Fly, my online beauties, fly

Fly, my online beauties, fly …

In terms of internet years, I’m a dinosaur.

I remember irc, The Rough Guide To The Internet, Compuserve, dialup modems, AOL, Netscape Navigator, telnet, Alta Vista.

A long time ago in an internet far, far away

I remember booking half an hour in a cybercafé and running out of websites to look at. I remember when the internet was an unmoderated, unpredictable and – frequently – undesirable place to be. The wild wild web; the new frontier.

And I remember hitching my Teach Yourself HTML In 24 Hours book to my virtual mule and staking my claim.

First came Mystic Molly Of The Web, the internet’s foremost feline psychic. What started as a Viz-style joke site ended up with a devoted following, some of whom seemed to believe in my then moggy companion’s supernatural skills, based on some frankly rather unsettling emails I received at the time.

I still love Toy Story 2

Mystic Molly begat Screen Scene, a film review site, where I adopted a number of personas (Orson Carte, Arnold Willis, Baby Jane and Nikita Blue, if memory serves, each of whom was an ‘expert’ in their chosen genre). Some of their quotes still to this day appear on Rotten Tomatoes.

Screen Scene begat Happy Hopper, which for the life of me I can’t remember the rationale for the name of. A gaming site, I published cheats, walkthroughs and reviews of titles, many of which – like Daggerfall and Fallout – were the pixelated predecessors of games I play to this day. That begat an opportunity to freelance for a now-defunct site called Games Domain, and for me to receive free copies of usually dreadful PS2 games to give an online mauling to.

Screen Scene begat HeadCleaner, ‘the UK-based alternative music e-zine’. I reviewed every single and album I purchased (and I purchased a lot), everything from disposable pop nonsense to weirdcore muso ramblings. I also managed to interview such luminaries and heroes as David Gedge, Carter USM and Sigue Sigue Sputnik…

Happy memories (and too many boxes of obscure old CD singles)

After a while, my interest in my one-man media review publishing empire began to dwindle. I can’t quite recall why (probably because I was exhausted).

Several years later, I got the urge again. Although the internet had progressed far beyond the dusty canyons of those frontier days, I still felt a need to carve out a tiny part of it as my own. That urge coincided with the month I saw over 80 shows at the Edinburgh International Festivals, and – partly because I didn’t want to forget what I’d seen – I set up the Edinburgh Festival Insider blog and reviewed every sorry last one of them. By the end of the festival season that year, some of my quotes and star ratings were pasted up on posters across the city. I was hooked once more (bear in mind this was back in the days before there was as many reviewers as performers …)

I really should do more with this one…

Edinburgh Festival Insider thus begat Edinburgh Spotlight, a year-round news, review and photo site covering Scotland’s capital city. Now in its eighth year, it goes from strength to strength largely down to the sterling efforts of my business partner Alison, as I have – once again – butterflied off to something shiny and new.

That, of course, is my fiction writing (and, I suppose, this blog, which still carries faint echoes of Mystic Molly, HeadCleaner, Happy Hopper and the rest). Last year my writing almost died on the vine too, but as I’ve mentioned already, 2017 sees me and my creative fires back with a vengeance.

One flame of those fires will return to Edinburgh Spotlight, something I often feel ashamed of neglecting so much. Most of the remaining energy will go into the writing, that’s a given.

But I feel a glimmer of an itch of an urge again. The same one that first appeared when I realised the web was a place where anyone could play.

And although I’m not sure what it will be yet, I predict the imminent birth of a new website…

The great plot vs pants debate

Two paths, one destination

It is common wisdom that there are only two ways to write a novel. The first, an approach favoured by such trivial scribes as Stephen King and Ian Rankin, is to start writing with little or no idea of what’s going to happen, or to whom. Known as ‘discovery writing’, or more commonly in the US as ‘pantsing’ (from ‘writing by the seat of your pants’), to a degree it allows the writer to share the reader’s sense of anticipation as they literally watch the story unfold beneath their fingers.

