Noksalika sat in front of the mirror on the last day of her life.
No. This isn't how it's going to be.
She was on an island. The surrounding sea was brimming with police and sharks and worse. The island itself was full of wholesome families who'd paid good money to come and watch her be killed. She was alone, in a secure unit – a prison – manned by armed guards who were also swarming over the parade route and the stadium itself.
Somehow, somehow, she was going to get out of this.
Zoom out; spin back.
Ordinarily, the island floated untouched in the middle of the sea, unattached, eerie. The dark waters flowed slowly around it, crimson in the daylight, inky purple at night; rivers fed out to this sea, deltas dotted in lighthouses, blinking across at each other.
But there was a national festival commencing, and now the sea was swarming with boats and ships. Large and small, from traditional paddleboats packed with families to lone rowers in little dinghies – the sea was alive with a population excited.
Noksalika was strapped to the deck of the ceremonial ship, naked, just like when the pirates had first captured her; her pores breathed slowly in the water. But she was face down this time. It wasn't uncomfortable, but her view was limited.
She looked across the deck at the marine animals swooping elegantly through the waters. They seemed regal and calm compared to the mantrels swarming excitedly on the boat, drinking beer from bottles fitted with underwater valves. She tried to turn her head up to the Captain standing over her, but couldn't and gave up.
'So it's a big show then,' she said on Ethe with no emotion.
He nodded electronically. 'Oh aye! It's gonna be a good celebration.'
She made a bubbly grunt, straining at her straps. 'Isn't "celebration" the wrong word?' Her hand scratched involuntarily at the woodwork.
'Nonsense,' grinned the Captain. 'Granted, I'm not all that familiar with the science or mythology crap. But they always put on a good show.'
'I'll remember that.'
'Oh come on, it's traditional! Try and get in the spirit of it.'
A cream yacht swept by, maybe fifty feet away. It looked like a streamlined egg covered in white sails and rudders. Children hung from the ropes waving excitedly at her.
The Captain looked over her gloriously curvy form, strapped face down to the wooden deck, as her hand tapped and scratched away. Her hair wafted over her face and neck. He suddenly looked round as a shark loomed close to his head, swooping past in the gloom, large yellow eyes and jagged teeth.
'Gooor, you're a pretty one, aintcha,' grinned a mantrel, bounding up from nowhere. 'We ain't had a pretty one like you in ages.' He started poking her face and pulling her skin; she turned away, more indifferent than afraid. 'The Lord will be pleased with you. He'll be proper pleased won't he, won't he Captain?'
'Piss off!' boomed the Captain across the airwaves.
The sailor swung off, glugging the last of his beer and dropping the bottle, letting it drift smoothly behind them.
'Ha, ironic ain't it,' remarked the Captain, 'it's the highlight of the religious calendar for an eco-cult, and they celebrate by letting thousands of people trash a beautiful island.'
'Why me,' she said.
'Why me?' she asked, eyes welling up invisibly in the water. 'Why sacrifice me. You, you want a virgin, someone pure, right? Not a, a mess, a dirty fucking mess like me.'
'Ho ho ho,' chuckled the Captain. 'They wanted you, nobody else. Virgins are blank sheets, empty pages; they've got nothing to offer a god. But you…'
He leant in towards her.
'You're the biggest slut this world's ever seen. When you're offering something to summon a god, how's that for fertility?'
She sniffed, which simply meant sucking more saltwater into her lungs. She snorted it back out despondently.
'I do hope Patogechy will be satisfied with me.'
The Captain nodded again. 'We all do. We all do.'
Her hand scratched away at the deck.
And now she was here, in her dressing rooms, on the edge of the island.
She'd had a thorough shower, and the stylists had done their work, leaving her gazing at herself in a huge square mirror. Her hair was pinned up in just the right places, with tiny red and white rose pins, shining brown curls cascading over her fine collarbones. They'd put her in a white dress of cotton and silk; for all the Captain's sneering about virgins and fertility, some things were definitely traditional. It was almost off-the-shoulder but not quite, hugging her figure firmly but not tightly, flowing serenely to halt just above the ground. It split delicately on the right, showing thigh-high boots with pointed heels, made of white velvet and adorned with silver. Finally, wires, padding and what must have been pure magic had done something incredible to her breasts – you didn't need to show cleavage when your curves were that fabulous.
