Thank you for reading! Me and my coauthor Darinost are gradually combining forces and blogs, so the joint comment section for our stories is currently located on discord! Come on in and let us know what you thought, we don’t bite.
When the alarms first went off, Batu thought they were for him. He’d already been on edge, and fighting the urge to leave. The others were supposed to have signaled him by now. The most likely scenario was that they’d been captured, and were being interrogated about who had helped them. The sensible thing to do was flee. But like a fool, he was staying behind, betting his life on their increasingly unlikely success.
When the alarm went silent, and he heard no chatter through his earpiece, he realized that his assumption had been incorrect. The alarm hadn’t been for him, and that was almost as bad: something was wrong, and Lord Karakostas would want his right hand man by his side. Batu needed to get back to the surface, and he needed to do it twenty minutes ago.
He hurried out of the control room. There was no point staying there anymore, no matter what had happened to the others. The security alert had shut down the entire system, and there was no longer anything at all he could do in there. Their plan was ruined.
The elevators weren’t working, so he was forced to take the stairs up. Twelve very long flights, from the third basement up to the ninth floor. Batu was not the most athletic of men, and by the time he made it to the top, his legs were jelly and he wasn’t sure he’d ever catch his breath. He probably wouldn’t have made it at all if not for the adrenaline rush when he’d heard screams emanating from the first floor. Something was very, very wrong, and it sounded like it had nothing to do with the escape plan.
When he arrived in the dragon’s study, the first thing out of Karakostas’ mouth was “Where have you been?” His voice was calm, but that meant little. By the time he expressed visible anger, Batu was likely to be in several charred pieces.
“My… apologies… sir…” he panted. “Was over… seeing… some maintenance… basement… elevators…”
The dragon gave no sign of how acceptable Batu’s excuse was or wasn’t. “We are at war,” he said instead, as calmly as before. “And we are losing.”
Batu stared at him. “Sir?”
“Twenty two minutes ago, Paragon launched a direct frontal assault. At the moment, I expect they are busy securing the first floor. I’ve ordered barricades set at the second and third, but with communications down, I have no idea if they’ll make it in time. Regardless, they’ve managed to cut us off from the vault, and I must assume that they came here with the means to break into it.” Karakostas gestured to a black walkie talkie on his desk. “The only reason we know anything at all is because we still had those for emergencies. The cameras are down, the wireless is down… they’ve left us blind and deaf while they cut their way through.”
The bald man struggled to make sense of the situation. “Our soldiers-“
“Are useless.” Karakostas snapped, showing the first flickers of irritation. He gestured towards the two nervous and sheepish guards at the door. “They’re all like that. Human. Hundreds of vulpan, and not a single one of them can transform anymore.”
“Tanya did something to them,” Batu said quietly. He had had his doubts about the vulpan from the beginning, but their power had been undeniable. If they’d allowed Paragon to hold a monopoly on them, they would have been letting a mere human company amass a stronger military force than they could. And without the chance to study the powers and limitations that the marbles offered, they’d have been even more helpless against them.
The dragon nodded. “They built a Trojan horse and made us pay for the privilege. I could almost commend Ilya for his audacity.”
Batu tried to focus. It couldn’t be a coincidence, everything happening on the same night, but he couldn’t handle both situations right now. This needed his attention first. If the Lord decided that this was a battle they could not win… “Who do we have an open line to?” he asked.
“The armories on the fourth and seventh floors, and the third floor barracks. The first floor command center was in the middle of being slaughtered when they managed to relay the situation.”
The dragon’s assistant closed his eyes and tried to visualize what they had left to work with. “The metal shutters in the stairwells can still be activated manually,” he said. “We should send men to each barricade to make sure they’re put in place, and begin activating them on the other floors as well. We should also prioritize the seventh floor armory, sir. That’s where the bulk of our anti-vulpan weapons are stored.”
They hadn’t predicted an assault like this, or for their trump card to fail them, but the Paradisium had weathered more than one siege in its long history, and they’d known from the first day they saw the vulpan in action, down there with the spiders, that they’d need to have measures for them. Hollow point bullets and shrapnel to leave embedded metal that their regeneration couldn’t ignore, sabot and fireball rounds to provide the firepower to stop them in their tracks…
Karakostas nodded. “I will leave you to oversee the defense. Begin by getting in touch with whatever is left of our command structure and have them start organizing and outfitting squads of four men each. Two marksmen to bring the beasts down, two men with grenades and flamethrowers to finish off the wounded.” The green haired man was already striding towards the exit.
“Yes, sir,” Batu answered. He couldn’t resist asking “What will you be doing, sir?”
Karakostas opened the door with enough force to rip it off its hinges, then tossed the thing carelessly away. “Reminding the Petrovs that the Paradisium is more than a pack of foxes. It has been over three centuries since the last would-be dragonslayers dared to come here and challenge me; I should be a proper host and show them why.”
“This really is the only way to travel,” Tanya teased, and slapped the qilin’s rump yet again. “Come on Judy, giddy up, we’re almost there.”
Hanabi held on with her knees as Ying Yue did her best to speed up. The orange haired giant was on her hands and knees crawling through the sewer while the fox and Tanya rode on her back. Hanabi was still furious with Ying Yue, but that couldn’t stop her discomfort at seeing the woman treated like a pack animal.
“Much better,” Tanya said with approval. “Now where were we? Oh yeah.” She wrapped her arms around Hanabi again, cupping her chest and pulling the nude woman closer to her. “I was getting to know my new friend better.” The white fox squirmed in discomfort as Tanya began to kiss and lick the side of her neck, but her arms were already bound behind her using one of her own tails, and the other eight had been knotted together in useless lumps.
Tying herself up like this and taking off her foxskin underwear, which Tanya had promptly stuffed into Ying Yue’s mouth to gag her, had been the price of getting to put on a gas mask and leave the control room alive. Part of Hanabi still regretted that she hadn’t just died in there, but her initial despair had given way to determination. As long as she and the others were still alive, there was still a chance to see things through. She couldn’t give up yet.
“You smell disgusting, you know,” Tanya breathed in her ear, loudly enough that she must have wanted Ying Yue to hear. “But that’s okay, I like disgusting. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy my brother so much. And a girl as cute as you is worth putting up with some sewer muck. I bet you’d make a good little doggo if I had time to train you, wouldn’t you?” One hand stroked the bound girl’s stomach while the other lightly flicked her nipples with thumb and index finger, making her shudder each time.
“What can I do to save Sam?” Hanabi asked, trying to ignore the woman’s touch.
Tanya giggled. “Look at you, all business! Like I couldn’t have you barking like a puppy if we just had five minutes to spare… you just keep doing what you’re told and everything will work out.” Her hand slid down the girl’s stomach and down to her pussy mound. Hanabi flinched as her captor worked two fingers into her, pumping them slowly in and out.
“If you help the others, I’ll do whatever you want,” Hanabi said through clenched teeth. She didn’t have time for dignity. “I… I’ll be your furry fox fucktoy. That’s what you all love, right? I’ll work hard every day to please you, for the rest of your life, I swear.”
“Aww, you know, I actually believe you,” Tanya cooed, and sucked at her earlobe. “Fuck yourself on my fingers, little doggy. Show me how bad you want it.”
Hanabi’s face flushed, but that didn’t stop her from humping the girl’s hand. “I’ll be tight and warm and wet for you every day,” she promised.
“You sure will,” the dark haired girl agreed. “And what about your tongue? Will it be soft and eager and desperate to please? Will you spend hours worshiping my slit until you’re nearly drowning in my juices? Will you suck and lap and bite and slurp and nibble until you’re the best carpetmuncher in the world?”
“Yes, I… I’ll devote my life to keeping your pussy soaked and happy.”
“Hmmm…” Tanya giggled and licked her cheek. “You really are a good doggy. There’s just one teensy problem: you’re a fucked out piece of trash that’s already ruined her holes by letting them get pounded by sewer worms and pus slimes.” Her nails suddenly dug into Hanabi’s pussy, making the fox gasp in pain. “The only thing that belongs in this dirty, diseased hole anymore is a toilet brush. So shut up before you make me puke.”
Hanabi felt like she’d just been punched in the gut. She’d known the offer was a long shot, but it still shamed her to be rejected so bluntly. “I…”
“I don’t care,” Tanya said flatly, and pulled her fingers out of Hanabi so she could stuff them into the girl’s mouth, pushing them in deep enough to make her gag. “Just shut up and try to look pretty, trash slut. Clean your cunt slime off my fingers while you’re at it.”