The twists and turns of pantsing

The second is the polar opposite. ‘Plotting’ involves mapping out the story’s points to completion, long before any ‘once upon a times’ or ‘dark and stormy nights’ take flight from the author’s imagination. Moderately-successful writers such as J K Rowling and John Grisham adhere to this method, potentially because their heads would be at risk of exploding if they didn’t.

Pros and cons of pantsing and plotting

Pantsing, as mentioned, injects writing with a sense of wonder, unbound by strict arcs, character journeys and points which must happen for the story to make sense. For the writer, every page can feel like a cliffhanger, and the pull of being forced to exercise that spontaneous creative muscle can be an irresistible one.

On the downside, a draft produced by the pantsing method runs the risk of requiring considerable rework once complete. If the writer started off with little idea of how things were going to work out, early chapters may have plot holes, inconsistencies or even not make sense at all. Likely too, the novel’s themes wouldn’t necessarily have become clear until partway through the draft, meaning the tone of those early pages might be way off the moody mark.

The plotter is less likely to miss those points. With sometimes every single scene of the novel worked out beforehand, themes, foreshadowing, emotional journeys and the like can be woven in from the very first page. Characters and events will obediently go where the story needs them to go, rather than allow themselves to be written into impossible-to-escape corners.

The straight and narrow path of plotting

The main disadvantage – and criticism – of the plotting approach is that it stifles creativity, that its structure suffocates all chance for the story to breathe, to take unexpected turns, to evolve. If, partway through a plotted story, the author has a brilliant story-serving idea for how things need to be different, the plotted approach disallows it: at worst, it could even be a case of back-to-the-drawing-board.

One approach to rule them all?

As is always the case with writing and with creativity in general, there is no ‘right’ way. Some writers seek to strike a balance, plotting little more than a one-page synopsis, then pants their way through the detail, using the plot as a lodestone to guide things where they need to go. Others are strict adherents to one or the other, and – having based successful careers on their chosen method – they’ve made the right decision (for them).

As for me, I’ve tried them both and I know where my allegiance lies.

The first novel I ever seriously tried to write was a meandering pantsed mess. Though I had a rough idea of the sort of story I wanted to tell (something about exciting adventures in a mythological circus), I had none of the detail worked out about what was going to happen. My poor characters were left wandering round a monstrous big tip with no idea what to do. The draft of that disappeared in the Great Macbook Crash of 2011, and trust me, that’s best for everyone.

Next time, I turned my hand to plotting. I took an approach which has evolved into the one I use today: plotting out each scene or chapter, making sure I know who’s involved, what they’re feeling, what they do and what the resultant impact of their actions is. The first novel I produced using that method went the same way as the incomprehensible circus of pants, but at least I finished it, and – within its pretty amateurish context – it made some kind of sense.

An incomprehensible circus, yesterday


I’ve stuck to that over the years, learning more about craft, structure, character and generally evolving with every word I write. Today, I can’t imagine writing a novel without having the whole thing mapped out (and using Scrivener, I literally can see a map of it, which helps that dominant visual side of my brain immensely). I may not experience the thrill of discovery, but I relish the comfort of the known and the knowable: and enjoy being led by the helping hand of my plot through the narrative.

Without the worry of writing ever-increasing circles of nonsense, that allows other aspects of the novel room to breathe and grow. And there’s still room for spontaneity and surprises, particularly I’ve found when it comes to the dialogue between characters. It works for me – though that doesn’t necessarily mean it works for everyone else.

Finally, there is probably now some bizarre analogy I could make about pants, but I shall valiantly resist.

After all, doing that wasn’t in the outline I created for this post before writing it.

Thank you, Mr Turner

When I was 17, I wanted nothing more than to be an artist. All the decisions I made at school were in line with realising this goal, culminating in a sixth year dedicated to building my portfolio in order that I could apply for a coveted place at one of Scotland’s art colleges.

