Author Archives: Keith Dumble

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.12 – Roll Up, Roll Up

Read the previous episodes

fhs

‘Perhaps I could plait it for you, my little hairy munchkin.’ Cecil is down on his haunches examining my bushy tail whilst I stand juggling disbelief, anger and — each time the Minotaur lifts my newly-grown appendage for a closer look — dread embarrassment. ‘Or I could weave daisies and lilacs into it, how about that? By the time I’m done, it would look divine!’

‘It is fascinating,’ says Lance, sitting on what I haven’t got the heart to tell him is a hardened mound of dragon dung. ‘It would appear your lupine tail is now a permanent fixture. It goes against all the lycanthropic lore I have studied in the hallowed library of Camelot.’

I exert a muscle I never knew I possessed and whip my tail out of Cecil’s pawing grasp. ‘Never mind lore and lilacs,’ I exclaim. ‘How do I get rid of the blasted thing?’

‘I’m not sure you can, my lady,’ says Lance. ‘It is an extension of your lupine self, now come to the surface, caused, I believe, by exposure to Merlin’s magics.’

‘So I’m stuck with it?’ I curl it around so I can examine the tip for myself. It’s thick and long, hardly easy to conceal. ‘Won’t that cause us a bit of a problem when we try and sneak into the palace?’

‘We may need to alter our plans, yes. I had previously intended that we would pretend to be honest merchants or lowly beggars, seeking alms in the Kingdom’s capital.’

‘Wouldn’t that have been a bit of a challenge anyway, given we now have a minotaur in tow?’

Cecil looks hurt. ‘Are you implying I stand out in a crowd, my little crimson crocus?’

‘No more than I do now.’ I try to sit down on a nearby rock but my tail gets in the way. ‘So, Lance. You’re the ideas man – what do you suggest?’

‘I had hoped our bullish companion could pretend to be a beast of burden pulling our wares,’ says Lance, ‘but I do concede we are now likely to attract more attention than would be comfortable.’

‘A beast of burden?’ Cecil splutters. ‘I’ll have you know I have dismembered people for less hurtful comments than that.’

I raise my hands, appealing for calm. ‘I suppose we need another plan now anyway. And I’m sure Lance knows full well the extent of your capabilities and skills. Your musical prowess, for example.’

‘Well, yes.’ Cecil sniffs. ‘If I am to be thought of as a beast, I would much prefer to be recognised as a beast of bewitching beats, not one of burden.’

‘The fact remains,’ I say, swishing my tail tentatively from side to side, ‘to all extents and purposes, we resemble a trio of freaks.’

Lance claps his hands, startling both Cecil and myself. ‘You are a genius, my lady!’

‘I am?’ I know I’m smart, but I’m not entirely sure what I’ve managed to contribute to this conversation so far.

‘Freaks! Curiosities! Marvels!’ Lance is on his feet, excitedly addressing a pair of unwitting trees. ‘That’s it! We could pretend to be a travelling circus, come to perform for SB’s jubilee celebrations! A mighty minotaur displaying feats of astounding strength!’

Cecil puffs out his chest. ‘I can lift three times my own weight, you know.’

‘A blind fortune teller!’ Lance points to himself. ‘Able to peer beyond the veil!’

I get an uneasy churning in my stomach. ‘And me?’ I ask.

‘The startling and uncanny wolf girl!’ Lance is in full flow. ‘Raised in the forest by a pack of wild animals, she knows only the way of the beast! See her snarl! Fear her bestial rage! Marvel at her large furry appendage!’

I feel my tail bristle. ’And you’re sure this will get us to within striking distance of SB?’

‘Positive, my lady. She is powerful, but she is also vain. If we proclaim ourselves as talented troubadours with a unique never-before-seen premiere performance that she will be the first to witness, I know she will find it impossible to resist.’

I think for a moment, then sigh. I can think of no other plan, truth be told. And Lance’s is crazy enough that it might just work. I decide to agree, and in doing so, focus on the one sliver of a bright side I can imagine.

‘And then I can rip her throat out?’ I say.

*****

After some initial doubts, even I have to admit we make for quite a remarkable bunch. Cecil sprung into action almost immediately, producing a needle and thread from the darkest depths of his loincloth and proceeding to make us a set of costumes out of anything he could get his hands on. After an hour or so of frenzied activity — and a tedious ten minutes of fitting and adjustments — I stand back and assess his handiwork.

Lance is resplendent in a forest green ensemble, made somewhat unsurprisingly from green things Cecil picked up at random from the forest. His crown of poison ivy is a particularly impressive creation, even if it is causing him to itch a bit.

As for the Minotaur himself, Cecil has fashioned a new loincloth out of one of Lance’s spare pair of black leather boots. It looks a trifle tight to me, but Cecil was most quick to reassure me that it fitted ‘snug as a little wiggly worm in a little wiggly worm-sized tunnel’, so I thought it best not to press the matter further.

As for me, I refused to let him tamper too much with my signature outfit. He has however managed to increase its usefulness, adding an array of pockets, zips, studs, poppers and fastenings to my crimson cloak which allow me to carry even more weaponry than I was able to before. I did protest when he demanded I give him my leggings, but the tail-flap he has created is remarkably comfortable.

‘Well done,’ I say. ‘I have to admit, you did a rather good job of that.’

Cecil glows with pride. ‘I can see you are happy, my little scaramouch fandango.’ He points down and giggles. ‘Do you realise your tail is wagging?’

I feel my face flush and turn away, though I do feel a sense of warmth and camaraderie that is most unfamiliar, and not wholly unwelcome. Either that, or it’s indigestion from Lance’s rather unpalatable ‘fruits of the forest’ casserole.

‘So, we are ready?’ I ask, after Cecil has scraped the last of the unappetising stew from his plate, ‘for our debut performance?

Cecil grabs his saxophone and improvises a melody which sounds like a bulldog being boiled in a bathtub. ‘You betcha, sweetcheeks!’ he says. ‘I can’t wait to strut my stuff in front of royalty!’

‘You should bear in mind,’ says Lance, ‘you already are in the presence of someone with royal blood. Our noble leader here is the daughter of the most famed regal couple of all time.’

Whilst I’m heartened to hear Lance now trusts Cecil enough to share my family history, I still find the notion of being a fairytale princess as hard to swallow as a fingernail sandwich. ‘Never mind all that for now,’ I say, tightening one of the black leather buckles Cecil has fixed to my hood. ‘Lance, is there anything else we need to know or do before we set out on the last stage of our journey?’

