From Another Place

[It came to my attention that this had never been uploaded to TFT. This is the first thing I ever wrote that wasn’t a CYOA from back in the day. How much have I improved over the years? Guess you can be the judge of that. Honestly, it’s not going to be good (but then, is anything I’ve done?) so I won’t be surprised if no one finishes it.

That said, a story about war and monstergirls (the original title, but I felt I had to whip up a new one quick) and what is basically an invasion from another world. At least it’s a short novel. Here’s a link to a PDF: http://touchfluffytail.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/anotherplace.pdf]

 

 

Casey glanced backward over the edge of the trench, his back pressed against the wall. Sweeping the tree line quickly to verify that nothing was coming, then turning his attention down the trench. Throngs of men were in a similar position to his own. Others were scurrying about with their heads down, their crouched stance giving them an awkward gait. His focus shifting to those immediately nearby, he counted his men yet again. He stopped himself for a moment and played over the thought ‘his men,’ letting his gaze linger on the squad of men lined out to his left. He’d only seen combat for a month, arriving too late to participate in any actions during the Great War. Still, his superiors saw fit to give him a battlefield commendation to Lieutenant from Sergeant. His mind still reeled at the audacity of it all.

“One battle where I managed to get myself and some other men out alive and now they think I’m some kind of hero,” Casey mused.

The previous battle had occurred just a few days ago, and now this one was looking to play out in a similar fashion. Snapping his head back against the earthen wall, he shook himself out of his reverie and brought his attention back to the situation at hand.

 “Men!,” Casey bellowed, drawing the focus of the men alongside him, “Men…” he closed his mouth and licked his lips, suddenly at a loss for words.

The look of wariness playing across the faces of those now staring at him gripped his heart. Though he was still on the young side himself, he had difficulty reconciling the youthful faces peering at him with the word ‘man.’ He briefly fidgeted with his rifle’s sling, exhaling sharply through his nose. Trying to control the rush of thoughts and emotions was proving to be useless.

“The shit is going to get real thick in a hurry here, but don’t you boys worry none. I figured out how to live through one battle against these demons, so I figure I can do it again! Keep it together, listen to me, and we’ll survive this!”

Some nodded, others remained blank. The diverse assembly of men present gave Casey some measure of concern regarding their ability to understand his English. Ordinarily various nationalities were kept together to ensure command integrity and prevent any inter-unit spats between men. Circumstances had, however, forced the creation of this irregular hodge-podge of units that were understrength to the point of being non-operational on their own.

As Casey was considering a few more inspirational lines, the howl of another incoming artillery barrage ended that option. Casey crouched low to the floor, others following suit or even laying down completely. The fusillade of hellfire tore the earth apart, heaving massive mounds of dirt and vegetation into the air. Some sections of trench were collapsed or utterly demolished. Men seemingly vanished into thin air. Casey screwed his eyes shut and pressed his hands against his ears as tightly as he could in a futile attempt to block out raging cacophony. An eternity marched by. Seconds stretched into days, minutes into weeks; how long had he lay on the dirt floor trembling before he realized the salvos had ceased? Carefully opening his eyes and shifting his hands to pick up his rifle and adjust his helmet, he set about surveying the surroundings. To his left, a few men were huddled and shaking. Not as many as he would have liked to see. Just beyond them was a collapsed trench wall.

“Not going that way, I suppose,” he muttered to himself.

He rose, turning to his right as he raised himself. He took stock of the men he saw. Seems no one was lost over there.

“Things seem better this way”, he thought.

Fortunately, the trench looked clear in that direction. He closed his eyes briefly and pulled up a mental map of the trench network. He realized that there was no way back to base going this way. If they wanted to retreat they would have to go over ground. Moving towards the front of the trench and looking over, he saw movement in the forest a few hundred yards away.

“Has to be them… though to be so close to the focal point of these barrages…” he thought to himself, then stopped. There would be time to think about such things later.

“To arms!” he yelled repeatedly, gathering up ammunition that was scattered around him and dashing to the firing-step on the trench.

“Fire whenever you’re got a clear shot!”

He swung his weapon up and peered down the sites towards the giant figures that were just now beginning to emerge from the tree-line. They were massive, the front-line troops of an incoming spearhead assault. Holding massive slabs of steel in one hand and a heavy machine gun in the other, they marched forward in a phalanx. The shields they carried were impervious to all but the most powerful small-arms the men had. He’d even seen them shrug off smaller cannon shells.

There were gaps in the formation that a skilled marksman could exploit, but in the thick of battle the time needed to take a steady shot could get one killed.

“Damn monsters…” Casey growled as he took several shots.

Most bounced harmlessly off, though one did find its way through a weak point – a notch cut in the side so a weapon could be held and fired at the same time as the shield was raised – and the warrior behind the shield collapsed. Casey did not have time to savor his small victory as they had begun firing on his position, forcing him into cover. He dropped awkwardly onto his hip, causing a small twinge of pain. As he righted himself he looked at either side of him to ascertain the situation he and his men were in. Most of his squad had retreated into cover as he had, but not all. A few bodies lay twisted along the floor of the trench in positions only the dead can achieve. A random squad member would pop up here and there to take a shot, but were quickly driven back down by return fire.

“Those demons don’t stop for anything…” Casey uttered as he rose just high enough to see over the trench wall. The enemy troops were advancing slowly but surely.

“Probably won’t be but a few more minutes ‘till they’re upon us,” he thought.

Sinking back down, he desperately thought of a way out. In doing so he remembered something that occurred in the last battle. This steady advance happened in the same manner as now, but there was something else.

“What was it, centaur cavalry from the flanks?”

He quickly looked to either side of the trench, then focused on the side that had not been caved-in.

“So from there, probably.”

“Men,” he yelled, “Hold your fire and follow me.”

Casey slinked along towards the still-open pathway of the trench, his men looking a bit perplexed but ultimately breaking off their fire to follow. After a few hundred yards he came to a junction that proceeded ahead and also turned right. The path that proceeded to the right would have to do.

“Line up here facing this way, ” he indicated by positioning himself.

“But sir, the front is over there, shouldn-” a private stammered before being cut off.

“Trust me, there will be a push from this direction. They’re just a distraction,’ Casey said, jerking his thumb back in the direction of the giants.

The squad nervously set up, constantly shifting their sight from the visible enemy engaged with the bulk of their forces and in front of them. Nothing was visible to their front, and the growing shadows to the side loomed ever larger. Seconds seemed to stretch on into eternity.

“S-sir I don-” A private nervously stammered.

“Trust me.” Sounding as firm and commanding as he could muster, given the hell that was unfolding around them.

More time faded past, the discordant sounds of battle a constant reminder that they were ever in danger’s path, and yet here they were seemingly doing nothing. Casey swept the ranks with his eyes his body remaining in a firing position. They were getting anxious. Very anxious. He wasn’t sure how long his mens’ nerves would hold. From the far end of the line one of his men spoke up again.

“Sir, I hear something. It… it sounds a stampede?”

“That’s the cavalry. I suppose it’s a stampede of sorts. If you have an automatic weapon I’d suggest using it. Oh, and fix your bayonets.”

Casey smiled ruefully to himself. At least he was right. On the horizon wispy figures could just be made out. He looked back down the line at his men. Some were starting to visibly shake, but at least they obeyed and fixed their bayonets and a few scrounged up trench guns and other assorted weaponry that would offer maneuverability and a high rate of fire.

“Centaur,” Casey began to yell, “Damn fast and they’re armed like a tank. Good thing is they don’t wear any armor! Or at least they didn’t last time I saw ’em. Aim for the human part if you can.”

Crossing the distance with the speeds of a thoroughbred and armed with heavy machine guns or small cannons, Casey had seen these lot in action before. They swept through the ranks with frightening ease and were one of the reasons for the complete and utter defeat the human forces had encountered in engagements. He and his men watched them grow closer and closer. He could make out their individual forms now.

“Hold your fire yet! Wait until they’re within a hundred paces!”

They rode closer and closer, their numbers becoming apparent. Far, far too many for the small squad of men to deal with. Casey looked behind him down the trench to where they had originally been, hoping for some kind of reinforcement. Of course, there was nothing down that way but the blocked trench line. He looked back at the oncoming charge. Almost there.

“Fire!” Casey screamed.

If he and his men were to die here, then at least they would take some of those demons with them.

“A pyrrhic victory is preferable to outright defeat,” he muttered.

They laid down a withering salvo, taking the centaur charge by complete surprise. Several fell in the opening rounds, the weapons fire stitching a bloody trail across their abdomens. With such a compact formation traveling at speed, it was all but impossible to avoid fire or even slow down. The confusion was apparent as the men received no return fire for precious seconds, felling nearly two dozen of the centaur. Seeing so many of the ‘invincible’ fall bolstered them with a surge of triumph and heroism. Many men began screaming incoherently; the rounds from their weapons were their fury made manifest.

Closer and closer the centaur came, their thunderous strides devouring the distance between the line of humans and them. Some of the front runners began to return fire sporadically, but did not slow in the slightest. They vaulted over their fallen comrades with agility that would have been a spectacle in a circus, even in their greatly confused state. Still they had to charge onward, regardless of what happened. Casey noticed a particularly regal-looking centaur towards the side of the formation signal with a larger banner.

“The leader huh?”

 A small detachment broke from the main group and slowed as they circled around to pull up the rear.

Now upon the men and their trench, the centaur leapt above them, bounding across the chasm with frightening ease. Many looked down at the men, eyes filled with malice. A few attempted to shoot down as they went, but their fire was ineffective.

“Keep firing ’till they can see the glow of your barrels!” Casey shrieked amidst the deafening stampede and gunfire.

Many of the squad dropped to their knees, aiming straight up and firing continuously, pausing only to reload. The fire raked the vulnerable, soft underbellies of the centaur. Some collapsed at the far end and fell into the trench or didn’t quite make the jump. One soldier was crushed by a massive body, several others were pinned. Casey looked in every which direction while aiming straight up, firing as fast as he could possibly manage with his rifle. As a centaur was just about to make the jump, he pulled his aim down and fired straight into her human chest. She collapsed rather than making the jump and tumbled down into the trench, slamming into Casey, trapped him against the floor. He desperately tried to escape from her weight holding him down, but only succeeded in causing her body to shift, pinning and nearly covering him completely.

The men were beginning to run out of ammo, and began simply thrusting their bayonets into the air, attempting to slice the centaur bellies open. Some had the weapons torn from their hands or were knocked down completely. A few had some success, their reward being doused with blood and gore.

At last the majority of the charge had passed, but now the remaining men found themselves faced with a handful of centaur that waited upon the trench edge, staring down at them. One in particular stood out – taller than the rest and holding a large banner, her eyes smoldering with a deep fury. She yelled in a language the men did not know, but soon understood. The men were bracketed by barrages of heavy weapons fire, being torn to shreds were they stood. Tattered, bloody rags collapsed to the ground where men used to be. The executioners carefully descended and inspected their fallen comrades for any signs of life, helping those who were still alive free from the mound of corpses that filled the mass grave onto high-ground and back towards aid. The banner-bearer was the last to leave, inspecting the damage wrought by scarcely a dozen men. Near as she figured, fifty or sixty of her kind had been fallen. She could not help but have some small admiration for the valor of the men who fought here. The flicker of admiration was, however, quickly engulfed by her rage and grief. Unpacking a device from a sack at she contacted her headquarters and requested medical support. Her communication finished, she bounded to the other side of the trench and rejoined their charge across the human lines.

 

Sighing heavily through her nose, Emrald wondered why she was required to attend these strategy meetings. As she was a surgeon in charge of a field unit, her role in an operation never much changed.Tucking herself in the back of the darkened room, she had hoped being situated behind everyone would prevent her inattentiveness from being discovered. While the commander of the operation was going on about unit positioning and flanks and other things she couldn’t care less about, Emrald leaned back in her chair and looked up at the ceiling. She went through her mental check list regarding the status of her unit for what had to have been the tenth time during this meeting. As far she knew they were in perfect readiness. The several battles she had been present for had been overwhelming victories for the Coalition. They’d sustained remarkably few causalities, so she had barely had to tap into their medical supplies.

Suddenly the lights snapped on, forcing Emrald to wince and look away. She had been directly at an overhead light without realizing it. Blinking rapidly to try and clear the spots, she felt the presence of eyes upon her. Looking up she realized that the commander and several others were looking directly at her across the sea of people exiting the room.

“Emrald!” Colonel Mirona Serlov snapped, after the last of the crowd had left.

“…Uh, yes, Colonel ?”

Serlov sighed and rubbed her temples, then looked back up at Emrald.

“Your inability to pay attention is wearing thin, Captain. That the lives of our wounded are in your

hands…”

Emrald briefly considered making a quip, but decided against it after considering the colonel’s

frustration. Instead she simply drew herself to attention and waiting for the Mirona to continue.

“We’re going to be using your unit a bit different in this op. We want you to follow the 51st Lancers in as they progress through the enemy’s lines. We’ve found that due to how fast we over-run the human positions, they often abandon their triage camps and leave their casualties behind. We hope to get you in there to capture them.”

Emrald stood surprised, her eyebrows arching up.

“Why would we want to take on the burden of their wounded? It would only waste our supplies.”

Serlov nodded in agreement, then continued “Yes, but we feel it’s worth it. We have captured few

humans. Command believes this would be an ideal way to gain intelligence.”

Emralds tails danced back and forth as she cupped her chin in her hand and considered things. She cocked her head to the side.

“And I assume I’ll have some sort of combat force attached?”

Motioning to an aide, Serlov grabbed a dossier from her and then handed it to Emrald.

“Yes, Lieutenant Reia Neuvirth. She and her unit excel in operations that require a bit of subtlety. I’ve requested that she meet you in your quarters at 0900.”

Emrald opened it up and scanned the first few pages, then looked back up.

“Now then, Captain Dirz, I expect you and your women will be ready for the operation tomorrow.

Additionally you will need to work things out with Major Orozco of the 51st. I will be anticipating your mission plan by 1600.”

Serlov fixed Emrald with a stare for a moment before she slithered out of the room, followed by her aide. Now alone in the room, Emrald sighed and rolled her eyes. Dealing with the centaur was always such a pain. They were so prideful and humorless. Hanging her head slightly, she trudged out of the conference room and back to her quarters.

Emrald was sitting at her desk when a knock came at her door. She looked to her side at the door.

“Who is it?”

“Lieutenant Reia Neuvirth reporting, sir”

“Come in.”

Emrald spun around to fully face the door as it opened. Reia had to crouch slightly to get through the doorframe, then came to attention just inside the room. Emrald cocked an eyebrow as she looked up.

“How is this subtle?” she grumbled.

“Pardon?” Reia asked, slightly confused.

“Oh nothing, please, have a seat… if there’s somewhere for you to sit in here anyways.”

 Emrald looked around the room quickly.

“I guess you can sit on my bunk if you want. “

Reia waved her hands in front of her,

“I’m fine with standing sir.”

Emralds ears twitched slightly.

“Please, just call me Emrald. I don’t much like being called sir and Captain and all that. Only reason I have this rank is because I’m a surgeon.”

“As you wish,” said Reia, shrugging.

“Now then, I believe you’re running guard duty for me and my medics while we attempt to capture a few human triage camps? Shouldn’t be too much trouble. A nice leisurely drive, stabilize whoever is critical, then stuff everyone in the trucks and ferry them back over here.”

Emrald had picked up a pencil and pointed it at Reia while she spoke.

Reia thought a moment before responding, crossing her arms across her chest.

“Yes, well, if there was so little risk as you seem to think then I would not be here. I would suggest you re-consider the risks. While we have been rather successful so far, I would not imagine it will always continue as such.

Emrald raised an eyebrow and the tips of her tails began twitching slightly.

“So I’ve been told. No matter,” waving away Reia’s concerns with a hand, “we probably won’t have any trouble. Well, I have to go speak with Major Teresa Orozco. Want to come with me? I can’t stand being near her alone.”

“Uh, if you wish.”

Emrald smiled, “Well I don’t really wish to, but the responsibilities of command and all that.”

Emrald stood up and smoothed out some of the surfaces of her uniform and then fluffed out her tails.

She frowned as she ran her hands through the soft fur.

“Ah, it’s impossible to get myself well-groomed out here. “

She walked over and looked up at the minotaur, then at the little poof of fur at the end of her tail.

“Must be nice…” Emrald said as she put her hands on her hips.

Reia looked down at Emrald, who was small even by kitsune standards. Letting a small smile form on her face, she responded in a pitying tone.

“Indeed it is.”

Emrald glowered at her before sighing.

“Well whatever, let’s get to the Major’s office.”

Sprawled out on her bunk, Emrald yawned mightily then hugged her tails closely, her face buried in their fluff and rolled back and forth a few times before releasing them. Awkwardly fumbling about, she dragged herself across the bed towards the nightstand. Groping for the clock, she managed to grab iit and bring it very near her face. 0455, five minutes before the alarm would go off. She grumbled in irritation and thought about whether to just get up now or wait for the alarm. With a snort she decided that she may as well get up now. Gathering up her things, she shuffled off towards the showers.

“Oh Reia, you’re here already?” Emrald was a bit surprised to see someone else here this early.

The only reason she had to wake so early was to prep the medical supplies and the morning briefing for her medics before the operation.

Reia nodded.

“I was up half an hour ago, actually. Morning jog.”

“You? Jogging? Doesn’t that, you know, hurt?” Emrald eyed the minotaur’s ample chest.

“They probably weigh as much as I do.”

Reia narrowed her eyes, then turned her head slightly and continued to stare at Emrald.

“No, we’re not doing this,” she huffed.

“Doing what?” said Emrald, doing her best to avoid looking coy.

“You know damn well what. This talk. About bodies… and body parts. It’s entirely inappropriate.” Reia was starting to blush slightly now. Before Emrald could protest, she turned, grabbed her things, and hid inside a stall to change into her clothes.

“Aww you’re so bashful,’ Emrald cooed.

Emrald snickered as Reia walked out without saying anything. Now in a decidedly good mood, she began humming to herself. After disrobing she poked herself in various places, then cupped her rear with her hands.

“I may not be able to compete with her in breasts, but this is my secret weapon!” she boldly declared to the empty room, jiggled her rump, then nodded with satisfaction to herself.”

Out in the field hospital, Emrald was busily sorting and counting a variety of supplies. As her medical staff showed up, she instructed them to begin loading the trucks with the supplies she had already organized. While she was checking off her supply list, Reia had shown up along with her squad and several large transport vehicles to use for the human captives. As Reia hopped out of a truck, Emrald walked over to her.

“You’re a bit early. The 51st is scheduled to head out in an hour, then we’re to leave 15 minutes after them. I’ve just about finished all the preparations here. “

“Anything you need help with?”

“Nah, we’ve got it covered.”

Emrald looked around a bit, then leaned in towards Reia and spoke in a hushed tone.

“I am a bit excited though, I’ve never seen a live human yet. Well, I hope they’ll still be mostly alive when we get there. “

Reia noticed Emrald’s tails were waving back and forth energetically.

“Well you’re not missing much. They aren’t all that different from us, though they do all kind of look the same.”

“Oho~? Pictures and descriptions never match the real thing, you know. I’d like to see first-hand.“

Reia snorted, then sat down on the side step of the truck cab.

“Don’t get too excited. You’re probably just going to be disappointed.”

“We’ll see about that.” Emrald said as she turned to resume finishing her tasks.

 

“Emrald! Where the hell are you?”

Emrald was surprised by the urgency in Teresa’s voice. She fumbled for the radio as the truck bounced and jolted across the terrain. The ground had been more uneven and rough than anticipated, slowing the medical convoy as they attempted to stay behind the centaur Calvary.

“Ah, we’re not terribly far behind you, I thi-“ a sudden jounce caused Emrald to drop the mic on the floor. Scrambling to pick it back up, she resumed “I think I see your unit, or the dust they’ve kicked up anyways.”

“I need you up here now! We’ve sustained heavy casualties. Get your ass here now! I need to leave to re-join what’s left of my unit.”

“Yes sir, we’ll be making best speed to your position,” Emrald snapped back.

Heavy casualities? That left Emrald at a bit of a loss, then she thought about the previous day and how she had talked about things being too easy so far. She placed a finger on her lips and tilted her head while wondering if she had somehow jinxed things.

Turning to the driver of the truck she was in she spoke loudly,

“Well you heard her, let’s get a move on.”

Reaching for the radio again, she tuned to the general frequency of her unit and repeated the order to move at best speed.

After a few minutes, Emrald spotted the centaur. Some appeared to be walking around with great

difficulty. Countless more lay motionless on the ground. She quickly began to realize things were far more grave than she had anticipated from the short conversation with Major Orozco. Again she picked up the radio and began issuing orders to the fleet of trucks in an attempt to spread out the staff and supplies.

Soon they reached the battlefield and Emrald leapt from the truck before it had fully stopped. She

darted to the nearest walking centaur and asked about the situation. The centaur hesitated for a

moment before looking at Emrald’s collar.

“Well Captain, we were ambushed by a squad of men. They tore us up bad as we approached the trench line here. There’s not many of us able to walk.”

 The centaur gasped and wheezed while breathing. Emrald looked her over quickly and saw that she had been shot twice in her horse half’s chest. Likely had a punctured lung. Other trucks began pulling up, medical personnel streaming out to attend to the wounded. Emrald ran back to her own truck and got on the radio and contacted HQ.

“We’ve got a lot wounded here. Many of them severe – I’d like to setup triage here and begin to operate on the most critical.”

Seconds ticked by. She was beginning to get anxious.

“Repeat, we’ve go-“

“Heard you the first time. Currently waiting for a response from Colonel Serlov.” The operator

interrupted.

Emrald tapped her foot incessantly, her ears and tails twitching in equal measure. After what seemed like hours, the radio crackled to life.

“Captain,” it was Serlov speaking, “You are to leave a small contingent of medics and trucks there and continue with your mission.”

Emrald was speechless. Surely some of the wounded here would die without immediate surgery.

“But Colonel, these people need treatment and they need it now. I just talked to one who will likely

asphyxiate soon.”

“Are you disobeying orders, Captain?”

Emrald bit her lip hard.

“No sir – I just-“

“Then carry out your orders. We’re dispatching another field staff now. “

She knew they would take far too long to reach their location. She threw the mic down and looked out through the windshield at the centaur she had just spoken with.

“Gods damn it.” She jumped out of the truck again to speak with the medics that were running about. As she approached the trenches, she came across Reia and her troops inside; they were removing bodies. When she came up to the edge to speak with Reia, there was a shout from one of her soldiers as they hefted a massive centaur body.

“We’ve got a human here, I think he’s still alive.”

Emrald jumped down into the trench and sprinted over to where the shout had originated. The

minotaur soldiers had moved the centaur’s corpse up onto the surface, completely exposing the man that had been pinned underneath. Emrald looked around at the ground and then back at the man.

Apparently he had fallen into a depression on the floor, preventing his body from taking the brunt of the centaur’s weight.

“Lucky…” Emrald breathed out.

Placing two fingers to the man’s neck she confirmed a pulse and was able to see that he was breathing, though it was sharp and ragged. No doubt he sustained significant injury from the centaur falling on top of him. She yelled for a stretcher, then considered how to move him without causing further harm.

Reia appeared overhead, her shadow completely covering Emrald.

“I heard from one of the others that we’re to keep moving.”

Emrald turned and shot her a glance.

“Yeah, though I recall I was supposed to carry out the original mission, which was to capture some humans I believe. And what do we have here?” she turned back to the man, a grin crooking a corner of her mouth.

“At least while I figure out how to get him stable and out of here the rest of my staff can continue to treat the centaur.” She said in a low voice.

Reia snapped a quick affirmative and went to help finish removing the bodies that were in the trench.

After a few moments an oni medic had shown up with a stretcher. As the medic was securing the man to the rigid board, Emrald had removed most of his upper uniform to ascertain the damage. Heavy bruising around his chest suggested to her that he probably had some broken ribs at the very least. Her eyes lingered on him with great curiosity. This was the first time she had seen a male of any species up close like this. Once he was securely fastened, the oni lifted him up to take him to a medical truck. Before heading to the truck herself, Emrald detoured to check on the centaur.

“How are things?” She asked, running up to her senior NCO.

“There are five that are severely wounded. Two of them might last until the other team arrives, but I’m not sure about the other three. The rest are minor enough that I think they’ll be fine.”

Emrald sighed deeply. She really ought not to leave the critically wounded like this. It went against everything she believed in. But, she thought, a court-martial for insubordination was the most likely outcome if she decided to stay. Being in a military prison wasn’t going to allow her to help anyone. She grit her teeth and suppressed a growl.

“Okay, I’ll be leaving along with the human we captured along with Reia’s team. I want the rest of you all to stay here and tend to the wounded. Once the other team arrives come in after me. “

The medic smiled.

“Yes sir. We’ll come help you wrangle some humans once we’ve made sure everyone here is stabilized.”

“Why they’re making a surgeon do this is beyond me,” Emrald said with exasperation, her shoulders dropping slightly.

Waving to the medic, Emrald ran back where the trucks and Reia were waiting.

 “We’re heading out now, let’s round everyone up and move out.”

 Emrald didn’t hear Reia’s reply as she had bounded into the back of the truck where the man had been stored. She looked up at the oni medic that was still with him.

“Liola, how’s he doing?”

“Fine, I think. His breathing is rough but it’s even. He’s also been moving about a little.”

“Oh?”

Emrald moved closer to him to get a better look. As she peered down at him, his eyes twitched and opened slightly.

Casey’s first thought was that his chest rather hurt quite a bit, and his second was that whoever was looking at him now had some very striking malachite-colored eyes.

 

Casey tested the bonds holding him fast to the stretcher. Though he did not apply much force, he figured he had little chance of breaking them even if his chest did not ache with every breath. Not that he would get far even if he had the chance to escape; running was out of the question in his current condition. How he got into his current condition proved to be elusive. No matter how hard he thought, he couldn’t quite recall memories of the previous hours. Vaguely recalling something with centaur, the only thing he knew for sure was that there had been fierce combat.

The woman he had seen when he first woke up had vanished shortly after he saw her. Now he was being attended to by this very large, red-skinned woman with a single horn protruding from her forehead. She didn’t say anything, but poked and prodded him in various areas, adjusted bandages, and injected him with something he now realized to be an analgesic.

He could hear commotion and activity outside of the vehicle he was in, but was unable to look out anywhere. Casey’s emotions were a mixture of anxiety and curiosity. His relative good care at the hands of his captors lead him to believe that perhaps PoW life would not be quite so terrible. The lack of knowledge about these mysterious women also interested him. They had appeared rather suddenly not even a month ago, so little was known about their society or culture. As he pondered his circumstances, he saw the canvas at the back of the truck rustle about. The green-eyed woman with the foxy ears and multiple tails hopped in, then talked with the large woman. Their language was unlike anything Casey had ever heard before – it sounded like some kind of magic incantation.

After their brief dialogue, the red-skinned woman left, leaving Casey alone with the fox-woman. She looked at him curiously, then spoke. Whether to herself or him, he didn’t know. When he did not respond, the woman smiled and she moved a hand to his forehead. As it moved, he noticed traces of what appeared to be blue fire covering her hand. He attempted to jerk his head back to avoid the firey touch, but due to the restraints he could only move so far. As her finger touched his head, and he was immediately surprised at the sensation. Rather than a searing heat, he felt some kind of electrical tingling in addition to her touch. She began moving her finger about on his forehead, though he did not know why. Pulling her hand back after spending some time tracing something on his forehead, she again beamed at him.

“Hello there,” she said.

Casey froze instantly at her words. While he still heard her strange language he also somehow knew what she was saying. His response expected, the woman giggled slightly and patted him on the arm.

“What I’ve done is carve a sigil onto your mind that allows you to understand anyone that also has the sigil, regardless of the language they speak.”

His mind raced. Magic, actual magic? What else were they capable of? Fear began to replace his prior curiosity.

“My name is Emrald, I’m a field surgeon for the Coalition. What’s your name?”

Was this an interrogation? Why else would she want to know? Casey focused his eyes on the woman. Her ears twitched slightly.

“Shy? Well I suppose I can’t blame you, considering all that’s happened.” Sighing and moving to sit across from him, leaning back.

She didn’t seem quite like an interrogator, he figured. Still, he had to stay on his guard.

“Lieutenant Casey Smith, 108th infantry division, D company,” he said firmly.

“Oh good, you can speak.” Emrald clapped her hands together and again smiled at him.

“Well Casey, you’ve been captured. We found you in a trench, pinned underneath a centaur that you had killed. You have broken ribs and a concussion. After we complete our mission, we’ll be bringing you back to our base. Do try to relax until then.”

At least he now had an idea of how he came into his current situation. The part about their mission worried him though. Why were they bringing him along instead of immediately sending him back to their HQ to interrogate him?

The fox-woman Emrald did not say anything else, and after a time he heard the truck he was in start up and soon began moving. The rough ride caused his ribs a great deal of pain. Nausea washing him over and a cold sweat breaking out, he pleaded with any deity that would listen to end his suffering or stop the truck. Rather than any god, Emrald seemed to pick up on his increasing discomfort and injected him with another dose of painkillers. Working more quickly than he would have thought possible, it only took seconds after the injection before the agony in his chest subsided into a dull throb.

“If you’re in that much pain you should say something. No need to tough it out.”

Her voice seemed to admonish him like a child. Turning to look at her, he was still mystified by her behavior. He felt more like a patient at a hospital than a prisoner of war.

Time seemed to tick by slowly, nary another word spoken. Casey felt the truck beginning to slow, then stop. Emrald seemed to take this as her que to leave, and she wordlessly leapt from the back of the truck, the canvas flap quickly obscuring his view of the outside world as it fluttered to a close. He could hear the sounds of people moving about, then a burst of gunfire from somewhere in front of the truck.

Emrald pressed herself tightly against the side of the truck at the sound of the gunfire, looking over at Reia.

“So much for being undefended eh? I thought they were supposed to clear out everyone who could fight back,” Emrald yelled out.

Reia shrugged in response, hunkered down behind her shield. Looking around for the location of the gunman, she couldn’t discern from where the shots originated. Turning around and issuing a few orders to the troops behind her, she stood slightly as they left to other positions. Once they reached their places, she signaled to advance. Slowly walking forward, there was another burst of gunfire. The rounds ricocheted harmlessly off a soldier to her left. Still proceeding forward, she spotted the barrel of a gun peeking out from under a flap on the large medical tent. Raising her own weapon and taking aim where she figured the person would be standing, she was stopped by a yell from Emrald.

“Remember to take him alive!”

Reia rolled her eyes. Easy for someone who isn’t putting themselves in the line of fire to say. She lowered her firearm and signaled for those around her to do the same. They’d just have to rely on their shields until they were close enough to disable the gunman.

Eventually they reached the gunman; he was still seated in a wheelchair. Apparently he had picked up a sub-machine gun that was left as the other soldiers retreated. Unable to run away, he fired at them until the magazine ran dry. Still pulling the trigger, the man had the most terrified expression Reia had ever seen.She looked at him pityingly, then snatched the weapon from his grasp with blinding speed. Walking back out, she yelled for Emrald to come in

Entering, Emrald began looking around at all the wounded. She was amazed at the numbers of people – they’d need to make at least two trips to transport them all. Her mouth slightly agape, she found it hard to comprehend that any army would leave this many men behind. It disgusted her, really.

Rather than drugging them all, Emrald thought about another means to garner their cooperation. Walking back to the truck that contained Casey, she hopped in. His eyes instantly shifted to her, worry easily read on his face. No doubt the gunfire was the cause.

“We’re currently at a human medical camp. There’s quite a few men here. I would appreciate it if you could help convince them to cooperate with us.”

Casey considered her words. While she had treated him, he was a prisoner, and so now were the men at this camp. Would asking them to submit to her care be treason?

“Do you think any of them will die without treatment?”

Emrald shrugged.

“Probably, though we haven’t started looking at them. They’re all rather scared of us and we don’t want those injured to make themselves worse or fight us.”

He continued to stare at her.

“Why do you want to give us aid? We’re your enemy.”

“Because I’m a doctor, and you’re people. I have no desire to see others suffer, no matter their race or allegiance. You are prisoners, yes, but isn’t it normal to take prisoners in human wars?”

Pausing briefly she continued,

“Or do you murder those unable to fight back?”

The notion of killing men that were already wounded or unable to fight back was despicable to her. Not only was it senseless violence, but how could you ever hope to convince a people to capitulate to you if they knew they of the atrocities committed against them? She glared at Casey.

He shifted a bit, weighing her words. with a small sigh, he gave his response.

“Fine, I’ll help you.”

Emrald breathed a sigh of relief and began to undo his bindings. She helped him sit up, then stand on his feet. He brought an arm up to clutch at his ribs, trying to halt the sharp tendrils of pain radiating from his chest, then began to move with her off the truck and to the tent.

As the pair approached the medical tent, Reia gave them a look of surprise. Casey halted when he saw the tall, muscular woman. She was easily two feet taller than he was, maybe three. His eyes tracked up to her long ears and curved horns. She was certainly more intimidating than the dainty fox-girl currently propping him up, but the large cow-woman seemed to defer to the fox. The cow-woman wordlessly watched Casey as he approached and walked into the medical tent.

“That’s Reia. Don’t worry too much about her,” Emrald said in a hushed tone. “She’s nice enough.”

Casey came to a sudden halt when he saw all the other men packed into the tent. There had to be at least 50 here. To leave so many behind, the war must be proceeding rather poorly.

“Okay,” Emrald began. “It’s your time to shine.” Casey looked over at her, though she wasn’t looking at him. Rather, she was looking back and forth at the swath of men.

 

Casey was still unsure of his actions. After talking at length, explaining his care and what Emrald had asked him to translate while she spoke. Eventually he had managed to get all the men to agree to her care and be taken prisoner as a consequence. Laying down on the stretcher inside the truck once again, Emrald had situated herself to his head on a bench. Most of the truck had been filled with wounded, but she seemed to fancy staying near him.

“Well, now we’re off to home sweet home,” Emrald said with a cheerful tone, looking down at Casey.

“You did a good thing today; you helped save these men. If they had resisted many would have surely died.”

She patted Casey’s head. He felt kind of proud, but he also wondered if maybe these men would simply be served up to someone else and meet a worse fate.

As Casey was helped out the truck, he was awestruck as soon as he saw the Coalition base camp. The rows of vehicles lined up and those on patrol around the borders were amazingly modern. He’d never seen anything quite like them before. Then the base itself appeared to have electricity. He couldn’t believe it – electricity, at a mobile military camp? He was snapped from his reverie as Emrald prodded him a bit.

“Don’t stand around gawking, we have places to go.”

Casey nodded, then resumed walking, supported by the fox-girl. Entering the base, he looked around in wonder. What caught his attention most of all was a small box in the corner of a large room. Seated around it were multitudes of women of various shapes and sizes. Displayed on the box was a moving picture. While he had seen these moving picture shows before, this was the first time he had seen one on such a small screen. Not only that, it was in color! Utterly transfixed by the object, he stopped and then nearly fell when Emrald had kept walking and he couldn’t rest some of his weight on her.

“What are you looking at?” she asked while following his gaze.

“Oh, that? What, do you guys not have those?”

Casey looked back at her and blinked several times. If they could shrink and colorize a moving picture, what else were they capable of? The thought was both incredibly exciting yet foreboding. No wonder they were being defeated so readily; these girls’ technological edge on them had to be incredible.

“You can watch later, come now, you need to get to the infirmary,” Emrald spoke while prodding him in the ribs, eliciting sharp bursts of pain.

“Fine, just please stop that.”

“So long as you get moving.”

As they entered, Casey noted that the place was already rather lively. It appeared the more seriously wounded had been hurried in first.

“Normally, you would have to wait as your injuries aren’t that severe. But since I don’t feel like implanting the sigil on all these folks right now, we’ll need you to be our liaison.”

Walking over to a bed, she motioned for him to sit and then walked off into a nearby room. Emerging several moments later with supplies of some sort, she motioned for him to lay down. Emrald removed his old bandaging and wrapped him in fresh ones. She then wrapped his chest in some kind of thick padding, and gave him another injection.

“Should keep the pain away for a while.”

Casey simply nodded, then sat back up. Emrald walked off and began talking with the staff present, pointing back at him as she did so. After some time she came back to him.

“I’ve told them all that you can communicate with us now, so they’ll come to you if they need your help. For now I’m needed in the surgeries.” She gave him a smile and then departed through the door they entered.

Almost immediately medics began approaching Casey, asking him to act as a translator for their charges. With resignation, Casey slumped his shoulders, then stood up and went where he was needed.

Casey was exhausted. The crowded conditions of the infirmary had fallen somewhat, and now it was rather quiet. Soldiers slept in beds, given sedatives to help them sleep through their ills and discomfort. He looked around the darkened room. The only people still moving around was himself, a medic, and a guard at the entrance. His eyes met the guard’s, her face full of curiosity. Realizing he was looking back at her, she quickly looked elsewhere and shifted. Casey laid down on his bed, attempting to digest all that had happened today. Being captured was shock enough. Then there was his unusually kind treatment and free range. In his first day he had already been given a job, and for some reason he obliged despite the light guards. It might not have been so difficult to create some kind of commotion and make for an escape, though he did realize the patrols outside would most likely have apprehended him rather quickly. Still though, should he be this accepting of events?

Closing his eyes, Casey fell into sleep quickly.

 

“Hey, wake up,” Casey heard from somewhere, followed by light smacking on his cheek.

He groaned and his eyelids fluttered open, and once again Emrald was peering down at him. He was becoming rather fond of her green eyes.

“What can I help you with?” he grumbled out.

Somewhat annoyed by his attitude, Emrald narrowed an eye while looking at him.

“You can help by coming with me.”

Looking him up and down, “You’re a mess though, we’ll have to get you cleaned up. You smell terribly and you’re still covered in dirt.” Her nose wrinkled as she smelled the air around Casey.

Then, picking at his clothes, “These rags will have to go as well.”

Smacking his cheek until he sat up, she then nodded.

“You can stand and walk by yourself now, yes?”

Casey responded by swinging his legs off the bed and then standing unsteadily. He gave a grunt to indicate he was finished.

Her tails now swishing, Emrald smiled a bit. “Good, follow me.”

Turning about, she proceeded towards the exit, her hands tucked into a long white jacket that was draped over her drab uniform. Casey noted that the back of the garment had a hole cut out of it to allow her tails out. Walking behind her, he noted how they swished in time with her steps. He was struck by a desire to touch one, but restrained himself, lest it cause an incident. They exited the infirmary and proceeded up and down a series of hallways. Casey wondered inwardly at the size of the compound. This was larger than any base he’d been on yet.

Eventually he picked up on the sound of running water and the rising humidity in the air. Leading him into a large room full of lockers and benches, she then marched him towards to a bench that was near the entrance to the showers. He noticed the large, muscular cow-girl was rummaging through a locker, pulling out clothing. She was also completely naked. He couldn’t help but stare – his eyes drawn to her chest. Blushing and looking away, his action apparently caught the attention of the nearby fox.

“Ho… Hoho… like what you see, do you?,” came her teasing voice.

“Ah, uh, normally men.. and women… are separated…” Casey mumbled out in response.

Noticing their approach, Reia turned to face them, making no attempt to hide herself.

“What’d you bring him here for?”

“As you can see, he’s quite dirty. I need to get him cleaned up before we go meet with Serlov,’ Emrald declared while patting him on the shoulder.

“When you’re done, could you try and find some clothing that will fit him?”

Reia cocked an eyebrow.

“Is that an order?”

“If need be.”

“Fine, I’ll find something that he’ll be able to wear,” she said with a snort.

“Now then, take off those filthy rags. I’ll get you something to wash with.”

Casey watched Emrald wander off into a storage closet, though he did not make an effort to remove his clothing. Reia was still just feet away, and Casey was terribly embarrassed. He made many furtive glances at her body, and either he succeeded in avoiding notice or she simply did not care.

“Hey, you can’t get cleaned up unless you remove those you know.”

Casey turned towards Emrald, who set some clean rags and a bar of soap in his hands.

“C-could you please leave or look away?” Casey stammered out.

Emrald and Reia both gave him an incredulous look.

“Do you have some kind of deformity you’re shamed of or something?”

Emrald prodded at him once again.

“No, it’s just, uh, like I said before… women and men usually do not bathe together.”

Emrald sighed.

“We’ve no time for your bashfulness. Reia, I will require your assistance – and yes, that is an order.”

Letting out a deep sigh, Reia removed what clothing she had put on. Looking over, Casey was nearly horrified to see Emrald had managed to shed her garments in moments. Before he could react further, Reia held him still while Emrald stripped him bare. Still utterly speechless, Reia then forcefully pulled on his shoulders, pulling him into the showers. His attempts to cover himself were all in vain as Reia locked his arms in place while Emrald scrubbed him, occasionally raising his arms when the need to scrub arose.

They both dried off and redressed, then Reia went off in search of clothing. Throwing a towel at him, Emrald spoke in a most patronizing tone.

“Now was that so bad? Or do you humans not know how to clean yourselves?”

His face still flushed, “W-what was that all about? Don’t you have any shame?”

“From what?” Came Emrald’s curt response, a hand on her hip.