She'd never looked so wondrous in her whole life. And today she was going to die.
No, no, no.
There was a knock. Fortino poked his head round the door.
'Hey, how's it going?' he said brightly. 'We're nearly on.'
'Oh really, are "we" now,' she said gloomily. She noticed the burly figures of rat-ogres standing outside behind him.
'Just wondered,' he said, still hanging in the doorway, 'could you give us a quick heads up on how you want to play things today?'
'Well maidens usually fall into two camps – either they lap it up like a showbiz superstar, or they do the whole "kicking-and-screaming" thing and have to be dragged the whole way.'
'Oh.' Noksalika tried to think of something defiant to say, but couldn't. 'Probably kicking and screaming.'
Fortino smiled warmly. 'Right you are. Crowds love it either way, of course, but it's nice to know so we can get the communications strategy right for the press.' He paused, and looked at her compassionately. 'You all ready for this?'
'Um … no?'
He gave her a sad look, then walked in and knelt down beside her, taking her hand. 'Hey, we all get nervous sometimes, even pros like us, especially when we're facing a huge step in our lives. But you can do this. You're a star. You're so beautiful, and so amazing, and I know you're going to blow everyone away.' He looked up at her with genuine eyes, tiny creases in his soft, charming face. 'Wha'dya say?'
She sniffed, and gave him a nervous smile.
'Fortino,' she said, 'Fortino, you … you really…'
He rubbed her hand. 'What, babe?'
She punched him square in the face.
'You really are a fucking prick,' she scowled as he yelled in pain and collapsed on the floor. The rat-ogres rushed in and grabbed her without a word, dragging her to the door.
'Take her away,' shouted Fortino ineffectually from the floor, clutching his nose. His eyes burned with anger she'd not seen in him before. 'Stupid bitch!'
She kept his gaze as they carried her out, an angry grin alive on her face.
They took her down corridors past more guards and officials, all talking to each other on the Ethe. Daylight approached as they neared the large glass doors at the front of the facility, and with a deep breath, Noksalika was brought out for the baying crowds.
People thronged the street, held back from the road by barriers and literally hundreds of guards in uniform. Ahead of her on the street, a motley selection of officials and security was ready to take her on the procession, including Obship and the Captain.
Fortino walked out behind her, his nose and left cheek purple and swollen. He gave her a dirty look, before beaming to the crowd and throwing a fist in the air. 'Let's get this show on the road!'
Girls walked ahead on either side with baskets on their arms, scattering petals across the road the air. They wore brightly-coloured dresses with huge ridiculous bows and looked horribly tacky. Noksalika had seen it before in video shoots, promo events, weddings – you deliberately dressed the supporting actresses badly to help the main attraction stand out.
Noksalika gave up struggling to escape and mainly tried just walking on her own feet. Parading down wide tree-lined avenues lain with granite and quartz, she watched the crowds in disbelief. As a superstar, she'd been subject to the worst kinds of sexual obsessions and bizarre devotion – but none of it had been as creepy as this. Teenage mantrels held up hand-made signs saying idiotic things like "WE LUV U" and "B THE BEST U CAN B!"; parents held up toddlers and pointed to her excitedly from behind the barriers. The barriers themselves were laden with homemade banners and flowers – and, bizarrely, tinsel – interspersed by official signs every ten or fifteen metres that read:
THIS SACRIFICE IS A FAMILY EVENT PLEASE REFRAIN FROM SMOKING
The procession route led roughly straight for two miles, the entire way packed with people; even if she could escape the grip of her handlers there was no way out anywhere through the packed bodies. She was surrounded, surrounded by hordes of unthinking bodies – and she in turn was a body too, a prop, because they only loved her because they wanted to see her dead. It was like some sick pantomime. The ritual started long before the sacrifice itself.
