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Four days ago.
“So how exactly do we get to these water controls?” Hanabi asked. “And how will we even know how to use them? I doubt there’s gonna be a manual nearby.”
“We don’t and we won’t,” Sam said smugly. “We’re not going anywhere near those controls.”
“…Because?” Hanabi asked, after it was clear that the insufferable woman was waiting for a response.
“Because that’s someone else’s job, our friend in the Paradisium. They’re gonna be waiting for our signal so that they can get the timing right.”
“Since the alarms will go off the minute they do whatever.”
“Exactly. We’ve already got a predetermined meetup time in four days. Once we’re inside, I’ll go do that while you and the qilin make your way to the underground pens. Once everything and everyone is set and we’re ready to bust out, they hit the switch and the party starts.”
“Is this friend of yours how you know all this stuff about the place?” Hanabi said skeptically. “And about that Mackenzie woman?”
Sam nodded. “It’s how we got into the nexus from that side to begin with. And yes, I trust this person with my life. If they wanted us dead, they’ve had plenty of opportunities. I probably wouldn’t be standing here without their help.”
“Fine. Who is it?”
Some of Sam’s confidence wavered. “Well, let’s just say I might have to get pretty damn close to Karakostas in order to make contact…”
Blood dripped into Astaria’s eyes and she quickly blinked it away before it could dry and glue her eyes shut. Her father demanded her full attention at all times, even in moments like these, and closing her eyes would be taken as an insult. Even letting her gaze drift was sometimes enough to ignite his temper. So as she hung upside down by her tail, arms clasped behind her, she kept her sight fixed on Karakostas while he continued torturing her.
His instrument of choice today was needles. The dragon was an artist looking over his canvas as he eyed her and selected the next metal skewer from the tray. After a minute of consideration, he chose a spot between her chest and belly button, and slid it in with a gentleness that she once might have mistaken for mercy. He had no interest in reducing her discomfort; he just wanted to make sure the angle and depth of penetration were both exactly as he had envisioned.
Her quiet exhale of pain after he’d finished was muffled by the soft instrumental music that drifted in from discreet speakers at all corners of the dragon’s playroom. During her first few sessions she’d found the music soothing, but these days, after three years of hearing the maddeningly calm melodies as she screamed and sobbed, it made her almost physically ill.
The entire room was modeled to Karakostas’ exact preferences, and resembled an elegant suite more than a dungeon, every detail of its look and feel intended to make him comfortable while he tortured his possessions. Astaria had never seen her father more relaxed than when he was in here and hurting her. Though it was as windowless as the rest of the Paradisium, it still felt bright and spacious thanks to an array of lights meant to mimic sunlight, and had plenty of soft couches and chairs for him to recline on, usually while he was considering what to do to her next. The array of torture instruments could almost have been mistaken for one of the room’s many art installations. Each piece was polished to a shine, and designed with an elegance that tried and failed to mask the ugliness of their purpose.
On one table sat an arrangement of refreshments for Karakostas: fresh fruit, warm bread, chilled wine, a leg of lamb and other roasts all cooked exceedingly rare. Servants were not allowed to enter the room while he was inside, lest they interrupt his concentration, so instead they came by seven or eight times a day when he wasn’t around to dispose of the old food and replace it with new, so that there would always be a fresh repast ready for him. This was one of his most common times of day to visit, so the prepared spread was even fancier than usual, with a plate of freshly caught oysters as its centerpiece and several bouquets of delicate sugar flowers for decoration.
Karakostas plucked a grape from its stem and chewed it thoughtfully while he fingered the next needle. The dragon had many different ways of hurting her, but the needles were always a favorite of his. He liked to create a picture of her suffering, and they were one of the most reliable ways to do it. Bruises would fade and cuts would heal, changing his intended vision of her pain before he was finished, but a needle once placed would stay there until he was satisfied. Astaria wondered if the one in his hands now was the one that would be put through her clitoris. That one always hurt far more than the others, almost more than the rest combined, but it was also always the last needle placed, so she often found herself caught between dreading and praying for it.
Instead, he carefully inserted it through the side of her left nipple, forming a diagonal cross with the one already there. It took him two tries before he was satisfied that the two needles were perfectly perpendicular with each other. The dragon didn’t care for asymmetry, so she was unsurprised when he repeated the process with her other nipple. Once the second needle was in place, he used a third to skewer both nipples together.
More warm blood dribbled from the punctures to run down her neck, across her face, and into her eyes to be dutifully blinked away. The new needles caused spikes of sharp bright pain with every movement, but at least they were a distraction from her arms. Karakostas didn’t care for unnecessary bondage. To his eye, having to tie a toy up in a position she could hold on her own was a waste of his time, as well as a sign of laziness and disrespect. So there was nothing keeping his daughter’s arms behind her back except her own willpower. It took all her self control not to try and defend herself when he approached with a fresh needle, not to pull the ones out that were causing her constant agony, not to listen to the cramping muscles in her arms that begged her to stretch them out just a little for relief.
Her father placed another eight needles – four in the sensitive membrane of her wings, two through her pussy lips, and two more into the heels of her upturned feet – before he was ready to finish. There was nothing pleasing about the way he rubbed her clitoris with his thumb to get it ready, just rough mechanical stimulation. Taking too long to respond would incur punishment, so Astaria was forced to assist his efforts by trying to mentally excite herself, a task made even more wretched by having to stare at her father while she did it. For a long time, and to her great shame, the image that had always come to mind was of Ellie. She had raped the woman innumerable times, gotten her brutally killed, and still some part of her ached to lie with the serving woman again.
She wasn’t sure if she should be comforted or horrified that that was no longer the case… Recently, it was her touches by Tanya’s hands that she pictured in her head to excite herself. She knew that meant something was terribly wrong with her, but for months now she’d equated the girl’s touch with pleasure. In her head, she imagined that it was Tanya’s soft and eager fingers playing with her instead of her father, pictured the way her mistress would often laugh in delight at seeing her body respond to her. More often than not, she would lean in for a taste after that, nuzzling her head against Astaria’s thighs before softly lapping at the growing wetness between her…
The hot bolt of pain that went through her when Karakostas drove the needle into her sensitive flesh felt like a fitting penance for her obscene daydream. She cried out, but not too loudly, always mindful of her collar, as the agony of her pierced clit thrummed like a second heartbeat. The dragon stepped back, and his eyes swept over her as he admired his work. “Yes, I think I’m rather fond of this one,” he said, and sat down at the table to eat without looking away from her.
Astaria carefully breathed in and out as she braced herself for the pain that awaited her. Though he had finished placing the needles, Karakostas enjoyed taking the time to bask in his art. She could expect to hang here for at least the next twenty minutes while he relaxed and watched. Then he would usually rape her at least once, spurting his cum on her at the end like he was signing his work. Once she had fully sated both his creativity and his cock, he would at last exit, leaving her the task of removing the several dozen needles, cleaning them, and putting them away. Just another evening in her life.
Except that unlike most evenings, this time she had somewhere to be.
A large grandfather clock sat alongside one of the walls, and she found herself glancing over at it again and again before forcing her eyes back to her father. The escape attempt was tonight. If everything was on schedule, they would reach the barn and make contact with the qilin in a matter of minutes. If they were early, they might already be here, in the Paradisium’s central building. She needed to get out of here and she needed to do it now, but Karakostas might be with her for hours yet. There was only one thing she could do, though it made her skin crawl: trust in Tanya.
The knock was so quiet that it was barely imperceptible, but the dragon’s face darkened with rage. He rose to his feet and smoothed his features, but the desire for violence still rolled off of him like a wave as he stalked towards the door.
When it first opened, Astaria saw no one behind it, but a moment later she caught a glimpse of movement and realized that the visitor was prostrate, their forehead pressed to the ground in a show of submission. “I humbly apologize for the interruption, my lord,” said the dragon’s assistant, Batu. “You requested that you be informed the moment Levi Petrov woke, no matter the circumstances. I will happily accept any punishment for my rudeness.”
“Ahh, yes,” said Karakostas, sounding mollified. “So I did.” Batu was one of very few people that he wouldn’t have killed out of hand without waiting to hear the reason for their presence. Astaria couldn’t say that he was fond of the man, because she didn’t think her father was truly fond of anyone but himself, but if she was her father’s toilet and cum dump, Batu was the dog that Karakostas had raised from a pup. “Well, I suppose I must pay the boy a visit, but I believe that for once, the Petrov family can wait on me, instead of the other way around. Come on in.”
The portly man struggled to his feet, bowed his head, and joined the dragon in his sanctuary. It wasn’t Batu’s first visit here; Karakostas was occasionally in the mood for an audience, or desired a second pair of hands. Her father seemed to have the latter in mind as he selected one of his tools and handed it to the man. “Your arrival might be quite fortuitous, actually. I was intending to soften her up a bit more before moving on to the main course, but now we can do both at the same time.” He approached Astaria and grabbed her hair with both hands to pull her head forward, rubbing her face against his stiff cock. “Whenever you’re ready.”
The green haired woman knew that she should be happy with this turn of events, which she was certain could be traced back to Tanya. But she recognized what Batu was holding, and so she couldn’t help letting out a small whimper at the knowledge of her fate.
Batu grinned and touched the cattle prod to one of the needles embedded in her feet.
Astaria’s entire body went into violent convulsions as the electricity coursed through her, setting off a chain of smaller but still terrible pains as every one of the thirty four needles in her body was jarred. She twisted and bucked in pure agony and tried frantically not to let it disrupt her breathing, but that was quickly removed as a concern when her father began to stuff his cock into her open mouth and up her throat. She choked helplessly on his thick shaft as her body twitched involuntarily.
Batu touched one of the needles in her stomach next, setting off a similar explosion. As she screamed around her father’s cock, Karakostas continued stuffing the rest of it past her open lips, seeming utterly unfazed by the electricity that had to be jumping to him as well. Two horrible realizations came to her after that. First, that he had stopped moving, and expected her to ignore the pain and do all the work of fucking her throat on him. Second, that she had already unconsciously begun to do exactly that, her lips scrubbing his scaly shaft while she pumped her head back and forth, letting the tight entrance to her throat massage his cockhead as it popped in and out. After three years of constant physical and sexual abuse, he’d trained her well enough that her first instinct was to see to his pleasure.
More blood pooled in her eye sockets, mixed with drool now and sticky precum. Astaria’s eyes burned as she forced them to stay open. She could close them when she was done, she reminded herself. She could rest her arms when she was done. She could breathe when she was done. Making her father cum was the only way she could find relief. That was what mattered now. Not her skewered, electrocuted, pain wracked body. Not her empty lungs. Not her misery. Only her father’s happiness.
