Read Terry’s latest story!
Falling into the dark cells below the arena was like descending into the void.
Ptera landed heavily, the dark sand-covered stones rising to meet her like a punch to the gut. She heaved for breath and rolled onto her back.
‘Cole?’ She gasped, coughing as she breathed a lungful of the cell’s dusty air. ‘Cole, where are you?’
‘I’m here,’ he answered, invisible in the blackness.
She felt about, searching for his hand. Instead, she found something smooth and round. Her hand closed on it, and it was a second before she felt the tiny pinpricks of insect legs searching for purchase across her palm.
She shrieked and threw the horrid creature into the darkness.
‘Hey. Hey, it’s okay,’ her brother said, coming to her side and wrapping an arm around her shoulder. ‘I’m here.’
‘I’m scared, Cole,’ she said. Around them, unseen bodies shuffled—the other prisoners. They didn’t approach. In the distance, someone wept.
‘Don’t be. We’ll find a way out. You always find a way out, remember?’
She rubbed her eyes. ‘Yeah.’
‘Then it’s only a matter of time. No need to be afraid,’ he said. ‘Remember what uncle Patu used to say—“Fear is what you make it”.’
‘Yeah,’ she agreed, staring into the blackness and folding into the safety of his embrace. ‘Fear is what you make it.’
‘Come on, little buddy, where are you?’ Ptera said in a singsong voice as she lifted the rock in the corner of their cell.
‘Miss?’ a scrawny kid answered from behind her. She nearly dropped the rock in sudden fright.
‘I wasn’t talking to you, Egg.’ She waved him away. ‘I told you not to come over here. Go bother Cole.’
‘Yes’m.’ He slinked away. Ptera returned her attention to the crack she’d exposed under the rock. She clicked her tongue, and the beetle hiding within clicked back in response.
‘There you are. I knew you were in there somewhere,’ she said. She lifted the armoured critter out with one hand, using the action to mask the bundle she lifted out with the other. She tucked the hidden package under her shirt as she stood, moulding the gelatinous bag into the sling she’d hidden underneath her chest.
‘Come on, Patu. It’s showtime.’
The bug chirruped as she set it on her shoulder and stepped backwards into the bustle of the cell. Armour clanked and leather squeaked as her squad readied itself around her.
As she lowered her arm, she noticed a small amount of dimly luminous green fluid had leaked from the bag onto the back of her hand. She hurriedly reached for her gloves, pulling them on before anyone else had time to notice.
‘Two minutes!’ a hoarse voice cried down the corridor. The guard by the heavy iron door set its key in place, ready to turn at the correct moment.
Deimos stepped beside her, crouching so he didn’t bump his head on the ceiling.
‘Sure you want to do this?’ he asked in a low rumble.
Ptera stretched, dancing on the spot as she warmed herself up. ‘We’re not going to get a better chance.’
‘I guess not,’ Deimos said, looking to where Cole stood with Egg, adjusting the straps of the kid’s bandolier to fit his gangly frame. ‘Have you told him?’
‘It’s hardly going to work if we tell him,’ Ptera said, strapping a light cloth shield to her left arm.
‘I mean Cole.’
Ptera paused mid-cinch. ‘No,’ she admitted.
Deimos shook his head. ‘This is a bad idea.’
‘Well, three years in this stinkhole and it’s the only idea we’ve got.’ She tightened the belt and met Deimos’s bloodshot eyes. ‘You going to be ready?’
The big man yawned and massaged his face. He looked exhausted. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Been long enough.’
‘Good. Go tell Sendi and Khandi. But quietly.’
‘What are you going to do?’
She stepped past Deimos and walked towards her brother.
‘I’m going to make sure our Egg is ready to hatch.’
‘But miss, I can’t see.’
‘That’s the idea,’ Ptera said as she knotted the cloth around the kid’s eyes.
‘We’ll take it off before you get in the arena, okay?’ Cole said, patting the kid’s shoulder. ‘Whatever you do—whatever you hear, you don’t take this off before we get to the end of the tunnel, yeah?’
