hung upside down, suspended over the yawning pit. The freak strained, trying to lift her her up to safety, and Snowflake casually cut through her strand as well.
The freak and the cat both fell as the line supporting them dropped, and the freak caught herself on the nearest line. Like Ember a few feet away, she now dangled with her arms up in the air, but with the added weight of Betty beneath her. The phoenix gritted her teeth and began to haul herself up, but paused as Snowflake let herself appear in front of her, casually stepping on the woman’s hands. “Stay put, bitch,” she told Ember, “or I keep cutting. Are any of you in a hurry to find out how far the drop is, or what’s going to be waiting for you down below? No?”
“Leave us alone, Snowflake,” Ginger said. “We don’t want a fight.”
“Said nothing about fighting, freak,” Snowflake retorted. “I just want those ribbons. So you can either start slowly untying them and handing them over, without making any sudden or suspicious movements, or you can fall.” She had no intention of ever letting them get back up, of course. The only direction left for these three idiots to go was down, after she’d gotten some points from them. They probably wouldn’t survive, but she didn’t care about that. After all, they’d do the same to her if they had the chance. And it’s not like she was the one who’d designed this game. If losing here meant a horrible death, that was the Paradisium’s fault, not hers. She wasn’t going to lose this game and end up trapped in this fucking hellscape thanks to trying to go easy on her enemies.
“How am I supposed to untie my ribbons if you won’t step off my fucking hands?” Ember snarled.
“You’ll get your chance in a minute, bitch,” Snowflake told her. She slapped Ember’s face with one of her tails, basking in the woman’s look of frustration. “Wait your turn.” The phoenix could keep her ribbons, she’d decided. She was the only one here she had to worry about, and Snowflake wasn’t going to give her any opportunity to turn the tables. The only reason the bitch wasn’t already falling was because that would be too easy for her. She was going to let Ember appreciate how thoroughly she’d lost while she rotted away down here. “You first, freak,” she said. “Give me that black ribbon of yours.” A ribbon like that was exactly what she needed.
“I… I can’t,” Ginger said, sounding slightly panicked. “I can’t hold us up with just one hand. We’ll fall!”
“Oh yeah?” Snowflake asked skeptically. “What happened to the super strong freak we all watched fight Ember here last night?”
“That was… it was all staged,” said the woman sheepishly. “Ember said people would leave me alone if I seemed strong. I promised to give her all my points when we get to the last round, and in return sh-she used some of her phoenix powers to help me survive and then made me look good.”
Snowflake let out a frustrated hiss. Her instincts told her Ginger was lying through her teeth, but she had to admit that her version of events sounded much more reasonable. The idea that she’d miraculously survived having an extra soul inside of her had made no sense, and it made even less sense that Ember, who was famous for shunning alliances, would have spared her life after their fight and now be working with her today. But phoenixes were known for their healing abilities, and if Ember had been making secret deals like this on the side all the time, that would explain how she’d managed to win four years running. “Fine,” she spat finally. She wrapped one of her tails around the freak’s neck, drawing it tight enough to allow only the barest of breath. “There, now I’m holding you up too. Get that ribbon off!”
“Th-that’s not enough, mistress!” Ginger wheezed. “I’ll fall! I know I will!” Tears began to drip down her face. “Please don’t let me fall,” she whined. “Please, I’ll be good! I’ll try my best to be a better cunt licker for you!”
Snowflake growled her annoyance. She’d forgotten what a pathetic coward the freak really was. Now she was certain the woman had been telling the truth about staging the fight. A whimpering crybaby like her could never have done something like that for real. She circled Ginger’s torso with three of her tails, then tugged. Ginger squealed in fright as she was wrenched away from the web she was holding and lifted up into the air. “There,” the nogitsune declared. “You’re not going to fall, see? Give me that fucking ribbon before I lose the last of my patience.” She waved her tails around a little to impress her point, and the woman wailed fearfully as she was swung around.