The next few minutes passed in silence as Hanabi licked the girl’s fingers and tried not to cry. It was Tanya who eventually broke it with another slap on Ying Yue’s ass. “Good work, horsey. We’re here!”
They’d stopped at a nondescript ladder that led up to a hatch in the ceiling. “That’s my lab up there,” the winged girl told them. “It’s also where you’re about to see a god getting born. Not you, Judy; this is where we part ways for good.”
The qilin rose to her feet once the two women had dismounted, and pulled the foxskin from her mouth. “What of my wife?” she asked as she passed it over.
“Safe and sound,” Tanya promised. “She had a rough time of it, but she’s doing a bit better now that she’s had a couple years to recover. I hear the therapy has been helping a lot.” She rolled her eyes at Ying Yue’s mystified expression. “What? You thought I’d actually leave her enslaved all this time and risk someone ruining my bargaining chip? I had her purchased and sent back to your home right after the Paradisium Game, before I’d even left the country. Fed your handlers a few choice lies over the years about her fantasy owner. The hardest part was stopping her from coming right back here in some ridiculous gung-ho attempt to rescue you.”
The qilin let out a slow breath. “Then I can meet my end without regret,” she said.
“Sure,” Tanya replied flippantly. “You do you.” The winged girl reached into her pocket and produced a handgun. Before Hanabi could react to the sudden action, Tanya squeezed the trigger twice. The gun barked loudly, the sound of it echoing off the walls, and Ying Yue cried out as she was shot in both legs.
“Consider that my thanks,” Tanya said sweetly as the qilin collapsed to her knees and clouds of red began spreading through the murky water. “For being a good Judas for me. You were going to ruin it by trying to kill me in a few moments, and that would not have gone well for you.” She pointed at a side passage. “If you head out that way for a few hundred yards, you’ll reach an exit my brother’s troops don’t know about yet. It’s a long way to crawl, but you’ll manage, probably.”
Ying Yue looked up at her, and the girl tutted and waved her gun. “Don’t even think about it, Judy. Not unless you want me to put some bullets into your doggo here too. She’s gonna hate you forever no matter what you do, but that doesn’t change things, does it?” The orange haired woman hesitated, then turned away to begin crawling down the passage indicated.
“Good horsey,” Tanya said. “Giddy up!” She gave the giant a final smack on the ass, and then turned back to Hanabi and grinned while Ying Yue slowly crawled away. “What? A couple minutes ago you looked like you wanted to kill her, and now you’re getting upset on her behalf?”
“She was your ally, and she already did everything you wanted,” Hanabi said darkly. “And you have the nerve to call me disgusting while you treat her like that.”
Tanya’s smile grew. “Oh, I knew I was gonna like you,” she said happily. “It’s a shame we won’t have more time together. But if it makes you feel better…” Hanabi flinched as Tanya pressed up close to her, but she only whispered in her ear. “Her plan was always to kill herself once she’d saved her wife, and no pep talk was going to convince her otherwise. Left to her own devices, Judy would be about to drown herself all melodramatic like. She really is an adorable little thing once you get past the surface: there was nothing else I could offer her, not money or power or even vengeance against those that hurt her, that would have gotten her to betray you when the time came. Love was the one and only thing that could do it. And nothing could keep her alive after but righteous anger. Right now she’s so worked up about everything, especially all the nasty things I just said to you, that she’s gonna manage to crawl all the way out of here.”
She slid one hand up Hanabi’s inner thigh. “So don’t worry, foxy, I wasn’t being truthful before,” she teased. “I really would love to play with you if we had time. But we don’t.” She stepped back. “So instead, let’s go make some magic happen.
The Paradisium’s reception hall looked very different from the last time Levi had seen it. That had been during the Paradisium Game several years ago, when the enormous room had been filled from end to end with rich bastards and their entourages and thousands of slaves being bought and sold. Now, the hall dwarfed even their sizable forces, and the giant television screens on the walls that had broadcast the game from dozens of angles were dark and silent.
His new eye itched. Whatever crap they’d stuck in him to take over for his liver ached with every heartbeat. And the new arm and tails felt wrong and off kilter. Levi was used to feeling like a sleek, invincible killing machine in this form, but now… Tanya had turned him into a fucking freak. And she’d done it with his keepsakes. The scarf wrapped around his neck had been bad enough – he was still tempted to rip the damn thing off and tear it into a thousand pieces – but he’d instantly recognized the gorgon eye and everything else. She’d stolen them all from his personal effects, which was just one more reason to make her pay once he’d found her.
She’d been right about one thing, though: despite all the pain and discomfort, and the fact that he still couldn’t transform back into his real body without killing himself, Levi felt better than he had in years. Abso-fucking-lutely great, really. That was thanks to the shtriga arm he’d tried out earlier. Draining that pathetic guard’s life had been like snorting a mountain of cocaine. The feeling was gradually receding, but he still felt amazing, like he could go run up a mountain and back without breaking a sweat.
“Sir, we’ve finished securing most of the first floor,” reported one of his men. “There’s one area that’s still under lockdown.” The soldier was in fox form, though he looked like he was still having trouble getting used to being on four legs instead of two. He had to be one of the new vulpan, the hundreds of men who’d received their fox marbles only hours ago.
That fool Karakostas had no idea that Paragon had been fudging their production numbers since the very beginning, using the subterfuge both to hide their growing stockpile of marbles and convince him that it was normal that he receive only a few each month. The army that Levi had parked right on his doorstep had only been three hundred vulpan strong when it first arrived, but now that the marbles had been distributed their forces numbered over a thousand. The new ones were inexperienced, but they still had the resilience to shrug off bullets and the power to tear an enemy combatant apart without even trying.
Even his own men had had no idea that they were coming to the Paradisium to conquer it, not to quibble over a nest of foxes. Levi was certain that the old dragon had had eyes and ears on them from the very beginning, even back in Japan, and they would have all told him the same thing: a bunch of soldiers treating this outing as an excuse to fuck and drink and fuck some more. The doddering idiot had probably believed that he had years and years yet to prepare before Paragon had mustered an army big enough to cause concern.
“Leave that area alone for now,” ordered Levi. That would be Tanya’s lab. “What’s our progress?”
“Everything is on schedule for the vault, sir. They’ve secured the elevator shaft and begun setting up the drill. The engineer expects to be through within an hour. As for the second floor…” He hesitated. “We’re making headway, but it’s slow, sir. They’ve put up barricades that are taking time to work through, and sealed off multiple passages.”
“A few. They’ve been picking off our men here and there, but we’re killing them about five to one.”
“It should be at least ten to one,” Levi growled. “Start setting up charges, and tell the men to stop being such fucking pussies and power through those barricades. If the officers see anyone slacking off or trying to stay out of harm’s way, eat them. I’ve got no use for cowards.” Of course, the biggest coward here was the dragon himself. He was just wasting everyone’s time now. They’d already cut off his escape routes and separated him from his vault. The best case scenario for Karakostas was to slowly starve to death in his fancy fortress. The fool should just give up and-
Metal screamed above them, and Levi looked up to see a huge pair of claws ripping through the ceiling. They tore it open like paper, sending debris falling all around the area, and the dragon stuck his head down through the hole he’d created.
“Scatter!” Levi screamed. “Don’t let him-“
The gout of fire from the dragon’s mouth hit him dead on, and burst around him like a wave as it struck the floor, rolling out to cover everything within a hundred feet of him and catching dozens of vulpan in it. It wasn’t a single discrete blast, but a continuous outpouring of flames battering at them like water sprayed from a hose.
Levi could feel his fur ignite under the impossible, never ending heat. The entire world had vanished, replaced with the dragonfire that was consuming him. He could see nothing but red hot flame that seared itself into his retinas even with his eyes closed, hear nothing but its deafening roar, smell nothing but his own roasting flesh.
The dragon’s attack lasted about thirty seconds, and when it was over, its absence was almost as jarring as the attack itself. All that heat and fury suddenly vanished, and what was left of the world came back into focus. The floor around him was misshapen and Levi had sunk several inches down into it, the tiles bubbling and melting as they slowly cooled. More than a sixth of Paragon’s forces had been reduced to charcoal.
But Levi himself still lived.
He no longer felt great, abso-fucking-lutely or otherwise, but he could feel his flesh knitting itself together, the third degree burns that covered his entire body slowly receding. The dragonfire had been enough to kill all the mass produced vulpan nearby, but Levi held what was probably the strongest fox marble in the world. The dragon had targeted him directly, and put everything he had into the attack, and it hadn’t been enough. When he thought about it that way, he didn’t feel so bad after all.