Astaria gagged and retched as she forced herself to swallow Karakostas’s cock even deeper. Batu was tapping the needles in her chest now, each contact creating an explosion of agony inside her. Her father was lightly humming along with the background music, one finger curled around the needle connecting her breasts. His grip meant that her wild, involuntary flailing was also tugging and stretching at her nipples until she felt certain that they would tear right off the next time she was shocked, but the squat man did it again, and again, and again.
Karakostas suddenly pulled her closer without warning, sheathing his entire prick down her gasping throat. Reading his master’s intention, Batu touched the cattle prod to the only needle he hadn’t gone to yet: the one through her clitoris. Pure white torment that eclipsed all her other pains blossomed inside of her, and Astaria screamed while her father’s semen shot up her throat.
It took a long time before the pain faded enough for conscious thought to resume. The green haired woman came back to find herself already running her tongue over Karakostas’s cockhead, replacing his plastered semen with her spit. Batu had already cleaned off the cattle prod and put it back in its proper place before the dragon allowed his cock to slip from his daughter’s lips. He dried himself off on her face, scrubbing his wet member against her cheeks, and then stepped back to admire his work a final time. “Beautiful,” he said. Astaria knew he wasn’t talking about her, not directly. It was her pain and objectification that he found aesthetically pleasing.
Both men were long gone by the time Astaria had extracted and licked clean the final needle. In some respects, being left alone with what remained of the food was greater torture than what Karakostas had been doing to her. Tanya kept her well fed these days, but right now she was tired and hungry and it all smelled so wonderful. Her body yearned to give in just this once and eat without permission, but her spirit resisted. Even if her father would never know that she had done it, she would always know it herself. If she didn’t have her honor, she had nothing at all.
Besides, she reminded herself, she didn’t have time for this. She had her meeting to get to, and quickly. So Astaria cleaned up after her father as efficiently as possible, and steadfastly kept her eyes away from the abandoned meal as she crawled out of the playroom. And then nearly jumped out of her skin when a nasally voice spoke from behind her. “And where are you off to in such a hurry, Lady Astaria?”
The dragon turned to see Batu standing just outside the playroom, casually eating one of the legs of lamb as he watched her. “I… will need to prepare father’s bedroom for tonight,” she said. It wasn’t truly a lie; she did need to do that. It just had nothing to do with where she was going right now.
The assistant’s sly smirk told her that he hadn’t missed the deception. “Lord Karakostas is more knowledgeable than he looks,” he said flatly. “And you aren’t as good at keeping secrets as you believe.”
Astaria’s heart leapt into her throat. Did he know what was happening today? If he did, then so did her father. The two were practically joined at the hip. But… if Karakostas knew, she’d be dead right now, or worse. His attitude today had been relaxed and confident, nothing like it would be if he knew she intended to betray him. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said truthfully, trying to sound less nervous than she felt.
“Eirene has already told him all about you and Lady Petrov,” Batu said, “and your many ‘duties’ as her assistant..” He smirk widened. “He knows that she fucks you nearly as often as he does these days, and that you cum even more than she does, slut.”
The shame of it cut into her like a knife. “I-”
“He’s amused by it,” the squat man interrupted. “If Lady Petrov were a man, and capable of usurping the womb that is rightfully his, I expect he’d have a harsher reaction. But she isn’t, and he has nothing to fear from your collusion. How did he put it… the master’s exact words escape me, but the sentiment was that trying to use his daughter to spy on him would be equally effective as trying to divine his thoughts by reading his bowel movements. I did not think he had any respect left to lose when it came to Lady Petrov, but she’s managed to disappoint him even more than he thought possible.”
Astaria forced herself to breathe normally and show no reaction to his words. In a twisted way, all her training with the shock collar had helped give her a much better poker face. He didn’t know, and neither did her father. They just thought she was spying on him. “Tanya threatened to have me killed if I did not help her,” she said. Technically, the woman had threatened to provoke Karakostas into killing her, but that was close enough. “You are right, I have yet to tell her anything that she did not already know. But I cannot refuse her requests.”
“Nor should you,” Batu told her. “Lord Karakostas has no objection to your dalliance with Lady Petrov… but…” His beady eyes narrowed. “His patience with her grows thinner by the day. And if you should be around her when… she faces consequences for her behavior… you may not be able to avoid being caught in the storm.”
The dragon recalled the assassination attempt that Karakostas had indirectly sent at Tanya. Her father’s assistant wasn’t wrong; if not for Nami’s intervention and Tanya’s powers, she was certain Vanessa would have killed all three of them without hesitation. She doubted future assassins would be any more selective. “So you’re here to tell me to stay away from her,” Astaria said slowly. “For my own good.”
“For the next few days,” Batu confirmed. “After that, the conflict between Lady Petrov and our Lord will have been resolved, in one manner or another.”
The man had no idea how right he was, Astaria reflected. She bowed her head. “Thank you for your wise words,” she said. “I will do my best to keep them in mind.” And then, before he could say something further, or ask her again about where she was going, the dragon hurried away on all fours.
To meet Tanya.
Astaria didn’t expect Tanya to take her warning seriously, but the winged girl outright laughed when she heard about the conversation with Karakostas’s assistant. “Oh, that poor sap,” she said, and giggled again. “He’s got it real bad for you, doesn’t he? You should take him out to dinner or something if you both survive today, let him down easy.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Astaria said, mystified, and then moaned slightly before she could help herself.
“Mmm hmm, I’m sure you don’t, Delphy,” Tanya said. “I’ve been hoping a little bit of savvy might rub off on you by now, but it looks like you’re as hopeless as he is. Maybe you should actually give him a shot. Ready for another?”
“Y-you said we were in a hurry!” Astaria protested.
“You were in a hurry,” the dark haired girl corrected. “I needed you to get here ASAP so that we had plenty of time to play… like… this…” She drew out another unwilling moan from Astaria.
The two women were spooning on the couch in Tanya’s residence. The dragon’s wrists were bound together in front of her, and her legs were spread wide, one ankle tied to a couch leg, the other hanging over the back of the furniture. Tanya had her arms wrapped around the green haired woman from behind. Her left hand was gently tweaking and rubbing Astaria’s nipples, while her right skillfully teased her pussy. She was wearing her usual strap-on, the thick phallus wedged between their two bodies.
“Time to go up, up, up,” Tanya teased, and the fingers that she had inside of Astaria began to probe deeper and more insistently, her thumb making lazy circles around her clitoris. The dragon squirmed in response, trying not to have a reaction, but the girl was just too good at what she was doing, and her pussy too conditioned to respond any other way. “Mmm, I see a path that really gets you hot and bothered,” she said, and playfully licked the side of Astaria’s neck. “Let’s head that way.” The movement of her fingers changed subtly, and the dragon began to pant helplessly.
“Wh-what do you mean?” Astaria gasped, as much to distract herself as anything else. “About… having it bad?”
“You tell me, Delphy. Why do you think ol’ Batty warned you to stay away from me?” Tanya switched hands, sliding her left down to cup Astaria’s slit while she stuck the wet fingers of her right into the dragon’s mouth. Astaria obediently sucked her juices off of Tanya’s digits, while those on the girl’s other hand gently worked their way into her. Once Tanya was satisfied that her fingers were clean, she popped them out of the woman’s mouth so that she could run her fingernails lightly over Astaria’s flank and make her shiver.
“Be-because…” Because my father told him to, she started to say, but Astaria realized how wrong that statement was before it even came out of her mouth. Karakostas might act diplomatically when it came to other people, but not her. If he wanted her to do something, he wouldn’t have Batu try to talk her into it, he’d just tell her plainly and expect to be obeyed. “He w-was worried?”
“Exactly!” Tanya said happily. “He was worried about his precious Delphy getting hurt. He’s probably been secretly crushing on you since he hit puberty. Oh, here it comes…” Her fingers began to pump the dragon faster, rubbing her insides at just the right angle to make Astaria’s legs feel like jelly. “Yeah, that feels good, doesn’t it, Delphy? I love the way your twat kisses my fingers these days. It took some time to warm up to me, but it’s a hopeless romantic by now. When was the last time someone other than me made you cum? Did one of those big monster leviathans back in the Paradisium Game manage it? Yeah, I bet they did. I bet you were a good tentacle slut for them.”
“P-please,” Astaria mewled. Once, she would’ve been begging Tanya to stop what she was doing. Once, she would have rather been tortured with needles than be teased and played with like this. But that was a long time ago, and both women knew that her whimpering pleas weren’t asking Tanya to stop. They were asking her to keep playing this game forever.
Tanya half rose so that her mouth could reach Astaria’s breasts. She lapped at her already stiff nipples while her fingers continued to expertly stroke the dragon. Astaria’s entire body quivered when Tanya gently nipped at her left nipple. “Five…” the girl sang. “Four… three…”
“Please…” Astaria begged again. She was humping Tanya’s fingers now, her shame doing nothing to stop her. She was so close to finishing, just a little further. That was the worst part of this game: not knowing whether Tanya would let her or not. Whenever they played like this, she was just as likely to keep Astaria on the edge for hours as she was to make her cum over and over until her brains felt like mush.
“Two… one…” Tanya’s fingers abruptly pulled out of Astaria, leaving the woman’s pussy clenching around nothing at all. Her legs twisted in their bonds as her body tried to crest the hill and take that last little step it needed to orgasm. It failed. Astaria shuddered with frustration as her arousal began fading with the lack of stimulation. “Mmm, that was shaping up to be a good one,” the white winged girl purred happily. “I bet you would have really-” Her fingers jabbed back into Astaria while her mouth attacked her nipples, hungry and insistent and catching the dragon completely by surprise.
Caught off guard, Astaria shivered helplessly as she orgasmed hard, her entire head bursting with wonderful white noise.”See, that was a good one,” Tanya teased, and then giggled. “It’s our last day together, and you think I’m not gonna give my favorite subby some farewell treats? Ready to go again?” Her wet fingers were already sliding back into the dragon to resume playing with her.
“The others will… will be on the move soon…” Astaria said halfheartedly. “Th… they… ohh…” Tanya had adjusted her strap on so that the head rested against her anal ring, and when she pushed, the fake cock glided into her easily. The dark haired girl’s hips gently swayed, sliding the strap-on in and out of her.
“Don’t you worry about them, my cute little dragon slut,” Tanya told her as she pumped her asshole. “They had a small mishap, but they’re still operating on schedule, and they’ve got Judy with them now. And they still have no idea that we know about them.” She giggled. “They’re going to do their plan, and we’re going to do ours, and then we’ll sit back and watch the fireworks. It’s gonna be a great day. So relax!” She pinched one of Astaria’s nipples without warning, making the dragon jump and tense. “But not too relaxed. This butt of yours hasn’t even welcomed me in yet. Where are your manners, Delphy?”