“Y-y-y-yes mistress!” she babbled as soon as Snowflake stopped shaking her. “Thank you, mistress! Thank-” Right in the middle of her tearful begging, the freak moved, as quick as lightning. Her own tails snapped to the side, tossing the cat girl to safety, and at the same time she grabbed Snowflake’s with both hands. The nogitsune shook her tails again, much more violently this time, but Ginger held on, refusing to be thrown off.
“Let go!” Snowflake shouted as she used her other tails to lash the woman’s body. “Let go of me, freak!” She heard a slight crunching sound, but she was too focused on the struggle to think much of it. Ginger was trying to use her own tails to defend herself from Snowflake’s strikes, but they were outnumbered six to three and… she realized that she couldn’t see Ginger’s fourth tail just before it appeared from behind the woman, whipping something small at her. With no time to dodge, Snowflake tensed, but when it struck her chest it was only a soft thump. She looked down to see what had hit her.
It was a spider. A spider. A small spider on her chest. Crawling around. A spider crawling around on her body and she could feel all eight of its legs as it scurried. A black, creepy, disgusting baby spider still covered in slime from the egg it had just been in. On her. On her body. Crawling. On her bare skin.
Snowflake screamed and tried to bat the thing away with her hands, Ginger momentarily forgotten about. She was still screaming when something else came flying at her, and this time it was aimed at her open mouth. The nogitsune felt the spider hit the back of her throat, felt all of its legs scrabbling at the insides of her cheek, and she doubled over and retched, nearly falling off the web she was standing on in the process. She stumbled to the side in a blind panic, arms up to protect her face.
A fist slammed into her unprotected solar plexus. That damn phoenix had gotten back on her feet. Snowflake tried to lash at her with her tails, but they wouldn’t obey. She risked a glance back and saw that it was thanks to the freak, who’d wrapped her own tails around them to bind them together. She turned her attention back to Ember just in time for the woman to knee her in the crotch. Stars burst behind her eyes.
Snowflake had taken worse hits before, but she let herself crumple to the ground, moaning in pain. An instant later she sprang forward, headbutting the stupid phoenix right in the stomach. It was Ember’s turn to stagger back in surprise, and Snowflake pursued the advantage. She kicked the redhead in the side with enough force to send her sailing off their web. Ginger caught the woman with her tails before she could fall, but that gave Snowflake the opening to jerk her own tails free of the freak’s hold.
Both of her opponents were next to each other now, facing her from another line. She stared them both down, her tails waving about in frustration. Her ambush might have failed, but she was far from beaten, and this wasn’t over. That disgusting little bitch Ginger had… she had… even just the memory of those spiders on her skin and in her mouth made her want to puke. “For that, I’m going to drag you back to the elevator myself, freak,” she growled. “You’ll be having fond thoughts of these spiders by the time I’m done with you tonight.”
“We don’t have to do this,” Ginger pleaded. “We can be better than this! Look, what if Ember shared some of her ribbons so you don’t get disqualified? Then you have no reason to fight us.”
“Fuck that,” said Snowflake and Ember at the same time, glaring at each other.
“I’m not giving a single point to that cunt,” Ember swore.
“You’re not going to give me anything,” Snowflake replied with a sneer. “I’m going to take what I came for, after I find out just how immortal you really are.”
Snowflake tensed, ready to leap forward and continue the fight, when she heard Emmeck’s voice in her ear. “Only one hour left, ladies,” he said, “and so far all of you are still standing! A very impressive feat, but a little boring, isn’t it? Why don’t we spice things up a bit?”
A loud, angry alarm began clanging from every direction, and even Ember winced and put her hands over her ears. “I may have told you a little white lie this morning, folks,” Emmeck continued. “Well, not a lie, really. What’s the opposite of an exaggeration? I told you all that we’d brought in one hundred of the largest spiders in the world for today’s competition, and that was one hundred percent true. Buuuuuut… I didn’t mention the other ninety nine hundred. Oops!”
A movement from below caught Snowflake’s eye, and she stared at in horror as the darkness beneath them began to twist and writhe. She had assumed, like the others, that they were too high up to see the floor, but that wasn’t true. The ground was less than thirty feet below them, and the darkness hiding it wasn’t a lightless abyss… it was spiders.