The kid’s enormous adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed. He nodded.
‘Good lad.’ Cole patted him on the shoulder and gently pulled Ptera away.
‘So. Today’s the day,’ he whispered.
‘Today’s the day,’ she whispered back. Before them, Egg fidgeted with his blindfold.
Cole scratched at his left armpit, rolling his shoulder as though it pained him.
‘You okay?’ she asked.
‘I’m fine,’ he said.
‘Let me see. If you’ve been hurt—’
He pushed her probing hands back. ‘I’m fine, Ptera. It’s nothing. Like always.’
‘I just . . . I need to know you can do what I need you to.’
He met her gaze, a smirk tugging the edge of his mouth. ‘Sure.’
‘TIME!’ the gaoler hollered, rapping the bars of the cell with the shaft of his spear as he swung the door open with his other hand. ‘Time to die! Get going, you lot!’
Ptera and Cole shared a look.
‘Well then,’ he said. ‘Good luck.’
‘Keep it,’ she replied. ‘I’ve got a plan.’
The crowded tunnel echoed with noise, though the prisoners shuffling towards the blinding light at the end of it said nothing.
‘What’s that sound, miss?’ Egg asked, breathless as he struggled to keep pace with the prisoners surrounding him—Ptera’s hand-picked squad.
‘Just the crowd,’ she said, cocking her own ear to the crashing sound of stamping, clapping and cheers. It reminded her of the ocean, of the shack where she and Cole had spent a year caring for their uncle Patu as he slipped away piece by piece. Her heart ached for the peace she’d felt in those days, even amidst the sorrow.
‘No, the . . . other sounds,’ Egg whimpered between ragged breaths.
‘Ah,’ she confirmed. ‘Those.’
She looked at the corridor walls as they ran, at scenes of horror painted with painstaking detail and animated to near-realism through sorcery. She had spent so long with the groaning, wailing facsimiles that she’d almost grown inured to their presence. Her gaze lingered on the closest as they passed it by; an image of a woman holding both hands to the side of her misshapen head. Her fingers were bent backwards, curling and splitting into pus-dripping tentacles while a new, hairy hand with yellow fingernails erupted from her mouth. The picture made a gagging sound as they passed it, as the woman choked on the intruding limb.
‘Best not to dwell on it,’ she said to Egg, and patted him on the shoulder.
The column of prisoners moved quickly through the oppressive sequence of pictures. Some of the newer prisoners’ steps faltered as they became transfixed by a horror that particularly resonated with them. Ptera’s squad kept pace, knocking them out of the way as necessary to maintain Egg’s forward momentum. The city’s halberdiers bringing up the rear would ensure those who dallied met their fate one way or another.
They neared the gate, and Deimos surged ahead of the rest of Ptera’s squad. He shouldered the other prisoners aside, ensuring that Egg had a clear path to the final terror on the tunnel wall.
When they got close, Sendi raised the corner of her shield into the loop Ptera had knotted into Egg’s blindfold, and kicked the boy’s heel.
He went down like a sack of bones, the blindfold whipping off. Cole reached forward to help the boy up, but Ptera clutched his forearm in an iron grip.
‘No,’ she hissed at him. He looked at her in shock.
And on the ground, Egg screamed.
His eyes were fixed on the painting before him. A picture of a bearded man in the centre of the arena, his face turned skyward and his mouth hanging in a rictus of agony. The source of his pain was obvious, thanks to the angle—as they watched, the animated picture showed the moment the man’s eyes burst open, their fluid cascading down his face as pearly white incisors grew like overlapping scales from the depths of his eye sockets. The image snapped back, cycling the moment of horrific emergence over and over again.
Egg wailed incoherently as he scrabbled backwards in the sand, unable to bear the sight but equally unable to tear his own eyes away.
Before them, the grate rattled open, and the prisoners spilled into the arena.
Cole snatched his arm from Ptera’s grasp, and for a moment their gaze locked. His face, usually a mirror to hers in every respect, was flushed with betrayal and shock.