“Now hurry up and dry off. Or do I have to do that for you as well?”

He glowered at the fox woman, pausing for a moment before obeying her command. Casey then wrapped the towel around his waist in an attempt to regain some of his modesty. Never before had he seen such shameless and aggressive women. While thinking about his most recent violation, Reia appeared, clothing in hand.

“Grabbed these from one of the girls in my squad. She’s about his size.”

Tossing the shirt and pants on the bench, Reia walked out without another word.

“Good,” Emrald said while nodding.

Casey noticed she seemed to nod to herself often.

“Now to appease you I’ll turn around while you get dressed. Make it snappy,” clapping her hands for added emphasis.

With no recourse, Casey begrudgingly donned the uniform. It was rather tight around his chest, but loose around his legs and hips. Probably due to being tailored for the female form, he thought.

“Fine, I’m ready now.”

“About time,” spinning around, her tails wrapping around her from the sudden movement.

Exiting the locker room, Casey spoke up. “Who is Serlov?”

“The base commander here. I’ve decided you’ll be the go-to person for prisoner relations, so she wants to meet you.”

Casey simply hummed in response as they walked. After a short walk Emrald stopped in front of a door that was emblazoned with text and symbols that Casey could not even hope to identify. Emrald knocked on the door.

 

“Captain Dirz and Prisoner Casey Smith, Colonel.”

“Enter.”

Emrald smiled and looked at Casey while she reached for the handle.

“Remember to be on your best behavior.”

Seated… or not, Casey couldn’t really tell, was the most unusual woman he’d seen yet behind a desk. A long and powerful looking snake body was coiled on top of itself, with a human female torso attached at one end. Underneath the scales of her snake body he could make out powerful muscles as they contracted and relaxed. Looking from the snake portion to her human torso and face, he gave her a silent appraisal. She was handsome, with a regal face, and she wore her uniform well. She certainly looked the part of a commander. He looked down at the fox to his side, thinking her rather plain looking in comparison. Suddenly he caught his thoughts; why was he thinking about their looks? That should be the least of his concerns right now. He shook his head and regained his focus.

“So,” the snake woman began. “Captain Dirz here has recommended that you be our prisoner liaison.” She began to move out from behind the desk.

“We wish to keep things as amiable as possible for the time being. While you are prisoners, and will be treated as such, we do not wish to be barbaric or overly oppressive.” She continued moving closer.

Casey looked over at the fox. She remained standing at attention, not looking at anything in particular. He turned back towards Serlov.

“Yes, we plan to question you. I would prefer to avoid… interrogation… so it behooves the both of us to cooperate.” Her eyes narrowed to slits, her gaze never averting from Casey.

“What do you say?” She finally halted her slow slithering, scarcely a few feet away.

“I uh, I will try to work with you, but I cannot say the same for the others.”

“Please do see to it that you encourage their cooperation, Casey Smith. If things proceed smoothly and your information corroborates, we will be able to advance our plans for you that much more quickly.” She gave an odd smile.

“Do not worry, I assure you that you will be treated well at all times provided you do not resist.”

So far Casey had no reason to doubt her words, but they still left him feeling uneasy. Again he was being asked to commit treason in exchange for avoiding torture or other such tactics. He wondered if it was worth it. He didn’t know anything particularly damaging to the human war effort, especially seeing as how badly it was being pushed back. Any knowledge he had of army formations or deployments was likely long out of date by now. Convincing the others might prove to be difficult, however.

“I thank you for your hospitality then.”

Serlov gave another odd smile.

“Good. For the next few days I will allow you and your men to recover from your wounds. Then we will begin the questioning. Those that are well enough will be assigned various labors around the base as well.”

“That is fine.”

Casey really had no choice but to agree. He decided to stay agreeable for now in an attempt to stay on her good side.

“Very well, Captain Dirz, Casey Smith, you are dismissed.”

Emrald gave Serlov a salute, to which she responded with a salute of her own. Casey attempted to mimic the gesture, but it looked rather clumsy. Serlov gave a half-grin at his effort then returned to her desk. Emrald gave him a light tug, and the pair left the room.

“Well, she seems…” Casey trailed off.

“Seems what?”

“I… don’t know. She seemed nice enough, I guess, but it felt like it was just a facade.”

Emrald hummed in thought. “Maybe. She’s effective though, so I don’t give it much thought. She commands and I obey and all that.”

“Say, how about you and I engage in some questioning of our own? I have plenty of time to while away”

Emrald’s attitude was bright, her eyes full of curiosity. Casey shifted uneasily.

“Well, rather than trying to extract military information from you I’m more interested in you, specifically. Your world as you know it and all that. In exchange I’ll tell you some about us. How about it?”

Emrald bound in front of Casey asking this, her tails dancing about energetically. He was hesitant. While he did feel oddly at ease here, despite being a prisoner, he was wary enough to avoid divulging information. Still, he thought, it seems like she’s simply curious about the human world. He too was curious about her world, specifically why he had yet to see a single male anywhere. Their candid attitude in the locker room was also most interesting.

Suddenly his stomach rumbled, and he realized it had been over a day since he ate. Emrald’s ears twitched at the sound.

“Ah, are prisoners allowed food?”

With a grin, Emrald responded “Of course. Let’s go to the mess hall and we’ll find you something.”

Casey was surprised by the selection. Normally he was used to simply being given whatever gruel was available, but here there was the sort of food he would expect at a diner or have for a home-cooked breakfast. Eggs, toast, and sausage. There was even cheese available if one wanted to make an omelet.

Attacking the plate he had heaped with food, he devoured the meal with blazing speed. Emrald chuckled while watching him, resting her chin on her hand.

“Does your military not feed you or something? No, you don’t need to respond.”

Casey paused briefly to look at her, his cheeks buldging. Chewing and swallowing, he managed a response with only half a mouthful.

“Ey do, buh ih isn berry goo.”

Emrald looked at him with disdain, frowning slightly.

“Swallow completely before you talk. No amount of magic will allow me to understand that.”

“Sawwy”

Casey kept eating, going back for another plate full with Emrald’s permission. There was an actual rationing system in place, but Emrald pulled doctor’s orders and had it waived.

His stomach full, Casey felt rather tired again. How long would this questioning session with Emrald last, he wondered. After leaving the mess hall, Emrald guided him to her quarters. He was expecting a bit more from her room considering her attitude. The handful of furniture consisted of her desk, chair, bunk, and a night stand. The only decoration on the walls was a small… something made from a silvery metal. He couldn’t guess as to what it was, but it looked vaguely religious in nature.

She sat down on her bed and patted on it, signaling for him to join her. She rolled up towards the head, then sat cross-legged as Casey sat on the edge.

She looked at him intently, and Casey suddenly felt slightly uncomfortable. Sitting on a bed with a woman he hardly knew in her room was not appropriate behavior. Before he could ruminate further, she fired off her first question.

“What do you think about us?”

Casey wasn’t sure how to respond.

“What? What do you mean what do I think about you?”

Emrald crossed her arms.

“We’re an invading army that you know little about. Certainly you have to have some opinion.”

“Oh. Well, I used to think of you lots as demons hell-bent on conquering us. I’m not entirely sure that’s true now.”

“Ahhh? Where did you get that idea? The only reason we began our assault was because you attacked us!” Emrald practically yelled her response.

“Attacked you? What? From what I heard you began the invasion as soon as the portal opened.” Casey furrowed his brow.

Emrald sighed and flopped over onto the bed.

“That is so wrong! When the portal opened, our forces remained at its outskirts. We sent envoys to discuss things with you humans, but they were called demons and witches by your religious groups. And…” she hesitated, “They wound up killing our envoys with little discussion.”

Sitting back up and looking at Casey with something between rage and disgust,

“Your leaders would not even hear us out. They branded us within the day of our appearance and began attacking our forces. Combined with their ruthless butchering of our envoys – they sent their heads back on pikes! – it was not something we could tolerate. We responded to violence with violence.”

Casey sat still for a while, considering her words. It seemed plausible… the churches weren’t well known for their tolerance. Casey looked the fox-girl over, and thought about the others he had met. He could certainly see how they would cast them as demons from the onset.

“Well, if you were not here to invade us, why did you come?”

Emrald suddenly seemed hesitant to speak.

“I don’t think I can tell you yet. It may be hard for you to accept… that’s one of the reasons why we’ve captured you. Already I can tell you’re thinking differently about us. That’s good. I hope that in the weeks to come you will learn more about us. When the time comes I will tell you our purpose here. Now then, let’s discuss something else, shall we?”

Casey was surprised at her words. He was there to learn about them? That would explain their kind treatment and leniency towards him and the other men. Though he was beginning to suspect Emrald was far more clever than her actions and demeanor let on.

 

Life as a prisoner wasn’t as terrible as Casey imagined it would be. They were confined to a small set of rooms and only allowed out when escorted, but otherwise they were not overworked, beaten, or starved. The men worked on various labor projects at the base and around the area, though it was often only for a few hours a day rather than morning to night. Meals were taken at the same time as the soldiers and in the same facilities. The interrogations most surprised Casey, however. Rather than being asked about troop deployments, command structure, estimated fighting strength and other such details, he was mostly asked about the world. Most questions focused on culture with a few on technology. They also tended to needle him especially on the relationships between men and women as well as their roles in society.

Now, after a month had passed, Casey began to think life here not much different from the life a soldier would normally experience on the field.

“Hey, you, get up,” came a familiar voice.

Casey had been staring at the ceiling, laying on his bunk. He turned his head in the direction of the voice. There was Emrald, wearing her usual long white coat over her drab military overalls. His eyes flicked to a clock on a wall, then back to her.

“Aren’t you rather early today?”

“Yes, well, I have a special assignment for you,” said Emrald, walking over to him.

“And what might that be?” Casey raised an eyebrow.

“Well, starting today you will no longer be moving boxes around or building barriers. I’ve requested you to be my assistant.” Emrald began to smile, tails cavorting joyfully behind her.

“What? I don’t have any medical knowledge or training. What could I do?” said Casey, moving to situp.

“It’s okay, it’s okay. You’ll just watch and learn! The basics don’t take any time to figure out, you see,” placing a hand on her hip and nodding.

Casey scowled. “Why not have one of the people here who are already trained as a medic be your assistant?”

Giving him a slightly malicious smile, “Special project. Very secret.” Her ears twitched and her tails calmed from their rhythmic dance.

“Fine, whatever, what do you need me to do?”

“Come with me.”

Emrald pivoted and began to walk towards the door. Groaning, Casey stood and chased after her. The other men that had been in the room were watching him keenly. More than any of the others, Casey often had special treatment, usually at the hands of Emrald. Most seemed to give him a pitying look and a knowing nod, but a few seemed to be envious.

Outside the room, Emrald walked wordlessly to the medical area. She never once looked behind her, though he figured his footsteps gave her all the confirmation she needed that he was in tow. Entering the infirmary where he was brought to when he first arrived at the base, he saw that there were several women laid up.

Finally turning to him, “You listen well. Don’t even have to check that you’re there.” Emrald flashed him a wicked grin.

“What choice do I have?,” sighed Casey.

Emrald giggled, then walked over to a woman that Casey came to identify as a ‘dragon’ type. Her feet were large, lizard-like claws, and scales ran up past her knee. Her abdomen was human as far as he could tell, excepting for the rather large set of wings emerging from her back and long tail. The scales resumed on her arms just below the elbow. Her hands were kind of a hybrid between reptilian and human. Her face was mostly human, though her eyes had the vertical slits of a lizard rather than the round-type found on a person. Lastly, she had a pair of large horns and long, pointed ears adorning the sides of her head. He had seen her around here before, though had never spoken with her.

As Casey walked over to join Emrald, the dragon-woman gave him a toothy smile. She seemed to be perfectly healthy as far as he could see.

“So ah, what’s going on here?,” inquired Casey.

Emrald’s smile broadened, giving Casey some worry. “Molting,” she said, her tails dancing about again.

“What? Molting?”

“Yes, surely you know that reptiles shed their skins?,” said Emrald, a mocking tone leaking into her voice.

“Well, yes…” Casey looked over at the dragon, who simply continued to smile. Seems like she was enjoying this, he thought.

“But what does that have to do with me?”

This time the dragon spoke up. Casey was surprised by the girlish quality of the voice coming from this large, well-muscled woman.

“I can take care of my arms and legs, but my tail and wings can be difficult. When I asked for assistance, Emrald said that this would be good practice for her new assistant.”

Casey glared at Emrald. She had planned this before even asking him. Emrald backed away some, continuing to grin at Casey.

“Well, have at it,” she said in a chipper voice.

The dragon-woman nodded, and only now did Casey realize the only things covering her were some damp towels.

“Do be gentle, first-timer, newly exposed scales are ticklish.” Still smiling, she rolled over onto her chest, exposing her tail and wings.

Casey saw that the scales here were much more cloudy and matte than the shiny scales that were on her arms and legs. He glanced at Emrald.

“So what should I, uh, do?”

“Start at the base and work your way to the tip. If you’re good you’ll get it in one piece,” came the muffled answer from the dragon.

“Start what?”

“Rub the area to break the skin loose, then carefully peel up,” replied the dragon.

Casey looked down at her – she was entirely nude. He instantly began to feel uncomfortable. He shot another glare at the cruel fox, now leaning against the wall. Her grin remained unchanged, though her tails ceased their waving due to being pressed against the wall. Picking a spot at the very top, he began to massage the area. The dragon twitched a bit, causing him to stop.

“Is uh, something, wrong?”

“Oh no no,” said the dragon with a slight quiver to her voice, “Like I said, new scales tend to be ticklish, especially when removing the molt.”

Casey clenched his teeth and resumed. Thanks to the damp towels, the skin separated off fairly quickly and easily. He proceeded around the radius of her tail, stopping for a moment when the dragon jumped or snickered underneath his touch. Reaching the lowest part of the base, Casey stopped himself. The most southern part on the base of her tail was extremely close to certain areas. He had already started to run and massage her very humanly-soft rump, causing him to blush furiously. He again looked at the demon fox, who was ever grinning like a malicious specter.

“Can, I, ah, get… some help here?” Casey pleaded.

Tilting her head, “With what?”

“You should know… should know by now this is… highly unusual for someone like me to be… doing… this…’ his reply small and quiet.

“So what? If you’re going to be my assistant you’ll have to get over your bashfulness, you see.” Emrald made an exaggerated sigh. “Good help is so hard to find.”

Picking up on their conversation and his hesitation, the dragon seemed to take the opportunity to make it worse.

“Well, why have you stopped? Come on now, this should take less than five minutes.” She started flexing her glutes while saying so, as if attempting to highlight where he should be working.

“Demons,” Casey whispered.

Finally completing the task of loosening the skin the entire way around the base of her tail, he began to carefully roll it up – a process made that much more difficult by the dragon who would not stay still. Her wings were rather easier as she was apparently much less ticklish there, however. His process finished, he turned himself away when she stood up to don her clothes.

Her uniform back on, the dragon walked over to the kitsune.

“My, he’s a shy one,” she giggled, then turned to leave.

“Well maybe we can break him of that,” responded Emrald, closing one eye.

Casey was still blushing heavily, even turning his ears a shade of red. Coming up behind him, Emrald hooked an arm over his neck, then poked him in the side.

“Not bad, you got the skin off her tail in one piece. Though you were rather slow.”

Sighing, “What would you do if it was life-threatening?”

Casey turned in her grasp. “That’s different. This was… something that could have been done by another woman.”

“Ho? What’s wrong with a man doing it?”

“Haven’t you listened to anything I’ve told you? You damn well know why.”

“Sure, you’ve told me. But what’s the harm? It isn’t like you were… getting… excited or anything, was it?” Emrald’s grin was truly demonic now. Her ears appeared to be flicking in Casey’s direction.

“N-no, it’s just…” Casey nervously whispered

“Just what?” Emrald stood up on her toes, then blew behind Casey’s ear.

Leaping back as his head whipped around, “Aw~ you’re soooo cuuute,” she said in a lilting voice.

Casey didn’t manage a response, instead simply glared at the kitsune.

Shrugging her shoulders, “Well that’s enough fun and games. There’s still work to be done!” She began walking back towards the entrance. “Come along now.”

Casey followed her with his eyes and head for a time before begrudgingly following. As he walked out, he looked at the other residents here. Several looked away quickly when they realized he was looking back at them, and a few others were visibly stifling laughter.

Hanging his head dejectedly, Casey once against muttered “Demons.”

Outside the infirmary, Casey’s face was beginning to return to its usual color. Emrald had stopped, waiting for him to show.

“Where are we going now?,” asked Casey with a sigh.

“Are you a virgin?” Emrald asked flatly.

Casey completely froze, save for looking directly at the demonic fox. “What?! No! No. No.”

“Then why do you seem to have such an issue with being around a woman’s body?”

“A man should not be putting his hands on women he doesn’t know, that’s all.” Casey’s blush returned.

“What about prostitutes and the like, then?” Emrald cupped her chin with her hand, her tails waving side to side at a slow pace.

“I.. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never… sought their… services.” Though still blushing, Casey did not look away from Emrald’s stare.

“Hmmm, I see…” Emrald closed her eyes for a moment, then partially opened them, starting to grin. Casey instantly felt uneasy.

“Look, why are we talking about this anyways?”

“Curiosity, you see. You always dodge the topic of sex whenever we talk.” Emrald shifted to cross her arms in front of her chest.

“That’s because an unrelated man and woman shouldn’t be discussing… such things.” Casey was uneasy. She had inquired about sexual relations before, but this was the most direct she had ever been.

“Fine fine, I’ll give you a break for now. There’s still work to be done.” Nodding to herself, she began to walk off, wordlessly signaling Casey to follow.

Entering Colonel Serlov’s office, Emrald threw her a salute and approached her desk holding a stack of documents. Sighing, Serlov signaled to set them down wherever on her desk.

“How are things proceeding with the men?,” asked Serlov, removing her glasses.

“Fairly well. Most are still rather distant, but some are starting to show signs of interest.” Emrald slumped down into a chair in front of the desk.

“I was hoping things would be proceeding more quickly. Was our initial information wrong?”

Emrald massaged the back of her neck a few times before responding.

“I don’t believe so. I think it’s just the environment, you see.”

“And what about your favorite, Casey Smith?”

Emrald frowned slightly, then smiled. “I’m making progress. He’s too shy for his own good, so I’ve enacted a plan to fix that. Though if things don’t improve soon I’ll have to resort to drastic measures.” Her smile faded into a sigh.

“Just remember, it has to be natural. It’s no good if we have to coerce or threaten them.”

Emrald began to stand.

“Aye aye. I think when we’ve succeeded with one the others will follow suit rather quickly,” ruffling her hair and scratching herself behind an ear.

“Well then, good night, sir.”

Emrald snapped a quick salute, which Serlov returned, then walked out of the room.

As the door shut, Emrald thought to herself that she may have to slightly disobey Serlov. With a grin she walked back to her quarters.

 

“Okay, all set.” Casey said, snipping the end of some thread.

The centaur woman sighed and poked at the sutured lesion on her arm.

“Hey, don’t poke at it or touch it. If it bothers you I can apply a bandage,” Casey’s tone becoming slightly patronizing.

“No, that’s okay. I’ll manage.” The centaur smiled and began walking for the exit, but stopped to talk to Emrald briefly.

There was no one left in the infirmary aside from Casey and Emrald, and no one was scheduled to come in for the rest of the evening.

“Good job there. Very neat stitching; you learn quick.” Emrald gave him a hearty smile, her tails swishing side to side.

“Well, I suppose you’ve taught me well.” Casey avoided looking at her while he spoke, focusing on tidying up.

“Oho,” Emrald giggled. “High praise coming from you.”

Casey continued to avoid looking at her, even as she brushed up against him.

Since becoming her assistant, he’d been spending almost half a day with her. Perhaps her energetic attitude was beginning to rub off on him, he thought. Still, he did manage to learn quite a bit in a rather short amount of time. She left him to do basic sutures, bandaging, IVs, and drawing blood. During actual surgeries he was also permitted to watch – something he found oddly fascinating. The techniques and medicines they used were far beyond anything he knew of. He figured if he was ever seriously wounded, he’d rather be given care as a prisoner here than as a free man.

Now, practically draping herself across Casey in an attempt to get a reaction from him, she decided the blush rising to his cheeks would suffice.

“You don’t react as much anymore,” Emrald complained in a mock pout, “That’s no fun.”

Pulling herself off of him, she sighed and remained silent for a bit. Casey went on guard. Any silence from her for any length of time was usually an ill omen.

“Do you hate me?,” she inquired.

Casey turned around, considering the possible consequences of his answers carefully.

“I hate being a prisoner, but no, I suppose, I do not hate you,” stating his answer calmly. He knew better than to take anything she asked at face value by this point.

She immediately asked another question. Casey suspected she anticipated his answer before she even asked the first question.

“Then, do you dislike me?,” she asked, a nervous quiver entering her voice.

Casey had some inkling of where this series of questions was headed, but he couldn’t think of a way to stop the progression without risk. No telling what might happen if she upset her.

“No, I guess not.” He thought about explaining further, but elected to withhold any details. The less said the better.

Emrald was quickly taking on the appearance of a shy and nervous schoolgirl. Casey hardened his heart for the next question.

“So, do you like me?” By now she had raised up one of her tails to her face, looking like she was trying to hide behind it. Her ears lay flat on her head, tails holding still and low. Despite attempting to prepare himself, Casey was somewhat staggered by the question. Before he could attempt to gather his wits and respond, Emrald continued.

“Because I like you.” She kept her voice quiet, then nervously looked away after speaking. Despite his best attempts otherwise, Casey felt his heartstrings being plucked. While he suspected that there was some embellishment in her words and actions, he couldn’t determine to what extent.

“I… don’t know.” Casey looked around the room at everything but Emrald. He wasn’t sure of what he felt.

“I guess, maybe?” he continued. At night in their quarters, Casey and the other men would often talk about this and that, often about which of the women around the base they found attractive. Seems they all had their eyes on a certain girl, though they didn’t have nearly as much contact with them as Casey and Emrald had with each other. The others would often joke and call Emrald ‘Casey’s girl,’ much to his embarrassment. Sometimes he thought maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

“But, it doesn’t matter. You’re an officer of an invading army, and I… I’m just a prisoner of that army.” Casey wanted to speak more boldly and confidently, but his words tumbled out quiet and meek, weakened by his conflicted emotions. As Casey looked down, Emrald approached and crouched next to him.

“That wouldn’t be a problem.”

Casey turned to look at her, his face showing a kind of blank surprise.

“Maybe not for you. For you, it would simply be a conquerer’s prize,’ said Casey, attempting to strengthen his resolve. “For me, it would be willingly sleeping with the enemy. I would be a traitor, and who knows what treatment I’d receive when I returned home.”

The nervous schoolgirl visage Emrald had been wearing moments ago was gone, now replaced by the cool and clever fox-woman he had become accustomed to.

“So you are saying you expect to return to your home country one day?” Emrald tilted her head as she spoke.

Her words hit Casey like ice water as he considered what she said. Would he be here forever? Would they kill him? His heartbeat began to increase. He had never really thought about it. He and the other men would often use the phrases ‘When I get out of here…’ ‘When I get back home…’ and others like them. Prisoners were returned after the war ended, after all. Weren’t they?

Casey looked at Emrald with panic in his eyes. She slowly stood.

“Come with me, I want to show you something.” Her voice had a pitying tone to it.

Casey nodded, then followed her. She walked quickly to one of the large conference rooms, then checked for anyone inside it. Seeing it empty, she motioned for Casey to enter. She walked over to a large board that was covered behind a screen. Lifting the screen up, a map of Europe was revealed underneath. She pointed to a location inside Germany, near the border of Belgium.

“We are here.” The location she pointed to was inside an area colored blue.

 

Casey searched the map, following the extent of the blue coloring. He already knew before she said the next part.

 

“And these,” she said, motioning to all the blue-shaded lands, “Are the areas we’ve taken control of.”

France, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal – they were all completely blue. Most of England, except for parts of Ireland, were blue. Roughly half of Italy was blue. Surprisingly they had not extended far to the east yet; the base was still situated close to the front lines. Casey figured that would explain the constantly flow of troops through the base.

Casey had been a prisoner for not even two months, and yet almost all of western Europe had been taken. He suddenly felt sick and slumped to the floor, but he kept his eyes on Emrald and the map.

Emrald kept talking, her voice quiet and calm.

“The pockets of resistance here,” she pointed to Ireland, “are expected to be pacified within the next few days.”

She then waved to Italy.

“From what I’ve been told, there’s are almost no forces left here. We expect to sweep through with little resistance within two weeks.”

She turned towards Casey.

“And once we complete that, we will begin our expansion to the East, though, as you can see…” She again pointed at the map, her hand falling on Russia. “They have already agreed to lay down their arms and allow us to take control of their capital when we arrive.”

“What… what about the US?” Casey asked, his voice hoarse.

“The you-ess? Who is that?” Emrald furrowed her eyebrows.

“A country on another continent… to the west.”

“Oh, them. They withdrew all their forces not long after you were captured, though our attempts to contact them have been met with silence. I’m sure others around here know what’s going on, but I do not.”

Western Europe was gone in less than two months. The rest of the continent would probably fall inside another month. Casey shook his head, then looked at Emrald. In three months they will have done what empires had attempted over hundreds of years but never could.

Emrald sat down next to Casey, leaning up against him.

“If it makes you feel any better, most of the hard fighting was within the first month. After that most people surrendered without bloodshed.” She curled her tails around Casey from behind.

“We allow a good deal of autonomy in captured regions. We’re not terribly interested in looting and pillaging and slave taking. After we disarm an army we release any prisoners we took into that area to help with any rebuilding and such that needs to be done.”

Casey looked at her, too busy with his own thoughts to try and push her off. Besides, right now, her warmth was rather comforting.

“Then why not release us?”

“You guys are special, you see.” Emrald looked around, as if searching for someone secretly listening, then leaned in close to Casey, dropping her voice to a hushed whisper.

“You’re kind of an experiment to see if we can co-exist.” She pulled back slightly, giving Casey a smile.

Before he could answer, she darted in and gave him a quick kiss.

“So,” she began, still leaning against Casey. “Do you think we can?”

Casey’s mind was a roiling tempest of emotion. He was deep in the middle of enemy territory. Territory that was ever expanding at a frightening pace. The US had left the fight. There would be no rescue, nor would he seem that he was to be released any time soon. Then he had this dainty fox-girl that had just professed that she fancied him, and was essentially asking him to become involved with her. Time spent away from home had left him feeling deeply lonely, and now he desired comfort more than ever. The last of his objections were crumbling away.

His arm reached up to hold her by the shoulder. Emrald giggled.

“Is that your response then?”

Casey didn’t say anything, though he pulled her in closer. After a moment Emrald then squirmed from his grip and stood up. She lowered her hand to him.

“Come then.”

He looked up at her for a minute, then grabbed her hand and stood up. Leaving the room, she lead him to her quarters.

—-

Casey sighed and hugged Emrald tightly. He enjoyed the warmth of her skin against his, and the warmth of her tails that were partially wrapped around the two of them.

“I imagine you feel a bit better now,” said Emrald, smiling brightly.

As much as he hated to admit it, she was right. He felt much better, happy even, but he still felt like a line had been crossed that should not have been.

“I still don’t understand, why me? Why not one of your own kind?”

It was a question Casey often asked her, though usually worded differently. She always declined to answer however, leaving things a mystery. She also never answered why there were only women here, but he was beginning to suspect the answer to the two was the same.

Emrald sighed.

“You sure know how to ruin the mood.”

She pulled away from him and sat up, leaning against the wall her bunk was situated against.

Exhaling another deep sigh through her nose, “I suppose I could fill you in on some of the details now…” She grinned. “Now that we’re together.”

Casey recognized her grin. It was usually something she flashed when she felt she had been the victor in something. He wondered if he was indeed a conquest of hers.

“How many like me have you seen while you’ve been here?,” she asked.

Now that he thought about it, Emrald had been the only kitsune he had seen the entire time.

“Just you, I suppose,” came his response.

Emrald nodded her head.

“I am what you might call rare, you see. There are probably less than a thousand of my kind left.”

“What? You’re going extinct or something?” Casey clearly let the surprise show on his face.

Nodding again, “Something like that.” She brought a tail up to her face, absentmindedly rubbing it on her cheek, looking down.

“We were the first to lose the last of our males. The only reason there are any of us left is due to our rather long lives.”

Casey was shocked. They had no men at all?

“How old are you then?,” he asked.

Some energy returned to Emralds face and she smiled.

“I’ve never told you? Why, I’m a rather young 112 years old. I still have another few hundred years until I’m considered elderly.”

Casey’s mouth hung open.

“I know what you’re thinking, and no, our day is the same length as yours,” she chuckled.

Her smile slowly dwindling after a short pause, “No one knows the reason for the male decline. Most pregnancies that would result in a male child result in miscarriage or stillbirth – that’s something that’s applicable across all races, not just kitsunes, you see. The problem of male infant mortality was first noticed long ago. It’s been steadily progressing since then, though races with more magical powers have suffered the fastest declines. We kitsunes are amongst the worst off as a result. The chance of a male infant surviving was around one in seven-thousand, and that was several hundred years ago.”

Emrald paused and breathed deep. Pain was clear on her face. Casey hesitated for a moment, but sat up and leaned against her. She gave a weak smile and continued.

“So, genetic diversity quickly declined, leading to a rapid increase in hereditary diseases. Fortunately I appear to be free from most diseases, but many have not been so lucky. So, our race has all but died out. It won’t be long until others are in equally critical condition.”

Casey was floored. Suddenly all her actions and questions made sense. She wasn’t simply being playful; she was trying to seduce him.

“So how do you know our… love will result in children?”

“Because it’s happened before, you see.”

“While we may be rather strange looking, I’m sure you recognized several of our races, yes? Like the centaur? Small numbers of us came to your world in the past.”

He remained quiet. Suddenly he was feeling like he had been tempted into a trap, like he was used.

“So you just wanted to use us.. me, to reproduce?” Casey’s voice rose and quivered.

Emrald sighed, acknowledging the betrayal that shown clearly on his face.

Hugging him, “We could have just made you slaves, you see. We chose this method for a reason.” She then shifted and gave him a long kiss, then pulled back slightly and winked.

“It has been equally difficult for us, you see. Many of us, myself included, seek romance just like anyone else.”

Emrald’s tails were thumping lightly on the bed.

“Sounds like a lonely life,” Casey said, returning Emrald’s embrace.

Emrald sat quiet for a long while.

“It was,” she smiled lightly. Then she gave Casey a light push to the bed, and rolled on top of him.

“It was.” she said again, kissing Casey.

 

Roused by the sensation of nearby motion, Casey’s eyes fluttered open. With a groan he sat up, stretching and rubbing his eyes. At the side of the bed was Emrald, putting on her clothing. She turned to look at him.

“Good morning, love.”

Emrald’s voice had a rather sing-song quality to it. Casey thought her smile could rival the sunrise, if the room had windows anyways.

“Ah, good morning.”

Now more awake, Casey recalled the events of the previous night, scratching at his cheek, looking at Emrald without saying anything further.

“Oh, like what you see?”

She looked down at herself, then back at Casey.

“I do suppose it’s a sight to behold, you should consider yourself so lucky.”

Before he was able to muster a response, Emrald leaned over, giving him a light kiss. As she attempted to pull back, Casey threw his arms around her, pulling her close. He rolled over, sending her over the top of him back onto the bed.

“You’re not getting away that easily…”

Smothering her in a series of kisses down her neck, Emrald giggled in delight, before tearing herself away.

“Now now,” she said, “I would like to continue from where we left off last night as well, but there is work to be done. “

Casey sighed, propping his head up on an arm. “I suppose so,” he said.

Emrald finished putting on some basic clothes, then grabbed a uniform set and stuffed it in a bag.

“I’m off to the showers. I’ll meet you in the infirmary whenever you get done. Do try to make it snappy. Oh, and remove those bed sheets. After last night they’re going to need a wash.” She winked and walked out the door.

“Even after all that she still has so much energy…”

Casey sighed, swinging his legs over the bed. He put on the clothes that were balled up on the floor and stripped the bed, tossing the soiled linens in a nearby hamper. Looking through the room, he wasn’t sure where clean ones were. Perhaps Emrald would be bringing back another set? Casey shrugged, then headed out.

Returning to his own quarters, Casey stopped in front of the door and took a deep breath. While most of the other guys should be out doing chores and such now, he knew there would be a few left, and they would be most curious about his whereabouts last night. Within a second of his opening the door and walking in, he heard someone yell “Hey it’s Casey!,” causing a small crowd to congregate.

“So, how was it?” Asked one older man, smiling proudly as if Casey was his own son.

“Yeah, don’t spare any details!” another man chimed in.

“I… don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Casey, attempting to appear nonchalant.

 

The older man let out a guffaw, “Don’t be like that my boy!,” slapping Casey on the back

“The only reason you wouldn’t have been here last night is if that vixen finally got you or you attempted to escape. Since there wasn’t any uproar, it’s been assumed that you finally succumbed to her wiles.”

Casey looked around at the pairs of eyes staring intently on him. He wondered if his relationship with Emrald would spark many others.

“Ah, it was… good…” he muttered, looking up at the ceiling.

“She do anything special with those tails?” asked another man.

“W-well… they were warm and… kind of ticklish in some… places…”

Casey’s face was beginning to show a crimson hue as he thought about the previous night. Most of the men began laughing and walking off, talking about this or that woman. The older man slapped him on the back again, then spoke in a quiet tone.

“Well son, as you can see we’re all kind of proud of you. You’ve kind of given us a little hope as well.” He gave an earnest smile. “But you and I both know there are some here that aren’t going to approve of it. Don’t let them bother you.”

Casey nodded.

“I’ll try.”

With a final slap on the back the older man walked off, though another fellow approached as the older man departed. He was a rather tall, powerfully built man. Casey remembered he was Polish, with a tricky last name he could never remember. He seemed kind of nervous; it was obvious he wanted to ask Casey something.

“Something I can help you with?” Casey decided to break the ice.

“Ahh… about… you… and… her…”

He was frightfully nervous. Kind of odd coming from a man his size.

“Go on, nothing to be nervous about,” said Casey, giving the man an easy smile to try and relax him.

He looked down as if to gather his courage, then back up.

“Do you think… maybe… that woman… Reia…”

Casey laughed, giving the man a playful punch on the arm.

“How do you know her?,” asked Casey

“Well… I often help her… and she’s nice to me… and strong… and pretty…”

Yes, Casey though, he was going to be an impetus for a coming storm of passions. Who would have thought something like this would be happening to a bunch of PoWs, or that it was actually encouraged by their captors.

“Next time I see her, I’ll ask about you. What’s your name?”

“Ah, it’s Tomas, sir. Tomas Wisniewski.”

He’d have to remember that name.

“Got it.” Casey smiled.

Tomas gave an awkward, nervous smile in return, saluted, then walked back to his bunk. Casey returned to his as well, gathering up a clean change of clothes and toiletries, then headed off to the showers. He had hoped to encounter Reia somewhere along the way, but she was nowhere to be seen.

Casey entered the infirmary, spotting Emrald talking to a lamia. He headed over to her, quietly listening to their conversation. Apparently during a recon mission she had gone through some thorny bushes, causing quite a few small scratches along her body that became infected. Casey looked along her body, noting several areas that were swollen and inflamed. He wondered how often something like that occured in species like the lamia, with their large, heavy bodies dragging across the ground. Emrald gave her a course of antibiotics and sent the lamia on her way. Once she had left, Emrald finally spoke to Casey.

“You’re a bit late, I was expecting you sooner.”

“I got held up a bit in our barracks…”

“No doubt you were being questioned on your disappearance last night.” A small grin had taken residence at a corner of Emrald’s mouth.

“Haha, yeah… seems most of the guys have their eyes on someone. I figure they’ll probably start acting soon…” Casey stroked his chin as he replied.

“That’s good, since that is one of our objectives here, you see,” said Emrald as she rifled through items in a cabinet.

Casey watched her tails sway side to side. He thought them strange for the longest time, but now he considered them to be rather charming. When did he begin to think that, he wondered.

The infirmary’s door flew open, startling both Casey and Emrald. Snapping to look, they saw Reia hurriedly duck her head, entering the room. She glanced at Casey, then at Emrald.

“A short time ago there was a large offensive against several of our positions just east of here. While we don’t believe we’re in any danger of being pushed back, there are mounting causalities. You’ve been requested to a triage unit to assist, Emrald.” 

 

Momentarily stunned by the news, Emrald took a moment to respond.

“Affirmative. Let’s get a move on then.” she began a quick walk to the door, then noticed Casey wasn’t moving.

“That means you too, Casey. You’re my assistant, after all.”

Casey hesitated, then nodded his head. This would be the first time in two months that he would be any distance away from this compound. Reia ducked out of the room, followed by the pair. As they entered the garage, Casey saw Reia’s unit was already embarked, the vehicles ready to move out. Emrald and Casey hopped into a truck, taking a seat just inside the vehicle. There were already a few other medical personnel in here, along with supplies. Casey nodded at them, and they returned his nod along with an odd smile, looking amongst each other then back at him and Emrald. Word travels fast, he thought.

As they began to depart, Casey heard a loud shriek. Not made by someone, but by something. He poked his out of the truck and looked around for it, spotting two things in the air moving at incredible speed. Within moments they went from being tiny objects in the distance, to thundering overhead, then disappeared over the horizon. He identified them as some kind of aircraft, but they moved so fast, and looked so odd. Sitting down back inside, he asked Emrald what they were.

“Close air support, probably. Since I didn’t see them I couldn’t tell you what kind of aircraft they were.”

“But they moved so fast, what are they?”

Emrald furrowed her eyebrows, then then suddenly shot up as she realized Casey had probably never seen anything like it before.

“You’re probably used to seeing slow aircraft with big wings, probably two or three stacks atop one another? powered by a propeller? We use ‘jet’ aircraft, you see. They’re much, much faster and can carry much more weaponry and travel farther distances. I don’t really know the specifics myself, though.”

Casey leaned back, his eyes wide in amazement. At those speeds they could cross the whole of Europe in no time at all. Fearsome weapons indeed; no wonder humanity was pushed back so fast. He remained silent for a while, thinking about what he had just seen.

Soon the sounds of battle could be heard in the distance. Emrald looked on edge, and Casey himself was becoming restless. Just as Casey was wondering when they would reach the medical camp, the battle came upon them. He heard several gunshots, then the truck jerked hard to a direction, nearly tossing those in the back from their seats. As they attempted to right themselves, the truck slammed into something, throwing everyone and everything forward. Gunfire continued to echo through the air as the ball of people attempted to untangle themselves. Casey watched as one of the medics attempted to exit the vehicle. Gunfire again broke the silence, and he saw the woman stiffen then tumble out. The canvas back rustled, and he saw several men with weapons drawn as the canvas was lifted aside. They were yelling something, but he couldn’t understand them – sounded like German. He suddenly remembered the sigil he had, and how useful it had been.

Casey remained still, along with Emrald and the remaining medic. A grey-clothed men ascended into the truck, still yelling and pointing his weapon at them.

‘English! English!’ Casey yelled in response.

The man stopped his yelling, his hands nervously gripping and re-gripping his rifle. He looked back and yelled what Casey assumed was the German word for English. He looked back, continuing to keep his firearm trained on the throng of people still lumped together on the floor. Some more gunfire erupted, making the man look even more nervous. Casey was deeply worried that the man would lose his nerve and pull the trigger. Another man appeared behind the twitchy gunman, looking over his shoulder at Casey.

“You speak English?” he asked in heavily accented German.

“Yes, yes I do,” said Casey.

He noticed a third man appear in, and he spoke to the second man – the one who had spoken to him in English.

“Come, come with us,’ the second man said.

The first man with the rifle seemed to ease slightly, then backed up to allow Casey to stand up. As he did so, he paused briefly to look at Emrald, and gave her hand a squeeze. She nodded and returned the gesture. When Casey hopped off the vehicle, the other soldier again entered the vehicle and began yelling. Casey prayed inwardly that he wouldn’t hear any gunshots. He was led by the English-speaking man over to a group of men. One of them, Casey figured an officer, came forward and spoke to the translator. The translator, considering his words, then turned to Casey.

“Were you a prisoner?” he inquired.

“Yes, I… was,” said Casey, hesitating. When exactly did he stop being a prisoner?

“Why were they transporting you without bonds?”

Casey thought about his answer. How would they react if he said he was cooperating with them?

“One of them made me her personal assistant in return for good behavior.”

The translator seemed troubled by Casey’s answer, repeating it in German for the officer. The officer focused intently on Casey, considering his response.

“I do not approve of aiding the enemy, but it appears to have earned you some leniency. “ The officer looked towards Emrald and the medic, who were now on their knees in the dirt.

Casey looked around as well, breathing a small sigh of relief when he saw Reia standing against a truck, though her arms were in bonds. She appeared to be bloodied, but steady. Several of her women were standing with her as well.

“Can you tell us which of them are officers, if any?” The translator asked.

Casey clenched his teeth hard. This could go many ways, but he suspected if he named Reia and Emrald as officers they would likely be kept alive. He wondered what they would do to the others.

“That one and that one are,” he said, pointing to Emrald and Reia.