The entire floor of the arena was covered in spiders.
Many of them were massive in size, but others were smaller, ranging from tiny enough to fit in the palm of a hand to the size of a large dog. – the arena may have started with ten thousand, but some of the spiders must have already been forced to hatch their eggs. Even if only a fraction of their brood had survived without a proper incubator, there could be a hundred thousand or more here by now. The young ones wouldn’t be looking for incubators, but they’d still be hungry. “They’re normally nocturnal creatures, so most of them have spent the day sleeping,” Emmeck told everyone as the alarm faded away. “But now that we’ve sounded the dinner bell, they should all be awake, hungry, and itching to get those eggs laid. Best of luck to you, ladies! And to you too, contestants!”
A large spider appeared in the gap between the women, climbing up a freshly spat strand of webbing. Snowflake screamed and swatted its legs with her tails, sending it tumbling down, but there were more right behind it, and others emerging from every other gap in sight. There were too many to knock down and she spun in place, paralyzed by indecision and fear. No no nononononononononononononono!
“Snowflake!” shouted Ginger, and Snowflake saw that the other three had vanished. For a moment she thought she was all alone with the spiders, and the sudden rush of terror made it impossible to breathe until she saw the girl standing atop one of the adults, clutching Betty and Ember with her tails. “Come on! We have to get out of here!” Some of the other spiders had noticed the three, and one of them spat webbing at them, but Ginger jumped onto another spider’s back to avoid it, carrying her companions with her. She reached out a hand to Snowflake. “Come on!” she repeated. “While there’s still time!’
Snowflake almost obeyed without thinking, her knees bent and ready to jump, when a shiver of doubt ran through her. Why was the freak trying to help her? She had no reason to, and every reason not to. Snowflake had raped her two days ago and tried to kill her just now. No, it had to be a trick. The freak just wanted her to come closer so she could steal her ribbons and then toss her to the horde. Her lips curled up in a snarl. “Fuck you!” she hissed. As if she’d ever give anyone the chance to betray her again. She was smarter than that now.
The nogitsune called upon her fire instead, crafting an illusion to camouflage herself. She’d hide and let the spiders chase after everyone else. There would have to be a stray ribbon or two somewhere that she could pick up once things calmed down. She just had to stay hidden and she would be okay. She couldn’t see the others anymore, and good riddance. The spiders were welcome to all three of them.
Her illusion was working. Spiders crawled all around her without seeing her, completely fooled by her cloak. She could make it through this. She just had to make it back to the elevator like this. Snowflake took a small step. As long as she moved slowly and carefully…
The moment her foot came down on the webbing, all the spiders around her reacted, waving their clawed legs at her or spitting goo. No! How could they see her?! She jumped away to avoid them, keeping the illusion intact. The thought of jumping atop one of the spiders themselves like Ginger had, having her bare feet on its hide, was grotesque, and she instead jumped to an unoccupied piece of webbing. The reaction was no different from before, every nearby spider focusing her attention on her as soon as she landed. She made several more jumps, and they followed her every time. It was getting harder to dodge their attacks, and her mind worked furiously, trying to figure out what was going wrong. She was masking every sense: sight, smell, hearing, even taste! The only one she couldn’t hide was touch, and she was being very, very careful not to actually touch any of them, only the web it-
The web! Snowflake’s spirits lifted as she realized what she’d been missing. They were feeling the vibrations she was making in the web, and hunting her that way. Which meant all she had to do to escape them was get off their webs. That wouldn’t have been possible a few minutes ago, but now that the floor was clear… she jumped down into one of the gaps between strands, heading for the safety of the ground.
And jerked to a stop just a few feet above it, swinging upside down in the air. One of her tails had gotten caught on something. Snowflake looked up, and felt dread as she saw her appendage plastered to the web by spit. She tugged on it desperately, but she had no leverage and it held fast. An image of the four tailed freak flashed in her head and she gulped. If she cut her tail off with her nails, she’d be free, but could she really mutilate herself like that? A moment later, the spiders made the decision for her, showering her in spit and leaving her paralyzed.
