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.
They were out of time.
No matter how hard Hanabi tried not to look at the watch on her wrist, her eyes were inevitably drawn to it. Only six minutes and change now. Her chances of survival were dwindling with each passing second, and the fight showed no sign of ending anytime soon.
It was funny how a small thing changed everything else. She’d thought that she’d already accepted that she was gonna die fighting Levi… But that had been back when he’d seemed completely freaking invincible, and tricking him into sticking around for the explosion was the only way to get rid of him. Now that Seo-yun was here, they had a real chance of genuinely beating him… and even if they did, they had less than four hundred seconds to live.
The white haired girl consoled herself with the thought that they were probably going to lose anyway. Seo-yun was kicking butt and taking names in the ruins of the castle courtyard, but she also had five or six of Levi’s quills in her now, and it was obvious that they were slowing her down. Levi was getting beat up too, and badly, but every time he managed to touch her with that weird claw of his, he came away looking ready to go another ten rounds.
She watched him begin whipping more of those spiky things at Seo-yun. They hummed through the air, ricocheting off rubble and mounds of treasure as the red fox swept around him in a tight circle that kept her just barely out of the line of fire. Even with her injuries, the woman was unbelievably graceful in her fox form, flowing like water across the battlefield. Without stopping or slowing down, one of her tails snagged a ruby encrusted blade as she ran by and hurled it straight at Levi’s head.
The vulpan dodged it, but Hanabi took advantage of his momentary distraction to hide the red fox again and replace her with a double that ran ever so slightly slower. She was scraping the bottom of the barrel when it came to her foxfire, so she couldn’t afford to keep up the cloak or the proxy for very long, but she managed to do what she considered a passable job making it look like Levi’s spikes really did impale the illusion as they caught up to it, the fake fox staggering as blood spurted from the points of entry.
Hanabi herself was still well hidden. While remaining cloaked, she’d climbed on top of one of the collapsed guardhouses, using the wreck as a vantage point and putting her above all of Levi’s attacks. Hopefully. There was always a chance that a stray quill would kill her, but hey, she only had to worry about that for another six minutes.
The ruse was enough to let Seo-yun get the jump on Levi, bowling into him and doing her best to rip and chew his head off. But the quills had worn her down too much; she tore into him badly enough to kill one of the lesser vulpan out there, but not this one, and he managed to snag her with a tail and hurl her away hard enough that she landed a good fifty feet away and bounced, while hitting her with a barrage of spikes for good measure. Seo-yun’s streaks of white fur were almost entirely covered by blood as she put up another foxfire wall to protect herself.
Give them an hour to work with, and Hanabi thought that between the two of them, they just might kill the bastard. But like this, well… maybe she’d live long enough to see the stupid look on Levi’s stupid face when the bombs went off. That was worth something, right?
Ichika missed her old spear. It had a nice heft, excellent balance, and a finely sharpened point. It felt as much a part of her as any limb, and she could throw it with near perfect accuracy. This thing… this was an iron bar with a shiv tied to it. A shiv that clinked – every – single – time – she swung it.
But no matter how crude or noisy it was, it was still proving satisfyingly effective. The blonde kitsune threw herself to the ground and rolled forward as her current opponent tried to barrel into her, then sank the spear into the back of his left hind leg before he could spin back around. It wasn’t the first hole she’d made in one of his legs, but it turned out to be the tipping point: the vulpan’s bloody limb buckled and the creature collapsed. Before it could recover enough to rise back to its feet, Ichika drove the spear down through the top of his head.
Another vulpan down, the third since Kamio had fallen. Not bad at all, considering that Shura and Ichika were the only ones still standing. Tomo was on the ground along with the guards, all but unconscious after giving everything she had and then some to Shura’s ward. Nobu had fought well, but he wasn’t trained for it, and one of the vulpan had nearly cut him in half with their claws. Likewise, Kamio hadn’t seriously fought anyone or practiced in centuries, and hadn’t been quick enough to evade a soldier’s jaws. Neither man was dead, but that wouldn’t be true for long.
Shura was too focused on her foxfire to even move, which had left Ichika on her own. The first vulpan past the ward had expected to charge right through her. So had the second. Their bodies had made the third much warier, but it hadn’t saved him in the end. Unfortunately, it looked like he was the last one stupid enough to fight her one-on-one. The rest had either finally realized that their strategy of recklessly throwing themselves at the lone kitsune as soon as they made it through Shura’s ward wasn’t a wise one, and that patience would give them the numbers they needed, or maybe they were just cowards who didn’t want to be the next to get gutted by something as pathetic as her spear. Either way, the battle had entered a brief lull as the soldiers began holding back, and that was bad news for Ichika. The pack of vulpan past the ward was far larger than she could possibly hope to handle, and still growing steadily. The soldiers were beginning to look confident again, smirking as they prepared themselves to do what they did best: gang up on those weaker than themselves.