The German officer seemed pleased to have acquired two of them.

“You are safe now from them. We will take you back with us.”

“May I ask a few questions?” Casey asked.

The officer looked a bit unsure, but nodded and awaited the translator.

“What happened to the US – the United States?”

“They mostly pulled out, but supply us with arms and supplies.”

Well, Casey thought, that corroborated with what Emrald has said.

“What will happen to… the captives?”

Casey was a bit unsure of asking this, but he had to. The officer seemed to wonder why Casey cared, but decided to indulge him.

“We will interrogate them, of course. Gain any information we can.”

Of course Casey knew they’d do that, but he still felt compelled to ask. He knew the Germans would not be quite so kind to the women as he had been treated. Prior to yesterday he likely would have been overjoyed at this turn of events. But now… now he was not so sure. It wasn’t just his physical relationship with Emrald that gave him pause, but her story as well. Was it true that humans had fired the first shot? Was it true her race, and all of them, were slowly dying out? If so, then mankind was their only salvation. He turned to look at Emrald, her hard expression softening when their eyes met.

Did they really only want to co-exist with man in this world? While she sometimes kept things from him, it seemed like she had never lied to him.

Casey thought about his family and friends. He longed to see them again. To have a chat with his dad about this and that. A meal prepared by his mother. Rounds at the bar with his friends. It should have been an easy decision, and yet here he was, debating the merits of his actions. Anything he chose now would not be able to be undone. If he chose to leave, he would never see Emrald again. She would likely be tortured, maybe to death, for any information. Did she actually love him? He imagined her heartbreak if he turned and walked away now.

His chest tightened at that thought, the strength of the feeling surprising Casey. With a small, wry smile, he realized that gave him the answer he sought. He turned to Emrald, giving her a broad smile. She gave him a look of concern back, then one of silent pleading when she realized what he was planning. Looking around, Reia noticed him as well. He wiggled his eyebrows at her, causing her to tilt her head in wonder, but it served to keep her focus on him.

Still smiling, Casey walked over to the officer. He smiled back at Casey. Casey coldcocked him, then grabbed a rifle out of the hands of the translator before he could respond. Pointing the weapon at the man, he pulled the trigger, sealing his fate as a traitor to man. The translator fell limp to the ground, the rest of the German forces scrambling at the sudden sound of gunfire.

Reia seized on the confusion immediately, bringing down her massive hands on top of the head of the distracted man that was guarding her, knocking him to the ground in an awkward heap. She then turned and swept sideways, the mighty minotaur’s strength sending another man flying through the air. Her soldiers moved just as quickly, using their brute size to quickly disable the increasingly panicked guards. One managed a shot, clipping a large Oni in her shoulder, but it failed to slow her as she slammed the man to the ground. The women scattered; some crawled under the vehicle to seek cover, others diving into a ditch that ran alongside the road. The few that could use the human weapons would poke out to take a shot or two at the men that were clustered together several hundred yards away.

Reia attempted to use one of the men’s weapons, but couldn’t fit her massive finger inside the trigger guard. Diving across the hood of the truck, she scrambled for the back of the vehicle to fetch one of her weapons as gunfire lanced into the ground where she had been moments before. Emrald and the medic had managed to disable their guard, the medic taking up his weapon. Both of them had dashed behind the vehicle, seeking cover. Casey leapt into nearby brush in an attempt to avoid the incoming fire from the now-alert troops. He attempted to squeeze behind a tree, finding himself in the position of staring at Emrald as she peered out from behind the truck.

A round whizzed past Casey, barely clipping the tree. The splinters of bark and wood scratched and stung at him, reminding him of the inadequacy of his cover. His best option was alongside the vehicle with Emrald, but there was almost a hundred feet of open ground to cover. With that out of the question for the moment, he was forced to remain where he was, but it likely wouldn’t be long until a round struck him in the shoulder or legs.

He then saw Reia firing upon the troops behind him. She fired a massive machine gun from the shoulder, laying down a barrage of suppressing fire. Whenever she stopped she would wave for Casey to fall back. During one long, murderous staccato Casey took the opportunity to flee, running as hard as he could. Closer and closer he got to truck, his hopes buoyed with every step.

His hope turned to despair as he felt something heavy tear into his left flank. It burned like a hot coal ripping through his body, spreading its intense heat throughout him. Instantly his legs grew feeble, unable to carry him further. He collapsed to the ground, feeling warmth spreading out around him, though he felt himself growing cold. Looking up, he saw Emrald was so close. She was screaming something. Strange, he thought, he couldn’t hear her. How heavy his eyes were growing, he thought.

Without a further thought, Casey’s eyes closed.

 

Emrald watched as Casey broke into his sprint; as a soldier behind him took aim. Her shout to get down or dodge went unheard, and she watched as the gunman fired. The instant Casey was impacted by the round, his legs went limp. He collapsed into a heap, completely still.

Reia caught the motion out of the corner of her eye, turning to look just as Casey began to fall. Emrald was very nearly leaving the little cover she had to run to him.

“That stupid fox!”

There was going to be another causality soon unless she did something. Only a few men were left, but they had hunkered down behind a rocky outcropping. From her position there wasn’t any way to advance, and they were too far to use a grenade.

Sitting, back pressed against the boulder, she looked around for something – anything. The pickings were on the slim side, but she saw something she could use. Signalling her women away from the nearest truck, she crawled over to it and scuttled up into the cab of the vehicle, laying down with her legs sticking out of the door. She was far too large to sit up in it; not that she would want to right now anyways.

Cursing the tiny controls all the while, she managed to start the vehicle and work it into first gear, sending it on a slow crawl forward. Peeking up ever so slightly above the dash, she steered the vehicle with one hand and mashed down on the accelerator with the other, pointing the truck in the direction of the men hiding behind the rocks.

Once she was sure it’d head towards its intended target unassisted, she rolled out of the cab , spreading herself as flat as possible on the ground. A few stray rounds screamed past her, others hitting the vehicle as it crossed in front of her. Looking behind her, she waved for her troop to advance forward, running behind the truck. Unfortunately since she had to drop her weapon to get into the truck, Reia was left to scuttle back towards her cover where her machine gun lay.

As the truck barrelled towards the German position, the female troops began to lob grenades up and over their mobile cover in an attempt to flush out the men. Most of the grenades missed, but at least one or two found their mark, punctuated by screams of agony. Clunking into the rocks with a dull thud, Reia’s troops dashed around and over the vehicle, gunning down the remaining men before they could respond.

In just a few short minutes, the battle had come to a close. Even before the echoes from the last gunshots had faded, Emrald flashed from her position and appeared next to Casey, bandages in hand. A deep crimson bloom had already spread across his back from the bullet wound. Running her hand underneath his flank inside his uniform, she felt the warmth and stickiness of fresh blood. At least there would be no bullet to remove, but he was losing blood at dangerous rate. His pulse was already growing weak, his breaths rapid and shallow.

“Oxygen, dopamine, IV!” Emrald barked at the medic who had run up behind her. Nodding, she darted back to the truck while Emrald worked feverishly to bandage Casey and stymie the bleeding. In only moments the medic returned, items in hand, and began working on him alongside Emrald. Reia jogged over after ensuring the area was secured.

“Anything you need a hand with?,” asked Reia

Emrald looked up at her. Reia frowned at the quantity of blood that was slicked up the fox’s arms and across her chest.

“Stretcher,” came Emrald’s curt reply.

Nodding, Reia ran to the truck and brought out a stretcher, setting it on the ground next to Casey. Emrald and the medic carefully rotated and eased him onto it, placing bundles of clothing under his legs to raise them.

“Bring him to the truck.” Emrald snapped to no one in particular, though Reia knew she was talking to her. Sighing a bit to herself, Reia carried the man to a truck for the second time since meeting him.

“Take us back to base,” said Emrald to the medic, then ran into the back of the truck.

Reia counted those remaining as the truck sped off back towards where they had come from. Three had been killed during the initial ambush, four more were injured, though they were fairly minor injuries. Of those still living, Casey certainly got the worst of it, she thought.

“Load up the bodies and let’s get back to base. Someone is going to have to explain how that human unit had gotten behind our lines,” she said, walking to one of the fallen to assist in moving her to the truck.

Reia found Emrald on a bench outside the recovery ward, staring up at the ceiling.

“Hey,” said Reia.

Emrald’s head rolled over, weary eyes attempting to focus on Reia.

“Hey,” she responded. The melancholy in her voice was unmistakable.

Reia walked up to and past Emrald, then sat on the bench with a thud. She remained silent for a time, Emrald again focusing on the ceiling. A nearby clock ticked and tocked; the only sound to break the quiet atmosphere.

“How is he?,” said Reia, sighing just before she spoke.

Emrald remained silent, though Reia noticed her eyes twinge. The clocked continued to tick away the seconds. Then, with a great sigh that seemed far too large for her small body, Emrald hung her head then looked ahead at the door to the recovery ward.

“I think he’ll be fine. We blood typed the other men soon after they arrived so we were able to get transfusions from a couple of them. Without that he would have most certainly died.”

Emrald buried her face in her hands, ears laid flat upon her head.

“He’ll be surprised to find out he lost a kidney though. There was no saving it.”

Reia scratched at her cheek. She was never very good at attempting to console people.

“Well if you hadn’t been there, he probably would have died,” said Reia, smiling slightly.

“If I hadn’t taken him with me, he wouldn’t have been shot in the first place!” dropping her hands from her face, Emrald stared up at Reia, anger replacing the note of melancholy in her voice. Just as quickly as it had been kindled, the fire in her eyes faded into nothingness and she slumped over, resting her head on Reia’s arm. She stared into space for a time, then buried her face into Reia’s arm. The diminutive kitsune began to tremble; she reached up, placing her hands and arms against Reia.

“I… I don’t know… what I’m… supposed to feel…”

Her voice came in starts and gasps. Reia felt something warm splashing against her skin. She sighed, lifting her arm away from Emrald’s sobbing grasp and then took her up in a hug against her chest. Rather than bursting into a wailing sob as she expected, Emrald instead seemed to calm within her grasp. Her ears seemed to pick up slightly.

Throwing her arms around Reia’s midsection, Emrald squeezed tightly then relaxed, keeping her face buried in Reia’s chest. Neither one said anything as the clock ticked away time. Reia attempted to keep track of the seconds, but soon last track.

“You still awake?,” said Reia, stroking Emrald’s foxy ears.

“mmmf,” came a reply.

With a push, Emrald freed herself from Reia’s clutch. Her face was still tear-streaked and her eyes red, but it looked like she had recomposed herself.

“Thanks,” said Emrald.

“Don’t worry about it.”

Reia smiled at the dejected-looking fox.

Emrald leaned against the wall, again staring at the ceiling.

“I’ve been so… angry, and sad, and happy, then mad again. I don’t know. I blame myself, then I blame them, then him, then myself again.”

Massaging her face, she spoke quietly.

“Is this what love is supposed to be like?”

She lowered her hands down to her lap, looking down.

“Who knows?,” said Reia, standing from the bench. She stretched and let out a mighty yawn.

“You’re the first amongst us to experience it, I’d wager”

Reia crouched down to nearly face-level with Emrald.

“And if I do say so, I am a bit envious. This morning you seemed to be happier than I have ever seen you. I’d say that’s worth what you’re feeling now. Not to mention you seemed rather pleased by his performance from what I heard,” Reia said with a wink and gave Emrald a playful jab.

Emrald flashed her a coy smile.

Standing back up, Reia cracked her back and shoulders.

“I’m fairly beat from today, though I imagine you’re far more exhausted than I am. You should probably get some rest.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. Goodnight, I guess. And… thanks.”

Reia simply nodded, a small grin crooking a corner of her mouth. She walked past Emrald without another word said and headed off to her quarters. As Reia vanished down the hall, Emrald walked up to the door, leaning her head against the glass. She stayed like that for a few minutes, watching Casey rest on the far side of the room. Finally she stood up, and trudged wearily to her quarters.

Collapsing on the bed, she immediately realized there weren’t any sheets on it. She began laughing to herself, breathing in the lingering scents still upon the mattress

“What a fool I am. Old enough to be a grandmother to almost everyone here…”

Her laughter slowly subsided, replaced by the soft murmurs of her breathing as she drifted to sleep.

Serlov tapped her pencil absentmindedly on the desk. The human offensive was easily turned aside, but there had been several instances of units that breached the lines and caused some minor havoc. It was a new tactic from them, and that worried her more than the damage they caused. Rather than attempting to control areas, it seemed like they were pushing for objectives instead. They’d already seen this happen to an extent elsewhere; the human forces would give considerable ground to reinforce a position that guarded certain supply lines or cities that functioned as logistical hubs. The Coalition forces would need to start adapting their deployments and tactics as well to counter these irregular advances or else the Eastern Offensive wasn’t going to go nearly as smooth as the Western one had.

Leaning back, she sighed and started drumming on her chin with the pencil.

The issue with Casey had caused quite a stir. While most of the other men did not blame Emrald or the other girls, there was a vocal minority that was deeply opposed to what they saw as ‘slave labor.’ This latest incident only served to intensify their complaints. Things were beginning to get out of hand. In some cases they had complained about being groomed to become ‘sex slaves.’

Serlov snorted at that thought, but… maybe it wasn’t too far off the mark. If an unwilling party was under duress to consummate a romance, were they slaves? She didn’t deny that progeny were their chief goal. If it came down to it, force would almost certainly be used.

Well, before they could begin to enact their plan of co-existence the war would need to end first. Garrison forces seemed to be getting along well enough where they were stationed, but it was an uneasy peace at times. They were an invading army, after all. No matter how much leniency you gave a people, they were still not entirely autonomous.

Sighing, she flopped down on her desk.

“How I wish to be a lieutenant again…”

Her plan was proceeding fairly well, but she thought that it may need to be accelerated.

Sitting back up, she developed an idea. She would need to clear it with command first, but if they approved it… she smiled. It would be a boon for her. Perhaps she would begin preparations now. Glancing at the time, she thought Reia might still be awake, and headed off to her quarters.

Reia heard a gentle rapping on her door and sighed. She had sat down all of five minutes ago.

“Yes, who is it?”

“Serlov.”

“Oh, ah, uh, sorry sir. Please come in.” Reia snapped to attention as the lamia opened the door and slithered in.

“At ease, lieutenant. I have something I’d like to ask you.”

Folding her arms behind her back, “Sir?”

Heading to one end of the room then doubling back, Reia assumed it was Serlov’s attempt at pacing. Serlov kept quiet, studying Reia for a while.

“What do you think of the combat capabilities of the men we have interred here?”

Reia blinked.

“You can’t mean to…?”

“Oh, I do,” said Serlov, her face blooming into a smile.

“Well… I, ah…” Reia searched through her memory for what she knew of them.

“I haven’t really been in close contact with many of them. Just a few that help me out with supplies, weapon maintenance, those sort of things. There are a few of them that are solid and reliable, I think, but none of us have seen them in combat.”

“But are there any you would be willing to take with you into the field?”

“A… few, I suppose.” Reia was rather perplexed. She thought it too soon to attempt to convert them from prisoners into soldiers or citizens.

“Good.” Serlov began towards the door.

“In the morning come to my office, then we will select members for another platoon for you to lead… captain.”

“Wai– what?,” said Reia, shocked

Serlov simply smiled and left the room.

Falling onto her bunk, Reia groaned and wondered what she just got herself into.

 

Reia knocked on the door to the men’s quarters prior to entering, hoping to give those inside a moment of notice. As she and Serlov entered, the men snapped to attention. It was a rather rare occurrence for Colonel Serlov to personally visit them, so whatever she wished to discuss with them must be important indeed. Serlov nodded at the congregation.

“As you were.”

Serlov slithered down the middle of the room. Most of the men happened to be around their bunks when she entered, so she used that opportunity to get an individual look at each man without drawing undue suspicion. Many of them appeared to be curious about her presence, some were even somewhat relaxed. A few appeared to be fearful, others disgusted. She made a mental note of the latter group – most of them she identified as prior troublemakers. She had considered using group punishment to bring them in line, but worried that it would only give weight to their complaints and strengthen the men’s solidarity.

Once Serlov reached the front of the room again, she paused to look over her audience, hands clasped behind her back. She glanced out of the corner of her eye at Reia, then took a deep breath.

“In the time that you all have been here, most of you have been agreeable and willing to cooperate. Accordingly, we have granted you considerable leniency and respect.”

She paused to take in the reactions of the crowd.

“But, you are still prisoners and thus are denied freedom or the ability to act independently. In light of the good behavior from the majority, I am here today to extend to you an opportunity. I wish to make it clear from the outset that this is entirely voluntarily. For those who do not wish to participate, your current lives will remain unchanged.”

Serlov waited again as a murmur broke out amongst her audience. Most of the men appeared to be rather interested in what her opportunity was. She smiled before continuing.

“I am presenting you the opportunity to form the first human platoon in the Coalition forces. Yes, that means you will no longer be prisoners – you will become soldiers in our armed forces.”

The murmur silenced momentarily, then again rose. Looking over the assembly, Serlov took in all their faces, trying to discern who would be most likely to sign up.

“However!” Serlov yelled, quieting the crowd, “We would not ask you to engage in combat with your former country men. Yes, former, for you would become citizens of our nation. You will not be asked to participate in any offensive or defensive actions, nor will you be placed on the front lines. The unit would be commanded by Captain Reia Neuvirth,” Serlov motioned to the minotaur standing by her side, “and would participate in training maneuvers for the most part .”

Serlov unclasped her hands from behind her back and motioned with open arms to take in the crowd.

“Additionally, you would be taken on a tour of our homelands at some point in the near future. Yes, that means you would go through the portal that brought us here. Lastly, those that participate as soldiers in our army will be granted a housing and living allowance for five years after hostilities end, within any area of this continent.”

She again clasped her hands behind her back, reading the reactions. There were a few who appeared angry, some utterly befuddled, and more than she expected appeared to be giving her words careful consideration.

“You will not be expected to give your answer immediately, of course. You will be given one week to decide. Now then, any questions?”

There was a long silence that surprised Serlov – she had expected an almost immediate clamor. Finally, one man spoke up.

“How can you guarantee we would not have to fight in actual combat? I mean, we could join up, then the next day this base is attacked.”

Serlov nodded. “Like I said, you will not be expected to participate in any defensive actions. If we should be assaulted, you would be free to simply keep somewhere out of harm’s way or surrender yourselves to opposing forces should they find you.”

As soon as she finished, another man asked: “What do you mean by training exercises?”

“Have you not participated in any unit training with your former military? Squads or platoons armed with dummy weapons would be involved in a mock battle against each other. Despite our successes, the majority of the Coalition has far less actual combat experience than you lot do. We would welcome the opportunity to train with you in non-lethal situations.”

“If I may, sir?,” said Reia. Serlov nodded her assent.

“While we have an advantage over open terrain and on a strategic scale, we have had difficulty with tight urban fighting, especially in situations in which we cannot press the benefits of our armored units. There, our edge in weaponry falters in the face of experience.”

Reia’s statement was followed by another silence.

“Any other questions?,” said Serlov, looking over the men.

 “You said that we will be provided an allowance for five years. How can you promise that?,” said a man near the back.

Serlov smiled. “I can promise that because I can assure you, and I am not trying to sound threatening about this, that we are not going away any time soon.”

Another silence followed her words. “Well then, it appears there is nothing left you have to ask at the moment. If you think of something, do not hesitate to bring it to me. Well then, good day… gentlemen.” She chuckled lightly to herself as she said the last word, then headed for the exit. As she opened the door, a voice yelled out to her.

 

“Excuse me, sir!”

Serlov stopped and turned around, then the man spoke up again.

“I ah, would like to join… sir”

Serlov cocked an eyebrow. She had not expected anyone to agree so readily – they were being asked to turn against their own homelands, after all. She looked him over, he was tall and muscular, his face seemed to lack the confusion the others had.

“What’s your name… soldier?”

“Tomas. Tomas Wisniewski, sir.”

“So, Tomas. While I appreciate your enthusiasm, I question it at the same time. Why do you make your decision so easily?,” said Serlov, narrowing her eyes.

Tomas stood at attention as he spoke, his face only just barely betraying his nervousness.

“I, ah, I don’t have a homeland or family to worry about. I was an orphan, sir, and pressed into military service at the outbreak of the Great War – I was made to fight without being given a choice. Even if I were to be released now, I would have nothing and nowhere to return to.”

Serlov silently considered his words. So there were those sorts amongst humanity as well? It was something surprising and not surprising at the same time. Something she had not considered until now. Perhaps there was another means to her – their – goals. 

“Very well, Tomas. Consider yourself the first member, and as such, you will be given squad leadership, Sergeant. I am still preparing paperwork for those who wish to volunteer, so I will have someone fetch you later today or tomorrow.”

Tomas gave Serlov a salute; Serlov responding in kind. She then exited the room. Reia lingered, appraising the man. She recognized him as someone that frequently helped her, and liked his silent, calm demeanor. She tossed him a salute as well and followed after Serlov, closing the door behind her.

No sooner did the door shut than commotion broke out.

“Like hell I’m going to help those whores!”

“We’ll never get out of here any other way.”

“May as well, beats being stuck here until we die.”

“How do we know they won’t get pushed back?”

“What are they really after here!?”

Arguments and discussion broke out amongst groups, but Tomas remained silent, still standing at attention. He felt a small pang of regret, but was more surprised by the swelling of hope and pride he couldn’t place. Standing for some time, he finally relaxed and went to his bunk, dropping down with a thump. As he sat, another man came up to him.

“So ah, is what you said true? ‘bout bein an orphan and all that?”

“Yeah,” said Tomas.

“Heh, me too. Ah, I’m Alex by the way.” He stuck out his hand to shake Tomas’. Tomas hesitated, causing Alex to frown and suddenly grow nervous, but Tomas then smiled and took Alex’ hand. Alex’ former demeanor instantly returned.

“I was thinkin ‘bout what you did there. Made me realize I ain’t got nothin’ neither. If I got out of here, I’d just wind up bein’ a bum on the street.” Alex leaned in, dropping his voice. “Yea, maybe their deal ain’t so bad after all. Get paid to live here instead of some rat-hole back in the ‘states? Time to find myself a job? Not bad at all.”

Tomas shrugged.

“Yeah, it’d be nice. A nice place to live… find someone and settle down…” Tomas let a wistful smile spread on his face as he thought about a future life.

“Aha, so that’s it eh?” Alex elbowed him lightly in the side. “So which one of these dames you eyin’?

Tomas shook his head. “I’d rather not say…”

“Ahh that’s no fun. Okay though, I’ll figure it out. Just you watch. All that aside though, I think I’ll throw in my hat wit’ yours. You ain’t too bad. “

Laughing, Tomas was a bit surprised. He had never really talked much with the others around here. And now here he was, being chat up. “Birds of a feather…” he whispered to himself as Alex continued to prattle on.

Back in her office, Serlov coiled up behind her desk. She sighed, running a hand through her hair.

“I was not expecting that so soon. Guess there’s no rescinding the offer now. I’ll have to call in some favors with command to ensure my plan is cleared.”

Tapping a finger on her desk for a moment, Serlov looked up at Reia.

“We’ll also need to begin developing plans for mock engagements and a travel itinerary now, I suppose. Do you have any suggestions?”

Reia tilted her head, scratching at the nape of neck while she thought.

“Ah, I believe there’s a town a little west of here that was evacuated when we constructed our base here. We could probably use that.”

“Mmm, I forgot about that. Do you think it will suffice for your purposes?” said Serlov, steepling her fingers.

“Probably. I’ll have to investigate it though. I recall it wasn’t a very large town. Maybe a few hundred residents? I can head out this afternoon if you would like.”

“Yes – that would be fine. After your investigation just give me a brief report if you think it’s suitable or not. Moving on… What do you think the chances of Casey wishing to join?” Serlov began to lean forward slightly.

“Well,” said Reia, crossing her arms in front of her chest, her tail whipping back and forth in a manner unusual for the minotaur, “I would think they would be high, maybe even guaranteed. As I detailed in my report, he willingly shot another human to give us a chance to escape. Why not ask him?”

“Emrald has said that he will remain in an induced coma for another day or two. I am no medical expert, but I also imagine he is going to be rather out of things for another few days after that. I would rather avoid accusations that I coerced a delirious man into joining.”

Reia chuckled lightly, then began for the door. “Right, I’ll make preparations to investigate the town later today, then.”

Reia felt rather curious exploring the various structures. The town had been taken bloodlessly, then the residents given a single day to pack their belongings and depart. Passing through the relatively tiny structures, she looked around at all the signs of life. Photos still adorned walls, furniture left behind, clothing scattered about. The stillness gave the town an eerie and lonely quality that she did not much care for. Reia was also unhappy with how difficult it was to get in and out of all the relatively small interiors of the structures. Her tall frame meant she had to walk with a slouch whenever she was inside one, and her horns constantly caught on everything, jerking her head back.

“By the Gods why do humans have to be so tiny?!,” Reia yelled, her frustration beginning to boil over after smacking her head on a doorway yet again.

Her outburst triggered a spat of laughter from the handful of troops that were out in the street. She stormed outside, snorting in anger.

“Yeah real funny. Guess what? You guys can check the rest of the structures here,” Reia snarled. She pointed to a row of buildings further down the street.

“Those still need to be checked. Get it to, girls.” She narrowed her eyes.

The laughter and smirks wiped from their faces, the trio of soldiers split up to explore the remainder of the buildings on this street. Reia saw them off with a glare, finally sighing once they were out of sight. For minotaur like her and other large races, urban fighting in the human realm put them at a distinct disadvantage. Everything became a hindrance or obstacle. She’d need to decide between picking the smallest of her troops or the most capable. Crossing her arms, she shifted her weight to one leg as she thought about the coming exercise, studying the buildings around her. Being able to explore the town like this certainly gave her an advantage, but she wondered if it would be enough.

Or maybe, she thought, she was over-estimating the capabilities of the humans. As far as she knew the majority of them were common soldiers in the common military. Did they know anything about urban tactics themselves?

“I guess I’ll find out next week…,’ Reia said no one in particular.

She wondered why they were even bothering with this exercise so late in the war. As far as she knew the real motive behind this was to parade the men around back home to bolster morale and support. Why not just bring them along as prisoners? Why call them soldiers and then promise to free them? Serlov’s motives were becoming increasingly difficult to read.

Pulled from her thoughts as a shutter on a nearby building was thrown open, she looked over as the wurm glanced about, finally spotting Reia.

“Oy, Captain, can we take this back with us?”

Reia raised an eyebrow.

Inside, the wurm, beaming the entire time, lead her over to a short wooden cabinet that had a tray with some kind of white and black pattern on the front. Upon reaching the piece of furniture, the wurm reached out to the colored things and poked at them with her claws, producing a melody.

“It’s a piano, I think,” said the wurm.

“So it would seem,” said Reia. They weren’t to take anything, but who knows if the owner of this piano would ever return here to claim it? There were several at the base that could play; it probably wouldn’t be too difficult for them to adapt themselves to this human version of the piano. A little music might be nice.

“Fine, but you’re responsible for getting it back.”

“Yay~” The wurm clapped her claws together, then with a slight grunt she managed to lift the cabinet and began to slowly slither towards the entrance. Reia trailed along behind her, admiring the wurm’s raw strength. From what she knew of the instruments, it had to be at least as heavy as she herself was.

Reia was a little worried about what Serlov might say. Maybe they could hide it from her for a while?

Well if it came down to it, she could just make the wurm drag it back here.

The last of the structures checked for soundness, traps, and any signs of derelicts living in the area, Reia and her small contingent loaded up into the truck, accompanied by the piano. The wurm seemed to be quite taken with it, coiling herself about it and constantly pecking at the keys with her claws. Rolling her eyes at the sounds coming from the back, Reia started the vehicle and began the trip back to base.

 

Tomas unfurled a map, smoothing it as flat as he could manage on the grassy, rutted ground. Around him were the other seven men who had volunteered for service.

“Okay, we are here…”

Tomas pointed at a location on the map that was near the western edge of the town.

“And over here, is our objective.”

He moved his hand and pointed at a building that was near the center of the town.

“Now, we know Reia and her forces have deployed there in defensive positions. Given that they have eight people as well, she’ll likely keep them close at hand. So, we probably will have an easy time getting through most of the town. Additionally, we know they’re there, but they don’t know when we’re arriving.”

Earlier in the day there had been a coin flip for who would defend and who would assault. Tomas lost the choice of which to do, though the attacking force was given a 24-hour window to begin their operation – something to offset the defender’s advantage. Tomas had elected to begin just before dusk, hoping to use the setting sun as additional cover.

“We’ll be splitting into two teams as we discussed earlier. Again, Team A will consist of myself, Alex, John, and Marc. Team B will consist of Peter, Emil, Louis, and Gregory. Peter will be the team lead. Got it?”

The others surrounding Tomas all gave their affirmations.

“Okay, good. We’ll be moving together, one team on each side of the street, along this path,” Tomas said, tracing a line across the map with his finger. “We’ll be taking these side streets as hopefully they’ll allow us to avoid being spotted and lose the element of surprise.”

Tomas looked up, meeting the eyes of each man.

He was nervous; he’d never led men before. Though he knew bits and pieces of tactics from his training, he figured there were others here who had more knowledge or experience. When he brought up his objections about leading the group to Serlov, she laughed lightly and said that he’d be fine. According to her, the ideal characteristics of a leader were courage and initiative. Both of which he supposedly demonstrated by being the first to volunteer. As long as he was willing to lead and be the first to put himself into harm’s way, others would follow, she had said.

He was skeptical of her words, but everyone did appear to be listening to him. He wondered if it’d be the same in a real fight where their lives were at stake.

“Any objections?,” Tomas asked, pulling himself from his thoughts to the present.

Peter shifted, then spoke.

“Why have two teams if we’re going to be together anyways?”

“That’s because we’ll be advancing one team at a time. Team A moves, gets into a covering position, then B moves past them and so on,” said Tomas.

Peter nodded.

Nobody else seemed to want to say anything.

“Right. We should go over the equipment then,” Tomas said, reaching for the odd gun that he had set behind him.

It looked like a compact rifle, but was rather light and had a large pressure cylinder that doubled as a stock.

“Remember, the range on these is much shorter than with a normal rifle. You’re probably not going to hit much beyond 150 meters. You’re also limited to about 50 shots, so watch your fire. Then we have the grenades,” Tomas said, patting his chest, then reaching around his belt to find one. Discovering one, he unsnapped it from his belt and held it up.

“These explode in a small cloud of powder or something, so they’re mostly harmless. Though you can still get hurt if they go off right next to you.”

Though the other men had not experienced these weapons yet, Tomas had the dubious honor of being a target for them the day prior. The rifle fired pellets filled with a bright dye that broke open on impact, marking whoever was hit as a causality. He was assured the chances of them penetrating the skin was low, but they still hurt like hell when they shot him from across a room.

Reia then demonstrated one of the dummy grenades on him. Though it went off a few meters away from him, bits of the casing still managed to leave stinging marks. Then there was the powder. Rather than being some kind of dry powder like flour, they packed it in a bit of oil or something to wet it. Supposedly this was done to ensure the powder wouldn’t explode as well. Unfortunately it meant that it stuck to everything, and attempts to remove it just wound up smearing it everywhere.

Leaving Tomas covered in welts and a powder that proved to be challenge to wash off, Reia seemed to take great enjoyment in her ‘demonstrations.’ All so that he’d be able to lead better, she assured him. Tomas was more than a little suspicious of her claim, though he was a bit happy due to the attention she’d been showing him as of late ever since he had volunteered.

“And remember, if you get hit you’re supposed to just keep still. Once the area clears out you’re to head north, here,” Tomas said, pointing at a lone building on the north side of the map.

“Once we’re done with this exercise we’ll all meet up there then head back to base.”

Folding up the map and slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he stood up.

“All right. Let’s get a move on gentlemen.”

Tomas peeked out from behind a concrete stairway, looking towards their objective. As he had figured, most of their journey through the town was quiet. The building was maybe 500 meters away, but it wasn’t quite a straight shot. About a 100 meters further down the street, a building jut out, the street bending into a “U” shape before continuing on.

Across the street and behind him, the other group of men were using a narrow alley as cover. Looking to them then back to the building, he guessed that if anything were to happen, it would be now. The shutters were all closed, so it was impossible to tell if anyone was inside. Exhaling sharply, he then waved for the other squad to advance forward. Tomas pointed his rifle at the building; the others behind him did the same.

Team B dashed forward, eating up the ground in their sprint. Tomas hoped that they’d make it safely, and for a time it appeared they all would. He heard a few soft thumps, then the last man running in the group stopped – it was Louis. Turning slightly, Tomas could see a few blossoms of dye on Louis’ chest.

Grabbing his chest in mock agony, he fell to his knees.

“Oh no, I’ve been hit! I’m a goner! Tell my wife… tell her I love her…”

Louis collapsed to the ground, then lay still, smiling slightly.

Tomas rolled his eyes at the melodrama, then quickly scanned for where the shots could have come from. Fortunately the rest of the B-team scurried to whatever cover they could find.

The shutters were still all closed, and from the location of the shots that hit Louis, they had to have come from the structure immediately in front of them.

Turning back to the trio behind him, Tomas asked, “Did you guys see anything?”

“Sorry, nothin’,” said Alex.

“But… look up there. There’s a big piece missin’ there.”

Alex pointed towards the top of the building, motioning towards a gap in the small wall that enclosed the roof.

“Hmm, roof-top sniper then,” said Tomas.

He waved at the remaining three men in the B team, then once he had their attention he motioned towards the top of the building.

“Let’s get in there and clear it out,” Tomas said, turning to the group assembled behind him. Looking up along the roof, he tensed.

“Go!”

Tomas and the rest of the men sprinted from their positions, rushing towards a door on the side of the building as quickly as possible; they managed to make it without incident. He opened a shutter slightly, then broke a window and tossed a grenade inside. Once it detonated, he motioned towards the door with his head and raised his leg. Marc stepped up and raised a leg as well, then the two of them kicked at the same time, breaking the door open. Alex and John then ran in, rifles raised and ready to fire. 

“Clear!”

Tomas and Marc then ran in, the group looking for any movement.

“Stairs,” Tomas said, approaching the steps with the group in tow.

Ascending the stairs cautiously, he poked his rifle up through the banister as he reached the floor above, then his head. Pausing to search for anything, he continued walking up, then took a kneeling position at the top of the steps and signaled for the others to come up. Across the room was another stairway.

Once everyone was up, Tomas proceeded to the next set of steps that lead to the roof. Glancing around the wall looked up, he saw that the door leading out onto the roof was open. Alex walked up behind him, attempting to look as well. Before Tomas could tell him to get back, he heard a tinking noise and saw something lobbed down. He instantly turned and sprinted from the stairs, but apparently Alex did not hear or see the object.

The grenade exploded into a large cloud of white, completely enveloping Alex.

“Ah, you idiot,” John said.

Stumbling from the settling cloud and entirely covered with the powder, Alex coughed and waved his arms about.

“Aw, sorry sir. Looks like I’m a dead man. God damn that hurt, went off right next to my leg it did.”

Tomas looked at his legs, and noticed his pants were torn around one of his ankles, a bit of blood showing on his skin.

“Take a breather if you need to, but I guess head up to the extraction point once we’re done here.”

“Yea, sorry ‘bout that,” Alex said, attempting to wipe off some of the powder from around his eyes.

He began to walk back towards where they came up, then sat down.

Tomas wasn’t sure what to do now. He was down two men and they hadn’t even spotted Reia’s forces. He was tempted to just leave the building alone, but then he’d just be sniped at unless he chose another path. Guess it was time for some of that courage and initiative. He waved John and Marc over.

“I want you two to both throw a grenade up there. Try to make it so one goes right and the other left. When they go off I’ll run up, then you two follow.”

“I uh, if you say so,” John said.

Marc simply shrugged.

The pair readied their grenades, pulling the pin. Looking around the corner, John threw his first and then Marc lobbed one. Tomas began running up the stairs even before they had detonated. By the time he got halfway up, both grenades had exploded, providing a powdery cover for his exit. Bursting out onto the roof, he saw a shadow to his right and began firing. Marc and John were right behind him, turning to cover his back.

Marc saw something moving to get behind the stairwell shed and fired off a couple shots, then he lingered too long and felt impacts along his legs. John attempted to rush forward, but tripped and fell onto something soft.

As the smoke settled, the men took in sight of what had occurred. Tomas was quite impressed with himself. Near his feet was one woman, an oni, completely covered in both white and John as he attempted to get to his feet. Marc had managed to score a few hits on a dejected looking wolf-woman. Tomas had managed to score kills on a wurm and lamia.

The wurm was rubbing her forehead where she was hit by a pellet, and a couple other splotches shown on her neck and chest. The lamia was tangled up in a heap with the wurm, lying face down on the ground. Several patches of dye adorned her backside.

The oni stood, holding John up with one arm. With a sigh she set him down, then crossed her arms in front of herself.

“Well done I suppose, I was looking down when you threw that grenade up,” she said, then sighed again.

“Seems we were all caught without heads out in the open.”

The wolf-woman came up the group, hands behind her head. She looked over at the tangled wurm and lamia.

“At least I didn’t go out as shamefully as them,” she said with a grin, “and, I got one of you to boot.”

“Well, good job,” Tomas said to the pair of women, “You managed to get three of us. Though I didn’t expect to find four of you up here.”

“We were actually in the middle of a rotation. Those two over there were coming to relieve us,” the oni said, jerking her thumb back towards the wurm and lamia.

The two appeared to have untangled themselves and were now approaching the group.

“Well, we probably shouldn’t be talking like this. Still a live exercise, after all. I suppose John and I will continue as usual, leaving the dead to rest in peace.” said Tomas, smiling slightly.

The oni and wolf nodded, then went to meet their companions.

“Well, if being dead means getting to spend time with four ladies, I think I can handle it,” said Marc, giving Tomas and John a grin.

“Yeah yeah,” said Tomas, turning and walking towards the stairs.

As he exited the building, Peter came up to Tomas.

“How’d it go? I see you’re missing two.”

“Yeah, Alex and Marc both got hit, though we took out four of them.”

“Four? Why were there four up there?”

“I guess they used pairs and rotated them out. We caught them in the middle of a shift change.”

“Hmm, lucky for us I guess. Five against four now.”

Tomas nodded.

“I think I’ll keep the teams the same. We’ll move out in the same pattern.”

“Got it,” Peter said.

Huddled against the side of the objective, Tomas was attempting to figure out the best way to enter. He knew there were three entrances into the building. Two doors at ground level on opposite sides, then a door to the root cellar.

Their journey across the remaining distance was painfully slow, punctuated by a mad dash across the last of the open ground. The sun had nearly set, the last of its light staining the sky red.

“Think we should wait for nightfall?” Tomas whispered to Peter.

Peter half-frowned as he thought about it.

“What if they can see better in the dark? That’d put us at a disadvantage.”

Tomas hadn’t thought about that.

“Good point. Let’s move in now, then.” He looked at the root cellar entrance, then to the doorway they were crouched near.

“Probably too risky to go around. Peter, take your group into the cellar, John and I will go in through the door.”

“All right.”

Peter leaned towards his group and repeated the plan in whispers, then the trio slinked towards the cellar. Tomas and John crept towards the door, stopping to peek inside a window. Unable to see any movement, they continued to the steps leading up to the door. Looking towards Peter, he saw him testing the cellar door; it appeared to be unlocked. Tomas touched the doorknob, giving it a slow turn. It took was unlocked, though the ‘chack’ noise it made gave away any hope of surprise.

“Now!” Tomas shouted, and threw the door open.

Peter and his group descended into the cellar as Tomas and John burst into the darkened room.

Sweeping his rifle around, Tomas didn’t see anything. Taking careful steps forward, he heard a dull thump, followed quickly by two others beneath his feet. Grenades, most likely. He glanced at John, motioning with his head that he should follow him. Trying to find his way through the red-hued room, he found a staircase that led down. John took a position directly in front of the door, weapon ready, as Tomas opened it. Seeing that it was clear, John carefully descended down the stairs, followed by Tomas as he watched their back.

Down in the cellar, Tomas and John found themselves in an almost comical scene. All three men, two women, and a sizable area of the cellar were covered in white powder. They were hacking and coughing, stumbling around wiping the material from their face. Were either of the women Reia? He couldn’t tell due to the poor lighting. No time to waste, he thought.

“Come on, back upstairs,” Tomas said to John, “There’s still two of them somewhere.”

Tomas took point with John following this time.

Approaching the top of the steps, he carefully peeked around. Not seeing anything, he squatted and made his way towards a nearby couch. As John left the safety of the stairwell, Tomas suddenly caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He whipped himself around and fired, but it was too late. His shots landed at the same time as a few rounds struck John.

“Ah! That stings like a bitch!,” John yelled as he fell over.

“Guess you’re on your own now,” he said while rubbing his neck.

The target on the far side of the room also slumped over, falling from the shadows into what little light remained. The cyclops looked up at Tomas, giving him a pouting face, followed by a rude gesture. He considered tossing his remaining grenade at her. 