Inside her head, the nogitsune was gibbering with terror. She was trapped. She was trapped and surrounded by spiders, huge crawly gross spiders, and they were… they were all going to… claws dug into her leg as one of them began slowly crawling down the front of her body. More claws sank into her breasts to support itself as its ovipositor swung right in her face, long and sharp and jet black. Her flesh did some crawling of its own as a second spider started descending down her back, this one pinching her ass and yanking on her hair with its claws. Its ovipositor slid menacingly across her ass cheeks.
Both spiders struck at almost the exact same time, twin spears stabbing into her throat and asshole. Snowflake gave a muffled howl as both swelled up, plugging her gullet and stretching out her ass. Two small lumps shot into her, one straight down her throat and into her stomach, the other fired deep into her guts. Eggs. They were filling her with spider eggs. She had spiders inside her spider eggs little baby spiders that were going to come out and crawl and bite and spin webs and live inside her spiders inside her spiders spiders- she thrashed in a fit of pure mindless insanity. The two spiders held on easily as she swung helplessly in the air, pumping another two eggs into her, and another two, and another two…
Snowflake could do nothing but endure the endless flood of disgusting eggs into her bowels. The ones in her stomach, though, were a different story. Her belly slowly swelled up, one golfball-sized egg at a time, then her throat, and then she was puking, expelling the contents of her stomach the instant the ovipositor that had been throatfucking her pulled back enough to allow it. The sight of the smashed eggs below her and the crushed baby spiders scattered everywhere was almost enough to make her throw up again, but it couldn’t dent her sense of satisfaction. Those ones at least, would never get to further defile her body.
Her feeling of triumph lasted until the spider finished spitting the last of its clutch into her and crawled away, only to be replaced by another. As she began choking on the newcomer’s ovipositor and feeling the steady thump-thump-thump of fresh eggs firing into her stomach, she realized that all she’d accomplished was to prolong her torture. She could puke their eggs out all day and there would still be thousands of spiders eager to shoot more down her throat. Two spiders had finished packing her bowels and a third was just getting started by the time her belly and throat were once again swollen and aching with spider eggs. This time she didn’t make herself vomit… but she did it anyway, her body’s reaction to her hellish situation completely involuntary. She stared down at the broken eggs, and as yet another ovipositor brushed past her lips to start all over again, her tears began to drip down.
An hour later, Snowflake’s guts were bursting with eggs from a dozen different mothers, and she was desperately trying to keep her lips sealed around throatfucker number nine as its eggs slapped against her cheeks and tongue. Her throat burned after throwing up so many times, but she was finally doing it She was holding her nausea at bay, and she was almost… her mask crumbled away and her body went numb, allowing gravity to send a flood of eggs pouring out from her slack lips. “Time’s up, folks!” Emmeck announced. “And we’re down to our finalists…”
It took another half hour before one of the spiders spat on her ass, sealing more than a thousand eggs from nineteen different clutches inside her. The tail she hung from ached from all the weight it was being forced to support, and Snowflake had begun hoping a long time ago that it would just rip right off. But she wasn’t that lucky, not even when the next spider to crawl down her back began stuffing her womb, which made her puke again all on its own.
It took another hour after that before she managed to keep her mouth shut tight the entire time and not throw up. Snowflake sobbed with relief and shame when the twenty third spider to fuck her throat spat its hot goo over her lips to seal its eggs inside of her. She’d done it. She’d finally done it. Every possible space in her body was full of warm, throbbing, slimy spider eggs, each and every one a living nightmare.
The bloated egg sac that had once been a nogitsune dangled in the air, spinning slowly in place, waiting for her babes to hatch.
“We’re not going back for her,” Samantha announced shortly after Snowflake vanished from their sight.
“I didn’t say we should,” Seo-yun replied, ducking beneath a blast of web spit and then jumping to another spider, keeping her two friends in tow with her tails. She had to do so much dodging back and forth that it was difficult to make forward progress, but they were moving roughly in the direction of the elevator. They couldn’t afford to hunt Crikey, not like this. Their safety had to come first.