Lance nods solemnly. ‘Only one thing, my lady.’

‘And that is?’ I groan, imagining some knightly errand or noble quest he insists is vital to our success.

‘When you face SB,’ he says, looking straight at me with his sightless eyes in a rather unsettling way, ‘you must do so alone.’

‘Not a problem,’ I say, slipping my Luger out of its holster and squinting down the barrel. ‘It would be best for both of you if you weren’t there to witness me wreak my bloody vengeance upon her.’

‘Well, that’s just the thing,’ says Lance. ‘Neither Cecil nor I are going to live long enough to see you do so.’

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.11 – Do You Believe In Magic?

Read the previous episodes

fhs

At first I think I must be dreaming.

Though I never met my grandfather, the dried-up old teabag of a man dancing around the fire is what I imagine he must have been like, based on what my father told me. Though, now I know just about everything dearest papa told me was a lie, I can’t be so sure. My grandfather could have been Captain Hook or Pinocchio for all I know…

Nevertheless, as my senses begin to return, I realise I’m very much awake. And that my hands and feet are bound by glowing gold chains. Looking to my left and right, I see Lance and Cecil are in the exact same predicament — and that they’re both still unconscious.

We’re in some sort of chamber by the looks of things, the smoke from the fire rising to a perfectly round hole in the middle of the ceiling.The walls are covered with runes, sigils, marks and signs, suggesting to me we’re in a place of magic. Possibly a place which doesn’t actually exist…

‘Ah,’ says the old man, his long white beard flapping as he skips to a stop. ‘I see one of our guests is awake!’

I look around to see if there’s someone else in here with us, but as far as I can tell it’s just the four of us. I glare at him, not wanting to speak in case my voice betrays the frisson of fear I’m feeling. I glance at Lance, relieved to see the bundle of kindling is still beside him. I wish I’d asked him how long his enchantment lasts — I could use an array of vastly overpowered weaponry right about now.

‘Scarlett, Scarlett,’ says the wrinkled old walnut. He’s wearing a filthy ragged old tunic, hitched to a disturbingly immodest height above his knees. Under any other circumstance, he’d be as frightening as a drugged dormouse; however, the fact he seems to have overpowered a former Knight of the Round Table, a Minotaur and a werewolf fills me with not a little concern. ‘What’s the matter,’ he says, his voice lilting with glee, ‘Questing Beast take your tongue?’

So he knows who I am, and what I’ve been up to. Which puts him at an advantage I’m not particularly comfortable with. ‘Who the devil are you?’ I say, pleased to hear my voice sharp with menace. ‘And what do you want?’

‘Me? Oh, Scarlett, I’m just a kindly old gentleman wanderer exploring all the fascinating marvels this world has to offer.’ His eyes twinkle like stars. ‘And what I want? Well, just like everyone else, I want to be happy.’

‘And capturing us makes you happy?’

He does a little jig on the spot which makes him look like he has fleas inside his tunic. ‘Not as such, not as such. But every end has its means, dear Scarlett.’

‘How do you know my name? And where are we?’

‘My, my, we’re full of questions today aren’t we. Let’s have someone else answer those for you, shall we? His fingers dance in the air, tracing a glowing blue symbol which hangs there for a moment, then shoots faster than a high-velocity bullet straight into the unconscious Lance’s face.

I flinch instinctively, then watch as Lance convulses, then coughs and groans, then tenses tight.

‘Merlin,’ he whispers. ‘We meet again.’

‘Indeed we do, my erstwhile comrade,’ says the old man, clapping his hands in delight. ‘It’s been far too long, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Not nearly long enough.’ Lance’s tone is cool. ‘Tell me, how are things with your latest employer? Hasn’t she grown tired of you yet?’

Merlin’s shrill laugh sets my teeth on edge. ‘She and I may not always agree on everything,’ he says, ‘but we have a most magical relationship. How about you, Lancelot? Seen dear Guinevere of late?’

Lance bristles. ‘You know I have not.’

‘Shame, shame.’ He cackles. ‘The course of true love never did run the smoothest for you, did it? On the contrary, it was more like a raging rapid.’

‘What do you want of us?’ I growl and bare my teeth.

‘Now, now, let’s not get overexcited. There’s a good puppy.’ Merlin’s grin is so wide it almost splits his face in two, which is something I would most dearly love to do right now. ‘I merely want to give you a friendly bit of advice, that’s all.’

‘And what’s that?’

‘Turn back whilst you still can, my semi-lupine friend. Forget all about noble notions of inheriting kingdoms and any other such nonsense Lancelot may have filled your head with.’ He winks slyly at me. ‘He’s never been the most trustworthy when it comes to women, after all.’

‘How dare you!’ I’ve never heard Lance so angry. ‘The Lady Guinevere and I had the truest and noblest love of all. Not like you and your somnambulant seductress.’

‘At least she was single when she and I got together.’ Merlin’s toothless grin makes me feel queasy.

‘We’re not afraid of you,’ says Lance. ‘You’re not even here. None of this is real.’

‘You don’t believe my magic is real, Lancelot?’ A spark of fire appears between Merlin’s palms, quickly growing to the size of a large melon. ‘We may not be in the same physical space, but my spells are just as effective here.’

‘Perhaps,’ says Lance. ‘But any damage you inflict on our shadow selves will have no effect on our earthly bodies. So nothing you can do here will deter us from our noble quest.’

‘Hang on a minute,’ I say. The bonds dig into my wrists. The pain feels very real to me. ‘Would someone care to explain where exactly we are?’

‘We are in the between world,’ says Lancelot. ‘A plane of existence able to be traversed by those who dabble in the dark arts. It is not a place for you to fear, my lady.’

‘On the contrary,’ says Merlin, tossing his fireball into the wall where it fizzles out of existence. ‘It is a place for you to be terrified of.’

‘What tosh!’ Cecil leaps to his feet. ‘I’ve come across the likes of you before, you little old magic walnut. Your tricks are nothing but a big old stinky sack full of dreams and illusions.’ I notice his chains are lying at his feet, fading away to nothing. He snorts and winks at me. ‘All you have to do is click your hooves together and believe, darling. Or, in this case, my little Scarlett scampi, disbelieve.’

I stare down at my own bonds, then imagine them gone. No sooner have I done so then they melt away as if they were made of ice. I rub at my wrists, trying to disbelieve the nasty chaffing they seem to have caused, real or no.