The avenues led into parkland where the celebrations continued, with mantrels queuing up at burger vans and dancing in front of makeshift stages like just a normal festival. But up ahead, she could see where they were heading: a massive artificial rock had been constructed in the middle of a small forest. Noksalika was stunned. It looked made of glossy plastic, and a tacky grandiose drawbridge had been built over a moat dyed bright blue.
'This is where we get to check you're really you,' whispered the Captain in her ear with a dirty chuckle.
The guards dragged her over the drawbridge and into a dark passage. Her feet ached even from the little walking she'd had to do in such huge heels. Guttering torches and more guards in ceremonial dress lined the four walls, reminding her of the stone tunnels of Goltangi. A chamber approached, and suddenly she was shoved forward by her handlers, nearly stumbling on her heels out of the passage.
The chamber was a rough oval shape; strangely, the interior seemed hewn out of genuine rock rather than the cheap plastic she'd seen outside. The air was cold. Banners of vivid colour were draped across almost every available surface, and masked courtiers lounged in furniture adorned with bones and skulls. They were semi-naked in grass and flax skirts, and looked like eerie hula dancers at a masquerade ball.
In front of her, a thin, pale man occupied a throne of bronze.
She looked up, and quivered with terror at the sight of the Calf-Colonel.
It was her father.
The Calf-Colonel wore a sleeveless coat made of tatters sown together, scraps of dark material of different patterns. It hung over a slim, middle-aged body with pallid skin and black body hair. Streaks of dirt had been smeared on both bare arms. On his head, he wore a faded but majestic top hat adorned with ostrich and peacock feathers.
He sat in the throne, creepy shapes wrought in the burnished metal, with a vacant look in his eyes.
It was Noksalika's father.
'O Calf-Colonel,' began Obship, standing proudly at the helm of the sacrificial entourage, unfurling a large prop scroll with no actual words written on it. 'We come here today…'
Her father had been a lynchpin in the revolving charade of military Committees – and somehow he was here, playing a ceremonial consultant on a different world.
'Dad?' she yelled in front of everyone. 'Dad it's me!'
'…to ask you to recognise this maiden for our holy sacrifice…'
'Dad it's me! Please! I haven't done anything!'
She began to well up, as his dark eyes looked upon her and he examined her through the Ethe.
'…as the True Chosen Maiden desired by Patogechy…'
A creeping horror came over her, rushing up from her ankles to her spine and up the back of her head; a surge of icy black water flooding upwards to drown her.
He was looking at her Ethe profile. He was looking at Tarabonitz Suhanrohan.
'Dad, Dad look at me! It's me, Noksalika!' she snivelled, tears flooding her eyes.
'…O Calf-Colonel, do you confirm the identity of this maiden?'
The whole court became quiet, the only sound Noksalika's breathing and sniffing. His sharp features remained stony as he looked at her, and nodded.
'It is her.'
A cheer went up from all those gathered in the court, both the courtiers and the visitors. Trumpets blasted on the Ethe and through the tunnel from outside.
'Dad! Dad please!'
She stood and ran up to touch him, but the guards grabbed her arms and she thrashed violently in their grip, kicking her feet against the stone floor.
'We didn't kill her!' she shrieked, sobbing pathetically as they pulled her away. 'Please, I swear, I fucking swear, we didn't kill her, we just took her profile! Please Dad!'
They dragged her out down the passage, screaming hysterically. He didn't watch her go, but just stared coldly ahead.
Emerging into daylight, Obship and Fortino both stood to the side of the drawbridge giving the gathered crowds hearty thumbs ups. Noksalika was hauled across the bridge, thrashing and screaming with abandon, her make-up a wet mess sullying her face.
The rest of the procession went by in a sick blur of exhaustion, endless ranks of excited faces mocking her as she passed. A hot flush burned down the front of her chest and belly as though her innards were too big and needed to escape.
They arrived outside the stadium, which appeared to be an enclosed cavern in its own right. Obship and Fortino and a number of hangers-on waved brightly to everyone, soaking up the glorious excitement of the event. Noksalika finally gave in to her belly and threw up all over her handlers, who immediately – and expertly – turned her upside-down and held her hair back to avoid any vomit soiling her outfit.