It wasn’t until he started picking himself back up that he realized that the scarf Tanya had given him hadn’t been destroyed in the flame. It was charred at the edges, but he’d instinctively shielded it with his tails to protect it. He might be angry at Tanya right now – it was rare for her to not be doing something that annoyed him – but she was still his sister. He’d fuck her half to death when this was all over for mutilating him like this, but only half.
He looked up at the hole in the ceiling, but there was no sign of the dragon anymore. The bastard had fallen back to recuperate. “Tell them to start setting up charges and get rid of those barricades!” he rasped, his throat still raw. The closest surviving vulpan all looked at him blankly, rattled and terrified. “The fuck did you expect?!” he yelled at them. “We’re up against a goddamn dragon! If this was going to be that easy I’d just fucking do it myself instead of recruiting you lot!”
“B-but sir…” one of them stammered. “He just…”
Levi’s legs were recovered enough to reach the man with a single leap. The cowardly vulpan screamed as his rib cage crunched under his leader’s jaws. Levi raised his bloody muzzle and swallowed, feeling much better already. “If that green haired asshole could do that multiple times,” he called out, “he already would’ve, instead of running away! He’ll need at least half an hour before he can light anything bigger than a cigarette. So get the goddamn charges and crush those goddamn barricades so we can put his goddamn head on a pike before that happens!”
This time the others rushed to obey. The lazy confidence they’d exhibited before was gone, replaced by frantic determination. Good. Levi had no idea how long it would actually take Karakostas to recover. They’d known he couldn’t breathe fire continuously, but the dragon wasn’t in the habit of showing his powers off, or of leaving witnesses alive when he did.
But it didn’t matter. Karakostas being so cautious meant that he knew as well as they did that he couldn’t defeat them by himself. He could torch as many vulpan as he wanted, Levi was still going to find him, kill him, and leave nothing left but bones.
The thought sent pangs of hunger through him. He needed to recuperate too, after all, and the others had their orders. He could leave them to it for now. Levi lowered his head so he could finish his meal.
The pain was the only thing that told Seo-yun she was still alive. At some point in the long night, she’d started to think of it as her ally, her friend even. It was hot and bright in a world that was otherwise composed of cold and darkness. She cradled it to herself, basked in it, and prayed that it wouldn’t leave her too.
How many hours had it been since Tanya left her in here? It felt like years had passed since she’d showed Seo-yun the walk-in freezer and told her what she was going to do. The redhead had tried to resist when the girl had hung her up by the metal skewer through her palms, but she’d already been exhausted and weak as a kit from exertion and her other injuries. When Tanya had locked her in, sealing her away in this silent, pitch-black chamber, Seo-yun’s first reaction had been relief. She’d thought, foolishly, that being alone in here would be easier than being tortured out there.
The stale arctic air inside the freezer hummed with the power she was drawing from Morris. It was more than she’d ever taken before, more than she’d thought she ever could, and it wasn’t enough. She was only clinging to life, every drop spent to keep her body regenerating blood and warding off the cold. And the collar. The damn collar that would never, ever let her have a single satisfying breath.
Seo-yun knew this was exactly what Tanya wanted. It was why she’d stabbed her with the precision of a surgeon, and carefully arranged every rope and nail that held her. She’d probably calibrated the freezer temperature specifically too. Everything was exactly enough that Seo-yun could survive. Slightly more and she’d die, slightly less and she’d recover.
And there was nothing she could do about it.
Tanya had promised it would all end today. Seo-yun hoped that hadn’t been another one of her lies. She couldn’t kill herself, no matter how much she wanted to. She still had debts to be paid and people to protect. But if someone else did it? She would go gratefully to her rest and the punishment that surely waited on the other side.
She thought she was dreaming at first when the door creaked and opened, letting light in to pierce the darkness. She’d had that dream a thousand times by now. Usually it was Sam coming to save her, or Morris. Once it had been her parents on the other side; they’d stared at her in silent reproach and then closed the door back up.
But this time it was Tanya, and that told Seo-yun that this was reality. Even her nightmares, no matter how hard they tried, couldn’t replicate the glee that radiated from her smile. “Still alive?” the girl teased. “Then let’s get started.”
Sam had almost been able to forget what Sindak’s cock tasted like. For the first few months she’d thought it had no taste at all, her tongue unable to perceive anything but the searing pain that seemed certain to cook her alive, but eventually she’d come to know it well. His shaft had a rough, grainy texture and flavor much like dirt, with a slight acidic undertone. It made her want to puke.
“Isn’t this nice, meat?” the efreet said as he clenched her hair, using it to drag her head this way and that. Shaft, head, balls, taint… whatever part he pressed her lips against, she obediently lapped and sucked on it. ‘You must have been so sad out there in the world all this time without your favorite treat to enjoy.”
“Yeth mathher,” Sam agreed, her lips currently closed around the bulbous head while her tongue swirled over it the way he always liked.
“Why are you trembling, meat? Do you think I’m going to hurt you?” asked Sindak in a scandalized tone. “I’m just providing my lost pet with a tasty snack while we wait. Don’t worry. Just like I promised that beautiful winged slut, I won’t hurt you… yet. Trust me, you’ll know when I start to hurt you.”
The jovial threat sent shivers down Sam’s spine as she knelt beneath the table and sucked the efreet’s cock while he sat in the same chair she’d been occupying before. Practically the moment he had come into the room he had forced Astaria to leave. Part of Sam had wanted to abandon all her pride and beg the woman to take her with her and save her from this hell, but it was the same part of her that knew nothing was more important right now than slavishly worshipping the efreet’s cock with her mouth. Astaria had promised that Sam would see her again soon… delivering the statement fiercely, as though she was willing it into truth. It had felt like a lie anyway. Then she had gone, and Sam was left all alone with her worst nightmare
His threats of pain weren’t idle, she knew. Sam had failed to escape him twice before, and he’d almost seemed delighted at the chance to punish her for them, devoting days on end to making her regret even thinking in the privacy of her own head that she could be anything more than his fucktoy. This third attempt was certain to be far worse.
“You know, it took me far too long to notice the trick you’d played,” Sindak commented. “It wasn’t until about four months later, when I was playing with my next toy. I was thinking of giving her throat and cunt piercings like yours, and I thought she’d appreciate them even more if she knew they’d been ripped from the corpse of my previous fleshlight. Imagine my surprise when I contacted the Paradisium to see what they’d done with your body, and they sent back a report claiming that you’d had no piercings at all!”
Sam tried to ignore his words. She hated the fact that part of her was still so terrified of him that it wished that she’d never tried to escape. He would’ve killed her sooner or later, but maybe he would’ve made it fairly quick. He had been growing bored of her after all. He might not have even waited for the next Paradisium Game. She was certain she wouldn’t be so lucky this time. Sindak was no longer bored, and he’d had years to think up new ways to make her scream.
Three years. She’d been away from him for three years, and it had taken all of three seconds to make her feel like she’d never left.
The sudden pulsing of his cock was the only warning Sam had before cum spurted from Sindak’s member. He painted her face with lines of it, each sticky drop molten hot as it clung to her features. “Now you’re looking more like I remember,” he joked. “The first thing we’ll have to do when we get home is replace all those tattoos. I think this time we should cover you from head to toe, yeah?”
“Whatever you want, master,” Sam said meekly before lowering her head to lap up the stray drops of jism on the floor. Once she was done, and they felt like they were burning a hole in her stomach, she returned to sucking on his prick.
The television in one corner of the room suddenly switched on. “Howdy!” said a familiar voice. “Looks like your reunion is going wonderfully so far.”
Sam turned her head to find an angle where she could watch the screen while still tonguing the efreet’s cock. There was a video camera directly below the television, and Tanya was beaming as she no doubt watched the obscene display from it. “Hope you don’t mind me bringing you and him into this, Emms,” she said. “It’s a big day for everyone’s favorite fur trimmed fleshlight, and I thought she could use some cheerleading.”
The winged girl stepped back from the screen and the rest of the room became visible. It matched the description Sam had been given of Tanya’s lab, full of machines built for the express purpose of torturing her wife. Tanya herself stood near one wall, blank save for the unassuming floor safe next to it. And in the center of the room, where the machines looked to have been pushed aside to clear space… Sam’s heart leapt into her throat when she saw what had become of Seo-yun. The redhead dangled strappado from the ceiling by thick chains wrapped around her wrists, with one of her feet just barely touching the ground at the tips. The second one had been pulled into place and tied up with her wrists, leaving her hanging there almost motionless. She looked… awful. Pale and exhausted and completely worn out. There was hardly any life left in her dull eyes, and it receded even further as she took in Sam’s situation.