‘Curse you!’ Merlin shakes his fist at Cecil, who responds by sticking his tongue out and waggling his ears. ‘Illusory or no, my warning still stands. Venture within a mile of SB’s palace and you shall have the full wrath of my most mighty — and most definitely real — magic to contend with. I shall not warn you again.’

And with that, he claps his hands and disappears with a singularly unimpressive pop. The walls of the cavern fade around us, and Lance, Cecil and I find ourselves back outside the exit to the Labyrinth, as though nothing ever happened. Presumably even the blow I remember receiving to the back of my head was all part of Merlin’s illusion, designed to trick us into thinking we were all in mortal danger.

‘Well, that was interesting,’ I say, laughing as I notice that even Lance’s enchantment that disguised my arsenal has worn off. ’Looks like everything’s is exactly as it was before. So, back to the matter ahead of us.’

I pause, noticing Lance and Cecil gaping at me. ‘Er, perhaps that should be the matter behind us, my scary little Scarletto,’ says the minotaur, eyes wide as bullrings. ‘I don’t think quite everything is back to how it was.’

I peer over my shoulder to where the pair of them are looking.

At my proud and majestic but — I have to admit — rather abnormal and inconvenient tail.

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.10 – Fascinating Rhythm

Read the previous episodes

fhs

I think it’s the familiarity with the sound of my weapons that does it. The staccato burst of my machine gun; the ratatat of my shoulder-mounted Gatling; the earth-shaking thump of my high-explosive mortar shells.

Whatever it is, one fact is indisputable: I’m absolutely fantastic on drums.

‘Again, again!’ The Minotaur claps his hands like an overexcited toddler, albeit one with a massive bull’s head and an axe twice the height of me. ‘From the top, one-two-three-four …’

And I launch into the song he’s just taught me once more, laying down a steady backbeat with my feet as my hands skip over the drum skins in a flurry of syncopated dexterity. After warily agreeing to his terms whereby I could gain safe passage through the Labyrinth only if I was able to prove my musical prowess, I can now feel the rhythm deep inside my chest, echoing my heart and making me feel as close to happy as I’ve probably been in years.

‘You’re a natural, darling!’ The Minotaur  — who I’ve since learned goes by the name of Cecil — lowers his saxophone and click his fingers to my complex rhythms. ‘Much better than all these other no-hopers. Tone deaf little blighters, the lot of them!’

I smile and nod, trying my best not to look at the shattered bones lying all across the cavern floor. Instead, I close my eyes and perform a perfect paradiddle I didn’t even know I had in me.

‘Simply divine!’ Cecil gushes. ‘You’re the finest jazz drummer I’ve ever heard!’

I can’t help but feel proud of myself. I’m used to being the finest wolf-slayer in the Badlands, but – beyond making some interestingly abstract patterns on my victims’ pelts with my weapons – my potential to express my creative side has been somewhat limited. I splash at one of the cymbals and let the tone ring out to an echoing fade. ‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘I’ve enjoyed myself, I must admit.’

‘I’m soooo pleased to hear you say that,’ says Cecil. ‘We must form a band immediately. He purses his lips. ‘How about Scarlett & The Horn?

‘Er, yeah, I suppose…’ Much as I’ve enjoyed myself here, I wasn’t exactly planning on making a career out of it. Not when there’s a Kingdom — and a vast amount of riches — to inherit. ‘Anyways,’ I say, casually stretching, ‘I suppose I’d best be going now.’

‘What?’ Cecil clasps his hands over his snout. ‘You’re leaving? But … but … you can’t!

‘I’m sorry,’ I say, eyeing his massive axe. ‘I’m afraid I have to meet someone.’

He paws the ground for a moment. ‘Are they … are they musical?’

‘Lance? No, not to my knowledge. He does write poetry though.’

‘A lyricist?’ Cecil clicks his hooves together and does the least dainty pirouette I’ve ever had the displeasure of witnessing. ‘How wonderful! I have to meet him! We could become a trio, travel the land, setting hearts and souls aflame with our freeform jazz!’

‘I’m not sure he’d be —‘

‘I’lll hear none of it, Miss Little Red Bossypants!’ He folds his arms and pouts. ‘Take me to him, right away!’

I sigh. Considering about half an hour ago I thought I’d never leave the Labyrinth alive, I suppose this isn’t the worst thing that could have happened. And if I can convince Lance to go along with it, having Cecil on our side when the time comes to storm SB’s castle could prove very useful indeed. Especially if I tell him that everyone in the Kingdom hates jazz …

‘Very well,’ I say, ‘though please be gentle with Lance. He’s rather … unique.’

‘All the best artistes are, darling!’ Cecil fidgets with his sax, obviously keen to get going. ‘Come on then, last one out the Labyrinth is a big sissy poostick!’

*****

I’ve seldom been so relieved to see daylight. Even with Cecil expertly navigating the twisting corridors of the Labyrinth, it took us over an hour to reach the exit, set into a cliffside on the northern side of The Raging River. I find myself equally relieved to see the familiar figure of Lance sitting on a nearby rock, the pile of kindling that is really my magically-disguised arsenal of weaponry lying at his feet.

‘There he is,’ I say to Cecil, who’s been regaling me with his latest and apparently most tuneless compositions for the past forty minutes. ‘Come on, I’ll introduce you.’

‘My lady?’ Lance raises his head, his sightless eyes narrowing at the sound of our approach. ‘You made it out of the Labyrinth intact?’

‘I did indeed,’ I say, glancing at Cecil. He has the mouthpiece of his saxophone pressed between his lips, ready no doubt to unleash another sonic blast from his instrument. ‘And I’ve … em … made a new friend. Lance? Meet Cecil.’

The minotaur thrusts out a gigantic hand enthusiastically. Lance continues to gaze off somewhere into the middle distance. Cecil looks at me, puzzled.

‘Sorry,’ I say to him, feeling a bit ashamed of myself. ‘I should have explained: Lance is … well, he can’t …’

‘I’m blind, Cecil,’ says my knightly companion. ‘Blind as a headless chicken tossed down a bottomless pit on a moonless night.’

Cecil gasps and hops from one hoof to the other. ‘How wonderful!

I look at him, aghast. Perhaps I’ve made a mistake and should have slain him when I had a chance. ‘Wonderful?’ I say. ‘The poor man can’t see a thing!’

