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.
Not all of the vulpan soldiers were as spellbound by Seo-yun’s appearance as others. Several of them charged at her, all of them as large as she was and confident that they could crush her between them.
Seo-yun danced away from them effortlessly, more offended by their clumsiness than worried for her safety. These soldiers used her people’s form, but they didn’t understand them, caring only about the strength and speed and fortitude, and not at all the grace. They moved more like humans on all fours than true foxes, and despite their supernatural enhancements, she found them easier to dodge like this than if they’d still been on two legs.
Her claws flashed as she evaded their awkward strikes. Empowered by her bond with Morris, she tore right through their tough hides, ripping most of her attackers to shreds in moments. The rest of them she snagged with her tails, crushing their rib cages along with most of their internal organs before flinging them away.
It felt so right to be back in her true form. She could still feel Morris’s wonder at being in this body, and it filled her with joy. There is so much more to show you, she silently promised him. When this was all over, she would take him out into the forest so they could both rejoice in the way it felt to run free, the wind ruffling their fur. They would bring Sam with them, of course. They would run and hunt and play, and go to sleep under the stars, wrapped and warm in her tails.
They just had to survive Levi Petrov first.
She was grateful for the man’s arrogance. Had he been more wary of her, and used Hanabi as a hostage, Seo-yun wasn’t certain what she would have done, but he’d already carelessly discarded the girl, confident that he could crush her by himself. Not that his confidence was misplaced. He was still stronger than her, faster than her, and far more adept on four legs than any of his men. “Run!” she called out to Hanabi, hoping the girl was conscious enough to listen and obey. “I can take care of things here.” Her heart sank when Hanabi gave no response, her battered body still and silent. The minute movements of her chest were the only sign that she lived.
“The animal somehow finds herself a new skin, and thinks she’s invincible now?” Levi sneered. “You’re still nothing but a furry fucktoy, cunt, and I’ll kill you as many times as it takes to make it stick.” With that, he whipped his freakish tails at her, shooting out a hail of razor sharp quills whose tips glistened with poison. They streaked towards her as quickly as bullets, far too fast for her to dodge.
But she didn’t need to. A flat, glimmering wall of red light appeared in front of the kitsune, and the deadly quills glanced off it harmlessly. A group of vulpan took the opportunity to strike at her from every direction, but the red light shifted to surround her like a sphere, and the most eager of her attackers only succeeded in breaking their teeth and claws on it.
Seo-yun’s entire body blazed with foxfire, but she had never worked with it in her life. She knew that it took years of practice to master, and that no matter how strongly this overflowing well inside her thrummed with power, it should have been utterly useless. She hadn’t even known that protecting herself like this was possible, let alone how to do it.
But her parents had, and they had passed along some modicum of their skill along with everything else. The fox silently thanked them for their final gift as she dismissed the wall and kicked the ground around her, sending coins up in a sharp spray that made several of the vulpan flinch and provided her an opening to flee the enclosing circle of soldiers. She gutted two of them as she sprang away, but her goal wasn’t to try and kill everyone here. Sam must have found a way to the nexus by now, so Seo-yun’s two biggest priorities were to buy everyone time and save Hanabi. Not that she would complain if she found the opportunity to kill Levi in the process.
She dashed through the castle’s open front gate and raced across the courtyard toward the main keep, confident that the man would follow. If she was lucky, she could lure him away from Hanabi and after her. She heard the castle wall crumble as he met her expectations and went through it without even slowing down. But before she could reach the building more quills flew at her, forcing her to halt and put up another shield. This time the storm of blades didn’t let up, the quills regenerating fast enough that Levi always had more to fling at her. Unable to move and block at the same time, she could only grit her teeth as he closed the distance, feeling her shield weaken by degrees with every spike it stopped.
Levi’s right eye opened, and suddenly just maintaining that foxfire wall between them took almost everything Seo-yun had. Her tails all flopped to the ground, too heavy to keep in the air anymore. The vulpan gave an ugly laugh as he closed in for the kill, her shield barely holding against his assault. “All that bluster, and you’re still the same pitiful fox slut,” he taunted. “We’ll see how easily you come back to life when you’ve been ripped to pieces and digested.”
Seo-yun waited until he was nearly on top of her, then pushed her bond as hard as she ever had. It didn’t ward her against his gaze, but even weakened she could now move well enough to break off eye contact with a swipe of a tail. Strength flowed back into her, and she used it to leap straight up towards the top of the keep. Levi immediately sprang after her, his jump powerful enough that he overtook her and landed on the keep roof first, ready to maul her the moment she caught up.