Fatefully, when I was 17, I also wholeheartedly embraced the pleasures of nicotine and alcohol. If I was being kind to myself, I could say I was already living the hedonistic life of a successful artist. In reality, I smoked and drank my way through the months until I realised my portfolio was – at best – a hyper-minimalist study of the emptiness of the human condition. In other words, it came as no surprise when it was swiftly delivered back to my home with a polite series of rejection slips from the four Scottish art colleges I’d applied for.

My artistic dreams thus evaporated, I turned my rather shamed teenage self to more mundane ambitions, ending up in a sensible job with a sensible salary and sensible career aspirations. My sense of creativity however refused to give up, and my love of art continued to burn, unable to be snuffed out by even the most soul-sapping morass of corporate machinery.

Today, through my writing, that creative sense burns brighter than it ever has, and I am grateful for that. Back then, I still drew and painted, unfettered by the pressure of trying to make a career of it. That was short-lived though – primarily due to practical reasons of time and energy.

But one thread from that previous artistic life has remained. An annual pilgrimage; a meditative journey where I contemplate on what might have been, and more importantly, what I’m still capable of.

And I have J M W Turner (and the Scottish National Gallery) to thank for that.

Every January, the Gallery brings it unrivalled collection of Turner watercolours out of storage. Originally, this was done in observation of the bequeather’s request that the works only be exhibited at this time of year, due to the weak January light being kindest to the delicacy of the 19th century paintings. Now, with advances in lighting and ambience, such precautions are no longer needed, but – rather wonderfully – the National Gallery has reverently upheld the benefactor’s original wishes.

Now I’m sure I’m not the only person whose January is artistically marked by a viewing of the watercolours. And I’m certain I’m not the only one who finds Turner’s masterly depictions of land, sea and sky as vibrantly inspirational today as they must surely have been when they were first exhibited.

Perhaps however I am the only one who visits with a sense of poignant reflection on a life that might have been; the sole viewer who associates Turner’s evocative portrayal of lightning hitting Venice with the sudden realisation that my dreamt-of future had vanished in an instant. And I’m fairly certain I’m in a small minority of people who recalls exactly what they were feeling, thinking and dreaming of every January since 1985.

Looking back today, some of those dreams have realised, but most have been as transient as Turner’s scudding clouds and ephemeral light.

But one constant remains.

A realisation and remembrance that I burn with a desire to create, to wrest something out of nothing, to leave marks where none previously existed.

And now, perhaps more so than ever, the poignancy is lessened, replaced by the midlife determination borne from an acceptance of the relentless march of time.

So I make you a promise, Mr Turner. 2017 will be a creative year, perhaps my most creative yet.

And in twelve months, I will stand here once again in front of your paintings, reflect on what I achieved, and give thanks for that. I will smile at your clouds; give thanks to your seas. I will mouth something silent and private to your lightning bolt in St Mark’s Square.

And I will create until I am capable of creating no more.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game – review

Welcome to Arkham

A downtown diner waitress discovers she is the reincarnation of an ancient sorceress and flings a spell at a masked killer … an ex-Fed with a guilty secret is facing an advancing horde of ghouls and is down to his last bullet … a studious librarian has unearthed arcane secrets in dusty tomes which gnaw at her mind until only a sliver of her sanity remains …

H.P. Lovecraft may have had his faults, but he was matchless in evoking a world where unspeakable and nameless horror simmers beneath the surface of everyday life. Today, the evocative 1920s setting and the constant menace of annihilation combine into a ‘Mythos’ which appeals – and disturbs – on many levels. And Fantasy Flight Games have as few peers when it comes to taking Lovecraft’s unique vision and translating it into a physical gaming experience which captures the dark atmosphere, desperation and lurking horror like none other.

Their latest foray into the world of the Great Old Ones is Arkham Horror: The Card Game. Using nothing more than varied decks of cards and some cardboard tokens, the game transports one to four players into the midst of a desperate struggle to delay the destruction of the world, by thwarting events set in motion by a grotesque coterie of cultists, monsters and unspeakable things with too many tentacles.

