Lone Fox 3 – Ch 18 – Squirming

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“I think I found her!” Hanabi said excitedly as she joined the others in the laboratory, carrying the small red fox in her arms. The poor thing seemed absolutely terrified as she trembled, and still hadn’t spoken a word since she’d discovered her. If not for the nine tails, the girl might’ve thought she was just a regular fox. “She was in what looked like Levi’s room.” She’d been in no hurry to stay in there; the room had been a mini sex dungeon full of cages and equipment, with the fox huddled up in one corner.

The lab’s main area looked mostly the same as it had before. The most striking difference was the dark stain on the wall that marked what was supposed to have been Tanya’s final resting place. Had the whole thing been a trick after all? Had she faked her death somehow, and was now off somewhere laughing at them? Hanabi didn’t know, but she couldn’t afford to worry about it right now.

While she’d been gone, Seo-yun and Astaria had pushed two of the big machines together so that they could use them as makeshift chairs. The green dress that the dragon had been wearing was nowhere to be seen, but she seemed to take little notice of her nudity as she worked, leaning forward and using a tiny screwdriver to fiddle with the fox’s collar. She gave it a final twist, and the latch popped open with a small click. “There!” she said, pleased. “I knew I could get that open if I just had a few minutes to work with.”

Seo-yun peeled the collar off and flung it away from her as though it was a rattlesnake, then rubbed her now bare neck and let out a sigh of relief. “I am beyond grateful,” she told Astaria. “I thought I was going to be wearing that wretched thing forever. I am sorry that I cannot return the favor.”

“It is not a matter that deserves your regret,” Astaria tried to assure her, touching the silver band that still adorned her own neck. “My father would not have commissioned a collar that could be defeated by a screwdriver. At least I was able to remove that cursed dress.” She put the tool down beside her, and then looked over at Hanabi and the fox she held. “That is not Nami,” she said. “Nami is brown and… larger.” Seo-yun said nothing, but she was giving the fox a weird look that Hanabi couldn’t read.

“Well, she’s definitely not from Hanei,” the white haired girl said, frowning down at the small creature. She did look slightly familiar, but that was probably just her imagination. “That bastard must have picked her up somewhere else. Can you speak? It’s okay, none of us are going to hurt you, I promise.”

Seo-yun looked like she had something to say, but she was interrupted by Sam reentering the room. “No luck. I searched everywhere for her,” the redhead reported. “Everywhere that isn’t on fire, anyway.” Almost half the lab had gone up in flames by now, thanks to that big rock monster thing she’d killed. Even dead, it was still hot enough that just going in the same room as its corpse had been physically uncomfortable, and some stuff had caught fire while Sam had been rescuing Seo-yun. Hanabi and the others had found a couple fire extinguishers, but by then the blaze had already grown enough that they might as well have been squirt guns. “She-” the woman stopped and stared at the fox. “Is that her?”

“No,” said Seo-yun softly. “She came here with Levi.” For some reason, that statement made her wife stiffen and glare at the little fox. “She is another of his victims,” the woman continued, “and we should take her with us when we leave.”

It seemed like a perfectly benign statement to Hanabi, but it only seemed to make Sam angrier. “Is she another one of those so-called contingencies?” she asked Astaria gruffly.

“I do not know,” the dragon answered in a much calmer tone. “I cannot even say with complete certainty that what is going on out there is related to Tanya, although it would surprise me greatly if that were not the case.”

The screens up on one corner of the room were still showing utter carnage from every security camera outside the lab. Hanabi recognized some of the creatures from the barn, which gave her a good guess about who was responsible for their appearance. But she shut that away in the same mental box that contained all her questions about Tanya.

Regardless of who was responsible for the bizarre invasion, Hanabi had to admit that it was a godsend. It seemed like Paragon had its hands full fending them off, which meant that maybe – maybe – they hadn’t broken into the vault and killed everyone yet. She really missed that hour or two earlier when she hadn’t needed to be terrified that everyone she cared about was dead. She could allow herself to think about Ying Yue later, after they’d survived. Which, right now, still meant it looked like she’d probably never have to worry about it at all.

“Is your hand doing alright?” she asked Sam. The redhead had thoroughly wrapped it up in enough layers of bandages that no flesh was visible, but even multiple layers couldn’t account for how swollen it had become. “Someone might be able to do something for it if we can make it to the vault fast enough, but no one will be able to do much about infection.”

“It’ll be fine,” Sam said, brushing off her concern. “I won’t complain if I get it back, but my hand is pretty far down on my list of worries right now. I can manage without it. And I’m sorry, Yip Yip, I know how you feel about leaving without Nami, but the girl is gone. It’s not going to help her any if we keep searching for her until we burn to death or Paragon breaks in.”

“I must agree with Samantha,” Astaria said grimly. “Even in her grief, I do not believe that Nami would hide herself away and ignore us like this for so long. She must have ventured outside, and we must do the same.”

Seo-yun looked unhappy about it, but she nodded and stood. “Then let us depart.” She embraced Sam gently. “Stay safe, my love. I will see you again soon.”

“You’d damn well better,” Sam said fiercely as she returned the hug. “I didn’t come all this way just so you could get yourself killed, Yip Yip.”

The four of them had discussed what to do next while searching for the runaway fox, and come to the reluctant agreement that they would need to split up. Astaria had the greatest chance of getting through to Eirene and knew the most about how the Paradisium’s security systems worked, so she would head down into the sewers. Meanwhile, Hanabi was going to cloak Sam and herself in foxfire and head to the vault entrance; if the dragon managed to unlock the place, they wouldn’t have long before Paragon came in. They needed to get in there the moment it opened up and begin organizing Hanei’s escape.

The white haired girl had expected Seo-yun and Sam to both resist the idea of going their separate ways, but the women had agreed without argument. “Either all of us make it, or none of us do,” Seo-yun had said simply. “Either way, this parting will be brief.” Hanabi didn’t have the skill or the foxfire necessary to hide all four of them over a long distance, so the red fox was going with Astaria to protect the woman from any vulpan, gross sewer worms, or giant beasts they might encounter. Even drained from her days of torture, she was still the strongest of them physically.

Hanabi almost had to laugh. They’d come so far to get into the lab and rescue Seo-yun, and now they were about to leave her and go back to where they’d started. At least the universe had a sense of humor. “Ready?” she asked Sam. The woman nodded and gave her a thumbs up.

“Before we depart, I would like to say a few brief words,” Astaria said softly. “We have found ourselves in a time of sorrow and darkness, one that began long before this night and will continue far beyond. It has stolen much from us, and will do so again. I believe that the worst days of our lives are yet to come-”

“This was supposed to be a pep talk, right?” Sam interjected. “Because you seem to be making an argument for the ‘lay down and wait to die’ option.”

Astaria raised one eyebrow. “May I be allowed to finish?” she asked calmly. The redhead seemed to have been expecting a more fiery reaction, and had no response but a sheepish nod. “I believe that the worst days of our lives are yet to come,” the dragon continued, “but so are our best. This darkness will not last forever. Dawn waits below the horizon, and I believe that tonight, we may finally catch a glimpse of its light.” She bowed her head, and then turned to Sam. “Was that sufficient for you?”