Except that her destination hadn’t been the roof. Seo-yun kicked off the keep wall instead, sending cracks racing through the structure as she rebounded towards Hanabi’s fallen form. When Levi landed on the roof an instant later, the weakened structure gave way completely under his weight and power. The keep collapsed, and the surprised vulpan disappeared under the rubble.
Some of the others tried to intercept her on the way to Hanabi. They failed. Seo-yun left them dying on the ground behind her as she raced to save the white fox, aware that the fall hadn’t injured Levi, just slowed him down for a few seconds. Without stopping, she scooped up the girl’s body with her tails and kept running. The kitsune could feel her foxfire flowing into Hanabi to help her heal herself, though she had no conscious knowledge of just how she was doing that.
Levi slammed into her from behind and Hanabi flew from Seo-yun’s grasp as fox and vulpan tumbled together among the heaps of coin, clawing and snapping at one another. At this distance, the moment he succeeded in making eye contact again was the moment Seo-yun would die. But knowing that made the vulpan’s movements predictable and easy to counter. So despite being outmatched in both power and speed, she tore into him, her centuries of experience more than making up for their physical disparity.
And that physical disparity was far smaller than it had been in their last real fight. After all the strain she’d put on her bond with Morris over the last few days, she’d worried that it would be too weak and drained to use effectively, but to her surprise and delight nothing could be further than the truth. Their bond felt stronger and more responsive than ever, in fact, and she was now very nearly as fast and powerful as she’d been as a gumiho.
If that had been all Levi Petrov had to bring to bear against her, the fight would have ended there, but she had that monstrous arm of his to worry about too. Even the slightest contact with it felt like touching dry ice as it drained warmth and vitality from her. Seo-yun’s movements grew slower and weaker, until it was all she could do to keep him from tearing her throat out. In desperation she flung him away from her, and even as he hit the ground and skidded across, coins spraying up around him, he was already flicking his tails at her. This time her shield was a quarter second too slow, and three spikes buried themselves in her torso.
The red fox felt their poison burning inside of her as she protected herself from all sides, careful not to make eye contact with Levi as he rose to his feet. She was already starting to feel winded, but he looked untouched from their scuffle. “Where’d the other bitch go?” he snarled, and then snapped his head to the side. Seo-yun followed his gaze to see a small white form on four legs streaking past one of the open doors of the hub and out of sight. “Kill her!” he ordered, and about twenty of his men broke off to chase after her.
She was surrounded by vulpan now, all of them much warier around her than their fallen brethren. All of them ready to bring her down the moment her shield failed. Levi laughed. “Did you think she was going to help you if you rescued her? That’s not how animals work, cunt. She ran to save her own skin like the coward she is. And now you’re all alone again, just you and me and a few hundred soldiers that are all going to get the chance to fuck your corpse before we’re finished here. Even your pathetic cumsoaked brain must be starting to understand that you have no chance in hell here.”
“You’re wrong, Levi,” Seo-yun said calmly. “I’m not alone, and I never have been.”
Her confidence seemed to infuriate the man. He cursed and fell back to his previous tactic of attacking her from a distance, knowing that she didn’t have the ability to respond. The kitsune was glad to have his attention, but already her shield was cracking again. Levi was a brute, but a cunning one, and he was directing his quills at roughly the same spot every time, hammering at that one point in the barrier. Once it broke, the entire thing would shatter and she’d be a pincushion before she could replace it.
Her only chance now was to drop the wall and run. If she timed it just right and caught him off guard, she might be able to get away before the hail of quills reached her. It was a stopgap, not a solution, but it was all that she had.
Seo-yun didn’t wait until the shield was almost gone, when Levi would be anticipating her escape attempt. While it was still mostly solid, she dismissed it without warning and bounded away, praying that he would be just a little too slow to kill her.
And as she did, she saw the smug look in Levi’s eyes and knew instantly that she’d made a mistake.
The man’s years of hunting experience didn’t involve teeth and claws like hers. His were all about trapping intelligent creatures, anticipating whether they would flee or fight, cutting off their avenues of escape. He hadn’t been attacking her with the intention of slowly breaking down her defenses. He’d done it knowing exactly what her response would be, and he shifted his aim almost before her feet had even moved, sending a deadly rain of spikes at her that she was helpless to evade or stop. She’d gambled and lost.
Only the quills went right past her, missing her by at least ten feet and striking… another Seo-yun. A perfect illusion of herself that she hadn’t even been aware was there. “Didn’t you hear her, asshole?” said Hanabi’s voice from somewhere, while Levi gaped at seeing his attack pass harmlessly through her and his tails faltered in his confusion. “She isn’t alone.”