Once upon a time, there was a nameless horror…

Arkham Horror is one of the growing breed of tabletop games that places its emphasis on storytelling. Able to be played solo or cooperatively with two players (or up to four if the group owns two copies of the core set), the focus of Arkham Horror: The Card Game is to have players take on the role of an investigator, with a deck of cards representing their items, skills and talents. These plucky 1920s souls are then pitted against the forces of the Mythos in a series of three linked campaign scenarios, each featuring its own decks of cards to represent locations, plot points and random monsters or traumatic events. Before long, you forget you’re staring at little bits of cardboard and imagine yourself as street survivor Wendy Adams or ex-con Skids O’Toole, rushing breakneck through Arkham’s shady streets in a desperate attempt to uncover the identities of cultists intent on bringing about the apocalypse.

The suspension of disbelief is aided by some fabulous and atmospheric artwork, and a game mechanic which successfully blends the randomness of a draw-based card title and the immersion of a role-playing game. Each scenario has an ‘act’ deck and an ‘agenda’ deck – both of which advance via player or Mythos actions. Generally, reaching the end of the act deck counts as a victory, whereas flipping the last card of the agenda deck will result in something not-very-pleasant happening to the investigators, potentially something which lingers and carries over into the next scenario.

It’s here that the storytelling and role-playing aspects of the title come into their own. Defeat the main Big Bad in the first scenario and he’s gone for good; avoid him, and he’ll likely crop up again in the next chapter, ready to make an already tricky situation even harder. Or undergo something particularly dreadful and suffer a trauma which stays with you throughout the course of the campaign, increasing your likelihood of a hideous demise or going irrevocably insane. Though it’s not all bad news for the investigators: complete a scenario and they gain experience, which can then be used to purchase new cards or upgrade existing ones in their deck, giving them that extra edge in their ongoing struggle against the darkness.

Hidden agendas


With scenarios taking at most an hour to complete and a finite number of player cards in the core set, there have been some concerns raised about the game’s replayability. Fantasy Flight’s response is to release a steady stream of expansions, featuring new cards, scenarios, campaigns and ways to make your investigators’ lives even more miserable (and the fact it gives them a steady stream of income from fans of the game is surely a coincidence…)

Even with the core set’s three scenarios, however, there is still replayability in abundance. Yes, the plot points and twists will no longer come as a surprise, but the random elements of the game – from the cards drawn to the skill test-modifying effects of the random ‘chaos tokens’ – ensure that no two games are ever the same. In three separate playthroughs of the first scenario, I experienced two crushing failures and one skin-of-the-teeth victory – all of which were unique and memorable. In fact, like Eldritch Horror and other Fantasy Flight Lovecraft games, I swear at times that Arkham Horror: The Card Game is possessed, turning up just the wrong card at precisely the wrong moment, such as the time my poor investigator needed to uncover one more clue to win, just as her flashlight ran out of batteries and a clue-obscuring fog descended on her attic…

In fact from a replayability perspective, you can think of the game’s scenario and agenda conditions as the strategy – the things you know in advance you must do to triumph or survive. The random draws of the cards and your reactions to their effects then become the tactics – and it’s here where the game more than holds it own, with a great deal of planning and risk assessment going on, based on the ever-changing effects of the draw.

Sign me up for the long haul (or: Fantasy Flight, please take all my money)

As a fast-paced and thematically-rich jaunt through Lovecraft’s Mythos, Arkham Horror: The Card Game scratches an itch which the other more lengthy and involved titles in Fantasy Flight’s range do not. I’ve found myself pondering card synergies and strategies in my head whilst away from the game, and the promise of deeper, more varied scenarios in the upcoming The Dunwich Legacy campaign expansion is hard to resist. Like the equally excellent The Lord Of The Rings card game, the expansions all have a prescribed set of cards in each – so the game won’t fall into the trap of forcing you to buy loads of booster packs hoping for that one rare card to complete your set (Star Wars: Destiny has a risk of this: more news as I dabble around with that one).

So for me, Arkham Horror is my New Favourite Tabletop Game™. I can see me spending a considerable amount of time (and a chunk of my disposable income) visiting and revisiting its shady locales, building up my magic-wielding waitress’ experience as she faces a never-ending torrent of horrors with her lucky rabbit’s foot and trusty baseball bat.