“Not bad,” the woman admitted, “but I can do better.” She clapped her good hand against her bandaged one, then belatedly winced. “Son of a… alright, guys, here’s the deal: there’s hundreds of bastards out there on both sides who’ve been living it up this whole time, raping and killing and doing whatever the hell else they want. And I don’t know how this is going to shake out for them: maybe one side’s going to win, maybe the other, maybe neither. But however it goes, I can promise that they aren’t living it up right now. They’re all absolutely goddamn miserable, and you know what we get to do?” She grinned. “We get to go out there and help ruin their fucking night some more.”

“As long as we’re saying stuff,” Hanabi told the others, “I just wanna say thanks. I know that none of you have to be doing this, and I wouldn’t have blamed any of you for just wanting to turn tail and get the hell out of here while we still can. Goddess knows I’d love to. But you’re all staying and risking your lives to try and rescue my people and everyone else trapped in here, and I want you to know how much we all appreciate it. So… thanks.”

Everyone looked expectantly at Seo-yun, who blushed under the weight of their stares. “I… I don’t really have anything to add…” she stammered. “I care about all three of you, and I pray that, um, the next time we are all together like this will be under much happier circumstances.”

“Good enough,” her wife said, and clapped her on the back. “Now what are we waiting for?”


Hanabi clutched the little fox close to her chest as she and Sam ran down the hall. The chaos had been confined to the reception hall at first, but it had quickly spilled outward, and there was no path they could see that didn’t involve big monsters and giant foxes fighting all around them. She was far more afraid of the vulpan noticing them than the creatures that they fought against, but those huge rampaging beasts could kill them on accident as easily as Paragon soldiers would with intent, and there was little her foxfire could do to protect them from that.

Sam had picked up a rifle from one of the dead bodies they’d passed on the way. It didn’t look like she could wield it very well one handed, but its presence seemed to bring her comfort. She pointed it to indicate that they should turn right at the next intersection, and Hanabi nodded silently. She was keeping the three of them obscured from sight, but that was the extent of her cloak right now. With all the noise of combat and the intermingling scents of different creatures, there was no need to waste any of her reserve on other senses.

They reached the intersection and stopped short. Two vulpan snarled at some kind of man shaped thing with hundreds of tentacles sprouting from its body. She’d seen some of them in the barn earlier, and Sam had called them leviathans. A third vulpan laid dead on the ground near it, body twisted and contorted at grotesque angles and its dark blood staining some of the creature’s many writhing appendages.

Both of the fox soldiers sprang at the beast, ripping and tearing at the tentacles that were trying to grab and constrict them. The exchange lasted less than thirty seconds before the leviathan hurled them away from itself, sending them skittering across the floor with limbs bent and broken. The beast had not fended them off without cost, though. Nearly a third of its tentacles were now destroyed, and already the vulpan were rising back up to continue the fight.

The sound of gunfire from behind made her and Sam both drop to the floor. The Paradisium hadn’t missed what was going on, and its soldiers were mixed in with the fighting too, seeking to take advantage of the situation. A bullet took one fox right in the head and killed it instantly. The other only took a shot to its leg that made it collapse, but before it could get back up, a pair of uniformed guards with flamethrowers reduced it to cinders. And then, because experience had probably taught them that there was no better way to confirm that a vulpan was really dead, they incinerated the other two corpses as well.

From what they’d seen so far in their hellish journey towards the vault, the Paradisium forces had little interest in engaging with the escaped beasts, preferring to let them continue fighting against the vulpan for them. That sentiment wasn’t mutual; two of the leviathan’s remaining tentacles shot out to wrap around the throats of the men with flamethrowers. As it crushed their windpipes, their two companions quickly began firing at it, but in their panic they aimed at the leviathan’s many limbs instead of its main body.

By the time they realized their mistake and killed the creature by firing several shots into its torso, the two men were dead. The survivors were given no chance to even catch their breath before another vulpan, this one chased by a furious lion-like griffin, raced through the adjoining corridor and passed them. Without slowing down, it reached out and raked one man’s chest as it went by, tearing through his body like it was made of paper mache. The last one standing fired a few shots at it as it fled, then cursed and ran off in a different direction.

Hanabi and Sam rose to their feet and continued heading down the hall. It took Sam an extra moment to stand with only the one hand, but she waved off Hanabi’s offer to help. Skirmishes like the one they’d just seen were far from unique. They were happening everywhere as man, beast, and vulpan killed each other indiscriminately. The only difference between the field of dead bodies they were picking their way through now and the five they’d already passed was seeing in person how it had happened this time.

Hanabi took a second to grab both the guns and the flamethrowers with her tails before she left, though she felt pretty sure she was more likely to kill herself than anyone else if she tried to use the latter. They weren’t the first ones they’d grabbed; she was carrying several more of both weapons in her other tails, all scavenged from other corpses. She was still hoping that they’d be able to get everyone out of this bloodbath without having to fight, but if it came to it, she wasn’t going to leave her people completely empty handed.

The nameless fox was shivering hard, and Hanabi’s sensitive ears caught her faint whimper. The white haired girl stroked the animal’s head, trying to silently reassure her that everything was going to be okay, and wishing that she had someone who could do the same for her.

They witnessed three more impromptu battles before they grew near the entrance to the vault. Just as Hanabi was starting to think they might make it there alive, their luck finally ran out.

It happened before she knew it. One second they were hugging the corridor wall to keep their distance from a trio of vulpan loping down the hall, and the next… one of them abruptly changed his course to avoid a bit of debris, and his new path led him to brush against Hanabi’s side.

He immediately came up short and snarled, drawing the attention of the other two. “There’s something here,” he said in a tense, determined tone, and he began to sniff at the air. He was a large grey fox with a score of half healed wounds covering his body. That was a bad sign; if he’d been stupid or incompetent, he would’ve died in those encounters. He looked to have been in serious combat at least four or five times already, and he had been the one left standing every time.

Hanabi quickly burned more foxfire to mask their scent, but she knew it was a lost cause. If she was at full strength, didn’t need to move, and in a location she had intimate knowledge of, she might’ve been able to create a cloak that was virtually indistinguishable from genuine invisibility. All that was a far cry from running through unfamiliar halls while rationing her foxfire to keep herself and Sam hidden as long as possible.

The only reason they’d had any chance at all of going unseen was that no one was actively looking for them. If a vulpan knew they were there and used his heightened senses to search for them, they’d be discovered easily. And that was exactly what was happening now.

The grey vulpan growled and lunged at her.


Seo-yun could still hear the sounds of combat above them as she and Astaria trudged through the sewers. It felt so wrong to draw some manner of reassurance from those sounds, but right now that fighting was their lifeline. Once it stopped, it would soon be replaced by that of a massacre.

“Have you ever spoken with this Eirene before?” she asked Astaria, more to distract herself than anything else.

“It would be inaccurate to say I have spoken with her, but she has at times spoken to me,” Astaria said. She was grimacing at the sewage they waded in, but didn’t stop moving.  “She is, or was, connected to the same communications system used by all Paradisium servants, and has occasionally used it to send messages. Do you… know anything of who she was, before she came here?”

When Seo-yun shook her head, the dragon sighed. “It is not a pleasant story. For a long time, there was an underground organization that helped provide support for runaway slaves. They did not directly oppose the Paradisium or stage rescues, but people who found their way to them would be given shelter and kept hidden from their former owners. Slaves would pass details in secret – safe houses, code words, ways to reach and contact them.”

“And Eirene, she was a part of this group?” the fox guessed.

Astaria nodded. “Founder and leader both. She is… was an amazing woman. For decades she worked tirelessly to help as many as she could, and saved countless lives in the process. She was so revered by the slaves that for a time many saw her as something like a deity and would offer prayers to her when their masters could not hear.”