It felt like there was almost as much blood as water soaking the ground now as she readied herself to face them, and much of it was her own. Her body was covered in wounds, and it was taking all her strength just to hold the damn not-spear up without it shaking. She couldn’t keep this up much longer. But that was alright. Enough time had passed that she was certain the others had finished going through the tunnel and reached safety. That had been the true goal, and far more important than anyone here surviving. Not that she was just going to lie down and accept her death gracefully, oh no. As far as she was concerned, Hanei had already won this exchange, and now she was simply running up the score. She recognized more than one of the vulpan here as being among her previous rapists back in the village. She wasn’t going to allow herself to die until she’d paid all of them back for that damn latrine.
She almost laughed when the vulpan finally broke away and came at her. Eight of them. They were so scared of her that they had to fight her eight-on-one. Now that was worthy of a song.
“Captain, down!” shouted a familiar voice, and Ichika obeyed without thinking, throwing herself to the ground. There was the sound of gunfire, and vulpan began to scream in pain. The blonde twisted around to look behind her and saw…
She knew all of them well. Many had been her own subordinates, or people she’d butted heads with over the years. Stubborn jerks, one and all… And they were all supposed to be dead. They were the kitsune who’d fought back and resisted after Hanei had fallen, and been mutilated and strung up for it. There was Aya and Tobi and Yukari and… and they all looked haggard, like they were better suited to be in bed right now than on their feet, but they were alive and healed. And armed. The line of kitsune fired again, and more vulpan screamed as they were hit.
Many of the shots went astray, but there was no end of targets, not with two hundred plus vulpan all milling around. The high caliber rounds punched neat holes in them, peppering the creatures until they fell. They were too tough to die so easily, though, and three of the eight soldiers who’d been charging at her made it through the hail of bullets and kept going, trying to get close enough to break up the formation and send everyone scattering. Their advance was halted by a pack of angry, snarling foxes who threw themselves at them, taking advantage of their wounds and fatigue to push them back. Two of them in particular stood out to her, a pair of identical looking brown foxes. “Miku! Kumi!” Ichika said excitedly. The twins nodded their heads in quick acknowledgment as they teamed up against a vulpan soldier.
Ichika crawled back to the defensive line and accepted a rifle from one of the others. “How?” she asked, looking down at the foreign object.
“Seo-yun and I… were planning to bring them with us… to help defend Hanei if it came to that…” panted the redheaded human emerging from the tunnel. She looked like she’d run the entire way back, and was only still standing by sheer inertia. “Had to leave before they were ready… and when we got there we were already too late to put them to good use..” Sam continued, “but you know how it is… had a feeling things would go pear shaped somehow and we’d end up in trouble… So I asked Tobi to go fetch them, and everyone who was willing… and there were plenty of people willing… to wait with them inside the nexus once he got them… see if they were needed. Just had to finish getting most everyone evacuated so we could… squeeze through that damned passage.”
“Hanabi saved us,” explained Tobi as the boy aimed and fired. “Rescued our skins and took us down off those trees, with Sam’s help.”
“And my wife’s…” Sam added. “Speaking of which… can anyone do me a favor and help me… slip past all of these guys? I need to… go kill Levi Petrov…”
Levi was getting increasingly frustrated with this bitch’s refusal to just die already. She had to know she couldn’t win, no matter how much she squirmed and resisted. Fucking fox cunt should stop wasting his time and let him put her down like the rabid animal she was.
The white furred slut was nearly as bad. Messing with his head, playing worthless tricks… the red and white bitch he was going to kill quickly as soon as he got the chance, tear her throat out and feast, but the white one he was going to make last. He’d drag her out of here by the scruff of her neck and make it a contest to see who could ruin her holes the best. She might even take the title of most fucked out fox slut in the world from Akemi for a time.
He was contemplating ripping the tails off the fox cunt again and using his spikes to nail them to the other one when he heard a breathless female voice shouting from the direction of the slave pen. “Levi Petrov!” He immediately whirled and sent a hail of quills that way, but he saw and hit nothing.
The voice came again, closer this time. Another fox bitch hiding herself. “We’ve never really… gotten to meet, have we…? Last time I saw you was those spiders, back in the day… You remember that, Levi?”
He could hear her footsteps as she approached, but he couldn’t pinpoint her location, and he was aware of the fox cunt crouched and ready, waiting for him to give her an opening. “And who the hell are you?” he snarled. Not that it really mattered. Two bitches or three, he’d crush them all.
