Dana smiled. There were many things she still didn't know about the arachne, but one thing was perfectly clear. They were far more human than she was.
When the time came to leave, it was the middle of the night. Even Darren was able to stay up late enough to see them off. He seemed to be energized, somehow, and Dana had caught him smiling more than once. The arachne thought that he was just happy that his girls had had some company, but Dana suspected that there was more to it than that.
Eulalie, her eyes full of tears, gave her a big hug that popped her back. She even gave Lily a hug, causing the succubus to grumble. Emory stood nearby with a box of tissues, which he offered to the tearful arachne, and when it was Velvet's turn, she skipped the hug and gave Dana a fistbump.
"Until we meet again," she said with a grin, then handed over her sword. "It senses your intent, just imagine it unfolding to use it. This is just a loan. I do expect you to return it to me."
Dana nodded. "Of course. Thank you." She hugged Velvet anyway, her hands moving low enough on the arachne's waist that she could feel the soft hairs of her spider-body press against the back of her hands. Though they looked prickly, they were soft like a kitten's fur.
"Oh, please, just fuck and get it over with," Lily groaned from nearby. Velvet let go of Dana and seized the succubus in a tight hug, then whispered something in her ear. Lily relaxed, then surprised Dana by hugging Velvet back.
"You're welcome," Lily muttered. It was a question Dana was going to have to ask about later.
When they departed, the girls stayed behind with their father and Bigfoot led them through the woods. The trees seemed to part for him, revealing a trail that Dana didn't recognize. On her back was Tick Tock in the form of a hiking pack, and she stopped just long enough to put the sword in one of his pockets.
"Don't swallow that," she told him. The zipper of the bag folded up into a grin, then playfully bit her fingers as she pulled them back out.
During their march, they stepped between some trees and the temperature shifted, dropping by over twenty degrees. When Dana stopped to look around, Bigfoot stopped too.
"We are now a hundred miles away from the cabin," he told them. "Are you sure they aren't looking for you anymore?"
"We're positive," Lily answered. "About twenty minutes ago, we stole our motorcycle back and started a fight in the tunnels of the Pit. They no longer have the necklace they used to track us."
"Good." Bigfoot turned away and kept moving.
Occasionally they would walk through a campsite with slumbering campers or near a cabin. Despite his huge feet, Bigfoot moved with the grace of a cat, and if they were going to get spotted, it was going to be because Dana wasn't nearly as graceful as her companions.
The walk from Oregon to Montana took less than an hour as they portal hopped. Eventually they came to the edge of the woods and saw the hotel they had been staying in just across the highway. Lily flew down the road and landed somewhere behind a large pickup truck, then emerged as a frumpy soccer mom. She was in the hotel for nearly twenty minutes before walking out in the shape of a housekeeper wearing Dana's backpack. She walked down the road for a bit, and then returned to them from the sky, landing dramatically in front of them.
"Mission accomplished," she said. "Now let's go soak up some rays, shall we?"
Bigfoot took them back into the woods, and the process of hopping between forests resumed. A two-hour hike got them to the edges of San Francisco where Bigfoot sent them off with a wave of a giant hand, then vanished into the shadows.
Dana, who had turned her phone back on, ordered an Uber. The driver took them to a hotel that wasn't too far from the airport, and Lily checked them in. Once they were in the safety of their room, Lily let her disguise slip and then fell onto the bed.
"Well that was a hell of a week," she declared, then picked up the remote for the television. She turned on the tv and started flipping through the channels.
"Now that we're here, care to tell me how we're getting to Hawaii?" Dana asked.
"Oh, that. I'm just going to have Beth buy us some tickets." Lily, who was lying on the bed upside down, looked over at Dana. "First class, if we can get them. May as well travel in style."
"Yeah, about that. There's no way I'm getting on that plane without the Order figuring it out. I bet they're looking for me everywhere. Besides, I'm not really comfortable getting on a plane. What if I...freak out? Even after eating, some version of the hunger is always there, and the last thing I want to do is be locked in a metal tube with everyone stacked together like Pringles."
Lily shrugged. "Maybe you can come along as luggage."