“But the Paradisium eventually found her, didn’t they?” Seo-yun said grimly.

“Not exactly,” said Astaria. “The truth was even worse. My father is a cunning man, and he let Eirene and her people believe that they were operating in secret when in truth, he had known all about them nearly from the beginning. In fact, he did more to spread word of their existence than anyone else, and made sure that any slave who had been here more than a week knew where to go if they ever got out. They provided a valuable service, you see. When a master was rich enough or their slave valuable enough, Karakostas could be convinced to retrieve the slave for them. Discreetly, of course, so that Eirene would have no idea that she had been used as a fishing lure.”

“That’s terrible,” Seo-yun said. Her stomach twisted itself in knots when she thought about how it must have felt when Eirene discovered that her work had been corrupted to turn freed slaves into captives once more. “But why is she here then, if your father didn’t want to stop her?”

“Because he is also greedy and cruel. The surveillance system was originally intended to be used by an entire team of operators, but when he realized that a single sphinx could manage it by herself, the irony of recruiting Eirene for it was too satisfying to resist. And after all, he knew just where to look for her. He launched a simultaneous raid on all the safe houses, and dragged hundreds of former slaves, Eirene herself, and all who had helped her, back to the Paradisium.”

“And stuck her down here to start preventing escapes instead of helping them,” Seo-yun said bitterly. “Have I mentioned that I do not like your father?”

“It gets worse. My father does not-“ They heard a roar from the distance, and both women froze. “That did not sound like it came from above.”

“No, it did not,” agreed Seo-yun. “It is within these sewers. It is not one of the odd beasts, either; I recognize the timbre of that voice. We should hurry, unless we wish to learn how the two of us would fare against a vulpan.”

“It is not much farther,” Astaria said, and they sped up while trying to keep their splashing as quiet as possible.” The dragon’s voice was even softer than normal when she resumed her story. “My father does not only see himself as master and slave trader. In the Paradisium, he is a god, and all his servants and slaves must pray to him in public, no matter how much they fear and loathe him. I don’t think he ever viewed Eirene’s work with anything more than amusement, but the way others worshiped her… that drew his anger.

“All of her allies were tortured one at a time, many killed in the process or discarded as meat, until those that remained all swore up and down to any who’d listen that Eirene had always been Karakostas’s servant, deliberately shepherding his runaway flock for him, and that the operation had only been disrupted because she’d grown greedy and begun trying to sell slaves on her own for profit. Eirene backed up the lie with a public confession as well, after my father threatened to murder slaves every day until she agreed. It was only after that, when her accomplishments had been defiled and her legacy destroyed, that she was sentenced to spend the rest of her life trapped in this sewer.”

“How did you learn the truth, then?” the fox asked.

“The Paradisium keeps extensive records,” Astaria said. “There was a time when I knew that this place was wrong, but still thought I could persuade my father to see reason. Reading about Eirene’s past was what convinced me that his way of thinking was not simply misguided, but actively malicious. And the woman herself…”

“Yes?”

“I…” Astaria’s cheeks became tinged with red. “I did not have a mother growing up, or sisters, or any other women in my life who were not there just to serve me. She was the closest example I had of a strong, independent, and moral woman, and I wanted to know everything I could about her. I was voracious in my quest for knowledge, combing records for weeks tracking down every last mention. I read so many stories of her kindness, courage, and wisdom. Everything that I am today, everything that does not come from my father and my other experiences in the Paradisium, grew from wanting to be more like her.”

“I understand,” Seo-yun, remembering her own burning desire to learn more about the two mysterious foxes that had been her parents. “Then though the situation is dire, I am glad you will get the chance to finally meet her.”

“You do not understand,” Astaria told her, the color fading from her expression. “I am referring to the woman she was. I do not know what sort of abuse she was subjected to, but the same records that described her past also revealed her fate. Her mind was utterly destroyed in the process of breaking her will and ensuring her eternal loyalty to my father. The Eirene that exists now is little more than a programmed automaton.”

“Then how are we supposed to convince her to open the vault?” the fox pressed.

“I… do not know,” Astaria admitted. “I am hoping that she may respond to my commands as the daughter of her master, or that we may be able to co-opt the interface that she uses and open the vault ourselves. Failing that or any other methods…” Her expression grew determined. “The least I can do for the woman is give her a quick death. I do not wish to even speculate what Paragon might do with a living sphinx to experiment on, and I refuse to let that be her final fate.” Seo-yn nodded her understanding and agreement.

Hanabi had told them about the entrance Tanya had wedged open, and it was still just as she’d described it. Seo-yun sniffed the air carefully before going in, but could detect no more than a trace of the gas she had mentioned. Enough time had passed for it to dissipate and become harmless.

Another roar reached them, and this one was much closer. “We must shut the door,” she said, and reached a hand for the brick.

“Wait!” Astaria hissed. “There is no guarantee that the system won’t activate again. We can’t let ourselves get trapped.”

“We can’t let ourselves get caught either,” Seo-yun replied. “The vulpan won’t be able to smell us through this sewer, but they won’t miss an open door. Unless you are certain we can be in and out of here in less than two minutes-“ A third roar resounded. “Less than thirty seconds,” she amended, “we have no choice. Besides, if we cannot even prevent your sphinx from killing us, then we have no chance of opening the vault. And if our mission here is to end in failure, I would rather die from the gas than a monster’s teeth.”

Astaria hesitated, then nodded reluctantly and removed the brick. The door shut with a small but distinct click that made Seo-yun shiver. She wished she felt as cavalier as she sounded about being locked in here and gassed.

Seo-yun turned around and took it all in: the massive wall of screens, the smashed computer equipment, and focused on the large pipe and the woman inside it. “There she is. What do we do now?”

“We get closer,” her friend replied. “And then we shall see.”

The red haired fox woman couldn’t help watching the screens as they descended the ladder. The beasts were still causing havoc in many of them, but she saw nearly as many dead as there were fighting. A pack of hounds brought down one of the vulpan as she watched, but not before the man reduced their number from eight to five. The tailless manticore was bleeding from dozens of claw and bite marks, and one of its legs dragged behind it, but its injuries didn’t stop it from grabbing hold of another vulpan and ripping its head off.

Was one of those cameras somewhere pointed at Sam? Seo-yun knew her wife wouldn’t be visible, but she looked anyway. Even if she couldn’t actually see the woman, she drew some comfort from the idea of looking at her.

Once at the bottom, she tore her eyes away with reluctance and watched Astaria cautiously approach the sphinx. “Eirene,” the dragon said quietly. Her voice wasn’t much above a whisper, and it felt even quieter in such a large space, but it seemed she was speaking as loud as her collar would let her. “Eirene, I am Astaria, daughter of your, your master, Karakostas. I order you to open the vault at once, in his name.” When there was no response, she repeated herself at slightly louder volume. “Eirene, I am Astaria, daughter of your master, Karakostas. I order you to open the vault at once, in his name.” When that too drew no response, she growled and shouted “Eirene!”

Her collar immediately went off and Seo-yun caught the woman before she could collapse to the ground, holding her as she shuddered and twitched in the throes of agony. “I… I cannot tell if it is… not working,” she said once she’d recovered enough to talk. “Or if my voice… simply cannot reach thanks to this damned collar.”