Astaria reluctantly clenched her ass around Tanya’s strap on. It wasn’t painful, not after being regularly reamed out by her father’s massive cock, but it was always humiliating. The girl’s exaggerated moan in response didn’t help.
“There’s a good girl,” Tanya said, and snuggled closer to her. “God, Kitkat has no idea what he missed out on. You were so sweet and easy to train with a little attention.” Astaria’s face heated at the knowledge that she was right. One way or another, this was going to be the last time she had to do this, she reminded herself, and wished the idea wasn’t so laden with regret. The fact was, her life as Karakostas’s honored daughter had still been so myopic and isolated that the times she’d spent with Tanya easily numbered among the best she’d ever known, even outside the sex. Astaria had received little in the way of friendship back when she’d been free, and even less of love. Tanya offered both so freely, making no secret of how much she enjoyed the dragon’s presence. Whether her attitude was real or feigned ultimately made no difference; the dragon had been craving both all her life.
“Aww, my dear pet still wants it so badly right now,” Tanya teased. “Your needy pussy is gushing all over this couch. I might have to make you lick it clean once we’re done. You like the sound of that?”
Her only options were to humiliate herself or to lie, so Astaria remained silent. Tanya’s giggle told her that the girl knew exactly what was going though her head. “We’ve got time for one last ride,” the dark haired girl said, her fingers already speeding up. “How should we end this, hmm? Should I reward my subby dragon by letting her cum with my fingers in her soaked cunt and a firm cock up her ass? Or should I leave you horny and frustrated so you have something to look forward to when this is all over?”
Astaria’s pride resisted, but it was a weakened, starved thing. “Please l-let me cum…” the dragon pleaded.
“Then move that ass, Delphy. You don’t get to cum, if you get to cum, until I do, so show me how much you love that cock.”
Astaria obeyed, humping the strap-on and squeezing it with her rectal muscles. While she did, Tanya attacked all her most sensitive areas, making the dragon woman moan and tremble in her bondage. She hated this. It felt wonderful and she hated that it did. “M-mistress…” she managed while they coupled. “Isn’t… isn’t there any other way? We… we could talk to them… work together with them… We don’t need… to be their enemy… You… you could… you don’t have to…” She couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence, and say out loud what she’d been trying and failing to stop herself from thinking these last two months: that perhaps Tanya didn’t need to be the villain here. If she could just… just keep being the girl that Astaria had spent all this time with, then…
Tanya didn’t answer for a moment, and when she did, her still cheerful voice was full of barely disguised contempt. “Aww, is this my ‘come to Jesus’ moment, Delphy?” the girl mocked. “Guess I laid on the romance stuff a bit too thick, and now my fucktoy has gotten herself all confused. You know I don’t really care about you, right? I just wanted to get some great sex, and the best way to make you a hardworking little subby was to show the poor lonely dragon girl some love and attention. I wasn’t going to say anything, but I honestly thought even you couldn’t be this stupid. So let’s just nip this line of thinking right in the bud, okay? The thought of you going around thinking I’m the sort of person who could love a piece of pissed on, fucked out trash like you makes me genuinely queasy.”
“Y-you’re lying…” Astaria insisted. She had to be. The dragon tried to say more, but the girl’s touch suddenly grew much more intense.
“Just shut up and cum,” said Tanya. ”Like the worthless freak you are.” Her deft, graceful movements were completely at odds with her acerbic tone. “And then stop pretending I could ever see you as anything but a sex toy, before you make me puke.”
Astaria knew Tanya well enough now to recognize that the woman was just trying to hurt her. But it didn’t matter. Sincere or not, her words represented a complete and utter rejection of Astaria’s offer, and of Astaria herself. Even if Tanya really did care about her and was just putting on a show of being callous, she still valued their relationship less than her plans. The dragon felt the bitter sting of rejection even as her body responded to Tanya’s efforts and the two of them came together for what she was now certain would be the very last time.
The two women laid side by side on the couch, quivering as the last traces of pleasure faded, until all that was left was their embrace. “Then let’s just get this over with,” Astaria whispered, and felt tears dampen her cheeks.
“Aww, is that any way to treat someone who just showed you such a good time?” Tanya teased, her tone light again. “Don’t make me squeeze a lesson or two about respect into our busy schedule, Star.”
Astaria brought up her bound hands and wiped away her tears. Tanya was right, they didn’t have time for this. “’Star’?” she murmured, happy to think about something else. “I think that’s the first time you’ve come close to using my actual name.”
Tanya’s hesitation was so brief that Astaria wasn’t quite sure if she’d only imagined it. “First time for everything I guess,” the girl said cheerfully. “Come on, let’s get moving, Delphy. The Paradisium isn’t going to destroy itself, after all.”
Batu’s shoes made a steady staccato rhythm against the tiled floor as he walked briskly towards the elevator. He had perfected this pace long ago: reserved enough to not look unseemly, fast enough to tend to his master’s needs quickly. His role as Lord Karakostas’ personal assistant often forced him to balance conflicting goals like this. Advise your Lord, but never make demands. Indulge your Lord, but never forget your duties. Humor your Lord, but never presume friendship. Respect your Lord, but never expect it to be mutual. It was a razor thin line that he traversed every day.
He was acutely aware of the time, but he checked his watch anyway. Lord Karakostas was expected to be in meetings for the next one hundred and fifty seven minutes. Most of them concerned plans for the next Paradisium Game, the Lord’s greatest passion project: celebration, artistic creation, adulation, and profit, all rolled into one. The day to day operations of the Paradisium held comparatively little interest to him, and he frequently left matters entirely to Batu’s discretion.
There were three people in the elevator when it arrived. One was a naked redhead on all fours who wore a numb, empty expression. The other two were a pair of servants who bowed their heads and averted their eyes when they saw who was joining them. Batu occupied an uncomfortable position in the hierarchy, where he was important enough to be alienated from the rest of the staff, but still clearly below the divine being that was Karakostas and the kings and queens that were the Paradisium’s visitors; to treat any of them as equals would have been an insult worthy of execution.
All four passengers rode in silence until the car stopped and the two servants quickly retreated. No one entered, and it was just Batu and the naked redhead when the car began descending again.
“You’re late,” said the woman bluntly without looking up. “I’ve been riding this goddamn thing up and down for the last five minutes.”
“In general,” Batu replied, his gaze also fixed forward, “other people arrange their schedules around Lord Karakostas, not the other way around. I had a message to deliver to the Lord, and could not depart from his presence until I was dismissed. And I had a second message to deliver to Lady Astaria once he was finished with her.”
Samantha managed to express her glare quite clearly without needing to change her expression or look at him. “Did you tell her anything about us?”
The elevator reached their destination, one of several basement floors. One of the vulpan guards got on, dragging a bloodied and crying slave behind him on a leash. His cock was already in her mouth when the elevator doors closed. Batu waited patiently as the elevator began to ascend and the sound of the woman gagging and choking filled the car.
It was guaranteed that Eirene had a camera in here, and that she was watching them right now, but the woman wasn’t omniscient, and there were different degrees of attention. She watched and processed thousands of hours worth of video every day, most of them bland drudgery like people going up and down in an elevator. As long as she didn’t see anything unusual happen, like Karakostas’ personal assistant having a conversation with a random slave, she would have no reason to focus on them and notice that they weren’t getting off of the elevator.
The vulpan kept his hand on the back of the slave’s head as he exited. She went limp with submission, the lower half of her body sliding bonelessly across the floor as he walked away. “Of course not,” Batu said once they were gone. “It’s dangerous enough having Tanya Petrov here without letting her favorite pet in on what’s going on. But I have a duty to Lady Astaria, no matter her father’s opinion of her, and she needed to be warned that things will get dangerous soon.” If all went as planned, as unlikely as that sounded, Lord Karakostas would use the opportunity to place the blame for everything on the woman he hated so much. No one with any association to Tanya would survive his wrath.
“We can’t do anything about Tanya,” Samantha said. “If we don’t act because of that bitch’s fucking magic visions or whatever, we’ll never be able to do anything. Besides, she’s flaky as hell and I doubt she likes Karakostas any more than I do. Even if she knows exactly what we’re planning, she’s probably not gonna do anything but heat up some popcorn and find a good view.”
Batu wasn’t so certain about her assessment of the woman, and Samantha didn’t know yet that Tanya had already gotten herself involved, but the elevator had stopped again, and by the time the next set of passengers left, more had replaced them. The squat man waited in silence next to Samantha for their next moment of privacy, neither of them daring to express anything but professional boredom and dead eyed horror.
He wasn’t doing this for her. He had known of Ember when she was the undefeated champion of the Paradisium Game, but he had never followed matters like that particularly closely. Slaves came and went, and she hadn’t interested him any more than the others. Winning the Game four years running or forty made no difference; she would end up like everyone else someday. If he hadn’t been able to stop thinking of slaves as people and deal with them as though they were just another commodity, he would have been dismissed and killed long ago for incompetency.
He was doing this for the fox.
Batu could still see that horrific day when he closed his eyes. Karakostas had arranged for the last round of the Paradisium Game to be a surprise farewell party for Ember, and his assistant had been there with him. Batu didn’t keep to the faith as strongly as most of the other servants. He spent too much time near the dragon and knew him too well to think of him as a divine figure. But all the same, he had tried to pray to Karakostas when everything had gone wrong and they’d all found themselves trapped in the underground arena with thousands of giant spiders. He’d been certain that he was going to die there, either from one of the spiders or at the hand of a vengeful slave, and he had offered supplication to his Lord to rescue him.
But he’d known that the words were empty and false even as he uttered them, surrounded by death. He had known deep in his heart that Karakostas was a false god and that no real one would ever listen to someone like him. Whatever horrible fate awaited, Batu had done more than enough to deserve it. When one of the spiders approached him, eager to use him as food or incubator or both, he’d accepted that this was ultimately for the best.
And yet, the red fox had saved him, fighting off the spiders that had tried to take him and then directing him to safety. She had known what kind of man he was and helped him anyway. He remembered the moment when it had hit him that he wasn’t going to die after all, and he’d felt… regret. Regret that he wasn’t the sort of person who deserved to be saved. Regret that her selfless act had also been a stupid one. Letting him die would have been much smarter. She’d wasted time saving him that could have been spent rescuing much more worthy people.
After Seo-yun had escaped from the Paradisium three years ago, Batu had been tasked with coordinating Paragon and the Paradisium’s attempts to recapture her. It had been remarkably easy to locate her; both women were very resourceful, but not particularly inconspicuous. Seo-yun had enough trouble just hiding her ears and tails, let alone completely masking her identity, and Samantha’s tattoos had made her stand out nearly as much before she’d gotten them removed.