Hanabi was there too, and another fox that Sam didn’t recognize. Her friend had been stripped naked and locked in a too small cage on wheels, her tails wound around the bars. She didn’t look as lifeless as Seo-yun, but her expression was still a mask of despair. The unknown fox was unbound and wearing clothes, which was unusual enough, and also looking at Seo-yun with concern.
“Are you sure she’s okay?” the clothed fox asked plaintively. “You promised you weren’t really going to hurt her.”
Tanya patted her head. “Don’t worry, Nami, we’re just having some fun. And this time, you get to participate too!” The brown haired fox’s eyes lit up. “In fact, this is very, very important, okay? I need you to give me your marble.”
Nami blinked. “But… but you said I was going to use that to help you…” she said uncertainly.
“I did!” Tanya agreed. “And now is the time for it. You’re gonna help me out lots and lots this way.”
“But you said–
Tanya ruffled the girl’s hair. “This won’t take long. Delphy is already on her way back to our rooms, and I hid some ice cream for you in the freezer.”
The fox smiled shyly. “I already found the ice cream…” she admitted.
“You found the decoy ice cream,” Tanya told her. “I hid the good stuff in the big box of fish sticks. You go have yourself a couple scoops, help Delphy out by keeping her company, and I’ll be back with your marble before you know it.”
“Promise?” Nami asked plaintively.
“Promise,” Tanya confirmed. The fox still looked uncomfortable, but she nodded her head and allowed Tanya to kiss her lightly, golden light marking the fox marble’s transfer. “Thank you, Nami,” the dark haired girl said once it was over. “One last thing: I want you to promise me you’ll stay with the others, okay? No matter what happens?” Nami frowned and opened her mouth to protest, but Tanya spoke over her. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but things are going to be dangerous, and I need you to help me keep them safe. Can you do that?
“I… okay,” Nami said. “I promise.”
“Good girl,” Tanya said warmly, and gave her a hug. “I love you, furball. You know that, right?” The fox nodded. “Good. And now me and Gingersnaps need to have a conversation. Why don’t you bring Hanabi with you too? She’s had a real long day and I bet she could use some cheering up.“
Tanya clapped her hands once Nami had wheeled the captive Hanabi out of sight. “There! I love the little brat, but it’s nice not to have to play babysitter anymore. And now it’s just you and me. Let’s do this.” She snapped her fingers under Seo-yun’s nose. “Earth to Ginger! You still in there?” Sam couldn’t see the woman move, with only the rattling of chains as proof it had happened.
“Good. I need you to do me a favor too, but don’t worry. You’re gonna love this one.” Tanya’s smile widened. “I want you to eat me.”
Seo-yun stared at the woman, bewildered at her request. She must have heard that incorrectly.
Tanya laughed at her expression. “I’m serious! Neck is best if you don’t have a preference, but I’m open to anything. No one’s gonna blame you if you wanna take your time with it.”
“I don’t… understand…” Seo-yun whispered. Maybe it would make more sense if she could think clearly, but right now her thoughts felt like they were wading through a mud hole.
“It’s pretty simple. I just wanna be roomies with you and Morris.” Tanya patted her stomach. “I’m not asking you to do it for free. You saw that fox marble the kid just gave me, right? Makes your old one look like a firefly. Eat me and that marble comes along for the ride.”
Seo-yun shook her head. “Can’t… can’t use it…”
“Can’t use it yet,” Tanya corrected with a grin. She produced a strip of foxskin from a drawer and tied it around Seo-yun’s wrist. “See that? It’s from Nami herself, just like the marble. Same skin, same foxfire. Once you have this marble, you’ll be able to transform. It’ll take a heck of a lot of juice the first time, but it can manage it, I promise.”
Her eyes sparkled. “Just imagine! All that power you had before, but even stronger, and your bond with me and Morris too! I even found a way to take away the hunger, just as a personal favor to you. You’ll have it all back, better than before, and I hear there’s a few foxes nearby that could use your help.”
The words triggered something in Seo-yun’s mind. Tanya had shared the news of the vulpan that were now rampaging through the Paradisium on their way to kill everyone, kitsune included, and she had despaired at the time. Now, hearing that she might actually be able to save them nearly made her agree immediately. But something stopped her. “Why?” she rasped. “Why help me?”
“We’ll be helping each other, Gingersnaps,” Tanya said, as though it was obvious. “You get to go be the big hero, and I get to tag along for the ride.”
Things clicked together. “That’s… that’s why you’ve been torturing me… this whole time…” Seo-yun accused. “You wanted to… wanted to…”
Tanya shrugged. “Okay, you got me,” she said easily, like she was confessing to stealing from the cookie jar. “I do just want to ride with you, honest… but in the drivers seat, not as a passenger.” She held up her hands. “You’ll still get a say, just like Morris does now. But I’ll be the one calling the shots. First among equals, let’s say.”
“Been… been draining my power…”
“Like wringing out a sponge,” Tanya confirmed. “You’re almost as much of a ghost as Morris is right now, while I’m just bursting with pep. Both of your souls should roll over like good pups once I get in there.” She flicked one of the electrodes still attached to the fox’s body. “Sorry about making you wear these, by the way. They don’t actually do anything. But you know how it is: you tell people that you want them to spend hundreds of millions of dollars so you can set yourself up as a veritable fox goddess, and they get all cagey. So you gotta convince them that it’s all for ‘research’ instead.” She giggled. “God, you should see the garbage I had to set up in Paragon to trick them into thinking I was serious. Don’t worry, it’s a pet project that I can guarantee isn’t going anywhere but down the drain, not once Muhtadi is done over there.”
More things were falling into place as Seo-yun began to wake a little from her lethargy. “That’s why you set everything up like this,” she said, both amazed and horrified by the lengths Tanya must have gone to. “This entire battle going on outside, the captured foxes that only I can save… you did it all just to back me into a corner.”
“It would take a pretty awful person to refuse,” Tanya said casually. “But you’re focusing too much on the stick. There’s still plenty of carrot to enjoy. I’m offering you the entire world on a platter, Seo-yun. You may not be the one in charge anymore, but you’ve seen how it is with Morris. We’ll have to work together if we want to get anywhere. I can’t just waltz around stealing candy from babies and pushing old ladies over. We’ll be a team.”
“No,” Seo-yun said firmly. “I won’t do it.”
“Aww, don’t be like that,” Tanya teased. “I mean, come on, Gingersnaps, we both know I’m going to convince you eventually. While you’re making us play this whole thing out, good people are dying out there. And don’t pretend to be so indignant, like I’m crazy for asking. You can’t hide things from me that easily, remember? I can see paths where you accept; I know your mind can be changed. All you’re really accomplishing right now is forcing me to give myself a headache.”
“What you see doesn’t matter,” Seo-yun told her. “No matter what your visions tell you, this is my decision, and I will not let you have that kind of power. Giving in to you might allow me to save many lives in the present, but I am certain that even more would suffer and die in the future because of it. No.”
Tanya opened her mouth to reply, but hesitated. “You think there’s still a catch, don’t you?” she asked after a moment. “How can I convince you that there isn’t?”
“It doesn’t matter if there is or isn’t,” Seo-yun said. “My answer won’t change.”
Tanya rolled her eyes. “Ginger-”
For the first time that the fox had ever seen her, Tanya looked genuinely irritated. “Why?” she said, irritation peeking through her usual good humor. “Did I mess up your brain too badly while I was tenderizing you? I’m giving you everything you want, Seo-yun. Everything!”
“You’re lying,” Seo-yun told her. “That’s your own people out there. You won’t fight them, you’ll join them. I’d rather die.”
“That’s your reason?” Tanya’s laugh had an ugly quality about it this time. “You should’ve said so sooner. Believe me, Seo-yun, I don’t like Paragon any more than you do. A lot less, probably, since I’ve seen horrors there that you can’t even imagine.”
“Is that what you told Nadia?” the red haired woman asked. “Did you trick her into thinking you were on her side too?”
Tanya turned to the video feed of Sam and Sindak and grinned brightly. “We’re gonna have a little one-on-one girl talk for a minute. You two lovebirds have fun!” She turned off the camera, then closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The grin on her face vanished like a switch had been flipped, and when she spoke again, there was no more playfulness in her voice. “Alright. If honesty is what it takes to make you admit it, let’s do it. No more games. No more fake cheer.” She let out a small, humorless laugh. “I go years without having a genuine conversation with someone, and now twice in one day.”
“I do not understand,” Seo-yun said warily.