The fox looked up at the pipe. “That section of it there,” she said, pointing. “The one she has been bolted too. It is a separate piece from the rest, do you see? I’ll go up there and open it. If that still doesn’t work, it might at least give us access to the controls.” Astaria nodded.

The pipe was smooth and offered little in the way of handholds, but Seo-yun had grown up climbing trees and still had four good tails. With little effort, she made her way up to the sphinx , and confirmed that her section of pipe could be detached . “It’s going to get wet once I open this,” she warned as she worked her fingers into the cracks.

“My lower half is already soaked,” Astaria said calmly. “At least now I will have consistency.”

“Alright, here goes-“ There followed the last two sounds that Seo-yun wanted to hear right now: a sharp click as the door above locked itself, and the gentle hiss of gas.

“Open that up, quickly,” the dragon urged, “and see if you can find a mechanism for opening the doors.”

Seo-yun flexed her fingers, ready to do just that, but before she could begin to pull, a female voice came from a loudspeaker somewhere above. “Get your hands off of that. Now.”

The fox pulled her hands back and looked around. “Hello? Are you Eirene?” she asked. That voice sounded slightly familiar to her, but she couldn’t place it.

“Unless you wish to die painfully in the next few minutes,” the voice said tersely, “you’re going to listen to me very carefully: climb down and begin making out with your friend.”

Astaria looked as confused as Seo-yun felt right now. “I…I am Astaria, daughter of your master, Karakostas,” the dragon announced. “I order you to cease the gas and open the vault at once, in his name.”

There was no response except the continued hissing of the gas.

Seo-yun looked at Astaria, who nodded silently. It sounded like there was only one thing they could do right now, and both of them had done far worse for far less. The fox let herself fall to the ground.

Astaria’s lips were warm and soft as they tenderly met Seo-yun’s. Almost immediately the gas stopped and there was a relaxed purr from the loudspeakers. “That’s better,” said the woman, sounding much more at ease and nothing at all like the mindless creature that the dragon had been describing earlier. “But there’s no need to be so shy about it, my little pets. Show me what good sluts you can be with each other.”

Astaria tasted like unfamiliar but pleasant spices as Seo-yun hesitantly explored her mouth with her own. Their tongues intertwined softly as the fox kissed her companion in a way she had never done with anyone but Sam before. Occasionally she’d been kissed by the men who raped her, but that had always been as much a one sided violation as the rest of the experience, their mouths hungrily trying to claim hers. She could feel Astaria’s slow and shallow breaths as the green haired woman’s tongue danced with her own, the movements shy and gentle.

They stayed like that for about half a minute before breaking off the kiss. “Is that sufficient?” Astaria asked, her breathing a touch heavier than it had been before.

“Mmm, much better,” said the voice. “Now, where were we?”

“I am Astaria, daughter of your master, Karakostas. I order you to-”

She was interrupted by peals of laughter. “Daughter of my master? How pleasantly droll. You are a slave who has become very good at gagging on her master’s cock and wriggling her tongue in her mistress’s twat. I don’t take orders from you, Astaria. Or from you, Ginger.”

Seo-yun looked up at the ceiling nervously. “You know who I am?”

“I know that I am one of your superiors,” said Eirene, if that truly was the woman they were talking to, “and you should be addressing me with respect.”

“I apologize for any rudeness… mistress,” the red haired fox said. “We’re not here to hurt you, I promise. We need your help to-”

“No,” Eirene said harshly, and her words were accompanied by the renewed hissing of gas. “You will not speak of such things in my presence. Are we clear?”

“Yes mistress,” Seo-yun said quickly, anxious to appease the woman before it was too late.

“You will be obedient and respectful while you are down here, or you will die. Those are your only options.”

“Yes mistress.”

“Good,” said Eirene, sounding calmer. “That is good… obedient and respectful and harmless…” She seemed to be talking to herself now, and her voice relaxed as she did. “Just a pair of sexy sluts that will do whatever I want… no need to hurt such a lovely pair…” To Seo-yun’s relief, the hissing stopped. For now.

“That’s much better,” the sphinx continued. “You just need to be good little pets for me, and then you won’t have to die. And it would be such a shame for you to die here, wouldn’t it, when you can lend me so much assistance. Ginger, why don’t you give Astaria a hard spanking? I want her ass glowing red by the time you start fucking it. Beat that lovely posterior until she’s screaming hard enough to set off that collar of hers.”

“I… don’t think we have time for all that,” Seo-yun said slowly. “We are all of us in great danger, mistress, yourself included, and-”

“Silence,” Eirene snapped. “The only responses I should ever hear to an order are ‘yes mistress’ and ‘no mistress’. And that second one should be used very, very carefully. Do you understand?”

“Yes mistress,” Seo-yun and Astaria promptly said at the same time.

“Good,” Eirene said, mollified. “You don’t, not really, but you don’t need to. Just leave everything to me, my pets. Now let us establish some ground rules before your stupidity gets you killed. You are down here for exactly one purpose, and one purpose alone: to help me cum. Say yes.”

“Yes mistress.”

“There will be no talk of other subjects, especially those that Lord Karakostas would not approve of. There will be no attempts to undermine my authority. There will be nothing at all from you but immediate and eager obedience, because there are only two ways this can play out. You can spend the rest of the night down here keeping me entertained until Lord Karakostas handles things upstairs and it’s time for you to crawl back to your cages. Or you can choke to death on your own melted lungs. Would you like to be my entertainment?”

“Yes mistress.”

“Then you already know what you should be doing,” Eirene warned, though her tone had grown more playful again.

Astaria got down on her knees and stuck her ass up in the air. Seo-yun gave a silent apology and then smacked her left cheek hard enough to leave a handprint and make the winged woman flinch. “Aww, you don’t seem like you enjoyed that very much, Astaria,” the sphinx cooed. “Should I have left the gas on and spared you from all this?”

“No mistress,” Astaria answered quickly.

“Are you sure? Are you a deviant little pain slut who loves getting her butt spanked?”

“Yes mistress.”

“Then don’t be so shy,” Eirene scolded. “From now on, every time your foxy friend hits you, I want you to express your gratitude. Not to her, of course, to me. Tell me how thankful you are that your ass is getting the beating it deserves.”

“Yes mistress.”

Seo-yun smacked Astaria again, this time on the other cheek, and the woman didn’t hesitate, belting the words out as loudly as her collar allowed. “Thank you for giving my ass the beating it deserves, mistress!”

“Mmmmm,” Eirene purred. “Yes, this is what I’ve been missing. Reading lips just isn’t the same as actually hearing it. Keep going, slave. I want to bask in this music. Don’t you dare stop until I explicitly order you to, or I will be quite cross.”

Seo-yun obeyed. *Smack* “Thank you for giving my ass the beating it deserves, mistress!”

*Smack* “Thank you for giving my ass the beating it deserves, mistress!”

*Smack* “Thank you for giving my ass the beating it deserves, mistress!”

“You know,” Eirene mused, “I used to watch you, Astaria, back in the day. I watched you preen and strut around the Paradisium like you were more than just a scaly fucktoy. You have no ideas how many times I fantasized about the chance to beat some sense into you. And then when your Lord Father decided to claim you… it was magnificent. He and his big beautiful cock taught you what a woman’s real place is in this world, didn’t he?”

*Smack* “Thank you for giving my ass the beating it deserves, mistress!”

“I even recorded the session. Would you like to see?” There was a burst of static as all the hundreds of monitors changed to the same view: a screaming Astaria face down on a large desk, being pounded from behind by her father. “It’s so cute the way you tried to put up a fight at first! See how easily he forced you to be his cum dump?”