“Me?” She let out a short and tired laugh. “I’m the woman whose husband you killed and whose wife you raped, Levi… Fuck, forget all this fantasy stuff about foxes and oracles and dragons… I’m the one person you really shouldn’t have pissed off.”
And he realized, to his pleasant surprise, that he did know her after all. “Samantha Morris,” he said, with no small amount of satisfaction. He didn’t know what god liked him enough to hand him a gift like this, but he wasn’t going to waste it. Killing the fox cunt was one thing. Killing her wife? Now that was the sort of torture the bitch deserved. “That piece of shit husband of yours used to talk about you all the time, did you know that? Put a few drinks in him, and he’d get all weepy and pathetic. It was so pitiful that sometimes I almost gave in and told him you were still alive.”
“Why am I not surprised that you knew the whole time… you heartless son of a bitch?” she asked.
He still couldn’t locate her, but there was a faintly growing scent of blood. She was close. Did the stupid bitch think she could just walk right up to him? “Tanya didn’t give me the details, but she passed along that you were off somewhere being a good little slut for a man who knew how to treat you proper. Do you know how hard it was not to laugh every time that wimp started sobbing about your death, knowing that you were probably busy choking on cock right that very second?”
Levi could hear the tightness in her voice. He was getting to the dumb slut. “Funny you should mention…. choking on dick. I was thinking… I’d let you eat one before you died. I think you’ll find it a little spicy, but-”
The illusion on her suddenly vanished, and there was a redheaded human female right in front of him, so close that he could reach out and touch her. She was naked and unarmed, her left hand wrapped in crude bandages that left it misshapen and grotesquely swollen. Her eyes widened and her mouth gaped open as she realized what had just happened, and the sight of the arrogant little cunt realizing just how fucked she was warmed his heart.
Samantha held that bandaged hand up in front of her, sticking it out like she could ward him off with it. Time seemed to slow as he leaned in with pleasure and closed his teeth around her wrist. There was a satisfying crunch of bone as he chewed the bitch’s hand off in one smooth motion.
And then she grinned at him.
Celeste clung tightly to the dragon’s back as Astaria raced through the subterranean tunnel. The green skinned creature once called Storm Hag had given them odd looks when they appeared and handed Eirene over, but had seemed strangely unsurprised. “She went down that way!” she’d called out, and pointed to the passageway she’d been maintaining. Celeste was still uncertain who the subject of her statement had been, but Astaria hadn’t hesitated to dive in.
The tunnel was too narrow to fly through, so the dragon had resorted to crawling on all fours, her powerful limbs making the journey a quick one regardless. Celeste spent the time admiring the magic creating this path for them and wishing that she had a blade to fight with for the five hundred and thirty eighth through five hundred and forty fourth time since her mistress had freed her.
The sound of combat reached them long before they arrived at their destination, and both women were already tense and ready when Astaria burst into the slave pens, promptly soaring above the fray as both sides looked up and gawked at them. Celeste analyzed the situation at once: the kitsune were holding the line admirably through a combination of firearms and melee sparring, but lacked the time or stopping power to put a definitive end to a foe that possessed the numbers and endurance of the vulpan. The fight could not have been going on long based on the shell casings, but already the struggle was turning against the remnants of Hanei: the vulpan army pushed steadily closer despite the gunfire incapacitating those in front, and the kitsune melee combatants were growing tired, dulling their capacity to fend off the physically superior vulpan through skill and coordination alone.
The winter fae weighed her options. Without any standing orders, her default priority at this moment was to locate and assist her mistress, who was not present in this conflict. However… there was a high likelihood that these kitsune could assist with her search, and a similarly high probability that protecting these foxes would improve Seo-yun’s odds of safely evacuating the Paradisium. In that light, it would be permissible for Celeste to join in this conflict and aid the disadvantaged kitsune.
Astaria needed to go through no such mental gyrations to justify what she wanted to do. The dragon roared and sent a blazing fireball streaking into the center of the packed vulpan horde. It exploded upon impact, incinerating the soldiers in the immediate vicinity and sending out destructive splashes of flame that badly burned those around it.
Celeste slipped off of the woman and landed on the ground to follow up the heat with the icy chill of Winter. Levi Petrov had run her through numerous experiments and trials to hone her ability to freeze opponents from the inside out. It had been intended for extinguishing foxfire and forcing kitsune into their comparatively weaker human shapes, but it was easy to adapt to vulpan. The dark haired fae put her studies to good use as she froze and shattered marbles one by one, these artificial imitations possessing little of the resilience that she’d encountered with Levi Petrov and Nami’s.
She had witnessed the crude and violent transformation from human to vulpan many times, but this was the first time she had seen the unnatural process occur in reverse due to the loss of a fox marble. It was even uglier in the opposite direction, the hapless victims literally torn apart from the inside out as their stolen powers consumed them. Kitsune and vulpan alike vomited at the sight of the skinless, ruined heaps of flesh that had once been men slowly choking to death on their own blood and liquefied organs.