Now it was one left for each side, and with his luck, Tomas figured it would be Reia. Hiding behind the couch, he again looked to John. He appeared to have been hit at least three or four times. Was it possible for the cyclops to fire that fast? Probably not. The last one had to be there in the shadows somewhere. Perhaps the grenade would be a good idea, after all. Pulling the pin, he lobbed it in the direction of the cyclops, much to her horror.

Sure enough, he saw something move to avoid the impending explosion. Shortly after its detonation, he used the cloud of powder as a screen to dash forward, vaulting over the fallen cyclops.

Clearing the fallout, he saw the last enemy combatant leap through a doorway. Or attempt to, anyways. Her shoulder clipped the doorway, stopping her dead. Though in testament to her quick wits, she rolled and began firing at Tomas just as he let loose a few rounds. Unfortunately her aim was off, and nothing hit Tomas. Her yelp, however, let him know that his shots found their mark.

Keeping his guard up, his victim slowly stood up.

“You’re right, those do sting. Especially when you get shot in the ass.”

The voice sounded familiar. She started walking forward, into the last of the dying light. Tomas was rather pleased with himself; he had managed to ‘kill’ Reia.

“Good work,” she said.

Tomas lowered his rifle, relaxing. He let out a sigh of relief.

“I’m the only one left. I don’t know if this counts as a victory.”

Reia shrugged.

“Well, I’ll admit your attack plan wasn’t the best. And you got lucky that these doorways are far too narrow,” she said, her voice slightly sulky.

She rubbed her should for emphasis.

“That hurt!”

Tomas looked behind him to see the Cyclops getting up.

“It blew up right in front of my face! I could’ve been blinded!”

“Ah, sorry about that,” Tomas said.

 John walked up behind the cyclops, still massaging his neck.

“You think that hurt? Try getting shot in the neck.”

“Hmph!” was the only response from the cyclops.

The group trailed out of the building, walking towards the rendezvous point. Tomas and Reia were at the rear, walking a bit more slowly than the rest of the group. Once he felt he was out of earshot of the others, Tomas stopped walking, drawing the attention of Reia.

“What’s wrong?,” she asked.

“I ah, had fun today, even if it was supposed to be a serious exercise.”

“That’s good, I suppose.” Reia raised an eyebrow

“But that’s not all you want to say, is it?”

She walked towards him, narrowing the distance between them, causing Tomas to laugh nervously.

“Yeah… I was wondering…”

“You were wondering…?”

Reia towered over Tomas. Though a tall man, the top of his head still only came up to her chin. Her cow-like tail was flicking side to side, swishing against her baggy uniform. She placed a hand on her hip, looking expectantly at him.

“I… was… wondering,” Tomas stammered out.

Reia rolled her eyes.

“Oh for the love of… you want to ask me out, don’t you?”

Tomas looked stricken, then mustered his courage now that his intentions were known.

“Yes – would you please ah, go steady with me?”

The look on Reia’s face made Tomas think that she would at best reject him, or at worst laugh at his attempt. He’d never attempted to ask a girl out before, but he had the feeling he was less than romantic and confident in his attempt. He looked away from her stare. As soon as he did so, he felt himself being wrapped up and hoisted. Now eye level with the tall minotaur, she look positively thrilled.

“Of course! I was wondering how long it would take you to ask. I’ve seen the way you’ve been looking at me lately.”

She suddenly furrowed her brow.

“Though I can’t figure out why you’d pick me.”

“It’s because… because you’re big and strong… but still kind…”

Tomas was struggling to keep his voice from wavering.

“And… I think you’re cute,” dropping his voice to a whisper.

Suddenly he felt himself being crushed against the mighty woman. She rubbed her face against his.

“That’s very sweet of you. And yes, I think I might fancy you as well.”

She then set him down, beaming brightly.

By now the rest of the group had realized Reia and Tomas had stopped, and were now staring at them, causing Tomas to blush. He looked up at Reia, and noticed she didn’t seem to pay them any mind. She reached out and took his hand with hers, then brushed up against him.

“For now, let’s get going. It’s very nearly dark.”

Tomas nodded, then the two walked off, hand-in-hand.

 

Serlov stood inside the door of the meeting room, keeping a checklist of everyone as they entered and took a seat. She had been surprised to find out three new couples blossomed from the training exercise yesterday. Tomas and Reia were considered something of an inevitability, but the other two had apparently come about in the spur of the moment. She thought it a great stroke of luck since she had wanted to include women guards for the tour of the homeland anyways.

Checking off the remaining name from the list as the last person arrived, Serlov closed the door. Moving towards the front of the room, she set her list down on the desk.

“Good evening, everyone,” Serlov said, looking around the room, holding her hands behind her back.

“As you are all aware, the purpose of this meeting is to go over the agenda for the tour through our homelands. We will depart four days from now, and spend three weeks there. Once we arrive, our tour will take us through ten to twelve cities, depending on how well things go. Our first stop is the city that contains the portal – Kalos.”

Alex hesitantly raised his hand before speaking.

“Contains the portal?”

“Yes,” Serlov said, “contains the portal. While it has appeared on open ground here, on our side it’s contained in a large structure as a security precaution.”

“Oh,” Alex muttered as he lowered his hand.

The wurm next to him poked at his arm playfully.

“Aren’t we great,” she said, her voice a hushed whisper.

“I s’pose…”

Serlov cleared her throat.

“So then. When we cross through the portal we will proceed to a rally within a few hours of our arrival. You all will be the star attraction; the main event. And yes, as you may have guessed, this is mostly for our benefit. While our war has some support, there are many who think we were too quick to respond with force. I – we- wish to demonstrate that our methods have merit.”

Serlov paused, allowing for some time for her words to sink in. She had considered saying nothing more about their journey than the absolute minimums, but she had developed an attachment of sorts. What started as a mission, an objective, slowly grew to bear some emotional weight. It was only right, she thought, to give these men an idea of what was to come.

“Does anyone have objections to being used as a showpiece?”

Serlov observed the men as they considered her question. None of them seemed particularly troubled by the idea.

“I don’t mind being paraded around if it means I’m treated well and not being shot at,” said one man.

“Yeah, it ain’t so bad. I mean, we’ve already agreed to join up with you,” said another.

The others nodded in agreement, except for Casey. He seemed rather neutral on the subject, Serlov thought. She couldn’t tell if it was due to some internal conflict or if it was simply due to his recent wounding. Well, she had a surprise for him after this meeting that might lift his spirits. She had considered letting Emrald in on her plan, but decided that she’d be unable to keep the secret.

“Good. In addition to you men, your new-found partners will also be permitted to attend.”

Emrald and Reia gave no real reaction; they likely had anticipated coming along anyways.

Yvonne and Viole, however, seemed to be delighted at the news.

Yvonne threw a claw around Alex, pulling him into a half-hug.

“Yay~ Aren’t you glad?”

Alex did his best to reciprocate the gesture, but the wurm’s size meant he couldn’t quite reach her opposite shoulder.

“Guess you’re not getting away from me that easily,” Viole said, bumping her shoulder against Marc’s. Though she attempted to appear nonchalant, the furious pace of the wolf-girl’s tail revealed her true thoughts.

“I’ll manage, I suppose,” said Marc, shrugging his shoulders in false exasperation.

“Now then,” Serlov said, raising her voice momentarily to silence the others, “these will also be scripted events. People on-stage will ask you a series of questions, and your responses to them are written here.”

She rested her hand on a stack of papers that were on the desk.

“You are to read over these and memorize them as best as you can. There will be cues to help you, but the more natural your responses sound the better.”

Several of the audience gave audible groans. Serlov ignored them and continued.

“Lastly, you are to be on your best behavior. You will be in a very precarious position. You will be closely watched, judged, and inspected. Though you have been in military care, you will see our civilian life for the first time. They will not be as controlled and disciplined as you have seen so far.”

Serlov frowned, unhappy about having to explain these matters. Though she wasn’t expecting anything to happen, she still worried about the safety and health of the men. They were going to be amongst a land that was almost entirely female. Temptation would be very strong for both genders. Another benefit to having them come as couples.

“Thus, I trust that you will carry yourselves with honor and pride.”

She looked around the room, stopping to meet the eyes of each man to reinforce the meaning behind her words.

“You are all dismissed. Don’t forget to pick up a script.”

As everyone stood up, she moved to the side of the room and waited for Casey and Emrald to come near.

“Casey. Emrald. I want to see both of you in my office,” Serlov said, then left the room.

The two looked at each other, then towards Serlov as she left.

“Huh, wonder what that’s about?” Emrald said, her tails twitching about as she thought.

“Who knows, I haven’t done anything recently.”

“Well, maybe that’s the problem?”

Emrald gave Casey a sarcastic grin with her last comment. Casey shrugged in response, and then went to collect the script from the desk. Flipping through it, he and Emrald then left the room and headed for Serlov’s office. The pair met Serlov just outside her door. She opened it, waved the two in, and then closed it behind herself. She purposefully kept her face impassive as she slithered to her desk, then picked up a small lacquered box and turned towards them. Emrald and Casey looked on curiously.

Holding the box with both hands, she approached them slowly and deliberately. Once she was within arm’s reach, she halted, looking at Casey as if studying him. He shifted nervously, glancing down at Emrald who gave him a look that indicated she didn’t know what was going on either. Finally, Serlov’s face cracked and a lop-sided grin spread across her face. Casey suddenly felt more nervous as he desperately tried to recall a time when the reserved lamia had ever smiled.

Serlov shifted the box to one hand, opening its cover with the other. Nestled inside a padded velvet cushion was a small, golden medal. It was in the shape of a five-pointed star, and inlaid with deep blue enamel with a small silver star in the center. Casey noticed one of the legs of the star was longer than the other, appearing to point down to offset the blue and white striped ribbon that rose from the top. She then looked at Emrald, who by this point had figured out what was going on and accepted the box from Serlov.

Taking the medal from the box, Serlov held it one hand, bringing it to Casey’s chest.

“For your courage and willingness to defend the lives of soldiers of the Coalition, for being wounded in the process, when you had no duty or obligation to do so, I, Mirona Serlov, Colonel in the Armed Fighting Forces of the Coalition, present to you the Star of Valor for your actions.”

Serlov then pinned the medal to Casey’s left breast on his uniform, smiling all the while.

Casey was speechless, but found himself flushed with pride. He attempted to say that he did not think he deserved such a commendation, but quieted the words before they passed his lips. He thought himself a traitor to humanity, that he had acted due to a simple fling or fleeting emotion. Lives were saved, but others were extinguished, and the choice had weighed on him heavily. Now, for some reason, he felt that he had done the correct thing; that his action rather than inaction was correct.

As Serlov distanced herself from Casey, she snapped him a smart salute, to which Casey replied in kind. After holding it for a moment, Serlov relaxed and again smiled at him. Casey looked over at Emrald who appeared to be on the verge of tears.

“It may not mean much coming from me, but I am proud of your actions. I like to think you did what you did because you believe that we are not an ‘enemy,’ but perhaps something more, or better,” Serlov said.

“Thank you, sir,” is all Casey managed to say.

“Carry on… soldier.”

Casey nodded, and began to head towards the exit. Emrald trailed along belong him.

Closing the door behind her, Emrald looked up at Casey who was staring at the medal pinned to this chest. She wiped a tear from her eye, then reached up with one hand and stood on her toes to give Casey a kiss.

“I…I had no idea they would do something like this,” Emrald said as she fidgeted with the box.

“Yeah… me neither. Since then I’ve been thinking about it non-stop, but now… now I feel more like I made the right choice.”

Casey looked down at the petite kitsune, observing her happily cavorting tails.

“Oh, so I am the right choice? That’s good to know,” said Emrald with a playful tone to her voice.

“Well, I think you deserve a reward from me as well then,” a coy smile appearing on her face

“Ah, isn’t it too soon? It hasn’t even been two weeks…”

“Hey, who’s the doctor here? It’ll be fine. I’ll be gentle, don’t worry.” She stood up again and gave him another kiss, then a light tug on his hand.

They walked through the hallways wordlessly, Emrald leading Casey along with his hand. Entering her – their – quarters, she turned and locked the door to ensure there wouldn’t be any surprise interruptions, then tossed the box onto her desk. She gently shoved Casey onto the bed, climbed over the top of him on all fours and began to smother him with kisses as they removed each other’s clothing. They rolled about on the bed and exchanged positions to remove each article in turn; shirts and pants tumbled away onto the floor, undergarments soon following in a lazy arc.

Now with any obstructions gone, they admired one another’s naked splendor. Emrald slowly crept her way up and over Casey as he lay on his back, leaving kisses along his body, neck, and face as she went.

“I love you,” she said, pausing her kissing and resting her forehead against Casey’s.

Casey peered into her deep green eyes, finding them filled with passion, desire, and longing. Since their first night together they hadn’t been able to engage in any love-making due to his wounds. Though he deeply desired her touch and warmth, he suspected she pined for this moment more than he did.

“I love you too,’ he said, smiling with his eyes.

Emrald gave a small sigh, allowing herself to sink down onto Casey’s chest.

“Ah, this doesn’t hurt you does it?”

Though her body lying atop his did cause him some discomfort, he didn’t want to spoil the moment.

“Not at all.”

“Liar. I felt you tremble. But, if you’re okay with it…”

Emrald looked up at Casey and smiled as she spoke, then curled herself up slightly. Her tails wrapped them up with a softness and warmth to match any blanket. Casey responded by hugging her tightly, and the two remained that way for a long while. Occasionally her ears would twitch from Casey’s breath, tickling the bottom of his chin. Reaching up to scratch her behind the ears, Casey loved to touch her fluffy, velvety ears as much as she enjoyed being stroked there. He could feel her warm body relax even further, almost as if she could melt.

Tilting his chin down, he took the tip of one of her ears into his mouth and nibbled at it lightly, causing the kitsune to giggle and shiver slightly. During their previous impassioned night, he discovered that her sensitive ears also served as an erogenous zone. After toying with her ears for several minutes, Emrald’s breathing was becoming heavier, turning into small pants. Twisting her head to free her ears from Casey’s touch, she then lifted herself off his chest. Peering down at him again, he noted that she had become flushed, her expression and eyes burned with desire.

“I’m supposed to give you a reward, but here I am getting all the attention,” she said, locking him in a kiss to prevent any response. Breaking away only to take a breath, tendrils of saliva trailed between their lips after the long, deep kiss.

Gazing up at her, Casey realized his passion for Emrald went beyond the simple physical pleasures of the flesh. He wanted to be one with her, to enjoy the warmth of her spirit and being. Despite the short time he had known her, he had never felt this strongly about anyone ever before. Her presence filled him with something he couldn’t quite describe, yet made him feel whole. But, there were shadows lingering in his mind, whispering to him their doubts. Was it possible she was just taken with him like a new toy? Would she get tired of him?

Emrald’s hands sought out Casey’s, her fingers interlocking with his as she pulled herself up, moving to a sitting position on his pelvis while still kneeling on the bed.

Looking down at the man she was straddling, Emrald wondered how such a depth of emotion was possible. She admitted to herself that he only caught her attention due to being the first human male she encountered. His gentle demeanor and willingness to cooperate had been an unexpected surprise, and she found herself increasingly infatuated with him. Though his casual attitude and almost apathetic view of life may have fooled others, she knew there had to be passions hidden within. When she finally broke through his façade, her infatuation became love in an instant as his passions broke free to embrace her. In that night not even two weeks ago, she discovered something unique and beautiful that had been entirely unknown to her. And it was kind of scary. It made her unsure and nervous; it wasn’t something she could simply think through.

“H-hey,” they both began, suddenly nervous.

“D-do,” both of them again speaking at the same time.

Somehow, they both knew the words the other had tried to speak. Casey and Emrald simply smiled at each other, their worries fading.

Raising her hips and then sliding herself down upon him, Emrald licked her lips.

“I’ll have to do something about this swelling immediately,” she said with a wink and a slightly lecherous smile.

Casey took a deep breath in through his nose, enjoying the scent of Emrald’s hair. Laying on his right side, she had cuddled up into his arms, sharing her warmth with his. Through the musky scents of desire, the warmth and pleasure of intermingled flesh, and the sounds of gasps, moans, and pants, the two had managed to communicate their worries and misgivings in a way no words could.

“What… what do you think of children?”

Emrald’s sudden words broken Casey from his reverie. He blinked a few times rapidly.

“Children?”

“Yes… children.”

She rolled over in his arms to look him in the eye.

“I want children… your children, you see”

“I, uh.. I guess children are fine? But isn’t it a bit early?” Casey said, confusion ringing his words.

“Don’t you love me?”

“What? Of course I do – I love you more than you could know.”

Emrald giggled as his words, taking great joy in hearing them from him again. She brought a tail up to her face, as if trying to hide behind it.

“Then, why not allow our love to bear fruit?”

Suddenly, Casey felt like he was being manipulated by the crafty kitsune again. Her eyes blinked at him moistly; she fidgeted nervously behind her tail. Why did he feel so strongly about this demon again?

“Fine… though I can’t guarantee I’ll be a good father.”

Emrald’s nervous appearance vanished instantly. He knew it. Though, she did appear to be genuinely happy with his words.

“You will be a fine father if you treat the children like you treat me,” she said, reaching up to stroke his hair.

“Well, when do you want to start trying?

“Oh? We already have been.”

A sly smile appeared on her face.

“What? You mean you haven’t been… using any kind… protection?”

“Well, contraceptives aren’t really required for us, you see. So every time you poured your love into me…” she said with a wink

“So that means you could already be…?”

Casey was in slight disbelief now.

“Possibly, yes.”

Casey groaned, spitting Emrald with a mock glare and pursing his lips. Emrald winked and stuck out her tongue in response.

“Roll over, if you would,” Casey said

“What? Why?”

Casey gave her shoulder a push that flopped her onto her back.

“Fine, fine…”

Now with her back to him, Casey scooted up against her, lifting her upper leg. She looked down and saw he was ready to go again.

“Then we should make more attempts to ensure success, don’t you agree?” he said, sliding into her warmth.

“Oh you beast~ How can you go so many times in a night?”

“It’s easy, really. I just have to look at your beauty and my body does the rest.”

Emrald let out a little squeal of happiness, then hooked her arms around Casey’s neck, craning her own to kiss him.

Serlov rubbed at her eyes, hoping that every time she did so the mountains of paperwork would vanish. It never did. It didn’t help that she was being distracted, causing her thoughts to drift from her work. She was regretting having her office adjacent to the dormitories now. In the quiet of the night, she could hear the chorus of love being sung. With every new crescendo she would pause her work and think about herself and her future. Though her station prevented her from associating with most of the female base staff on a personal level, she wondered if it would be all right if she attempted to claim a man for herself. With a groan, she fell forward on her desk, wondering when exactly she started thinking like a love-sick little girl.

Her thoughts of envy and jealousy troubled her most deeply though. She sat back up, crossing her arms in contemplative thought. If she felt like this, how about the rest of the women here? Or what about those back home that see the happy couples? There were many wealthy and powerful individuals that would stop at nothing for a similar taste. Serlov thought back to earlier this evening when she warned of possible dangers. At the time she considered it a relatively minor thing since they would be in military care for the most part. Now, after reflecting on her own emotions, she wasn’t so sure.

She shook her head and let out a deep sigh. No, she thought, she had to avoid thinking like that. Once mired in dark thoughts it was nearly impossible to escape. It will all be fine.

Another throaty noise seeped through the walls.

“That’s it, I am moving my office,” Serlov muttered to the emptiness, resuming her attempt to conquer the mountains of paper.

 

“… too damn early,” Casey said in a barely audible mumble as he fumbled about to shut off the noisy alarm.

Rolling over, Casey was greeted by Emrald looking him in the eye as she stretched and yawned.

“Morning, love,” she said, planting a quick peck on his lips.

Casey gathered her up in his arms in response, returning her affection several fold. Letting out a little happy squeal, she freed herself from his grip, then rolled over to sit up and stretch again. All the while, Casey watched and admired her like a love-struck youth half his age.

Emrald soon picked up on his stare.

“I know you would like to continue from where we left off, but we can’t afford to be late this morning,” she said, using the most authoritative voice she could muster.

Crawling over him and hopping off the bed, she threw on some clothes she picked up from the floor, then motioned for Casey to do the same.

“Come on. If you get up now, we can shower together.”

“I suppose that’s worth getting up for,” he said, yawning.

He smiled to himself as he stood up and began donning what clothes he could scrounge from the floor. Casey was still amazed at how such a simple morning routine could make him so happy.

Grouped up outside, the only person missing was Serlov. Casey’s gaze wandered over everyone else assembled, noting that the new couples all appeared to be rather tired. With a smirk, he looked over at Emrald. There hadn’t been an early night for him in almost a week now. Attempting to stifle a yawn, he wondered when he’d have to tell the insatiable kitsune, “no,” and what her reaction would be.

The women were chatting amongst themselves, occasionally looking at one of the men. He had no doubt about their topic of conversation.

Casey then noticed Serlov approaching out of the corner of his eye.

“I apologize for being late. Had a few urgent things to take care of,” Serlov said as she slithered out to the group.

Everyone’s conversations came to a halt at Serlov’s appearance.

“Everyone get onboard and let’s get moving,” she said, heading straight for one of the vehicles.

Once aboard, Casey and Emrald found themselves opposite of one of the new couples, Marc and Viole.

“Hey, haven’t talked to you much lately,” Casey said as he smiled at Marc.

“Yeah, you haven’t been around much. You’re doing all that , ah, clerical stuff while you heal up yeah?”

Casey nodded.

“Yeah, for at least another two or three weeks. Doctor’s orders and all,” he said while pointing at Emrald.

She simply smirked.

“Heh, lucky you. Though ah, I guess those restrictions are lifted at night?”, Marc said with a knowing smile.

Casey didn’t respond verbally, but an uncontrollable grin gave Marc his answer. His eyes wandered from Marc to the taller woman seated next to him. He thought her dirty-grey hair and fur were a bit odd, but even stranger still were her hands and feet. Her legs ended in very large, wolf-like paws. Her hands appeared to be slimmed-down paws, complete with pads. She was missing a finger from each hand, but at least she had thumbs.

Viole poked at Marc.

“It’s not nice to pry into someone else’s personal life, you know,” she said.

“Aw it’s just some fun between guys, right?” Marc said, looking back at Casey.

“In that case, since you know about me… how about you?” Came Casey’s reply.

“Well, ya know…”, Marc said sheepishly while looking at Viole.

“She’s pretty wi-“

Whatever he was going to say was cut off by a paw on his mouth, Viole spitting him with a glare.

Emrald, who had been quiet up to this point, started laughing.

“Feels good, doesn’t it?”

Viole blushed at her words, nodding slightly.

“W-well, it’s certainly better than with another woman.”

“Wait, what?”, Casey interrupted

Emrald laughed even more, patting Casey gently on the shoulder as if he was a child that had just lost his innocence.

“We still have urges, you know. If there are only other women around… well…” she said, turning to look at Viole.

“But it was never very satisfying. It was simply scratching an itch, so to speak,”

Casey considered what would happen if he was raised in a society in which women were nearly non-existent. As much as he hated to admit it, perhaps she had a point.

Viole burned a deeper shade of red at Emrald’s worlds. Seizing on the opportunity, Marc threw his arm around her, taking the wolf woman by surprise. Casey noted her tail started to thump against the seat.

“Hard to image the gal who could probably throw me across a room is so sweet,” Marc said, laughing lightly, then giving her a peck on the cheek.

Her tail broke from a gentle thump into a flurry. Apparently Marc had already figured out how to charm Viole.

Never one to turn down an opportunity, Casey mimicked the gesture and drew Emrald into a one-armed hug along with a kiss to the cheek. Though rather than become flustered, she simply sighed and laid her head on his shoulder.

The portal was an awesome sight – it was the first time any of the men had seen it. Looking at it from the front or rear, it was very tall and wide. Big enough to fit an entire division of troops at once, Casey thought. Looking at it from the side, however, seemed to make it completely disappear. What he thought most impressive was how it seemed to give off a perfect image of the other side. The edges were a little hazy, but otherwise it was as if was looking through a window into another world.

“Hey, Casey,” he heard a voice call, pulling him back from his wonder.

“Casey, get over here,” Emrald yelled.

“Ah, coming”

Once he rejoined the group, Emrald handed him a paper bag.

“What’s this for?”

“You’ll see.”

Casey noticed everyone else was also holding one of the small bags.

Serlov, along with several people he hadn’t seen before, were talking near the portal. He wasn’t close enough for him to hear what they were talking about though. After some more time milling about and making small talk, Serlov finally called to them.

“All right. Everyone up front.”

The group made its way over to her, lining up at attention. Nodding in approval as everyone kept near-perfect formation, she turned, heading towards the portal.

“Forward march!”

Swallowing the lump in his throat, Casey began to walk in stride with the rest of the unit. Serlov disappeared through the portal, though he soon saw her reappear on ‘the other side.’ He wasn’t quite sure what to expect as he entered the portal, but he instantly understood nothing they could have said would have prepared him.

When his foot entered, he felt an electric jolt course through his body. The sensation increased in intensity the further his leg entered, until it was almost unbearable. Emrald shook her head, watching him gingerly enter the portal like it was a pool full of cold water. Walking behind him, she gave him a hard shove that sent him completely through. With a bit of hesitation, she closed her eyes dashed in right behind him.

The world as Casey knew it ceased to exist. All the light around him bent and compressed down to a single, white dot in front of him. Then it exploded out, completely saturating all his senses in blinding, bright noise. He felt himself cease to exist as a person, like his consciousness was freed and could explore the stars.

As suddenly as the sensations saturated every part of him, they faded just as quickly as reality snapped back into existence around him. Dizzy, light-headed, and nauseous, he realized why he had been handed the bag.

The contents of his stomach now inside the bag, he was somewhat relieved to see that he was not alone. Even Serlov was looking woozy, attempting to steady herself by leaning against a vehicle.

Behind him, he heard the sound of retching. Turning around, he saw Emrald making full use of the bag. With a sigh, he walked over and held her long hair up as she was hunched over.

“Th-thanks,” she managed to slur out before her stomach continued to empty itself.

Casey winced slightly at the scene. She appeared to be having a far worse experience than he did.

After a half hour had passed, most everyone had managed to recover. There were a handful of people that appeared to have suffered more heavily than others. Some of the staff here were helping them out to the courtyard, be it lending them a shoulder or a wheelchair. Most of the guards and staff Casey saw appeared to be used to this sort of thing. It gave him a small measure of relief to know the horrid sickness effected everyone.

Walking towards the exit, Casey was beginning to feel a great deal of trepidation. What would this world look like? As he emerged through the doorway into the courtyard, Casey looked around.

“This is… is… kind of the same,” he said, feeling deflated.

“What were you expecting?” Emrald asked, walking up from behind him.

She was still holding her stomach.

“I’m not really sure. Something… different?”

“This is not different from what you’re used to?”

“I… it is, but… It’s more like… everything I already know, just advanced a bit.”

“Hmm, so you were expecting something more exotic?”

“Maybe?” Casey said with a shrug

“Well, there will be plenty more to see than just around here. Perhaps you will see something that catches your interest as we travel. Though for now we should probably head over there,” Emrald said, looking towards Serlov.

She was standing near what appeared to be some civilian cars. Casey nodded.

Rejoining the group once again, Casey noticed the interiors of the cars varied, and some of the vehicles were larger than others or oddly shaped. Before he could speculate on their purpose further, he and Emrald were directed to one of the few he considered normal by his standards.

Driving through the city, Casey was amazed by how familiar everything looked. Well, everything except for the many different races of women that populated the city.

“You’re such a tourist,” Emrald said.

“What’s wrong with being interested in a different world?” Casey responded, looking out the window the entire time.

Then he felt something soft and fluffy tickle his cheek. Turning around, he saw Emrald was holding up one of her tails in front of her face. By now he had figured out she did this when she wanted to appear shy.

“Is it more interesting… than me?” Emrald said, her voice carrying a slight quiver of uncertainty.

Though he knew it was an act, he couldn’t help himself. He cursed himself silently for succumbing to her wiles time and again.

“No, I guess not…” he said with a sigh

“You guess not? That’s hardly convincing…”, said Emrald, tickling his face with one of her tails.

“But, I’ll take it.”

“Hey, look at that!” Casey exclaimed while pointing out the window on the other side of Emrald.

When she turned her head to look, he reached out with his hands, splitting his index and middle fingers into a V. Each ‘V’ shape fit neatly onto each of her ears, then he stroked up and down vigorously.

“Ah~”

Emrald let out a little gasp and tensed up, her tails poofing out in Casey’s face.

“Is that enough attention for you?” he asked, stopping after a few seconds.

Emrald looked back at him, pouting.

“Not nearly enough… and get around the base this time…”

“As you wish,” Casey said with a grin.

Several minutes later, the car pulled into an area that reminded Casey of a fairgrounds.

“Looks like we’re here,” Casey said as he ceased scratching Emrald’s ears.

“Ahh… I wish that could have been longer. That’s the first time you’ve attacked my ears so viciously, you brute~. I guess I’ll have to return the favor sometime…”, she said with a giggle, then stuck out her longish tongue and narrowed her eyes seductively.

Casey’s flank flared up in pain as he thought about what was to come this evening. Dare he say no?

Mercifully, the vehicle had parked just in time, freeing Casey from an obligation to answer the kitsune. He opened the door and dashed out, stopping a few feet away to wait for Emrald. She got out sluggishly, looking a bit peeved before standing next to Casey.

“Don’t think you’re getting away that easily,” Emrald whispered, wrapping a tail around his waist.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Casey said, avoiding eye contact with her.

The driver then lead the pair towards the back of a large stage where large groups of people had already begun to assemble.

Seeing a few people he knew, Casey drifted over towards them. Several of them were rehearsing their lines again, reminding Casey to pull the script from his jacket pocket. Finding a wall to lean again, he spent a few minutes reviewing the questions and answers, occasionally looking up at Emrald. She was constantly looking around, almost like a predator, running her tails through her hands or otherwise looking bored.

“Shouldn’t you look over this,” Casey said, drawing Emrald’s attention.

“No, I think I’ll be fine. I am, however, rather bored with all this already. I almost wish I had something to do besides make you look better.”

“Oh? And here I thought the whole point of this trip was to make you lot appear better,” Casey said, looking up at her.

“I meant you specifically, you see.”

“So you’re saying I don’t look good?”

After not hearing any response for a few seconds, he smiled. For once he had managed to vex the sly fox.

“That’s… that’s not what I meant and you know it,” she finally said.

“Do I?”

Unfortunately Casey could no longer prevent a smug grin from forming, drawing a scowl from Emrald.

“Fine fine, I give up,” she said, waving a hand in the air as a signal of defeat.

“I will leave you alone for now.”

With that, Emrald walked off into the crowds. Casey laughed to himself, then decided to see out a few of his fellow men.

“So how are things with you and Reia?”, Casey asked Tomas.

“…Not bad.”

“Aw c’mon, ya gotta tell us more than that,” Alex chimed in

“It’s nice. But I’m not saying more than that,” Tomas said, crossing his arms defiantly.

“Well, what about you Alex?”

“It’s great. ‘Specially her hugs; the way she wraps herself ‘round me…”, Alex said, grinning to himself as he recalled the experience.

“Her scales feel really nice…”

Alex paused, as if contemplating what he just said.

“That sounds kinda strange, don’t it? Though who woulda ever guessed I’d be datin’ a gal like her…”

Tomas and Casey both nodded in understanding.

At times Casey wondered if he was asleep somewhere; if this was all just a dream.

“Everyone on stage,” came a yell

“Well, looks like it’s our time to shine,” Casey said as the trio proceeded towards the back of the stage.

Reaching the stairs leading up onto the stage proper, Casey saw Emrald was leaning besides them, her eyes closed. He turned back towards Tomas and Alex, giving them a little smile. They paused and watched as he walked up to Emrald, then pinched and rubbed the fluffy tips of her ears between his fingers. Her eyes shot open in surprise, then melted into something resembling bliss for a few seconds before they again changed to annoyance.

“Gah! Don’t do that, not here!”, she yelled, giving Casey a slap on the arm.

Tomas and Alex each gave Casey a pat on the shoulder as they walked past wordlessly.

“You can touch my ears all you want later… just not now. You know how it gets me in the mood!”

“Well, that’s why I did it. You tease me so much, I thought I’d return the favor,” Casey said with a little wink.

“I think you are becoming too much like me,” Emrald complained.

“Hmm, maybe I am?”

Emrald gave him another playful slap, this time on his rear, then shoved him towards the stairs.

Atop the stage, the pair were ushered into position by the various stage hands. Casey saw Serlov talking to someone else – it appeared to be another kitsune. Though from the lines on her face, he assumed she was much older than Emrald. His thoughts were cut short however, as the curtain began to rise.

All at once there was a great thunder like nothing he had ever heard before. Casey’s heart leapt to his throat. Is this how actors felt?

Then his breath caught in his throat as the audience became visible.

“There’s thousands of them…”, he whispered to himself

Emrald gave his hand a reassuring squeeze.

“You’ll be fine,” she said, almost yelling to overcome the clapping.

He hoped she was correct.

 

Casey slumped down into the seat of the car, closing his eyes as he settled in. Taking a deep breath, he exhaled slowly in an attempt to release the built up tension.

“That was the most nerve-wracking hour and a half I have ever experienced,” said Casey, letting his head slump to the side on the seat. A familiar tickling sensation brushing against his cheek, Casey opened his eyes. Emrald was peering at him, smiling brightly.

“You did well. All of you did, really.” She brushed at his cheeks with one of her tails again, finally getting a smile out of him. Reaching out, he began to stroke one of her tails.

“I don’t know what you were so worried about. Everything went according to the script. The audience seemed thrilled to see you lot,’ she said, speaking softly. As she spoke she gathered up her tails, draping them on him one by one.

A small sigh escaping through his nose, Casey let himself flop over onto her tails, burying his face in the fluffy blanket. As if she had anticipated this course of events, she leaned over and began stroking the back of his head and neck. His body practically bled out its tension as he relished the softness and scents of her fur; the caress of her hands on his neck. Closing his eyes, he remained on her tails for a long while, allowing himself to fully relax.

“You’re good at this,” he said, the thick fluff muffling his voice.

“How could I say no to someone who loves my tails and ears so much? “

Casey thought about that for a moment. Would he have allowed himself to enjoy the sensations of her animalistic features if they didn’t belong to what was otherwise a person? Taking a deep breath in through his nose, he reaffirmed that there was none of the musky animal aroma that he would expected from fox fur. It wasn’t quite human either. It was a unique scent – Emrald’s scent.

“Lovely tails to match a lovely lady,” he said quietly.

“When did you become such a sweet-talker?” Emrald said, giggling softly.

 

Rolling his head, he looked up to see Emrald gazing down at him, a small, content smile softening her features. Much like their first encounter, her striking green eyes were utterly captivating. It was almost like they cast a charm on him. Which made him think.

“Hey, you said kitsune are strong magic users, right?” Casey said, sitting back up.

“Yes, why do you ask?” She said, tilting her head slightly.

“Other than the thing you did that let us communicate, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you do anything… well, magical.”

“Oh? Am I required to show off?” Emrald leaned away from Casey, raising an eyebrow.

“No, I just meant… I’m curious as to what you can do. I guess I’d just like to know more about…” Casey looked her in the eye, hoping it’d increase the impact of what he was about to say next. “About the woman I love.”

She closed her eyes and sighed, her stiff posture relaxing. Casey did his best to suppress his victory smile.

“How can I say no when you ask like that?”

Holding a finger up in front of her, she looked at the tip, then to Casey. A small blue flame snapped into existence, hovering above her finger. Then she pointed her finger at him, causing the small flame to drift forward.

“Don’t worry,” she said as Casey recoiled away from it. His eyes shifted rapidly from the flame to her and back again. “If you say so…”

The lazy flame brushed against his skin, but rather than burning, it simply felt warm. It trailed around his arms, leaving behind small blue arcs that continued to give off warmth. Emrald smiled at Casey as he watched the flame run across him like a brush.

“It feels… nice,” he said.

Then, just as suddenly as it appeared, the flame winked out of existence.

“I, or rather we, are adept at using magics that affect the mind and senses, you see. That is why no one but me could allow you men to understand us,” she said, a familiar smug grin appearing. Truthfully he was impressed, but he would rather not admit it.

 

“Does that mean you could make me imagine that this pain doesn’t exist?” He asked, patting at his left flank.

“I… could yes, but I would not. It requires concentration to keep the effect active. Pain is also a convenient way to make you take it easy, you see. If you felt no pain the healing process could be slowed, or you may even hurt yourself further…”

Slightly disappointed, he suddenly thought of a different way to ask the same question.

“What’s with that sly smile…?” Emrald said, her voice ringed with trepidation. Just as Casey had become wary of certain expressions Emrald would wear, so too was she beginning to dread his.

“But if I wasn’t in pain during our love-making, just think of all the things I could do.”

His smile spread from cheek to cheek.

“That’s… That’s… Why do you tease me so?” Emrald said, turning red as her imagination took hold.

“Like I said… it… it takes concentration to maintain. We also are not to use magic so recklessly.”

By now even the driver was beginning to laugh. Casey looked at her through the rear-view mirror, sharing a grin.

Hiding behind her tail, only her eyes peeked out at him.

“M-maybe if you really want…”

“Hey, none of that in here! Try to contain yourselves for another two hours, we’ll be at the hotel by then,” the driver yelled to the back, a note of amusement tinging her words.

“Hmph! Like I’d do anything in the back seat of a car. What sort of uncouth kitsune do you take me for?” Emrald said, crossing her arms and turning her head to the side. Reaching over, Casey gave her a comforting hug, laughing at how easy it was tease the fox.

“Fine, fine, I’ll just endure this if you think it’s for the best.”

Emrald sighed, wondering at what point she went from teasing him to being teased by him.

Standing alone in the center of the council room, Serlov was slightly worried. After the rally, she had been told to come here immediately as there was a Council of Representatives session in progress that wanted to question her. What made it worrying was that she was told it was an ad-hoc meeting of representatives that happened to be around, but it appeared that nearly all of them were here. She narrowed her eyes as she looked around the chamber.

This meeting was not by entirely by chance. Rather, whoever had called this session had seen fit to not tell her until the last minute. What motive could there be in hiding that information? Was it to get her away from the unit she had led here?

A gavel banged behind her, followed by a booming voice.

“This meeting is now in session. As this is an irregular meeting, those who are unable to attend have been excused. This session is to discuss the legality of Colonel Mirona Serlov’s methods regarding the supposed voluntary human recruits.”

So that’s what this is about. But why here instead of a military tribunal? Letting her gaze wander, she attempted to identify the members who were aligned with the so-called “Liminal” party. They believed themselves to be higher beings than humanity, and that it was their right to rule over them. Though initially weak, they had managed to garner significant support in recent years. Serlov figured they were the most likely to have called for this emergency session.

What did they have to gain by doing this now, after the rally tour had been kicked off? Were they that desperate? Or was there some other machination involved?

“Representative Ashay, you have the floor,” the Speaker said from behind Serlov.

“So it is them,” she muttered under her breath as a wyvern stood. The dragons, and those related to them, seemed to have the most pride on this issue. They’d been pushing the most heavily for the subjugation of humanity. Serlov hadn’t seem this particular woman before.

“Fellow Representatives. As you all know, the tour that these human men have begun has proven to be rather popular. Far too popular.”

What was that wyvern getting at?

“I worry it has become a moral hazard, but that is a point for another day. While the rallies have been approved and I do not mean to contest that vote, it is unknown to us how exactly the human males have come into the service of the Colonel,” Ashay said, peering down at Serlov.

“Are we to believe that prisoners of war would so willingly side with an enemy after just a few short weeks? Obviously not. They had been coerced, and their baser instincts were appealed to.” Ashay let venom drip into her words, pointing with a wing at Serlov.

“They had been lured with promises of riches and sex. Surely you all saw those humans standing there, flaunting our people like trophies?

So that’s their angle this time. With a groan, Serlov realized that’s why she was summoned alone. Without the accused here to give their defense, Ashay’s argument could not be directly refuted.

“Is this so-called ‘co-existence’ merely whoring ourselves out? We should be parading those humans around in a cage, not letting them run amok, doing what and who they please.” Ashay paused to look around, gauging the reactions from her peers. The other Liminals were nodding in agreement, spurring the wyvern on.

“As the war has shown, we are clearly superior to them. There is no reason for us to debase ourselves by descending to their level,” Ashay declared, her voice filled with contempt.

Very good, Serlov thought. Use the success of the war to your advantage; use it to claim our superiority. Never mind that our ‘superiority’ is due solely to years of focused weapons and civil research in preparation for hostilities. Had it not been for a total war economy for years on end, we would likely still be behind humanity. How quickly they forget. And how quick they were to impress their might upon humanity.

“And let’s not forget how Serlov targeted wounded men – those would be at their most vulnerable – for capture. She had intended from the very start to force those under her command to engage in close, physical relations in order to captivate and persuade the humans.” The wyvern then stood silent, looking down at the lamia.

Serlov looked back at the Speaker, who nodded at her glance.

“Superiority? Debase ourselves? Whoring ourselves out?” Serlov said, stressing an increasing incredulity with every question, casting her arms out in disbelief. “And forcing my units into physical relations? How can you make such accusations so blindly?”