‘But just think, my little Scarlett pimperdink! A blind jazz musician! It’s the stuff of legend!’

‘I think you’re being a bit insensitive,’ I say. ‘Lance’s sight was taken by an evil sorceress. It’s a curse, not a blessing.’

‘It’s quite alright, my lady.’ Lance holds up his palms. ‘I am unashamed of my condition. In some instances, it can even be a distinct advantage. For example, I don’t have to look at the face of monsters as hideous as the Minotaur. A beast so disgusting, so —‘

I start to speak, then realise it’s pointless; that it’s too late. Lance has frozen solid, the state which kicks in when he has a vision about imminent harm about to befall him. And it doesn’t exactly take a genius to work out where that harm’s going to come from …

… but when I look to Cecil, I see that instead of bearing down on Lance with his axe, the Minotaur is sitting down on the ground, crying his eyes out. ‘Hideous?’ he manages between sobs. ‘Disgusting? Me?’’

So if it’s not Cecil who’s about to inflict terrible damage on Lance, then who is?

Presumably the same unseen assailant who’s just smashed something into the back of my skull, causing everything to turn an all-encompassing and rather painful black …

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.9 – Amazing Grace

Read the previous episodes

fhs

‘It’s smaller than I thought it was going to be, I have to admit.’

I test the door, giving it a shove to see if it’s as flimsy as it looks. The balsa wood flexes beneath my palm: a slightly stronger shove and I’m pretty certain it would splinter into a thousand fragments.

‘Appearances can be deceptive, my lady.’ Lance’s voice is raised to allow it to be heard above the roaring of the river. ‘The entrance to the Labyrinth is protected by dark magics; once inside, you will be within its power, alone against its dread enchantments.’

‘You’re not coming with me?’ I stifle a claw of disappointment. I’d hoped Lance would tag along and at least distract the Minotaur for me whilst I attempted to slay it with my bare hands.

‘Alas, I cannot. The wards have been designed to keep those of a knightly persuasion out of the labyrinthine corridors. And, whilst it is true I may be somewhat lapsed, I can already feel the magic barriers preventing my entry.’

‘But I thought we were going to use the Labyrinth to pass beneath the river? If you can’t come in, how are you going to get to the other side?’ The thought of trekking through SB’s tediously cheerful Kingdom alone is irksome to say the least.

‘The same way I crossed it two days ago. By pretending to be a blind beggar, returning from the Badlands.’

‘So, let me get this straight. I’m about to head in here alone, unarmed and unable to transform into a beast.’

Lance nods, albeit at a nearby tree trunk instead of at me. ‘Correct, my lady.’

‘And we’ll meet up again at the exit, I presume?’

‘Indeed so. And I shall take all of your weapons.’

‘And how will you get those past SB’s guards on the bridge?’

‘Aha!’ Lance waves a finger. ‘A little trick I learned from Merlin himself. If you would kindly hand me one of your firearms, I shall demonstrate.’

Reluctantly, I hold out my rustiest, most battered pistol, smiling happily at the memory of when I last used it to shoot a rampant cockatrice between the eyes. ‘Be careful with it,’ I say. ‘It’s loaded.’

‘Fear not, Scarlett.’ Lance holds the pistol to his chest, closes his eyes and mumbles incoherently to himself. There’s a shimmer in the air, a sound like a branch snapping and my pistol vanishes, replaced by a small and innocent-looking twig.

‘Tada!’ Lance brandishes the stick as if it’s Excalibur itself. ‘A blind beggar, carrying a bundle of kindling upon his back – what could be more inconspicuous than that?’

‘And you can definitely change them back again?’ The thought of my collection of weaponry being forever transformed into matchsticks makes me queasy to my core.

’Absolutely.’ He waves his hand. My pistol reappears — if anything, it looks slightly better than it did before, some of the rust having vanished from the barrel. I take it from him and inspect it. It is indeed in full working order, the bullets nestling inside as full of deadly promise as ever.

‘Very well,’ I say. I spend the next fifteen minutes unbuckling and unclasping my array of holsters, straps and bandoliers. By the time I’m done, the gleaming pile of firepower reaches almost to Lance’s shoulders. ‘You’re sure I can’t take anything inside this cursed Labyrinth?’

‘Positive, my lady.’ Lance raises an eyebrow. ‘I take it that’s not quite everything?’

I cough. Even though Lance is blind, I’ve never let a soul witness where my emergency weapon is concealed. I turn my back on him and flex my fingers …

Slowly … gently … carefully …

…and with a soft popping noise, there it is. I breathe deep with the exertion of it all.

‘What in Camelot’s name is that?’ Lance sounds bemused, sniffing the air.

‘A poison dart,’ I reply, scratching the inside of my left ear where I had the tiny missile hidden. ‘Imbued with basilisk blood, fatal to all known living creatures.’ I stare at the deadly little shard wistfully.

‘Sadly, not even that could pass the Labyrinth’s magical wards.’ He raises a knightly eyebrow and takes the dart from me carefully. ‘And that’s everything?’

‘I’m as defenceless as a blind kitten.’ I bite my lip, immediately regretting my choice of words. ‘No offence.’

‘None taken, my lady.’ Lance gathers up my plethora of weaponry and mumbles his incantation again. There’s a slight ripple in the air, then he hoists the bundle of innocuous branches onto his back. ‘I bid you farewell, and wish you luck.’

I feel naked without my arsenal. ‘Any tips?’ I ask. ‘For facing the Minotaur?’

‘Be yourself, Scarlett. Remember who you were born to. You have the heart of a hero beating within your chest.’

‘Charmed, I’m sure.’ I shrug, then turn to face the door again. With one swift kick of my boot, it splinters into sawdust. ‘Well, I suppose I’d best get this over with. I’d like to be in the Kingdom before nightfall.’

‘Godspeed, my future Queen.’ He kneels, bows, drops the kindling, fumbles about on the ground then stands up again. ‘Until we meet again.’

‘Just don’t drop any more of my guns,’ I say, then pull up my hood and step into the darkness.

***

I already feel as though I’ve been in here for days.

At first, I thought I had a pretty good sense of where I was — always keeping a wall to my left, tracing my path carefully through the twisting corridors of the Labyrinth. But after a few wrong turns and dead ends, I feel as though I’ve wandered blindfold into an unmapped forest after drinking seventeen foaming pints of Ma Chisolm’s Old Speckled Swamp Toad.