‘It’s the only way,’ she said as their fellow prisoners flowed past them and on to the bleached sand of the arena.
‘If you really think that’—he bent and lifted the gibbering teenager to his feet—‘you lack imagination.’
Ptera turned to Deimos and Khandi.
‘Get them to the centre,’ she said. She locked eyes with Sendi, who nodded, teeth bared in excitement.
‘We’ll clear you a path.’
As always, Ptera’s vision flared as she exited the tunnels and exchanged their darkness for the blinding light of the arena. She jinked to the left as she felt the sand under her feet, instinctively avoiding the opposition’s Mutaballs that were already arcing towards the tunnel entrance.
‘And here they are, gentle citizens of Coronis,’ the arena commentator’s magically enhanced voice boomed across the crowd’s sudden roar. ‘The all-time champions of the arena and your homegrown favourites, let’s give it up for the twins . . . without . . . fear!’
If it weren’t for the green-tinted magical barrier that separated the crowd from the arena’s combatants, the crescendo of support would have been deafening.
‘But can their team surmount today’s opponents? Perhaps this time, only one of them will survive? Who will it be, folks, Cole or Ptera? Place your bets now, before it’s too late!’
Ptera closed her ears to the prattle and assessed the scene in front of her. Today, the arena had been constructed to resemble a decaying temple, with decrepit cornices, pillars, and half-toppled statues providing a smattering of cover across the wide sandy battleground. Her delay with Egg at the entrance had allowed her opponents to fan out into the arena and claim many of the most defensible positions. The Mutaball caches on their side were almost entirely depleted, too, with runners bringing armfuls of the magical grenades back to where their teammates huddled at the ready.
She twisted as she ran to avoid the arc of a Mutaball thrown her way. It splashed behind her, the sand of the arena rendering it inert, and another cheer went up at the close call. She waved at Sendi, pointing towards an outcrop of fallen stone on the eastern side of the arena, where some of their own teammates were huddled. A haphazard rain of Mutaballs spattered on the stone around them.
Sendi surged in their direction, readying her shield for any Mutaballs that came her way. Ptera took off towards the centre of the arena, and her own team’s closest weapons cache. She reached the wooden crate with relative ease, and bent to grasp a handful of the glowing spheres, each about half the width of her palm.
With her head down, the roar of the crowd was her only warning. She spun, batting her left arm through the air, and catching the Mutaball which had nearly claimed her on the wooden corner of her shield. For a heart-stopping moment she thought the impact would have been enough to rupture the ball, but it sent the ball spinning straight up instead. She set a foot on the crate below her and leaped into the air after it. She caught it in her gloved right hand and, as she fell back to the sand, she sighted a competitor on the opposite side of the arena, running back to his teammates with a double handful of jiggling green orbs.
Her aim honed by her years in the arena, she sent her reclaimed Mutaball directly for him. It smacked into his back with an impact she could almost hear from where she was, and the unfortunate prisoner stumbled. He fell face-first into the stash of Mutaballs he had been carrying, which ruptured under his weight.
The crowd roared in excitement as the man thrashed and screamed, his cries morphing into hoglike grunts as the mutagenic magic began to work on him. He stood and ran at his teammates in a mad frenzy, tusks and teeth erupting through his green-stained cheeks and neck. He attacked them indiscriminately, lost in the terror of what he’d become as his teammates scrambled to escape.
‘There!’ Ptera screamed to her own team, pointing at the scene as she set a sandaled foot on the side of the crate and kicked it skidding across the sand towards them. Patu, dislodged by her sudden movements, buzzed back to nestle on her shoulder.
Sendi and the prisoners she’d been defending snatched up the Mutaballs as they spilled from the crate, and turned them on the unfortunate prisoners breaking cover on the other side of the arena. Mutaball after Mutaball smacked into them, and they went down screaming one by one, twitching in the sand to arise as barely recognisable horrors.