Ashay sneered. “I would name my source, but then you would most certainly retaliate against them. I will not risk them unless absolutely required.”

How convenient. It was also worrying that she had possible moles slipping out intel.

“Then as you will not give your proof, then I do not feel compelled to offer anything other than my word. I have never, and will never, give orders, explicit or otherwise, to anyone under my command to participate in any sort of romantic of sexual coercion. As for physical contact, that is to be expected as the humans work and live within close proximity to us,” Serlov said, keeping her voice as calm and even as possible.

“And why were they in close contact anyways? Cou-,” Ashay said, but was cut-off mid-sentence by Serlov.

“Because they required medical treatment, care, and my station did not have prisoner barracks. And, that’s the point of coexistence, is it not? To be able to live closely to one another?” Serlov said, glaring up at the wyvern. Ashay attempted to speak again, but Serlov cut her off before the first word escaped her throat.

“We targeted a medical camp that the humans had left in their retreat. Yes, they left their fellow man to die. I can’t answer for their actions, but I felt it would be an excellent opportunity to show that we are not some sort of wrathful, conquering army. We saved human lives, and we saved our own as we did not have to risk combat to capture them. And yes, it was my hope that by demonstrating our compassion we could prove that we are only retaliating against an assault on us. That we only wish to secure our safety.”

Serlov took in a deep breath and snorted through her nose after her monologue, returning Ashay’s burning stare. The whole war had been concocted in the first place by the Liminal faction. As soon as the envoys were killed they were quick to fan the flames of anger and beat the drums of wars. Diplomacy was never an option to them.

During the lull in the exchange between the wyvern and the lamia, another member from the assembly motioned to speak.

“From your testimony then, you claim your actions were driven by some kind of altruism?” Serlov broke from her staring contest with Ashay to identify the new voice.

Though soft spoken, Serlov knew to be wary of the voice’s owner – an old, tired looking arachnee named Mica Lusino. Part of the Fatalists, the party that was against any sort of intervention within the human realm, she was nonetheless often viewed as an arbitrator between the Liminals and the United Front – the UF held the current majority and was the party pushing for coexistance.

“Altruism? Not entirely. Saving them coincided with our goals,” Serlov said, keeping her voice level.

“So then you admit to using them towards your own ends?” Ashay shot back before the lamia or spider had a chance to say anything else. “You used these men, turning them against their own people! That’s a serious warcrime, you know.”

Serlov ran a hand through her hair in frustration. This wasn’t a questioning – it was a witchhunt. Before she could formulate a response, Mica spoke up in her stead.

“I think what she is saying, Representative Ashay, is that she saw an opportunity to lend a hand that ultimately proved beneficial for both sides.” Mica turned from Ashay towards Serlov. “And she did so with the support and knowledge of the commanding staff, correct?”

“Correct.” Serlov almost allowed a smile to form. Looking around, she was surprised at how calm everyone was. Most of those assembled here kept an impassive mask on. The firebrand oration Ashay was attempting did not appear to be swaying the minds or hearts of anything except for other Liminals. She wondered how many here actually cared about these rather trifling matters.

“Then, what about the women that were with those humans? How do you explain that?” Ashay said, shifting the argument. Serlov narrowed an eye. “…What about them?”

“If you did not offer your troop to them, then explain their presence.”

Serlov laughed in spite of herself, drawing the wyvern’s ire. “Are you really asking that? Have you listened to nothing I’ve said? Or that anyone else has said? While you may see humanity as scuttling creatures for you to step on, others are not so narrow-minded. They willfully pursue relationships,” Serlov paused after emphasizing her last word, “so that they may attempt to experience what it means to have a normal life. A life long denied to most of us for many generations.”

Ashay blanched at Serlov’s words.

“So you assert that some of those under your command have willfully committed to… joining with these men – men you captured, supposedly without ill intent?”

“Yes, that’s correct. Why are you asking me these things now? Why not before you approved their entrance to our world?”

Mica intervened, this time on Ashay’s behalf. “I believe it is because outside of the military, few of us were aware of the circumstances that led to them coming here.” Ashay shot Mica an annoyed look. Right question, wrong tone.

“Well, now you know. Do not think that those you see are all that I have. Most of the prisoners elected to stay loyal to their homelands. You may visit my compound and ask them yourselves if you wish. There has been no duress upon them – they have been treated fairly despite their decision.”

Mica nodded, satisfied. Ashay, however, launched into another barrage of questions. Serlov was beginning to tire of this game. Curiously, no one from the UF had said anything. She looked up towards their chief member, a spry kitsune by the name of Thayla Dirz – Emrald’s great aunt. Thayla seemed rather pleased with how events were unfolding. Glancing towards Serlov, she smiled with her eyes.

So then she has nothing to fear from what has been said so far, Serlov thought.

While Serlov waited for the cheaffur to bring a car around, she saw Thayla approaching. Serlov nodded to her as she came near.

“Good afternoon, Representative Dirz.”

“No need for formalities, Mirona,” Thayla said, smiling easily. “You did well on the floor tonight. I don’t think anyone has changed their opinion of your operation.”

“That is what I hope. Still, for them to call a session on such a trivial matter seems…”

“Petty?” Thayla said, finishing Serlov’s statement. “Yes, I agree. As did most everyone there, even some of the other Liminals. The fringe members are beginning to tire of the antics from the vocal minority. They’re getting desperate. If that first rally was any indication, I don’t think we will have anything to fear in the next elections.” Thayla’s smile had faded into a slight grimace.

“Desperate? Are you saying we might be in danger?” Serlov shifted uneasily. She was regretting not bringing more of her own people with.

“Possibly. They want to squash your, and our, popularity before it gets out of hand. I think most of them are still shrewd enough to avoid anything rash. Still, watch yourself out there.” Thayla looked over at the car as it pulled up to the curb where the two of them were. “And tell my niece I said hello,” she said, her smile returning.

Serlov returned the kitsune’s smile. “I’ll keep an eye out. Thanks for the warning. And I’ll let her know.”

Inside the car, Serlov rubbed at her temples. She knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but she didn’t expect such a confrontational meeting only hours back on her first day.

“This is going to be a long journey,” she whispered to herself.

 

“So that’s what we’re going to be riding in?” Casey said, looking through the building’s windows across the tarmac. Some distance away sat a large, grey-colored machine.

The warm, late afternoon sun poured in through the windows, warming his face as he peered out.

“Correct. Our next destination is across the channel onto the mainland, quite a ways towards the east. If we went by land it’d take an entire day. But, with that machine, I don’t think it will take more than two hours,” replied the lithe, smallish kitsune next to him. “That machine, by the way, is usually called a ‘jet’.”

Casey glanced towards Emrald, then back towards the aircraft. He figured it was as long as three buses, and a little wider than one. Two large, swept back wings extended out from the sides at the bottom of the cylindrical body, and a small pod was affixed to each wing. Apparently those were the engines, and they were supposedly quite powerful, but from here they seemed rather small.

Prior to seeing this transport, his knowledge of aircraft was limited to the smaller, silver-colored things he’d occasionally see darting about in the sky around the base he was kept at for those months. Then there were those rickety, flimsy things of humanity called airplanes that he figured were decades, if not more, behind the technology presented by these women. Now here he was, about to board that machine that was at least two, no three, times larger than any bus he’d seen. And, supposedly, this was still rather on the small side compared to the heavy-haulers that could transport several vehicles and tanks. He’d thought it several times before, but the sight reminded him that humanity had no chance should these people dedicate themselves to conquest.

Emrald smirked. “Do you really have to be amazed at every little thing you see? I thought you would have become used to it by now.”

“That’s not a little thing – that’s a very large thing. One that I’m going to be inside, and one that will take me very high in the sky. I’ve never even been in a balloon or dirigible, you know?”

“It will be okay, don’t worry. It’s quite safe, you see. I’ve been told that even if one engine fails, it can still kind of fly, and it has other gadgets that help it navigate and fly safely,” Emrald said, pointing out the window in the direction of the aircraft.

“Kind of fly?”

“Kind of, I think.”

Casey sighed deeply, attempting to expel the butterflies from his stomach. Much to his dismay they seemed content to stay where they were.

“Oh, and before we head out this evening you’ll have some quick parachute training.”

“Parachute?”

“A device you wear that will probably save you if you need to jump out,” Emrald spoke nonchalantly as possible to avoid worrying Casey further. It didn’t work.

“Why…why would I need to jump out? I thought you said it was safe?”

She could see the anxiety in his eyes and let slip a little groan. How could a man who shot at, and was shot by, others be so afraid of everything? Looking up at him for a moment, she lightly scratched the back of her neck, head slightly tilted.

“It is safe. But that does not mean it’s infallible. There are safety precautions everywhere, yes? Just because we probably won’t have an incident doesn’t mean we should be lackadaisical in preparations should one occur. I thought you’d be familiar with this by now since you were in the military as well.”

Casey shifted back and forth in front of the large window, looking from the aircraft towards the fox-woman. “It’s not very reassuring to hear you say it like that.”

“Well, how about if I said that I wasn’t concerned? I’ve flown many times in my life, you see.”

“I guess… but, weren’t you nervous the first time you flew?” Casey said, crossing his arms as he stared down at Emrald.

She let slip a small lop-sided grin. “A little, maybe.”

What was he going to do with her? Maybe she was right; maybe he did worry too much. Still, something nagged at him. “Isn’t the snow going to affect anything?”

“Not this much, no. Look, it’s barely covering the ground,” she said, shaking her head back and forth.

Casey focused more of the wiggling of her ear tips as her head shook than her words. “Yeah, I guess…” he said, looking back out the window.

Inside the aircraft, the accommodations were far less luxurious than Casey or any of the men could have imagined. They were used to military travel, but this seemed spartan even by their standards. Rather than individual seats, they were relegated to barely-padded benches on either side of the fuselage. Their seats didn’t even have any backing other than the ribs that made up the aircraft’s superstructure. Not only that, it was almost unbearably loud and chilly inside, even with the back ramp closed.

“This is awful!” Casey shouted, even though Emrald was seated next to him so close as to be touching. He had been given a headset designed to block out the sound of engines, and was now fiddling with it on his head, trying to get the bulky thing comfortable. It was ungainly, but it prevented him from being deafened by the shriek of the jet fan hanging not far from where he was sitting. Groaning and adjusting endlessly, he took some solace in watching Emrald, glad that his relatively small ears were easy to cover.

“At least your ears aren’t the size of your head!” Emrald yelled back, sliding her headset every which way to make it bearable while her ears wriggled and re-oriented themselves to try and accommodate the cumbersome thing. Rather than a pad that settled around the ear and skull, it was sort of a clam-shell device that clipped around each ear and plugged the opening. Casey thought the contraption looked even heavier than his and far more discomforting.

The headsets did have microphones that would have allowed for easier communication. Unfortunately their aircraft was lacking the required jacks, necessitating that they shout to one another.

Casey thought that, at the very least, he had it better than those who couldn’t sit. Serlov and Yvonne were forced towards the back of the aircraft, owing to their lack of legs and long bodies. He had a basic buckle on the bench that would hold him down, but those two had to be tethered to the sides not entirely unlike cargo. Additionally, owing to the complexities of their bodies, they had to wear their parachutes at all times since it was looped and strapped around their entire length. Yvonne in particular was looking unhappy with the situation, constantly fidgeting and adjusting things while casting glances at Alex.

“How much longer until we start moving?” Casey shouted, poking Emrald to gain her attention.

“What?”

“How. Much. Longer. Until. We. Start. Moving?”

The kitsune frowned, reminding Casey that though they could understand each other’s speech, his exaggerated lip and mouth movements meant nothing to her. Or, that’s what he thought. Emrald seemed to think hard about something, then yelled a few words he did understood even without the aid of her magic. “Soon,” she mouthed in a similar manner as he’d just done. “I think.”

Casey was rather surprised. When had she learned English? And why hadn’t she ever used it before? Maybe she’d only felt comfortable using it here when he couldn’t quite hear her – no doubt the words were heavily accented.

Reading the surprise on his face, Emrald shot him a little grin, but said nothing further.

A sudden jolt forward signaled that they were now in motion, as if her words had cast a spell. The interior of the transport had no windows, forcing Casey to interpret the sensations of movement, rather than see what was going on. He’d been a bit saddened when he discovered that he would not be able to view the world from up on high, but anxiety gripped at his heart now, despite being on the ground yet. Perhaps it was for the best that he couldn’t see out of this flying tube.

He could feel the transport rolling across the ground, bouncing and hopping, slowing and turning every so often. And then it came to a halt, as far as he could tell. Just as he began to wonder what was going on, the engines roared to life, far eclipsing their previous volume. Casey could feel the vibrations in his gut, not unlike when he’d been near artillery as it fired. Emrald brushed his cheek with a tail, distracting him from his anxious thoughts. Blinking a few times, he placed his hand on hers and squeezed lightly, drawing out a smile from her.

Then the vehicle launched, shifting Casey, and indeed everyone, backwards slightly. The acceleration never ceased; an invisible hand pushing him back for seconds and seconds. Anxiety and fear began to break into wonder as he thought about what must be going on. Finally, the aircraft tilted upwards, and he could no longer feel the aircraft skip along the tarmac. He was now flying, an odd thrill now fully replacing his nervousness.

Eventually the flight leveled out, though the howl of the engines never abated. According to what he’d been told earlier, travel time would be about 90 minutes from take-off to landing. A look at his chronometer revealed that ten minutes had elapsed since the flight had leveled out. He sighed, and then shifted about uneasily on the hard seat, attempting to find a position that was slightly more comfortable. Despite all his squirming, he gave up when nothing he tried would alleviate the growing pain on his bottom. The chill nipped at him as well, despite his long coat and warm clothing.

Glancing over at Emrald, her eyes were closed, but she had wrapped her tails around her for another source of warmth and comfort. Envy surged through him, but there was little he could do except flop against her, resting on what little fluff was exposed to him. She opened one eye briefly to look at him, then closed it again. Taking that as a sign she had no qualms, he did his best to share in the soft fluff and used the opportunity to close his own eyes.

With his eyes closed, he soon determined that the engines would not allow him to sleep. However, he also realized that with the constant noise and his eyes closed, the rest of the world seemed to disappear. Once he tuned out of the whine of the jets, the only real distraction to his thoughts was the occasional bounce or shake. He’d never much had the chance to be alone with his thoughts in quite some time.

Normally there would always be something to do, or someone to talk with, or he’d simply drift off to sleep at night once all was quiet. Now he had some time to simply think. Think mostly about how he got in this position in the first place.

What had happened that resulted in him being traitor so easily, he wondered. He’d killed men, and even got shot, for this invading force that captured him and many others. True, he didn’t have much attachment to his country or solidarity for his fellow man, but he still had his family. How could he turn on them for the dainty fox-woman he’d scarcely known? It felt right and wrong at the same time – a contradiction he couldn’t solve, even now.

Others had joined him in pairing up with the women, but he was the only one who still had an actual family. The rest were loners or orphans, even more so than he was. Not only that, but he was the first – perhaps serving as the impetus for the others. If he so easily shrugged off the love of his family, what does that say about his love for Emrald? Opening his eyes and biting his lip, Casey wondered if his attachment to her was as strong as he thought. Though he wouldn’t ever admit it to her, knowing that she could use illusionary magic to alter someone’s perceptions, and even feelings, worried him at times.

Was the love real? Or a spell she cast on him? Would he abandon her as readily as he let go of his family if the spell broke? From what she’d said, there was even the possibility she could be pregnant with his child at this very moment. That thought made him feel almost… trapped, in a word, and it worried him. Shouldn’t he feel excited about the possibility of a child, rather than anxious? After a while, reaching the same conclusion no matter how he thought about it, he soon decided that he ought to talk to Emrald about this the next time they were alone.

Another check of the time showed that 45 minutes had passed, roughly half the flight time. He yawned and stretched, thinking flying wasn’t quite as exciting as he thought it would be. His motions roused Emrald, mirroring his yawn with one of her own.

Before either of them could say anything, however, they were interrupted.

A massive boom resounded throughout the aircraft, shivering and shuddering the whole frame. Then the aircraft listed to one side as if it was turning. He could feel something attempting to correct the tilt, but it seemed to simply slow the rolling motion.

Moments later, the door separating the transport area from the cabin flew open, a haggard looking harpy filling the frame. She was frowning heavily, and cast a glance at everyone before zeroing in on Serlov. Her steps were sure despite the shaking, tilted floor, and she reached the lamia in no time. Watching them speak, it was then that Casey realized the shriek of the engine that should have been behind him was no longer there.

The harpy and lamia exchanged words; Serlov’s face displayed horror for a moment before she hardened her expression and her eyes played across everyone here. A few more words were said, and then the winged woman went straight to the bins of parachutes and began throwing them towards the stunned passengers.

Another woman appeared from the cabin, this one a wyvern that didn’t appear quite as old as the harpy. Rather than helping the harpy hand out the parachutes, she instead made straight for the back of the aircraft and slammed a button, opening the loading ramp. Instantly a vortex of wind formed inside, forcing Casey to narrow his eyes and it nearly stole his breath away and chilled him to the core.

Hanging onto an overhead railing, the wyvern made her way back to the passengers, and began assisting people with putting on the parachutes the harpy was tossing out.

Looking at Emrald, Casey was amazed to see that she was looking neither scared nor worried. Like Serlov, her face was a hard mask, her lips pressed into a thin line and her eyes narrowed. He could also make out muscles bunching at her jaw.

“What’s going on?” He yelled as loud as possible, slapping her shoulder to get her attention. Her eyes flashed to him, her pupils narrow slits. If he had to say, she looked angry. Very, very angry. Her features relaxed after a moment, though the after-image stayed with him.

“I don’t know, but we’re getting out of here.”

“What? Getting out of here?”

“Yes,” she nearly screamed, pointing to the parachutes being handed out, “Getting out of here!”

He wanted to ask why, but the behavior of the aircraft and the prior explosion likely meant this vessel would not be airworthy for much longer.

Looking out the open ramp, he could see everything was… tiny. Very tiny. No doubt they were thousands of feet into the sky, and very soon they would be jumping out. What then surprised him, as he looked around, was the relative calm of everyone. Maybe it was a mutual thing – their calmness granted him the strength to take everything in stride, and in turn, his cool behavior allowed them to remain composed.

Once the wyvern had assisted someone in putting on their parachute, she led them over to the ramp and hooked a long strap from their equipment to a rail near the mouth of the exit. Then they’d leap off, the strap would pull taut, and a large, white sheet would unfurl over them. Nearly identical to the pictures Casey had been shown during his very brief ‘training’ session earlier.

The row he was on seemed to be the first being evacuated; maybe an effort to reduce weight on his side of the aircraft?

Across the center he glanced at Reia and Tomas. Reia practically oozed calm confidence, which seemed to be soaked up entirely by Tomas. Casey’s eyes met that of the large man, and the two of them shared a nervous nod. Though it may not have affected his outward actions and expressions, Casey’s heart still raced, freezing from every shudder of the aircraft as it attempted to main a level crossing. No doubt Tomas and the rest felt the same.

Though time had seemed to drag on and on, a look at his wrist revealed that less than two minutes had elapsed since the boom that rocked the aircraft. The row was clearing quickly, and then it was Emrald’s turn. The grizzled harpy threw the kitsune a pack, then the wyvern helped her put it on in mere seconds, though not for its ease of use. There were countless straps and buckles, which the scaled woman seem to know exactly where to snap into place, and was able to adjust them nearly instantly.

Emrald was spun around in circles several times before being stopped, facing away from the scaled, winged woman to perform one final check. She reached out to Casey’s hand, and the two held onto each other for the briefest of moments before she was ushered towards the exit. A quick glance back, and then she was gone, riding aloft the winds. He attempted to keep track of her with his eyes, but then it was his turn to be equipped with the large pack. The rough, expedient treatment by the wyvern caused him to lose sight of Emrald, at least until he was pushed towards the ramp as well.

“Ya ever jump from a high place, kid?” The wyvern yelled in his ear.

Casey thought for a moment. He’d climbed trees and such, but nothing quite like this. He knew that when falling from a high place one had to bend the knees and try to roll, but that was about it. Perhaps that’s what she meant?

“Yes,” he shouted in response. “Tuck the knees, right?”

A wordless smile and a nod is all he received, then she snapped a hook to the rail, indicating that he should quickly vacate the premises. Searching the sky quickly, he spotted the parachute that was still the highest up. That had to be Emrald.

Gritting his teeth and squinting his eyes, Casey halted his breath and leapt.

He wanted to scream, but held it in is throat. The free fall lasted only a moment before the hook pulled his parachute free, slowing his descent to something slightly faster than gentle. Gasping out his held breath, he looked up at the aircraft as it sailed away, then his breath was stolen yet again.

The right wing was on fire, and appeared to be severed where the engine was – nearly half the length was missing. He had no idea how it was able to still fly, as he thought both wings were required to be fully intact. And it was missing an engine. Casey gave silent, heartfelt thanks to whoever had designed such a sturdy craft, and the committee that had agreed to it.

As he stared up at the transport, another person jumped free of its confines. He couldn’t make out who it was due to the dark of the night, but he thought he saw a wolfish tail.

Breaking his gaze from the aircraft, he searched down and around, trying to locate Emrald. A moment passed, and he located the chute he thought belonged to her, if only because it was the closest to him. Fortunately the moonlight made the white fabric easy to see, but unfortunately he seemed to drift further and further away, being blown away from the line of parachutes dotting the sky.

There were handles on each strap that went up to the rectangular sheet above him, but he had no idea how to control the thing. The ten minute lesson bestowed upon him didn’t quite go into that detail as it was cut short at Serlov’s insistence that they needed to get moving. His attempts at tugging at the handles had sent him into a slow spin, so he elected to leave them be for now. Further and further he grew distant from Emrald and the others. Even the person who jumped after him seemed to be following the others where he alone was separated.

Frowning, Casey was at least partially comforted in knowing he could survive alone for a night, though he was concerned that the thick forest below would make finding one another difficult. Then he had the thought that his chute would likely catch on the canopies, dangling him far above the ground. Maybe that’s what the harpy was talking about?

He continued to drift lazily through the night sky, watching his breath condense into a fog before dispersing. Another check of his chronometer showed five minutes had passed since he bailed out. The forest was very close now, and the flaming aircraft was beginning to drop rapidly through the sky. Not a particularly pious person, he still prayed nonetheless to whatever gods may exist in this land that everyone had managed to escape to safety.

Closer and closer the trees came, until Casey thought there was less than a hundred feet to the first branches. Bracing himself for the impact, he hoped the branches were thin enough to allow him through.

Even if the collision with the ground didn’t hurt too much, passing through all those branches was not going to be pleasant, especially with his still-healing wound. Emrald would kill him for aggravating his wound if he didn’t die outright, he thought with a bitter smile.

Turning and twisting, swearing and cursing, Emrald wished she’d been in field gear. With no knife, getting herself out of the parachute harness was proving to be difficult. Many of the ropes had become tangled around her tails, pulling on them whenever she moved or the wind would tug at the chute.

“Maybe I should just amputate the damned things,” she cursed bitterly to herself, glaring at her fluffy appendages.

Pausing for a moment, she at least considered that she had the good luck to land in a relative open area, narrowly avoiding crashing down on top of a tree.

After she jumped, she had watched Casey follow soon after her, then slowly drift to one side. Then he begun to spin lazily about, heading further and further away. What did that man do, she thought to herself, keeping a careful eye on where he would land as she neared the ground.

 But, before she could go to where he was, she needed to break free of this thing’s grasp.

A brief gust blew, causing her to be pulled a short distance by a tail. Yelping in pain and surprise, Emrald then growled and attacked the ropes with her teeth, no longer caring about trying to maintain some sort of dignity.

Several minutes of chewing later, she stood triumphant over the mess of rope and straps. Well then, she thought, time to locate Casey. Thus far she’d heard absolutely nothing, so who knows how far everyone was scattered. Or when a rescue would arrive. Orienting herself using the moon, she took in a deep breath of the crisp air and set off in the direction she hoped would lead to her lover.

Emrald glanced at the time yet again; 30 minutes had passed since she began her search, and remarkably she’d discovered no one. The forest was still as could be except for the crunch of frost under her feet. Fortunately the floor was mostly clear of brush, and the land was mostly flat making for easy travelling. Her pace was still slow, however, as she searched with her eyes and ears carefully and methodically for any indication of her comrades.

“Well, maybe they all headed in the same direction… and here I am, the only one who took a different way to search for some fool,” she muttered to herself, hoping her own voice would soothe her concerns; it did not.

Stalking forward for another few minutes, something caught her eye up in the trees. Something hanging from far up. Emrald walked over towards it, and soon realized it’d been what she sought, but not quite how she had hoped. Still, the sight dispelled the unease she’d been feeling.

Once she was nearly underneath the thing, she looked up and yelled. “Hey, are you okay?”

At her words, the hanging thing wiggled about slightly before responding.

“Uh, yeah, I guess. Kind of uncomfortable up here though… is that you, Emrald?”

Casey seemed to be fine, if in a precarious position. He had to be at least fifty or sixty feet in the air, hanging from his chute.

“Yes, it’s me…” Emrald said as she paced about underneath him, looking around at the trees for some way to get him down.

“Well, I’m glad you found me. But, I’ve had a lot of time to hang out here… and as far as I can tell I’m not going anywhere unless I want to break a leg or two.”

Letting out a sigh, the kitsune looked to the side before returning her eyes up to the man above. “You couldn’t have landed where there aren’t any trees? I mean, there’s a clearing right over there.”

“Hey, I tried. I just wound up spinning even faster and then crashed into the trees here. No one told me how to control this damn thing.”

“Well, whatever. We will think of something. Are you hurt anywhere?”

Casey delayed a moment before responding, making a bit of noise as he shifted himself in the harness. “I smacked my leg on a branch, and this thing is riding up my crotch real bad, but otherwise I’m fine.”

Emrald scratched at her ears, grinning at Casey’s words. Mostly unharmed and in somewhat good spirits, not too bad all things considered.

“Hey, do you think you could undo your harness?”

“Uh, I could try, but then I’d just kind of fall.”

“Yes, don’t try anything now. I was just wondering if we find some others that could catch you, you see.”

Emrald didn’t like it, but she would probably need to leave him here to search for others and lead them back. Or, that’s what she thought until the dull thump of rotors became audible. Her ears twitched and swiveled to home in on the source; it appeared to be originating from the east – towards where they had been headed.

The only thing is, it shouldn’t be possible for that kind of aircraft to reach their location so soon. The jet they were on would still not have reached the city yet, so the approaching craft had to have been airborne already and then redirected to their location.

A stroke of luck, she thought.

“What’s that noise?” Casey said a moment later, his ears now able to pick out the noise.

“A helicopter – another kind of aircraft.”

“Oh, a rescue already?”

“Maybe, or just something sent to make sure we’re alive.”

Her opinion soon shifted, however, as she heard the sound of a second helicopter. One was good luck, but two was suspicious, especially considering there shouldn’t be any airfields or airports closer than their destination. Adding in that the aircraft they were in wasn’t known for catastrophic engine failure, and things were becoming suspicious indeed.

 

“Yeah, just… keeping hanging there. Or something,” Emrald said as she watched the two helicopters settle down in a clearing not too far away. She could make out several people disembarking, but couldn’t tell who they were. One detail not lost on her was that they were most certainly armed.

“Well, I think I can manage that. But, what about them? You don’t seem very happy to see them.”

“Like I said, something doesn’t feel right about this…”

Five people departed from each helicopter, then after some kind of short discussion they began to fan out. Two of the ten were heading almost straight towards Emrald and Casey.

“Look, I am going to hide myself, but I’ll be close by. Don’t worry.” Emrald looked up at the dangling man, wishing there was something she could do to free him so they could escape.

“Okay, got it. It’s not nice to leave me hanging like this, you know.” Casey yelled down with a hint of laughter in his voice.

Emrald rolled her eyes and sighed. She wanted to rebuke him for not taking this seriously, but there was no time. Scuttling off behind a large tree, she laid down on her belly and peeked around the tree, watching the two people approach. If necessary she could conceal herself from their mind, provided there weren’t too many loitering around at once. Two she could handle, three maybe, but four or more would certainly be pushing her capabilities.

Closer now, Emrald was able to make out more of their details. They were wearing combat fatigues, and their weapons were kept at the ready, but facing towards the ground. The closer of the pair appeared to be a Jin’ko, and the further was some kind of horned woman with a swishing tail, though too small to be a minotaur. Emrald silently cursed; she could likely simply avoid the cow-woman’s notice by keeping low and away, but the tiger-woman’s eyesight would make her efforts futile. And, if anything physical broke out, she had no hope of outrunning or overpowering the powerful cat.

Biting her lip, she focused intently, willing herself to vanish from the tiger’s perceptions. To the outside observer it’d appear as if she was doing little more than staring, but most of a kitsune’s magic was silent and invisible, except for those times they wished to show off.

As they crept closer and closer, Emrald began to hear the crunch of frost under their feet. It was then she realized that if one looked closely, one could tell someone had been walking around underneath Casey.

A few dozen paces out, the Jin’ko suddenly took notice of Casey hanging in the trees. For his part he’d been absolutely silent, but something of an obvious outlier in the canopy.

“You, up there! I am assuming you are from the aircraft that crashed nearby?” The tiger-woman bellowed. To Emrald’s relief her weapon remained pointed at the ground; perhaps they were here simply to check out on things after all.

“Yeah… I’m kinda stuck up here though.”

Raising her arm into the air and waving, the tiger beckoned her compatriot over. Waiting for the cow-woman to come over, she turned her attentions towards the ground. Emrald clenched her jaw, redoubling her efforts on the Jin’ko, attempting to break her interest in the footprints.

Whether it truly worked or not she didn’t know, but when the cow-woman reached Casey, the two of them began to look up towards Casey, walking about in a lazy pattern. Emrald let her jaw relax, happy that their own footprints would obscure those she had made.

With the cow-woman close now, Emrald figured she was some sort of holstaurus, judging by how far out her chest seemed to extend. Fortunately they weren’t known for their keen senses, so she was able to simply lay low, pressing herself and her tails down to the ground to escape notice from that one.

“Has anyone else been here?” said the Jin’ko.

“…No, just me. I’m getting kind of cold and I’m kind of in pain. Do you folks think you can get me down?”

The tall, powerfully built cat-woman nodded to the cow, then looked back up. “Can you get yourself out of the harness?”

“Yeah, probably…”

Rolling her shoulders and neck, she handed off her weapon and positioned herself directly under Casey. Emrald looked on in surprise – she knew their particular species was strong, but catching someone from that height? She wanted to burst out from hiding and tell them no, but her gut feeling was that they weren’t here for rescue. How she wished she could apologize to Casey for letting this happen.

“Okay then, get out of that harness. I’ll catch you.”

“Uh… are you sure? This is pretty high.”

A cocksure grin spread across the tiger’s face. “Don’t you worry. Your ass might hit the ground, but nothing will break. Probably.”

“Probably…”

Casey was beginning to share in Emrald’s bad feeling about these people. No matter how strong someone was, trying to catch a falling man from this height was going to get someone hurt. What would happen if he decided to be disagreeable?

“Ah, that doesn’t seem very safe… can’t you get someone else to help you catch or something?”

“I’m all you got. Either cut yourself free or you’re gonna be up there for quite a while.”

Casey groaned. If he spent another 10 minutes up here, let alone an hour, he’d probably go crazy. Not only that, but every time the wind blew it chilled him to the bone and set him swinging.

“Fine… get ready…”

Getting the straps undone from his position was somewhat difficult and slow, but finally the last one was ready to come loose and then he’d drop down.

“Here I come,” he said, unbuckling the last one and gulping at the same time. As it snapped free, he entered free-fall. The Jin’ko was quick, and re-positioned herself to catch him. Her knees, back, and elbows slightly bent, she bore the brunt of the impact of his fall, dropping to a knee to bleed momentum and holding her arms tight but not locked as they pivoted to the ground. True to her word, Casey wound up hitting the ground, though the impact was more like falling a scant few feet rather than sixty.

Emrald smiled broadly, partly from relief and partly because that woman had actually managed to do it alone. The holstaurus was smirking as well, though she gave Emrald a brief scare when her eyes swept over the concealed fox. Thankfully her tails were tucked behind the tree trunk, and she had kept her ears folded down. When the cow-woman’s eyes did not linger, Emrald looked upwards and sighed as relief flooded her again.

Cracking the knuckles in her paws, the Jin’ko flashed Casey a fang-filled smile. “Told ya, though I’ll admit you’re heavier than ya look. That a ‘man’ thing?”

Sitting up on the ground, he shrugged. “I guess men tend to be heavier than women.”

“I see… I wonder what else about ya is different,” she said, eyeing him up and down with her paws on her hips.

Worry coursed through his mind momentarily, but then she shrugged and walked over towards the holstaurus. As Casey stood up, the Jin’ko took her firearm back from her companion, who had remained entirely silent throughout.

“Anyways, you don’t seem too fighty, so I’ll give you a choice. You can come along with us peaceably, or we can use force.”

“Than- wait, what?” Casey reeled at the Jin’ko’s words. Come along peaceably? Was he under arrest or something?

The knot in Emrald’s gut grew several times its previous size at the tiger’s words, and for once she regretted being correct about something. Were they after him in particular? The men? Everyone that had been aboard? She desperately wished to do something, anything, but there was no possible way for her and Casey to escape from ten soldiers. So far they didn’t appear to be aggressive, but it could be a ploy to get their captives to lower their guard.

There was too much she didn’t know, and too few options to buy time. Now, she also realized that there weren’t any unit patches or names on the uniforms. They weren’t standard military, that’s for sure. Special forces, maybe? But then who had deployed them before their plane had burst into flames?

Countless thoughts raced through Emrald’s mind, but in the end she was forced to stick to her ‘wait and see’ plan.

“Yes, that’s right,” the Jin’ko said, her demeanor still relatively amiable. “I’d much rather not use force, and I think you have an idea of my strength. I can assure you that you will not be harmed while in our custody if you cooperate.”

“What… what’s this about?”

“I’m not at liberty to say. Now, will you come along?”

The tiger’s pleasant attitude was rapidly becoming flat, and if he kept hesitating things would probably escalate. Casey wanted to look towards where he knew Emrald to be hiding, but didn’t want to give her away. Instead he nodded his head, and stepped forward.

“Excellent. I’m glad you’re reasonable. Now then, head towards the helicopters with your arms raised, please.”

Nodding, he did as he was told and began walking forward. The two soldiers pulled up behind him in escort.

Emrald was cursing and swearing internally all the while, angry with herself for not having any real combat capabilities. Other questions began to surface in her thoughts, such as if they had captured anyone else, or if Casey was the first. If she made herself known now, in order to stay close to him, would they wind up shooting her? There were the other soldiers that had fanned out as well – even if she was to try and find those of her own unit, she’d likely run into members of this unknown force instead.

Emrald felt utterly powerless as she watched this unfold. The logical thing to do would be to remain hidden until they departed, then report all she had seen once she was back somewhere. But, when it came to Casey, logic seemed to fail her.

Once Casey and the other two soldiers reached the helicopter, they seemed to talk briefly to someone inside, and then he hopped inside and sat down. The helicopter remained silent, along with its companion. Neither of them appeared to be going anywhere soon.

“Good,” Emrald whispered to herself. It would seem they were here for more than just him. That meant she had time.

Licking her lips and glancing around, she tried to remember if the other soldiers that had fanned out were alone. If so, she might be able to acquire some information on what exactly was going on. Only one way to find out, she decided, raising from her hiding spot and looking around.

Forcibly coiled on top of herself and bound with silk to prevent escape, Serlov glared silently at the spider across from her within the helicopter’s confines.

The arachnee closed one eye, focusing the open eye on the lamia. “Don’t give me that look, Colonel Serlov. If you had been agreeable we wouldn’t need to resort to these measures.”

Tugging on the silken strands running from the bound lamia to her hands, she caused the binding that held her arms behind her back to pull even more taut, squeezing her shoulders together painfully. Serlov winced, but did her best to not let any pain show.

“Be thankful we were under strict orders to avoid shooting you, and those with you. Two of my women are going to be enjoying stays in a hospital, thanks to you.” Another tug on the strands pulled Serlov’s arms together even further, underlining the venom in the Arachnee’s voice.

Twisting her pained grimace into a smug grin, Serlov savored her minor victory – at least she had not gone down quietly or easily.

As one of the last to leave the stricken aircraft, she had barely managed to escape in time. It also meant she had traveled the furthest east, and thus was amongst the first to be found by this mysterious force. She knew it was far, far too soon for a search and rescue, though her plan was open confrontation rather than hiding away.

“Come quietly and we can assure you that you will not be harmed,” a large oni said as she approached Serlov.

Serlov simply hummed to herself, remaining still. The oni seemed to take that as an indicator of submission – a mistake she would not soon forget.

Raising a portion of her snake-body just above the ground to avoid raising any suspicion, Serlov struck out once the other woman was close enough. Her solid, muscular tail impacted with tremendous force across the oni’s chest. She flew several feet through the air before landing heavily on the ground, rolling and clutching at her chest as she groaned. That one wasn’t getting up anytime soon.

Her partner, a manticore, seemed to be stunned briefly by the sudden show of force. Her hesitation wound up costing her, as Serlov darted forward faster than one would expect from a snake. She attempted to take to the air, but only rose a few feet into the air.

Serlov again hooked her tail through the air like a scythe, catching the manticore just above the knee. The impact up-ended her, crashing her down into the ground head-first. Collapsing into a heap, she remained entirely motionless. Though it was a foe, Serlov was compelled to verify the manticore was still alive – a spill like that could break one’s neck.

Her fingers resting lightly on her neck, she verified that there was still a pulse and she was still breathing. Good enough, she thought.

Casting a wary glance around before escaping the area, the sound of a snapping twig froze her in place. Trying to locate the source of the noise, another snap rose up, this time closer and on the other side of her. Backing up slowly, she kept herself partially coiled in order to quickly strike at anything should the need arise.

More twigs snapped around her, occurring at intervals and locations that shouldn’t be possible from any one person. Leaves rustled above her, but not from any wind. There was nothing she could feel, taste, or sense in the air.

“Fighting from the shadows is hardly fair, don’t you think?” Serlov said, attempting to goad her foe into revealing themselves. All she got was silence. “No,” she whispered to herself, “I wouldn’t have that luck would I?”

A burst of footsteps to her right drew her attention, and too late did she realize it was merely a diversion as they disappeared as quickly as they had made themselves known.

“Hmph,” the lamia pouted, looking down at the furry paw that held a long, sharp claw against her jugular. She then felt a weight on her back that rapidly increased until the entire woman had appeared, near as she could tell.

“Well, you got me. What now?”

“Nya-ow we go back, and get those two some help,” the woman on her back declared.

 “Do you really talk like that?” Serlov said, her face contorting in disgust at the lilting, cat-like tone.

The weight on her back shifted about, and then she felt legs swing down along either side of her, almost as if she was being ridden like a horse. From the sensations on her scales, she realized whoever had gotten the best of her was nude, and had furry legs and feetpaws as well. While some species could render themselves invisible, it would not extend to any clothing they wore.

“Nyahaha, well, you nya-ow…some of us can’t help it.”

The furry digits beside her throat then all popped out claws, and the woman controlling them alternated which one pressed against her throat. Serlov couldn’t tell if the cat riding her was crazy or simply wanted to see her blood flow.

“You’re very bold to be going about in this weather without clothing.”

“Nya ha! I hear that often… but it’s worth it with people like you around~ So ma-nya lose their cool and freak out. That’s nyat fun at all. Anya-ways, let’s get going.” To add insult to her words, the cat kicked at Serlov’s body like one would when riding a steed. She fumed, but with the claws at her throat she had no option.

Making her way towards the helicopter, the cat remained quiet, though her claws seemed to randomly dig in more firmly than usual at times. Finally they caught sight of another person, and she could feel the cat wave her other arm atop her.

“Hey~ over here,” she shouted. The other soldier ran over to them, seemingly unphased by the appearance of a nude cat riding a lamia. “There’s two down back thatta way, they nya-eed a medic.” Nodding and running back to where they came from, the other trooper soon disappeared, leaving the cat and lamia alone together again.

“Hey~”

“What is it, cat?” Serlov practically growled.

“You seem upset~”

No, Serlov thought shaking her head. She would not be toyed with like this. The cat riding her continued to laugh, but otherwise said little once she figured out the lamia would not play her game. Soon they researched the clearing where the helicopters were, along with the arachnee.

While the spider was binding Serlov, the cat leaned forward and licked the back of her, then whispered to her. “Nya haha~ you’re kinda cute~ I think the nya-xt time we meet, I’ll have to eat you up~”

Then she vanished as quickly as she had arrived – Serlov never did see who had gotten the better of her. Apparently the spider had overheard her words, grimacing slightly as she put the finishing touches on the silken chains.

And now here she was, bound in custody with an unknown foe. Initially four helicopters had landed nearby, but two departed shortly after she was captured. A few of the other men, Yvonne, and even Reia had been taken as well, arriving slowly one after another. They’d looked to Serlov for something; an answer, but all she was able to give them was a nod.

So far they’d remained unharmed, but who knows for how long.

A radio crackled to life; a message from the other team. “We’ve detained another male – a Casey Smith, along with a female wolf-girl named Viole.”