Levi spat. “You goddamn little-” And then an invisible Seo-yun crashed into him, raking him with her claws. This time he was the one who retreated, and the bloody furrows she’d left all over his body didn’t heal as fast as they once would’ve.
“You two bitches want to hide and play games?” the vulpan snarled. “Fine! All of you, go to the slave pens and start slaughtering the vermin while I deal with these two!”
None of the soldiers hesitated to obey, happy to not have to deal with the red fox directly. Seo-yun reacted immediately too, moving to cut them off, but with so many vulpan to deal with she was just a stone in a river. The enemy flowed around her, heading straight for the kitsune.
Shura flinched when she heard the commander’s bellowed order. This was it. It was time to die.
She was crouched in fox form in front of the tunnel to their supposed escape, listening to the pounding of footsteps as the unseen vulpan began to race in their direction. She wasn’t alone; Captain Ichika and several of the other guards had chosen this spot to make their last stand. Everyone else was in the tunnel by now, and they’d masked its entrance with foxfire, but there was little chance of the illusion tricking the vulpan for more than a couple seconds. If the water still spreading out from the entrance wasn’t enough of a clue, or the noise of the reservoir itself as it churned and raged under whatever magic was controlling it, there was a clear line of countless scents going off in that direction, too many to conceal from a fox’s nose and too strong to cover up without leaving a giant sign proclaiming that they had something to hide.
Everyone nearby looked distressed as well, even the normally unflappable captain. They’d all known that they were agreeing to be sacrifices when they volunteered to stay behind and guard the way, but knowing that was different from hearing someone order their deaths, and hearing hundreds of bloodthirsty monsters coming to kill you. Shura never would’ve guessed that out of all of them, Tomo would be the most calm. The girl didn’t even know how to fight, and no one expected her to, but she’d insisted that she wasn’t going to leave until Hanabi came back, and nobody had time to convince her otherwise.
The others had probably all volunteered for this for similarly selfless and noble reasons. They had decided to use their own lives to protect everyone they knew and loved. Not Shura, though. Yes, she was glad that her presence here might result in a few more lives being saved, but that wasn’t why she’d chosen to be here. She’d just wanted a chance to feel like herself again.
She knew she was a pathetic, shivering sack of cowardice. Nothing like the old Shura, who’d been utterly fearless about the prospect of death. She’d still been a coward deep down, of course, but she hadn’t known it then. Until the fall of Hanei had taught her the truth a thousand times over every day, she’d deceived herself into thinking that she was someone strong and brave. She’d really been stupid enough to look in the mirror and see someone who would never give up, who would choose death before surrender every time.
That blissfully ignorant Shura was gone forever, but this doomed stand offered the perfect opportunity to recapture those old feelings. She only had to be brave once, just this once, and then she could die and not have to worry about it again. Maybe the rest of Hanei would never even find out who she’d really been.
So as the first few vulpan began to stream in, a hundred meters away but closing fast, Shura broke away from the others and their defensive line, her form melting back to human as she charged forward with a confidence that she didn’t feel to face the oncoming horde alone and call upon her foxfire. What she was about to try wasn’t going to work, she told herself, and that was okay. It would be enough to die knowing that she’d tried. A small voice insisted that she should do more than just try, but she quashed it down. She didn’t have close to her full supply of foxfire, but she had enough to last for at least one doomed attempt, and her work had always been so much more precise in her human shape… and she needed all the delicate intricacy she could manage right now. Shura focused, trying to recall how the foxfire wards of the village looked, and wove her fire. If she could recreate a close enough approximation to one of those wards, it would keep the vulpan at bay…
The blue haired woman nearly cracked a smile when four eager vulpan that were well ahead of the others dashed straight through her makeshift ward without even pausing. The other guards were readying themselves behind her, but they were clearly outmatched. At best, they’d hold off this small vanguard for the ten seconds or so it took for the rest of the vulpan to catch up and wash over them like a tsunami. More likely half of them would be dead before that even happened. Shura’s pathetic gamble had failed, naturally. Recreate one of the village wards? They’d been crafted and repaired and crafted again by some of the finest experts in the history of Hanei, and honed over centuries. What she was attempting was like trying to recreate The Great Wave Off Kanagawa from memory and with a crayon.
Oh well. Shura ignored the burning frustration inside her, the urge to give it another shot. She’d tried, she’d failed, and now she could die, just as planned. If by some miracle anyone survived this encounter, she’d be remembered as a foolishly brave fox who’d bitten off more than she could chew. Not the most glorious death, but far better than dying a coward, and infinitely better than living as one. Those four vulpan were already heading straight for her; if she was really lucky, they’d make it quick and clean.
