Even though I’ve never set eyes on it before, I know the creature crashing through the forest towards us is The Questing Beast. Perhaps it’s the gnashing rows of razor-sharp teeth, the fearsome curved yellow claws or the blood-soaked black pelt … or perhaps instead it’s my inner sense of danger, alerting me to wherever it exists.
Or perhaps it’s down to the fact the brute’s got a big metal disc hanging from a black studded leather collar around its neck with “Questing Beast” engraved on it.
‘Get back!’ I leap forward, instinctively putting myself between the monster and Lancelot. My companion is quivering with fear, his unwounded knee trembling. I draw my sawn-off shotgun and aim it at the beast’s head.
‘Beware my lady!’ His voice is shrill. ‘The Beast cannot be harmed by —‘
His words are lost amidst the deafening explosion from my firearm. My sawn-off is one of my favourites, its polished teak handle comforting in my grip. But it’s the ammunition which really makes the difference. Thrice-blessed bullets, laced with an exquisite cocktail of poisons which disperses across a ten-foot radius when the high-explosive tips make contact with their target. The combination has never failed me once.
But then I guess there’s a first time for everything.
Despite the noxious green cloud enveloping its body, The Questing Beast hasn’t even broken stride. All the shotgun blast appears to have done to it is make it even angrier. And closer.
Pistols. They’re the only thing I have which have a chance of working at this range. I whip them out from their holsters, the filigree on the Derringers glinting wickedly. I squeeze both triggers repeatedly, firing bullet after bullet at the Beast’s advancing body.
They’re as effective as peas against a pachyderm. I empty both weapons nevertheless, hoping that at least one of the enchanted bullets finds a way to penetrate the monster’s defences.
But my hope is in vain. And now it’s full ferocity is bearing down on me.
Claws slash at me, slicing through the air as they swoop towards my throat. I duck and weave, avoiding the creature’s swipes, then roll to one side, narrowly avoiding the deathtrap clamp of its jaws.
My weapons are useless; all I now have are my agility and my wits. And I get the distinct feeling that neither are going to be of much use to me here.
And now, with the Questing Beast’s slavering maw millimetres from my face, I don’t know what is.
I brace myself, preparing for the end. In my line of work, I’m ready for it. I’ve faced that particular demon many times in the past, until I have neither fear nor regrets at the thought of my own untimely, hideous and agonising death. I close my eyes …
… and that’s when it happens.
The pain is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Every single tooth in my skull feel as though it’s being dragged out by the roots; my arms and legs buckle in blistering pain, as if my bones have been shattered in a hundred different places. My spine is a chain of agony, from top to tail.
I am wolf.
‘My lady!’ The voice seems to come from a dream within a dream. ‘My lady! Scarlett, wake up!’
I crack open my eyes, groaning in pain. I feel cold, then realise with a start that I’m completely naked. I glance around in panic, seeing the shredded remains of my cloak lying in a crimson heap close by. Beside another, more organic, crimson heap. Which is still twitching.
‘My lady, you did it!’ Lancelot is kneeling at my side. I instinctively cover my modesty with my hands, then remember my erstwhile companion is blind as a brick. ‘You achieved the impossible!’
‘Uh … I … what?’ My head feels like the Needlessly Numerous Marching Band Of The Badlands have taken residence inside. ‘What did I do?’
‘You slew The Questing Beast, my lady! With your bare hands!’
I stare at my palms. They’re soaking. Red.
Then I stare at the mass of flesh and gore where The Questing Beast used to be.
Then I turn over my hands and see the grey fur receding back into the pores of my skin as I watch.
And then I laugh harder than I’ve ever laughed in my life.