Serlov closed her eyes and thought. Casey and Emrald had both jumped nearly the same time, so they should have been relatively close together. Either the two had yet to link up, or Emrald managed to hide herself. The crafty fox was unlikely to be taken if she knew what was going on, Serlov thought. Provided she avoided doing anything stupid.

Opening her eyes, she stared defiantly at the arachnee. Not one to back down, the spider returned the lamia’s gaze with equal intensity. She had to be the leader of this expedition, Serlov thought. Or, at the very least, the one leading this platoon.

Nothing was spoken between the two for quite some time; the silence was only broken periodically by the radio as the other team reported people captured or subdued. Eventually, according to Serlov’s mental checklist, only one person remained – Emrald. There was also a report of a soldier who had failed to check in on time. It didn’t take much to put the two together.

Serlov allowed herself a little grin, then snorted through her nose.

“Say,” she began, “I don’t even know your name. Or anyone else’s. It seems no one here refers to each other by name or rank, not even on the radio. Isn’t it proper respect to at least give your name to a senior officer?”

The spider considered her words for a moment, though the scowl shaping her features never faded. “While I would like to, we have been prohibited from revealing anything about ourselves.”

Interesting. It would seem these troops were mercenaries rather than any official military unit. Though technically illegal, merc units had gained popularity as most of the state militaries had been deployed through the portal. Serlov relaxed some, deciding that she should save her energy for when it mattered. Glowering at this Arachnee wasn’t getting her anywhere.

The traces of dawn were arriving, and Emrald had yet to be captured. The arachnee was becoming nervous and impatient, much to Serlov’s enjoyment. Eventually she could wait no longer, and called for everyone to regroup and dust off.

Sailing over the tree tops, Serlov wondered where the kitsune had managed to hide herself. Then she wondered if she’d be able to mount some kind of rescue considering she would have no idea where Casey and the others were being taken. At least Serlov knew they were heading west, though she couldn’t hazard a guess at their speed or exact time in the air.

Eventually they landed in a large clearing and were shuffled off the helicopters and grouped together. Serlov took note of everyone, letting a sigh when everyone appeared to be unharmed. At least the group that had rounded them up kept to their vow of not harming though, though it begged the question of why they resorted to such drastic measures to bring down the aircraft they were aboard.

Spotting Casey, Serlov slithered over to him. “Did Emrald escape?” she hissed out in a whisper, attempting to avoid bringing attention to herself.

“I don’t know. How I got caught is… kind of a long story, but I’m pretty sure they never found her. She wasn’t hurt in the crash or anything, I know that mu…”

Casey was cut short as one of the guards approached and yelled at him to be quiet. He nodded, then threw a nod towards the colonel. Reia and Tomas came near as well, though they remained silent as the guard was still nearby. At the very least, their presence provided Casey some comfort that everyone was alive and well, and maybe things would remain that way.

After some time passed, a series of trucks arrived, along with a few more soldiers. Unfortunately, Serlov and her unit were blindfolded and cuffed before being herded aboard the vehicles. The remainder of the journey was quiet, but lengthy. Being blindfolded and stuffed into cargo trucks made for an unpleasant trip, to the point where most of them were thankful when they arrived at their destination. Though she had no basis to think as such, Serlov wondered if forcing them to endure discomfort and then rewarding them with a reprieve from it was some sort of psychological conditioning.

Someone tugged at her cuffs, leading her away from the others, or at least she figured that’s what was going on. They had initially disembarked on grass, but now she was moving across concrete or asphalt – her belly scales weren’t able to distinguish between the surfaces. She was brought along a considerable distance, turned this way and that, and even made to backtrack. Whoever was leading her had obviously wished to disorient her as much as possible.

In time, she felt herself be lead into a structure of some sort; the sun’s light no longer warmed her skin or scales, and the surface upon which she slithered had become smoother. Then she heard a series of doors opening, and she was lead through each one. Then she was brought into an elevator, and to her surprise it went up rather than down. At least that meant she was likely in some kind of ‘normal’ building, rather than a military bunker.

The chime of the elevator went off, and she was lead out and down another smooth hallway. The person’s shoes in front of her clicked sharply on the surface, leading her to believe it may be marble or stone in an undecorated hallway. She was lead through another door, and then finally, she was halted seemingly in the middle of a room.

“You may take it off her now,” a familiar voice said.

A hand reached up to remove the blindfold, causing Serlov to squint momentarily as her eyes adjusted to the sudden influx of light. The blurred image came into focus after a second, and she blinked several times to make sure it wasn’t some kind of illusion. There, seated in a large mahogany chair behind a similar deep, rich desk was a familiar face to go with the voice.

“You? What are you doing here?”

“Ho? Is that all you have to say?” Came the elder kitsune’s reply.

“What is the meaning of this?” Serlov demanded, bringing herself up to full height. The kitsune scoffed at the display, waving her hand dismissingly.

“Please. Save the intimidation for people who would be bothered by such things.”

“I would not expect you, of all people, to attempt this. Especially after what you said to me earlier – what do you hope to gain from this?”

The kitsune sighed, sagging into her kimono slightly. “I suppose you’ve a right to be hostile considering the circumstances.”

She fiddled with a fan in her hand, folding it and drawing it out to its full shape repeatedly, before she folded it one final time and pointed it at the lamia. “I assure you I had meant to simply force your aircraft to make an emergency landing. The fuel line was supposed to be cut, forcing you from the skies in a somewhat controlled manner. Instead, from the reports I’ve read, you had something of a fiery escape.”

Serlov’s upper lip twitched. She fought to keep her face passive and neutral. Displaying emotion here would not aid her one bit. “I suppose. But that does not answer the question. What do you want?”

The kitsune smirked. “Amelia, please come in.”

Serlov narrowed her eyes. That name wasn’t familiar to her in the slightest. At the back of the room a side door opening, and in strode a woman. Serlov’s eyes went wide.

“You… but, how? You’re supposed to be extinct!”

“Oh, darling. What a cruel thing to say,” the woman said, her pointed tail darting back and forth behind her.

 

 

 

 

Reia stalked about the large, dank room, attempting to discern any possible means of escape.

A single light dangled from the middle of the windowless, concrete-walled room. Shadows were cast into the corners by the collection of junk and furniture heaped everywhere. Far as Reia could tell, the only possible way into and out of the room was the lone door through which they’d been herded. Though there was no one posted near the entrance when they were brought in, she assumed the two guards that escorted them would also serve as their jailers.

Running her hand along one of the walls, she wondered if it’d be possible for her or Yvonne to smash their way out. The wurm was certainly the most powerful member here, Reia thought as she glanced towards the hulking serpentine woman, who was currently coiled up atop herself below the light. If these weren’t meant to be load-bearing walls, the cinder blocks used to construct them would be relatively thin.

“What’s up, Captain?” Yvonne said as their eyes met.

Even if they could create a breach big enough for them to escape through, it’s not like the guards would just stand by and watch them flee. Reia frowned, looking back towards the wall. “Nothing much, just thinking.”

Yvonne hummed. “Pacing around won’t get us out of here.”

That’d explain why she was nestled up in the center, Reia thought.

Both their attentions were suddenly drawn to a loud clatter from a heap of junk as it shifted and scattered across the floor.

Viole leapt backwards from the avalanche of debris as it threatened to bury her, a bucket held in her paw.

Almost immediately after the noise subsided, the door was practically thrown open. One of the guards – a powerful tiger woman – filled the doorway, looking around before her eyes focused on the wolf and the junk scattered around her.

“What’s going on in here?” she growled, one paw kept near her holstered side-arm.

Pivoting on her heel, Viole turned to the guard, holding the bucket out in her direction. “Just procuring supplies for hygiene, since you guys haven’t seen fit to give us anything. Sorry about the noise.”

“…I see,’ said the Jinko, her tense posture relaxing somewhat. She then glanced across the three woman kept prisoner in the room. Once she confirmed that they weren’t attempting an escape, she began to draw back into the hallway. “Keep it down.”

As the door clacked shut, Viole shrugged and began walking towards a barren corner of the room. “Not the most ideal solution, but better than letting it go on the floor, huh?”

“Hopefully we won’t be here long enough to make use of it…” Reia said, abandoning her inspection of the room’s walls.

Though she knew they hadn’t been there long, she had no means of telling precisely how long. It was doubtful more than a half hour had passed, but time could pass much more slowly or quickly than one expected when there were no windows or clocks.

There wasn’t much that could be done now. The only option available was simply to sit and wait, unless something could be done with all the junk lying about here, Reia thought as she took a seat on a desk.

She didn’t have the faintest idea where they were, though the lack of a proper jail facility and a room full of office furniture led her to conclude they weren’t in any military installation. They’d been blindfolded until they reached the room, so she couldn’t even speculate on the type of building they were in. Guessing from how far they’d walked since entering the structure, Reia thought it was at least fairly large. There was an elevator as well, but she couldn’t guess at how many floors they traveled down.

Finished with dragging some filing cabinets around the bucket in a make-shift screen, Viole clapped her paws together in satisfaction, then approached Reia.

“What do you think they’ve done with the others? With the men and the Colonel?”

Hearing Viole’s question, Yvonne shifted about to face the two, but remained quiet.

“Well,” Reia began, “Considering how they’ve treated us so far, it’s reasonable to assume they’re being handled the same way…” Hoisting herself completely atop the desk, the metal and wood creaked and groaned under her bulk. “Though Serlov is probably getting the VIP treatment. For better or worse.”

“What about Emrald? She isn’t with us…” Yvonne said, raising her torso up into the air.

Reia grinned. “If she’s not with us, that probably means she eluded them. Leave it to that crafty fox… though considering how long our helicopter and truck ride were, I wouldn’t count on her showing up with an army behind her.”

There was the niggling issue of the kitsune being stranded in the middle of a relatively remote forest, though she’d make it out eventually. Probably.

For the time being, they were on their own, and probably weren’t going anywhere soon. Reia sighed. At least they could’ve given her a book or something.

 —

Gigantic fox ears swiveled about, orienting themselves towards where the helicopters had been their forms disappeared into the night sky. Once the chopping noise of rotor blades had faded, the ears began to pivot seemingly at random, picking out the sounds of the night forest.

On the rare occasion, Emrald was glad to have her massive, radar-dish-like ears; they captured distant sound quite well.

Once her senses confirmed that she was now alone amongst the trees, she crept from her hiding spot between a fallen tree and a large boulder. And immediately hated her ears once again as the tips snagged on the overhead branches. The tails she could wrap around herself and keep them in some manner of control, but she was powerless to do something about the ears.

Maybe she’d get them clipped, she thought… though Casey did seem to enjoy touching them. Maybe not, she through with a wry smile.

Unfortunately it was a cramped hiding spot, even for a dainty fox-woman like herself. Her joints popped and her muscles ached as she allowed herself to move for the first time in hours. Unwinding and stretching herself out, Emrald looked up at the sky, facing the direction the helicopters had traveled.

“To the southwest, huh?” She whispered to herself.

It matched up with what she’d learned from the soldier she interrogated.

She shivered in spite of herself. Not from the cold, but rather from the knowledge that their strongest allies may have betrayed them. Still, her many years of life had taught her not to jump to conclusions without some solid proof or evidence. Picking the brain of one low-ranking mercenary had been useful, but she’d come away with more questions than answer.

It would not be unreasonable to assume they’d been hired by one entity calling themselves another, or that the soldier had been trained to resist the sort of mental manipulation Emrald had at her command. She’d have had to snag someone higher in the chain of command before she could count on the veracity of the information.

Catching herself staring at nothing, Emrald shook her head and closed her eyes. She could stand here and ponder things for hours, but to what end? Pushing aside those thoughts for the time being, she needed to find a way out of this forest and get to a town or city where she could contact the military.

Without a map or knowledge of the area, her best option was to head east – towards their original destination. There ought to be roads that she would be able to follow towards the city, or even hitch a ride.

To add to her problem of not having a map, she didn’t have a compass either.

What was it about a North Star? She knew from her survival training that one could use that as a guide. But, as her eyes raked the night sky, she had no idea which star was the one she sought. It’d been too many years, and all she could recall was something about constellations or some such.

Frowning at the stars as if it was their fault for being so numerous, Emrald was about to give up on a heavenly method of navigation when the moon caught her eye. Or, more specifically, its crescent shape. Wasn’t there something about how a line that went from the top tip of the crescent to the bottom tip would point towards the south?

She traced an invisible line through the sky using her finger, going from the top of the moon to the earthly horizon.

“That’s south, huh?” She said to herself, pointing a foot in the same direction. Using her foot as a guide, she made a mental quarter circle. “…so then that’s east…”

Her tails danced slowly in a waving motion as she thought. If she was wrong she would be walking for quite a while. Well, she was going to be walking quite a while anyways, she thought with a sigh. At least heading east she’d eventually stumble onto some sort of civilization. Probably. Who knows if there was anything around in the other directions?

At least she’d find out if she was wrong about her directions as dawn came. Sun rose in the east, so as long as she heading towards it as the sky brightened all would be well.

Inhaling sharply through her nose, she then let out a slow exhale that turned to vapor in front of her face. Then, wrapping her tails around herself, she started off in the direction she hoped was east.

“…Please be alright,” she murmured to herself as new thoughts began to fill her mind now that one problem was solved.

The gentle pink glow of the approaching dawn buoyed Emrald’s spirits as she scuttled up a steep incline. She’d been heading a little more south than she’d have liked, but it was east enough, and gave her hope that she might escape the endless sea of trees soon.

Traversing through forests irritated her. As there was no path, everything sort of blended together on her, making it difficult to gauge if she was still heading east. Several times now she had to stop herself and backtrack as she’d gone off course. Emrald cursed often at the trees, but they didn’t seem to mind her tirades.

The irony of a kitsune getting herself lost in a forest was not lost on her as she smiled bitterly at the realization.

Cresting the steep hill, her bitter smile gave way to another hopeful one. There was an even steeper slope on the opposite side, dropping down quite a ways. But, the trees thinned out to virtually nothing just beyond. And, best of all, there was a winding road just a short ways away. It appeared to head northeast and southwest, so the chances of it leading towards the city were good. Hopefully.

Emrald peeked over the side, estimating how far the descent was. As she was now, it’d likely be a hazardous-at-best journey. There was a solution. An unappealing solution for Emrald, but there was one nevertheless. She really did hate having to do this.

With a groan, she slipped off her boots, then her uniform and undergarments. Folding up everything into a neat little package, she then stood back and took a deep breath. A pale blue glow seemed to emminate from within her, and then in a rapid burst of magic the human-looking woman with over-sized ears and multiple, fluffy tails was gone. In her place was a very large, person-sized fox. With over-sized ears, multiple fluffy tails, and striking green eyes.

The fox picked up the package that was bound together in boot laces with her mouth, and approached the precipice. Looking down for a moment, she then took a short hop, landing on the near-vertical drop. Shifting her paws, body, and tails about to keep balance, Emrald looked as if she was surfing down an earthen wave.

Reaching the bottom, she took a graceful leap just before landing, avoiding what would have been a rather jarring impact. Looking back towards her now-dirty tails, the fox let out a low, sorrowful whine before becoming bathed in blue light.

Just as quickly as she’d become a fox, Emrald was once again mostly-human, albeit naked and quite cold. As she slipped back into her uniform, she cast a glance up the path she’d descended, then across the way to the road. “Now we’re getting somewhere,” she murmured, lacing up her boots.

Once at the road, she looked down it both ways, praying there would be an approaching vehicle. One ear listened one way, the other swiveled to listen towards the opposite direction.

Nothing but silence.

It would be too easy for a car to be coming along at this hour, at this place, wouldn’t it? At least she was out of the forest.

Emrald’s journey down the road was dull, but at least following its meandering path meant she could let her mind wander. Not having to verify she was still heading in the proper direction every hundred paces was nice.

Her mind went back to what she’d learned when she interrogated the mercenary. Casey and the others should be safe for a while, maybe a few days. Apparently the fiery explosion had been unintended as well; their intent was simply to force the aircraft to make an emergency landing. If their intent was to capture everyone unharmed, it did make sense that they didn’t want the plane to explode, so she was willing to believe that tidbit.

She wasn’t so sure about the other morsel that’d been divulged to her. The mercenary group was supposedly hired by a technology firm that had several board members acting as consultants to the United Front, and the company often made campaign contributions. It was a little too convenient as far as Emrald was concerned, but then again so long as the money was hidden no one could link the two to the events that transpired last night.

Companies that dealt in warfare often hired private firms for protection, especially on shipments, so such a contract would be seen as normal business. The vast, empty expanses between large population and industrial centers made shipping prime picking for piracy and pillaging. In the past there would have been military patrols along trade routes, but they had always been sparse. With the outbreak of war, all the patrols except for those deemed vitally important to the war effort had been stripped, leading towards a boom in the ‘protection services’ market.

So, again, nothing too strange about a cutting-edge firm spending coin to protect their goods during shipment. Even if the services they purchased were diverted elsewhere, administrative bureaucracy could be blamed for sending them to the wrong place.

Still, it was all just so convenient. Emrald couldn’t shake the notion that it was some kind of setup, but as she only held a few pieces of the puzzle there was nothing she could do but speculate.

It simply didn’t make sense for the UF to pull something like this. Wasn’t this rally thing their idea? Wasn’t it in their best interest to keep everyone safe?

If the powers that stages this little fiasco had simply wanted the rally or the men to go away, why not just kill everyone and be done with it? Why go through the trouble of making sure everyone was alive and well? Were they intended to be hostages?

Letting out a groan and ruffling her hair and ears, Emrald felt like she was going to think herself crazy.

Why couldn’t the mercenary she found have at least known their destination? The only part she knew was a landing site where they’d change over from the helicopters to trucks. Not much help, but maybe an investigation of the location might yield a clue or two.

Ambling on, Emrald wished for the city to appear before her. She was tired of walking, tired of thinking, and tired of letting precious time slip away. With nothing else to do, she broke into a jog, hoping the exertion would quiet her thoughts some.

“Are we there yet…” Emrald mumbled to herself, huffing and puffing as she slowed to a crawling walk. The cold prevented any accumulation of sweat, but the air burned her throat and lungs in its own way.

By now the sun was well on its journey through the sky; she figured it was probably eight or nine in the morning. Despite the time spent along the road, she’d not seen nor heard anything other than the sound of her boots on the pavement. At least the bright morning light warmed her face and ears, providing her with some measure of comfort.

Jogging had not been a good idea. It’d been years since Emrald had been forced to travel on foot for such a long time without a break. Though light and fit, there were limits to what one could do to alleviate the inevitable pains of long-distance travel in military boots.

Based on the various pin-points of pain, she knew blisters were developing. But without some kind of sterilized needle or bandages, she was hesitant to pop them. Things weren’t bad enough for her to risk an infection. Yet.

Proceeding up a long, gentle incline, Emrald hoped that she’d see something, anything other than plains, trees, and this road, once she crested it.

For once her hope wasn’t in vain; approaching from the other direction was a truck of some sort.

Though she was certainly glad to see a vehicle as it heralded an end to her marching, doubt crept into her mind. There was a chance of it being a patrol meant to apprehend her, but the odds were very low. At least, she hoped they were low.

Waiting at the top of the hill, she waved her arms and tails about, drawing the attention of whomever was driving. As it drew near, it began to slow and drift over to the side of the road where she was standing.

Getting a look at the driver, and passenger as well, Emrald pegged them as farmers of sorts. Both of them appeared to be some sort of lizardwoman as well.

The truck pulled alongside her, slowing to a stop. Sharing a brief word with her passenger, the drive then rolled down the window. Emrald could see now that they were both salamanders, rather than the typical lizard.

Farming was a rather strange vocation for such a fiery and brash species, but then again most would scoff at a kitsune being in active military service.

“Need somethin’, stranger?” Said the driver, tipping her wide-brimmed hat up. Her eyes fixed on the small woman in front of her, drifting down to read the name sewn onto the kitsune’s military outfit.

“Yes… is the city back that way?” Emrald asked, pointing towards the direction the truck had come from.

 “Yea, why ya ask? Headin’ that way?”

Emrald thought about the cards she should reveal. Would they help her if she simply asked? Or would she have to pull something about urgent military business? Casual friendliness would come first.

“Yes… there’s been a… mishap of sorts, and I’ve been walking all night and morning. I need to get to the city to contact someone.”

Both women inside glanced at each other, then back towards the kitsune. “What sorta mishap would have ya walkin’ all that way?”

“Well… I was on an aircraft that crashed in the forest to the southwest… would you be able to give me a ride into town?” Emrald said, sporting her best ‘pity me’ face. Due to her small size, people often mistook her for being an actual youth, rather than simply being tiny. She hoped it’d be effective here, attempting to position her hands to cover up the rank insignias sewn onto her clothing.

“What? Crashed?” The passenger spoke up, then looked out west; maybe hoping to see some sort of smoke or fire.

Chewing her lip, the driver regarded Emrald for a moment before turning to the passenger. “Hey, do we have time to head back?”

Her passenger turned back around, placing a clawed finger to her chin. “Mmm, yeah, pretty sure. Time enough to give that kitsune…”

“Emrald,” the kitsune in question said with a smile.

“…Emrald, a lift back to town.”

The driver nodded. “Alright, we’ll give ya a lift. Ain’t no room up here, but ya can hop in the back. Always one to support military folk.”

Emrald clapped her hands together happily. “Great! Thank you so much…?”

“Diana,” she said, returning Emrald’s smile.

“…Diana, thank you again,” she said as she made her way to the bed of the truck and jumped aboard as it began to turn around.

The remainder of the journey was mercifully brief. The cold wind whipped and tore at her in the bed of the truck, but she only had to endure it for less than half an hour as she balled herself up in the corner to keep warm.

Though she was content to be dropped off at the outskirts of the town, the salamander duo insisted on bringing her near the downtown area. Emrald gave them thanks again, waving as they drove off. She kind of wanted to have them drop her off near the rally grounds, but decided on keeping as much secrecy as possible.

Seeing as how they were supposed to have been here last night, there should still be a sizeable contingent of the military around somewhere.

A few quick questions to various passersby on the sidewalks yielded the information Emrald sought. Fortunately, the grounds were close by to where she was – not more than a fifteen minute walk according to most.

Despite the heavy fatigue settling down upon her, Emrald knew she had to endure longer. Probably another entire day and night. She grit her teeth, trying to force out thoughts peaceful sleep, nestled up in a bed made from her own tails. Slapping her cheeks, she gave a short shout that drew some curious glances from those around her, then set off for a little bit more walking.

As expected, the rally grounds were abuzz with activity despite no rally actually having taken place. Scores more troops than she’d have thought usual were stationed around in a perimeter. There wasn’t a guard like this at the last event; though a plane with the star attractions had not crashed at the last event either.

Spotting the approaching kitsune, a guard moved forward to call Emrald’s attention. Once she was within talking distance, the guard spoke. “I’m sorry, but this area is currently closed to…” the guard trailed off, realizing the approaching fox-woman was wearing a military field uniform.

“Ah, hello… private,” Emrald replied with a smile, taking note of the name and rank on the guard’s uniform.

The guard hesitated, staring down at diminutive kitsune. “Er, excuse me… Captain Dirz, do you have a pass for this area?”

“A pass? I’m afraid not… however, I was supposed to be here. Last night, actually. The plane I was on kind of exploded. So, can I go through?” Emrald said casually, as if she were simply a few minutes late.

Confusion adorned the guard’s face for a moment until she made the connection with the name and the captain’s appearance. “S-sorry, I didn’t realize… go on ahead, Captain Dirz. I’m assuming you’d like to speak with General Jurai? She should be in the large building across from the stage.”

For once Emrald was glad for her status. A little bit of arrogance and a few letters in front of her name that denoted her as an officer were all it took to get poor troopers like the private here to bend to her will.

“Thank you, private.”

The guard fumbled out a salute; Emrald couldn’t help but grin. She returned it crisply, then proceeded through the checkpoint.

Near the stage, things were less chaotic than she had imagined, though still rather busy. Instead of crowds of civilians, the audience area was packed with tents and supplies. Soldiers were milling about, doing this and that. Looked more like a field base than a fair ground nestled inside a city.

While making her way towards the building the private had mentioned, Emrald came to the realization that she didn’t know anything about General Jurai’s affiliation. Or much at all, aside from her name and species. Emrald never was much one to really care about the upper echelons of the military. Far as she cared, the daily routine would not change just because someone she didn’t know took over for someone else she didn’t know.

What would the odds be that Jurai was in league with those who pulled off the abduction? Would she wind up being captured anyways? Would information about her escape trickle back? If only she knew; Emrald was full of regrets today.

Pausing in front of the largest structure she could find, Emrald began to think some covert espionage was in order. First, however, she would need to stop being a captain. Officers were relatively well-known, so she’d need to do something about that.

With some quick modification, she could alter the chevrons and rank abbreviation on her uniform to one that’d make her a rank-and-file soldier to those around here.

Yes, she thought, a little intelligence gathering would be helpful. Provided she didn’t run into that same private, and that no one wondered why a kitsune had suddenly appeared in their midst. No one would recognize her, would they?

 Shrugging, Emrald decided she’d deal with things as they came. Not like she had any other options.

 

Seated in the small, windowless room, Casey got the impression that he was in an office, rather than an interrogation room. After being led inside, his escort had removed his blindfold, and indicated that he should take a seat. Then they’d handcuffed him to the chair, as he reminded himself by tugging on the chain.

Other than a pair of chairs and small desk, the white, well-lit room was entirely barren.

Initially, Casey had been with the other men, all of them crowded into a room – much like the one he found himself in now. One by one they were blindfolded and taken out, though no one had ever returned. He’d found himself called and led out near the tail end of the group; Tomas was taken first if he remembered correctly.

Were they all in rooms like this, alone? Or was there simply a different holding area for those that’d finished with whatever it was they intended?

Anxiety blended with curiosity as Casey thought about what might be awaiting him. He comforted himself by thinking they likely wouldn’t torture him, or place him under duress, but waiting in an empty room gnawed at him.

Within a few minutes, by his reckoning anyways, Casey heard the sound of an opening door. And, rather than a feeling of apprehension he found himself feeling relieved that someone had finally come. Watching the door swing open, he’d figured an older woman would appear. Maybe someone gifted in magic like Emrald’s. Another kitsune wouldn’t be so bad; he was used to dealing with one, after all.

Instead, as the door fully opened, what stood before him was entirely new, yet a form he was entirely familiar with from myths and legends.

Smiling politely, the woman strode into the room. Her very long, hip-length black hair fluttered with each step. From the sides of her head, just above her ears, two large, forward-facing horns had sprouted; with sort of an odd spiral shape to them. Her attire was… revealing to say the least. Once fully inside the room, she then closed the door behind her.

Despite her smile, Casey felt increasingly ill at ease with every step closer to him that she took, going so far as to scoot his own chair away once she sat down across from him. When she looked at him, he felt his stomach churn.

The whites of her eyes were… dark, almost black, each centered with a yellow iris. Large, bat-like wings sprouted from her upper back, making it all but impossible for her to lean back fully against the chair. A thin tail capped by something that resembled a spade-point darted to and fro behind her, occasionally wrapping itself around some part of the chair and then unwinding.

No one had ever mentioned these demons of legend were still alive here. Was it because Emrald and the others were afraid Casey and the others would refuse anything had they known that these creatures – devourers of men, existed?

She kept up her congenial appearance, even closing her eyes and cocking her head with a broad smile.

Yet, she hadn’t said a word yet. Not even a hello as she entered the room.

Was this woman – this succubus – waiting for him to speak first?

Eying her like a mouse would watch a cat when trapped in the same cage, Casey’s heart began to race, and his hands trailed sweat wherever he laid his palms. It wasn’t even just the myths he knew about the woman before him that made her so unsettling. There was some presence, or aura, that made her almost unbearable to even look at.

Then she giggled.

In an instant the oppressive aura she was exuding changed. Her milky-white skin, considerable bust – barely covered at that – and hour-glass figure had come to the forefront of his mind in very short order. Rather than focusing on her demonic aspects, now he couldn’t help but take in eyefuls of her bared flesh.

“Aren’t you just a cutie?”

Casey blinked in surprise. Though her words were heavily accented in a way he couldn’t place, he immediately recognized that she was speaking his language, rather than Emrald’s magic providing a translation.

“Oh ho? So I guessed correctly on the first try, then?” The woman said, looking rather pleased with herself.

When Casey did not reply, she leaned back as far as her wings would allow, then crossed a leg across the other. A finger tapped against her cheek a few times as she stared at Casey with her blackened eyes. Her expression shifted a few times before settling into sardonic grin.

“You’re far more wary than the others. You know what I am, don’t you, boy?”

Her tone changed, deepening some and losing the bubbly quality present in her first words.

The creature in front of him was well-regarded as a vile temptress. One who bent men to her will with hardly any effort at all.

Any conversation with her would be rather treacherous. Casey’d need to stay on guard, and hope his knowledge of her would offer some kind of defense against her wiles. He sat still, regarding her with open hostility.

“Well, that makes things both easier and more difficult for me,” she said, uncrossing her legs and standing, then seating herself on a corner of the desk. Her barely-covered backside was presented to Casey, the plumpness spreading out slightly from her weight.

“What do you want from me?” Growled Casey, forcing himself to look away from her behind positioned so very close; so close he could feel warmth radiating from her.

Looking over her shoulder, the horned-woman flashed a happy smile and clapped her hands together. “Good! So you can speak!” She said, turning herself about on the desk so she didn’t have to crane her neck quite so much to be able to look at him.

“As for what I want, my dear,” she continued, her tail stretching out and lightly touching the back of Casey’s hand. At her touch, he recoiled, shifting backwards further away from her. His reaction drew another giggle from her lips. “Is just a simple chat. I do have some questions, but nothing like the nasty interrogation you were probably imagining.”

The closer she got, the more compelled he felt to ogle her form. When her tail touched the back of his hand, his skin felt hot; the heat quickly dissipated through his flesh, giving him a sensation of warmth all over before it focused in a particular place.

Gritting his teeth, he realized that she’d probably acted this way with those who had been taken before him. “…Did you have a ‘simple chat’ with the others?”

She closed an eye, and wagged a finger at him. “Tsk tsk, that’s a girl’s secret, you know~”

Casey simply stared daggers at her.

“That face won’t do at all! Tell you what. If you’re a good boy, I’ll answer that when I’m finished. How about it?”

He began to open his mouth to voice his agreement. Then he paused. Why was he agreeing so readily? Something about her seemed to compel obedience or agreement.

Was it that alluring aura, or presence? Or some other magic at work? Emrald had told Casey her particular school of magic could influence the mind and senses, and the person being charmed would never know. Perhaps this demon woman used something similar?

What is it that Emrald had said? That her illusions relied on subtlety and catching the person unaware? Grimacing, Casey hoped he’d be able to resist so long as he kept he guard up, but in a handful of minutes he’d already found himself dancing to her tune.

When Casey did not respond, the woman frowned, then clapped her hands together as if she’d remembered something important. “Oh, no wonder you’re being so shy! We haven’t even introduced ourselves yet! I’m Amelia. What’s your name, my dear?”

“…Casey.”

“See? Your voice wasn’t so grouchy this time.”

He said nothing further, though the muscles in his jaw bunched up.

“And, as you are most likely thinking, yes, I am a succubus,” she said, sweeping her wings out to their full width and gesturing widely with her arms. Then, smiling, she ran a finger along one of her horns as she relaxed. “Pretty impressive, no? Before you ask, yes, these wings are functional. If this room wasn’t so cramped I’d give you a demonstration.”

She spoke with a certain innocent joy, as if ignorant of her own heritage. Or maybe there was no evil ‘heritage.’ Other than her barely-there attire, she’d done nothing wrong.

Catching his thoughts, Casey shook his head slightly and blinked. No, that’s what she wanted. He narrowed his eyes.

“I’ve seen better.”

The succubus quirked an eyebrow. “Oh? On what?”

“A dragon.”

“A dragon, huh? Where’d you meet one of those? They’re kind of rare, you know?”

Amelia kicked one of her legs idly, leaning back and supporting herself with her arms. The desk had to be uncomfortable, so was she simply sitting there to be close to him? And what was with her pointless questions? Did she really just want to chat? Who exactly was she? How much did she already know?

The situation Casey found himself in made less and less sense the longer it went on.

“There was… a dragon woman, during one point. At the base where I was kept.”

“Makes sense, I suppose…” Amelia nodded, dragging out the last syllable of her response with an almost song-like quality to her voice.

 

On and on the conversation dragged, with Casey finding himself forced to answer all her pointless questions.

It almost reminded him of when he and Emrald had engaged in conversation that lasted long into the early hours.

Where they came from, their family – those sorts of things. But, whereas those nights full of sharing and confiding were born out of love and a desire to know each other, Amelia’s questions seemed to be guided. Purposeful. Yet, he couldn’t discern what exactly she sought. Just when it seemed like she was honing in on a particular topic or event, she’d abruptly change to something completely different.

He’d managed to avoid discussing any one thing at length or detail, but the succubus always returned to nearly-forgotten topics; romance especially. She was most interested in prying those tidbits out of him, and, as their chat went on, Casey found himself feeling a sort of guilty regret whenever he lied to her, or avoided telling the whole truth.

The succubus always kept herself within arm’s reach of Casey. She’d stand for a while, sit down on a different part of the desk, or even bring her chair around.

Her revealing clothing kept his eyes on her body despite despite his efforts. She always seemed to position herself in a way that would show off a little more of her milky skin as she adjusted herself or shifted about. Whenever she caught him looking at her body, Amelia would laugh or giggle, then strike a provocative pose, asking if Casey liked what he saw.

She’d occasionally talk about her sexual prowess, then appear sullen when he turned down any offers for her to demonstrate her capabilities.

Though he had remained steadfast thus far, his resolve was beginning to waver. And he knew it. Parts of his mind that told him that she was just looking to have a bit of fun. There was be nothing wrong with letting her enjoy herself, and himself in the process, right? It’s what men and women did together, after all. There was nothing sinister, evil, or even ‘bad’ about her. She’d never once raised her voice, become angry, and was fast becoming pleasant company.

He was even beginning to forget that he was being held captive; sometimes the only thing that reminded him was the occasional clink or tug of the handcuff on his wrist.

“Oh? Let me take care of that for you,” she said after one such instance, producing a key from her cleavage.

Without waiting for Casey’s response, she bent down at the hips, standing beside him, putting herself on display. He wanted to looked away as she fiddled with the handcuffs, but they were right there. And she wanted him to look at them. She even let her hands linger on his skin far longer than what was required to unlock the latch on the cuffs.

“There. That pesky thing won’t trouble you any further,” she said as she released the cuff from his wrist.

He pulled his arm to himself, rubbing slowly at the mark left on his skin. Once she stood and backed off some, Casey glanced at her. Worry gnawed at his heart more than his mind; a strong desire to actually thank her had taken root. It was all a trick or a trap, he had to keep reminding himself.

“Now then, where we were? Hmmm… Oh, right! As I was saying, surely a strapping young man such as yourself has been pursued by many of the women around here. They’re all so desperate and lonely, you know. Why, I bet if you asked you could have your pick of the bunch! Or multiple at once; I know you guys love having many women all begging for you to give it to them… taking care of your every needy desire…” As she spoke, Amelia drew in closer, walking from side of Casey to the next, running a finger across his shoulders and back of his neck as she went.

His voice of reason was beginning to grow worryingly quiet.

About all he had left to keep his will intact were his thoughts of Emrald.

Bending down behind him, she began to whisper in his ear, trailing a finger in lazy circles on the back of his neck. “Doesn’t it seem like it’d be so much fun to do them all at the same time?”

Her touch and words spurred on depraved thoughts, and his imagination began to vividly picture scenes involving not just Emrald, but with others he knew as well. Reia. Serlov. Viole. Yvonne.

And Amelia.

Gritting his teeth, he stood with a start, slamming a hand down on the table to chase the thoughts away.

Casey glared contemptuously at the succubus.

Amelia backed off some, but continued to grin knowingly at him, swaying her hips side to side with her hands clasped just above her rear.

In an instant, he realized he shouldn’t have gotten angry like that. To her, his outburst was a sign of his imminent defeat. Balling the hand he’d slammed down into a fist, he closed his eyes and tried to calm himself.

“Oh? What are you getting so upset for? Wait…don’t tell me…” she feigned with a gasp, covering her mouth with a hand and opening her eyes wide. “…You’re monogamous?”

His eyes shot open. “Yes? What’s wrong with that? What do you even want with me anyways? You’ve been at this for hours,” he said, venom dripping from his voice.

No matter how he tried, he couldn’t clear the anger or fear from his heart. Half of his rage stemmed from the winged harlot in front of him, the other half from the feeling of dread that came with thoughts of betrayal.

Amelia continued to smirk, then began pacing around him slowly. Sighing, she then crossed her arms under her breasts, pushing them up and out. “Oh, it’s just surprising – that’s all. It’s rather common for men to have mistresses and women on the side, you know? It’s more… fun, that way. The same hole gets kind of old after a while, doesn’t it?”

She paused her pacing, then tilted her head to one side like she couldn’t believe what she was having to explain. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to explore and enjoy those around you. I bet she even expects you to sample the easily-picked fruits that’ve practically drop themselves onto you. Why, I bet she’s taken some of the other men for a ride…”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Casey could feel his temper flaring, but he was powerless to stop it. Emrald wasn’t that kind of woman. Not at all. “Just because you’re some slut-demon doesn’t mean all women are the same way. She wouldn’t betray our love – our trust – because she knows I wouldn’t.”

Spitting her with a harsh glare, he expected some sort of reaction from Amelia. Instead, all she did was continue to wear a smug smile.

“Darling, your idealism is… a turn on, I’ll admit, but you’re a little mistaken. That kitsune was probably all over you from the start, yes? Probably just wanted you to give her a couple good fucks to get her nice and pregnant.”

“What? How did you know that she was-“ Casey said, eyes open in surprise. He’d never mentioned his romantic involved with Emrald.

“Haha! It’s because you absolutely reek of fox. Though don’t worry, it’s not really a ‘smell.’ It’s more like her essence is practically dripping from you. She must be on you every night…”

Casey was angry. More angry than he’d been in a long, long time. And yet, her words had a truth to them.

Emrald had indeed been clingy and very much taken with him from the. Yes, he’d fallen for her sort of quickly as well, especially given the nature of their life together, and how they met.

They’d talked about that issue, and Emrald did profess that she was so keen on him from the start because he was the first man she’d ever actually met and touched in person. However, her passing fancy quickly gave way to deep love. She did long for children, but only with a man she loved, and that loved her in return, she’d explained.

Despite being a prisoner, Emrald was earnest, spunky, honest, loving… the sort of woman he’d always dreamed about. Things had moved fast, but he had never been happier in his life. The thought of raising children with her had become an appealing notion once he reflected on it for a while. Growing old, watching their children grow, then having grandchildren – very appealing, indeed.

Seizing on Casey’s delay in responding as he struggled to put his thoughts together, Amelia‘s visage turned ever more devilish. “I know what you’re thinking, darling, and I pity you. I really do. Those kitsune are not well-known for their honesty. If I remember correctly, the myths regarding them portray them almost exclusively as tricksters that seduce men for their own benefit. Ah, if only I had access to a few books that detailed their history with humans…”

Then her lips twisted upwards.

“You do know about their illusion and charm magic, yes?”

His eyes snapped to her face, then narrowed. He’d brought that up with Emrald as well; she’d even demonstrated an example. Her magic had been a concern, no doubt, but there was nothing illusionary about how she acted around him. That was certainly the behavior of someone in love.

It wasn’t something that could be faked. There’s no way someone could just… act that way.

Right?

“So? Aren’t you doing the same thing to me, right now?” Casey protested, something else pushing aside his anger as it welled up within his heart.

“Hmm? Why, I’m almost offended you think I am being deceitful,” she said, fluttering her eyelashes. “I assure you I have not lied, nor withheld anything, from you during our little chat. I’ll even say it – I like you. I want to ravish you, and I want you to enjoy it.”

“I will not, however, say I ‘love’ you, nor will I force you,” said Amelia, looking more exasperated than anything as she took a seat on the desk. Her tail snaked around on the desk, the spade-tip tapping against the surface like an idle finger. “Is it so wrong that I just want us to feel good together?”

“Then… what’s this… feeling? Ever since you walked into the room nothing has felt… right. You’re bewitching me, I know it,” Casey struggled to say, anger and fear twisting together, choking his throat. “You’re just trying to tempt me… I don’t know why, but you are. I know it. I know it!”

Amelia giggled. “Of course I am – though not as you imagine. Like I’ve already said, I think you’re cute. Don’t people try to attract those they’re fondof? As for that feeling, maybe it’s just your body being honest? Why, it’s not a surprise, really. Could that flat fox compare with these?” she said, casually removing her top to expose her heaving chest. Freed from their binding, her breasts expanded and dropped outward, swinging gently like heavy pendulums before coming to a rest.

Casey couldn’t break his eyes from them. Despite their size – there was no way he could possible get his hand entirely around one – they were still perky and smooth.

“Like what you see? Well, stare all you wish,” she said, using her hands to knead and press her breasts together a few times before letting them hang naturally once again.