But as they neared her, two of them suddenly attacked a third, tackling him and sending all three tumbling. For one confused moment, Shura wondered if they were fighting over who would get the chance to kill her, but then she realized that she recognized both foxes. Nobu and Kamio tangled with the vulpan they’d ambushed, tearing into him furiously while he was still too surprised to react properly.
That still left one coming at her, but the other kitsune sprang forward. Shura looked on, stunned, as they threw themselves in harm’s way to intercept the monster’s charge. “Protect Shura!” Captain Ichika ordered while she drove her makeshift spear into the beast’s jaw. “Let’s give her some room to work!”
Bitterness welled up in the woman. That wasn’t how this was supposed to go! What she’d tried was foolish and impossible; no one was supposed to think she could actually do it. She tried to weave the ward again, just to prove she couldn’t, and watched it fizzle out just like before. “See?” she wanted to shout at them. It was pointless to put any trust in her.
But none of them looked back at her with accusing eyes, or denounced her for being a failure. Nobu had jumped onto the one vulpan’s back and wrapped it up in his tails, distracting the soldier long enough for Kamio to transform and shove a flaming spear of foxfire right down the creature’s throat. The guards weren’t doing anything so flashy, but they were holding their defensive position, preventing the vulpan from pinning down and killing any one kitsune. Everyone else was completely focused on the enemy in front of them, trusting her to succeed if they could give her enough time.
Fine. Fine! Shura cursed them all. If they weren’t going to let her just die in peace, then… then… she might as well try to do this for real.
The woman called on her foxfire again and concentrated. She ignored the fact that what she was trying was impossible. She ignored the fact that in just a handful of seconds the rest of the vulpan would arrive and overrun them all. And most of all, she ignored the fact that if anyone could pull this off, it wouldn’t be a gutless coward like her.
She tried to picture the wards in her mind’s eye as she wove her fire. These illusions were far more complex than the usual hallucinations of sight and sound, focused instead on playing with one’s sense of balance, proprioception, and a hundred other tiny things that people took for granted. The details in her memory remained fuzzy and indistinct, and without them, the illusions wouldn’t hold together properly and do what they were supposed to do. Shura pushed herself, trying to make her memory come into proper focus. Even someone like her should be able to do that much; she’d seen them so many times before, night after night for two hundred and thirty years. Before all of this happened, she would’ve claimed to know the wards better than she knew her own face. Now, she had no idea how much of what she was remembering was true, and how much of it was filling in the gaps in her memory with guesses and half remembered theory, and hoping that she didn’t screw it up.
One of the vulpan threw off Ichika and the guards assisting her and went straight at Shura, looking to kill the defenseless and stationary fox. The sentinel saw him coming, but she couldn’t risk moving without disrupting what she was doing and needing to start over again, at a time where every second counted. She almost had it. Almost… Ichika grabbed the soldier’s hind leg an instant before he reached Shura, bringing him up short. Almost… Nobu helped her to haul the vulpan away from Shura as the fox stared sightlessly ahead, barely aware of her brush with death. Almost…
The closest wave of oncoming vulpan stumbled to a halt, the foxes blinking in confusion.
It was crude and ugly and draining her foxfire like a sieve, but… it was working! Shura was so amazed that it nearly made her lose control, but she held on, trying to empty her mind of all other thoughts. She felt the other guards join in, adding their foxfire to help support the ward. Even all of them together wouldn’t be able to keep it up for long, but if what Nobu had claimed about explosives was true, that wasn’t going to be a concern one way or another.
They were still all going to die here, of course. As proud as Shura felt of herself right now, she wasn’t stupid. The ward was slowing the soldiers down, but already some of them were beginning to make progress in pushing closer. The tsunami was still waiting to crash down on them; it was just going to arrive in drips and dribbles instead of one great big flood.
But as she watched Captain Ichika and the others finish off the two vulpan and square off to face the ones approaching next, Shura couldn’t help herself from feeling a flicker of hope.
Sam felt a sense of euphoria as she watched more and more kitsune disappear through the portal to the nexus. Another five minutes, maybe six, and they should all be through. It had been a very, very long night, but they’d done what they’d set out to do.
“And now we get the hell out of here, right?” Jenny asked irritably. The river hag stood with her arms outstretched, concentrating on holding the water in place. Her limbs had begun to shake with the strain of whatever she was doing, but when Sam had asked her how much longer she could keep this up, the only response she’d gotten was a pair of middle fingers.
“Almost,” Sam replied. “Leave now, and we’ll miss the best part.” The line of kitsune still stretched down into the reservoir, but it had thinned out enough that she could start heading back. She’d already asked some of the departing kitsune to give the others back in the nexus a heads up.