*Smack* “Thank you for giving my ass the beating it deserves, mistress!”

“Now, my favorite moment is a little after this. It’s not when you finally deepthroated his cock like a good girl, or even when you let him try his best to ruin your asshole. It’s this right here.” The video jumped ahead to Karakostas pulling his prick, which seemed barely smaller than before, out of his daughter’s asshole. He said something, and on screen Astaria quickly moved to kneel in front of him. “You thought he was done, didn’t you? You thought he’d use all three holes and then you’d get to take a break.” He slapped his shaft against her face, and then rubbed the head of his cock on her full lips. “And this was the moment you realized how stupid you really were. He had all night long to play with his new fucktoy, and he wasn’t going to miss out on a minute of it, was he?” A single tear trickled from the dragon as she beheld her father’s member, and then she obediently opened her mouth and began to suck him. “God, I could keep watching that forever.” The screen changed to a five second loop of the tear running down the woman’s cheek, ending with her lips just starting to part.

The sight of it made Seo-yun sick to her stomach, and she turned away. She had no idea how they were going to get out of here alive and before it was too late, not with this clearly deranged sadist controlling whether they lived or died.

*Smack* “Thank you for giving my ass the beating it deserves, mistress!”

“You must adore your father,” Eirene cooed. “Just look at what a diligent cocksleeve you were for him. Did you know what a hardworking fucktoy your friend is, Ginger? She fucked and sucked and fucked and sucked, on and on until she was just a cum soaked slut with her father’s jizz sloshing around in every hole. Tell me, Astaria, did you finally realize what a stupid twat you were that day? Did you think about all that time you’d wasted pretending to be a real person, and how nobody in the entire world cared about that anymore? Were those the sorts of thoughts running through your head while you choked on him, my little used condom?”

Seo-yun heard Astaria let out a sob. The fox burned to say or do something, but she didn’t know what. People’s lives were depending on them right now, and she was spending the precious little time they had left on this barbarism. She wanted to scream at the unfairness of it all, but there was only one thing she could do right now.

*Smack* “Th-thank you for giving m-my ass the beating it deserves, m-mistress!” Astaria blubbered, fighting to speak through the tears.

Eirene laughed. “Look how easy it is to get a reaction from you. Oh, we three are going to have so much fun together tonight.”


It took all of Hanabi’s willpower to hold still as the vulpan sprang towards her with a powerful leap from his back legs. She’d watched them move before, but she didn’t appreciate until now just how fast they could be. He closed the distance in an instant, his teeth flashing as he raked the empty air next to her.

One of his two companions laughed at the sight as they both trotted over. They both had brown fur and looked as battle scarred as he did. “You chasing ghosts now, Barbatos? Don’t got enough shit trying to kill us here?”

“Fuck you,” said the grey vulpan absently as he continued sniffing the air. “There is something here, I know it…”

Hanabi didn’t dare to even breathe as she wove more foxfire to send the illusion that he’d attacked – her scent combined with a hint of body warmth – drifting down the hall and away from them. Her cloak might be only barely masking her, but it was just letting a few whispers slip out compared to the bullhorn she was sounding. In her head, she prayed to Inari that he would chase after her illusion and leave them alone.

Her efforts were partly successful. The fox’s head swung towards the direction of her illusion, but he made no move to follow. “Go check that way,” he ordered.

“Why the fuck should I?” asked one of the others.

Barbatos growled a warning. “Because I know this smell. It’s one of those damn fox sluts.”

That got their attention, and they both began actively sniffing the air themselves. “You think some of those furry little cum dumps got loose?” one of them asked. “God, what a fucking shame it would be if we found one and had to drag her ass somewhere quiet and away from this goddamn slaughterhouse so we could spend the next few hours interrogating her.”

“So stop wasting time and go check that way,” the grey fox snapped. “Smells like the cunt ran off, but…” He took a longer, slow sniff. “I think there’s one still here too. Could be a whole goddamn pack of them slipped out somewhere.”

“You got it, boss,” said one of the vulpan as they began stalking away. Hanabi saw his tails twitch with excitement as he picked up her fake scent and started actively following it. “Take your time over here, and we’ll try not to completely demolish all her fuckholes before you get a turn.”

“Yeah,” said the other, “we’ll save you a nostril or something for your pencil dick.” They both laughed as they trotted off.

One vulpan was better than three, but still more than enough to murder them, and Barbatos seemed determined to smoke them out. “I’ll make you a deal, slut,” he said as he began questing out with his tails, trying to make contact with his unseen prey. “You come out and be a good fucktoy, we’ll let you go when this is all over. Tell everyone you used your foxy wiles or something to escape. But if I find you first…” His tails swept abruptly from side to side. “Just how much abuse does it take to fuck one of you furballs to death?”

Hanabi stood frozen as much by fear as her desire to keep quiet. She tried sending out another illusion in the opposite direction, but Barbatos ignored it. He could sense that he wasn’t alone, and he wasn’t interested in chasing trails when he knew there was prey right under his nose. They couldn’t run without him noticing, and they couldn’t keep hiding for long. Could she make something else that would distract or scare him off? No, she couldn’t risk it. Three months ago she would’ve claimed it was impossible for her to hide herself and someone else at the same time. She’d improved by leaps and bounds since then thanks to her father, but this was still requiring far too much focus and energy to maintain. Anything more than the simplest and crudest of illusions might result in her cloak falling apart completely.

Which left only one other option. She risked turning her head to look at Sam, and the redhead nodded her affirmation. She’d reached the same conclusion as Hanabi: their only choice was to fight. Sam raised her rifle and pointed it directly at the prowling vulpan. Her hand shook from the awkward grip on the heavy weapon, but she steadied it and fired.

The gunshot this time seemed ten times as loud to the white haired girl than all the ones she’d heard today. Barbatos howled as the bullet struck him, but Hanabi saw immediately that the shot had gone wrong. Sam had been aiming for the creature’s brain to try and take him out in one shot, but she’d missed by a centimeter and it had merely grazed his skull instead.

The redhead tried to line up another shot, but the vulpan was already charging straight at her. She cursed and threw herself to the side, landing in a roll that ended with her crouched on one knee, weapon up and ready. Sam fired again, and hit Barabatos in the side, opening up one of his wounds.

The grey fox roared in pain, and this time Sam wasn’t close enough to evade his attack. The teeth and claws that would’ve torn her open in an instant missed the hidden woman, but one of his tails hit her straight on with a blow like a steel bat. The gun was knocked from her hand and the woman herself was hurled down the hall far enough to break her tenuous connection to Hanabi and lose her cloak.

Now that he’d sighted his opponent, Barbatos growled and charged directly at her. Hanabi felt like she was throwing herself into the path of an oncoming train as she let the small fox in her arms fall to the ground and dashed between them. The flamethrower in her hands roared as she pulled the trigger and sent a jet of fire at the vulpan.

She’d expected the blast of flame to halt his advance, but she’d underestimated him. Barbatos charged right through it instead, ignoring his charred fur and slamming into her. Hanabi hit the ground flat on her back and screamed as his teeth found her stomach and began to chew through her. Her finger was still holding down the trigger of the flamethrower, and she swung the weapon to aim the nozzle point blank at his head.