I stop, weighing up my options. Which seem, after a few moments’ pondering, to number approximately one. I need to keep going, hope that I find the exit before I die of starvation, or end up as the Minotaur’s latest hapless victim, my bones added to the hundreds littered around the Labyrinth’s snaking passages.

I’m about to press on when I hear it. A hideous cacophonous wailing which sets my teeth on edge. Even though I’m not in my lupine form, I feel my hackles rise. Somewhere, close by, it sounds like the Minotaur is subjecting some poor unfortunate soul to the most hideous torture imaginable. The noise is close — and seems to be growing closer. It appears my hopes of slipping through the monster’s lair undiscovered have faded to nothing.

I instinctively reach for my absent weapons, then curse aloud. No sooner have the words left my lips than the noise ceases. I hold my breath, then creep forward, hugging the shadows. After a few more steps, the unholy racket commences again, even more ear-splitting than before. My mind is more than capable of imagining some pretty horrible things, but even I can’t picture what could be making such a dreadful sound.

Then I turn the corner, and need to try to imagine no more.

The Minotaur is massive, its bronzed skin bulging with taut muscles, its yellow horns sharp and vicious. Steam bellows from its flared nostrils; its eyes flash yellow like the sulphurous pits of hell. And there, held firm in its hands, is the source of the hideous noise which echoed through the Labyrinth’s passages.

‘Why, hello there!’ says the Minotaur, removing the saxophone from between its monstrous lips. ‘You simply must tell me at once, darling — what did you think of my latest little ditty?’

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.8 – The Voices, The Voices

Read the previous episodes

fhs

‘For a blind Knight Of The Round Table, you’re a dab hand with the old needle and thread.’

‘My lady Guinevere taught me many things,’ says Lance, repairing the last rip in my shredded hood. ‘Not least how to mend ripped bodices.’ His voice turns bashful. ‘Which is something we experienced rather frequently.’

I decide not to press him for more details: my imagination has already done a good enough job of making me feel like I’ve just swallowed a diseased toad.

‘Shall we press on, my lady?’ He hands me my cloak and hood and the rest of my clothes which were torn to pieces during my transformation into a wolf. His handiwork is impressive: my clothing looks as good as new. ‘We should make the entrance to the labyrinth by nightfall.’

I perform the last of the checks on my vast array of weaponry. I stare down at my hands, finding it hard to believe that my fingers — or rather, my claws — are the deadliest weapons of all. The minced remains of the supposedly indestructible Questing Beast lie in a gory pile nearby. Despite feeling somewhat at odds with my newfound powers of lycanthropy, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride at my handiwork.

‘The Minotaur,’ I say, ignoring Lance’s wince of warning. ‘It will be no match for me now.’

‘You should still exercise caution, my lady. Though I am no expert in your condition, as far as I understand things, you may only turn once per month. When the moon waxes full, and the pale-faced goddess Diana is in the ascends—‘

‘Bullocks to that,’ I say, examining my forearms. Is it just me, or are they slightly hairier than normal? ‘I can tell I’m able to turn it on and off like a tap.’

‘But … the lore …’

‘Is wrong,’ I say. ‘Take it from me.’  I’m not in the mood to discuss it further: my mind is darkening with the thoughts of all the lycans I’ve mercilessly slaughtered in the past.

Lance, to his credit, changes the subject. ‘The beast at the heart of the labyrinth may prove to be a more dire threat than even the Questing Beast.’

‘If it can be killed, I fail to see how.’

‘It can indeed be slain, Scarlett. But the corridors of the labyrinth are littered with the bones of those who have tried.’

‘Then we shall avenge them. I’ll tear out the Minotaur’s throat with my teeth, rip its horns off with my bare hands, shove them up its — ‘

‘My lady.’ Lance holds up his hand. ‘May I ask that you exercise some control over your powers. Lycanthropy is a curse, as you well know. If you allow the condition to rule you, then it will take over: devour the very things which make you human. Turn you into a beast. Forever.’

I know he’s right. I can already feel it: the bestial rage simmering just beneath the surface. The bloodlust, nigh-on impossible to slake. The whispering, tempting me to give in to the power burning within my heart. It would be so quick … so easy … so good

‘Once you retrieve your mother’s crown,’ says Lance, ‘you will be safe. Through it, her purity and love will imbue you with the ability to control even your basest desires.’

That sounds a bit dull to me, but I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Besides, my heart’s set on the vast amounts of weaponry I’ll be able to purchase with the wealth of the Kingdom when I inherit the throne. ‘Then we should continue on our quest,’ I say, using words I know my sightless companion will appreciate, ‘and restore order to the land at our earliest opportunity.’

The day passes without event. I let Lance recite his knightly poetry, the tortuous rhymes of which distract me from the voices in my head telling me to give into the lupine power and rip out his larynx. We make reasonable progress through the Forest, especially considering Lance’s limp. An hour or so after noon, we can hear it: the roaring of water in the distance, a sound like the constant bellowing of a hundred thousand beasts.

‘The Raging River.’ Lance gazes meaningfully at a nearby tree trunk. ‘The watery grave of many a noble soul.’

‘You’ve obviously crossed it before,’ I say. ‘You went over the Bridge of A Hundred Doubts, I take it?’

‘That I did, my lady. My disguise as a blind beggar was most effective. SB’s militia let me cross without challenge.’

‘I’m sure we could take them.’ The voices in my head are a little louder now. ‘If I let myself turn into a wolf, then I —‘

’No, Scarlett. You mustn’t. Even if you are able to change at will as you claim, transforming twice in such a short space of time will be too much for your humanity to bear.’

‘But doesn’t that mean I won’t be able to face the minotaur either?’

‘Not as a wolf, no.’

The voices retreat somewhere I can’t hear them so clearly. I hoist my triple-barrelled shrapnel grenade launcher. ’Then I’d better make sure everything’s fully loaded.’

‘Another thing, my lady. I’m afraid the labyrinth is protected by powerful magics of the ancients. We will not be able to enter it armed in any way.’

‘What? I have to leave all my babies behind?’ I stroke the handle of my nuclear-powered crossbow lovingly. ‘No way. We’d be better off taking our chances against the militia.’

‘They are too many, even for you and your undeniably impressive arsenal,’ says Lance, shaking his head. ‘Besides, they would be able to alert SB as soon as we attempted to cross. The success of our mission depends upon us keeping an element of surprise.’