“You didn’t have to say anything,” Samantha countered. “You’ve got that-” One of the spiders next to them reared up, looking to sweep them off of their current mount with its waving legs, and Seo-yun swung the woman towards it. Samantha blocked its clumsy sweeps with her flaming hands, careful not to let the claws graze her. The creature stumbled back, away from the fire, and ended up on its back, legs flailing. “You’ve got that look on your face,” she finished.
“You can’t even see my face,” Seo-yun protested. “And what kind of look?”
“One o’clock, meow,” Betty said quickly. “Then ten o’clock, meow.” With the spiders scurrying in every direction, and one or more trying to kill them or worse at any given moment, Seo-yun and Samantha had no time to figure out which way to go next. The cat girl’s careful directions were the only reason they weren’t hopelessly lost.
“That ‘no man left behind’ look,” Samantha told Seo-yun. “It’s a nice sentiment, Yip Yip, but you can’t carry the whole world on your shoulders. You made the offer, and she didn’t want our help. Leave it at that.”
“You know, I am getting really sick of that nickname,” Seo-yun said, fighting to maintain balance as their latest spider careened down a hill. “My name is Seo-yun.”
“And mine is Ember,” Samantha snapped. “You start calling me by my real name, and I’ll consider using yours.”
“Three o’clock, twelve o’clock, two o’clock, meow,” Betty said.
“Drop the macho badass phoenix act,” said Seo-yun. “I’ve saved your life twice now. Haven’t I earned a little respect? I just want you to treat me like a real person for once.”
“Twice?” repeated Samantha scornfully. “How the hell do you get ‘twice’?” She scraped a glob of flaming oil out of her hair and flung it towards a nearby pack, making them all scatter as the webbing around them began to burn.
“I saved you from the pirates yesterday, and just now from Snowflake.”
“Ten o’clock, nine o’clock, twelve’ o’clock, meow.”
“You didn’t save me from any damn pirates! I was doing just fine before you showed up! I didn’t need your help with the fox just now either! I was just trying to do you a favor and not make you feel useless! And I’ve saved your life three times!”
“Two o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, meow.”
Samantha began counting them off. “Killing the dog that was after you in round one, rescuing you from the fire in the fortress yesterday, rescuing you from the spiders today. Three times!”
“You’re the one who set that fire! To kill me! Not going through with it doesn’t count as saving my life!”
“The hell it doesn’t! You think it was easy dragging your unconscious carcass around until I found a boat?!”
“Unconscious because you tried to gut me!” Seo-yun slid down the back of one of the spiders and used the momentum to launch herself forward across a massive gap in the web, landing on the back of the next spider. “Which was at least the second or third time you tried to murder me yesterday!” They were making their way up a steep hill now, and Seo-yun realized with no small relief that she recognized it. Once they reached the top, the elevator column should be visible.
“Fine!” Samantha snarled. “We’ll say I saved you twice and you saved me twice! So we’re even!”
“Fine!” shouted Seo-yun. She paused. “…What does that even mean?!”
“It means you two should get a room, meow,” Betty said calmly. “One o’clock, eleven o’clock, two o’clock, meow.”
To Seo-yun’s astonishment, Samantha’s face turned bright red beneath her mask. “I-I don’t…” she sputtered. “Shut up!”
“Cooeeee!” cried a voice from up ahead, and Seo-yun saw Crikey standing at the crest of the hill with her hands cupped to carry her voice. Like them, she was riding atop a spider, but it seemed far more docile than theirs, like a true ride animal instead of a wild beast unable to throw her off. “Nice to see y’all getting along!” she shouted. “You do some good bonding out there?”
“Give me the ribbons back, Crikey!” Seo-yun called out, picking up the pace.
“What, you mean these ribbons?” Crikey shouted, waving her arm. “Sorry, you must be mistaken there, Ginger! I found these just sitting on the ground out there, stuck to an egg sac! You know, just like the one your fox friend is becoming right now because you abandoned her!”