Batu hadn’t expected to have any trouble bringing the two women in, but to his surprise, his conscience hadn’t been completely deadened by his years of service. He’d ended up helping them instead, using his position to keep them one step ahead of their pursuers. Little was known of the fox’s past or supernatural abilities, so her apparent skill at evading detection raised no suspicion.
Several minutes passed before the two were properly alone again. “Were you able to get the earpieces?” Samantha asked.
Batu surreptitiously reached into his pocket for the communication devices he had pilfered. They were the same ones that the guards and servants used to communicate, but set to a separate and encrypted channel. “Yes, it took some doing, but-” He paused mid-sentence as the elevator doors opened yet again.
And then he saw exactly who it was that was waiting there. All the color in the portly man’s face drained, and suddenly there wasn’t nearly enough oxygen in the elevator car to go around.
“Ah, Batu,” Lord Karakostas said cheerfully as he joined them, seeming to take no notice of his assistant’s shock. The master of the Paradisium wasn’t an especially tall man, but his presence made the little space feel very, very cramped. “I didn’t expect to see you down here.” A look of mild puzzlement crossed his face. “Why are you down here? You told me that you’d be upstairs in the study all evening, working on the contract terms for Petrov.”
“Sir, I…” The bald man carefully smoothed out his tone as he slipped his hand out of his pocket. “I was…”
His voice was drowned out by the sharp squeal of metal as the elevator shuddered to a sudden halt. The silence that followed was deafening. “Did you lie to me about your plans?” Lord Karakostas asked, one finger still pressing the emergency stop button. His tone remained cheerful, but there was an edge to it. “Did you believe you could sneak off somewhere while I was busy?”
“Not at all, my Lord!” Batu said quickly, his mind racing to try and think of a suitable excuse. The Lord’s mood could be quite capricious, and he was known for permanently disciplining servants with no more consideration or ceremony that another man would display in throwing out a broken bowl. If Batu held any position lower than the dragon’s personal assistant, he’d likely be dead already merely on the possibility that he’d deceived his master. That Lord Karakostas was taking the time to ask for an explanation first was all the lenience he could hope to receive.
Batu’s mouth was as dry as a desert, and he found he could not speak. It was one thing to act behind Lord Karakostas’s back, but to deceive the dragon god to his face in this manner was altogether another, false deity or not. This was the man he had served all his life, the man who had ruled this place for centuries and whose every whim here was law. He could feel the weight of his Lord’s authority pressing down on him like a boulder, mercilessly crushing his spirit. Even though he knew each passing moment was making him look more guilty, Batu couldn’t force a single word past his lips.
It was only Samantha’s intervention that saved him. The red haired woman lowered her head to the ground, still on all fours, and spoke in a frantic, meek tone completely at odds with every interaction he’d ever had with her. “Please forgive my master, oh great Lord! Do not punish him for my weakness!”
Batu tensed. To Lord Karakostas, the slaves were little different from bugs when not in use: creatures to be utterly ignored as long as they remained unseen, and exterminated without hesitation if they drew attention. Depending on what the dragon’s mood was, he might crush Samantha’s skull just for daring to make noise in his presence, let alone inserting herself into the conversation.
But his Lord must have been in good spirits, because the expected violence did not arrive. “What is she talking about?” he asked instead, without so much as glancing at the prostrated woman.
“Explain yourself to our Lord!” Batu barked at her, gambling that she already had some idea of what to say.
To his relief, she did. “Oh great Lord, this morning I failed in my sacred duty of fully draining Master Batu’s balls so that he can perform his work without distraction. It was thanks to my incompetence that he became distracted during his important efforts today, and had to come find me so that I could finish the job.”
Lord Karakostas’s lips turned up in a smile, and the tension in the elevator didn’t disappear so much as it did shift, taking on a different form. “So that’s what you’ve been up to,” he said with satisfaction, as though he’d just learned a valuable secret. “I’d been wondering why your appetite seemed so shallow of late. I can’t even remember the last time I saw you enjoying yourself with a slave. But that’s because you’d found yourself a favorite, hadn’t you?”
“Yes, my Lord,” Batu admitted, sinking into the lie. It was true that he had lain with women only a handful of times since the incident, and always at public occasions where his lack of participation would have drawn suspicion. He had tried to keep to his usual habits at first, but he had found it… unfulfilling. “I was worried that you would not find her up to your exacting standards, and think less of me for being drawn to an inferior receptacle.”
“Well, let’s have a look at her then,” the dragon said. He took hold of Samantha’s hair in one hand and lifted her to her feet, then pressed her back against the wall. Unless she was a remarkable actress, her fearful trembling as he began exploring her body with his hands was entirely genuine. “Plenty of scars… which would suggest she’s either quite experienced or quite incapable. Good muscles to her, though, and not a lot of fat. She gets put to work hard and often, doesn’t she?”
“I try, sir,” Batu said, and the statement drew a laugh.
“Yes, I’m sure you do.” Samantha gurgled softly as Karakostas stuck two fingers into her mouth and down her throat. “No gag reflex,” he mused as he pumped and wriggled his digits inside of her. “That’s well and good; if a slave this old still hadn’t been weaned off such uselessness, I would despair of her performance ever amounting to much. You know…” His tone became thoughtful as he stared at the face of the Paradisium’s former champion, the woman whose death he had once arranged and celebrated. “Now that I look at her up close, she does seem rather familiar. Yes, I’m certain I’ve seen her before. Where was it…?”
“She was… a slave at the dinner function you attended in Los Angeles last year, my Lord,” Batu said quickly, his heart racing. “She caught my eye, and I made a deal with the host, using my personal savings of course, to have her boxed and shipped here.”
“Hmm, that must be it.” Karakostas didn’t sound entirely convinced, and he held Samantha’s gaze as he popped his fingers from her mouth and jabbed them into her slit instead, worming them deep into her with no regard for how dry she must be. “Tight enough I suppose, for a human.” His one hand continued twisting and churning his fingers inside Samantha while his other began to play with her breasts, intermittently flicking her nipples and scratching at her soft skin with his nails. “Yes, I see the source of our problem.”
“Yes, problem.” The dragon’s tone was a bit frosty now as he pulled his fingers from Samantha’s insides. There was a bit of blood and cunt juice on them, and he wiped them clean on her face as casually as he might have used a napkin. “As she admitted, because of her incompetence my assistant was forced to waste his time today, time that was meant to be spent seeing to my needs. I cannot have that happening, Batu.”
“I swear I will never allow such an error again,” the bald man told him, but Karakostas ignored him.
“The source of the problem,” he said, and tapped Samantha’s smooth stomach with a finger, “is right here.” He cupped one of her breasts. “And here.” He slid a hand across her inner thigh. “And here. Do you see it, Batu?”
“I don’t see anything, sir,” Batu confessed.
“Exactly,” said the dragon, as though he’d just won an argument. “No whip marks, no burns, no bruises, and the youngest scar is years old. It is no wonder that she cannot perform properly if you do not discipline her properly. Even the most obedient fucktoy needs to be reminded regularly of her lot in life, lest she begin mistaking herself for a person.” He eyed his assistant. “Even worse, her owner might do the same.”
So that was it, then. Lord Karakostas believed he had feelings for the woman. It made a sort of sense: it would explain why Batu had chosen someone who was “only” human for long term use, why he had concealed her existence from his Lord, why she had risked her life to defend him. That she was still obviously a slave here and not being treated anything like an equal would make little difference to the dragon: to see her as anything more than a living fleshlight would be damning in his master’s eyes.
Lord Karakostas intended to kill her.
There was no doubt in Batu’s mind that his Lord was capable and willing to commit murder here. It would be for the same reason that Batu’s entire family had been executed while he was still a boy, only hours after he’d been selected to grow up to be his next assistant. The dragon did not brook loyalty to anyone but himself. He likely wouldn’t even see it as cruelty. He would cut Batu’s supposed lover out of the man’s life in the same manner as a parent refusing to let their child keep a stray dog that had followed them home.
Were this any other man, Batu might have spoken up in Samantha’s defense, to plead or barter or intimidate as the situation called for it. But he was not dealing with any other man, and after a lifetime of service, he knew well how Lord Karakostas’s mind worked. Any suggestion that he cared about the woman’s wellbeing would be seen by the dragon as further proof that it was necessary to eliminate her. But if his Lord was fully certain in his assessment of their relationship, Samantha would already be dead. The fact that she still breathed meant that he had not yet committed to his decision to kill her, and there was still a chance to keep her alive.
So instead, the bald man bowed his head. “You are absolutely correct, my Lord,” he said. “I can see now that I have been far too lenient in my handling of her. If I may trouble you for a pearl of your great wisdom, do you believe it would be best if I branded her as meat, or is there anything there to be salvaged?”
The dragon considered the question as his hands continued his exploration of Sam’s body, inside and out. She let out a small terrified squeak when he penetrated her asshole, but otherwise remained meek and still, playing her role perfectly. “No,” he said finally. “There’s nothing but meat here.”
“Thank you for your guidance, my Lord,” Batu said. “Then if it pleases you, would do me the honor of accepting her as a gift for your bed tonight? I know that my Lord has been unable to properly indulge himself for some time, and I can imagine no greater act of service for one as pathetic as her.” Lord Karakostas’s predilection for meat was well known in the Paradisium; if the women he took weren’t already marked before he violated them, the few that survived were rarely good as anything else after.
For the past two years, he had used Lady Astaria exclusively, enjoying her ability to be used and reused without breaking, but Batu knew his Lord’s proclivities well enough to know that the breaking was part of the enjoyment for him. Sure enough, he saw the dragon’s eyes light up at the idea, and the movement of his hands over Samantha’s flesh grew hungrier and more possessive as he looked at her now not as a random and unimportant slave, but as his future disposable cum dump. “Yes,” he said slowly. “Yes, that would be perfect.”
The elevator began moving again, and all three of them were silent as it ascended. Only once it had stopped and the doors were open did Lord Karakostas turn to Batu, taking his hands off of Samantha with a clear reluctance. “We will find you a new toy tomorrow. Something less… defective. I will look forward to seeing you how handle her.” The warning in his words was unmistakable.
And then he was gone and the elevator doors closed behind him. Batu let out an explosive breath that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “I thought… he was going to kill you,” he panted.
“Yeah, and his breath was fucking garbage,” Sam said as she sunk back down onto all fours, her expression holding none of the terror that had filled it seconds ago. “So do you have the earpieces or not?”
“The ear… Oh yes, of course!” Batu retrieved them from his pocket, and then adjusted his stance so that he stood with his back against the wall. He quietly let them drop from his hand one by one behind him, hiding them with his own body. “As discussed, w-we can use those to coordinate. I will head to the Paradisium Game’s control room and await the go ahead to begin draining the reservoir.” The room wouldn’t be guarded this time of year, and probably wouldn’t even have its own camera.