The soldiers reacted to the combined assault of fire and ice poorly. Had they acted in unison, the assistance of the dragon and the winter fae would not have been enough, but they had been trained to follow orders blindly, not to think for themselves or work together properly, and without their commander to direct them their movements became haphazard and disorganized. Some of them continued trying to push against the kitsune line, and were shredded by Astaria’s claws. Others tried to gang up on the winter fae and were shot from behind. Others attempted to subdue the dragon and found themselves gruesomely ended by Celeste.
There were still eighty three vulpan alive when their resolve broke completely and they began to flee. They ignored Astaria’s shouted pleas to surrender themselves and evacuate to safety with everyone, just as they ignored Levi Petrov’s furious cries to come back and help him shortly after they’d vanished from sight.
There were kitsune bodies on the ground, but most of them were alive and upright, staring at the retreating soldiers in wonder. “We… we won…?” asked the blue haired woman who’d been generating a foxfire ward.
“Yes,” Astaria said. Many of the foxes shrank from her. “We have all won today, but you must flee now, while there is still time.”
“Not… without my daughter,” a golden fox demanded as he rose to his feet, unfazed by the sight of the massive dragon, and the gray one next to him nodded in agreement. Both were so injured that it was foolhardy for them to even be standing, but neither backed down.
“Hanabi, yes?” Astaria asked. Both foxes looked taken aback that she knew the name. “Celeste and I are going to assist her now. But it’s been a very long day for everyone, and she deserves better than to end it with the revelation that her fathers perished because they did not have faith in her. Please, for this to work we will need the tunnel to be cleared, and that means all of you are already safe and gone.” She turned and strode away without waiting for their response, and Celeste followed after.
Levi could tell something was wrong as soon as he began to chew. Instead of just soft flesh and bandages, his teeth encountered hard rock. His jaws still crushed it easily, though, and he automatically swallowed, his vulpan instincts demanding what meat was there. The rock was little more than dust as it went down into his stomach.
But it burned.
His mouth and throat felt like they were on fire, and his belly felt like it held a million red hot embers inside of it. Levi let out a choked cry and stumbled when he tried to step forward and finish off the red haired bitch. “What did you do to me?!” he rasped.
Samantha was cradling the stump of her left arm, but there was no pain in her expression, just gleeful satisfaction. “Just thought you’d want to know what efreet dick tasted like before you died… A little parting gift I took from Sindak after I killed his ass too. Got a real kick to it, yeah…? How’s that for choking on a cock, asshole?” She smirked. “You’re a good boy for swallowing, though… the fucker always liked it that way.”
Levi rolled on the ground as hot agony washed over him. His insides were healing, but the stone dust was still inside him, scorching the restored flesh again and again, forcing his body into an endless loop of recovery and destruction. He stuffed his own tails into his mouth, trying to induce vomiting, but to no avail. “This won’t… kill me!” he snarled, trying to fight through the pain.
“Don’t gotta…” Sam wheezed. “Just evening the playing field for my wife… that is you, right, Yip Yip…?”
“Yes, Sam, it’s me,” spoke the fox from behind him. “Please get yourself to safety. This won’t take long.”
He turned to see the fox cunt stalking towards him, head held high. Smug bitch thought she could take him down just because he was in a little bit of pain? After all the times he’d just about fucked the life out of her, turned her holes inside out and made her beg for more? Like hell was that ever going to happen. “Your wife is nothing but a furry fucktoy,” he spat at Sam as he forced himself to his feet. “And that’s all she’ll ever be!”
He sprang at the one handed bitch, eager to finish her off before dealing with the fox… but her image disappeared the moment he touched it. That little white furred cunt was at it again. He snarled in rage, then spun around to face the fox again. He whipped some quills at her, but he couldn’t manage the usual speed, and she easily dodged them without having to stop and put up a shield. He tried to follow up with more, but there were none. His body was too focused on healing from the fire in his belly to regrow his quills like before.
Fine then. He’d settle for ripping the arrogant cunt apart limb from limb. He’d just been playing with her before, letting her think she had a chance. If he seriously fought her, it was obvious who would win, just as it had always been obvious that he was better than Akemi deep down, better than Celeste. He’d never met a bitch whose face he couldn’t push into the dirt eventually, because when it came down to it, he was superior to all of them. Levi always won in the end.
The vulpan launched himself at her. He was faster than her, stronger than her… and yet somehow, his claws couldn’t reach her. It had to be some kind of fucking trick from the white one. He couldn’t… he couldn’t be beaten by some fuzzy cumdump…
There was pain, and then a sense of lightness, as though his body could now move much more easily. Levi had a moment of elation that his system was finally overcoming the fire trying to eat him alive, until he saw the bloody fur in the cunt’s mouth.