"They check luggage. Haven't you ridden on a plane before?"
"On, yes. In, no."
Dana didn't feel like asking for an explanation. "They x-ray everything. They're looking for bombs, drugs, that kind of thing. Even if I rode in the cargo bay, they would find me before I got in there, and I can guarantee that my presence will raise more than a few alarms."
"What about him?" Lily pointed at Tick Tock, who sat near the head of the bed. "If we could ride inside that thing through time without becoming bloody smears, do you think he could keep you from being seen on an X-ray?"
Dana dropped her eyes in thought. "What do you think? Is that possible?"
They both looked away from the mimic and heard the clicking of a typewriter. They looked back and saw a piece of paper sticking up like a flag.
Perhaps was written on it.
"So, what, have him turn into a box or something? We could probably do a coffin and just go for broke."
Dana shook her head. "A coffin would raise too many questions. We need to be inconspicuous. That, and I don't know the rules for oversized luggage. Maybe just a large suitcase or something?"
"A large suitcase sounds fine, but you're going to be one very heavy suitcase. Some poor bastard is going to have to heft you onto the plane?"
"What about it, Tick Tock? Any tricks to make me lighter?"
The keys on the typewriter clacked, and the paper shifted up to reveal the mimic's reply
Eat a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise was all that was written.
"Not helpful," Dana said with a scowl.
"I have an idea." A wicked grin crossed Lily's face. "But you're not going to like it."
"I don't think we're going to have much choice. Lay it on me."
Lily told her the plan, and Dana frowned the whole way through. The succubus had been right—she didn't like the plan at all. However, it was the only plan they had, so she got on her computer and started looking up weight restrictions of checked luggage. When the early light of morning came, Tick Tock had turned into the largest bag that was allowable on a flight and Dana climbed inside with a look of trepidation. She was in a shirt and panties, and her pants were folded up neatly on the bed beside her.
"For the record, I absolutely hate this," she said, then handed over the sword. She had unfolded it already, the blade gleaming beneath the overhead lights.
"I know." Lily took the blade and winced as the handle glowed red hot. "Oh, that figures. Let's finish this before my hand burns off."
"Try not to miss." Dana got on her back and moved to the edge of the bed, her legs hanging over the sides. They had laid out the shower curtain from the bathroom to help contain the mess.
"This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you," Lily told her, then brought the sword down.
Lily strolled into the airport in a bright yellow sundress with a low-cut collar. She had called her friend Beth early that morning to get a flight booked in her name, and currently wore her form. She wasn't certain if this was something Beth would remotely wear while on a plane, but she was already enjoying the attention she got from her fellow travelers.
Her Uber driver was busy dragging the suitcase with Dana inside. If the math was correct, it was now just short of a hundred pounds after she had cut off Dana's legs. The sword had made a clean cut with minimal blood, and now both of her legs were stuffed inside of the backpack that Lily now carried. Once they were close to the check in gate, Lily turned around and took the handle of the bag.
"Thank you so much for all your help, Alan," she told the driver, then planted a kiss on his cheek. "If I could give you more than five stars, I would."
The young man blushed, then nearly tripped over himself when he stepped back. "Glad I could help."
"I've got it from here, thank you. If I'm ever in the area again, I'll look you up." She winked at him. "Bye now."
Alan waved and ran back out the entrance. Lily turned toward the counter and walked toward the woman working it. Beth's information was quickly verified, and she got her ticket and then picked up the bag. She pretended to struggle with the weight of it, then set it on the scale.
"Okay, so this is over the weight range," the agent told her. "There's gonna be an additional surcharge."
"That's fine," Lily replied, raising her voice so that Dana could hear her. "Sorry my bag is so heavy, it's a lot of dead weight."
The agent didn't say anything, just printed off the packing slip and had someone help her load it onto the conveyor belt. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"As a matter of fact, yes." Lily grinned. "There aren't any first-class seats left, are there?"
Once away from the counter with her upgraded ticket, she walked over to look at the security line and watched for a few minutes. Dana's legs were folded up inside of the backpack with little room for anything else, and she needed to figure out a way to get them through without the bag being X-rayed or searched.