“Fuck, and here I thought standing in this moldy piece of shit basement waiting to get blown up was gonna be the highlight of my day. Now you’re telling me it gets even better?”
“Trust me, even you’ll like this bit,” Sam promised. “Have I ever let you down?”
Jenny grumbled, but she couldn’t hide her curiosity. “So what’s the great plan then, firebird?”
“You watched me all those years, and you really gotta ask?” Sam said with a grin. “I’m gonna cheat like hell.”
From this high up, even the Paradisium looked tiny. Astaria wanted to look anywhere else, but her eyes kept getting drawn to it as her father flew in lazy circles over the area, waiting to witness its end.
“What… what’s going on…?” Eirene asked slowly. The sphinx was still being held tightly by one of Karakostas’ clawed hands around her waist. It didn’t look comfortable, but Astaria couldn’t imagine it was worse than being impaled on his monstrous cock like she was. Eirene had been drifting in and out of consciousness for a while now, but her voice, though still choked with sleep, sounded more aware than usual, and she seemed to be trying to focus her gaze on Astaria. “You…” She smiled a little, and even through her drowsiness something wicked sparkled in her eyes. “I had a dream about you…”
“Be silent,” Karakostas ordered. “You are not to talk to each other. Only to me, and only to answer direct questions. Is that understood?”
“Yes, master,” both women chorused. Astaria did so sadly, cognizant that soon even something as small as this would be denied her, once her father kept his word about removing her vocal cords. Eirene, on the other hand, appeared pleased, as though she had been given a compliment and not a stern rebuke.
Astaria tried to distract herself from the Paradisium’s fate and her own with something only slightly less horrifying: her father’s cock. The head of it stood out distinctly against her belly, and she gently stroked the skin over it with her fingertips, feeling the shaft twitch happily in response. Her pussy clenched the base as she played with him, wordlessly begging for his cum. She tried unsuccessfully to avoid thinking about how soon, the only way she’d be able to communicate with her father at all was through his cock. Even something as simple and awful as requesting a drink of piss – she was certain she would never again receive anything as nice as plain water – would require vulgar pantomime and appealing to his libido.
“My daughter has persuaded me that you might make a tolerable fleshlight,” Karakostas continued. “I’m still not convinced, but I have agreed to give you a chance. Should you prove as inadequate at draining my balls as you are at everything else, Eirene, I have another use in mind for you. Once my daughter is with child, to ensure a healthy birth she will require more protein than just sperm. Fresh meat will be essential. So every day that you are not the perfect fleshlight, I will feed a piece of you to her, starting with your fingers and toes and moving on from there. I believe that with proper rationing, you will be able to provide for my daughter for several years and multiple births before there is not enough left of you to live. Is that understood?”
“Yes, master,” Eirene said easily, unruffled by his threat. “I look forward to helping your children grow up as strong and mighty as their father.”
Astaria suppressed a pained grunt as a fresh flood of semen jetted from her father’s cockhead. Like every previous load, it visibly distended her stomach further, increasing the constant cries of agony from her cumsoaked insides. Even before his prick sputtered to a halt, her fingers were once more playing with it, working hard to get it ready for a new round. That was her life now: get him to finish, then get him ready to start over. It was an endless loop that would occupy centuries, until he decided he was bored with her.
Not for the first time she considered trying to slip off of him and fall to her death, but she rejected the thought. For one, it had taken significant time and effort to mount him like this, and dismounting would be a similar undertaking, offering Karakostas plenty of time to stop her. For another, dying here would mean abandoning Eirene to her father’s care. She had difficulty thinking of a crueler action she could take than both condemning the woman to this fate and then leaving her to suffer it alone.
But what if she did the opposite? It had been her foolish optimism that had gotten Eirene into this situation in the first place, instead of letting her die in the stairwell. If there was any possibility for one of them to escape, the sphinx surely deserved it more than she did. It would mean that Astaria alone would have to shoulder the burden of being owned by Karakostas, but the burden should never have been Eirene’s in the first place. And if her future was going to be one of total misery, reduced to little more than an inanimate object, at least she’d know that her last moments of agency had been spent doing something more useful than pleasuring her father.
Astaria pondered the dilemma while she stroked the dragon towards yet another orgasm. Her own wings were useless, but Eirene’s appeared to be functional, if weak. Were she to escape Karakostas’s grip and fall somehow, there was a small chance she might be able to survive the impact. But getting away from Karakostas was easier said than done. Her father could be quite agile in the air, and they were very high up; he would have the skill and time necessary to swoop down and pick Eirene up if he chose to. And as reluctant as he’d been about taking her in the first place, Astaria knew him well enough to be confident that if she tried to set Eirene free her, that alone would be reason enough to retrieve her in Karakostas’ mind.
