‘I … I’m going to die?’ Cecil’s nose quivers. ‘But … but … I have so much music still left in me!’
‘Lance,’ I say, my voice sharp. ‘That wasn’t exactly very sensitive of you.’
‘Sensitive or no, my lady, it is the truth. My sight does not lie, and nor do I.’
‘How ..?’ Cecil’s voice is a tremble. ‘How do I meet my end?’
‘Yes,’ I add, ‘tell us everything you can. Then we can try and stop it.’
‘The fates cannot be stopped,’ says Lance, ‘once they have woven their patterns upon the celestial loom, they cannot be unravelled.’
‘Oh, shove your knightly garbage up your pipe-hole, Lance. I refuse to believe our futures are set on a path we can’t change. What if Cecil decides to leave and go back to the Labyrinth? Surely his destiny will be different then?’
‘A different destiny, yes, but the same fate. Perhaps he would be ambushed by a herd of rampaging wereweasels. Maybe a nearby tree would be struck by lightning and crush him to death as it fell. Perhaps even —‘
‘Lance. Stop it.’ Poor Cecil is sitting on a rock with his head in his hands, sniffling. ‘Can’t you see you’re upsetting him?’
‘There is nothing to fear about death’s dark domain, my friend,’ says Lance, steadfastly making things even worse. ‘I for one look forward to being transported to Avalon by a phalanx of shield maidens, there to be reunited with my beloved King.’
‘And his beloved wife,’ I mutter. The coughing fit Lance descends into has at least shut him up. ‘Anyway, I thought it was only your own death you were able to see?’
‘That and those who are on the same noble path as me,’ he says. ‘And, from my latest vision beyond the veil, it would seem that our horned companion is one of those fellow travellers.’
‘All I wanted was to form a band,’ says Cecil, between noisy wet sobs. ‘Not become a posthumous musical legend.’
‘There’s no danger of that,’ I say, immediately wincing at my own choice of words.
‘Scarletti Spaghetti!’ wails Cecil. ‘How could you be so cruel?’
‘That’s not what I mean.’ I unfasten various zips, poppers, studs and buckles, releasing a dozen or so of my most deadly weapons. ‘Nothing is going to get to you, Cecil. Not whilst I’m still drawing breath. Nor to you, Lance. The fates can go off and weave themselves a jumper as far as I’m concerned: no-one’s dying on my watch.’
Cecil wipes his nose with an ungainly hoof. Lance looks as though he’s about to spout out another swathe of turgid nonsense, but instead an unexpected smile spreads slowly across his face.
‘My lady,’ he says, ‘I never before thought it possible…’
‘The vision is as clear as it was before,’ he says, shaking his head in wonderment. ‘But now there is another. Like a reflection in a cracked mirror: most things are the same, but there are differences.’
‘What differences? You and Cecil are no longer dear departed?’
‘It is too early to tell,’ says Lance. ‘The vision moves and shifts like shadows in fog. I hope to be able to see it more clearly the closer we get to SB’s palace.’
‘Well, that’s something at least, isn’t it?’ I click a magazine into my automatic frag grenade launcher. ‘Any idea what might have caused this other vision?’
‘I do.’ Lance’s smile is broader now.
‘And I think I do too, my little battle-scarred buttercup!’ Cecil looks up, tears in his eyes and a rather disgustingly long drip swaying from his nose.
‘What?’ I look to each of them in turn. ‘Tell me.’
‘Our combined future has the potential to be woven into something anew due to one simple truth.’ says Lance. He turns to Cecil, who nods, causing the drip to unfasten from his snout and fall to the ground with a squelch. Together, they speak as one.
‘We trust you,’ they say.
Me, I’ve never trusted another living soul. Even when I was a little kid, playing in the mud and garbage round the back of my parents’ house, I was always the one full of suspicion and mistrust, always the loner.
And it suited me. And to be honest, I can’t remember what came first: being an unpopular loner with a bad attitude, or being a merciless beast-slayer with a vast arsenal of high-grade weaponry. I suppose it doesn’t matter much now, not after everything I’ve learned since this journey began.
Learning of Cecil and Lance’s trust in me felt like I’d been slammed in the gut with a barbed-wire baseball bat. I had to get away, making the excuse that I had to urgently go and delouse my tail. In fact, as soon as I was sure I was out of sight and earshot, I slumped down to the ground and cried for the first time in … well, forever.
It’s like something has changed inside me, and I’m not talking about discovering I’m a shape-shifting princess with a rightful claim to the Kingdom. It’s something more than that, something deeper. Something I can’t quite put a name to.
It’s not nobility or bravery or any other such knightly nonsense that old Moanalot would get all excited about, but after walking through the forest with the leather-loinclothed Cecil on one side and the verdant valour of Lance on the other, I think I come close to putting my finger on what it is I’m feeling.
It’s … I think it’s … happiness.
And it’s not the same sort of happiness I get when I rip a werewolf’s fangs out with one hand and shoot him point-blank in the forehead with one of my beloved guns gripped tight in the other. This happiness is different: warmer somehow, and without any expectation of infamy or monetary reward. Which is certainly new.
I pull myself together, remembering the task in hand. I dry my eyes with a corner of my cloak, check all my weapons are where they should be, and head back into the shady glade where I left my new-found friends but a moment ago.
To find that both of them are gone, with only Lance’s shattered pipe and Cecil’s flattened saxophone giving any sign that they were ever here at all …