Staring at her, Casey felt like there were important questions he was not asking. Something was at the forefront of his mind, though just below the surface. A warning, or reasoning behind her actions. What would Emrald say, or do, right now?

Emrald.

He focused his thoughts on her.

She wanted children. That much he could count on to be absolutely true. Most of the women in this world did, right? Their races were dying out. Was that this succubus’ purpose? Did she wish to produce as well?

So, how did he get here? For what reason was he taken by force?

Clamping his eyes shut to avoid looking at her perfect bosom, Casey concentrated everything he had on his rational thoughts. “Then, why abduct us if you just… just wanted sex?”

Amelia had to struggle not to laugh. How she longed to spill this information, but for her purposes she needed him to ask about it. “Mmhmm. Well, I did not abduct you. Someone else did, that wishes for us both to be pawns in their game.”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“That little kitsune that you’re so taken with. Has she told you of her family?”

Her family? Casey remembered she had relatives still alive, but she didn’t talk with them too much. He shook his head, turning around so he could open his eyes as he stared at the wall.

“I’m delighted then, that I can be the one to tell you this. The woman who orchestrated this operation is a clever fox too, you know. Her name is Thayla. Thayla Dirz.”

“What?!” Casey practically shouted, eyes snapping open. Her breasts caught his attention yet again, but the revelation was enough to keep his mind clear. Dirz was Emrald’s surname, though not her mother’s name. “Is she her grandmother or something?”

“I think she’s an aunt, actually. But yes, she’s the mastermind of all this. Sneaky little thing,” she said, sounding as if she was roped into the scheme against her will. “Don’t you think it’s a wonderful coincidence that two members of an exceptionally rare breed are so closely linked to events around you?”

Casey slumped in his seat. Had Emrald simply used him for her own purposes, or been the tool to recruit him and the others in order to hand them over to Thayla?

No matter how he tried, he couldn’t shake that notion. She had sort of manipulated him into having sex with her, hadn’t she? Or was it simply seduction and an eagerness to be with him?

The more he thought about everything that’d happened in recent months, the more confused he became. Casey didn’t know if he should be angry with himself or the demon in the room, or with Emrald or all these… monster women. Nothing made sense anymore.

His eyes settled on the half-naked woman in front of him. “You… you said you were a pawn? How is that”

Amelia sighed, then stood. “I have a little more freedom here than you do, but ultimately they wish to use me – or else they would not have brought me here.”

“So, you don’t know why?”

The succubus shrugged, and drew very close to Casey. She smiled nearly invisibly when he did not recoil from her like he did earlier.

“I have an idea… and to help persuade me, they allowed me to have first pick.”

Casey scrunched his eyebrows together. “Pick of what?”

“You, of course,” she said with a lurid smile. “You’re the top choice here, darling.”

As she spoke, she caressed his cheek with her fingers. A familiar warmth spread from her touch into his skin, then flowed through him as before. At the first her touch had been a thing to be wary or afraid of. Now, he thought it quite nice. Especially since she considered him the most ideal of all the other men taken.

When he did not reject her touch as before, she grinned a most wicked grin, though to Casey it appeared harmless. Then, taking a step back, she hooked both her thumbs onto either side of the garment covering the last, most secret place of her – and pulled it free, exposing herself entirely.

Glancing at Casey’s crotch, she winked and licked her lips, happy with the reaction.

“Don’t worry, my sweet, no one will hear, nor will they find out. It’ll be our little secret,” she said as she wrapped her arms around Casey’s neck.

Narrow, serpentine eyes watched the succubus as she slipped from the room and quietly closed the door behind her. Once she was out of sight, Serlov shifted her attention towards the kitsune seated behind an impressive, solid wood desk.

“I can’t believe you would consort with demons like her,” Serlov hissed, gesturing towards the door.

Nestled in her chair, Thayla stroked her tails a few times before returning the serpent’s harsh glare. “As I said before, this is in our best interest. How many times must I repeat myself?”

Serlov slammed her hands down on Thayla’s desk, every muscle in her face twitching. “You’re smarter than this! You know full well why their… kind,” she said, spitting the word out like it was poison, “were exiled.”

“I do, yes. Don’t forget, however, that humanity culled their numbers to near extinction. Those that remain can be most useful to us, and at the same time it allows us to keep track of them.” Thayla kept her voice passive, relaxing her angry glower.

Ever the politician, Serlov thought, running a hand through her hair. “How did you even concoct this fool plan of yours, anyways? Unless you had been maintaining ties with those demons in secret?”

Thayla rolled her eyes. “Just because you don’t like someone… or a particular group, doesn’t mean you can’t use them. Yes, I fostered communications with her and her ilk long ago – back when entering the human realm en-masse was but a seldom-whispered idea.”

The elder kitsune then hoisted herself out of the chair with an oomph, stretching out her back in a series of satisfying pops. “Back when I wasn’t this old,” she said with a short, snorting laugh most unbefitting someone of her station.

Another bang resounded through the room when Serlov slammed her fist down again. Not only had Thayla committed the grave sin of keeping contact with the demons, she had the audacity to laugh while speaking of it.

“Why? For what reason?” Serlov demanded.

Stretching herself out a bit more, Thayla sighed and began walking towards one of the many large windows in the room. Hands clasped in the small of her back, she said nothing for a time as she peered at the outside world.

“I already told you it’s because they will be useful to us. But,” she paused, turning about to look at Serlov. The bright light pouring in from the window silhouetted Thayla’s face, while at the same time casting a sort of halo around her form. “I suppose since we’ve known each other for so long, I can let you in on the details.”

“Why tell me? I’m a prisoner, aren’t I?”

“Well… that’s up to you, really. I’d rather have you as an ally than as an enemy.”

Serlov snorted. She wanted nothing to do with the kitsune’s machinations, but through the years she’d known her, Thayla had never been one to act rashly.

“…Fine, I’ll decide after hearing your scheme.”

The fox chuckled softly; Serlov assumed she was smiling, but the shadows hid her face well. “That’s all I ask for. Really, it is not such an elaborate plot; I got the idea soon after humanity declared war on us,” said Thayla, leaning back against the windowsill, crossing her arms in front of her.

“Men are the world leaders in all things in the human world, yes?”

The lamia narrowed an eye. “Yes… what are you getting at?”

“There’s no point or justification in meaningless bloodshed. I experienced plenty of that during my service in the military. Many of us did – hence why the UF was formed once our ‘one world’ plans with humanity and all that were gaining momentum.”

Thayla let out a long, deep sigh, then half-turned towards the window to gaze out at the sky. The sunlight washed over her face, highlighting every wrinkle, every blemish; every mark of age on the kitsune’s face. She looked so very weary.

Though Serlov knew her years were many, she never thought of her as ‘old’ before now.

“Compared to our rather vibrant history of slaughtering one another, the warfare of man looks little more than a childhood squabble, doesn’t it?”

“And? What does that have to do with anything?”

“Hah, the impetuousness of youth, is it? Fine, fine.”

Despite the seriousness of the conversation, Thayla let out another short laugh, and began walking back towards Serlov. “The short of it is that a handful of very scared and very xenophobic men also happen to hold the positions of power. I believe it was just a handful of them that convinced the rest of their world that we were a terrible enemy?”

Thayla shook her head in disbelief, sighing.

“When it comes to charming males, there’s none better than those succubi. Plus, they can quite easily conceal their… inhuman form, mingle in society, and get close to their targets with ease.”

Things began to click in Serlov’s mind. “So, what, you bargain with the demons, and have them charm various leader in order to pacify the populations at large?”

The kitsune smiled. “Correct.”

“And what do the succubi get out of the deal?”

Thayla hesitated, as if she herself were not entirely comfortable with it. “We provide them with… ‘meals’ and shelter.”

It was the only logical answer – one she’d been thinking all along as soon as Thayla made mention of a plan. But that did not make it easier to hear it from the fox’s lips, nor was Serlov able to conceal her flash of anger.

“How is offering up sacrifices helping us? It goes against everything we stand for!”

“Does it?” Thayla responded with a bitter little smile. “I’ve given this considerable thought, and have spoken with others. Many agree that allowing the succubi to take a few men, roughly two a year per succubus, is far better…” She trailed off.

Something like anger, but not quite, began to contort her features. “Far better than allowing a handful of humans to throw away thousands upon thousands of lives in vain glory. Call us demons, will they? Call us abominations, will they? Do they not see the utter waste of fighting a losing war? One those fools started for no cause other than their own insufferable hubris?”

The lamia’s mouth hung slightly open; she couldn’t remember the last time Thayla let herself become emotional.

“We’d all expected them to realize the error of their ways when we turned aside their forces so quickly, so easily. When we showed mercy they’d never seen. When we them offered diplomacy and negotiations at every turn. And every time those that could prevent future battles simply ignored us!”

Her jaw was clenched hard after she finished speaking, yet her eyes were full of something akin to pity. She laughed again; a bitter, mocking laugh.

Serlov simply remained still and quiet.

“So! This is the best solution, don’t you agree? We settle the areas we’ve taken, and hold fast. We then send out the succubi to ‘convince’ the leaders of the world of men to lay down their arms and open up dialogues.”

Chewing her lip now, Serlov couldn’t deny the logic in the kitsune’s plan. Sacrifice a few to save the majority. It was logical, but it still didn’t sit well with her. To her, it felt like Thayla was treating the humans more as some sort… livestock. Working through her thoughts, something occurred to her.

“Don’t those demons do that already? Drain the life from men? Why do they want our help?”

Thayla closed her eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath and exhaling out some of her anger. “That’s why they’re nearly extinct. Eventually they get caught and killed. Any child they have will be born a succubus – wings, horn, tail and all that. Since the child cannot control their appearance, they need somewhere away from prying eyes to raise their offspring.” The elder kitsune paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts.

“The expansion of humanity across their planet has left precious few safe locations for succubi to gather. The woman who was in here, Amelia, is one of their longer-lived members, and has ties to most of the others still alive. She’s here as a liaison.”

Thus far, Serlov had been able to follow along. Except for one question that had been on her mind. “So, why capture us for all of this?”

The pair studied each other in the quiet of the room. Thayla then looked down for a moment, visibly frowning. She’d never given in to Serlov like this before.

“I heard Emrald managed to avoid capture. Smart girl, isn’t she? Takes after me, you know,” said Thayla, her expression softening. “Casey is the fellow she’s taken a shine to, correct?”

Cocking an eyebrow, Serlov wondered what she was getting at. “Yes… they’ve been a couple for a while now. Why do you ask?”

Meandering over to her chair, the elder fox collapsed into it. In stark contrast to the fiery politician that had been presented but minutes ago, she now appeared little more than a kindly old grandmother.

“Wondering if I’ll see a new generation with fresh blood,” she said with a tired laugh. “How close was she with that Casey fellow?”

Serlov’s eyes narrowed to slits. The reason for their capture had become evident. “Close,” she said, “Very close. The man she was so attached to – Casey, was shot acting in defense of her. She saved his life, and they became fond of each other. Inseparable, even. I have little doubt they love each other deeply. ”

She’d considered a terse response, but elected to expand on things for further effect. Judging from Thayla’s increasingly downcast expression, it was working as intended.

“The other three were fast becoming more than simple romantic partners as well,” Serlov finished.

Serlov’s words seemed to weigh heavily on Thayla, pressing her down into her seat with unusual gravity. “Do you suppose she’s pregnant yet?” she asked, quickly following up with “Don’t bother answering. Just thinking aloud…”

“You don’t want to hear that answer, do you? Hah! Let me say I would be very surprised if she wasn’t by now, Thayla Dirz. And, as such, by offering up Casey and all the others to that demon as a gift, you have assured Emrald will be raising her child alone.”

The lamia’s words bit hard. Thayla stared at Serlov, but said nothing further.

Slithering her way towards the door, she looked over her shoulder. “May I speak with my soldiers that were captured?”

Her words were met with dulled, green eyes. Thayla blinked heavily, holding her eyes closed for a moment. When they opened again, she appeared to be more or less calculating self. “You may, under the condition that you not provide any details or… attempt anything. I trust you will not take advantage of my leniency?”

“Yes. I just wish to make sure they’re well, and let them know I am fine.”

“Fine. I’ll send for you later. Keep what we’ve talked about in mind, Mirona.”

The lamia smiled, opening the door. “Oh, I will. Don’t worry.”

 

 

“What?! How could she do that?”

“Shh! Keep your voice down, Viole,” whispered Reia as harshly as she could manage.

“Er, sorry… but still, how could they sell us out like that? What about Marc? What’s going to happen to him? The rest of the them?”

What indeed, Serlov thought, closing her eyes for a moment. While she knew a succubus could control the amount of life force siphoned from someone during sex, she had little doubt the one called Amelia would simply drain the offerings to death.

Taking a breath, Serlov’s gaze met the eyes of the three women looking at her. Worry was clear on everyone’s face – even the normally stoic Reia.

“I have no idea when the succubus is going to… open her gifts, so the sooner we act the better. On my way here I passed a hallway that had guards posted around it. Seeing as how I didn’t see any others standing around, I figure that’s where all the men are being held.

Reia chewed on her lip. “How are we going to get out of here without raising an alarm?”

“Since I can come and go as I wish, we should probably use the window of opportunity when I go to leave this room,” Serlov said as she glanced towards the door.

During Serlov’s explanation of what was going on, Yvonne had been remarkably quiet – until now. With a mighty snort she cracked her knuckles and smashed her clawed fists together in front of her chest. “I’ll do whatever it takes!”

The brazen display from the usually sedate and happy wurm made Reia and Viole smirk; even Serlov allowed herself a momentary grin.

“So,” Reia began, “You get them to open the door, lash out or something when they’re off guard, then we swoop in – hopefully before you get shot?”

Serlov nodded. “That’s the gist of it. Not much we can do in this situation.”

She almost wished Emrald had been captured along with everyone else. Her magic would’ve been most useful here, though who knows if she wouldn’t be afforded ‘special’ treatment due to her relation to Thayla.

Glancing again at the door, a slight addition to her plan formed in her mind. Eying the size of three other women here, she thought Viole would be able to hide behind the door. It’d allow someone else to be fairly close; no doubt the guard that opened the door would make the others stand near or against the far wall.

There was also the question if the guard would notice the missing wolf-woman. Options were limited; it was better than nothing, she decided.

“This is going to be extremely dangerous. If you three are willing to take the risk we’ll go ahead with it. Otherwise, I’ll try to figure out something later.”

Unsurprisingly, the three soldiers under her command responded their agreement in an instant, almost in unison. .Serlov shook her head and smiled. Were they doing it simply to escape, or to rush to the aid of their… boyfriends. The word tumbled awkwardly in her mind, lingering in her coconsciousness longer than she’d have expected. Maybe she’d have to try acquiring one for herself in the future, she thought with an odd smile before driving the thought from her mind and quashing her grin.

“Okay, then,” Serlov started, “Viole, I want you behind the door for when it opens. You’re pretty quick, and hopefully they won’t notice you’re missing right away. When I act, I’ll need you to support me while we wait for Reia and Yvonne to rush in. It’s simple and stupid, but it’s about all I can come up with in short order.”

The trio nodded their approval.

“Reia and Yvonne, I want you two to start off as close to me as possible when I go to leave. The guard is probably going to tell you to back off, so just listen to her until she feels safe enough to let me through. Hopefully seeing you two comply with her will put her a bit more at ease.”

After another round of agreements, Serlov began slithering towards the door.

The minotaur and wurm followed close behind, and the wolf scampered over to the door’s shadow.

Serlov paused for a moment before knocking on the door, considering the consequences of what she was about to do again. She’d made the decision to attempt a breakout as soon as she’d learned that Thayla offered up her men – her soldiers, to the succubus.

 

Though not officially in the chain of command, military personnel were expected to defer to Representatives in non-combat situations. There was a very real possibility she could be charged with insubordination – or worse, if Thayla presented herself and had to be dealt with. A tribunal probably wouldn’t charge her when she was acting in the best interests of her troops, especially when they were kidnapped and offered up as sacrifices. But, they could be sticklers for protocol and adhering to the letter of the law, and politics would be a powerful force in the aftermath of all this.

It took her only a scant second to reach a conclusion. Lives were more important than her career.

She knocked on the door.

The lock clacked, and the door swung partially open. A guard stuck her head in. “What, are you done in there?”

“Yes, for the time being,” Serlov responded.

This guard – a powerful looking sphinx – would most likely the most difficult to deal with. Even should the automatic rifle slung over her shoulder be taken out of action, she still possessed powerful curse-magic that could easily disable one or two people if she had time to perform any incantations. She’d have to be the priority target. How fortuitous she would be the one to open the door.

The sphinx glanced around the room, then narrowed her vision settled on Reia and Yvonne. “You two, against the wall over there. And where’s the third? The wolf?”

Viole’s voice called out from behind the door. “Ah, sorry, call of nature…”

Serlov bit her lip. They had used a bucket for a toilet, but would the guard remember which corner they put it in?

Grunting, the sphinx seemed satisfied with the response, then began to open the door all the way once the other two were against the wall.

There were two other guards present in the hallway – a lithe lizardwoman and a stocky oni. The lizardwoman had been the same one that escorted her from Thayla’s room.

As Serlov slithered forward, a most opportune moment presented itself as the pair crossed into the hallway. The sphinx had turned around instead of backing up to keep her eye on the lamia. An opportunity born of those not accustomed to the boring routine of guard duty.

Her powerful tail lashed out at the same moment she let out a shout. As Serlov’s muscular snake-half slammed the unaware sphinx to the ground, Viole had dashed from behind the door in a low crouch, practically on all fours.

Vaulting over the fallen sphinx, the wolf gathered the attention of the remaining two guards as she bore down upon them. They made to draw their weapons, but Viole dashed across the gap before they could squeeze the triggers.

Arms outstretched, she tackled the lizardwoman, throwing the pair to the ground in a tangled heap.

Rifle pointed at the two, the oni hesitated to fire, instead watching as the wolf and lizard fought for control of the rifle that clattered to the ground.

Taking her eyes off the doorway had been a mistake, as while she focused on the wolf and her comrade, Reia had managed to sprint forward, blowing past Serlov and out into the hallway, straight towards the single-horned woman.

The oni caught movement out of the corner of her eye, but it was too late – she only caught a glimpse of a massive fist as it smashed heavily into the side of her head, spinning her around and dropping her to the ground. A pained yelp echoed through the hall, snapping Reia and Serlov’s attention to the scuffle that had been taking place on the floor.

Viole was clutching her stomach, curled up and immobile.

The lizardwoman had rolled into a crouch away from everyone, and began to stand up, bloody knife held in her claw. Letting out an angry growl, Reia took a heavy, power stride towards the remaining opponent. Reptillian eyes caught her movement, and the guard dropped to a knee, switching her grip on the knife in preparation for the onrushing minotaur. Reia saw the knife poised to lash out at her legs, but there was no chance she could stop herself in time.

In a purple flash, something lashed out and slammed the lizardwoman’s claw into the ground, wringing the knife from her grasp. The tip of a tail rested momentarily on her arm before it was withdrawn with the same speed with which it had struck.

She glared harshly at Serlov. Until Reia brought her knee square into her cheek.

The guard’s eyes glazed as the bones in her face fractured from the impact, then closed as her body snapped backwards onto the floor. The minotaur’s momentum carried her forward some distance, the awkward attack causing her to tumble to the ground and slide across the linoleum.

Serlov noticed movement in her peripheral; the oni was attempting to stand, staggering on unsteady legs. Whipping out again, she bowled the oni over by sweeping her legs out from underneath her. Her head cracked harshly against the ground, and then she lay still.

She probably wouldn’t be waking up any time soon.

With the lizard and oni dispatched, Serlov turned about.

The sphinx was glaring contemptuously at her and Yvonee, firmly within the wurm’s coils. Not nearly as fast as the minotaur, she’d taken it upon herself to constrict the sphinx so that Serlov could freely aid Reia.

Yvonne’s attention was glued to Viole as she continued to roll and shudder on the floor, holding her mid-section tight as blood began to pool around her, streaking the floor red as she squirmed. Turning to face the sphinx, Yvonne wrapped her claws around the lionwoman’s shoulders as Reia and Serlov both rushed to the fallen wolf.

“Medical supplies! Where are your medical supplies?!” The wurm demanded, her eyes flashing with anger.

The sphinx simply snorted.

Reia knelt down besides Viole, rolling her onto her back. The wolf’s eyes opened, and a bloody paw shot up to hold onto the minotaur’s arm. “I’m… I’m sorry…” she whispered harshly, keeping her other paw on the wound. “She got me…”

“You don’t have shit to be sorry for,” she replied as calmly as she could, bringing the wolf’s knees up.

Serlov approached with a shirt she stripped off the fallen oni. “Rip it in half, top and bottom,” she said as she tossed the garment to Reia.

Lowering herself on the other side of the wolf, she lifted Viole’s paw from the wound, then undid her uniform to completely expose the damage. Looked like a clean wound, and nothing was hanging out, though it was bleeding fiercely.

“Ball up the bottom half, and we’ll use the sleeves to tie it in place,” she said, looking up at Reia. Turning to Viole, she laid a hand atop the wolf’s paw. “This is going to be one shitty bandage, and it’s probably going to hurt like hell. Just bear with it, okay?”

“Hah, okay Colonel,” Viole gasped.

Reia placed the wadded up section of cloth against the wound, then lifted the small of her back just enough to slip the sleeve of the tattered uniform underneath. Serlov picked up the end, handing it over to the minotaur. Tying over the make-shift bandage, she slowly drew it tighter and tighter, wincing as Viole cried out in pain.

While they had been tending to Viole’s wound, Yvonne had kept up her demand of the sphinx, increasing the tightness of her coils bit by bit, choking the air from the guard. “Where. Are. Your. Bandages?” She hissed, her face inches from the sphinx’.

The sphinx gasped in short bursts, barely able to breath in at all. Her face was becoming increasingly pale, and her eyes were beginning to fade out.

“Yvonne! Are you trying to kill her?!” Serlov shouted, slithering over to the wurm.

Yvonne narrowed her eyes momentarily as she stared angrily at the sphind before she obeyed and loosened her binding.

Somewhat freed from her constrictive grasp, the sphinx began gasping and coughing as air was finally allowed to into her lungs.

Serlov approached slowly, purposefully, until her face was very near the sphinx’. “My soldier here is going to die,” she began, keeping her voice even and calm. “We have left you all alive. Will you not extend us a similar courtesy? I’ve no wish for anyone to die this day.”

The sphinx focused on the lamia as she spoke, then glanced at her fallen allies. They were alive, though not in the best of shape. Her amber eyes then lingered on the bloody wolf, her paw clinging tightly to the minotaur as she took labored breaths.

“A bandage and a vial of morphine are not going to save her,” she said in a hoarse voice, cringing as she spoke.

Serlov’s expression clouded. “Yes, I am aware she will need a doctor. Unless you are willing to provide one, I will settle for whatever aid is available – even a wound sealant would be a boon.”

Shifting within the Yvonne’s grasp, the sphinx met Serlov’s stare for a few seconds. “…We have a few medical kits in our vehicles outside, but no medics. Or doctors.”

The building had to have some sort of area with first-aid supplies, but they likely wouldn’t be sufficient to deal with a wound as severe as Viole’s. Serlov had no choice, really, she’d need to get to their trucks and hope the kits had what she needed.

Serlov cursed silently as other questions percolated in her mind. “By the way, where are we?”

Averting her eyes, the sphinx remained quiet, until a gentle squeeze from Yvonne provided the necessary motivation. “One… one of the UF party offices… in Finzbour,” she coughed out.

Gears in Serlov’s mind began to turn. They weren’t far from the city that housed the portal to the human world – along with the garrison stationed there. It’d be about a 45 minute drive, if they could steal a truck. Of course, the question was if Viole could make it that long. Gut wounds could be fatal in a few minutes or they could survive for hours. She had no idea how severe the injury was, though Viole was still lucid; that probably meant an artery or large vein hadn’t been severed.

No matter what, however ,time was ticking for the wolf. They also needed to get to the men quickly, lest the succubus consume them. Was it possible to save the men and ensure Viole made it to a doctor?

“…If we, or you, called an ambulance, would you allow them to transport her to a hospital for treatment?”

The sphinx looked down, and shrugged as best as she was able. “I don’t know. Anything I could say or agree to wouldn’t mean anything. I’m not in command here.”

“Then who is?” Serlov asked, crossing her arms.

“Representative Dirz is, technically. Though Lieutenant Lykone is acting commander of those stationed here.”

“Who’s Lykone?”

“A Jinko, if that’s what you’re asking. And I’m not sure where she would be at, to answer your next question.”

Smart sphinx, Serlov thought.

What were her options, now? She’d have to leave Viole behind to find the men, free them, and then force Thayla or Lykone to allow an ambulance entry . But, she could ill-afford to leave someone behind to tend to the wolf.

Just as she was about to make a decision, Viole’s voice crackled. “Go save ‘em, Colonel,” she coughed, motioning for Reia to sit her up. “I sure as fuck ain’t feeling too great right now, but I’m still thinkin’ and I’m still warm. Just prop me against a wall, give me a gun, and I’ll make sure they don’t go anywhere.” Her voiced was tinged with pain and her words came in gasps, but she still managed to put on a devilish smirk as she spoke.

“Are you sure…? Wait, no, that one’s magic,” Serlov said, thrusting a finger at the sphinx, “is ideal against lone targets. Wouldn’t work.”

 “Ah, it’s not instant, right? Soon as I feel a tingle anywhere I’ll just shoot her,” Viole said, winking at the sphinx. “We’ll be best of friends, won’t we?”

The sphinx said nothing, instead she simply regarded Viole warily.

“You can’t be serious…?” Reia chimed in, still holding her comrade upright. Through her breath she could feel her ragged breath. The bandage was beginning to show signs of soaking through with blood as well.

The bloody wolf simply gave a pained smile, closing one of her eyes momentarily. “Very serious. You guys have a job to do. Can’t be fussing over my stabbed ass.”

Serlov frowned. It was the best choice when she thought about it logically. But, leaving someone behind, even as a temporary measure, was tantamount to abandoning them as far as she was concerned.

“Colonel,” came Viole’s quiet voice, her smile fading.

“…Fine. We’ll be coming back to get you, and we’ll be bringing back Marc as well. Let’s get her situated…”

Serlov and Yvonne carried the two unconscious guards into the storage room and bound them with their own clothing. Breaking the legs off a table for a makeshift stretcher, they lifted the wounded Viole onto it and brought her into the room. Wadding up what little soft material was left, they propped her up against a wall.

Fortunately one of the guards had a handgun, leaving all three rifles for use by Serlov, Reia, and Yvonne. Not that Viole could likely fire a rifle in her condition, anyways.

After tying up the sphinx, they deposited her in front of the bloodied wolf.

“Go get ‘em, guys,” Viole said as cheerfully as she could manage. “I’ll make sure she stays put.”

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Reia replied as she closed the door to the storage room, flashing her own grin.

The remaining three then set off through the halls towards where Serlov had seen the other guards.

Peeking around a corner, Reia spotted a pair of guards milling about in front of one particular hallway at a large four-way juncture. While they were certainly inattentive, the distance from the corner to them was simply too great to be able to sprint across without being noticed. As much as she wished to avoid needless killing, there weren’t any alternatives.

Tucking in, she told Serlov of what she saw, along with her recommendation of how to resolve the situation.

Her commander nodded. “We’ve got a job to do, and we need to get it done fast.”

Switching off the safety, Reia brought the rifle up to her cheek as she swung around and took aim. A brief staccato cracked through the nearly-empty halls, the minotaur double-tapping both guards. The first woman dropped, probably without seeing or hearing a thing, and the second was dealt with long before she could even ready her weapon.

Reia rushed forward, covered by Serlov and Yvonne as they took positions around the corner, looking down the other hallways for anyone approaching. After Reia checked the fallen guards for life signs and confirmed they’d no longer be a threat, she signaled to the serpentine pair.

“There’s quite a few doors down this way,” Serlov said as she studied the walls on either side of the hall the guards had been posted at. “This is going to take some time to-“ She cut herself short as a door at the far end opened, someone stepping out.

Serlov brought her sights up, and studied the target. Confirming it wasn’t human, Serlov dispatched the woman – something with four legs, looked like a centaur – in a short burst of fire. “Six down,” she breathed out. If a lieutenant was in command, chances are there wouldn’t be too many more mercenaries around. Or so she hoped.

“Each of you take a side and start sweeping those rooms,” she yelled.

Reia and Yvonne grunted their acknowledgements, and split up on either side. Reia hammered the first door open with a mighty blow from her hooved foot, nearly knocking it off its hinge in the process. Her gun and eyes searched the room, but failed to find anyone.

Glancing back to Serlov, she shook her head and took off towards the next door.

Yvonne had to hold her rifle one-armed, using the other to spear through the door, splintering the top half apart as her powerful claw tore through the wood with ease.

“Clear!” She yelled, slithering quickly along to the next room.

Proceeding up the center, alternating between watching behind and in front, Serlov covered the other two as they each battered open another set of doors. Again, the rooms were empty save for typical office furniture.

There were at least a dozen rooms along each side of the hall, as well as the room that was at the end of the corridor from which the centaur had emerged. Serlov’s thoughts and eyes lingered on the doorway.

No one else appeared to be leaving the room, but that didn’t mean it was safe – not like people would be rushing out once they witnessed someone gunned down.

“Hold for a minute,” Serlov yelled, “I’m going to check the room at the far end.”

The minotaur and wurm halted their room-to-room search, now on three rooms apiece, and watched in the direction from which they’d entered the hallway.

Holding her back against the wall, the doorway less than an arm’s length away, she stared down at the centaur that had spilled across the floor. Most of her had fallen into the hallway; her face was nearly touching Serlov.

The centaur was certainly a young girl; probably hadn’t been with the mercenary unit for long. Four rounds had pierced her, starting from her horse-half going up towards her heart. She thought her days of killing those from the same world were over. With a sigh, she bent down and closed the woman’s eyes.

Straightening herself and then taking a deep breath, she inched closer to the entryway. Readying her rifle she then sprung sideways, using her coiled body like a power spring. The barrel of her gun swept back and forth in-sync with her vision. Her eyes found two pairs staring back, but they did not belong to anyone holding a weapon. Nor did they belong to anyone with a feminine face.

Hands bound and seated upon the floor were two of the men. Marc and Alex.

“Colonel!” Marc shouted as they both stood upon seeing Serlov.

“Glad to see you two are okay… we’re still searching for the others. Do you know where they are?”

“No idea, Colonel,” Alex responded. “They’ve been keepin’ us in here, haulin’ us off one-by-one… don’t know where.”

Serlov turned from the two to search the centaur for a key. “Well, we’re searching all the rooms down the hall… I figure they’ve got to be in one of them,” she said, patting the various pouches on the fallen woman’s fatigues.

Marc and Alex stooped down as well, checking as best as they were able with their cuffed hands.

“Nothing, huh? Wonder who has the key,” Serlov said, looking down the hall. Yvonne and Reia kept glancing backwards; Yvonne especially seemed to want to dash over as fast as she could.

“Right, well, keep your heads down – stay in here while we check the rest of the rooms.”

“Got it,” said Marc, ducking back into the room. Alex cast a long glance at Yvonne, then nodded and darted inside as well.

“Alright, back to checking!” Serlov yelled, heading back down the hall.

At her signal Reia and Yvonne resumed their search, making their way up the wide, brightly lit corridor. Room after room was the same as those they checked before.

Serlov was beginning to think that the others had been taken elsewhere. Until Yvonne yelled.

“Colonel!…Come… Come look…It’s…”

Inside the room, there was a familiar face – though he was slumped down onto the floor. Some of his clothing had been removed, revealing pale flesh. Serlov slid past Yvonne into the room, next to the man. He was still breathing, and his pulse was weak, but stable. Glancing up towards the ceiling, Serlov noted one of the ceiling tiles had been pushed aside.

She reached down, holding a hand on Casey’s bared chest, feeling his slow, weary heartbeat. Opening one of his eyes, his pupil was almost entirely dilated. There were no obvious wounds, and not even a day ago he was vibrant and full of life. Now, he appeared to be at death’s doorstep.

Her speculation on Casey’s condition was cut short by an angry shout.

“That fucking cunt!” came Reia’s voice, shortly after she’d forced open another door.

Serlov breathed heavily through her nose. “…Heft him onto the table for now, and… try to put his pants back on,” she said quietly to Yvonne before heading back out into the corridor and into the newly-opened room.

Contained within was a similar scene, though any signs of life were absent. His ghostly pallor was even more severe, and his naked form made his absolute stillness readily apparent. Before Serlov could say anything, Reia dashed out and began forcing her way into the remainder of the rooms in a panicked frenzy.

They likely shared the same thought regarding the well-being of the rest of the men.

Door after door was brought down, each one revealing the body of someone they knew. Four were confirmed deceased – Peter, Emil, Greg, and Louis. Only one man remained.

Standing in front of the last and final entryway, Reia simply stared forward, her body drained of its fire. There was little chance of anyone aside from Tomas being in the room. Serlov gently pushed the minotaur aside and tested the handle.

Inside was what she’d imagined. The lamia moved in to make her confirmation, placing a pair of finger against his neck. To her surprise he was not as cool as the others, and there was the barest hint of a pulse, along with the shallowest of breaths. Perhaps the large man simply had more than the succubus could take in a single meal?

Serlov felt a presence behind her, and glanced over her shoulder. Reia had crept in quietly, looming over the lamia.

“Is he…?”

“No. He’s alive, if only just,” replied Serlov, removing her fingers from his neck.

Moving aside for the minotaur, Reia carefully lifted his body and set him atop the desk, and then began picking up the uniform that’d been strewn across the floor. Entirely silent and calm, she began to dress him with a gentle touch Serlov had never witnessed from the powerful woman as she left the room.

Out in the hallway, she sighed as Yvonne approached. Then, shadows at the far end of the hallway jumped to her attention. But, it was too late to even attempt to get into cover or pull her weapon from her shoulder. Six barrels were pointed at them, ready to spit death should either of them make an errant movement.

“Yvonne, don’t move,” Serlov said calmly, almost plainly, looking over the wurm’s shoulder. “I got careless.”

Arms crossed tight and her large ears flicking back and forth restlessly, Emrald grumbled to herself inside the little 4×4. She had to keep telling herself that it was fortunate she was being allowed to tag along, but the slow, almost crawling pace was setting her nerves on edge.

General Jurai had proven to be someone she could trust, but was hesitant to allow Emrald to go along with the search and rescue party. She’d finally given in when the ornery kitsune refused to take no for an answer, stating the importance of her comrades, and, somewhat bashfully, her lover. Eventually, after pleading her case in all manner of ways, Jurai finally capitulated and granted her wish.

After organizing the mission, Jurai herself had departed for the military operations center to assemble a formal inquiry into the matters of the UF. The missing men had caused quite a stir throughout the world; relations between political parties that had just begun to warm were again fractured as each sought to blame the other.

Now, at the airfield where the helicopters had supposed landed, Emrald was almost wishing she’d gone with the general. She had been ordered to remain something like a passive observer while Major Dyseth had been appointed commander of the mission, as well as the kitsune’s chaperone to ensure she behaved herself and stayed out of trouble.

Shielding her eyes from the bright sunlight, Emrald focused her gaze on the major. She was speaking with the last of the locals here as the remainder of the soldiers piled back into the trucks. They’d spent nearly an hour here already, questioning practically every single person within a large radius. Thus far, everyone they’d spoken with had confirmed that a small convoy of trucks, all bearing the markings of the mercenary company that’d conducted the operation, had left, heading northwest. It narrowed down the list of possible holding locations provided by Jurai significantly, but there were still at least half facilities to check on.

Unfortunately, they would still have to investigate them one by one the hard way – in person. It would be a tiresome process, and likely go until nightfall, but Emrald had a feeling she’d find her comrades.

And a feeling that something terrible was unfolding.

 

 

 

“It’s very, well, fulfilling?” Emrald placed a finger to her chin as she thought. “It’s difficult to explain, you see.”

During the trek from facility to facility, Major Dyseth had become rather curious about Emrald’s relationship with Casey. The questions started out small and innocent, but in no time at all she’d been asking the kitsune all sorts of things – including all the juicy details.

Initially Emrald hadn’t much cared for the major, but began to warm up to the were-cat once she realized that Dyseth was genuinally curious and empathetic about everything that had happened. She’s also learned the major had been one of the first to enter the human realm, before war had broken out. Unfortunately that meant she was also amongst those that were ambushed and hunted.

She’d managed to escape, but not without losing her left eye and suffering some severe burns on her left arm that left large patches of it and her paw without fur. The missing eye meant she’d been relegated to non-combat duty, hence her current role as Emrald’s caretaker.

Still, despite the injuries she’d sustained, Dyseth still had a soft spot for humanity. A trait that’d won the kitsune over and got her to spill all her details. Not only that, having someone to talk with had done wonders to ease Emrald’s anxiety.

Dyseth’s ears wiggled up and down as she pondered Emrald’s answer. “Fulfilling? Like a nice meal? Or is it more like finishing a good book or completing a project you’ve been working on?”

“All three, maybe? It’s very warm and comforting. Especially when he holds me close after a night of love…” Emrald began to giggle and blush, wrapping her arms and tails around herself.

Dyseth smirked, and let out a wistful sigh. “Sounds nice…”

The driver rolled her eyes at the saccharine display behind her.

Dusk was falling, and they had just arrived at the third-to-last facility. Only two left after their inspection of the current place. If it was anything like the others, they’d be done within fifteen minutes.

A small gated checkpoint barred the way into the compound. Not too surprising considering it was the principle UF branch for the area. Emrald continued to smile and laugh as they rolled to a stop. At least, until Dyseth’s smile vanished and was replaced by tension and suspicion as she listened to the driver and guard converse.

“What’s going on?” Emrald asked in a hushed whisper.

The were-cat glanced at her briefly, but was interrupted by the guard before she could respond. “Can I see your IDs, please?”

Emrald and Dyseth handed their identification over.

“Ah, give me one moment, please” The guard said as she walked back to the small shack.

Dyseth frowned. “They’re far too nervous.”

“What do you mean?”

“See there?” She said, indicating towards the booth. “Both of them keep looking at us. They’re tense, and when she was talking to the driver she was asking questions she ought not be concerned with.”

Looking from the vehicle to the each other, the guards seemed unsure of what to do. Then one of them picked up a phone, and after a short delay began speaking to someone. Dyseth reached for the rifle that was racked on the seat in front of her. She didn’t speak, but simply held her paw on it and leveled a stare at the guards.

Emrald simply sat still and did her best to suppress her rising anxiety.

The guard nodded several times on the phone, her eyes locked onto the trio in the vehicle. Finally she hung up, spoke a few words to her partner, and then returned. When she saw Dyseth’s paw on the rifle, the guard shifted uncomfortably and looked back towards her companion in the small shack before handing back the IDs. “Very well. You may proceed.”

Then, with a clank the gate swung open and the small procession of vehicles passed through.

Letting out a breath she’d been holding, Dyseth took her paw off the rifle. “I was afraid things were going to get a bit hostile there.”

Emrald gave a weak smile and a laugh, but the anxiety and fear only grew.

“Stay alert,” Dyseth said as she addressed the small contingent of soldiers that’d been assigned to the mission. “Something isn’t right here.”

Emrald stuck close to the were-cat’s side as they walked into the building.

A young harpy was seated at a desk within the lobby. At first Emrald assumed she was the receptionist, but something about her clothing seemed off. It looked more like a military uniform than the sort of formal dress she’d expect.

The harpy smiled as the group approached her. “Good evening. How may I help you?”

“We’re here for an inspection of sorts. Can’t tell you what we’re looking for – classified information and all.”

The harpy’s pasted-on smile never faded, but her eyes betrayed her displeasure at Dyseth’s words. “I see. On who’s authority?”

“General Jurai. If you wish, I can produce documents stating as such.”

“That won’t be necessary. We will verify personally that she authorized this inspection.”

Emrald’s attention began to wander after the initial exchange. Something in here felt strange and made it difficult for her to focus. She’d felt like this before, but couldn’t place it.

Emrald, coming?”

“Huh?” The kitsune’s head snapped around. Dyseth was looking at her.

“What’re you spacing out for? Let’s get going. The harpy here is going to be our tour guide.”

“Er, right,” Emrald mumbled as she took several quick steps to fall in besides the major. She look took one last look around. Far as she could tell, no one else seemed to be feeling anything was off. Maybe it was just nerves.

The harpy took them around the building in sort of a snaking fashion. Starting at one end of the building, they explored a multitude of rooms and went up and down a multitude of stairs. Emrald was still on edge, but for the most part everything seemed to be proceeding as normal.

Until Dyseth rested a paw on her shoulder and took her aside as the harpy lead the group towards another area.

“She’s delaying us,” the were-cat said, her voice a quiet whisper.

Emrald’s brow knit together. “Huh? What do you mean?”

“Haven’t you noticed that despite us going through all these floors, we’ve been entirely on the south side of the building?”

Emrald thought about it. That was true, but was that supposed to mean something? While she considered the implications, Dyseth continued.

“Nor have we touched the basement. I want you to go check it out. I’ll send a few others with you. Got it?

“What? Why me?”