And – at least until an expansion comes out that allows me to play as Sister Mary on a motorbike with a shotgun – I couldn’t be happier.

5 Elder Signs out of 5

Images © Fantasy Flight Games 2016-2017

2017 – Reach for the sky (the stars are too far away)

1400513_10152016386043478_2032579305_oFor reasons I’ll not go into here, I found 2016 to be a very challenging year. This had an impact on nearly every part of my life, not least my writing.

In 2015, I was consistently writing over 1,000 words a day, winning awards & contests, and churning out a large number of novels, novellas and short stories on Amazon. In 2016, I was lucky sometimes if I was writing one word a day, hardly even entered a contest let alone win one, and watched my poor (self)neglected works gather virtual dust on Amazon’s virtual shelves.

Here now on the penultimate day of 2016, I say “enough” (or, more accurately, “not nearly enough“).

2017 will be different.

Different from 2016, most definitely, but also different from 2015 and the years before.

In 2017, my focus is on quality over quantity. I’ve proven to myself, and a fairly respectable number of loyal readers, that I can write. Now I want to prove to myself that I have the discipline and commitment to write things with much more depth and attention to detail than I have ever done in the past.

Though I’m shying away from 2015’s “half a million words” target (which I surpassed, even though a large percentage of them were “the“, “and” and “a”), I’m still setting the bar high.

2017’s goals therefore look like this:

  • Plot, draft, edit and publish two full-length novels
  • Write one short story every month
  • Enter every relevant writing contest I come across
  • Actively seek publication from a traditional publisher and/or literary agent

And who knows, I may even resurrect Fairytale Hit Squad (Tony, I know you’ve been gagging on it…)

So farewell and to a large degree good riddance to 2016.

And as for 2017? Well, let’s just say …

Coming soon: Pointy Eared Bitch.

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.17 – All The World’s A Stage

Read the previous episodes

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‘My lady!’ Lance’s cry is frantic. ‘Please, desist!’

I struggle to hear him through the rush of blood pumping in my ears. I snarl, tightening my fingers around SB’s lily-white throat. Her eyes bulge; her tongue protrudes from between her smug ruby lips. I think of all I’ve learned these past few days: the lies, the betrayal, the execution of my mother at this she-wolf’s hand. I grit my teeth, my resolve set firmer than ever.

‘Scarletski Rudetski!’ Cecil’s hands are on my shoulders, trying to wrench me away from my stranglehold. ‘What are you doing?’

I turn, my teeth bared. ‘Get your stinking paws off me, you stupid big lumbering ox! Can’t you see who we’re up against?’

Cecil looks like I’ve just slapped him in the face. He shakes his head, his eyes widening in Lance’s direction. ‘What’s wrong with her?’ he wails.

‘A glamour,’ says Lance. ‘Morgana has bewitched her.’

I pause at his words, loosening my grip ever so slightly. I stare down at SB’s bulging red face. The eyes. There’s something about the eyes. A spark within them: mocking me with barely-concealed mirth. As I loosen my grip further, SB’s features melt away, replaced by the different — though equally arrogant — countenance of Morgana.

‘Why the hell did you do that?’ I yell, removing my fingers from the witch’s neck, pleased to see I’ve left two neat rows of livid bruises. ‘I could have killed you!’

‘No, my dear.’ Morgana gets to her feet, brushing imaginary specks of dirt from her svelte shoulders. ‘You do not possess nearly enough power to do that. I did however wish to test your mettle. To see if you have what it takes when the time comes.’

‘When the time comes to do what?’ I say, breathing heavily.

‘To choke the life from SB and free the Kingdom from her shackles of oppression,’ says Morgana, looking at me in a sly manner which causes my shackles to rise. ‘So that one more worthy can take her place.’

*****

Morgana managed to convince Cecil that her sheer silk dress with daring leg slits was all she needed to allow her to portray the role of a daring acrobat in our increasingly unlikely pretence of being a group of travelling performers. Lance was still adamant that pretending to be a band of wandering troubadours gave us our best chance of getting into SB’s palace unmolested, so we spend the remainder of the day rehearsing our acts.