“That’s because you only ever lie to yourself,” Tanya said. “You never had to learn how to deceive other people. Here, I’ll give you a quick lesson.” Her expression suddenly brightened, and her tone filled with cheer. “If you act all happy like this, it’s much easier to get people to do what you want! They assume you must be stupid or gullible or just a goshdarn good person that they should listen to.” She switched off the fake mood. “God, I hate doing that,” she muttered darkly. “At least that was the very last time I’ll ever have to.”
“So now I am to believe that everything you have said and done up until now was some kind of act?” Seo-yun asked. “And that only now am I speaking to the ‘real’ Tanya Petrov?”
The expression on Tanya’s face was cold and bleak, and without a smile to hide behind, she looked much older than before. “I’m a good actress, right?” the dark haired woman said. “It’s not so hard when you get to cheat. You’ve seen my brother, Seo-yun. You know his tastes. Do you really think I enjoy getting raped by that sadistic monster? That I actually cum when he beats me black and blue, or get soaked when he wants me to suck his cock and it’s still covered in the fluids of his last conquest? Do you think I love and adore the man who treats every woman in the world and me in particular like we’re nothing but his goddamn toilet?”
“No one forced you to behave in such a manner,” Seo-yun said.
“No one forced…?” Tanya repeated, an incredulous tone to her voice. “Okay. I can see this is going to take a minute. Let me tell you a story, Seo-yun. Eighteen years ago, I was my father’s favorite lab rat. That’s why on the same day my sister was given her wings, I was taken away for an operation of my own. Do you know how that went?”
“You were given your powers,” the fox answered.
Tanya shook her head. “Not exactly. The procedure failed. My system rejected the implant almost immediately. The power I have now is just a dim echo of what I experienced back then. I didn’t just see a future that day. I saw all of them. Most of the memories faded over time – some almost immediately, some over the course of years – but the highlights have stuck around. Within the point six three seconds it took for the ability to burn itself out of me, I witnessed every possible future simultaneously. I lived all of them. I experienced the complete and utter entirety of my existence. And it was a hell I wouldn’t have wished on my worst enemy.”
The woman began to pace back and forth, tense energy radiating from her. “Before that moment, I was just a ten year old girl who still thought that her father might love her someday if only she worked hard enough. And then I saw what our destiny had been, the path that the universe had originally laid out for me to walk. My father would grant my sister and I the right to live, yes, but never his affection. We’d never be seen as anything more than useful tools, and eventually the both of us would fall out of his favor for questioning his grand plans one too many times.”
She grimaced at the memory. “We wouldn’t just be executed like our hundreds of other siblings, though. Not when we were now adults. No, much like Karakostas and Astaria, we would be seen as valuable breeding stock, an opportunity to create new lab rats with all our oh so valuable genetics and none of our terrible ideas. We would spend the rest of our lives being raped and bred, punished with harsher and harsher treatment after every time our offspring inevitably didn’t meet Ilya’s exacting standards, and finally snuffed out when we were past our peak child bearing years.” She glared at Seo-yun. “I lived every moment of that future, in all its variations. I felt the betrayal, the despair, the endless nights praying for rescue to gods that weren’t listening, the way that the pain and terror eventually gave way to hopeless tedium. The relief and honest gratitude when we were finally butchered like animals.”
“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Seo-yun said honestly. “No child deserves such pain.”
Tanya sneered at her. “You’re going to waste your sympathy on that? That was one of the milder futures I lived that day. Rape, torture, and murder were constants in all of my lives. They happened if I tried to escape from Paragon. They happened if I tried to change it from the inside. They happened if I murdered my father in his sleep or poisoned him or killed him with my bare hands the first time he tried to take me. I saw paths where Levi grew jealous of my abilities and broke me down into his whimpering pet, paths where Mordred decided it would be hilarious to make his rival’s daughter into one of his hardest working whores, paths where Karakostas realized I was sheltering some of his slaves and had me abducted from my bed and paraded around like a trophy before being marked as meat. I saw an infinity of possible futures, Seo-yun, and all of them turned out the same. There was not a single life, not one, where I lived peacefully and died of old age.”
The woman held up one finger. “In all the futures I saw, there was only one element that offered me even the slightest glimmer of hope that I could accomplish something meaningful with my pathetic excuse for a life: you. It was a billion to one chance that our paths would ever even cross, but I saw that tiny flicker of possibility. And I saw what I’d have to do to make it real. The only way I could achieve the necessary freedom and influence over my own life was to take on the role of willing accomplice, convince my father and brother that I was on their side. If I could make myself the cheerful, whimsical, sister hating psychopath, they would trust me. I’d be allowed to live like a normal person, when I wasn’t too busy pretending to love the way they used me.” Her expression hardened further. “So I did it. I did what I had to to get here. To tonight, to you, and to my only chance to change things.”
“If any of that is true, you have had the means necessary to escape long before now,” Seo-yun countered. “But you have only ever used your status to hurt more people.”
“Because that wasn’t enough,” Tanya hissed. “I’m not trying to escape. You think I’m doing this for me? You think I tortured my sister for something that petty? If all I cared about was myself, I would’ve just slit my own throat that first day. I didn’t lead Paragon and my brother here just to convince you, I did it so that we can kill them, and the Paradisium too, and everyone like them! You really want to know what I told Nadia back in the Game to get her help? You want to know how I tricked her? I told her the truth, as much as I could afford to. The only lies I told were for exactly one reason: to keep it a secret that for us to succeed that day, she would have to die.”
“Because you knew she wouldn’t help you if she knew the cost,” Seo-yun said.
“Because I knew that she would!” Tanya screamed, her voice raw and ragged. “Don’t you get it?!”
The dark haired woman’s eyes burned with a fervor that Seo-yun had never seen in her before, and there was no trace of composure left in her. “You think you know Nadia just because you spent a few days with her? I grew up with her. I loved her. She was all I had, and she was kind and pure and she never broke or lost sight of herself, no matter how much shit our family and I put her through. She was… she was such a better person than me, and I had no choice but to make her suffer for it. Every. Single. Day. I had to spend fifteen years making my innocent sister’s life hell, making the person I loved more than anyone in the world fear me. And after all that, after everything I’d done to hurt her, that… that idiot still would’ve sacrificed her life for me! She would have tried to forgive me! How could I let her do that?! It was better for her to die hating me!”
“I believe you,” Seo-yun said slowly. Tanya no longer sounded like someone trying to win her over. She didn’t even sound like she was talking to the fox anymore. She was saying these things for herself now, airing feelings that she’d kept bottled up for ages.
“Then you’ll do it?” Tanya pressed, her expression intense and hungry. “You’ll work with me to stop everyone out there?”
“No.” The redhead focused on her breathing, and tried to calm herself. If she could keep the woman talking long enough, perhaps she could regain enough strength to break her bonds. “If this is your second genuine conversation today, what was the first?”
For a moment Tanya just stared at her, and Seo-yun didn’t think that she was going to answer. But then the woman shook her head, some of her earlier manic energy dissipating. “I underestimated Astaria, like I always do.” Her expression turned bitter. “I never should have made her my assistant. That was pure childish selfishness, pretending that we could ever really be together. And the woman is just so… distracting. I’ve known for months that she was going to ask me to abandon all my plans for her, and turning her down was still one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. And because of that, I slipped up and let her catch me by surprise.”
“I find it difficult to believe that anyone could surprise you,” Seo-yun told her skeptically. “Especially a woman whose behavior you’ve been anticipating for months, by your own words.”
Tanya grimaced. “Levi ever tell you about the first time he raped me? It was just a few days after my father took my virginity. I was playing maid to both of them that day, acting like there was nothing I liked more than waiting on them hand and foot in between sucking my father’s filthy prick every five minutes, and I knocked over Levi’s glass when I went to refill it, got beer all over his clothes. Wasn’t some grand scheme or manipulation, just honest clumsiness. So he pushed me down onto the ground, shoved my face into the wet floor, and sodomized me while our father watched. I had to pretend I loved it, of course.
“That’s always been the hardest thing to predict: myself. One wrong move, and the possibilities spiral out of control. Astaria wasn’t going to try anything – she was going to turn on me later, but right in that moment she was still trying to find a peaceful solution – until I made the mistake of calling her Star, and that gave birth to an unforeseen outcome where she nearly smashed my head in.” She ran a hand over her scalp, then showed Seo-yun the traces of blood on her palm. “See? The damn woman forced me to tell her everything if I didn’t want her to bash my brains out. She was supposed to have betrayed me today, and now she’s helping instead. I spent months meticulously planning this entire night, and the whole thing has already gone off the rails.”
“Just because you called her Star?”