That meant now was the best time to act. The green haired woman didn’t know exactly how much time was left before the Paradisium’s end, only that it was very little, and she suspected that her father was in the same boat. If Eirene were to fall now, plunging into the danger zone, would he risk his life going after a slave he didn’t even particularly want? Doubtful.
The next question was- her thoughts were interrupted by Karakostas gripping her body in one hand and squeezing. Being crushed against his scaly, rock hard shaft was painful, but the true agony came when he began roughly jerking her up and down on it. His entry had already felt more like being impaled than being raped, and his prick savagely pumping her didn’t help with that impression. The entire length of his shaft was warm and wet, and she knew with utter certainty that it was greased by more than just cum. He was fucking her bloody.
Except he wasn’t fucking her, part of her screamed. This wasn’t even worthy of being called sex, it was just him masturbating into her like she was an old sock. This was the man who owned her, this was her own father, this… Astaria shoved those thoughts away and focused on clenching her muscles as tight as possible. She needed to be a good masturbation aid.
Karakostas slammed her back down to the base when he came, and Astaria’s toes curled with the pure wrenching misery of her insides swelling further. It was hard to believe even a dragon’s body could endure so much abuse, and she found herself hoping that it couldn’t. That was her most realistic dream right now, that her father would accidentally kill her with his cock and semen.
Eirene. She had to think about Eirene. She would have all the time in the world to feel miserable for herself later. How could she get him to drop her? Using physical force was impossible, and so was persuasion. Even the very attempt to negotiate would give away her earlier ruse and put him in no mood to agree to anything she wanted. Which meant… she knew a way to do it. She couldn’t be certain that it would work, but even if it didn’t, it was something worth doing, and an opportunity she shouldn’t pass up.
Astaria craned her head back to look up at her father’s face. As she’d expected, he wasn’t looking at her, his attention completely elsewhere even as his cock continued spurting inside her. She took as deep a breath as her collar would allow and steeled herself. “You are an utter disgrace,” she announced. “A man without principle or honor who will be remembered only as a filthy stain upon history.”
She’d rarely seen her father look so shaken, stunned by her outburst. “What…? You… what did you say?” he demanded as his confusion began its transformation into rage.
“I said that you are a fool who confuses fear for respect, tyranny for love, and greed for wisdom.” Astaria had never anticipated finding herself in a situation like this, but not a day had gone by in the last two years where she hadn’t fantasized about the opportunity to speak words like these to her father’s face, and they flowed out of her now with the ease of a thousand rehearsals. “You are an inveterate coward who has spent centuries fleeing in terror from every harsh truth that might lead to bettering yourself, and then has the self grandeur to proclaim himself invincible and supreme. You are a liar, thief, murderer, and rapist, and so small minded and pitiful that you believe these flaws make you strong. You are-”
He slapped her face with his free hand, hard enough to break most people’s neck, and more than enough to make her head rock. “How dare you speak such words to me?” Karakostas hissed. “You will be silent!”
“I will not!” she said fiercely. “Because I speak only truth, and in your heart you know it. That is the real reason you insist on playing as a god, because to admit any fallibility would set ablaze your entire web of lies and reveal you for the pathetic wretch you are. No one in the world knows better than you how miserable and worthless you truly are, no matter how many centuries you spend running from your own-”
“Be silent!” he repeated, and struck her again. There was no trace of his usual composure. Empires had risen and fallen since the last time someone had dared speak to him this way. Even when she’d been the faithful daughter, Astaria had known to always address him with respect. The last time anyone had come close to this was Nadia’s blaze of glory, and the green haired woman had witnessed how unhinged her father had grown at being defied. “You know nothing! You are an ignorant child!”
Astaria grabbed his claw with both hands as it came at her again. Her two arms against his one still couldn’t possibly match him in strength, but for a moment she stopped him from hitting her like he wanted, and in his blind anger his immediate reaction was exactly what she’d prayed it would be: he dropped Eirene so that he could strike her with his other hand.
The green haired woman was smiling while he hit her, the impact making her see stars. As if moving in slow motion, she watched the sphinx fall, escaping from Karakostas’ clutches forever…
And then Eirene, that idiot, grabbed onto her foot.
“What are you doing?!” Astaria cried in a panic. She tried to shake the woman off, to no effect. She knew the woman seemed to be deriving some masochistic enjoyment of her treatment, but surely she couldn’t be so far gone as to actively want to be in her father’s care.