She was bundled into the official entrance and was met by more guards and rat-ogres who took her through a maze of passages to the dressing rooms.
The room was empty. Seats were lined up in front of mirrors surrounded by lights; all the make-up and beauty accoutrements were lined up carefully, unused. She turned round to see the Captain shutting the door behind him.
'What's going on?' she sniffed, taking a step backwards.
He smiled with big thick lips. 'My special request, sweetheart. I wanted some alone time with you.'
She backed into the wall; it was a small room, and there was nowhere else to go. He moved close and cradled her head in a brutish hand. 'I wanted to make extra sure I was your last.'
Her whole body shivered with a chill as he leant forward and licked her neck and shoulder.
'You're going to belong to Patogechy soon,' he said, 'but when you meet him, you can tell him I was your best fuck down here.'
She coughed, feeling physically ill again.
'Okay, um,' she said awkwardly. 'How about…' She blinked hard, breathing heavily. '…how about I give you something special?'
He looked at her damp, dirty face with those huge, ball-like eyes. 'What's that?'
'I always wondered,' she said softly, letting her hands drift down his muscly torso, 'if I could deepthroat you.'
He grunted instinctively as her hand made its way under his loincloth. She pushed him back with the other, and he found himself stepping back and sitting down on one of the wooden chairs by the mirrors. On the Ethe, she caressed him and buzzed him in certain erotic places, while her hands massaged his thickening cock.
'You're keen,' he smirked with an edge of suspicion. 'What's brought this on…?'
'Well I'm, I'm going to be dead in an hour, right?' She smiled at him frankly, squeezing and stroking with her hands. 'Might as well try something new…'
The Captain grinned and leaned back as she ran her tongue over the tip of his cock. 'I always knew you were a filthy fucking bitch.'
She lavished her tongue upon the head, working away with both hands. It was ridiculous – no-one could ever deepthroat a cock like this, not even Noksalika with her Ethe skills.
She pulled one hand away and moved it down between her own legs.
He grunted. 'What … what are you doing?' he said, eyes half closed.
'I just want…' Noksalika said in brief pauses from her work, '…to feel good … myself…' She pulled up her silky ceremonial dress and stroked her own parts, feeling them become moist.
She didn't use the Ethe on her mouth, or her throat. She used it between her legs.
Her insides worked, pushed, stretched with the energy of the Ethe, as she reached up inside her vagina. Her fingers came out holding the end of a small test tube, holding a black, oily substance. She held the sticky glass phial in a trembling hand.
'You know…' she said, mouth wet from saliva and his bitter-tasting pre-come, 'all those times you fucked me … there was still room for a little more.'
Then she smashed the test tube on the floor, and jammed the shattered end into his cock.
The roar was deafening as she threw herself sideways, narrowly avoiding an instinctive swipe from his fist and scrambling to the corner of the room.
'Bitch! Harlot! Whore!' he bellowed, standing up and hopping crazily on thunderous feet. The end of his cock sprayed blood everywhere; she grabbed the leg of another chair defensively and held it over her face. He reached down and pulled the tube out of his bloody cock, but let out a shrieking bull-scream as tiny glass shards were left embedded in the dribbling red-black mess.
'You fucking cunt!' he screamed, cerulean eyes bursting from his head. 'What have you done? What have you done you fucking cunt?!'
She was afraid, but steeled herself for pure terror – as she watched the change happen.
The skin over his chest darkened and stretched outwards, then ripped as a long black tongue lashed out from above his hip. Curled up in the corner behind the door, Noksalika caught a terrifying glimpse through the chair of huge teeth gnashing in his belly and his arm morphing into a spiny tentacle—
The iron door flung open and bounced off her chair as two mantrel guards leapt into the room; one instantly screamed as the Captain's arm tore into his chest, and Noksalika dropped the chair as she threw her weight into the door and knocked the other guard off-balance. She whipped around it and jerked the sword from his scabbard with one hand, shoving him in the back with the other, before leaping out into the passage.