“Because I forgot to keep calling her Delphy. Because for one second I forgot I wasn’t supposed to give a shit.” Tany shook her head. “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life talking about this. Kill me.”
“No.” Seo-yun forced her head to lift so she could look the woman in the eyes. “If we are to work together, so be it. If everything you’ve told me is true and your goals are noble, work with me. Give me the marble and I swear you will come to no harm. I once considered you a friend, Tanya. I would like to do so again.”
“You want me to trust you with the fate of the world?” Tanya asked. “Don’t make me laugh. You forget, Seo-yun, I know who you are: a coward, a failure, and a murderer. How many of your loved ones died two hundred years ago because you didn’t have the strength to resist your hunger? You slaughtered them, and you enjoyed it.”
The memory of that night ached more than any torture Tanya had inflicted upon her. “I could not help myself,” the redhead began. “The priest-“
“Offered you temptation and nothing more,” the winged woman finished. “It was your choice to accept it, and your will that tore apart what was left of your family.”
“I did everything I could to stop it,” Seo-yun protested, but the words felt hollow. “And I am free of that hunger now.”
“It wasn’t the hunger that made you a failure,” Tanya said. “Or have you already forgotten your promise to Han-jae?”
The name stopped Seo-yun cold. “How do you-”
“Your hunger didn’t kill him,” Tanya continued, talking right over her. “Your stupidity did. Your foolish belief that you could ever be anything more than a monstrous killer. You knew that you were making a mistake back then, and you know you’re making one now. The stakes are much higher than a little boy lost in the forest this time, Seo-yun. And you’re still not good enough.”
“I’m not… who I was back then…” Seo-yun managed.
“Yes you are. Do you really need me to enumerate what a fuckup you’ve been in the last few years?” Tanya began holding up fingers. “You let Levi capture you and take your fox skin. You sabotaged Morris’s attempt to rescue you and got him killed. You gave up and tried to be an empty headed fucktoy with the Wilmingshires. Your wife only survived the Paradisium Game thanks to Nadia. You only survived the game thanks to me. You failed to warn Hanei in time. You failed to kill my brother again. And right now you’re wasting time and letting your people die so that you can pretend that your parents wouldn’t be ashamed of you.”
Tanya’s tone softened. “You need me, Seo-yun. I’ve already been saving you for years now. I sent you Morris to remind you who you are. I put you in the game to remind you of who you could be. I brought you and your wife together, helped the two of you escape, and made sure you both remained free. Everything good that you’ve accomplished since you were first captured has been because of me, and I can still help you do so much more. I just need you to accept reality and stop believing that you can be something you’re not.
“And I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know,” the woman continued. “There’s no need to pretend around me, Seo-yun. Do you think I really want to be the one in charge after you kill me? I’m doing that entirely for you. We both know that the most appealing part of this plan is to not have to carry the weight of everything on your shoulders anymore. You’ll finally get to rest, and without having to give up on your dreams or feel guilty.” She shook her head. “Or are you really going to pretend that throwing yourself into my brother’s jaws wasn’t about giving up your responsibility? Sure, you hoped you might be able to save everyone, but really you just wanted to take yourself out of the picture, stop needing to accept the village offerings, and let someone else carry the weight you knew you couldn’t carry.”
Seo-yun tried to deny Tanya’s words, but she couldn’t. Nor could she deny the temptation of the woman’s offer. How many innocents had suffered over the centuries because of her mistakes? If Tanya was the one in control, things would be different. Better. She would know what to do, and how to make things right. And just as she’d said, if Tanya became corrupted by the power or tried to abuse it, Seo-yun would be right there to stop her. She wouldn’t be abandoning her responsibilities, and she’d still be in a position to help everyone. She’d just be doing it in a more subservient role, one that she was better suited for. One that she couldn’t fail at so easily.
“…You’re right,” she admitted quietly. “In my life, I have failed much I have tried to accomplish… but that is the past. It is the future I’m concerned about.” Her voice grew stronger. “Do you know the most important lesson Samantha has ever taught me? That you can’t do anything unless you try. If you let yourself give up and decide that you’ve lost before it’s over, before you have tried every last option and fought for every last chance, you will never get anywhere.”
“You never have gotten anywhere,” Tanya countered. “You are nothing without me. You’re just a puppet, a game piece that I’ve been pushing around the board.”
“No. It was not your foolish pride that turned me into Levi’s victim. It was not you that decided to stand and reclaim her name and risk everything one last time. You are not the one who fell in love with a woman who had tried to kill her, or who chose to save the life of a man who did not deserve it, or who put her own life in jeopardy to take down the Paradisium after I had escaped. You created the path that led me here, but I was the one who walked it. I own every stumble and misstep, and also every inch of progress. Not you.”
Seo-yun held the woman’s gaze, more sure of her answer than ever. “I am not the person I want to be yet, but I will keep striving, no matter how many mistakes I make. Every time I fail, I will be that much stronger the next time, as long as I keep trying. And when I succeed, Tanya Petrov, it will be because I earned it, not because you gave it to me.”
Tanya stared at her for several long seconds before shaking her head. “Three hundred years and you’re still a child. Fine. I’m going to ask you one more time, Seo-yun, and then I’ll have no choice but to show you just how useless all that idealistic nonsense is. Will you help me?”
“Alright. Just remember: you did this to her yourself.” Tanya turned the video feed back on to show Sam still between Sindak’s legs, her tongue now gently lapping his balls while a fresh load of cum drooled from her mouth. “Sindak,” she ordered, her voice curt and hard. “Kill her. Slowly.”
Then she grabbed the camera, ripped it from its mounting, and smashed it on the ground. The television screen still showed the break room, where a whimpering Sam was crawling backwards to try and get away as quickly as she could, but there was no longer any way for Tanya or Seo-yun to talk to them.
“There,” Tanya said, sounding satisfied. “Now I can’t stop him even if I wanted to. Make your choice, fox: accept reality and we go kill him together, or keep denying the truth and watch your wife die screaming.”
Sam skittered backwards across the floor with fists clenched, but when all too soon her shoulders hit the wall behind her, it felt like she’d put no distance at all between her and Sindak. He was still close enough to be nearly in arms reach, with those huge rocky limbs that could manhandle her like she was just a small animal.
The first and only time that she’d fought him before, the day he’d taken her, she’d had so much more. Distance, for one thing. Actual combat gear. Firearms. None of it had helped. She’d been in the peak physical condition of her life, and all that had accomplished was to give him an excellent fucktoy to begin playing with. She’d had no chance against him back then, and even less of one now, and they both knew it.
“You know, that girl must be very fond of you, meat,” Sindak said with a smile as he cracked his knuckles, the sound almost as loud as gunfire. “If it were up to me, I’d bring you back home and see how many years it would take to get you begging to be marked again, but she made me promise not to let you leave this room alive. Don’t worry, though, I think I can make this reunion last hours as long as I pace myself.”
There were only three things she had now that she didn’t have back then, and none of them were particularly impressive. First, she had the hard earned knowledge of the last eight years. She’d frequently considered how a rematch with him would go and what she’d need to do differently, even during the period where the mere thought of defying him was enough to make her whimper. She knew what might work on him and what definitely wouldn’t, and that the former was vanishingly small and the latter enough to fill a book.
“The dragon!” Sam said desperately. “Don’t you, don’t you want to go help him? You’re supposed to be friends!”
The efreet shrugged. “Politics bore me. I’m Karakostas’s friend, not his vassal. And one of the reasons we get along so well is that we both realize that affection doesn’t equal obligation. I’m rooting for him, but I’m not going to throw myself into someone else’s conflict, and he isn’t expecting me to.”
“But Paragon will come after you too eventually!” she tried. “They want to kill everyone that isn’t human!”
“Is the meat worried about me?” Sindak asked with a chuckle. He rose from his seat and used one hand to push the table away, leaving nothing but open space between them now. “How sweet. I was looking forward to making you crawl around and do tricks after I’d crushed your hands and feet into powder and turned your fuckholes into gaping wounds, but maybe I’ll be merciful and just kill you once you’re that far gone. I’m thinking of finishing the job by making you choke to death on my cum, by the way. Die like you lived and all that.”
He grinned. “But don’t you worry about me. I’ve watched plenty of organizations like Paragon rise and fall. I’ll still be enjoying life with fucktoys like you long after the Petrovs are dust.”
The second thing Samantha had was fear. Eight years ago, she’d been so certain that she wouldn’t lose. Even after he’d burned off her clothes and taken her weapons, even when it felt more like he was trying to kill her with his cock than fuck her, she’d believed that something would save her and Jack. Right up until the moment she’d passed out on Sindak’s cock, she’d been confident that the universe couldn’t really be so cruel as to murder her husband and let his killer turn her into his screaming plaything.