The fox spat out his severed tails, and Levi’s fury boiled over. She thought she could play with him now? He came at her a second time, and a third, and each time she batted him away more easily than the last. She ripped the shtriga arm from his shoulder, gouged the gorgon eye from its socket. One by one she ripped out every keepsake, until it was just him, her father’s skin, and the fox marble that had once been hers.
“You’re dead, bitch,” he rasped, only half aware that he’d collapsed again and was lying in a pool of his own blood. “I’m going to… hunt your kind down… fuck your wife to death in front of you… skin the little white cunt myself, turn her into your fucking leash…”
Even now, he still felt confident. Something would change the tide, just like always, and make him the rightful victor. He was Levi Petrov, after all. The first child to survive their father’s trials and earn the right to use his name. They’d all looked down on him back then too, just like the fox cunt was doing now. They’d called him the weakest and least capable of them. No one, including his own father, had expected him to make it. But he had. The scientists who’d thought they’d known better had come in one morning to find all the other children dead, most of them still in the beds they had been sleeping in. Only Levi was left, the bloody knife still clutched in one hand. And just like that, he was the strongest.
Because that’s what he was: a survivor. A winner. The one their father trusted above all others except Tanya. The man who had defeated gumiho, vulpan, and fae alike. It was impossible that he could die here like this.
Hope rose when he heard movement and saw his men charging into the room. It had taken them far too long to deal with the other slaves, but at least they were here now. “Kill the fox cunt first!” he ordered. “And someone… find that red haired bitch! Capture her alive and I’ll… make you filthy rich!”
The other vulpan swept in, ready to turn the tide and show these uppity cunts who was really in charge… and kept running. Running away, heading through the hole in the wall and out of sight. “Get back here, you cowards!” he demanded. “They’re just… just a few pathetic animals!” He continued shouting, but none of the fleeing vulpan so much as looked at him as they ran.
And then they were gone and he was shouting at nothing. As he stared at the hole they’d vanished into, it finally began to sink in that no one was coming to save him. He was alone. He shoved aside the flickers of panic and began trying to struggle back to his feet. His body felt impossibly heavy now, and his paws were too slick with blood to find purchase, but he kept doggedly trying. He wasn’t going to lose. He couldn’t lose. And if he ever did, it sure as hell wouldn’t be to that mangy fox cunt. He-
The red and white fox growled, and the sound went right through Levi, cutting through all his bluster and anger to touch some primal nerve in his body. It told him that he had no tricks up his sleeve, no allies on the way. There would be no sudden reversal this time, no twisting of fate. There was just a predator and her prey.
She was going to kill him.
Hot fear mixed with shame rolled across Levi, and he whimpered as his shaking limbs gave up and he slumped back down to the ground.
“What’s wrong, Levinson?” the fox asked softly as she approached him for the final time. He was trying to crawl away but his body wouldn’t listen to him, wouldn’t let him do anything but stare up into her eyes as she drew closer. There was no anger in them, no joy, no regret, no hesitation. Just the steady, implacable gaze of a hunter. “I thought you liked it when I growl.”
Her claws found his neck, and there was nothing left but pain and darkness.
When Celeste entered the massive treasure chamber, her eye was immediately drawn to the corpse of Levi Petrov. Something that could almost be called irritation flickered through her at learning that she’d missed seeing him die, but it was only a passing thought compared to the peace of mind that came from seeing her mistress alive. And in such a state… she was injured, but power was radiating off of her in waves. She caught Astaria staring at the fox, her expression a mix of joy, wonder, and not a little grief, but not surprise.
“We must all leave here at once!” the dragon said once she’d composed herself. “Please, there is no time to explain-!”
“Sure there is,” said a girl’s voice. Celeste recognized it as belonging to the white furred fox of Levi Petrov’s obsession. “Bombs. Less than two minutes. We’re already dead. See, quick and easy.” The girl was cloaked, but Celeste could locate her easily enough. When she did, the fox recoiled in fear, and Celeste felt a surge of shame run through her. It was only natural that the girl look at her that way, after the atrocities the fae had been forced to inflict on her people and her personally. Celeste could do nothing right now but bow her head.
“No, we’re not done yet!” insisted the mistress. “What if I protect us with foxfire? Everyone gather close to me!”
“That won’t do us any good,” the white fox insisted, though she drew closer. “You can’t move and maintain your shield at the same time, so even if you can block the explosions, and the heat, and keep us from suffocating to death in our little air bubble, that ceiling is gonna collapse on our heads and bury us alive down here.”