One of their opponents was not content to meet such a fate. He threw his shield aside and back-pedalled from the charnel zone, looking for a clear space. As soon as he found one he stopped and, with a look of intense concentration on his face, began turning with his arms half-extended at waist level, palms facing down. Below him the sand began to whip into a spiral, moving faster and faster until he rose into the air.
‘Sorcerer!’ Sendi spat as Ptera joined her defense of their now-armed teammates from the top of a half-sunken wall. Their shields spun in a blur as they sent every Mutaball thrown at them bouncing back in the direction it had come.
Ptera matched her friend’s disdain. ‘See what good it gets him,’ she said.
On the other side of the arena the sorcerer rose steadily, the wind he had generated around him whipping any stray Mutaballs aside as he rose—straight into the magical dome which separated the combatants from the crowd.
A rolling ‘ooooooooh’ of sympathy erupted from the stands as the would-be escapee’s skin peeled from his flesh where it passed through the barrier, then set alight in bright green flame. He shrieked in agony as his concentration broke, and crashed back to the sand in a smouldering heap.
‘Oh dear!’ the commentator boomed over the rapture of the crowd. ‘The Second Son of Samuel learns the hard way that in the arena, your only choices are to fight or to die! Give a big hand to our barrier crew today, folks!’
Equidistant around the top of the arena’s stone wall, four exhausted-looking sorcerers each raised a hand to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. They kept their other hand resolutely extended over the battlefield, maintaining the constant flow of magical energy which created the deadly barrier that stopped prisoners and Mutaballs alike from passing through.
Cole fought his way to his sister’s side, lobbing a Mutaball straight down the throat of one of their teammates, who had been transformed into some sort of five-legged wolf–ox hybrid. The creature choked as its airways swelled with sudden mutagenic growth.
‘Ptera,’ he said as he climbed shoulder to shoulder with her, falling into her defensive pattern with the ease that came from years of training. ‘We have to call it off.’
‘Are you insane? This is going perfectly—there’s less than half of them left!’
‘Ptera, they have sorcerers! Night knows how many! If they . . . if you got—’
Ptera spared a glance to Deimos, who had torn a fragment of masonry free to use in place of the tiny canvas shield he’d been issued. Beside him, Egg quivered in terror.
‘Don’t forget what we’ve got,’ she reminded him. Cole followed her gaze.
‘You can’t be serious,’ he said as a Mutaball whizzed through the space between them. ‘They’re pinned down. There’s no way to get him where we need him!’
‘Just for once, would you trust I’ve got things under control?’ she said, uncinching her shield and tossing it to him. She flashed him a challenging look.
‘Think you can keep up?’ she asked, and vaulted backward off the masonry, landing defenseless in the centre of the arena.
The crowd exploded in excitement as she strode away from her teammates and towards certain death.
Patu clicked beside her ear.
‘Don’t worry, little buddy,’ she said as she stretched dramatically for the crowd, using the moment to mark the position of her opponents. ‘Fear is what you make it.’
She felt the bug scuttle beneath the folds of her armour.
‘Fine. Be like that.’
A hailstorm of Mutaballs arced through the air, directly for her. She grinned, and burst forward, kicking up the arena’s white sand in her wake.
She wove easily through most of that first volley, directed at where she had been standing instead of where she was going. But whether by accident or design a handful had fallen short, and she found herself charging directly into their path. She jinked around the first few, her feet sliding through the loose sand as she called on every ounce of balance she’d first learned climbing through mansion windows and later honed in the arena. As they began to fall around her, she kicked herself into a cartwheel, grabbing an unexploded Mutaball from the ground as she did so. She came back to her feet and lobbed it in front of her as she ran.
The prisoner hiding behind the stonework she’d targeted dropped his head as the Mutaball exploded across his cover. By the time he raised himself to look back out, Ptera was on top of him. She reached over the barrier and smacked the man’s head forward into the stone with a crack.
Beside her, a volley of Mutaballs burst against the stone. A cold wetness sprayed across her cheek and she dove forward, leaping the barrier and turning her momentum into a roll. As she came up on the other side, she flowed into a twisting kick straight into the midsection of another prisoner who had been readying a Mutaball above his head. She caught it as he fell, sending it into the face of the last enemy behind the barrier before she dropped a knee to crush the first prisoner’s throat.