The electronic alarms would still be active, though, and were sure to go off the moment he touched anything. Samantha didn’t ask him how he intended to avoid being identified and captured afterward. She had been a soldier once, he knew. She understood these things. “Unless the others run into trouble, we should be ready on our end in about two hours,” she said instead. “So it’s a safe bet we’ll need at least four.”
“There’s something you need to know first,” he told her. “There’s been a problem…”
Hanabi’s heart was pounding after Sam split off to meet with Batu, but within a matter of minutes she was feeling much calmer. The stuff with Mackenzie had been a surprise, but so far the rest of the plan was going as smoothly as they could have hoped.
Assuming that Ying Yue didn’t mess it all up, of course. She nudged the qilin in the side. “Stop looking around like that,” she whispered. The woman’s head kept swiveling around, as if trying to figure out what direction they were going to be attacked from first. “We’re just a couple ordinary servants doing ordinary servant stuff. We’re bored, we’re boring, and nobody cares to look at us twice.”
It wasn’t exactly true. Their disguises were as good as Hanabi could make them, but it was much easier to make a person seem larger than they looked, not smaller, so the qilin still towered over everyone in her full seven foot height. Hanabi could see that the woman was drawing the occasional glance, but that was all for now. The Paradisium was a big place, and even if no one recalled ever seeing a servant that tall before, they had little reason to think that meant she didn’t belong.
Going through that huge entrance had been nerve wracking, disguises or not. Hanabi wasn’t certain which she’d found scarier: the men holding automatic weapons powerful enough to chew her up in seconds, or the men holding nothing at all… which meant that they must have fox marbles that would let them chew her up in seconds. The men here weren’t the lazy, disorderly goons that had ravaged Hanei. They were alert, focused, and ready to kill her in an instant. If push came to shove, she wasn’t certain if even her foxfire would be enough to hide from them, not if their senses were sharp enough.
There was no sacred flame in the Paradisium that would rescue her at the last moment. No secret door that she could flee through to hide. No familiar terrain to take advantage of or fellow villagers around to cover for her. Hanabi and others would either do this on their own, or hope to die trying.
The white haired girl had gone over the map a thousand times back in Hanei, and the place was matching her memory so far. There was only one elevator that stopped at the underground level the slave pens were on, and the entrance to it was located in the heart of the Paradisium. According to Sam, the elevator saw small but steady traffic: servants would visit at regular times to deliver meals to the slaves, and slaves that were pulled out of the pens for use would usually be ordered to return there on their own once their rapists had lost interest in them.
The problem wasn’t reaching the pens, it was finding a way to actually coordinate and organize the escape with everyone. The entrance had its own guard station, and it was a certainty that there’d be at least one camera pointed at it. Worse, nobody was allowed past the guard station without an escort. They wouldn’t be able to do anything useful down there while the guards were around, and they wouldn’t be able to easily get rid of them without alerting security.
So step one: find another way into the pens.
“What’s wrong?” Hanabi asked when she saw Ying Yue hesitate to get into the freight elevator with her. “Is there a camera in here?”
“It is only…I have been in this elevator before,” the qilin said softly. “This is what they used to bring us down back then.”
“Yeah, this is one of the few that goes far enough down, and there shouldn’t be anyone around looking to use it. Look, I understand if you’ve got bad memories of this thing, but…”
Ying Yue shook her head and entered the elevator. “It is of no consequence. Just old memories waking up.” The car rumbled and began to descend. “It will take us about ten minutes to reach the correct elevation.”
The time passed slowly in the quiet elevator. “So… how did you end up here anyway?” Hanabi asked eventually. “Sam told me you were part of one of those games, but I don’t know any of the details. If you’re okay with talking about it, I mean. It’s okay if you’re not.”
“It is a long story,” said Ying Yue, and sighed. “But I suppose we have time. There are very few of my people left. The dragon has sought to exterminate us for centuries, and it is a battle that he is slowly but surely winning.”
The qilin had a faraway look in her eyes as she spoke. “When Karakostas first conquered this place and turned it into his Paradisium, many races openly resisted him, and ours was the backbone of that resistance. We brought them together, armed them with knowledge, and when necessary stood alongside them to fight and kill the enemy with our own physical might. But one by one the other races fell. Some were driven extinct, some captured and inducted into slavery en masse, and with each defeat, more of our kind was brought down with them. Eventually the alliance shattered completely, the others choosing either to submit and give the dragon his yearly tithe of flesh, or to go into hiding and pray that no one would ever find them. The qilin stood alone.”
“Why didn’t you join the others?” Hanabi asked. “Submit or hide like they did?”
“I am certain pride played a role in my ancestors’ decision,” Ying Yue said. “But even if we had abandoned everything for the sake of survival, the dragon would not allow us such an easy path.” She tapped her forehead, and the tiny stub of a horn there. “These make us dangerous, you see. Throughout history, oppressors have always attempted to cow the oppressed by denying them knowledge. People are easier to control if they do not possess the critical thinking necessary to rebel, cannot read or write secret messages, if they do not even know that there is a world outside their chains where they might be free. But a qilin knows many things that she should not. Even the weakest and most powerless of us might learn our owners’ darkest secrets and spread them far and wide.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Hanabi said, thinking of the way the soldiers back home had punished the kitsune for any action that suggested that they were more than just fuckable animals. She shuddered.
“So the dragon would not accept tithe, and he would not let us vanish into obscurity to trouble him in the future.” Her lips curled into a small, humorless smile. “Ironically, this made qilin slaves more prized than ever. To own one despite the risks is like possessing a pet tiger, a sign of confidence and strength. There are places where they breed us for just such a purpose. The children are kept completely separate from their parents and each other, and taught nothing of who they are and what they can do. Some of the farms even go so far as to amputate the horns, but that lowers our value; no one is impressed by a toothless tiger. Most farms simply kill anyone who shows signs of being curious or determined enough to discover their powers, breeding out such undesirable traits and leaving only the docile and the ignorant for the next generation.”
Hanabi could see farms like that in her head, but they weren’t populated with qilin in her vision. She saw kitsune raised without foxfire, stripped of their skins while they were too young to even know what they were losing. All the culture and knowledge of Hanei lost, their connection to Inari lost, everything taken away until there was nothing left of the kitsune race but empty headed foxes producing skins and fucktoys for their owners. That was what Paragon had planned for her people. “Did you come from a farm like that?” asked the girl.
Ying Yue shook her head and looked uncomfortable. “No, I was raised among free qilin… but I cannot call myself one of them, either.” Hanabi got the distinct impression that the woman had hoped they’d get to where they were going before she reached this part of her story. “I grew up being told that my destiny was to fight and die in a hopeless war. I did not want to spend my life trapped in a doomed path that others had set for me.”
“You wanted to live free,” Hanabi said softly. “See the world.”
The qilin nodded. “I knew my people would not understand or accept it, so I fled. By dying my hair and hiding my horn, I was able to pass as a very tall human. For several years, I did my best to forget about where I’d come from and live a new life. And then… then I met Zhi Ruo. And she became my world.”
“Is she a qilin like you?” Hanabi asked.
“No, she is a human,” Ying Yue said. “One who knew nothing of the races that exist outside of humanity.” Her smile returned, but this time there was genuine warmth to it. “I was so terrified of rejection when I first revealed myself to her, but her reaction was of pure delight. She drank up all the knowledge I had like desert sand, eager to learn everything I could teach her. She accepted me, all of me, and for the first time in a great while, perhaps the first time in my life, I found myself proud of being what I am.” Her smile faded. “That was why I made the mistake of going back. I decided to stop running from my past. I wanted to show her the place and the people I came from… but I was too late. Karakostas had come to my home first.”
Hanabi winced. “Were there… did anyone, I mean…”
“I do not know if anyone survived,” Ying Yue said. Her voice had become flat and emotionless. “His men had buried what was left of them in a mass grave. I expect some were brought back with them, if only so they could be sold to the farms as breeding stock.”
“I’m so sorry,” Hanabi said, “but it wasn’t your fault. If you’d been there, you just would have died with everyone else.”
“I am aware,” said the qilin. “But all the same, they were dead and I was not. I was told in the past that there were other qilin out there, but I know nothing of their location, or if they had any better luck surviving where mine failed. For all I know, I am… I was the last free qilin in the world.”
“How did the Paradisium end up finding you?” Hanabi asked.
“They didn’t,” Ying Yue said grimly. “I walked into their jaws with my own two feet. I was angry, I was grieving, and I thought that perhaps subterfuge could succeed where direct opposition had failed. I came here with Zhi Ruo in the guise of slave and master. I knew a qilin slave would be scrutinized, but I believed that if anyone was reckless enough to own one, it was the sort of person who would compete in their barbaric competition. I believed that if I got close to Karakostas, the secrets I would learn could bring his empire down. Worst of all, I believed that it was only my own life that I was risking. If I’d known just how much danger my wife was in, I never would have come here.”
“What did they do to her?” the fox asked, though she was certain that she didn’t really want to hear the answer.
“Human slaves are uncommon in the Paradisium, but by no means a rarity. As I understand it, she was quickly sold to a man with a predilection for Asian women. I know nothing of his identity or whereabouts, only crumbs that my handlers used to mock and shame me.” She pulled the lever, and the car screeched to a halt. “That he enjoys causing pain. That it amuses him to breed his victims. That he kills them when they no longer entertain him.”
“I, I’m so sorry,” whispered Hanabi.
The qilin gave her a piercing look. “I do not want or deserve your apologies. Everything that has happened to my wife can be laid at my own feet. If I had stayed and died with my people, she would be safe. If I had not given into my feelings for her and introduced her to this world, she would be safe. If I had not valued the well-being of strangers over that of my own wife, she would be safe. I no longer care about bringing down the Paradisium, fox. Karakostas can rule this place for millennia as far as I’m concerned. I care only about saving my wife, and I cannot do that without assistance. That is the only reason I am here. I will do anything to rescue Zhi Ruo from the hell my own foolishness cast her into. Anything.”
The orange haired giant touched the wall with three fingers. “The floor is just beyond here. I can feel the gathered lives nearby.” She closed her eyes and frowned. “I believe I can feel the guards, but… something is wrong with them.”
“Wrong in a way that’s good for us?” Hanabi asked hopefully. At some point, they had to actually have a bit of good luck in here, right?
“That depends upon your definition,” said Ying Yue. “It is difficult to discern identity from the shape of one’s mind, but in this case they are prominently not human… they are fae.” She muttered to herself “why would the dragon have fae guarding his prisoners?”
“Well…” Hanabi said, “I could probably make a good guess…”
“Here’s what I still don’t get,” Hanabi told Sam. “I’m not saying I don’t want to rescue people. But you advertised this as a plan to bring down the Paradisium. They’ve got like a billion trillion dollars; if we steal all their slaves, that’s barely gonna faze them.”