“How does she even know about Snowflake?” Seo-yun wondered, quietly enough that the koala wouldn’t hear.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Samantha said, just as quietly. “I’ll hold her down and kick her teeth down her throat, and while I’m doing that you can ask her whatever you like. Sound good?”
Seo-yun thought about how she’d felt when she thought Crikey had come back to save her, and how callously the woman had left her to die. “Yes,” she said. “It sounds good.”
“It’s not polite to whisper!” Crikey shouted. “In fact, you girls seem to be having all kinds of rude and misplaced ideas about your roles in this competition, and your status compared to mine. I think you could use a little time out!” She patted the spider she was riding, and it obediently lowered its head. To Seo-yun’s dismay, it started chewing through the web connecting the slope to the top of the hill, severing strand after strand. The entire side of the slope began to sag under the weight of the spiders on it. As the webs beneath them began to collapse along with the others, Seo-yun dashed forward and made a mad leap for the top of the hill.
And missed. Crikey smiled and waved as the fox’s grasping hands came up short and all three women plummeted down, beneath the webs.
The fall was long enough to smart when she landed, but not enough to seriously injure her. Seo-yun groaned and picked herself up, checking that that the other two were okay. Betty looked a little dazed, but Samantha just looked angry. Seo-yun glanced around. They were at the very bottom of the arena, where the floor was flat, gray cement without any decoration. It looked so dull and manmade that Seo-yun guessed the contestants weren’t expected to make it down here. Or if they did, they weren’t supposed to ever get back up.
The sections of webbing that had fallen had mostly broken apart from the impact. The intact webs she could see were all at least forty or fifty feet above them, which was well beyond even her enhanced ability to jump. For the time being, they were stuck down here.
“Boy, that looked like fun!” Crikey remarked from up above. “You wanna go find another hill and do that again?”
Samantha growled at her, but Seo-yun could see that they had bigger problems to worry about. Some of the spiders had fallen down with them, and many of them were now in a frenzy, blindly attacking everything around them. None of them were specifically targeting the women, unable to sense their movement without their webbing, but that wouldn’t keep them safe forever. “Come on, we need to get out of here!” Seo-yun told her. Betty had already picked herself up and was holding tight to two of her tails.
“Not before I teach that cunt a lesson,” said Samantha, cracking her knuckles. “Bitch tried to kill you.”
“Who, me?” Crikey called down, mock offended. “Perish the thought, Emm! I just wanted sweet little Ginger to get a taste of motherhood. The fox is right though, you really shouldn’t stick around here for long. Even I’ve got places I’d rather be.” She put two fingers to her mouth and whistled.
For a few seconds, nothing happened, and then a dark shape streaked down from above. Seo-yun caught a a glimpse of dark raven wings and a long, four legged body, and then it was soaring back up, with the koala hanging onto one of its nine tails. “Be seeing you back home, girls!” Crikey shouted as she quickly drew away from them. “Those of you who aren’t making new arachnid friends, anyway!”
Seo-yun stared at the flying creature. The wings reminded her of Vorona’s, but… what was that thing? She couldn’t stay focused on the mystery for long. There were too many dangers all around that demanded her attention, and her strength was beginning to flag. A few minutes ago, Samantha and Betty had felt as light as feathers, but now they were more like leaden weights on her tails. If they didn’t reach safety soon, they never would. She forced herself to power through, scaling the nearest angry spider before they were trampled.
Once they’d maneuvered their way through the initial mob, the bottom of the arena was relatively quiet, thanks to almost all of the spiders that had left to go hunting above. It was far from empty, and there were more spiders dangling silently up above, waiting for the chance to drop down on them if they grew careless, but it wasn’t the madhouse they’d experienced before, and Seo-yun was able to catch her breath a little while the other two walked on their own.
“Stop!” Samantha hissed, and pointed. “Is that…?”
In any other setting, the square air vent on the ground would have been unremarkable. But here, it made Seo-yun’s heart race. “It… it must be connected to the surface, right?” she asked as they approached it cautiously.