She spotted a woman pushing a stroller with a toddler in it and felt the light bulb go off in her brain. Walking away from the security line, she went to the bathroom and found an empty stall to sit in. After pulling the legs out of her bag, she pushed them against her belly and willed the skin and fabric to flow around them.
Her body morphed to hold onto the legs, and when she stepped out of the stall, she was greeted by the sight of a very pregnant Beth in the bathroom mirror. Since nobody was around, she shifted her belly around until it looked right, then added a few pounds around her face and chest.
"You look kinda hot when you're pregnant," she told her reflection, then left the bathroom. When she got to the agent checking tickets, the man taking her ticket eyed her with judgement.
"Oh, it's okay, I'm not gonna pop on the plane or anything," Lily told him while rubbing her belly. "I've still got a couple months left."
"Shit, girl," said the woman behind her in line. "You carrying twins or something?"
"Er, no." It now occurred to Lily that she had no idea how big her stomach should be. "She's just all legs. You know how it is."
The look on the woman's face said that she had no idea how it was, but Lily didn't care. She checked in and got in line, then tossed her mostly empty bag onto the scanner and went through the metal detector. When she came out the other side, a TSA agent was waiting to hand the backpack.
"Traveling light?" he asked.
"Oh, I love to snack on flights," she told him, then took the bag. "Didn't get a chance to buy anything here, might hit up some stores or something."
He waved her off, and she waddled away until she was out of sight, then found another bathroom. Figuring she didn't need the hassle of being recognized, she became a version of Beth in one of her work outfits with a white blouse and a pencil skirt. She came out of the bathroom with the legs back in the backpack and headed for her flight.
With almost an hour left, she hit the bar and people watched. She was halfway through her second margarita when she caught sight of a teenage girl sitting on the other side of the terminal with a small backpack by her feet. She sat between a pair of men wearing designer clothes and dark sunglasses.
"Something about that doesn't look right."
Mike's voice startled her so bad that she spilled some of her drink, then turned to see him sitting next to her. He was wearing a pair of shorts and some flip flops and had a drink of his own.
"How are you here?" she asked, then saw a couple of travelers look up in interest.
"Oh, I'm not." He was also wearing sunglasses. "It's just you right now, see?" To illustrate his point, he swung his hand through the counter.
"But...but how?" she said, dropping her voice.
"How many years do you suppose you spent in the Dreamscape with Darren?" Mike sipped his drink, then frowned. "Hmm. Apparently, my drink is as real as I am."
Lily scowled. Those last few nights at the cabin, she had played dress up inside of Darren's mind. It had given the old soldier plenty of peace, and his health seemed to improve as the week ended. She had been surprised when Velvet had thanked her for it, unaware that the arachne had known what she was up to.
"Hard to say," she told him. But it had been a long time; long enough for her to accept that the feelings between Ana and Darren had been real. She had experienced affection and kindness in a way that both thrilled and depressed her. By week's end, she had become jealous of Ana, and the fact that she was fairly certain that nobody would ever feel that way about her had left her angry and depressed.
"Well, it was long enough on my end. While you were keeping him company, I was busy hanging out with his brother. Now that was a weird experience. Point being, we haven't really spoken lately, and now I'm here somehow."
"I don't think I like it," she grumbled.
"Well, that's just it. I don't know why I'm here, but I do know that it happened when you were looking at her." He pointed to the young woman in the terminal. "Look at her body language. Does it remind you of anybody?"
In fact, it did, but Lily bit her lip. The girl was in her late teens, but her eyes were weary. There was the hint of a shadow below her eyes, covered up with foundation and too much mascara, and the way she sat made her look tiny between her two chaperones. Her eyes were glossy, almost like she was drugged or had simply given up on life.
"Wonder what her story is. I can't ask, though, because I'm just a manifestation of your subconscious."
"You would be far less annoying as a cricket," she told him.
"Perhaps, but then you would ignore me."
"So, what do you want me to do? Help her?" She scoffed. "Of course you would, you have such a hero complex with every woman you meet."
"You spent years inside of a man's head doing a good thing for him with no expectation of any reward." Mike sat on the counter next to her and crossed his legs. "I think maybe you did a good thing and it made you feel better about yourself."