That fear nearly strangled her as the efreet stepped forward. Sam shot a glance at the exit, but he was closer, and faster. Even if she was able to open the door and get through it, this wasn’t some game of tag with safety on the other side. Running would just mean being chased, and he had more stamina than her too. At best, she’d make it out of the lab and into the war zone around it, and find some Paragon foxes to fuck her to death instead.
Sindak reached out for her, and she tried to bat his hand away with her left fist. It was like punching a brick wall. He laughed as his much larger hand closed over hers and pulled, lifting her up and off her feet to dangle in the air. “What should we start with, meat?” he asked as he held her there by her arm as easily as someone might pick a puppy up by the scruff of its neck. “Sex or pain? Personally, I’d like to start by turning this hand into paste…” His grip tightened and Sam cried out as the bones in her hand were ground together. “But if you beg nicely enough, and promise that you’ll work hard to make it good for me, just like you used to, I could be convinced to spend some time ruining that tight cunt of yours with my hard cock first. Be a good enough fucktoy, and persuade me to spend our time together draining my balls instead of destroying you bit by bit, and maybe I’ll even consider making your death quick afterwards.”
The third thing Sam had was the smallest of all: the horn that Astaria had given her. The one that the dragon had broken off with her own hands at some point, that she’d secretly passed to Sam while leading her into the lab. It had a sharp tip, but it was pitifully small for a weapon. So small that she could hide it in her right fist this entire time, with only that tip poking out.
She drove it into Sindak’s eye.
The efreet screamed as his eyeball was punctured. For all his rocky exterior, his eye was as vulnerable as anyone else’s, and the sharp tip of Astaria’s horn sank into it easily. His fist tightened in response, and Samantha screamed as something in her left hand snapped.
She stabbed at his other eye, but this time he deflected her attack with a sharp backhand that sent the horn flying from her hand. “You fucking bitch,” he growled, angrier than Sam had ever seen him. Even her failed escape attempts had left him more amused than angry. “You dirty, stupid, worthless bitch!”
He punched her in the solar plexus and it was like being hit by a car. He’d cracked at least one of her ribs, and suddenly the act of breathing was agony. Sam wheezed out a pained breath, and then immediately screamed as her entire body ignited in flame.
“Stop this!” Seo-yun begged. Her wrists were bloody from struggling with the chains holding her up, but she kept at it anyway. “Please, she’s done nothing to you!”
“I’m not the one letting her die,” Tanya said quietly without looking at her. Her eyes were flat and unreadable as she watched the screen intently. “You can stop this anytime.”
“I can’t,” Seo-yun insisted.
“Then she burns.” Tanya finally tore her eyes away from the screen long enough to pick up one of the knives she’d used before to torture Seo-yun. She spun it slowly in her hands as she approached the fox. “So we come to this point after all. Perhaps I should have started with this in the first place.”
“There is no torture that will change my mind,” Seo-yun told her.
Tanya gave her a humorless smile. “Don’t worry. It’s not for you.”
Then she stabbed the knife into her own chest and twisted it. Red blossomed from her shirt and began running down her stomach.
Seo-yun stared at her in shock. “What have you done?!”
Tanya coughed, and her smile was stained with blood this time. “Forced your hand.” She tore the knife out of herself and threw it away. “I’ll be dead in a few minutes, whether you do the job or not. If you don’t eat me, the marble goes away, and so does the chance that any of the people you care about survive.”
“Y-you’re bluffing,” Seo-yun claimed, but she didn’t believe it. She’d seen people with that look before, usually right before she finished them off. Tanya looked like someone staring at her own approaching death and accepting it as inevitable. “You can use that marble to transform and heal.”
“Can,” Tanya agreed. “Won’t. One way or another, with or without you, I finally escape tonight. You walked your path, Seo-yun, and I’ve walked mine, and I refuse to go a single damn step longer than I have to.” Her expression had become slightly glassy. “Huh, you know, this must be how Belle felt. Knife and everything. You can blame me for her, too… I arranged that she’d be there for Nadia, after all. Just so my sister would have nothing to lose after her death. Doesn’t seem right if no one got to hate me for that one.”
“If you don’t like your life, then fight for it instead of running away,” the fox pleaded. “I ran and hid for centuries before I learned, and squandered so much of my ability to make things better. Don’t make my mistake! If you hate Paragon and the others so much, use your powers to help us! You and me and Sam, we, we can think of a way to rescue everyone!”
The woman made a disgusted sound. “Now you sound like Star… she couldn’t talk me out of this, and neither can you.” She wavered and nearly fell over. “Time’s running out. I’m gonna pass out soon, and then it’s all over for everyone. I won’t ask you again, Seo-yun: kill me.”
“No,” Seo-yun said, feeling something in her die as she said it. She’d just killed her wife.
“Why?” There wasn’t any anger in Tanya’s voice anymore, just curiosity.
A hundred different half formed reasons fluttered through Seo-yun’s mind. She tried to sift through them, parse them into something intelligible. And then the only answer she could give came to her, accompanied by the memory of her long ago discussion with Morris. “Because you’re a monster.”
Tanya stared at her. And then she began to laugh.
Sam’s lungs were too empty to cry out, but she kept trying anyway as the flames raged around her. She had never experienced such pain in her life, not even when she’d set herself on fire years ago to disguise herself as a phoenix. The fire back then was like a warm summer breeze compared to the inferno trying to consume her now. And thanks to the efreet’s protection, the heat that would’ve burned anyone else’s nerve endings in an instant to leave blissful numbness instead kept hurting and hurting and hurting.
She kicked at Sindak with both of her legs, and even she didn’t know whether she was trying to attack him or just flailing wildly. It didn’t matter either way. He was as immovable as a mountain, and all her frantic movements accomplished was breaking two of her toes against his stony hide.
“You will burn for the rest of your life, meat,” he promised darkly. “Fuck the Petrov girl, I’m not killing you here. I’m going to bring you back with me and hang you up as a centerpiece, an eternally burning and screaming torch to light my home with. How many decades do you think I can make you last? I’ll feed you cum by the gallon if that’s what it takes to give you a long, long life. You’ll burn until you can’t even remember who you are or why it hurts. There will be nothing left of you but pain and fire and a sobbing slab of meat!”
If she could do anything but scream silently with her empty lungs, Sam would’ve begged him to kill her now. She would’ve promised to spend the rest of her life as the best fucktoy he ever had if he would only make the pain stop once he’d grown bored of her. If he would just take away his protection and let her burn to death. But she already knew he wouldn’t do that. He would never do that.
Or… he couldn’t do that.
As she twisted in the embrace of red flames, Sam’s mind tried to work through the pain and terror, desperate to latch onto anything at all that might distract her. He’d never withdrawn his protection from her all these years. She’d assumed that he just didn’t know she was alive, but he had. Maybe he needed contact to take it away, but he’d never required that to grant it. So what if he had left her with it because it was permanent, not something he could withdraw on a whim?
So? she asked herself. So what? What did that even matter?
Because it changed everything. She’d always assumed that he could simply reduce her to ash whenever he wanted. That any real struggle against him would be futile because all he had to do was stop holding back. But maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he wasn’t using his fire to hurt her as punishment, but because it was the only thing his fire could do to her now.
Even if she was right, he was still stronger than her. Still tougher. It was still a fight that she had no chance of winning. But there were two more things Sam had. She’d had them back in the beginning too, and had clung to them through everything that followed. Five years of hell and three of running hadn’t been enough to rip them from her, no matter how hard Sindak and the Paradisium and this entire fucked up universe had tried.
She was the most goddamn stubborn bitch in the world.
And she wasn’t. Going. To lose.
She swung her legs at Sindak again, but not to kick him. She wrapped them around him, pulling herself to him in a tight embrace. The efreet laughed. “Think you can fuck your way out of this, meat? You-“
She swung her right arm at his face again. He raised his free hand to shield his good eye from her, protect it from her attacking him again… but Sam wasn’t reaching for his eye. Instead, she went for his mouth. She flattened her fingers and drove them right between his lips while he taunted her, cutting him off mid-sentence. The inside of the efreet was even hotter than the outside. Even hotter than the flames around. Sticking her hand into him was like burying it into an active volcano.
But his insides also felt as soft and fragile as any human’s.
Sindak gagged and tried to push her off of him, but she clung with her legs, resisting with everything she had while forcing her hand ever deeper into him, drilling her arm straight down his throat. The fire eating at her became a brilliant blue as the temperature rose further than she’d believed possible, but she’d been right. It was just pain, and there was no pain that could match her determination right now.