“Oh, we’re going to do more than just rescue people,” the redhead replied confidently. She tapped the map. “Do you know what this place here is?”
“Yeah, it’s the slave pens…”
Sam shook her head. “Nope. The slave pens are only a part of it. Do you know what the entire thing is?” When Hanabi gave her a blank look, the woman grinned. “What kind of creature owns the Paradisium?”
Hanabi stared down at the underground chamber. “Wait… wait, wait, wait…” She looked back up. “You’re telling me Karakostas has an actual hoard?”
“Yup!” Sam tapped the map again. “Batu says he’s got plenty of other regular investments too, but the bulk of the dragon’s riches are down here. And we’re not just talking money. Half the reason none of these arrogant rich bastards have tried to oust him all this time is because he’s got a trove of blackmail material on everyone. Plus contracts, records of all slave trades, everything that he wants to keep safe and hidden. Once people find out that we’ve humiliated him, and that all of his leverage is gone, the Paradisium is gonna crumble like a sandcastle.”
“I see,” said Ying Yue. “Your hypothesis seems sound. Karakostas has never been known as a trusting soul. He would not have humans or other creatures that are vulnerable to temptation and bribery guarding his treasures if he could help it. Contracted fae would be far safer.”
“Well, whatever they are, we’ve just gotta sneak around them,” said Hanabi. “Do they have any, like, special senses to worry about?”
“Doubtful. Fae nobility would perhaps, depending on their peerage, but those are not the sort of individuals who would be recruited for work like this.” Ying Yue closed her eyes. “I don’t sense any cameras close enough to observe our intrusion. Are you ready to proceed?”
Hanabi nodded. “Sam thinks the elevator used to have an exit right here, and they just sealed it up when they were securing the place. Can you see it?”
Ying Yue ran her hands over the wall. “Yes, she was correct. I can feel the outline of it. With a modicum of effort…” The position her fingers stopped at looked like any other part of the wall to Hanabi, but when the qilin dug the fingers of both hands into it, they slowly sank in. She began to pull her hands apart, a vertical sliver of light appearing as the sealed doors slowly opened. That was Hanabi’s cue to start channeling foxfire, creating an illusion of a wall over the growing gap to hide it.
The hallway revealed beyond the elevator shaft wasn’t at all what she’d expected from looking at the map. Hanabi had pictured a black, wet, underground prison composed of stones, moss, and mold. But the place was… nice. Nicer than much of the upstairs had been. There was plenty of warm lighting to show off the brightly colored walls, and the thick fuzzy carpeting, and the many, many pictures that went down both sides of the hallway. Some were framed, others were just photographs taped to the wall, all of them featured happy, smiling faces. There were men and women of various races, and at a glance it looked like every picture was someone different.
The place was massive too. Just like the upstairs, the hallway here was at least twenty feet wide, and the ceiling thirty feet up. This vault hadn’t been designed for foxes or humans. It belonged to a dragon, and built so that he could comfortably walk through it even in his full draconic form.
One of the framed pictures must have been behind the hidden door, because it had fallen to the carpet. Hanabi quickly picked it up before it could be noticed and reflexively adjusted her illusory wall to look like the others, complete with its own illusory picture, before she stopped to really examine what the picture looked like. It was a young, brown haired woman who’d been beaming at the camera with a bright open mouthed smile. Her face took up most of the picture, but there was just enough visible around it to tell that the photo had been taken somewhere down here.
If Hanabi had passed a woman like this on the street, she wouldn’t have given her expression a second glance. But now, the more she looked at it, the more it felt… off. It was the eyes, she realized. The woman’s entire face was lit up by her smile, except for those eyes, which stared piercingly at the fox. Hanabi peered closer, trying to read the expression behind them, and noticed a tiny hint of red on the brunette’s forehead, almost but not completely obscured by her hair. Was that blood?
She almost jumped out of her skin when Ying Yue put a hand on her shoulder. “We should get moving,” the qilin said quietly.
Hanabi put the picture face up on the ground. After a moment, she bent down and flipped it over to hide the woman’s face. “I’m ready,” she said. She had no desire to learn the story behind these pictures, and a sinking feeling that she wouldn’t get a choice. She tried not to pay any attention to the other pictures, but now that she knew what to look for, she couldn’t help noticing that all of them bore the same kind of hollow expression that the first one had. And here and there, some of the subjects had small injuries. A black eye, a cut lip, a bruised cheek… individually they wouldn’t have signified much, but together they suggested some dark possibilities.
That reminded Hanabi that the next step was the one she was both looking forward to and dreading: making contact with the prisoners. She longed to see the others and know that they were okay, but what if they weren’t? What if Levi and the dragon had already executed the ones they didn’t want for breeding? As nerve wracking as it was not to know her people’s fate, the truth might be far worse than her ignorance.
“Where’s the nearest camera?” she asked, putting all that aside for now and stepping out into the hall after cloaking herself with foxfire.
“Turn left”, the qilin directed in a whisper. Even if the cameras couldn’t hear them, there were plenty of guards around who might. “Stop. Walk forward three steps… and two more… there. It is about a foot above your head… slightly higher… yes.”
Hanabi looked up at the empty space between her hands. No matter how hard as she focused, she couldn’t detect anything there. “You’re sure?” she asked.
“That is where I said it is,” Ying Yue said stiffly.
“Right, sorry. Here goes nothing…” Hanabi weaved a bubble of foxfire around the supposed camera. It was like cloaking sight, but in reverse: she surrounded the space with an image of the empty hall, blocking the camera from seeing anything else. It wasn’t a simple conjuring, but she only had to cover sight, and could leave it stationary. Difficult, but far from impossible. She had to remind herself that several times as she worked. After hearing her companion’s story, she was now acutely aware that a mistake here would doom her entire people to death or worse.
After she’d tied the illusion off, checked it, double checked it, considered starting all over just to be safe, and settled for triple checking it, the fox relaxed and exhaled. “Okay, it should be covered. Just don’t, y’know, walk into it or anything.”
“I can sense fourteen more,” Ying Yue told her. “We must deal with them before Samantha arrives.” The qilin hesitated. “Their placement is… odd. I can feel them in various directions, and some are above or below us. Are there multiple levels to this vault?”
“Yes and no,” Hanabi said. “Here, let me show you the map.” She dug the paper out of her pocket and unfolded it, then unfolded it again, and again. And again. “See?”
“This… is sheer insanity,” Ying Yue said, taking in the layout. It was relatively normal close to the guard station, like where they were now, but further in the hallways split up into one direction after another, curving and sloping around one another in a twisted, tangled knot of passageways.
“It’s a maze,” the white haired girl told her. “Only high level staff and the guards know the layout. According to Batu, there’s more than five miles of hallway down here. You could wander this place for hours without finding your way out, if you don’t have anything to guide you. So you’ve never been down here before, even though you’ve been a slave here for years?”
The qilin shook her head. “I was transferred to the menagerie immediately after the game concluded. I have been brought inside occasionally to be used or disciplined, but always sent back once the session was concluded, not sent down here.” She scowled at the map. “I cannot make heads or tails of any of this.”
Hanabi tapped a spot. “We should be right around here. Does that help you figure out where those cameras you’re sensing would be?”
Ying Yue studied where she’d indicated. “Yes… yes, I believe I can guide us to them.”
“Right, uh, lead the way.”
Hanabi disabled two more cameras before she heard the sound of laughter drifting down the hall. It was male and rough, and reminded her enough of Hanei to make her flinch. She and Ying Yue both pressed themselves against the walls to clear the way, but the sound grew neither closer nor farther.
“There were some smaller rooms on the map,” Hanabi recalled. “They must be in one of those.” She reminded her jangling nerves that this was a good thing. They would need to take out the guards before they were done here, and if a few of them were off on their own in a secluded spot, where they could be quietly dealt with, that made the task easier.
Her logic couldn’t stop the growing unease in her belly as they continued down the hall and saw that she’d been correct: the laughter was coming from a side door. It was closed, but there was a glass window that allowed them to see in.
When Ying Yue had said that there were fae, Hanabi had pictured tall, pointy eared people like Middle Earth elves, maybe with big fairy wings attached. The creatures in the room were nothing like that. They were small, green skinned, and very ugly, with potbellies and crooked teeth. “Goblins,” said the qilin grimly.
Hanabi wasn’t surprised to see them torturing people, but that didn’t make the sight any easier to bear. There were two women in there, and both were being raped. The first was easily the most wretched looking woman Hanabi had ever seen. Her pale skin almost couldn’t be seen under the layers of grime and dried cum that covered her entire body, and her blonde locks of hair were similarly coated in what had to be months or years of accumulated filth. She was covered in more than just dirt, though. Cuts, bruises, and burns ran from head to toe, seemingly not a single inch of her spared from assault.
Though she had to have been in incredible pain, and her emaciated limbs seemed hardly capable of the effort, she was fucking two of the goblins with manic enthusiasm. She sat atop the first, slamming her hips down on him with enough force to make her entire body shake and jiggle. Meanwhile she’d swallowed the second, taking him so deeply into her throat that none of him could be seen. Her lips formed a tight seal around his base that parted only to let her tongue slip out every few seconds and caress his nutsack. One of her hands was busy teasing the goblin’s asshole with her finger, while the other pinched her own nostrils shut. Her eyes were rolled up and her body constantly shook and convulsed as though she was having a seizure.
Hanabi recognized the second woman. She was from Hanei.
Shura knelt on all fours with her legs spread to provide the goblin raping her asshole easier access. The former guard was rocking her hips to match his thrusts, and though it lacked the wild energy of the blonde nearby, it still radiated desperation. A second goblin was having his cock sucked by her and seemed perfectly relaxed and at ease as he let her do all the work.
“What do we think, pet?” he asked in a playful tone. “Have you learned to be a good furry condom yet?” Shura’s head bobbed up and down forcefully without letting her tongue leave his shaft. “I hope so. The pet would be such a good cum dump if she wasn’t so stupid. Lucky she has new friends to teach her new tricks, yes?” Another strong nod.
“We have to rescue her,” Hanabi hissed and reached for the door, but Ying Yue slapped her hand away. She looked up at the orange haired woman in disbelief.
“One of their cameras is near the back of the room,” the qilin said quietly. Her eyes were still fixed on the scene in front of them. “If we enter now, it will see.”
“I can mask the door or some-“
“The goblins will react,” Ying Yue interrupted. “We cannot hide that.”
“We can’t just leave her!”
“I did not say we should,” Ying Yue responded coolly. “If you and I can pinpoint the camera’s exact location, you can cover it, and then we can go inside. Assuming that I can work through the constant interruptions.”