That was enough to make him spring backwards to put some distance between them, fresh blood dripping from his muzzle. Hanabi glanced down at herself, expecting to see her entire torso ripped open, but he’d only left a single gruesome bite mark. It hurt like hell, but it wasn’t going to be fatal on its own. What would be fatal was that the assault had made her lose control of her cloak, and now she and Sam were both completely visible. There was no chance she’d have time to create a new one before they were ripped to shreds.

Barbatos didn’t bother taunting them or making any offer to spare their lives if they cooperated. He was looking at them as enemies, not potential fucktoys, and it was kill or be killed. Before she could even rise to her feet he came back at her, and when she tried to level the flamethrower at him once more, this time he was ready for it. A flick of his tail sent it flying away and then he was pouncing on her again, except this time his jaws weren’t at her stomach. They snapped at her face instead, intending to rip her head off in a single motion.

Hanabi planted her hands on his chin and tried to push him away from her. He was stronger than she was, much much stronger, but she had leverage on her side. That alone wouldn’t have stopped him from killing her in moments, but it did when combined with her tails. All nine of them dropped the other weapons she’d been holding onto and joined her hands in pushing against him, putting every ounce of hard earned muscle to use forcing his head up.

It wasn’t enough, not for long. She was just barely matching him in power, but his endurance was far superior and they both knew it. Her limbs shook as her adrenaline fueled strength waned, his jaws creeping inexorably closer. Six inches away… five… four… one…

And then Sam was there, jumping onto his back and hooking her left arm around his neck to choke him. He tried to throw her off, but her right arm and both legs were wrapped around him, and even the whip-like slaps of his tails couldn’t dislodge her. She leaned into him as he moved, and sent him toppling onto his side. “Now!” the redhead shouted.

Hanabi scrambled for one of the fallen flamethrowers and aimed it at the vulpan, praying that Sam was still fireproof. Barbatos howled as the flames engulfed him, twisting and kicking in a frenzy to try and get up. It was a race to see if the fire could overcome his regeneration and kill him before he righted himself and tore the both of them apart.

He won.

Fur blackened and burnt, he fought to his feet and ripped Sam off of him. A tail smashed into the flamethrower and broke it into pieces. Her only weapon gone, Hanabi stared up at him in terror as Barbatos screamed out his pain and fury and pounced on her a final time to finish what he’d started. Her hands and tails pushed at him again, but it was no contest this time. She was a rabbit in the fox’s jaws.

A rifle barked once and the vulpan jerked. His weight suddenly pressed down on her and she kept fighting him for a second, thinking he was trying to simply crush her under his bulk now, until she saw the glassy eyes and the hole in his head, and realized that she was struggling against a corpse.

Down the hall, just a few feet away from them, a blonde knelt with the gun in both of her hands, shivering like a leaf and completely naked save for a strip of fox skin tied around one ankle. Her hair was ragged and unkempt, and she looked malnourished and filthy, but when she spoke, it was with a panicked voice that still somehow sounded soft and refined. “I… sometimes George liked to go hunting… he… he used to take me with him to the range…”

“I know you,” Hanabi whispered, so stunned that she nearly forgot about the fox on top of her. “You were at the temple. You… you saved my life…” She tried to remember the name that the soldiers had used for her. They’d called her lots of unpleasant and obscene things, but they’d also called her… “Jessica! That’s your name, right? Jessica Wal… Welm…”

“Wilmingshire,” Sam said coldly. She was already back on her feet, bruised and battered but otherwise fine. “Jessica Wilmingshire.”

The blonde quailed at the sound of her own name, and all but threw the gun as she dropped it and scrambled backwards on her hands and feet until her back hit the wall. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m sorry… I didn’t… I was scared and I panicked… I wasn’t… wasn’t trying to trick her…”

“You didn’t.” Sam retrieved the gun, and then ripped a radio from the vulpan’s corpse. “Three years ago, your fuckface of an owner was bragging about you just before we escaped. Seo-yun and I both knew who you had to be when we found you.”

The red fox’s name made Jessica shrink even further. “I’m sorry… I’ll go away… please, you don’t… don’t have to hurt me… I’m sorry…”

Hanabi looked between the two of them, confused. “Who is she?”

“Tell her,” Sam said curtly. “But do it after you transform so we can get the hell out of here before those other two come back.”

Jessica nodded quickly. “Y-yes mistre-“

“Don’t you dare fucking me call that,” Sam hissed, and Jessica flinched back as if struck. “Nobody deserves to be one of that asshole’s sex toys, but I don’t think there’s anyone still alive that I’d feel less sorry for about it than you. Don’t mistake me not killing you in cold blood when we found you for giving a single fuck whether you live or die.” The blonde opened her mouth as if to speak, but then closed it and nodded again. Her form shifted back into the small fox and she meekly scurried back into Hanabi’s arms so that the white haired girl could cloak the both of them.

As they walked, Jessica spoke in hushed, halting sentences about her past. About the Paradisium, and Seo-yun, and ending up a slave to Levi Petrov. “So she’s right,” she finished. “You don’t have to feel sorry for me. I’m just a stupid… a stupid stuck up cunt who got what she deserved.”

“No,” Hanabi said firmly. She’d spent a week seeing what cruelties Levi was capable of, and a day experiencing them firsthand. The idea of two and a half years under that monster’s thumb was too horrible to even contemplate. “Sam is right that nobody deserves that. Look, leaving through the front door won’t work for us, but I don’t think anyone is going to look too closely at one little fox. We’re… probably all going to die in here, but you can still get out. Start a new life somewhere if you don’t like your old one.”

“Please don’t make me do that,” Jessica pleaded.

“Hoping you’ll get a nice and easy suicide if you stick with us?” Sam asked sourly, her only contribution since the woman had started telling her story.

“No,” said the small fox. “I don’t want to die, I just… I… I don’t want to be alone…”

A growl came from just up ahead, where the corridor turned. The sound made Hanabi’s blood run cold and made a terrified Jessica bury her head in the girl’s chest and squeal softly with fright. She’d only ever heard him speak in vulpan form a handful of times, but that was more than enough. She didn’t think she’d ever be able to forget the sight and sound and smell of the man no matter how hard she tried.

Levi Petrov came into view a second later, charging towards a wall to slam a naked woman into it with enough force to crack the surface. One tail was tight around her throat, and the other eight were reaming out her lower holes, angrily twisting and scraping and churning as though his intent was not simply to rape her but to hollow out her insides.

The sight of him revived a million terrible nightmares, and even more horrifying memories of the genuine atrocities she’d witnessed from him. But it wasn’t Levi that made her legs shudder and nearly give out, and a whimper of her own escape her lips before she could stop herself.

The woman he was torturing was his pet monster and winter fae, Celeste.

“Don’t go thinking these fuckholes are good enough to keep you around, you goddamn cunt!” Levi was snarling. “You think I’ll just let you make me look like an idiot?! You think I won’t throw you away like the worthless fucking trash you are?! Show you mercy and let you die just because you’re too stupid to even be a fucktoy?! I will bury you alive in iron, bitch. No, I’ll make you do it to yourself. Make you cram the stuff up every hole and then dig yourself an unmarked grave. I’ll let you find out how long eternity feels when you spend it buried a mile under the surface with a metal skewer up your ass and an iron cock stretching out your womb!”

Seeing any other person in that circumstance would have elicited sympathy from Hanabi, but not her. Not the woman who could effortlessly pierce her foxfire. She took one shaky step backwards, but she was already too late. The fae had turned her head to look right at all three of them.