"Piss off." She finished the rest of her margarita and let the alcohol do its work. Unfortunately, it was booze from an airport bar, and she strongly suspected that the bartender had dipped her straw in tequila to make it taste stronger than it was.
"Hey, suit yourself." With that, Mike vanished, leaving her with her thoughts.
She wanted time to mull this over, somebody to argue with, but she was short on both. The anger building up inside her had no outlet, and her flight was going to board in less than half an hour.
When one of the men got up and headed for the bathroom, she found herself following. She walked behind a pillar in one of the terminals and turned into a man and stayed about twenty feet back. When he walked into the bathroom to use the urinal, she opened up the stall door right behind him and waited for a break in traffic to sting him with her tail.
"Easy, buddy, easy," she said, helping him stumble toward the stall. A man walking into the bathroom paused at the sight, and Lily patted her new friend on the back. "I told you to go easy on those whiskey sours, you'll be lucky if they let you fly."
Once he was in the stall, she propped him on the seat and did a deep dive. It didn't take long to figure out that he was traveling with his brother as hired muscle, and that the girl was being sedated and trafficked out of the country to be sold to some asshole in China.
While the temptation to rip his head off was strong, she ripped his soul out instead. She filled his mind with fantasies about young women like the one he was escorting, and swallowed him up for all eternity the moment he came. She wedged him in place so that he wouldn't fall off the toilet, then stepped out of the stall.
"Get it out of your system," she told him. "I'll be back in five with some Advil." She made sure the bathroom was clear and slid out beneath the door. On her way out of the bathroom, she turned into the dead man and made her way back to where he had been sitting.
"What's in the bag?" asked the dead man's brother.
"Escorting something else for the boss, last second request," Lily replied. "You should go, too, while the lines are down. I've got the girl."
His brother shrugged, waited a couple of minutes, then got up to go. Lily waited until he was far enough away and then followed.
She didn't have to drag him into a stall. He was already sitting in one, and she stung him in the foot with her tail, then used it to slide the latch open.
The process was the same, and she licked her lips when she was done. When she walked out of the stall, she paused to relock the door with her tail, then used a blind corner to become a random woman.
A sense of elation flooded her. This poor girl had been about to spend the rest of her life being raped or worse, and Lily's actions had changed her destiny. Her own monstrous nature had been used for good, and it generated a feeling of warmth inside her, a sensation she wished she could wrap her arms around and cling to.
When she sat down next to the girl, she didn't know what to do next. Should she give the girl a hug and tell her the nightmare was over? Should she walk her to a phone and have her call the cops?
In her indecision, she realized that the girl was now staring at her with defeated curiosity. She dug up what she knew about the girl and her abduction.
"Oh, don't worry about those assholes coming back. I totally murdered them for you," Lily told her, then patted her condescendingly on the cheek. "Caroline, right? Yeah, so next time an older man convinces you to meet him somewhere to be your sugar daddy, but not to tell your parents, don't do it. Have some fucking common sense and maybe a modicum of self-respect. It's a dangerous world filled with sharks who want to eat you alive, and you need to learn how to swim in it. You should probably call home or something, or the cops. I'm afraid I've done more than enough to save your sorry ass, today, so it's time to walk on your own. By the way, you're welcome."
"Wha—" The girl's voice was slurred, but Lily hopped to her feet and wandered to the restroom for one last change back to Beth. By the time her flight was called, the girl was still sitting on her bench, gazing around in confusion. Lily gave her one last look before boarding her flight. There was probably more she could do for the girl, but what little she had done was going to have to be enough.
"Baby steps," she told herself, then found her seat in First Class.
Cyrus sat on the edge of his bed. He was staying in one of the visitor's dorms, and after the events of the previous night, he had needed a full night of sleep.
It wasn't entirely clear what had happened down in the pit, other than the fact that they had had to peel more than a few of his students off of the walls. One of them had managed to lock herself in one of the warehouses, but her mind was so fractured that it had taken the combined efforts of Cyrus, Amida and several knights to bring her down and back. She was going to be shipped home for study and, most likely, retire in a care facility.
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