There is wisdom in his words. The Kingdom is connected by magically-powered ley lines, allowing those possessing enchanted amulets to contact one another in an instant. I can scarcely imagine anything worse, but then that’s yet another example of how much I dislike SB’s supposedly wondrous Kingdom. Perhaps I’ll abolish the amulets and disconnect the ley lines when I take the throne…

’So be it,’ I say. ‘I shall face the Minotaur unarmed and without the aid of my wolfish powers.’

‘It is an honour and a privilege to serve you, my lady.’ Lancelot kneels before me, his head bowed. ‘You truly have your father’s courage.’

I look down at my pale hands. Whether I have my late father’s bravery or not, I have an unshakeable feeling I may well end up sharing his fate …

A return to Tamriel – Elder Scrolls Online

Sometimes there’s a real advantage to being late for the party.

Jessica Mcalpin, Wood Elf Dragonknight

Nowhere is this more true than in Elder Scrolls Online, Bethesda and Zenimax’s massively-multiplayer online (MMO) title set in their beloved and acclaimed Elder Scrolls universe, released in April 2014. At launch, the game was met with an underwhelming ‘meh’ by most critics, with its uneasy marriage of single-player oriented questing and player-versus-player battling. Now, over a year later, many of Elder Scrolls Online’s initial teething problems have been ironed out — and the game world has been considerably filled with a variety of small updates and two meaty pieces of downloadable content — making the game a much more viable option to sink the online hours into.

I’ve been a frequent visitor to the world of Tamriel. Since the days of Daggerfall and Morrowind on PC, then on through Oblivion and Skyrim on the consoles, I’ve booked passage to Bethesda’s impressively rich high fantasy world many times over the decades. Each game always blew me away with its epic scope and attention to detail, with world-saving quests intertwined with character development and the kind of stats and inventory management so typical of RPGs. In my mind, they have represented the pinnacles of the single-player genre.

A whole new - yet familiar - world

And from a fantasy MMO perspective, World Of Warcraft seemed to have that side of things sewn up. I even spent an obsessive (and very lonely) month with that title about fifteen years ago before kicking the habit. I pretty much promised to myself I’d never go back to MMOs again – I knew the risks…

Then Zenimax pulled a fast one at the beginning of December. A ‘free play’ weekend, where you could download the game for gratis and play it for 72 hours …

Just like a gateway drug.

And, needless to say, I was hooked.

Jessica and the former Emperor, yesterday

But this time, the form of addiction is different. Unlike in WoW, I’m not feeling an obsession to grind and relentlessly pump up my character to be able to play with the big boys and girls. Nor am I rushing headlong into player vs player environments, or feeling like the game’s pushing me in that direction at all. I put this down to Elder Scrolls Online’s excellently-crafted single-player missions, which — give or take the odd moment here and there — do a marvellously convincing job of making you feel like you are the only hero in the land.

Sure. other players are running about all over the place. And quest givers are frequently mobbed by other peoples’ avatars, virtually queueing up to get their turn to speak to the Prophet or some other important NPC. But these moments are relatively rare, and once a quest is kicked off in earnest, the world is so massive that it hardly makes a difference at all. And indeed, it can turn out to be an advantage — even when playing ‘solo’, there have been a couple of times when a random passer-by has stepped in to help defeat a powerful enemy, or come along for part of the ride.

And it’s a great ride. Combat is suitably crunchy, both in third and first person modes. Magic and racial abilities are varied, allowing for a vast number of play styles. Jessica Mcalpin, my wood elf, is already a deadly shot with her longbow, and has a couple of fiery tricks up her leather armoured sleeves, making her a pretty handy combat all-rounder. But had I wanted to play her as a shadow-hugging assassin or a toe-to-toe melee bruiser, I could have done so with ease. The opportunities to fine-tune characters in the game are impressive, and a huge draw to keep playing and levelling up.

Have horse (and polar bear cub), will travel

So far, spending ninety percent of my time in this ‘solo’ mode of play, I’d been having an absolute blast. Here was a game with not just one region of Tamriel to explore, but the whole dang continent. An intriguing main quest, interspersed with a variety of exciting side missions, guild jobs and crafting opportunities. The promise of group cooperative dungeons somewhere out there, banding together with a few other like-minded souls to bring down a big bad…it was definitely the most fun I’d had with an RPG since Skyrim.

And then I went to Cyrodil.

Jessica contributes to the Aldmeri Dominion war effort

The game’s main player vs player zone, Cyrodil is like a totally different game. Totally different — and totally fantastic. Here, each of the game’s three main ‘factions’ are locked in a perpetual struggle to claim the Emperor’s throne at the heart of the Imperial City. To do this, a faction must hold and conquer castles and keeps across the huge region. And the only way to do this is via cooperation — rushing together on horse (or lion or lizard) back to defend a stricken outpost is one of the most thrilling gameplay experiences I’ve had in a good while … which in turn paled into insignificance when compared to the adrenaline rush of pitching into a massive battle to help defend the territory.

This is what gaming is all about.

And this is why I’ll be hanging around in Tamriel for a long, long time to come…

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.7 – Facing The Beast

Read the previous episodes

fhs

 

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.

…My tail.

My claws.

My teeth…

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.

Existence is futile – starting out with Elite Dangerous

Elite Dangerous

Commander Jessica McAlpin is supercruising across the galaxy, heading towards the home system of a young Imperial princess, whose radical anti-slavery stance has resulted in her having almost as many enemies at home as she does out in the further reaches of space. Exiled to a dark corner of the Federation as the disgraced illegitimate daughter of a minor member of the senate and a slave, Commander Jessica feels drawn to the beleaguered princess’s cause, and will pledge her undying support — once she’s arrived in safer territory, of course.

By aiming to travel such a distance, she is pushing the limits of her entry-level starship, forced to stop and refuel every four or five hyperspace leaps — and to undertake courier and bounty hunting missions en route to help fund her progress. And although she hasn’t yet publicly pledged her allegiance to the Princess, Jessica is still the target of rogue pirates and lawless criminals, who delight in nothing more than pulling her out of hyperspace and trying to rip open her cargo hold to see what spoils lie inside.