As he died, she raised a hand to the side of her face. It came back wet. She wiped the luminous green fluid on her armour.
Behind her, she heard Cole’s defiant roar as he followed her charge into the final enemy nest, and half-turned to see him using a shield on each arm to send Mutaballs directly back to their throwers. He, too, vaulted over the stonework to the relative safety behind the barricade, laying about the other prisoners like a madman.
Above them, the crowd began chanting their names. Before the noise could reach fever pitch, she turned back to where she had entered the arena and shrieked, ‘GO! Go now!’
Deimos and Khandi rose from their hiding place like the tide, holding the kicking and screaming Egg between them. They jogged to the very centre of the opponent-free arena and stopped under the apex of the magical dome.
And as Deimos held the boy still, Khandi reached into her bandolier and pulled a Mutaball free.
And smashed it into Egg’s eyes.
The kid shrieked as Deimos shoved him aside and alongside Khandi, beat a hasty retreat towards Ptera and Cole.
Behind Deimos, Egg clutched his face with both hands and stumbled forward. Red fluid cascaded through his fingers. He sobbed, and stumbled on a fragment of stone. As he sprawled to the ground, his arms were knocked free, and Ptera saw the telltale glisten of pearly white enamel bursting forth from the pulpy mess of his eye sockets.
‘Hey everybody, it looks like we’ve got one last Mutie down there—and it’s a shambler!’ the announcer called. ‘Get your gloves on and buy yourself a bucket of balls—what a way to finish the day!’
Ptera looked up, through the shimmering magical barrier as the dome’s sorcerers shared dubious glances—they must have noticed the deliberate nature of Egg’s blinding. Behind them, the crowd began to boo. A few Mutaballs sizzled into nothing as they hit the top of the impermeable barrier.
‘Come on,’ Ptera whispered.
Eventually, as the tide of the crowd turned more inexorably against them, the sorcerers around the arena lowered their arms, and the magical barrier dissipated. As they did every time a prisoner was blinded. Without fail.
Dozens, hundreds of Mutaballs sailed through the air towards Egg as the gleeful audience—secure in the protection of their curved-back stadium seating—took their opportunity to participate in the horror. More than a few used their chance to lob an opportunistic potshot at Ptera, but compared to the do-or-die assault she had just survived, it was a simple matter to avoid them. Around the arena, the remaining prisoners huddled desperately in cover as the crowd’s mutaballs rained down—only to shriek in terror as Sendi danced behind the barriers and, laughing, dispatched them herself with a combination of Mutaballs and simple brutality. Ptera shook her head in satisfaction as her handpicked squad became the arena’s only survivors—that girl sure loved to kill.
The crowd didn’t react to the murders—they were focused on Egg.
He squealed and thrashed as Mutaball after Mutaball burst across his quivering flesh, each promoting a more horrific growth than the last. Fingers grew out of his ears and his hair fell out as cracked toenails grew in to replace it. His back hunched as his spine distorted, growing spikes which pierced through his ragged clothing and erupted through his stomach. He lifted his head and roared, and Ptera saw that his tongue had grown a face as well, just as horrified by what was happening as the rest of him. Gradually, his swollen flesh burst through his skin and kept growing as a shapeless mass, burying the kid beneath the weight of his terror.
And the audience loved it.
‘Now!’ Ptera cried as Sendi joined them, and together the squad rushed the centre of the arena. They warded off or danced between the slowing torrent of Mutaballs that fell towards the heaving fleshy mass which had been Egg. Sendi and Khandi each pulled a Mutaball free of their bandolier and tossed them to Ptera, who snatched them out of the air as they raced forward. Near the centre, the two women surged forward and dropped into a crouch, their shields held together.
Ptera leaped, and as she landed on the taut cloth, they straightened, launching her skyward.