“M-master Levi…” Celeste rasped, forcing the words past his stranglehold. “Must… inform you…”

“What?” the vulpan growled. “Is this where you beg me to kill you, or where you beg me to keep you as my fucktoy? I don’t know which is more pathetic.” His grip on her throat loosened slightly, but his fierce pounding of her only grew more savage.

“I have standing orders…” she managed, “to inform you…  of certain eventualities… I have reason to believe… that our current circumstances qualify… vis a vis commands put into pla-“

Levi smashed her head right through the wall. “Stop wasting my fucking time!” he demanded as he yanked it back.

“I require a more specific… definition of wasted time… in order to comply properly…”

“If it doesn’t have to do with the Paradisium, or the fighting, or these goddamn monsters running around, or anything else life threatening, I don’t want to hear about it right now!”

Celeste’s eyes flickered towards Hanabi again. “Then I have nothing… to report…”

“That’s what I thought,” Levi spat, disgusted. He tossed her away from himself, his tails making ugly sounds as they were expelled from the depths of her body.

“C-commander Petrov?” squeaked a terrified male voice from further down the corridor. “I, I have a message…”

Levi turned his head to look at the unseen man. “What?”

“We, we encountered what we thought was one of the monsters at first, s-sir, but this one is different. It can talk, and it… it has your sister with it…”

The hot rage emanating from the vulpan suddenly became something icier and even more intense. “Show me. Now.”

“Y-yes sir!”

Levi gave the fallen and battered fae only a single glance. “Follow.”

“Yes, master Levi,” Celeste said calmly, as though he hadn’t just been threatening her with a fate worse than death. The woman picked herself, turned her gaze towards Hanabi one last time, and gave a small nod. Then she disappeared down the hall, following after the vulpan.

Even after she couldn’t see them anymore, Hanabi couldn’t stop shivering and her pulse thundered in her ears. She had been certain, absolutely certain, that that was the end of everything. She still couldn’t believe that they were okay. It took a gentle nudge from Sam to get her moving again.

The tiny fox was licking her hand softly, and Hanabi realized that Jessica was trying to comfort her. She stroked the woman’s head in response. “We’re almost there,” she said, as much to herself as either of the others. “It should be just up ahead. That… that must have been Nami they were talking about, right?”

“If it is, then there’s nothing we can do for her,” Sam said flatly, though Hanabi could read the discomfort in her eyes. “Come on, we need to keep moving.”

They were so close to the entrance that it took less than a minute from at that point to get there, but it still felt like a miracle to have no further incidents. The elevator doors had been ripped off, and beyond them was the open shaft. Hanabi saw no sign of the elevator car, but there were pitons buried in the wall and floor of the hallway, and from them dangled ropes that descended into the darkness below.

She looked down the shaft warily, but there was no sign of anyone, vulpan of otherwise. “How far down is it to the vault again?”

“Long enough that if I have to climb back up, I’ll probably just do myself a favor and eat a bullet instead ,” Sam said as she grabbed onto one of the ropes.

“Wait,” Hanabi asked, “Will you be okay to get down with just one…” The woman was already rappelling down. “…hand,” the fox finished lamely. “Hold on tight,” she told Jessica, and felt nine small tails hug her torso. Going much, much, much more slowly and carefully than Sam, the pair began descending down the shaft.

The downward journey didn’t take as long as Hanabi had feared. Once she got used to rappelling, she discovered it was actually kinda fun, and at least as fast as the elevator would’ve been. In the end, it took about ten minutes for her to reach the makeshift bottom of the shaft, where long wooden planks had been put in place to create a platform to stand on.

A large drilling machine was set up down there, with several twisted and broken drill bits scattered. The product of it could be seen on the far wall, where a small gap had been opened through several inches of thick metallic plate. On the other side Hanabi could catch a glimpse of the vault’s guard station, which appeared to be empty.

“So now what?” she asked.

“Now we wait for the others and listen to what Paragon is saying,” Sam replied as she set the stolen radio up in one corner. She knocked her fist against the plate. “Once they get these to retract, we go in and start digging our way out.” She eyed the drilling machine. “Speaking of, let’s give this thing a closer look. If we can bring it in with us, it might save a bunch of time.”

“Sounds good,” Hanabi said absently, still staring at the gap. “Jessica… you think you could fit in there?”

The small fox was still hugging her tightly, and let go only reluctantly to examine the opening. She stuck her head in and began slowly working the rest of herself through. It took a minute, but eventually she was completely through, and she turned to look back at the others.

“Go find someone,” Hanabi told her. “Anyone, and get them to come here. The sooner everyone knows what’s up, the better, and maybe someone in there will know something that can help.” Jessica nodded and disappeared.

“Sorry if I’m supposed to hate her,” she told Sam quietly as she began helping the woman unscrew the drilling machine from the platform so that it could be moved. “I know she used to be really awful before, but I didn’t know her then. I only know the woman who’s saved my life twice now.”

“That’s your call, short stuff, not mine,” Sam replied. “I’m just about the last person in the world who can go around claiming that once an evil bitch, always an evil bitch. And I’m married to a woman who would’ve literally tried to eat me if I’d met her five years ago. Not my place to decide whether you can or can’t overlook her past and believe she’s a different person now.” She gave Hanabi a hard look. “But that works both ways. I don’t care how much she might have changed; she hurt my wife and I hate her guts. Nobody can force me to forgive her for that.”

The white haired girl didn’t think that sounded right, but she remembered her own complicated feelings about the Qilin fighting above. Once again, she resolutely pushed them out of her mind and nodded. “That’s fair.” She put her head down and got to work.


Jessica raced down the hallway as fast as her small body could allow. She didn’t get many opportunities to run in this form, but she quickly found a natural pace to fall into that had her moving at a near constant sprint.

She’d thought she was going to die in shock at the sight of Gin- that fox woman. Seo-yun, that redhead had called her. She’d been terrified that the woman was going to somehow recognize her and rip her apart. Jessica couldn’t very well say that she didn’t deserve it. And apparently the fox woman had recognized her, but opted to do nothing to her, which… was so absurd that for a moment she’d wondered if maybe she’d been dreaming this entire evening.

Jessica had ruined that woman’s life by being young and stupid and selfish. She still remembered how she’d thought little at the time of Matthew Levinson’s request for two entire weeks to “tame” the wild fox she had hired him to catch. When she’d seen the wretched state the fox had been in at the end of it, she’d been distressed, but more at the idea of her husband’s gift being ruined than out of any empathy. She knew enough of Master Levi now to have an excellent idea of how terrible two weeks with him must have been like. At least she usually had Celeste or Akemi or both to share the burden of being his sex slave. To spend that much time as the sole target of his sadism, him and fifty other like minded men…and all because a foolish rich woman had wanted to buy her husband a birthday present.

She tried to tear her mind away from Seo-yun and think about other things. After all, there was nothing she could ever do to earn the fox woman’s forgiveness. She turned her thoughts towards Hanabi instead, that adorable girl who’d carried her here. Once upon a time she would’ve mistaken her feelings as sexual, but that wasn’t really it. The fox girl had been soft and warm, and she’d held onto Jessica like she was going to protect her from all the evils of the world. It was like what she imagined a hug from her mother would have felt like, if the woman had ever been inclined to show physical affection.

Her ears pricked up at the sound of movement coming from down the hall. That must be the escaping prisoners! She raced toward the sound, eager to show Hanabi what a good fox she could be. Except… the people that she found there didn’t look like foxes. They were squat and naked and green and she knew them. She’d seen them before, in the Paradisium: goblins.