“Let’s have the dragon chick carry us,” suggested a redhead. Celeste had never seen the woman’s face before, but she knew Ember’s voice. “Seo-yun, you can do your protection shield whatever thing you’re talking about on her back, right, and we all ride along.”
Astaria shook her head sadly. “That will not be possible. The exit is too narrow for me to be flying through, and I cannot move quickly enough otherwise.”
Celeste began to laugh, and everyone turned to look at her in astonishment. It wasn’t a quiet laugh, or a polite one. It was a loud, boisterous noise that seemed to fill the entire chamber. It had been centuries since the last time she’d done this, but she simply couldn’t help herself. She laughed and laughed, her mirth making tears run from her eyes. To finally be freed of Levi Petrov, finally see him dead, finally be reunited with her mistress, all only to die mere moments later? It was a great cosmic joke, and she could offer no other possible reaction.
Everyone was still staring at her when a blur of movement came, and suddenly a large amarok stood with them in the middle of the room. “Please do not be afraid,” said the orange haired qilin riding it. “I believe we can assist.”
“Were you back there waiting for us the entire time, Ying Yue?!” Hanabi accused. Despite her anger, she’d climbed onto the amarok’s back as quickly as everyone else, even though that meant being close enough to touch that winter monster Celeste. The woman’s presence made her skin crawl.
The qilin didn’t try to deny it. She’d dismounted before the others got on, and stood looking up at them. “I suspected that time would be an issue, and he and I agreed that his skills might be needed here.” She patted the giant wolf’s flank and turned away. “Please take good care of him. He is a magnificent creature.”
“Don’t even think about just walking away!” Hanabi said hotly. “Get the hell up here so we can go!”
“I… I must stay here,” insisted Ying Yue, suddenly flustered. “I do not deserve to be free. That was never my-”
“I don’t care what you deserve!” interrupted the white haired girl. “I’m not letting you put your death on my conscience. So shut up, climb on, and quit wasting time we don’t have! You want to kill yourself that badly, you can do it once we’re out of here.”
The qilin stared helplessly at her for a second, then nodded.
Levi couldn’t breathe.
That on its own wasn’t a big surprise to him – the dead didn’t breathe, and he was under no illusions that he was anything else. The surprise was that he was aware enough for that to trouble him. Even with everything he’d seen at Paragon, his belief in the supernatural had only ever extended so far- what lay beyond the world he had lived in interested him not at all. If asked, he probably would have expected nothing at all to come next, for his existence to simply stop. Now, Levi Petrov had been dead for only moments and already he was beginning to wish that that was the case.
What made it worse was that he didn’t understand why he couldn’t breathe. There was nothing on him, nothing over his mouth, nothing holding him down. He could move, he could feel his neck, nothing was stopping him from breathing, and yet he couldn’t… he took deep, gasping breaths, and found no relief at all.
“Does it hurt?”
Levi looked up to find a woman standing over him… the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Skin as pale as if it were carved out of moonlight, her gown was somehow paler still, and it clung to her body in all the right places. Her exotic face could have belonged to any of a dozen ethnicities. Her hair was white – not the silver white of the elderly or the pale of bleach, but the perfect stark white of paint, of fresh-fallen snow. It hung from her in perfectly straight sheets right until it darkened to crimson on the tips. Her golden-orange eyes seemed huge on her face, bright and seeming to glow like embers of a fire.
And she was a fox.
“When I first took this form, when I first stepped onto your world, I came into it cold and suffocating,” the woman said, her voice soft as the caress of moonlight… but as cold as the void it flowed through to meet human eyes. “It was a very, very long time ago, but I remember that it hurt. I can only hope I remember correctly.”
Long, pointed ears emerged from her hair, white with hints of scarlet at the tips. Her tails – ten tails – stretched behind her, seemingly long enough to stretch between worlds, painted a shimmering, swirling mix of red and white like blood on cream. She was… beautiful…
Levi realized that he was naked, laying on the ground… he became very aware of that when he felt himself hardening as he looked up at the perfect creature standing over him. He wanted her, viscerally, strongly enough that for a single second he forgot that his lungs were crying out for air. One hand stretched out, grabbing at her.
The woman looked down at Levi like he would look at a cockroach. Then she took one step forward and ground her foot down into his length. Pain seemed to explode across his entire body, and if he had breath at all in his body Levi would have screamed, would have shouted every curse he knew, but when his lungs heaved nothing at all came out. Not even a whimper that he could hear through his own bones.
“Petty? Probably,” the woman admitted. Then she twisted her foot again. “But you have earned it.”
He would kill her. He would kill her he would kill her he would kill her he would kill her he w-
Levi crawled towards her, and only then did he notice his hands were not human. They weren’t even the fox paws he had become accustomed to. Long and narrow fingers, tipped with almost dainty spikes for claws, pulled him forward, and his tails… his tails.