Hanabi wilted at that. She started to murmur an apology, then thought better of it and let the woman work in silence. She cast a hopeless look through the door; from this distance, even if her companion knew exactly where the camera was, Hanabi wasn’t going to share that accuracy. They might have to wait until the goblins grew satisfied and left on their own.
“Almost ready, pet,” announced the goblin in Shura’s ass. “Almost ready to gift more of the warm sloppy goo you love. Show your new friends how much you want.” Her hips began rocking faster. “Yes, that’s it. Greedy little pet wants a full helping. Can’t get enough sticky cum in her guts.”
The goblin in front casually slapped her head away from his crotch and picked up a digital camera that had been lying on the floor next to him. “You know what to do, pet. Show us what a happy furry condom you are.”
And as the one in her ass grunted and began to unload in her, Shura looked directly into the camera and twisted her expression into a pained, miserable rictus of a smile. The other goblin snapped several pictures, only stopping when his friend let out a satisfied sigh and let his soft cock slip out of her. “How did the pet do?” he asked as he used his hand to wring the last few dribbles onto her ass cheeks. Shura’s expression had already lapsed into one of exhaustion and anxiety.
The goblin with the camera tutted. “Still very, very stupid pet. Still hasn’t learned to smile.” He grinned. “So lucky she is to have us. We not give up on our sweet, fuzzy cum dump.”
“Please,” Shura begged as they walked around her to switch places. “I, I, the pet can do it! She promises!” She smiled again, the expression only slightly less awkward than before. “She loves being your f-furry condom!”
“We know, pet, we know,” one goblin soothed as her loosened anal ring easily accepted his stiff, spit slicked cock. The fox groaned as he slid deep into her. “That’s why we are happy to help out new friend as long as she needs.”
“Don’t worry, fuzzy cum rag,” said the other as he kissed her lips with the head of his limp, filthy dick. “We have had many friends even stupider than you. But all of them, each and every warm squirmy fucktoy, she learns to be happy condom. All it takes is practice, practice, practice.”
“Please sirs can I have just a little rest?” she blurted, the words tumbling out as she tried to voice them as quickly as possible. “Just a minute or two so I can be a good condom please I want to be good for you but I’m just so tired I promise I just need a minute and then I’ll be such a good fucktoy.” The last syllable was barely out of her mouth when her lips closed around the goblin’s dick so she could begin loudly slurping him clean.
“Aww, the pet needs a little rest?” said one of them with mock concern. “Can’t have a sad, sleepy pet.”
“Maybe summer pet can help,” suggested the goblin being mounted by the ragged blonde. He slapped her ass. “Go give fucktoy friend a little encouragement.” Shura’s face went pale, and she began vigorously fucking her own ass on the goblin.
“Yfff mfftuh” the woman said, and broke off what she’d been doing to crawl over to the blue haired kitsune, who was frantically trying to inch away without stopping her threesome.
“‘m shorry, ‘m shorry,” she pleaded loudly without pausing her cleaning job. “‘m nah tiyud eh ee moh, I pomish!”
The goblin in Shura’s ass patted the fox’s pussy mound. “Right here, summer pet. Help your friend out with a taste of Summer.” The blonde nodded, and light began to gather in one hand.
Hanabi’s first thought was that the light was foxfire, but she quickly realized her mistake. Foxfire always had a sort of ethereal, ghostly feel to it, like it wasn’t quite there. When you saw it, it felt more like looking at light reflected off a wall than an actual light source itself. But this light… it was small, and no brighter than a lightbulb, but it hummed with energy and solidity and made everything else seem pale and flat by comparison, as if it was the only real thing in the world. And even from the other side of the door, the fox could feel the heat emanating from it.
Shura bucked her hips as the blonde’s glowing hand descended, but she was trapped. The woman whimpered around goblin cock as the light touched her clitoris and vanished.
For a second, there was no reaction. Then the fox began to howl like she was being murdered, and wisps of smoke began coming up from her crotch. The smell of cooking meat hit Hanabi like a wave and nearly made her retch. Shura screamed and screamed as her genitals were roasted from the inside out, and all the goblins responded with raucous laughter.
The two inside of her grabbed hold, one gripping her ears and the other digging his fingers into her ass, and enjoyed the ride as their victim wailed and thrashed beneath them like a woman possessed. “And naughty little fucktoy claimed she was tired,” mocked the one using her mouth. “Such easy lies from stupid new friend!”
“Cute fuzzy cum rag, your guts are so warm for me now!” said the other happily. “Is that why you uttered such silly lies, so I could have a warm toasty buttfuck? What a sweet and kind fucktoy our newest friend is!”
From the way she continued to scream and flail, Hanabi wasn’t certain that Shura had even heard their insults, so lost she was in her private hell. The woman certainly noticed when the goblin picked the camera back up, though. Her body jerked and her cries cut off midstream, replaced by a desperately smiling face. Utter madness swirled behind the fox’s eyes as she fought to make the expression look as genuine as possible. She wasn’t even breathing, not daring to release a gasp that might spoil the shot.
The one behind her slapped her ass. “Here it comes, pet. A treat for the warm fuzzy condom!” He began to cum while the other goblin started taking pictures. Once again, the pictures stopped once he had finished spurting in her.
“Very good, pet,” said the goblin with the camera approvingly as he reviewed the pictures. Shura looked at him hopefully as she panted for air, her expression now one of meek obedience. “Very, very good… but you can do better.” Her face fell and she began to weep as the goblins switched places again, but she didn’t let despair stop her from cleaning goblin dick as soon as it approached her lips.
“There,” Ying Yue muttered, her eyes fixed on a single spot. She raised her hand towards Hanabi without looking away. “Touch.” When the fox didn’t respond, the qilin cursed softly. “Now, before I can change my mind.”
Hanabi grabbed her hand, and nearly fell as a whole new set of sensations washed over her. She was standing in two spots and she could see herself and… she felt dizzy and nauseated. “Focus,” the qilin said, and Hanabi didn’t just hear it with four ears, she felt the woman’s lips and tongue move, felt the words as they were voiced. “Feel the light. See it in front of you.”
Hanabi tried to listen to Ying Yue’s words and clear the distractions away. The woman’s eyes were focused and unwavering on a single spot. Hanabi matched her gaze. She couldn’t see anything there, but… it was like hearing music so faint that you couldn’t tell if it was only your imagination, a whisper of a sensation that she couldn’t hold on to. There was something there, and though her vision didn’t change, her certainty only grew. She could feel it, as small and insubstantial as a speck of dust, but it was there.
She wrapped an illusion of the goblins around it, a crude ten second loop of them using their victims. “It’s done,” she whispered.
The shared sensations immediately cut off, the transition nearly as jarring as before. Ying Yue opened the door and charged through it, and the goblins let out shouts of alarm that might have been trouble if Hanabi hadn’t already closed the door behind them.
The qilin was frighteningly effective as a fighter. She seized the nearest goblin by the throat, and he gurgled as something crunched. She let him drop so she could grab another with both hands and fling him like a rag doll. He hit the wall with a loud thump and left a streak of blood running down it.
Shura had curled up into a ball the moment the goblins had stopped raping her. She watched the carnage with wide eyes as she silently rocked back and forth. The unknown blonde, however, did something Hanabi would never have expected: jabbed her fingers violently into her own ears, hard enough that blood leaked out. The goblins were shouting at her to protect them, but she just remained like that, fingers in her ears and eyes squeezed shut as her body continued to quiver and shake.
The entire fight was over in less than a minute. The goblins were too surprised to offer much of a defense, and Ying Yue didn’t hesitate to end them. Soon the last goblin was wheezing out his final breath, his rib cage completely pulverized by the qilin’s foot.
Hanabi crouched by the blue haired woman. “Shura?” she asked softly. “Shura, it’s okay. You’re safe now.”
The curled up fox trembled. “They’ll be back,” she whispered, and scrunched herself up even tighter. “There’s always more. Always someone who wants to hurt us…”
“Not anymore,” the white haired girl promised. “I’m here to get you out, Shura. You and everybody else. We’re not gonna let them hurt us again.”
Shura’s eyes seemed to truly focus on her for the first time. “…Hanabi? You, how are you here? Why? I, I don’t…”
“It’s a very long story,” Hanabi told her. “I’ll tell you all about it after we escape, okay? But we have a lot to do first. Do you think you can stand?”
The fox nodded. “I, I think so.” Hanabi had to lend a hand, but she managed to rise shakily to her feet.
Ying Yue was sitting next to the blonde, who had removed her fingers from her ears. Blood ran down both sides of her head, but she seemed like she hardly noticed. Her breathing was unsteady, and her frame kept shuddering and jerking randomly even without the goblins around. “Is she going to be okay?” Hanabi asked.
“Pet can not hear you!” said the blonde loudly. “Had to break, break, ear drums!” Despite her clear discomfort, her lips twitched up slightly. “Can not do, do what they want if not hear!”
“They have… some kind of power over her,” Shura said weakly. “I saw her when they were first bringing us in. They were making her hurt herself over and over like it was a joke. One of them told her she wasn’t allowed to use her voice, and then they took turns trying to make her scream.”
Hanabi pointed to one of the goblins, mimed speaking, and then pointed to the blonde’s ear. The woman nodded forcefully. “Yes! Pet must do what they want! If hear, then do!”
“I believe she’s high fae,” Ying Yue said. “Of the summer court, very likely. She must have some sort of contract with these creatures.” She frowned. “There seems to be something wrong with her, though. I would’ve expected one of them to be far more… articulate.”
The blonde looked back and forth between the three women. Several times she opened her mouth to speak, then shut it every time, looking more frustrated than the last. “They no like big word,” she said finally. “Smart pet is rude pet. So not let her use big word or use… use…”
“Grammar?” Hanabi suggested, enunciating the word carefully in the hope that the woman could read her lips.
“Yes! Yes! No use that! Must be dumb pet, must sound like them!” Her brow creased. “Hate, hate, hate this. Some time think most bad part of this. Dick more good, pain more good, just want talk. Want sound like me.”
“Is there any way we can undo that?” Hanabi asked Ying Yue, but the woman shook her head.
“If she agreed to do it, you’ll find it easier to drink ice and eat fire than to get her to break her word,” the qilin said. “We could ask one of the goblins, but I suspect they wouldn’t be helpful. They’d be more likely to tell her to kill us or herself than rescind any orders, and I’m not risking the entire plan just to help one woman fix a speech impediment.”
“Yes, no help,” the fae agreed. “You have get out plan, yes? That more good. No can help me.” She touched the floor. “Jail not this.” She touched her heart. “Jail is here. No key, no help.”
“I thought you couldn’t hear anything,” Ying Yue said suspiciously. “How did you know what we were just talking about?”