The crowd gasped as Ptera spun through the air and sent a Mutaball flying from each hand—directly into two of the sorcerers responsible for the magical barrier. They screamed and jerked backwards, falling off their place on the stone wall where they would arise moments later as mindless, rampaging beasts.
Ptera hung in the air for a brief, weightless moment at the apex of her leap, her heart soaring with sudden hope
And an errant Mutaball hit her directly across the left side of her face.
She fell to the ground like a stone.
But before she dashed against the sand below, a cushion of air whipped into existence around her. She tumbled through it, gaining control of her slowed motion enough to come to rest in a squat. She wiped the green Mutjuice from her eye and looked towards the wind’s source.
Deimos stood like a force of nature, one hand directed towards her and the other spraying a gout of flame towards the remaining barrier sorcerers. Once he saw she had alighted safely, he turned his full attention back to the sorcerers above, overwhelming their hastily-constructed magical defenses with ease. Their magic reserves would have been severely depleted from maintaining the barrier through the entire match thus far—whereas Ptera and Cole had taken turns keeping Deimos awake and absorbing the ambient magic in the cells for most of the preceding week, hoarding it for this very moment.
Cole rushed to her side, but Sendi moved to block him.
‘She’s hit,’ the warrior woman snarled.
‘She’s my sister!’
Cole shouldered past Sendi. He reached Ptera as she was staggering to her feet.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked, searching her face for any sign of mutation.
“Yeah,’ she nodded.
‘I wasn’t talking to you,’ he said with a lopsided, trembling grin. His eyes glistened with tears he struggled to blink back. ‘I was talking to Patu.’
‘Him? He’s fine,’ she said, reaching under her armour and scooping the beetle from her shoulder. ‘The Mutjuice slides right off that carapace of his.’
Patu clicked in apparent agreement.
‘What the night is happening here?’ Sendi demanded, still holding her shield and a Mutaball cocked at the ready.
‘Escape first! Explanations later!’ Deimos snapped impatiently as he directed another gout of flame across the top of the stadium seats, dissolving a flurry of Mutaballs which the braver members of the fleeing audience had lobbed at them.
‘Everyone together,’ Ptera shouted. She waved Sendi and Khandi closer to Deimos, and gripped her brother’s arm.
‘Okay, magic man—do your thing.’
Deimos grunted, and lowered his palms much as the ill-fated Second Son of Samuel had done earlier. But instead of whipping up a dust storm to lift them into the air he instead used his power to fuse the sand together beneath their feet, and levitated the entire thing.
Perspiration broke out across the big man’s face. His lips quivered with the exertion of maintaining his grip on the sorcery. Ptera reached out and took his closest hand, intertwining her fingers with his and letting him grip her for strength. He breathed deep, and they began to accelerate out of the arena. He turned and grinned madly at Ptera. Two and a half years of unspoken feeling between them crystallised in the power of that gaze.
‘I can’t believe we’re finally getting out of here,’ he said.
And his head disappeared in a burst of red gore.
Ptera’s world froze in a moment that lasted forever. Deimos’s headless body pitched forward and the platform beneath the escapees lost cohesion. They fell together to the red-and-green-soaked sand of the arena.
Ptera scrabbled forward on her hands and knees, swimming through the sand to where Deimos and her brother lay.
‘No, no, no, no,’ she pleaded. ‘Not both of you. Please, Gods, not both of you.’
Beside the fallen sorcerer, Cole coughed as he struggled to draw air into his winded chest.
‘Ptera? Ptera, where are you?’ He gasped.
‘I’m here,’ she said, reaching out to touch his arm. ‘It’s okay, I’m here.’
‘We were so close,’ he rasped. He tried to raise himself on one arm, then winced and held his right side. He spat a stringy gobbet of blood into the sand. ‘What happened?’
Ptera turned her gaze to the top of the arena wall. ‘Sorcery,’ she replied.
Hovering in the air above the terrified crowd was, indeed, a sorcerer. And not any sorcerer—his jet-black robe, sallow cheeks and the deep circles under his eyes betrayed him as one of the city-state of Coronis’s premier sorcerers. He looked down on the huddled survivors with a supercilious smirk, visibly delighted that Ptera had finally noticed him.