But Jessica is committed. Not only does she desire an end to the vile practice of slavery, she would like to see the very structure of the Empire itself change into a place where every man and woman has an equal chance of success and prosperity, not just the elected few. Princess Aisling — whilst not perfect — represents Jessica’s greatest hope of seeing that happen in her lifetime. And so she continues on her quest, the memory of her mother’s final words burning in her heart …

Elite Dangerous

Of course, neither Commander Jessica nor her noble quest exist. In reality, I am just another minuscule blip in the vast galactic world of Elite Dangerous, the latest iteration of David Braben’s seminal future spaceflight simulator. Beyond a hi-tech fabric-suited pair of arms and legs, I don’t even know what Jessica looks like. And the game neither knows nor cares a great deal about me as a player: unlike other vast open titles like Skyrim or even Elder Scrolls Online, I am not the Only Hope for the galaxy, or even a fledgling hero of any repute whatsoever.

I am, in the great leveller which is Elite Dangerous’ view of things, worth absolutely nothing. Even though I’ve been playing for around ten hours, I am — at best — considered “mostly penniless” (not to mention “completely harmless”). It manages to stop short of referring to me as “utterly insignificant”, but I’m sure that’s what it thinks of me nevertheless.

Elite Dangerous

But … somehow … I’m having a marvellous time with it. Devoid of story structure, character and purpose, I have been forced to create my own. Commander Jessica’s backstory and motives exist only in my head whilst I am playing. I’ll get no reward for joining the forces of the Imperial princess. She’ll never know who I am; neither will she care if I live or die in her service.

But the feeling of freedom is ample recompense for this lack of structure. I can fly to far-off systems, marvelling at the beautiful space vistas through my Eagle’s windshields. I can navigate my way through asteroid fields, drop out of hyperspace at nav beacons to hunt pirates, and even spend a happy few minutes reading the latest GalNet news at whatever starport or outpost I’m docked at. All the while, of course, Elite Dangerous continues to ignore me. Sometimes — like when I get interdicted by pirates far beyond my own level — I feel like it even hates me.

Elite Dangerous

But in my mind, I still know my efforts will make all the difference. Commander Jessica will become one of the Princess’s most valued heroes; she’ll go down in history as one of the key movers and shakers in galactic change … maybe she’ll even have a planet or a star system named after her.

And whilst she continues to exists in my mind, Elite Dangerous will let me play out my space-faring fantasies in a wonderfully immersive and challenging way.

Even if it doesn’t care.

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.6 – Seeing The Wood From The Trees

Read the previous episodes

fhs

‘Er, sorry about that.’

Lancelot is most certainly moving now. He’s writhing about on the ground, clutching his bloodied knee and yelling like a banshee caught in a lawnmower.

‘That’s… quite … all … right.’ He forces the words out through gritted teeth. ‘I … saw it coming.’

I holster my pistol and check the safety catches of all my other weapons, which takes a good five minutes. By the time I’m done, Lance’s breathing is almost back to normal and he’s fashioned a bandage from a strip of material he’s torn from the sleeve of his tunic.

‘It was an accident.’ I’ve already apologised, but feel the need to say something. ‘Are you going to be able to walk?’

‘I understand.’ His face is surprisingly calm. ‘Though it may hamper our ability to travel as quickly as I’d hoped. And our ability to outrun the Questing Beast, should it discover us.’

‘I’ll protect you.’ To be honest, I’ve no idea where this strange feeling of honour is coming from. I’m — if you pardon the pun — a lone wolf. A solo operator. I’ve only ever agreed to take a partner along on a hunt once, and that didn’t end well. I still visit the woodcutter’s grave faithfully every year, though that’s mainly to remind myself to never be that soft again, rather than pay tribute to his memory.

‘Thank you, my lady.’ Lancelot tries to kneel again, then winces in obvious agony.

‘We’ll go at your pace. And I’ll lead the way.’ I take out my semi-automatic and carefully thumb the catch. ‘You’ll have nothing to worry about, I promise.’

‘You are truly your parents’ child, Scarlett.’

I cock a smile as the irony of it sets in. ‘Does that mean my real surname is Charming?’

‘It does. Princess Scarlett Charming of the Kingdom.’

‘You know,’ I say, setting my sights on the path leading from this stinking tumble-down heap of hovels I’ve lived in for years, ‘I kinda like the sound of that.’

*****

The forest is my second home.

Or, based on what old limping Lance has just told me about the place of my birth, my third.

We’ve been in just over a couple of hours, and it already feels like we’re in another world. Vast trees rise like petrified green giants above us, blotting out the sky with their vast canopies. The light is dim, the shadows murky. Birdsong twitters uncertainly in the branches; shrill calls of unidentified creatures slice through the gloom. Every one of my senses is tingling with the sheer pleasure of being here: coupled with the high likelihood that behind every other trunk lurks a creature waiting to be cut to shreds by one of my many weapons.

We’re making slow progress. I guess I can’t really complain, since it was me who shot off Lancelot’s left kneecap in the first place. But I’m still growing impatient, wanting to press on and get this so-called quest over with. Though I’ve not got the heart to tell my companion I have absolutely no desire to claim the throne of the Kingdom, I’m assuming that the title will also come with a vast amount of wealth. And there’s an array of high-grade military weaponry on the black market I’ve had my eyes on for quite some time.

‘How long do you think it will take us to reach the Kingdom?’ I ask, peering down the sights of my Kalishnikov. ‘We should consider making camp soon. Not even I’d be foolhardy enough to keep going through the night.’

Lance rubs his knee, groaning. ‘Six days, perhaps seven. Assuming we find a safe place to cross the Raging River.’

I’ve heard of it. Almost a mile wide, the waters in constant turmoil. A natural border between the Badlands and the Kingdom, with only one heavily-guarded bridge separating the two lands. Whole volumes of depressingly tedious ballads have been penned about the thousands who have lost their lives in its angry grip.

‘There’s only one place to cross, surely? The Bridge Of A Hundred Doubts.’

‘Which is exactly where SB will be expecting us to be heading.’ He stoops down to pluck what he probably thinks is a berry from a nearby bush. I haven’t the heart to tell him it’s a dead beetle. ‘And that is why we are making for another place entirely.’

I watch him chew on the deceased bug, smirking as his face contorts in disgust. I wait for him to spit out the last of the legs. ‘And where is that? I don’t know of any other way to cross over the river.’

‘And you are correct, my lady.’ Lance wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘But there is a way to pass beneath it.’

‘A tunnel?’

‘No, a labyrinth. Excavated from the ground long ago by a race of people long since vanished. In the days when passage between the two lands was permitted, when the world was at peace.’

‘How come no-one else knows about it?’