“You see,” the woman said. “I don’t have any authority over dead mortals. I’m no Shinigami, and I can’t guard over a man’s eternal slumber like Izanami once did.” The woman glared down at him with her icy stare. “So for a time, I actually thought you were going to Get. Away. With it!” She bit off the last few words like a hated curse. “That I would just have to watch and be powerless to help as you did those things to my family…”
Abruptly, she smiled. “But you couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you? You couldn’t just take wisdom and power that didn’t belong to you, couldn’t just steal one of my daughter’s form. You needed to feast. You needed to take more souls and add them to it, like an arrogant fool. What you did was monstrous…” The woman leaned down towards him. “But, right now, I must admit I’m glad you did it, because now you aren’t a mortal at all anymore.” Her smile was chilling. “Tiny bits of your soul entwined with mine, each time you added another victim to your… to my… fire. I can scarcely imagine anything more disgusting, but you are one of the Youkai now. One of mine… and so your eternity belongs to me, now.”
Levi was struggling to understand, to pay attention. It felt like seeing the world through a tiny tunnel – focusing on anything but the agony radiating outward from his lungs felt impossible. He should have passed out by now, or just died… and yet his vision wasn’t even going dark. It seemed impossible, but…
“But?” the pale woman echoed his thoughts as she knelt down to meet his eyes from closer. “Why do you need to breathe at all?” “Simple. You don’t.” One of the woman’s hands brushed against his bare skin and the many scars there, and every fiber of his being yearned for that touch. She, however, shuddered in disgust. “Why would a Youkai in the spirit world need to breathe? There isn’t even any air here, is there?” she spread her hands wide in demonstration, and as if to demonstrate the sleeves didn’t billow at all. “There is Nothing here. Nothing for you to fill your lungs with. Nothing to breathe. A Youkai doesn’t need air.”
She looked down at him, her face twisted into disgust. “But you weren’t ever supposed to be one of the Youkai. It does not matter that you lack a physical body at this point – lack real lungs to breathe, lack a brain that needs oxygen. You are used to having them. You think you still need it, millions of years of animal instinct telling you to just… breathe…”
Her gaze was pitiless as he looked up at her. “Maybe in a million years, you might learn to ignore that instinct. I really do not know.”
Levi reached for her and she just sneered, stepping back out of reach. He tried to beg, but without air, he couldn’t make a sound. How was she speaking at all? “What is the matter, human? You do not enjoy this? I would have guessed from what you did to my daughters that this was your favorite… that you would enjoy an eternity of this.” A tiny, humorless smile creased her face. “It is far too late to change your mind now, I’m afraid.”
“For what you have done to those I love,” she hissed as her eyes started to shine with the flickering of flames deep within, her voice gaining a somehow larger quality to it, “For the harm you have inflicted on this world and those I have sworn to protect, I name you Youma. Never will you know peace in this world or any other, until I have forgiven you. May your name blacken the tongues of any who speak it, and may your very memory fade from the world, remembered not even as a curse.”
Levi wanted to shout a denial… but he couldn’t speak. Couldn’t breathe. Could barely move.
“Coming up with an appropriate punishment for someone like you was a bit of a challenge, I admit,” the woman said softly, her voice returning to normal. Her tone abruptly becoming far more conversational, far less formal. “People don’t usually pray to someone like Inari for vengeance, or for justice, but for prosperity and protection. I was going to have to rely on my own imagination to come up with lessons to teach you.” Inari-Okami sighed. “That worried me. I’m far too merciful for someone like you. Thankfully, however, humans truly are wonderful creatures on the whole. Mortal, have you heard of a thing they call ‘The Internet?’ Truly a marvelous invention, crafted by mortals who wanted to build something rather than destroy it… so unlike you. It was positively filled with ideas for things someone like you wouldn’t enjoy. A few pages were most especially helpful in that regard.” The great fox shrugged helplessly. “I don’t really know which ones you will dislike the most, so… I figured we’ll try them all. Go alphabetically, perhaps. We have time.”
She stood up and five foxes… five kitsune… appeared at her side. Five furious-looking men and women who glared at him with absolute loathing. Five white-furred foxes that practically shook from contained frustration as they had watched, helplessly, the events of the last two weeks… and eyes filled with fury. For the first time, Levi’s eyes showed his fear.
“Mercy?” Inari asked quietly. “It will be difficult for me… but I will show you no more mercy than you showed them, Youma. While a single child of mine you hurt still lives to remember you, you will make amends. Now… let us begin your punishment.”
In the center of the whirlwind of agony that was Levi’s new existence, a single thought crystallized.