He was gurgling something unintelligible, his remaining eye full of rage. And terror too. Seeing that fear in him was almost enough to make her forget all about the agony. “My name isn’t meat,” she growled as her fingernails dug into his flesh, making boiling hot blood spill around them. He was squeezing her fist as hard as he could in desperation, and she could feel the bones in her hand crunch as he shattered them, but she couldn’t worry about that right now. He couldn’t stop her from pulling, bracing herself against him and yanking her buried hand out like it was salvation itself she’d found. “It’s Samantha… fucking… Morris!”
She ripped his throat right out of him, bloody and smoking.
His grip on her hand eased, and for a second both of them stared silently at the mangled flesh in her hand. Then Sindak vomited up blood and fell to his knees. Sam fell with him, the two in a sprawl of tangled limbs. The efreet writhed and convulsed like a dying bug, very nearly crushing her to death without even trying. His mouth was open and he was trying to speak, but nothing was coming out but more blood.
His breaths became a rattle, and he shuddered a final time before coming to a stop.
The flames around her went out.
Seo-yun stared dumbly at the dark haired woman as she laughed with genuine mirth. “Alright, alright! You win,” Tanya said. She put her back to the wall and slowly slid down into a sitting position next to the floor safe.
“Then you’ll save Sam?!” Seo- yun demanded.
Tanya waved her hand in dismissal. “Doesn’t need me,” she said, without looking at the screen. She popped open the safe to reveal a bottle of scotch. “Besides, I wouldn’t dream of stealing away her victory. She earned it. That hand doesn’t look great, though. There’s a first aid kit in my bathroom you’re gonna want to use. Under the sink, can’t miss it.” She took a long swig from the bottle.
Seo-yun watched in amazement as her wife killed the fiery efreet. “You… knew that would happen?” she said after.
“Knew? It’s the whole reason I brought him here. Well, that and…” Tanya’s voice trailed off. “Huh. I can’t remember anymore. There are no futures left but the one where I pass out right here on the floor and die without ever waking up again.” She sighed happily. “Ahh, my head feels so much better now. I’d honestly forgotten what silence was like.”
“I still don’t understand,” Seo-yun pressed. “Why… why all of this? Why bring me here? Why do you insist on killing yourself?”
There was a thundering of footsteps, and then Sam charged into the room like an avenging angel. “Seo-yun!” she shouted. “I’m…” She paused when she took in the scene. “What the hell happened here?”
“Your wife just volunteered to take over my job,” Tanya said, her voice slightly slurred, and took another drink. “Welcome to my retirement party. I’d offer you a drink, but…” She frowned and looked at the bottle of scotch. “Why didn’t I bring more drinks?”
“Like I’d ever drink anything you gave me,” spat Sam as she began undoing Seo-yun’s chains.
Tanya wagged a finger at her. “Thaaaaat’s right, that’s why.”
“It is still not too late to save yourself,” Seo-yun pleaded. “We can work together.” Sam finished with the chains, letting the fox stand on her own two feet, but staying on them was proving difficult. Sam had to give her a hand, but from her wife’s pained expression and shallow breaths, she didn’t seem to be doing much better.
Tanya shook her head. “Nope. Been there, done that, didn’t work. You’ll be better off without me.” When she looked up at Seo-yun, her eyes were unfocused and glassier than before. “Come on, don’t start feeling sorry for me. You’re gonna ruin it. Ding dong, the witch is dead, remember? We’ve all got reasons to celebrate here.” She looked at the scotch again and swore. “All this planning, and I manage to forget that blood loss and strong alcohol don’t mix. This was… supposed to be a lot more somber. Had a… a whole speech planned.” She shrugged. “Well, fuck it. You only get to die for real once, I might as well enjoy it.” She took another, longer pull.
“But you… you had questions,” she said after. “Let’s see… because there was no other way, because there was no one better, and because you were right: I’m a monster. I know redemption is your whole…” – she waved her hand – “thing, but I want nothing to do with it. Let history remember me for what I was: an evil cunt who was better off dead.”
“You’re not making any sense!” the redhead insisted. “I don’t understand… if your goal this entire time was to convince me to hand my life over to you, then why be so cruel these last few days? Why reject every attempt I made to know you better, instead of trying to win me over? And why is this the first time I’ve ever seen you look genuinely happy…” She trailed off as the truth finally hit her. “You… you wanted me to reject you, didn’t you?”
“Shhhhhh,” Tanya said in an exaggerated whisper, and held a finger up to her lips. “You’re not supposed to know that one…” She took another long swig from the bottle of scotch. “I waited such a long time for you, long enough to start to doubt myself… doubt that I was making the right choice trusting you, that I wasn’t just unleashing a new monster into the world. And I wasn’t lying about you being spineless… I had to know you’d changed. Knowing the path and actually being able to walk it are two very different things… had to make sure you were strong enough to keep going through what’s ahead…”
“What’s ahead?” Seo-yun repeated blankly.
Tanya gave her a wry smile. “I’ll let Star explain the finer points. Damn woman went to the trouble of beating the knowledge out of me earlier, after all… might as well give her a chance to show it off… I’ll just say you’re the best chance I was ever able to find to kick our collective destiny in the teeth…”
“And if I’d eaten you?”
Tanya shrugged. “Then I’d have to keep trying to do it myself…” She had a small coughing fit that left her lips spattered with blood. “Course, the real test starts now… if you can’t make it past Levi, then we’ve both just been wasting our time here… and being killed by him will be a kindness…”
“But why go through all this?” Seo-yun asked. “All the people you’ve hurt, the lives you’ve upended… how could you do all of that just for this?”
“You say that like all this was my plan A,” Tanya slurred. “I know I talk a good game, but we gotta be up to the triple Zs by now. You were right before… I can point people in the right direction, but I can’t make them walk.” She pointed the half empty bottle at Seo-yun. “Did you know I was less than a thousand feet away from you and Morris that day you almost escaped? He was going to get gutshot while driving away, and I was going to intercept you on the road and… and her!” She looked at Sam. “I was expecting you to kill Ember in that little swordfight, not win her over. Suddenly had to figure out how to help two people escape the Paradisium instead of just one. It’s been all I can do just to keep up with you these last few years. But now…now it’s done. Nothing for me to do but sit back and wait.”
“And this is how you intend to spend your last few moments of life?” Seo-yun demanded as she stumbled closer. “Getting drunk?”
“Why not?” Tanya said cheerfully. There was a growing pool of blood beneath her, and her face had begun to take on a waxy pallor. “That’s my deep dark secret… I just wanna… wanna pretend to be a normal person for once…” The bottle fell from her hands and shattered on the floor, sending alcohol and shattered glass everywhere. Tanya frowned down at it, and then sagged back and closed her eyes. “Oh well. It was nice while it lasted.” She giggled. “This really hurts, did you know that? I hope… it wasn’t this bad for Nadia…”
“She said it didn’t hurt,” Sam told her. She was still watching the fallen woman warily, as though she expected this to all be some kind of trick.
Tanya let out a long breath, and all of the tension left her body, leaving her limp against the wall. “That’s good,” she said softly. “That’s really good. I always hoped… never had the nerve to ask…”
It was taking her clear effort to keep her eyes open at this point. “Almost forgot…” she wheezed. “Got a… a favor to ask…” She made a sound that might have been a laugh. “I know, I know… I’m in a real good… real good bargaining position…”
“What is it you want?” Seo-yun asked.
“Can you… make sure Nami is taken care of? She’s… she’s a good kid, honest. Don’t hate her just cause… she had a shit babysitter…” Her breathing was growing progressively shallower, and her chest barely moved by now.
“I will,” Seo-yun promised. “But why… will you at least tell me what you were doing with her in the first place? You spent so much time creating a gumiho that was utterly loyal to you, but you didn’t need her for any part of this, as far as I can tell. So why drag her into your plans?”
Tanya gave her a bleary, confused expression, as though she didn’t understand why Seo-yun would ask such an obvious question. “Because… she reminded me… of Nadia…” the woman slurred while her eyes slowly closed, surrendering to the overpowering weight of her eyelids.
Then they flew open as some life returned to her. “Hey!” she wheezed excitedly. “Hey! Ask me…ask me what happens next…”
Seo-yun knew what her answer would be, but she gave in to the woman’s last request. “What happens next?” she asked quietly.
“I have… no idea…” the dark haired woman said happily as her eyes slid shut once more. “Isn’t that great…? Isn’t… that…” Her voice trailed off, and Tanya Petrov’s eyes did not open again.