“If it’s a real vent,” Samantha said. “But we’ve been walking around in these places for four days now, and this is the first one I’ve seen like this. All the others have been up on the ceiling, and too small for anyone to go through. It could just as easily be a trap for anyone trying to run, or a half-finished dead end that they stopped working on.”
Betty shook her head. “No, I think it is genuine, meow. They must have put in extra vents because of the spiders, meow. They’ve been spinning their webs everywhere, including the ceiling, and the Paradisium didn’t want to risk us suffocating in here, meow.” Something that was almost a smile crossed her masked face. “Why kill any of us by accident when they can make it a spectacle instead, meow.”
Seo-yun found herself agreeing with the woman. It looked genuine, and when she placed a hand over it, she could faintly detect the air current flowing out. Her hand trembled as she touched the vent directly, her fingers poking through the bars.
She flinched when Emmeck’s voice suddenly boomed in her ear, harsher than ever after its brief absence. From the corner of her eye, she saw similar reactions from the other two. “Sorry to interrupt your fun, girls, but I thought I’d remind you that those lovely masks you’re wearing are for use inside the arena only. If any of you should happen to wander out of bounds, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. It would be a shame to see any of our promising contestants get eliminated for something so foolish.”
Seo-yun reluctantly heeded the warning and withdrew her hand. Of course it couldn’t be that easy. And as Emmeck had just reminded them, they were being watched every minute. Even if they could get in the vents without their masks killing them, there would be people waiting for them at every exit. “Come on,” she said as she stood and brushed her hands, not even wanting to look at the false hope anymore. “We need to get moving.”
The rest of their journey was uneventful until they reached the elevator shaft. More than a hundred feet in diameter, the pillar went all the way from the floor to the ceiling, and was made from smooth, polished stone. It was also covered in spiders. Several hundred lined the pillar on all sides, patiently waiting for prey. About sixty feet up were the closed elevator doors, outlined in an unfamiliar growing green light. Whatever it was, the spiders didn’t seem to like it, because it was the only portion of the structure that they stayed clear of. Seo-yun supposed the game organizers had been in no hurry to find out if any spiders could manage to crawl up the inside of the elevator shaft and make their way into the Paradisium itself.
The sight of the horde filled the fox with despair. Safety was so close, but getting through all those monsters unscathed would be a nearly impossible feat, especially as exhausted as she was by now. She shoved the negative emotion away. She’d have plenty time to feel bad when she found herself back in a spider cocoon. Until then, she wasn’t going to give up. “Just have to… make it up there…” she wheezed. “I’ll… carry you…” She’d be the first to call it a bad plan, but it looked like the best one they had.
“You couldn’t carry a tune without help right now,” said Samantha crossly. “We’ll find another way up.” She squinted at the webs above them. “There has to be something somewhere we can climb, or a low hanging web we can reach.”
“No… time…” panted Seo-yun. Emmeck had cheerfully announced the ten minute mark already. There couldn’t be more than six or seven left in the round, and she’d need most of that just to climb, spiders or no. “It’s this or… nothing…”
“Yes and no, meow,” said Betty. . “Here, meow.” She offered Seo-yun a brightly colored bundle. The fox took it, realizing as she did that it was all of the girl’s ribbons.
“What…?” she asked, shaking her head and trying to hand the ribbons back. “No, you can’t…”
“We don’t have enough, meow,” said the cat girl, firmly refusing to take back her gift. “Not for all three of us, meow. Even if we reach the top, one of us will be eliminated for being in last place, meow. I decided earlier today that if this should happen, better that it be me than you, meow.”
“But I can survive down here!” Seo-yun protested. It was probably true. “I should be the one to get knocked out, not you!”
Betty gave her a small smile. “Your offer is appreciated, but rejected, meow. I will not allow a servant to suffer such a fate in my place, meow.” She stepped forward. “Even I am not that far gone yet, meow,” she finished quietly. Seo-yun reached a hand out to stop her, but the girl was already sprinting away, racing directly towards the pillar.