She looked in both directions, awkwardly unzipping her scandalously slutty boots – to the left the passage ended in a door with a rusty sign overhead reading "FIRE EXIT". She ran towards it in bare feet, the sounds of horror behind her. Hurtling into the door, she plunged her hands down on the metal bar – and smacked her forehead painfully when it failed to open. Dazed, eyes screwed up, she tried to stay standing as she banged on the horizontal bar. It was broken, or locked.
'What if there was a fucking fire?' she yelled.
Behind her were shouts and footsteps – another pair of guards were pointing and running towards her, backed up by two huge rat-ogres who nearly filled the entire passageway. Noksalika made a choked gurgle. There was another turning back down the passage, but the guards were much closer, there was no way she—
A giant slimy bulk smashed through the wall sending concrete blocks into the guards' arms, shoulders and faces as a bestial rooaaaar coursed through the ground. Dust and blood accompanied their screams as Noksalika turned and scrambled into the other passageway.
It was a maze, passages and guards everywhere, and all she could do was run and run and run, until her heart leapt when she saw a bright open doorway. There was a great noise outside, an ocean of sound which grew louder as she approached, and she squeezed the hilt of the sword tightly as she ran towards the light.
She emerged – and staggered out into stadium itself.
There was a momentous pause where time somehow lost power and stopped. The stadium was a huge spherical cave, with seating and stands built all around. She stood in an open green field in the centre, bordered on two sides by rivers that met to form one large current which flowed back out of the arena.
A large wooden platform had been constructed in the middle of the field, upon which a pop band was playing, while a small army of cheerleaders and dancers performed acrobatics on the flat grass around it. Noksalika stood there dreamily, a stunning maiden in white with a sword hanging in her hand.
Then the moment ended, and the roar of the crowd flooded her senses.
'Oh my, what's this,' came the announcer's voice on the Ethe, 'our maiden appears to be really eager to get on with things!'
Guards approached her from behind; she ran across the fine grass with her white dress trailing everywhere, holding up her sword with a grim expression on her face. Cheerleaders screamed and fled upon seeing the look in her eye. The band played on uncertainly, not sure what was happening.
Noksalika saw another entrance to the field like the one she'd come from, but as soon as she changed her course towards it, more chunky rat-ogres in dark blue blazers came at her. She had a sword, but she'd never used one before, and she was now in the middle of the stadium with tens of thousands of people who'd paid to see her die…
A guard approached from behind; she swung round inexpertly with the sword, but its weight jerked her body sideways awkwardly and it was only her reflexes that pulled her shoulder out of reach. She snarled and jabbed with the sword threateningly.
The river! her instincts flashed at her, in less time than it took to think it. If she could jump in the river, the current alone could get her out.
'She's certainly a feisty one!' boomed the announcer cheerily over the music, to the excited cries of the crowd. Everybody liked a good struggle.
As the field descended into pandemonium, more guards and rat-ogres bore down on her from all directions. She turned on a grassy heel and ran headlong for the river, glinting in the light—
Noksalika was two paces from the bank when a hand grabbed the skirt of her dress and her whole body fell flat on the turf. She pulled and clawed at the fabric but in moments there were hands all over her. She was surrounded by navy security jackets and hairy brown hands gripping her ankles and elbows and neck and hair.
'Phew! That was a lucky escape. Or not, thankfully!' joked the announcer. 'I know it looks like this is an exciting part of the show, but believe me everyone, we've not scripted any of this,' he added for an audience that would never believe him.
Her head was at a funny angle; it took several moments to realise she was being taken to the stage.
'Ladies and gentlemantrels, it seems we're going to have to cut short the proceedings and get straight down to business!'
Noksalika was carried up a ramp onto the platform, which was surprisingly empty of security – they all seemed to be standing around it below. Her eyes caught glimpses of the pop band leaving the stage, disappointed looks on their faces. A huge block of black stone was wheeled out by mantrels in faded black jeans and worn t-shirts – roadies presumably – which generated further waves of rabid excitement from the crowd. Hands worked rapidly to secure her hands and feet with ropes to the four corners of the block.