“Not… without you…” Eirene gasped. “We both escape… or neither…”
“Escape?” Karakostas spat. He’d stopped striking her, seeming to have finally realized that there was more going on here than punishing a mouthy slave. “Neither of you will escape! You will die when I decide, not you!”
Astaria looked down at the woman in stunned disbelief. They barely even knew each other. How could she pass up this opportunity because she wanted to help a stranger? It was sheer insanity! It was…
It was exactly what Astaria would do in her shoes.
Very well. Feeling inexplicably angry with herself, the green haired woman abandoned trying to convince the sphinx to do the sensible thing and save herself. But she refused to give up completely. Was there a way for them to both escape Karakostas’ clutches? She’d been telling herself why she couldn’t, but she hadn’t tried figuring out why she could.
She tried experimentally to move, but even with her blood for extra lubrication, he was far too thick for her to pull herself off of him. See? she told herself in a fit of pique. Just as she had already known perfectly well, she couldn’t escape without making herself bigger or him smaller, and neither was… possible…
Astaria suddenly realized that there was a way out. She just had to make his cock shrink, like it did whenever he finished in her. He never remained that way for very long, but if she applied all of her hard earned tricks and got him off as soon as possible, she could use that brief opening to slide right off of him.
She had no intention of doing that though. There was more than one way to make a man soft.
The green haired woman kicked backwards with her free foot, as hard as she could. Her first few attempts struck only hard scale, but then she connected solidly with something softer and more fragile. Karakostas let out a pained grunt as she drove her heel into his balls, and she felt his cock react immediately. Astaria pushed off of him, kicking his scrotum a final time for good measure, and then she was falling.
Eirene was falling with her, and the wind roared in their ears as the two women plummeted. She saw the sphinx’s wings flutter, but Astaria’s gamble had failed: it appeared that they couldn’t even begin to support her weight. Both of them were headed inextricably for the ground below. Earth and sky kept changing places, until a dizzy Astaria was no longer certain which was which. She focused on the sphinx’s face instead. “I’m going to try something,” she tried to say, but her words were lost in the wind. For her part, Eirene looked content. Not as though she thought they weren’t going to hit the ground soon and with finality, but as though such a result wasn’t very important. Astaria supposed that if she’d been a prisoner of her father’s for as long as the sphinx, she would have a similar attitude about death.
Astaria felt at her meager store of dragonfire, those last few drops that remained of what she’d painstakingly gathered over the last two and a half years. There was no doubt in her mind that it wouldn’t be enough to transform… but that was no reason not to try. She took a deep breath and reached for the rest of her fire.
Her collar activated immediately, sending punishing jolts of electricity through her and preventing her from drawing any further breath. But she’d managed to grab some of her fire, and before it could slip through her proverbial fingers, she strained as hard as she could, willing it to be enough. It was almost working. She could feel the transformation almost within her reach, as though it was brushing against outstretched fingertips. She clawed for it, pushing herself harder than she ever had. If she could just get a little more, just a little more..
What she had wasn’t enough, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t change that. She scrabbled for it hopelessly, already feeling the dragonfire that she had beginning to dissipate. She stared helplessly at Eirene, and felt tears forming at her failure. She’d known that it wouldn’t work, but she’d thought… she’d believed…
And then Eirene’s face was right up next to hers, arms slipping around her back in a tender embrace as they tumbled end over end in the air, the ground rushing up to meet them. She pressed her lips against Astaria’s in a kiss, soft and warm and surprisingly gentle. The dragon woman didn’t understand what she was doing at first, just enjoying the process of being close to someone before the end.
Then she felt the sphinx’s mouth open wider, and Eirene gently breathed into her mouth for her.
Instantly, the collar detected the rush of air and shocked her, and it was only through the locking of her lungs that she avoided screaming and losing all that oxygen… but for the first time, it wasn’t her lungs and muscles that were holding in it, and more kept coming. It wasn’t much, really… just one human-sized lungful. Barely enough for her to work with at all, barely enough to even stir the fire burning in her breast. But it was the closest Astaria had come to a full, real breath of air in two and a half years.
And it was enough.
Astaria felt her body begin to burn with the transformation, and panicked at the sudden realization of what it would do to Eirene. She broke off their kiss and tried to pull away, but the sphinx refused to let go as the green haired woman erupted into flames. “I’ll be okay,” she said quietly. “I will heal.”