One of them grabbed the scruff of her neck and picked her up. “And what have we here?” he said happily. “New little foxy friend? Thought your other friends lonely, yes? Do not worry, we are keeping them company. Very, very company. But there is always room for more foxy friends.”

Jessica squirmed, trying to bite his hand and make him let go, and the goblin responded by smacking her against the wall several times hard enough to rattle her bones. “Now, now,” he said, wagging a finger at her. “Bad foxies get punished. Get turned into tender meat and roasted in stew. But you want to be good foxy, yes? Make lots of friends and get many, many gifts of goblin cum?” He smacked her against the wall again, and this time she definitely felt something break. “Yes?”

She ceased all her struggles and quickly nodded her head. The goblin smiled at her, revealing rows of jagged, rotting teeth. “Good foxy. Stupid and slow foxy, but good foxy. Let’s go have lots of fun.”

One thought on “Lone Fox 3 – Ch 18 – Squirming

  1. Well, since I wasn’t present for the live reading, I might as well give my reaction here. This chapter might be a positive sign, in that I felt bad for Astaria again. I…uh…should probably explain that.

    You know that every Astaria scene up through Chapter 13 or so has upset me, but that had an additional effect I hinted at in Chapter 13: I’d basically detached from Astaria as a character and actually kind of started to not want to see her anymore.

    This comes down to the effect of all those Tanya/Astaria scenes, which was twofold. The first is, effectively, Pavlovian conditioning. The scenes were all about Tanya being in power and Astaria being helpless, so every time Astaria was on screen, Tanya’s plans were proceeding and I was upset. It took me until a few days ago to put it into words, but eventually the powerful negative emotional reaction just became tied to Astaria, to the point that not only was I no longer excited or hopeful whenever she appeared; I was deeply uncomfortable every time she showed up, Tanya or no Tanya. This conditioning likely could have been mitigated by showing Astaria’s accomplishments (like if we saw Tanya burn her with wax “on her birthday”, and then we had a moment inside Astaria’s head and revealed that it wasn’t her birthday, and that she had just actually tricked Tanya and teased out how her power works, revealing that she was actually working toward a goal and giving her a little moment of victory over Tanya), but those moments were, for whatever reason, placed offscreen, reducing their impact to an absolute minimum (when the information is revealed, it serves merely as exposition on how Tanya’s powers work, and Tanya’s quite pleased with what happened, so it doesn’t feel like a victory).

    I fully understood the effect when Astaria greeted Sam at the door in chapter 15, and my response was that I immediately wanted her to just go away. I remember thinking that if the story abandoned Astaria entirely, if she disappeared and never came back, I would probably feel relieved. When she was talking to the others last chapter (about how they need to trust Tanya and Tanya’s plan as far as Astaria can piece it together), I was still kind of uncomfortable and was relieved when we cut away from her..

    Aside from the conditioning, there was the issue of stripping away the character I had liked back in LF2. Basically, when we meet Astaria, her character is established as a former slave owner who became aware of the horrors she had been a part of, and is now an abolitionist. The Paradisium was her focus, and given that Karakostas was the living embodiment of the institution she was fighting, as well as her rapist after Chapter 10, that made him her personal enemy, much the way Mordred is Yuki’s. It was also established in discussion with you and Darinost that one of Astaria’s greatest strengths was her ability as a leader, and that her arc would be, to some extent, about learning to lean into that. We got to see those talents during the spider pit scene, and I loved the scene at the end with her “and this is for” moment, showing her determination and her agency in the world. Not only did she have a goal, she had the beginnings of a plan to get to that goal.

    This story immediately began removing those aspects. Tanya negates the scene at the end of LF2 by explaining that she knows about Astaria storing dragon fire and turns Astaria’s best scene into blackmail to drive the submission training scenes. For the first two thirds of this story, Astaria is reactive (save for Tanya giving her the “choice” about what happens to Vanessa), and as mentioned the only moments where we might have seen her achieve something are both offscreen and only related later. Needless to say, this also made me far more hostile to the big Tanya reveal, since I tend to imagine the reason Astaria’s few positive moments were kept offscreen was to not spoil any of the mystery of Tanya, and keep the audience eagerly guessing about what Tanya was doing and how her powers worked.

    Like Astaria, Karakostas was mostly pushed to the sidelines (with Paragon, represented by Levi and Tanya, as the primary villainous faction), and Tanya also took over fighting the Paradisium from Astaria. In fact, just about every major character was involved in fighting the Paradisium except Astaria (Ying Yue is the only other one I can think of). The one time I thought she might be involved in the escape attempt turned out to be a red herring, and she was just reporting to Tanya. Yes, she beat up Tanya afterward, but again, kept offscreen (and after learning the truth, she ended up approving of Tanya’s plan enough to lie to Sam to help it go smoothly). I don’t think I have to mention how I felt the “Astaria as leader” idea was going, given the above and how her scenes focus on powerlessness.

    Why did I explain all of that?

    Well, at first, I was still having an unpleasant reaction to Astaria here, to the point of not enjoying her rousing speech at all. When Eirene started in on dominating her, I had a sinking feeling we were just about to do another “hot” scene that was just going to be unpleasant for me. But, and I cannot believe I’m listing this as a positive, when Eirene really started attacking Astaria, ripping into her and reminding her of her rape by her father and how worthless she is…I didn’t feel bad in the “please point the camera at someone else” way. I actually felt bad for Astaria, which I hadn’t in like ten chapters. It was also strangely comforting that by reminding Astaria of her Chapter 10 rape, the story is sort of tying things back, to some extent, to the character I loved in LF2.

    I’m still not sure I’ll get all the way back to Astaria being my favorite character again, and I’m trying not to be too optimistic, but given the very last bit we see of her in this chapter, I can at least say that it’s possible.

    I also felt really bad for Celeste, given that you mentioned Levi raping her with his tails, which have been established to be covered in flesh-tearing spikes, so Celeste’s regeneration is likely the only thing keeping her from bleeding to death when he shreds her throat and vaginal and anal lining. On the other hand, it was nice to see that even in the middle of all that, Celeste is still messing with him, complete with giving really lengthy lead-ins to her statements that piss Levi off and then capitalizing on his impatience and overly specific wording, allowing her not to mention having spotted Hanabi and Sam.

    And speaking of the third member of that group, go Jessica! She’s absolutely terrified, but the woman shot a vulpan dead, with one bullet, and that’s awesome, especially given her situation.

    Not to say that Samantha using an assault rifle with one hand isn’t cool too, because it very much is,

    Samantha’s “I don’t care how much she might have changed; she hurt my wife and I hate her guts. Nobody can force me to forgive her for that.” strikes me as somewhat unfair. I will acknowledge that that’s in large part because of Hanabi applying it to Ying Yue (“That’s fair.” was not a fun thing to read), especially given the two women’s situations being very different, but even regarding Jessica it feels a little harsh. Granted, Jessica has other people (Hanabi included) who will treat her more kindly, but still.

    And finally, in case Sam thought Jessica hadn’t properly suffered, she gets caught by the goblins…who don’t seem to be reacting to the “kill ’em all” assault on the Paradisium. That might be the most extreme case of “this isn’t my department” I’ve ever read.

    “So there’s a drill bit coming in through the wall over there…”

    “Eh, somebody else’ll take care of that.”

    On the other hand, this means we may shortly have goblins versus vulpan, and whoever loses, I win.

    Like

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