She came to a dead stop about twenty feet from the elevator shaft. The army of spiders loomed ahead of her, all of them twice her size and ten times her weight. Thousands of eyes focused on her, and the creatures began to move and shift, slowly descending down the pillar to claim their prize. The cat girl bowed solemnly towards them.
Then she lifted her head and began to sing.
For years afterward, Seo-yun would try to replicate the song that she’d heard that day, but even though it was indelibly stamped into her head, no voice or instrument could come close to evoking the same feelings. The notes would all match, but there was no weight behind them, none of that raw power that touched her very soul. Even the most faithful recreation was little more than the lifeless corpse of the living, breathing music she was hearing right now. The soft melody filled the stagnant air of the arena like warm rainwater washing away mud, bringing such a sense of peace and comfort that her vision blurred with tears. There were words to the music, and while the language was like nothing the fox had ever heard, she had no trouble understanding their meaning. Love. Safety. Home. Family. The golden sound made her heart ache with longing even as it brought a smile to her lips.
Betty danced slowly in time with the music, her movements graceful and serene. Her dance didn’t just accompany the melody; it was part of it in a way Seo-yun didn’t understand, sight and sound and motion coming together to form a single cohesive whole. The cat girl’s eyes were closed as she danced and sang, tears leaking from them to run down her body, but unlike Seo-yun, it wasn’t the beauty of the moment making her cry. The fox could feel the grief within her, echoed in every note and step. Betty sang of all the things she had once known, and wept for their loss.
The spider were all as still as statues, transfixed by what was happening before them. Seo-yun didn’t realize that she was doing the same until Samantha tugged on her arm. “Come on,” the woman hissed. “Don’t waste the chance she’s giving us.” Her words were quiet, but they still sounded discordant and ugly to the fox’s ears compared to the singing, and she winced to hear them. She didn’t want to move. She wanted to stay here and listen forever. But Samantha was right. Betty was doing this for them.
Tearing her eyes away was one of the most difficult things Seo-yun had ever done, and she sobbed harder as she and Samantha ascended the pillar, unable to view the performance. She was certain that she would never have the chance to witness anything so beautiful again. They passed by spider after spider on the way up, any of whom could have overpowered and overwhelmed them easily, but not a single one reacted to their presence, all of their attention focused on the dancer below. Samantha helped Seo-yun up onto the web, and she hungrily looked down to watch more, but she was too late. The cat girl came to a stop, making even the cessation of movement as poised and perfect as the rest of the performance. She bowed solemnly once more. The last note faded away.
Betty’s mask crumbled and the girl collapsed to the ground.
Seo-yun cried out as the spiders immediately swarmed over her fallen friend. “Time’s up, folks!” Emmeck announced. “And we’re down to our finalists! Crikey, the enigmatic girl who has singlehandedly defeated some of this game’s strongest contestants! Vorona, the beautiful raven whose transformation still has all of us in shock! Ginger, the little fox who has been full of surprises every round! And last but certainly not least, our reigning champion, the undefeated phoenix Ember! Tomorrow, we’ll discover at last who will become the newest winner of the Paradisium Game!”
Betty couldn’t even struggle as she was pinned by the monstrous creatures. Seo-yun watched helplessly as the poor girl was dragged this way and that, the spiders competing for access. Within moments she was bruised and beaten, and even the cat ears had been torn off her head in the beasts’ frenzy. The fox jumped when she felt a hand on her shoulder, but it was only Samantha. “We have to go,” said the redhead softly. “It’s not safe here and…” she looked down, then quickly glanced away. “There’s nothing we can do for her now.”
Seo-yun nodded. Some of the spiders had noticed the two of them again and were climbing back up the pillar to seek less crowded prey. She felt miserable and guilty, but Betty had sacrificed herself for them, and the cruelest thing Seo-yun could do right now was squander that. She gave Betty a final look, and then squinted, focusing on the woman. She could see the discarded cat ears lying some distance away, but where they had been on her head, nestled in her dark hair… was another pair of cat ears.
And then the spiders blocked her view, and she could see no more of her.