Kitsune could live forever.
The stone around Hanabi and the others rumbled and shook as things began to explode somewhere behind them. The amarok was speeding through the tunnel like a moving train, tackling the steep and uneven path without hesitation, but the vibrations around them were quickly growing more intense, and the air was rapidly heating up. “We’re going to need that shield soon,” she warned.
Seo-yun’s eyes were closed, and she gave no acknowledgment to the girl’s words, but Hanabi thought she could feel the foxfire barrier around them thickening in response. The woman was back in her human form, her foxskin a red and white robe around her. Half the reason Hanabi wanted to survive all this was so she could find out what had happened, and she felt the same burning curiosity from Sam next to her.
“If the river hag leaves the temple and enters the nexus, we will all die here,” said Astaria softly. She had reverted to her human form as well, and clung to the amarok’s fur with both hands as she stared ahead. “She must have heard what is happening, and I would not blame her for seeking her own safety in the face of danger.”
“Jenny won’t leave us behind,” Sam insisted. “Well, she won’t leave me behind, I’m pretty sure, so you’ll get to tag along. You’re welcome and all that.”
The rumbling grew so intense that even the amarok’s footing began to falter, and the tunnel was like the inside of a furnace now. Hanabi felt like she was one of those cowboys in a rodeo as they all bounced and bucked, clutching the wolf’s hide to keep from being thrown off. “The blast is approaching,” Celeste said calmly, like she was announcing someone showing up for tea. ”Please do not lose your grip.”
Hanabi looked behind them and immediately regretted it. Flames were visible now and roaring closer, hot and hungry and ready to consume everything in their path. They felt alive and angry, like it was the spirit of the Paradisium itself chasing after them, unwilling to let them escape. She flinched away, and felt the wolf’s fur slip from her tired, sweaty hands. She grabbed after it, but she was too late, and the shuddering earth sent her flying off the creature’s back…
A hand grabbed the base of her tails and hauled her back to safety. The white haired girl glanced back, and saw Celeste holding onto her. “Please do not lose your grip,” the winter fae repeated, in the exact same tone as before. Hanabi’s face flushed, and she latched onto the amarok again.
The fire impacted against Seo-yun’s foxfire wall. To the white haired girl’s relief, it stopped there, but the temperature suddenly rose by about a million degrees. The wall had halted the concussive force of the explosion, but the heat of it was unaffected and washed over them, threatening to roast them alive. Then just as abruptly, the temperature plummeted like they’d been dropped into a winter lake. “Y-you wanna m-maybe dial th-that ba-back a l-little?” Sam asked, her teeth chattering.
“No,” Celeste said simply, and didn’t elaborate. But Hanabi could already feel the cold receding as the fire regained momentum, reducing the arctic air to a frigid gust, then a cool breeze, then a warm one…
“We’re almost there,” Sam said excitedly as they all began to bake once more. “Just a few more seconds!” Hanabi squeezed her eyes shut, gritting her teeth against the heat that threatened to set her fur ablaze. Almost… almost…
And then they were out of the tunnel and airborne, propelled by the flames pushing them. The foxfire sphere struck the temple basement ceiling so hard that Hanabi nearly bit her tongue off, and then ricocheted off the floor with only slightly less force. The white haired girl couldn’t tell if she felt more like a hamster or a pinball as they all spun and bounced for several long seconds as the explosion dissipated. When the sphere finally came to a stop, everyone laid in a heap within it.
“That looked fucking amazing!” Jenny said gleefully. “You got time to let me do that too?” The river hag stood at the top of the stairs, right next to the light of the nexus.
“Muh… maybe later…” Sam mumbled, looking as dazed and disoriented as Hanabi felt. “Let’s… let’s get outta here first…” The foxfire vanished, and everyone began hauling themselves to their feet. The ground beneath them was still shaking and warm, and no one seemed interested in sticking around to find out if the temple would remain standing or not.
“I knew you’d make it back, Ember,” Jenny said triumphantly, as though she was the one responsible. “I knew it!”
Hanabi half walked, half crawled to the nexus, still unable to believe it. They were going to make it out? They’d… they’d done it? Her hand reached out to the light, and then she was back on the beach, standing atop the marble disc in the sands. Away from the Paradisium forever.
And reality sent a cold shock running through her that was far stronger than anything the winter fae could have ever done.
The white haired girl’s face was stiff from the heat of the fire, and her lips cracked as she laughed hollowly and sank to her knees. She’d been right before: they were out of time. They’d been close, so close – they’d rescued Seo-yun and all of the villagers, killed Levi, escaped the Paradisium – and it was all for nothing. They’d failed. They’d failed completely, and now none of them were going to make it back alive.
Night had fallen within the nexus.