The dragon had no time to argue. Her body was already burning away, consumed in her dragonfire. She wasn’t too far gone to feel satisfaction when the collar that had plagued her for so long simply fell away through the formless, massless thing she had become as her physical body vanished. There was nothing left of her but living flame now, flame that immediately began to harden to take the shape of her new form. Her true form. Her reborn wings beat against the air as her freed lungs drew in great breaths. Astaria couldn’t tell whether her body was greedier for freedom or oxygen, but she reveled in both while she soared through the sky once more.
She clutched the limp sphinx in both claws. Eirene was badly burned and had gone unconscious again, but her injuries didn’t seem life threatening, thank goodness. Astaria held her tight as she scanned the sky for her father and found no sign of him. Had he left without seeing her transform, confident that she would die? Had he witnessed it, but been uncertain if he could beat her without risking the explosion soon to come? Was there some other reason for his departure? She didn’t know, and the open sky offered no answers.
Astaria couldn’t afford to dwell on it for long. She turned her gaze down instead, to the Paradisium below her, and began to dive lower. She didn’t know if she had minutes left or mere seconds, but it didn’t matter. She was going to press on until the very end. Beneath her, standing just outside the Paradisium’s main building, was a small figure looking up to the sky. As Astaria grew closer, she recognized it, and fresh hope began to kindle inside her.
“Where is Nami?” she shouted as she descended.
“Unknown,” Celeste called back. The naked winter fae seemed neither surprised nor concerned about the sight of a dragon appearing from the skies to land next to her. “When I escaped from the sewers, she did not pursue. Where is the mistress?”
“I will show you,” Astaria promised as she lowered herself to let Celeste climb up onto her back. If Seo-yun was alive, Astaria was certain that there was only one place she could be right now. The dragon didn’t waste time questioning the fae about how she had decided to come outside at this particular time. It was such a ridiculous coincidence that she already knew full well the answer.
None of this will make me forgive you, she silently told Tanya as she took off in the direction of the temple Thinking of the dead Petrov woman was a strange experience, full of conflicted thoughts, but the strongest thought of all right now was a memory of her, one of their first: their second night in the Paradisium Game, when Crikey and Betty had cooked food for everyone. It was a memory that she had gone over in her head far too many times, trying to pick at every last word and action for clues. “I can promise you this much,” the woman had said. “The eight of us will never get to share another night like tonight again.” And later, “I consider you all to be the finest of folks, and there’s no one I’d rather be trapped in the bowels of the Earth with.”
At the time, Astaria had seen her statements as heartfelt but ultimately meaningless platitudes. After Tanya’s identity had been revealed, hindsight had made them a sick joke. Even knowing her now, she couldn’t give the woman too much credit for helping to extinguish a fire that she’d deliberately started. The girl had been playing both sides of the chessboard, building up Paragon and the Paradisium even as she quietly sowed the seeds of their destruction. She’d played with Astaria just as readily, manipulating the dragon into the game piece she needed. Every positive interaction they’d ever had was predicated on that, and thus every bit as tainted at that first memory.
And yet… Astaria still remembered the choice Tanya had forced her to make about Vanessa. The way she’d had to weigh lives against one another. She dreamed about it sometimes, questioning if she’d done the right thing. She’d wondered at the time if that was how Tanya felt every day of her life, and now she knew just how much worse it had really been for the woman. The greatest lie that Tanya had ever told was that she was a careless sociopath, a whimsical figure who did as she pleased without worrying about the morals or consequences. Astaria didn’t approve of many of the choices that she had made, and she didn’t know what judgment awaited Tanya’s soul, but she knew that the woman had long ago accepted that judgment as the price she paid for what she had decided to do.
Back then, in the wake of the game, when Astaria had first discovered that the woman had played a hand in every single one of them being there, she’d remembered those words and thought them unimaginably arrogant and cruel. But now, she saw them in a different light. Tanya Petrov had spent that night surrounded by people that could have been her friends, her allies… and perhaps even more, and known that soon she would turn them all against her. She had died only a few hours ago, but her suicide had begun that night, when she’d committed to the path that would see her perish tonight alone and unloved.
So Astaria would do as the oracle wanted this one last time, and help realize the future that Tanya had sacrificed everything for. But when this was over, they would all be truly free. Free of the Paradisium, free of Paragon, and free of Tanya Petrov. For better or for worse, by the time the sun rose, their fates would be their own again. I won’t waste the chance you’ve given us, she promised Tanya as she swept through the sky. And I won’t forget the most important lesson you taught me: if I try to do this on my own, I will have already lost.
“Prepare yourself,” she told Celeste. “I suspect your mistress will be in great danger when we find her, and will badly need both of us.” The fae didn’t speak, but the dragon felt the woman tighten her grip on her scales, and the air around them began to chill.
Astaria raced toward her destiny.