'So now, let's have a final word from our maiden!' boomed the announcer again – but Noksalika was puzzled to hear it through the air in her ears, not on the Ethe.
Turning her head, she saw the figure of Adara Knollings, the High Priest, walking towards her.
He truly was dressed for the occasion. From her sideways view it looked quite confusing at first, but she saw a convoluted ice-blue hat atop his blonde head, and he wore a cloak made of dark blue feathers that trailed to the stage. His chest was bare, revealing thick brown hair over a decent paunch, while his trousers were made from some zebra-print fabric. A grossly over-decorated sword hung from a leather belt, coated in glinting gemstones and precious metals.
'O wonderful, beauteous maiden,' said the High Priest kneeling by her head. She saw that under his silly blue hat, his face was painted with multi-coloured tribal warpaint and eye make-up. 'Do you have any last words? Before we give you to Patogechy himself?'
Her mind – for whatever reason – flashed back to when she was six years old and had once been denied a third helping of ice cream at a party and had screamed "do you know who my daddy is?". The phrase repeated in her mind, making her cold and sick.
'Go to hell,' she said quietly.
The crowd roared its approval.
'Very well!' proclaimed the High Priest. 'Let us begin the ritual!'
Adara turned to the side of the stage, looking for approval. She saw Obship wearing a white coat and black goggles on his head – he gave the High Priest a cheery thumbs up, and the excited crowds suddenly hushed as the incantation began.
With his humming, the air above the stage suddenly became dark. It was probably just effects. Probably.
Looking up, Noksalika realised for the first time that not all of the sphere was covered in stands – straight above, opposite the field, was just bare grey rock.
She looked around the stage, surprised to find it relatively empty. To the right was a short bulky mantrel dressed in black, wearing a leather mask and holding a large generic axe; Noksalika retched a little on seeing him and frantically tried not to think about his rather obvious purpose. To the left, Obship stood with a small gang of other white-coated scientists checking measurements and gauges on the Ethe. She noticed Fortino had joined them. When their eyes met, he flashed her the same sour grin she had given him.
'Having fun, are we?' he said snidely over the Ethe.
Something splashed near the confluence of the rivers.
'…hooommmmm-talakoni'a-masha-fuifui-golobia…' The High Priest stood tall and strong with his eyes shut, entering some kind of trance.
Then came the sound Noksalika had been half expecting. With the crowd hushed for the ritual, almost everyone heard it – a low rumbling roar, and from somewhere a muffled crash.
She saw Obship and Fortino turn to each other, shrugging.
In the mysterious gloom that had descended, another sound came from the river. Splashing.
She breathed hard through her nose and tried to think clearly. Ropes. They had only tied her down with ropes. It could be worse. Perhaps she could use the Ethe to cut them or burn through them? If only she could figure out the restriction codes they'd put on her…
The rumbling suddenly rose into a monstrous bellow, and there was no mistaking it this time. She saw Fortino and Obship whispering in each others' ears, while the waiting crowds muttered to themselves on and off the Ethe. Was this part of the show? Maybe there was another secret surprise?
Electricity crackled in the air above as the High Priest continued his incantation.
Meanwhile, ripples in the water became a choppy disturbance across the whole width of its surface. In the dramatic half-light, the waters were dark; audience members in the lower seats craned their necks, trying to see what was there…
A small bolt of electricity darted from the wooden stage up towards the bare rock; eyes wide, it flashed on Noksalika's vision like a jagged snake in the air. She desperately returned to her Ethe profile, looking at codes and instructions and details she'd never needed to know before.
In the river, the choppy waters became a thrashing…
Another bellow sounded, and this time a much louder crash as a whole section of stands dropped by two feet. There were screams and yells as people and possessions went flying everywhere. The construction creaked; people got up and hurriedly ran towards the exits…
'Alright you,' snapped Fortino, marching toward Noksalika on her block. Anger was smeared across his bruised, charming face like a horrible stain. 'What's going on? What are you up to?'