“It’s the most logical place to keep prisoners. You’re a doctor, right? If they need help you’ll be there to give it to them.”

Emrald shot the major a confused look. “If you say so. But what are you basing this on? Everything seems normal to me.”

Either Dyseth didn’t hear her question, or simply chose not to answer it. Dyseth turned and began speed walking towards the harpy. Reaching into her uniform, she produced a pistol and flicked the safety off, stopping only to whisper things to a few soldiers as she passed them. Those she spoke with turned to look at the kitsune, then nodded.

“I think we’ll be showing ourselves around.” Dyseth said coldly, raising her pistol toward the harpy.

The harpy turned around, confused at first, until she saw the gun. Rather than fear, she simply narrowed her eyes. “I hope you’re aware of what you’re getting yourselves into.”

Dyseth smiled, flashing her sharp teeth. “I wasn’t. Until your answer, anyways.”

“Alright. You guys follow Dr. Kitsune there to the basement,” she said as she turned back towards Emrald and the others. “And, be very careful.”

“Captain Dirz? You’ll want to see this…” One of the privates called out after she’d shot the lock off the door and peered inside the room.

Emrald had been squatting down beside a small pool of mostly-dried blood. It was streaked and smeared as if someone had been dragged through it. Across from the blood was a large, solid door. Standing and brushing herself off, Emrald swallowed and took a few ginger steps forward and looked in the room.

Her heart soared, then crashed. First she spotted Reia and Yvonne. They had been bound and gagged, left immobile on the floor. Relief spread on their faces as their eyes met Emrald’s. Her sweeping gaze then discovered Viole, laying limp on the floor. Unlike Reia and Yvonne, there had been no reaction from her whatsoever.

Rushing to the wolf-woman, Emrald dropped to her knees and felt for a pulse. The knot in her stomach unwound a little as she felt a weak beat on her neck. She then laid eyes on the wet, torn uniform tied around her mid-section.

“Viole was stabbed.”

Reia came up from behind Emrald. She rubbed at her wrists, glancing back as the private that had freed her was working on Yvonne’s ropes.

“There was a tussle and some other things, and yeah. Got a knife to the gut.”

Emrald frowned, then loosened the wrap to get a better look at the wound. She probed lightly at the wound with her fingers, doing what she could to ascertain the damage. Her intestines had most likely been slashed open along with her skin and muscle. Surgery was going to be required. Without a real examination, Emrald had no way of knowing how many hours or minutes Viole had left.

“We need to get her to a hospital,” Emrald said as she cinched the bloody rag tight. She wiped the blood from her hands off onto her pants and turned towards Reia.

It was then that she realized Serlov and the men were not present. She wanted to ask about them, but fought down that thought in order to focus on Viole.

“Did you lot have to fight your way down here?”

Emrald shook her head. “No, it was all clear. We have some trucks outside, you see. C’mon, let’s get her out of here.”

“Heeeerreee~”

The pair turned to see Yvonne approaching, holding a bloody board in her claws. The same one they’d used to drag Viole into the room to begin with. It’d have to do.

Emrald and Reia shifted Viole onto the board, and then the hulking wurm picked it up with ease. The kitsune smirked; maybe a wurm or three in the medical unit would be a good idea.

Heading back up and outside, Reia and Emrald talked a little about what had happened up until this point. The more the minotaur spoke the more heated her tone became, but she avoided telling Emrald what had happened to Tomas, Casey, and the others. She’d hoped Alex and Marc were still okay, but afternoon had lapsed to dusk since they’d been thrown back down in their basement cell.

Once outside, they proceeded to load Viole into a truck. One of the privates volunteered to take her to a nearby hospital. Emrald stroked the wolf’s ears before shutting the door.

“So what do we do about the guards?” The driver asked.

Emrald froze. She’d been so wrapped up in ensuring Viole got out she forgot about the gate guards. The minotaur, however, simply asked for a rifle.

“Head up towards the gate like normal. When they ask you what’s going on, just tell them to look our way.”

“Don’t worry,” Reia said with a smirk, responding to the confused stares.

The 4×4 approached the gate. Reia and the others with rifles stepped from around the corner and took aim at the guards as they went to talk to the driver. A few words were spoken, along with a sudden alarm from the guards. Then they turned around as instructed.

Reia waved at them while keeping them fixed on her sights. They both froze stiff as they stared at the minotaur and those around her. One of the guards made to bring up her weapon, but her partner stopped her and shook her head. Then she raised her hands.

Reia let out a snort. “Hmph. Almost wish they woulda done something stupid.”

— “So tell me. What happened? I know you’ve been leaving out some details,” Emrald demanded once they’d dealt with the guards. The pilfered rifles, plus the one left behind by the driver, meant that everyone in their make-shift squad was now armed.

Reia glanced at the kitsune as they made their way back inside the building and looked down for a moment. “It’s complicated…”

“It’s a succubus!” Yvonne blurted out. Her voice whirled Emrald around. Reia grimaced, then glared at the wurm.

“What? Succubus?” Emrald asked. The other soldiers glanced worryingly at each other.

Her mind raced as she drew up all her knowledge regarding the exiled demons. Horror began to slowly wash over her. Green eyes blazed as they locked onto Reia’s face.

“I think he’s fine,” the minotaur said quietly, meeting the kitsune’s harsh glare. “At least, he was when we found him the first time…”

Emrald’s ears began to drop and lay back against her head. “First time? What do you mean, first time?”

Fighting down her own anger, Reia began to detail what’d happened as the group followed the minotaur upstairs. Yvonne added in comments whenever Reia had to pause to prevent herself from getting overly emotional. Through the entire explanation of events Emrald was silent. If it wasn’t for her ears pressed flat against her head and bristled fur, one might’ve mistaken her for being calm.

“…And so Thayla shoved us in the basement again. She took Serlov with her, as well as the men that were still alive. They were over there,” Reia said, motioning towards a bullet-pocked hallway. “But now I think they’re all being kept with Thayla a few floors up. Or, at least, that’s where the colonel said Thayla was.”

“Damn it. Damn it! Fucking damn it all!” Emrald suddenly burst out and kicked a wall. Hot tears streamed down her face as she could no longer dam her emotions. Just as quickly as she lashed out, she wiped away her tears. “…Sorry.”

Yvonne laid a claw on her shoulder. “Compared to us, you’ve been with him longer,” she said, keeping her voice low. A slight quiver shook her words. “You’ve actually been more calm than we were. We just had more time to deal with things…”

Gritting her teeth, Emrald made a silent vow to herself.

A staccato of gunfire tore through the silence. It was distant, but not far. Sounded like it had come from above them.

Emrald’s ears picked up and swiveled to face the noise, but they never focused themselves in any one particular direction. “Did Dyseth encounter resistance?” she muttered, drying the last of her tears.

“Time to get a move on, ladies!” Reia shouted, readying her weapon and sprinting for the next set of stairs.

Tilting her head side to side, Emrald made to open her mouth to say something. Then, shaking her head, she decided against it. “I’m just emotional right now…” she whispered to herself. Taking in a deep breath, she then gave chase to Reia and the others.

Every few steps another round of gunfire erupted, growing louder and louder. Owing to her size and ability to take several steps at once in great, vaulting leaps, Reia was the first to reach the floor from where the stuttering bursts of automatic fire were originating.

Cracking the door open, she peeked through into the hallway. All was clear, save for the continued sounds of gunfire that seemed to come from around a corner to the right. She yearned to dash out immediately to join the fray, but managed to calm herself enough to wait for the rest of the troops with her.

Pretty sure it’s coming from down there,” Reia said once everyone had caught up. She motioned down towards the right. “Let’s move quick – Emrald, watch our rear.”

“Got it,” Emrald replied, fidgeting with her weapon.

Licking her lips and shifting her grip on the rifle, Reia burst out into the hallway and performed a quick sweep before sprinting down the hallway towards where it turned at a right angle. Skittering to a halt against the wall once she reached the corner, she took a glance around the bend.

The corridor she was facing went straight, ending at a large, open doorway. Another hallway intersected it, just before the doorway. And there, lined up on either side of the door in the intersection were the friendly soldiers Emrald and told her about. They were all hunkered down, occasionally firing into the room.

“Are you Dyseth’s group?” Reia yelled, still concealing herself around the corner. One of the women – a were-cat – turned in response to the voice and stared at the minotaur for a moment.

“Yeah! You guys our back up? Come over here, we’ve got them pinned down in there,” she shouted back, nodding towards the doorway.

Reia looked back towards the small throng behind her. “Looks like we’ve got them cornered already. Let’s move to support.”

Everyone gave a quick affirmation, save for Emrald at the rear. Her ears continued to swivel about, and she wore a somewhat confused expression as she looked around.

“Wait up a se-“ she began to say.

But Reia and the others had already broken from cover and made for Dyseth’s group, eyes focused on the door in case someone or a something should appear. Emrald cursed and stayed behind. She poked out from around the corner just as Reia had done, and let her eyes wander from soldier to soldier. Dyseth was there alright, but something was off.

Only when Reia and the others reached them did she realize what it was. The eye patch covered her right eye instead of the left.

Emrald opened her mouth to scream a warning, but it was too late.

A combat knife from one of the soldiers next to Reia seemingly drew itself, then sliced through the air in an instant and pressed against the minotaur’s throat. She gasped and froze herself, and then in that same instant, the supposed friendly forces faded from view, leaving nothing behind.

A lilting laugh filled the hallway as a paw materialized, clutching the knife. Followed by an arm, and a head capped with purple, fluffy ears and adorned with a psychotic, malevolent smile. Everyone but Reia brought their weapons up, taking aim at the violet-colored cat-woman.

Realizing she had not yet been caught in the trap, Emrald forced herself to hide around the corner and wait for a chance to act.

The cat simply rolled her head to the side, her smile never fading. “Nyat so fast! If you don’t want her to lose her head – that happens so often in combat, you know! – You should drop those nyasty-looking guns. Someone might get huuurt!” Her sing-song voice ground into a low, guttural rumble on the last word.

Reia attempted to struggle, but the blade bit into her throat and drew blood, bringing a halt to her movements. The cat’s smile widened even further. “See? Drop ‘em, right nyaow!”

Yvonne and the others begrudgingly obeyed the cat. As their guns clattered to the ground, several mercenaries from inside the doorway appeared and surrounded the troop.

Then the cat began to laugh madly. “Nya ha ha! That makes what, twice you’ve been captured? Nya ha ha! What a bunch of idiots! You guys are so lucky Thayla doesn’t want you all dead, dead, dead!”

Even the other mercenaries looked uncomfortable with the cat’s antics.

Emrald’s ears twitched, and she had to force herself back away from the corner. It’d been several years since she last saw Thayla, but she never recalled her illusionary magic being quite that strong. Emrald could create sounds and visuals in the minds of one or two people herself if she really concentrated, but to affect six was almost unimaginable.

The other question lingering in here mind had to do with where exactly Dyseth’s group had gone. Had they already been captured using the same trick?

Glancing around the corner again, she saw the mercenaries leading her allies through the doorway. Their backs were all turned. “Good, they didn’t see me,” she whispered to herself.

She considered simply opening fire right then and there, but something compelled her to remain hidden. There was simply too much she didn’t know. When they had all marched into the room, Emrald braced herself and crept forward. Her ears and eyes searched frantically in order to prevent her from stumbling into an ambush.

As she came to the connecting hallway, she looked down both ways; a handful of rooms were down either direction. Then, something caught her eye down the path to her right. One of the doors was partially open. She chewed on her lower lip, glancing between the large doorway in front of her and the slightly open door.

She took a deep breath and again listened to the little voice in the back of her mind.

Emrald made her way across the hall and stood in front of the door. She carefully rested one of her ears against it, and listened for a few moments. She could hear the sound of water – or more like a shower. Carefully pushing the door open with the barrel of her gun, she glanced through the crack. With no reaction from inside, she opened the door further and slipped inside.

It was a smallish locker room of some sort, and there was a side room at the far end where someone was showering. Tip-toeing towards the showers, Emrald noticed another door at the far end of the room as she passed a row of lockers. She made a mental image of the floorplan as she knew it, leading her think it lead into the large room that Reia, Yvonne, and the others had been brought inside.

She closed her eyes and focused on the echoing noise of the shower, mindful of the illusion that’d just ensnared her compatriots. This time everything matched up precisely how she’d expected. Either it was the real thing, or maintaining the facade on six people at once had tested Thayla’s limits.

As she crept closer, the shower suddenly turned off. Startled, Emrald nearly dropped her gun in surprise, then scurried around the corner of the one of the lockers bays. She could hear someone’s footsteps on the tile. Closer they came, until she was certain they were almost atop her.

Emrald readied her weapon and pivoted on her foot, appearing around the corner in an instant. The first things she noticed were the horns. Second were the blackened eyes, then the wings and tail.

“You!” Emrald growled.

Amelia simply sighed.

 

 

 

Amelia showed little regard concerning the gun barrel pointed at her barely an arm’s length away. She looked at Emrald as if she were a simple annoyance while she finished toweling herself off.

“Do not ignore me!” Emrald shouted, taking a step closer.

Her trigger finger twitched as she stared down the sights at the succubus.

“I’m not ignoring you, my dear. I’d simply like to get dressed before all this nasty business commences. Or would you parade me around in the nude?”

When the kitsune was slow to respond, Amelia smirked. “See? There’s still room for civility.”

Bending down to pick up her clothing, Amelia was too slow in reacting to the looming shadow. A heavy weight cracked into the back of her skull, then carried her head down and mashed her face down into the wooden bench. Her vision exploded into stars, and she slumped down to the ground in a daze.

Shaking her head to clear her vision, Amelia looked up at what’d struck her. There was Emrald, eyes opened wide as a snarl twisted her lips. Her tails all held still and pointed menacingly at the succubus. In her hands was the rifle, a small spot of fresh blood adorning the butt of its stock.

“Civility?!” Emrald shrieked. “You, a loathsome demon that takes pleasure in draining the lives of others, wish to speak of civility?!”

Amelia stared back, uncowed by the kitsune’s display. “And what would a filthy cur like you,” she began, her voice a low rumble that dripped with sarcasm. “Know about a demon like me?”

“Enough to know you’re nothing but a murderer.”

Tension ran thick through the air. Emrald’s finger continued to twitch against the trigger. The succubus narrowed her eyes. “So what now, little fox? Will you end my life here?”

This time, Amelia held still when the kitsune did not respond immediately. A long, silent moment passed, broken by a snort from the green-eyed fox. Her finger then slid off the trigger into a safe position.

“No. Not yet, anyways. You can be very useful to me, you see. Stand up,” Emrald commanded. Every part of her was focused on the succubus. Tails, ears, and terrifying eyes – they were all honed in on the demon.

Begrudgingly, Amelia did as she was told. Raising herself to her full height, she peered down at the kitsune. The demon may have had a head of height on Emrald, but the fox had the gun. Amelia cocked her head slightly, suddenly aware of a familiar aura lingering in the air. Then she grinned.

Emrald’s ears flicked at the succubus’ malicious smile. “Get your ass over to that door and open it,” she demanded, her voice a low rumble. One of her tails was held stiff and pointed towards the door to which she was referring.

“As you command,” Amelia responded dryly. Making slow, deliberate movements, she made her way over to the door on the far side of the room. Emrald fell in behind her, keeping her rifle trained on the succubus’ back. When they reached the door, she laid a hand on the knob and then looked over her shoulder at the kitsune.

“Open it. Now!” Emrald commanded, her voice quivering with the tremors of rage.

The door clicked open. Emrald marched Amelia through into the next room. Much as she’d expected, it lead out into a large, well-adorned room. There was a murmur of voices that quieted when Amelia rounded a corner.

“What are you doing here-“ A familiar voice called out, then came to an abrupt stop as Emrald came around the corner.

Emrald’s eyes scanned the room quickly. Reia and the others – including Dyseth – were tied up and sitting on the floor, though she didn’t see Serlov’s face anywhere. She did, however, spot another familiar face in the crowd. One she hadn’t seen in many years.

“Emrald,” Thayla said flatly as their eyes met. “And here I was just telling them about you. Or rather, to find you.” The elder kitsune looked towards the group of mercenaries briefly and gave a sarcastic smile before returning her gaze to Emrald. “Saves them that trouble, I suppose.”

The mercenaries had raised their weapons in response to the sudden intrusion but held their fire. The younger fox was behind the succubus, turning Amelia into a hostage. “Don’t even think of it,” Emrald growled as her eyes fell to the armed troops.

Turning to Thayla, the mercenaries asked wordlessly what they should do. She regarded them with more annoyance than anything. “Hold your fire for now. Let’s ask questions before shooting, shall we?”

Emrald’s eyes shifted quickly between the hostile forces poised to strike and the bored-looking succubus in front of her and back again. The temptation to shoot her was strong, especially considering her total disregard for the danger she was in. Folding her ears down and back in irritation, she returned her attention back to Thayla.

 “It’s been a long time, Thayla.” Emrald uttered the name like a curse. “We’ll have to catch up later, won’t we?”

“Whatever do you mean? No one is really going anywhere, you know.” Thayla sighed and rested her cheek against a hand as she began to pace slowly.

“While you two play the good family, can I go sit down or something?” Amelia said, looking back over her shoulder.

Emrald sneered and poked the end of the rifle’s barrel into the small of her back. “Like hell.”

The succubus rolled her eyes and returned to her bored stance.

“Why would you make a deal with the likes of… her,” Emrald said, practically spitting out the last word. “Nothing good could possibly come of it.”

Thayla rocked her head back and forth from shoulder to shoulder then let out a long sigh. Her tails danced about at random before she gathered them together and coiled one around her neck like a scarf. Slowly she opened on eye, fixing her malachite stare on the youthful kitsune across the room.

“I do get tired of explaining this, especially so often in one day. So here’s the short of it. We give Amelia’s people a place to hide away from humanity, turn a blind eye to their activities, and then we use their ability to get the humans to call off the war against us and make them more receptive to diplomacy. Everyone wins. Surely you can see the logic in that?”

Shaking her head, Emrald gave an incredulous snort. “Everyone still alive.” Her pupils then narrowed to thin slivers and her face became hooded as that thought triggered several others. “That reminds me. Thayla, where is everyone? Some of my squad appears to be missing. Would you happen to know anything about that?” Her voice practically chilled the air around her, even managing to draw a reaction from Amelia.

Thayla smirked and toyed with the tip of her tail for a moment before responding. “Ah, my dear Emrald. When did you learn to speak like that? Being in the military appears to have done you a world of good. Gave you quite the backbone.”

A small yelp of pain escaped Amelia’s lips as Emrald jammed the barrel harshly into her back again. Thayla’s smirk faded into frown.

“Quit stalling or…” Emrald trailed off as motion at her peripheral caught her attention. Reia was rocking back and forth.

Once their eyes met, Reia yelled “The cat is missing!”

The kitsune’s eyebrows furrowed as she thought about what that meant. Just as one of the guards moved to stop Reia’s display by cracking her in the back with the butt of a rifle, Emrald realized what she was referring to. Her eyes once again took survey of the room. There was one other person missing.

“Enough of your shit!” Emrald shouted. Her tails surged forward towards the succubus. Two of them wrapped themselves around Amelia’s throat and began to squeeze. Tighter and tighter they constricted, and within seconds Amelia began gasping and clawing at the tails around her neck. The kitsune then kicked her in the back of a knee, dropping the succubus to the ground with tails still tight around her windpipe.

Thayla’s first response was genuine surprise, quickly followed by an angry glare. Emrald smiled defiantly. The other mercs tensed up and made to move, but a wave from Thayla halted them. For a time no one made a sound, save for the gasps of the succubus as she struggled in vain to breathe with a rifle pointed at her head.

In a sort of growl, Thayla conceded defeat. “Fine. Lt. Lykone, if you would, please.”

A jinko in the group of mercenaries nodded, then spoke. “You heard her. Niabac, stand down.”

A long sigh sounded from just to Emrald’s left. “Well, shit. All she needed to do was relax for one little second,” a familiar Cheshire cat said as she appeared out of thin air. She then flashed her malicious grin at the kitsune.

“Whatever, you purple cunt. Back with your pals.”

Looking more pleased than angry, the purple cat waved her paw in the air and strode over towards Lykone. With that threat gone, Emrald loosened her tails. Amelia instantly choked and gasped as fresh air was finally allowed to fill her lungs. The succubus attempted to glare at Emrald, but the effect was nullified by her pitiful state.

“Don’t you have some sort of oath to uphold about not harming people?” Thayla said once the atmosphere cooled some from the standoff.

Emrald laughed bitterly. “People, yes. Demons? No.”

Leaning back against her desk, Thayla had begun tapping her fingers on its surface and a sly smile appeared. She glanced towards the mercenaries, then towards Amelia who was still recovering from the tail-chokehold. Her eyes then lifted up to focus on her youngest family member. “Why are you so short sighted?”

“What are you talking about? Answer my questions,” Emrald said as her eyes narrowed.

With a mighty shove, Thayla pushed herself off the desk and she began walking slowly towards Emrald. Her tails waved back and forth in an almost hypnotic sort of rhythm that matched her steps. “Why can’t you see how many lives would be saved? Our kind and humanity alike. We’d stop fighting. Even now countless are dying every day. We can stop it.”

“So you would save lives by dealing with demons? What happens when humanity figures out their leaders are in the palm of your hand?” Emrald protested, her voice once again wavering between disbelief and rage.

“How would they figure that out? Even if one or two are found out, we-“

Emrald’s viridian eyes blazed and went wide as anger surged through her voice. “Are you fucking insane? Yeah, that would be real great for us if they found out we were using demons to mind control them. You’d be proving them right about everything they say about us!” Her hands began to shake and the rifle wavered.

Step by step, Thayla approached closer and closer to her niece. Her voice was calm and level. Almost soothing. “They don’t have the means, my dear, to have news of that sort get anywhere quickly. We could easily manage control of the situation.”

Large, fennec-like ears swiveled around atop Emrald’s head as she carefully studied Thayla. “You are. You are completely insane.”

Thayla’s calm demeanor cracked for the briefest of moments. “Insane?!” she shouted, then quickly recomposed herself with a laugh and shake of her head. “My dear, it’s all for the greater good. Far fewer will die. Can’t you see that?” She said, narrowing one eye and staring at Emrald as if she couldn’t understand why the youth wasn’t convinced of her logic.

Emrald stared at her with her mouth slightly agape. Anger no longer twisted her features – only utter disbelief adorned her face now. “Greater good? Are you serious?” She shook her head and looked down at the succubus for a moment. Amelia returned the fox’s gaze with a sharp look of her own.

She opened her mouth to speak, but stopped as the fur on her tails and ears bristled. Her eyes darted up to Thayla, then towards Reia and the others. Everyone seemed to be focused very intently on Thayla. Tilting her head for a moment in confusion, her fur bristled once again. Emrald then whipped around to face her aunt and attempted to bring her weapon up. The gap between them could be crossed in a single step.

And Thayla was already prepared. Lunging forward, her hands outstretched in claws that arced with pale, electric-blue flame, she took a murderous swipe at Emrald. Stumbling backwards in an awkward hop, Emrald tripped and fell on top of Amelia. The succubus let out a short cry of pain as the kitsune knocked her flat onto the floor.

As Thayla took another step forward to strike down at the fallen kitsune, Emrald made a frantic attempt to swing her rifle in line. Though too slow to bring the barrel on target, she managed to parry the blow with her weapon. Thayla’s weight and momentum carried her hand down into the succubus’ back. Though her fingers did not pierce the skin, draw blood, or even strike with much impact, the cry of anguish Amelia howled out made it seem like she’d been stabbed by a red-hot poker.

Several of the mercenaries moved to aid Thayla, but they were too late. Emrald succeeded in kicking Thayla off of her, spilling the elder kitsune to the floor. Before she could recover, Emrald was upright with her rifle pointed at Thayla.

“Have to hand it to you, Thayla. Almost got me,” said Emrald as one of side of her mouth curled up into a snarl, revealing a fang.

Thayla glowered back. “When did you become so adept at detection?”

“Who knows? But, now that that’s over. Release everyone here. Now.” Emrald growled.

The mercenaries had their weapons trained on Emrald’s back, who in turn had both Thayla and Amelia at her mercy.

Rubbing at her face, Thayla let out a short, odd laugh. “Tell me, my dear, I release your friends and then what? You just leave and we all pretend this didn’t happen? No, of course not.”

“No, but your punishment won’t be as severe.” Dyseth suddenly spoke up. “And as for the mercenaries here, they would be almost guiltless. Some fines and the like, but you know…” She closed an eye and winced in preparation for retribution, but the guard looming over her hesitated and looked towards Lykone who was equally unsure.

Pressing her new-found advantage, Dyseth continued. “No matter what happens here, an investigation is underway. Surrender and we’ll say you didn’t know what the situation was until it was too late.”

“Investigation?” Lykone inquired, staring hard at the were-cat.

“Yes, investigation. Do you really think they sent us here all by ourselves and forgotten? Use your heads. Them,” Dyseth said, gesturing towards Emrald and those around her, “disappearing is world-wide news.”

The jinko’s eyes then shot to Thayla, who was still sprawled out on the floor. “You told us you had things under control.”

“Believing a captive? I thought you were smarter than that,” the elder kitsune said as she attempted to make herself look dignified seated on the floor. “You think I don’t have people in place that will stonewall and obfuscate their quaint little investigation?”

“And you think your people can work against their disappearance?” Lykone responded, jerking her head in the direction of a door on the other side of the room.

“Of course,” Thayla said as she gestured wide with her arms and tails before clapping her hands together. “I can guarantee it.”

The Cheshire named Niabac began to snicker and Lykone frowned. She then lowered her rifle. Thayla’s ears and tails drooped and her brows came together. “What are you doing?” she asked, her voice beginning to lose its calm.

Ignoring her, Lykone turned her attention to Dyseth. “So you say we won’t be jailed for this?”

The werecat allowed a little grin to form. “Probably not. I can put in a good word for your cooperation, especially once you learned the circumstances – that you were simply reluctant to break your contract. That’s all I can promise you.”

Turning to her troops, Lykone asked them what they wished to do in the current situation. The vote was nearly unanimous for surrender to the military forces. The only dissent was Niabac, who simply wished to see what would happen if fighting broke out.

“Y-you, what are you doing?! You have a contract!” Thayla began to shout and march towards the mercenaries.

“Consider it terminated, Representative Dirz,” Lykone replied as respectfully as she could manage given what’d just happened.

“Why?!”

“Why? Because I’ve learned that any politician who guarantees something is either lying or trying to buy time,” Lykone said with a certain disdain to her tone.

Thayla simply froze in place, her face wide with shock. Emrald and the others began to beam, and the kitsune shot a smile at the were-cat.

After Reia was freed, she made a bee-line for the door that Lykone had gestured to earlier and forced it open. Dyseth disarmed the mercenaries, and asked that they form an orderly line before she began to head over towards Thayla.

“Well, it appears that the deal has come apart. May I leave now?” Amelia asked, turning on the floor to look up at Emrald. Her usual bored, smug face had returned.

Before Emrald could respond, however, Reia returned from the room with several others in tow. Serlov looked absolutely haggard. Marc and Alex were rubbing at their wrists, and their faces were masks of unease.

Though as soon as Alex saw Yvonne, his eyes lit up and he ran into her embrace. Marc staggered forward, looking at Alex with envy. Until Reia approached him and whispered into his ear. In just a few words, Marc’s face brightened considerably.

Seeing Alex and Marc brought all the weight of her anxiety crashing back down on Emrald. She dashed for the door as fast as her legs could carry her. She slipped through all four of them before they could restrain her and peeked in the room. Inside were Casey and Tomas, both laying on their backs. Neither of them appeared to be moving. Emrald whirled around to face Reia and Serlov. Serlov regarded her with pity, while Reia simply looked down at the floor. The kitsune’s eyes were trembling along with the rest of her tiny frame.

“They’re alive,” Serlov said quietly through labored breaths. “Drained, but alive.”

With a gulp, Emrald nodded. Her eyes wet, but she kept control of herself and took a few cautious steps into the room. She let her hand brush against Casey’s cheek. The warmth she felt gave her a small amount of relief, and then she did the same to Tomas. They were alive, but their breaths and heartbeat were as slow as one would expect of a person in a deep coma.

Quietly observing Emrald and Reia for a few moments, Serlov began to slither towards Dyseth.

After verifying that both men were alive, Emrald’s attention then focused solely on Casey. She lowered her head onto his chest and sought out one his hands with her own. There she remained for a while, as still as could be with her eyes closed.

After a minute or so, Emrald stood up in a start and spun about on her heel towards the exit. With fast, angry steps she marched out of the room and glanced towards Reia, who then followed in behind her. Together they strode towards the succubus, who was now leaning against the wall next to Thayla. Serlov watched them, but said nothing as she resumed her talks with Dyseth.

A furry ball of fury, Emrald took a swing at Amelia out the blue. Just as her haymaker was about to connect, she was pulled back by the hulking minotaur.

“Emrald, no! I know how you feel but…”

The kitsune wriggled in her arms for a moment before letting her body go limp. “Fine. Just let me go.”

Amelia and Thayla both turned to face the two. Surprise colored the succubus’ features before she returned to her typical bored stance. “And to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit once again?”

“You know damn well you bitch. How do we… how do we bring them back?!” Emrald shouted, tears beginning to well in her eyes.

Shifting her position, Amelia crossed her arms underneath her breasts and grinned. “Bring them back? Why, they’re not gone. They’re right there, in fact,” she said, gesturing with her eyes towards the room.

Now it was Reia’s turn. “Don’t fuck with us,” she bellowed, taking one very heavy step forward that shook the floor.

Amelia shrugged, raising her hands into the air. “My, some people can’t take a joke.” She chuckled and turned towards Thayla.

Unfortunately the elder kitsune was still in a state of shock, and simply blinked at the succubus. “Huh?”

The succubus frowned and rolled her eyes. Emrald’s tails slipped forward and began towards Amelia’s neck once again. Seeing the approaching fluffy appendages, Amelia grimaced and pressed herself flat against the wall. She reached out to poke at one of the tails, then lowered her eyes towards Emrald. “Now now, let’s not be too hasty.”

Emrald snarled. “So fucking tell us. They’re in a coma. How do we reverse that?”

“Time. It’s not like I can just fuck life back into them. It’s a one-way exchange, you know?” Amelia said, sporting a disarming smile.

“Fuck?” Emrald and Reia asked in unison, their faces distorting in anger.

 “Yes, fuck. How did you think we obtained their life energy? I did it to your cutie lamia here too, though that was more… drinking it.” Amelia nodded to Serlov, who had come to join in the conversation.

Rather than speak, Serlov simply threw a vicious punch to the succubus’ stomach, doubling her over in pain as she groaned and gasped.

“Thanks for that. Cunt.” Her eyes then turned towards Thayla. “You, come with me.” The elder kitsune nodded her head, and slipped past Emrald and Reia ahead of Serlov. Passing between them, Serlov pat both of her soldiers on the shoulder and wordlessly slithered back over towards Dyseth, who was struggling mightily to control her smile.

Emrald and Reia were both still in shock.

“Guess that’s why the colonel looks like hell…” Reia wondered aloud as her eyes followed her superior before returning to the succubus that was now crumpled onto the ground.

Her surprise fading back to anger in a hurry, Emrald knelt down beside Amelia. “So you had sex with my… man, did you?” She stumbled over the phrase of ‘my man,’ but grinned a little once she finally said it. “And then you very nearly killed him,” she continued, her tone icy and sinister.

The succubus was in no condition to reply, but that mattered little to Emrald. Her tails moved forward and lightly caressed Amelia’s flesh as they encircled her neck. “So if they’ll get better on their own, why should we keep you around?” She began to laugh cruelly. “You already killed four good men.”

“Emrald,” Reia said as she touched the kitsune’s shoulder. The muscles in the minotaur’s jaw were bunched and her lips pressed into a thin line. When her eyes met Emrald’s, she then shook her head. “I know how you feel, but we can’t do this.”

Emrald held her stare for a while before dropping her eyes. Her tails went slack and retreated behind her and some of the rage evaporated from her tense body. Closing her eyes for a moment, she let out a sigh and stood.

“You’re… right, Reia, but…” Looking back down at the succubus who was beginning to recover, Emrald hauled her foot back and delivered a kick straight to Amelia’s crotch. The succubus’s face twisted with raw pain and she grabbed at herself, tightening up into a further ball. Emrald gave a satisfied grunt and turned back towards the minotaur. “You can’t tell me she doesn’t deserve it.”

Reia grinned. “I’d do the same thing, but I’d probably kill her. Watching you will have to do, I suppose.”

As they turned away from the succubus, they spotted Serlov staring straight at them. The colonel gave a curt nod before returning to her conversation with Dyseth and Thayla.

Emrald and Reia returned to Casey and Tomas, staying by their side until a relief force arrived.

Cracking his eyes open, Casey instantly closed them again as the harsh light of the room poured in. Several attempts later, he was finally able to open his eyes all the way and survey his surroundings. Looking down at his arms, he studied it and attempted to raise it. When he was only able to get it to move up partly before it lost strength, he frowned.

Then frowned again when he could only just barely lift his head from the pillow. His eyes and head rolled to the other arm, and he repeated the process there. Giving up, he flopped down and stared up into the ceiling for a while. His expression morphed and changed as the clock on the wall ticked and tocked.

Then, something stirred near his legs that brought his gaze downwards. Instantly he began to smile and he glanced towards his arm again. Focusing like he had to lift a boulder by himself, he willed his limb up and forward until his fingertips brushed against the fluffy ear. The sensation made him smile even more and gave him even more strength – strength enough to rub and caress the ear.

Emrald’s head was laid down atop her arms and she slept atop Casey’s legs while seated. The sudden touch on her ear caused it to twitch and her eyes to open. Once her pupils dilated and her blurry sight snapped to focus, the first thing she saw was Casey smiling at her.

“Hey,” he said in a labored whisper.

Instantly her vision was made blurry again as tears poured down her cheeks. She jumped up and threw her arms around Casey’s neck, then smothered him in kisses all over.

“You’re awake! You’re awake!” She repeated several times. “I was so worried and scared and what if you never woke up and, and…”

Summoning all his strength, Casey managed to wrap an arm around her. “I missed you too.”

~

Several hours and examinations later, Casey and Emrald were once again left alone in the room.

“I’m glad you’re okay… relatively speaking,” Emrald said, draped across him covering them both with her tails.

“I guess, but I can’t even sit up on my own,” Casey moaned.

“Well, that’ll come back in the weeks to come. You were in a coma for almost two months. For such a long time you were so very close to the brink of death. So very, very close…”

He chuckled and did his best to kiss the tip of one of her ears. “I was, but now I’m not. You’ll just have to nurse me back to full health, huh?”

Emrald sat up and smiled, wiping away a few tears that’d worked themselves out. She then planted a quick kiss on his lips and pulled back. “I think I could do that… Due to everything that’s happened I’ve got an extended – and paid – leave.”

“Oh? How long?”

“About a year.”

Casey opened his eyes in surprise. “All this gave you a year off?”

“Well,” Emrald trailed off, biting her lip to hide a smile. “That’s not ‘everything.”

As he furrowed his brows in confusion, Emrald took his hand and placed it against her chest.

Confusion gave way to an odd look. “What do your boobs have to do with anything?”

She giggled, then trailed his hand down her tummy. At first he couldn’t figure out what she was doing as his hand slid down her body, then over her rounded stomach. His brows knit more closely together, then began a slow rise as his jaw went slack.

“Either you gained weight while I was out or…”

Emrald nodded energetically, sending the tips of her large, fennec-like ears wiggling back and forth. Her tails danced happily behind her as Casey’s face continued to go through a myriad of reactions. Finally, he settled on a face that nearly mirrored Emrald’s.

“So I’m going to be a father, huh?”

“Yes, my love,” Emrald said, bending over to give him a longer, more affectionate kiss.

She broke the kiss after a short while, and the two of them laid against each other, resting their foreheads together.

Emrald spun around in her chair, taking in the office. Satisfied with all the wood paneling, art, and other decorations, her eyes flicked to the brass nameplate being slid into the holder on the open door by a worker.

“Liaison Dirz,” she whispered to herself and smirked.

Then a fluffy bundle caught her eye, followed by another as they ran into the room. Casey appeared in the doorway, sighing. The two bundles streaked towards Emrald, giggling and laughing as they bound up into her outstretched arms.

“Mommy!” Both girls chirped, wrapping their small arms around Emrald. “We missed you!”

“Yes sweeties, I missed you too,” Emrald laughed out, giving both her daughters plenty of kisses that sent them squealing and giggling in delight.

“Sorry I couldn’t meet you at the airport, traffic was brutal,” Casey said as he walked into the room. Letting his eyes play across the furnishings, he let out a little whistle.

Emrald shrugged as best as she was able with two kitsunes clamoring over her. “It’s okay, I wouldn’t have been able to talk to you anyways. Always a rush these days, though now I’ve finally finished my training…” she sighed out before being forced to kiss her daughters some more.

“Does that mean you’ll be home more, mommy?”

“Yes girls, I will, so don’t you worry, okay?” She responded.

“Yay~” they both cheered, giving their mother another hug.

Emrald rolled her eyes and smirked at Casey as the young balls of fluffy hopped off her and began chasing one another around the room and giggling. “Aime and Emia haven’t been too much trouble for you, have they?”

Following his daughters around with his eyes, Casey then shot Emrald a sidelong glance accompanied by a grin. “Well, they do take after you…”

“And just what is that supposed to mean?”

“Whatever you want it to mean, of course,” Casey said, making a show of not looking directly at Emrald. “Though since they’re twins it’s like a double dose.”

She laughed and shook her head. “Well after months of ‘training,’ they finally gave me my title and a home office. Fortunately we didn’t have to move. Again.”

Coming up from behind Emrald, Casey wrapped his arms around her and nuzzled her ears, breathing deeply of her scent. “Good to have you home, hun.”

Emrald smiled and pat his hands while watching her daughters tackle each other and roll across the floor in a fluffy ball. “…Good to be home.”

A heap of papers shifted, then toppled over onto the floor. Serlov blinked a few times, then began a nervous laugh and let herself slump forward. “Not a peep,” Serlov grumbled as she heard snickering from behind her.

Reia stood from her desk, snickering all the while. “If I would have known what you went through every day, I wouldn’t have let you rope me into this,” she said, walking over to begin picking up the impressive stack of papers and heaped them back atop the lamia’s desk.

Serlov folded her arms atop the desk and then buried her head against them. “Thanks,” she mumbled.

Checking her watch, Reia let out a little hum. “Sorry, but I need to get going – need to pick up Franz from school. Tomas has to stay late at work tonight.”

“That late already, huh?” Serlov groaned, bringing her head back up. She closed an eye and focused on the small clock on her desk. “Fine fine, go on.” Her head slumped back down onto her arms, hiding her face.

“Serlov, you need a break,” Reia began, shaking the lamia’s shoulders. “Ever since you got promoted you’ve been battling these mountains of papers for weeks.”

“Yeah, I know,” Serlov replied, rolling her head to the side to peek out at the minotaur with one blood-shot eye. “Want to get caught up before I go on leave.”

Reia stood up straight and crossed her arms, then narrowed her eyes. “Working yourself to death isn’t healthy for either of you. Now as your aide, I am using the power vested in me to drag you out of here.”

“Hah? Aide power?” Serlov chortled. “What power?”

“This, of course!” Reia said as she grabbed Serlov by her serpentine body and dragged her towards the door. Serlov simply stared at her as she was pulled from her duties. “See? If you wanted to, you could’ve fought back.”

“What insubordination!” Serlov scoffed. “I merely wanted to avoid physical confrontation. As punishment for you complete disregard for a superior, I order you to purchase me a snack from the cafeteria before you leave.”

Reia quirked an eyebrow. “Again? You know he’s not going to like it if you get fat from eating ice cream non-stop.”

In a rare moment that only Reia had the privy of witnessing, Serlov blushed. “So be it. He doesn’t have to deal with this little demon thrashing about inside him. Neither you nor Emrald told me it would be this bad!”

“That’s because neither of us are lamia. Hell, my son is normal human-sized. Was almost effortless for me.” Reia flashed a smug grin at Serlov. She received an annoyed glower in response.

“Still,” Reia began, poking at Serlov’s flat human-stomach, “most folks wouldn’t know you were due soon. That’s one advantage, huh?”

“I assure you it’s not,” Serlov said, pausing to wince in pain. “Why didn’t my mother ever tell me it was this bad?”

Their conversation was brought to a half as several other officers rounded a corner and walked in front of the duo. Salutes were exchanged, though by virtue of her rank Serlov was allowed to be more lax about it. Once the others had vanished out of sight and earshot, Reia cracked a smile.

“If only they knew that the fearsome, respected Brigadier General Serlov was addicted to sweets and complained endlessly about her pregnancy.”

Serlov raised both her eyebrows. “Oh, and it better stay that way, Major. Or else a certain minotaur might find herself busted down to private and peeling potatoes.” She diffused the hostility of her words with a wry grin, then began slithering down the hall towards the cafeteria.

“To the grave,” Reia replied with a chuckle, walking alongside the lamia.

Emrald, by .less : http://i.imgur.com/1PC8DBB.jpg

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