‘Plenty know about it, my lady.’ He sits down on a fallen trunk, rubbing at his shattered knee. It’s stopped bleeding, at least. ‘But few would dare to enter it.’

‘Why?’ My senses tingle. Never a good sign. ‘It is guarded?’

‘Indeed it is. By a monster so fearsome its name is only whispered by the wind which blows over the corpses of its foes.’

I’ve heard the legend. ‘It’s the Minotaur, isn’t it?’

His sightless eyes widen and he makes that strange gesture in front of his chest again. ‘Hush, my lady! You must not speak its name!’

‘The Minotaur? Why not? Does it appear when you call it?’ I start to laugh. ‘Here Minotaur! Here, boy! There’s a good Mino—’

There’s a sickening crash.

I whirl, a gun in each hand, aiming at the source of the noise.

A moment of relief as I realise it’s not the Minotaur.

Then a sense of rising panic as I see it’s worse than that. Much, much worse …

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.5 – Future Imperfect

Read the previous episodes

fhs

‘Lancelot. As in Sir?’ I’m strapping on the last of my weaponry as I speak, adjusting the strap on the rocket launcher and wishing the surface-to-air missile launcher was a bit lighter.

‘I once held that title, long ago.’ The stranger probably believes he is staring wistfully out my window. I haven’t the heart to tell him his face is only about three millimetres from the fridge. ‘My actions — my choices — saw me no longer deserving of it.’

I know the tale. Of how he ran off with the King’s wife, brought about the whole fall of Camelot by not being able to keep his lance in check. A tale of tragedy, of forbidden love, of the frailty of human nature. Boring as a beggar’s britches, in other words.

‘And now you wander the land, seeking to make amends?’ I ask.

‘I do not wander. Errant I may be, Scarlett, but my deeds still have purpose. That, as I have explained, is why I am here.’

I lock and load the last of my payload. ‘So you say. I’ll wait to see evidence of your claims before I let myself believe them, however.’

‘I would expect no less from the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming.’ Lancelot smiles benevolently at the fridge door. ‘You are of noble birth, Scarlett.’

I have been called many things in my time, but noble is most definitely not one of them. The notion makes me feel queasy. I clutch the grip of my uzi for reassurance. ‘Enough of this,’ I say. ‘Let’s get going. The sooner we make it to the Kingdom, the sooner all of this will be over.’

‘Very well.’ Lancelot turns, getting ready to kneel before me again. ‘I shall defend your honour to my last breath, my lady.’

This is no doubt the sort of behaviour that worked its charming magic on Guinevere, but it takes more than a pocketful of smarm to win me over. ‘We’ll see who needs defending,’ I say. ‘Keep behind me on the road, let me deal with whatever perils might be in our way.’

‘I fear we will face many, Scarlett. SB’s agents are abroad; I suspect Merlin may have alerted her to my purpose. It is possible she knows your true heritage — and if that is the case, she will stop at nothing to ensure you never get within a mile of the throne.’

I heft my long-range laser-guided rocket-powered grenade launcher. ‘I only need to get within two miles.’ I give a hollow laugh.

‘That’s as may be,’ says Lancelot, ‘but we must take care, Scarlett. We should do nothing to draw attention to ourselves; we should keep off the roads, make our way north through the Great Forest.’

There’s wisdom in his words, though trekking through the trees will cause our journey to take twice as long. ‘I feel at home in the woods,’ I say. ‘Especially wolf-infested ones.’

‘We will face worse than wolves, Scarlett. I have heard whisper that the Questing Beast is on the loose, no doubt freed by Merlin’s magics.’

‘The Questing Beast? I’ve never heard of it.’

‘A fearsome and most dreadful creature, it has been the vanquisher of many a noble knight.’

That word again. ‘Can you describe it? If we’re to face a monster, it would be useful to know its weak points.’

‘That’s the thing, Scarlett. It has no known weak points. Cut off its head, it grows another. Pierce it through the heart, a replacement organ grows in its stead. Slice it in twain, and the two halves will join together as one again, more terrible and dangerous than before.’

‘So it can’t be killed?’ I stroke the barrel of my shotgun. ‘Not even with enchanted bullets?’

‘It is immune to all magics. Merlin, prior to his association with SB, tried many spells and incantations to banish the beast. All to no avail.’

‘So how will we face it?’

‘I suggest we do all we can to make sure we do not, Scarlett. We must be alert for its tracks, for any signs it is on our trail.’

‘I am at home in the forest. My senses are at their keenest there. But you, Lance … ‘

‘Though I have no eyes, I can still see.’ He taps the centre of his forehead. ‘I have been imbued with the Sight.’

‘You can see the future?’

‘Only short glimpses of what is immediately about to happen. Enough, however, to keep you from stumbling into danger.’

I have to admit that might prove useful. At the very least, it should help steer us clear of stepping in any steaming piles of wolf droppings in our path. ’How did you get such a gift?’

‘From the same witch how took my vision. The scourge of Camelot herself.’

‘Morgana le Fay?’

‘A thousand damnations on her name.’ Lancelot makes a gesture in front of himself. ‘Aye, Scarlett. It was her.’

‘Why did she grant you the Sight? Surely that is a boon not a curse?’

‘Not in the way she cast it upon me.’ Lancelot drops his head. ‘Whilst it is true I can see what is about to happen, Morgana gave me the Sight so I could see my own death.’

‘And take measures to avoid it, surely?’

‘No, Scarlett. She was most clear on the matter. The particular strain of the Sight I possess allows me only to take action to avoid harm befalling others.’

‘But not yourself?’

Lancelot runs a palm across his scarred scalp. ‘Sadly, no. If danger has me in its sights, I as good as turn to stone. I know exactly what is about to happen to me, but I am powerless to avoid it.’

‘A curse indeed.’ I chew my lip idly, contemplating Lancelot’s quandary, imagining how I would feel if I was in his position. My hands toy absent-mindedly with my vast array of weaponry — my thumb is on the trigger of my Derringer, its smooth metal curves cool and comforting.

’Scarlett, I implore … you … ‘ His words dry in his throat. His eyes stare blindly at me, his mouth fixed open. One hand is held in front of his face, the other shielding his left knee. He is as still as a statue: even his chest is still, as though his very breathing has stopped.

Before I have time to wonder what has happened to him, my finger slips. There is a deafening boom; a flash of gunpowder; the sharp tang of cordite in the air. Though my pistol was lowered, it was still pointing at the hapless knight.

Straight at his left knee…