She shrugged and opened her mouth to speak, when a large chunk of stands caved in and entire families were swallowed up collapsing rubble. An uproar rose all around the stadium, and horrible things could be seen in the darkness…
'What have you done?' shouted Obship, visibly shaking as he walked up beside Fortino. Another buzz of electricity crackled in the air.
She smiled at them both, wrenching against the ropes. 'Let me go and I'll tell you!'
There were screams and shouts now creating a tsunami of panic and fear, despite most of the audience thinking it was still an exciting part of the show. Hundreds of people were crossing small metal bridges to the field and running around in panic while guards and rat-ogres raced towards the stadium's gaping hole of detritus, and what looked like clawed tentacles snatched at those stupid enough to stay…
'What is it?'
'If you don't stop this, you little bitch, y—'
The thrashing in the river intensified, and suddenly an enormous shape erupted from the water.
The nearby crowds shrieked and Noksalika's mouth became frozen in an "O" shape as she saw a giant fish had beached itself on the riverbank.
'…eiinmuati o'fuala khallia khallio au frangé…'
'What the hell is that?' yelled Fortino over the carnage.
The fish had a huge blunt head and leered with its open jaws, sporting dozens of dagger-sized teeth. It must have been thirty feet long, with metallic eyes the size of dinner plates and its huge tail still lashing around in the water. The High Priest continued his nonsensical mumblings while Noksalika gaped. She instinctively thought it was a shark from the sea – but then saw the river was still thrashing…
Another monstrous fish-shark leapt from the water and beached itself next to the first one, soaking the riverbank. A third leapt and landed on the other side of the first, reaching closer up the bank in the direction of the stage. But when the fourth one leapt…
'No idea!' replied Obship. 'Shouldn't Marine Biosecurity have sorted this shit out? How many of them are there?'
…Noksalika watched the fourth fish land heavily on the first two fish and slide forwards, head landing in the grassy turf. The wide eyes and the open jaws were terrifying – but Noksalika struggled harder against the ropes when she suddenly understood their intention…
'They're coming this way!' shouted Fortino. 'They're building a, a fucking bridge or something!'
The river bank where they landed was at least two hundred feet away, but the giant fish were creating a slippery mat, a writhing wet surface to allow new ones to wriggle forwards, closer and closer to the sacrificial stage. A lightning flare touched one with a crackly finger and sent yellow sparks flashing along their greasy scales all the way back to the river – but they kept coming…
'What do we do?'
'Er – we've got the axe…'
'Are you kidding?'
'You think of something!'
Panting, Noksalika strained harder and harder against the ropes, snarling as she tried chewing on them.
Many of those left in their seats now ran for their lives, while much of the audience stayed and cheered even louder. They knew the authorities put on a show, and this was no disappointment.
On the grass, rat-ogres rushed up to the fish-sharks bearing clubs and metal pipes, only to be slammed out of the way or have chunks of muscle and bone ripped from their bodies. The fish seemed invincible, scales clanging like steel whenever a metal pipe struck them in vain.
'Quite a party, eh,' said a smug voice to her right. She didn't bother to turn; she knew exactly who it was. A small face had appeared in the woodwork of the stage with a long nose and piggish little eyes. 'Flashing lights, monsters, action action action. What a show!'
She ignored it – there was no time, no time for questions or feelings – and desperately carried on chewing as the High Priest mumbled on, eyes shut. Another ominous crash came from the stands, the Captain-abomination roaring with a hundred mouths.
The High Priest opened his eyes and came to a stop, staring at the snapping fish just sixty feet away to his left.
'…ashti aieo vida siessa … siessa …'
Fortino and Obship turned round. 'Don't stop! It's nearly done!'
The High Priest pressed on with the invocation, locked into the words of the spell, but faster and with his eyes open.
'You enjoying yourself?' chatted the face Piarowef cheerily. Lightning crackled in the dark air. Noksalika continued to frantically ignore him as she gnashed away at the rope round her left wrist. She was nearly through…
'…dinaari appipala o'lotu falim…'
A large crack split open the tunnel underneath the stands, and with an earth-trembling mooooaaaan the Captain-monster hauled itself into the open. Noksalika heard the others gasp as they saw it, and when she did too, a hollow feeling suddenly spread through her gut.