The blonde returned the look with one far more condescending than a dirty, naked, and shuddering woman seemed capable of, and tapped her ear. “Heal fast.” The qilin scowled, but didn’t argue.
“We should get moving,” Hanabi suggested. “There are still more cameras and more guards to deal with, and Sam should be here soon.” A thought struck her then. “Ying Yue, that thing you did at the door, letting me share your senses… why didn’t you just do that from the beginning, instead of making me play hot and cold?”
The qilin looked uncomfortable. “What we did,” she said slowly, “is not something to be done casually. To touch two minds together is an act of deep intimacy. Before today, the only person I had ever shared that experience with was Zhi Ruo, and the last time we shared ourselves that way was also the last time we made love.”
Hanabi’s face flushed as she considered the full implications of that, as well as what it would be like to have sex with someone in that state. “Then I hope I wasn’t, I mean, I’m sorry you had to do that with me.”
“You did nothing wrong,” Ying Yue said stiffly. “And it was my idea. You were right before: we need to get moving. If you can help the fox, I will help this…”
“Pet,” muttered the twitching fae. “Name only Pet now. Real name much too big ever say more.”
“How, how are the others?” Hanabi asked Shura, dreading the possible answers, as the two of them moved the goblin bodies so that they couldn’t be seen from outside the room.
“As well as we can be, I guess,” Shura replied. “The trip here was a nightmare, all of us boxed up in those cages. I was actually relieved when we got here and they let us out. Until the goblins started picking people to play with, anyway. The ones who came back looked like they’d gone through hell…” She shuddered and looked down at herself. “If I had to choose between hell and staying with those goblins, I’d throw myself into the brimstone in a heartbeat.”
Soon all four of them were moving, Shura and Pet bringing up the rear so that Hanabi didn’t have to expend effort to cloak them too. “The rest of the cameras should not prove difficult,” Ying Yue said. “If your foxfire had not worked, we would know by now.”
“So the problem is the rest of the goblins, then,” Hanabi said. “There will still be a bunch at the entrance, and goddess knows how many guarding the rest of the vault.”
“You should meet with the others first,” Shura suggested. “Someone there will be much more helpful than I am. They’ll be able to help you get everyone out.” She paused. “You… you do have a plan to get everyone out, right?”
“Yes,” the white haired girl promised. “We’re all getting out of here.”
After a few minutes of walking, the hallway they were in ended at a set of double doors. Like the hallways, they were sized for someone much bigger, and their intricate design and gold inset made them stand out from the rest of the architecture. “There it is,” Hanabi said. “The entrance to the treasure vault.”
The doors were not only enormous, they were incredibly thick, at least a solid foot of stone. Thankfully the hinges must have been kept very well maintained, because despite its massive weight it swung open with only a light pull, revealing the chamber beyond. Ying Yue gasped at the sight, and even Hanabi, who’d had some idea of what to expect, was awestruck.
The nine sided room was enormous, nearly as large as the reception hall above. And it was covered from wall to wall with treasure. There were mounds and hills and even mountains of coins, all glinting in the light cast by the thousands of torches lining the walls and ceiling. Mixed with the silver, bronze, and gold coins were gemstones, sculptures, jewelry… any random square foot of the vault held enough wealth to make a woman rich. And in the middle of the room stood the centerpiece: a castle. A literal European style medieval stone castle. “This… this is indeed a dragon’s hoard…” murmured Ying Yue. “…And you expect to carry all this with you?”
Hanabi tore her eyes away from the sight of it all. “Cart all of this through the nexus? No way. Believe it or not, this is the garnish. See those doors?” Including the one they’d just entered through, there were nine of them, one for each wall of the chamber, and all with similar design . “One of those is the slave pens, and the other seven are where the real treasure is stored. All of this stuff here is worth a lot of money… like, a lot a lot of money… but the things in there are literally priceless. We’re talking paintings by famous artists that got snatched up before anybody even knew they existed, old tomes and scrolls and stuff with knowledge written down nowhere else, ancient artifacts from forgotten civilizations. And of course, secrets and blackmail material on pretty much anyone in the world that’s got a higher position than dogcatcher. That’s the sort of stuff we’re gonna steal from Karakostas… and, y’know, as many gold coins as I can stuff in my pockets.”
Shura pointed at one of the doors on the other side of the room, paying the riches around them no mind at all. “Everyone is in there.” Hanabi gulped and got moving.
The girl had mentally pictured rows of individual cells for everyone, like a prison, but the slave pens proved to be both more sprawling and less humane. A long hallway led to a huge room that had to be at least one hundred meters on each side. Thousands upon thousands of chains hung from the ceilings, each dangling a shackle on the end, and every prisoner there was suspended face down and in mid air by their arms and legs. Instead of rows, they were arranged in circular clusters, with everyone’s feet at the outside and their heads at the center. Just below their heads were filthy basins covered with crusty goop, and the fox realized with disgust that they were meant to be food troughs. Some of the slaves still had their heads lowered to lick up whatever their tongues could reach, a task made as difficult as it was humiliating by the ring gags that kept their mouths gaping open.
She imagined being imprisoned like this, unable to move, speak, or even look around, stuck staring down at the floor for hours, days, or much longer. She looked at the many limp bodies that hung motionless, and wondered how many of them were actually alive. How many people had died down here under the ground? Did the dragon’s people even take them down after that, or were their corpses left to rot here forever?
Hanabi did her best to shake away the mental images. She could be creeped out all she wanted after everyone had escaped. “Where are the keys?” she asked Shura, and heard countless chains rattle as people reacted to her voice. Several hoarse, wordless cries were uttered.
“By the wall over there,” said the blue haired fox, who was already unlocking the nearest slave from his bonds. She pointed to a board full of keys. “I think they’re all the same.”
The white haired girl grabbed a key of her own, and soon all four of them were freeing prisoners as quickly as they could. Most were foxes, but here and there were humans and various other races, almost always female. Many babbled thanks as soon as their gags were out and started doing their best to assist with the others, but at least as many just hunched up on the floor shaking and weeping. “Stop!” one human begged after Hanabi released her, and began trying to chain herself back up. “They’re going to hurt you all so much for this. Tell them I wasn’t part of it. Tell them I’m a good slave and they don’t have to hurt me too!” She managed to get one leg and one arm back in her shackles and swung back and forth like that, still trying to secure her other limbs.
“Flower?” wheezed someone that Ying Yue had freed. “Flower, is that you?” His voice was hoarse from thirst and so weak that it was barely above a whisper, but Hanabi recognized it immediately.
“Dad!” she cried out, and rushed to him. Kamio looked like he could barely stand, but he smiled as his daughter embraced him. “You’re safe! Oh thank Inari you’re safe! I thought maybe, I thought maybe you’d…”
“I’m alright, Flower,” he told her, burying his face in her hair. “A little worse for wear, but nothing that seeing you can’t fix.”
“I’m so sorry!” Hanabi sobbed, the tears flooding out of her before she knew what was happening. Somehow she was the one clinging to him now, as though she’d collapse and never get back up if she let go. “This is all my fault, all of it! If I’d listened to you from the beginning and didn’t go out of the village, if I’d paid more attention to your lessons, I wouldn’t have led them all to Hanei! All of this happened because I’m stupid, and stubborn, and weak! And I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”
“She gets this from you, you know,” Kamio said dryly, raising his head to speak past her.
Another fox wrapped his arms around the both of them from behind, joining the embrace. “I’ll take credit for the martyr complex,” Nobu said as he hugged them tight, “if you own up to the inferiority complex.”
“Oh? Well as long as we’re divvying her up, that’s your resourcefulness she has.”
“And your persistence,” Nobu countered.
“Persistence?” Kamio repeated slowly. “Mmm, and all this time I thought I was just stubborn and pigheaded. You should’ve told me sooner that it was persistence. So what’s left of our daughter? Other than your charming innocence and my dashing good looks, naturally.”
“This isn’t a joke!” Hanabi protested. “You, you’re supposed to hate me! You have to hate me!”
“Oh, Flower,” Nobu said sympathetically. “Do you really think you’re the only one in this family who never does what they’re supposed to? You got that from both of us.”
“She’s our daughter through and through,” Kamio agreed, and the two of them kissed each other softly.
“But it’s all my fault!” the white haired girl exclaimed. “All of it! Everyone was right to be afraid of me! I did bring destruction, just like they thought!”
Nobu frowned. “Afraid of you? Since when has anyone been afraid of you?” Kamio looked equally mystified.
“Everyone! Because of my white fur, they- I-” Hanabi struggled to remember an example to prove her point. There had been thousands of them over the years, the villagers distancing themselves from her time and time again, but all her mind kept going to was the night of the bonfire, and the way everyone there had kept silent to protect her.
“Hanabi,” Nobu told her gently. “No one has ever been afraid of your white fur. No one except you.”
Hanabi opened her mouth to tell him how ridiculous that was, but the words died on her lips. She thought back to every awkward exchange she’d had over the decades. She’d always believed that the others should be afraid of her. Some day she might hurt them like Yuki had, after all. But they really been afraid of her… or had she been afraid of them? Of what might happen if she let her guard down?
“I don’t mean to interrupt,” said Ichika, “but I hope we have a plan for how to get out of here?” The captain of the guard stood tall, seeming to take no notice at all of her nudity. “I’ve ordered a few of my guards who still have a little foxfire to watch the entrance in case anyone tries to come in, but we can’t just hole up in there forever.”
Hanabi was in the middle of explaining their idea to tunnel out when she caught a familiar glimpse of red hair. “Sam!” she said excitedly, and waved a hand to beckon her closer. The woman had returned, which meant… which meant they might actually pull this off! They still had to gather the dragon’s treasures, but right now bringing down the Paradisium was a distant priority on her list. What mattered was bringing everyone back home. Except… her spirits fell when she saw the grim expression on Sam’s face. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing you need to worry about,” the redhead said brusquely, and handed her an earpiece. “Here, you can talk to Batu with this. He says he can drain the reservoir any time, but he’s only got an hour or two before people start to notice that he’s missing, so you’d better move quickly.” She spun and began to lope out of the prison.
“Wait!” Hanabi called after her. “Where are you going?” The plan hadn’t called for them to split up after this point.
Sam looked like she wanted to keep moving, but she sighed and turned her head to look back at her. “You found what you came for, and I’m real happy for you, honest, but I didn’t, and I’m not leaving without her. So you go ahead, and we’ll catch up later.”
Hanabi glanced around, and realized that Sam was right. Between her red hair and four tails, Seo-yun was a hard woman to miss even in a crowd, and it only took a second to realize that she wasn’t in here. “Where is she?” the fox demanded.
“Where I should have known she’d be,” Sam said bitterly, and spat on the ground. “With Tanya fucking Petrov.”