‘I must say I was terribly worried today’s entertainment was going to be dull,’ he said. His voice echoed around the arena—apparently using the same magical trick favoured by the arena’s commentator. ‘But a daring escape staged by the notorious twins without fear themselves? How dramatic!’ He floated closer, and came to rest above the quivering mound of flesh which had been Egg.
The sorcerer peered closer at what was left of the boy, then straightened and held up a hand. A thin disc of sharpened ice coalesced out of the air between his fingers. He chewed the side of his lip for a moment before he shrugged, turned, and sent the disk spinning towards Khandi instead. It buried itself in her chest and she squawked in surprise, sinking to her knees as her mouth dribbled blood.
‘Bastard!’ Sendi screamed, pulling a pair of Mutaballs free of her bandolier and leaping towards the sorcerer, who was now prodding the Egg mound with a foot and giggling as the lumpy mass keened in response. Without turning, he raised an open hand and closed it into a fist, and Sendi’s head crunched in on itself in a crumpled mess just as Deimos’s had done. The woman’s body collapsed to the sand and spasmed for too long before it finally lay still.
‘Predictable. Boring and predictable,’ he remonstrated, tutting sadly. ‘However . . .’
He canted his head to look at Ptera as he pulled his outstretched hand back toward himself. She felt an invisible grip close around her neck and she lurched forward, as though she were falling directly to him. She slammed to a stop as violently as the movement had begun, hanging in the air an arm’s length from the sorcerer.
‘Now this. This is intriguing,’ he said as he reached out and forced her chin sideways, scrutinising the still-luminescent Mutjuice that clung to her face.
‘No wonder you two have managed to survive in the arena so famously long. But I wonder, are you truly without any fear at all, or is there something in your blood which is making this possible? Perhaps I should collect a sample for further study?’
Behind her, Ptera heard her brother cough; a wet, horrible hack.
‘You leave her alone!’ he commanded.
The sorcerer peered around Ptera, looking past her with disdain.
‘Oh my goodness, he’s not looking well at all. Perhaps I should gather my sample from him, before it becomes too late?’
Ptera surged in his invisible grasp, kicking and scrabbling at the air. He met her gaze and a sense of understanding blossomed across his face.
‘Ahhhhh, so that’s it, then. Of course it would be so simple—the Mutjuice is famously terrible at working with abstract fears; the fear of being forgotten, the fear of emptiness—the fear of losing a brother. It’s why we line the tunnels from the cells with those delightfully concrete images. These events are always so much better when the prisoners have something terrible at the forefront of their mind.’ He looked back to Cole and raised his arm. He smiled. ‘I can’t wait to see what you’ll become once I turn your brother inside out. Perhaps your special bond will cause your mutations to emulate whatever I do to him, hmm?’’
‘If . . . you . . . think . . . that . . .’ Ptera gasped around his iron grip.
‘Yes?’ the sorcerer asked and leaned forward, almost politely.
‘You . . . lack . . . imagination,’ she said, and punched herself in the centre of her chest.
The sack which she had strapped there at the start of the fight—the sack containing all of the Mutjuice she had managed to scrape from her armour and hoard since the moment she discovered the magical substance had no hold over her—burst and sent a stream of luminescent green fluid cascading down her front.
Ptera focused on the feeling of Patu’s needle-like legs against the skin of her shoulder, and let herself give in to fear.
Ptera felt her bones crunch and crack as the Mutjuice soaked through her skin and her flesh, reaching to her very core. Her body swelled and grew as her limbs distended and her spine burst apart. Her vision splintered into a dozen, then a hundred hexagonal fragments and she felt the plates of her skull sliding apart, reshaping her into something . . . different.
She bellowed, tossing her now-armoured head from side to side, testing the weight of the bony horn that extruded from her face. She dropped to all fours—no, all six—and felt her muscles, nerves and organs reshaping around the bone which now grew out to cover her body in thick, chitinous armour plating.