It was horrific. Almost none of the hulking mass was recognisable as the Captain; his legs had merged together into a large sluggish base, and new mismatched horse legs had grown from his chest, dragging the filthy bulk forwards. Tentacles and mouths had sprouted all over, shifting and changing at will, while a huge single bat wing flapped wretchedly from a new shoulder. And at the front of it all the Captain's bull head remained, swollen and blistering, bulging blue eyes swivelling in their sockets.
'…a'tari ef urvir notofa, notofa, notofa…' boomed the High Priest, hands and voice both rising as he neared the end of the incantantion, while—
—another giant fish kicked and slithered its way up towards the stage, jaws snapping. Fortino and Obship argued in terror over what to do, and even the black-suited executioner took a step back, raising his axe slightly…
'Well, I do hope you have a good time,' smiled Piarowef cheerily. 'Unfortunately I must leave you now. But I just wanted to say—'
The Captain-beast roared, devouring people whole and tearing down the stadium around the panicking crowds.
'—it's been a pleasure working with you, and I look forward to seeing you soon.'
And with that, the face was gone, leaving nothing more than a few knots in the wooden boards.
Noksalika tensed her stomach muscles and with an almighty grunting sound wrenched her wrist through the last threads of the rope. Wind whipped her hair over her face as, panting, she reached for the bonds round her right hand—
The High Priest gave a shriek and stepped backwards, but not in time to avoid the colossal mouth of a fish-shark tearing through his torso. Blood and feathers sprayed everywhere, lit up by another lightning bolt surging from the ground through the air above, body parts scattering over the stage. The fish-shark thrashed around dangerously, snapping its bloodstained teeth within feet of Fortino who shrieked and staggered backwards. The executioner tensed, took a nervous step back and ran, dropping the axe to the stage.
'Fuck!' yelled Obship, clenching his fists in terror. 'What do we do now? What do we do?!'
'Grab the axe!' shouted back Fortino. 'The incantation is complete, he said enough of it! Grab the axe, grab the fucking axe!'
Noksalika snarled as she tugged with one hand at the rope's knots, kicking her feet uselessly against the bonds. The stadium was a maelstrom, broken masonry hurled everywhere by the monstrous Captain-fiend as mantrel guards tried in vain to slay it; lumps of electricity flared and snapped violently in the gale-force winds that were tearing off banner poles and seats from the stands.
Another giant fish landed heavily on the stage, causing one corner to collapse; everyone on the platform lurched, while a stray floorboard flipped and knocked Obship to the floor, feet dangling in the wooden wreckage.
'Fuck help me, help me!' screamed Obship, limbs flailing.
Fortino ran and snatched the mighty axe, which clearly weighed almost as much as he did, and hefted it up into both hands as he approached the sacrificial block.
—she nearly had the second rope undone, she nearly had it—
'Help me fuuaaaaaaaagh—' shrieked Obship as the jaws of a fish-shark took his legs and lower body, scything through his intestines and spine.
Fortino was impassive as Obship's upper body continued to scream in horror, arms and fingers spasming, blood and phlegm spraying from his mouth. He gripped the axe, feeling its weight in his hands, working it out.
Everything had gone to shit, but he had one role here, and history would see that he carried it out.
He raised the axe—
Noksalika would have liked to believe her last words were meaningful, profound even. But like most people here, at the end of their lives, heart pounding and adrenaline jangling and bile pumping in her guts, all she could say was 'Fuckshitcuntfuckfuckfuckcuntfu—'
Fortino swung the axe into her raised chest like felling a tree, carving through her collarbones and neck.
Her head rolled off the altar and hit the stage heavily, resting on its side.
With a flash of horror her eyes snapped wide open, as she realised she could still see. All she could feel was a slight sting across her neck, but for a few seconds she could still see…!
The last thing she saw was Fortino standing against the dark background of the stadium, aghast at her face, and another gigantic fish leaping to rip through his head and torso.
And then a huge bolt of lightning tore through the air towards her. Everything went black, and Noksalika died.