The sorcerer floated backwards, then stumbled to the sand as his concentration was shattered by Ptera’s sudden transformation. He reached forward, opening and closing his hand to no effect. He raised both hands, sending a gout of flame to wash over her. It swept harmlessly over her glistening white shell.
In the dim recesses of her terrified mind, Ptera saw a small man in front of her turn and dash away. She blinked, confused and enraged by her pain. She felt her thoughts and her memories slipping away, replaced only by a powerful hatred for this little . . . insect.
She thundered forward, pinning the insignificant human on the end of her mighty horn and ramming him into the arena wall. She ground him from side to side, painting the wall purple as his belly burst and his entrails smeared across the stone.
The air around her thrummed with vibrations, and she turned to their nearest source. Another small human waved at her from the sand. She reared up, ready to strike, but this human didn’t run. It staggered forward slowly, hands before it. It coughed, and as it got closer she could see it was injured. A wave of sadness swept through her, washing away the pain and the terror—there was something significant about this, she knew.
She chittered forward, and the human reached out to pat her on the side of her horn—which had grown as tall as he was.
‘Next time you come up with an escape plan as shitty as this one, maybe talk it over with me first, eh sis?’ the human said.
Ptera huffed as the human stepped forward and boldly clambered on to her. He wrapped his arms around her horn, and she flexed the place where her shoulder blades used to be. She unfurled her thin, membranous wings, and the air around her droned as she built up their speed, lifting her impossibly large body off the ground and soaring into the sky, leaving the arena far behind.
The ocean was alight with the setting sun as they landed the beach in front of their Uncle Patu’s shack.
The creature that had been his sister swung its head low, and Cole dropped to the sand. He pressed a hand to his throbbing side and coughed. A commingled spray of spittle and blood speckled his fist—thankfully, clearer than it had been in the arena.
He stepped back from Ptera, who settled into an awkward-looking squat which straddled the line between human and insectoid behaviour.
‘I don’t know if you can still hear me like that—or if you’re even still in there somewhere,’ he said, searching her enormous, multi-faceted eyes for any sign of the sister he’d known. ‘But we made it. We’re finally free.’
The creature tossed its head in response. From somewhere within the overlapping bony plate, the beetle she’d kept as a pet fluttered out and buzzed in a confused orbit around them both.
‘Hey, Patu.’ Cole grinned, holding out a finger. The beetle landed, twitching its antennae.
‘You and me both, pal,’ Cole said. ‘But then, when have you ever known one of her plans to go off without a hitch? For one thing, she’s not nearly as sneaky as she thinks she is.’
He reached into his shirt, fumbling around his armpit. When he pulled his hand free, he was holding a large sac similar to the one Ptera had used to hoard her hidden Mutjuice.
‘I mean, really,’ Cole continued as he set the beetle down on the sand. ‘You guys spent half your time over by that rock; it wasn’t hard to figure out she was keeping more there than just you.’ He looked back up at his sister. ‘And did you really think I’d never seen you getting hit in the arena?’
The creature chittered, almost abashedly.
‘In any case, it’s a miracle this didn’t rupture when I hit the sand. What a waste that would have been. And speaking of waste, you’d better open wide. Don’t want this running off you like it does with Patu.’
The creature sat back and, after a few moments where Cole didn’t dare to breathe, dropped it’s mandibles open. He smiled.
‘There you are,’ he said. ‘I knew you were in there somewhere. Don’t lose sight of that.’ He hefted the sac in his hand, feeling its weight before he drew his arm back.
‘And remember,’ he reminded her, ‘fear is what you make it.’
Thank you for reading Mutaball! by Terence MacManus. This is the Standard version, which does not include the author’s reflection on the piece. You can unlock the Premium version of the publication for FREE by subscribing to Terry Talks Fiction using the link here.
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This story takes place in the same fictional universe as The Arrogance of Barnabas, which is available as subscriber-only premium content. A publically-available audiobook version of the story can be found in Episode Two of the Terry Talks Fiction podcast.