I have to admit, Cecil is mightily convincing as a strongman, lifting a twenty-foot long tree trunk with one hand and a discarded cartwheel with the other, whilst balancing a gigantic boulder between his horns. His chest bulged with pride when Morgana gave a condescending clap of her hands, before busying herself with her own routine.

Though the witch is easy to hate, her display of acrobatics is undeniably impressive. Though her battle magics are apparently gone, I can only assume that the feats she manages to pull off are a result of some other kind of enchantment — unless it’s normal for a woman to be able to do that whilst clutching both her ankles and still managing to whistle …

From cartwheeling and tumbling to eye-watering displays of contortionism, Morgana’s movements are graceful, limber and fluid. Exactly the opposite of mine. Fortunately, all my act calls for is for me to maintain an overall mood of grumpy menace, something I am a bit of a natural at. I swish my tail from side to side, bare my teeth and snarl, to the extent that Cecil is so scared of me that he drops his boulder on his hoof.

‘Ow!’ He hops about on one leg. ‘You are truly frightening, my fierce little fiery-hued fiend.’

I know he means it as a compliment, but the words still sting a bit. Is this my lot in life — to scare people with my bestial anger? And my increasingly inconvenient tail?

‘Speak to us, oh masters of the veil.’ Lance’s eyes are closed, his fingers waggling in the air in front of him like ten fat broiling worms. ‘Commune with us; impart to us the secrets of your wisdom.’

Lance’s nonsensical burblings are — I hope — part of his act. Though cursed by Morgana to be able to see glimpses of his own future mishaps and misfortunes, he is not to my knowledge able to contact the spirits of the dead. As I listen to him mutter more of his meaningless mumbo-jumbo, I start to worry about how convincing our deception will be. There’s a good chance I may yet need to make use of my vast arsenal and bestial lycan rage …

After we’ve finished rehearsing, we feast on a roast pig and quaff some elderberry wine which Morgana conjured up from nowhere. Despite my initial suspicions that the food and drink would be poisoned, after I waited to see if Lance or Cecil would keel over after having taking a mouthful, I settle down and actually quite enjoy it.

‘See?’ says Morgana, sitting down on a log beside me. ‘You have nothing to fear from me, Princess.’ The way she says the word is still mocking, but I let it pass.

‘What are your plans once we defeat Merlin and SB?’ I ask. Her comment about a worthy replacement for SB’s throne is bothering me: I’m pretty certain she didn’t mean me …

‘A battle lies ahead,’ she says, staring into the crackling fire. ‘Let us see who survives it, then we can discuss what we have planned for the future.’

A burning ember lands dangerously close to my tail. I flick my furry appendage, extinguishing it before it can do any damage. ‘I never asked for any of this, you know,’ I say.

‘I understand,’ says Morgana. ‘Before I was … who I am today … I was quite content to lead a normal life.’

I raise an eyebrow. Is Morgana — the most powerful and feared sorceress in all the lands — opening up to me? ‘And now?’ I say. ‘Aren’t you happy with the power and riches your magic has brought you?’

She sniffs, part I am sure for dramatic effect. Sure enough, Cecil’s head snaps towards her, concern etched across his bullish features. ‘That is one thing I have never had, Princess. Happiness.’

My heart bleeds for her. I look askance at Morgana: at her beautiful features, perfectly-proportioned body and elegant poise. ’What would make you happy then?’ I ask.

Half a smile materialises on her lips. ‘If I tell you, will you swear not to breathe a word?’

I nod. Inside, I have my intentions crossed. There’s no way I’m promising anything to a witch. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Of course.’

‘I only want,’ she says, laying her hand upon mine and turning to me with an expression I didn’t imagine her to be capable of, ‘to be reunited with my daughter …’

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.16 – Dangerous Liaisons

Read the previous episodes

fhs

She’s the sort of woman I absolutely despise.

Tall and slender, with the kind of body that reduces men — even blind old ones like Lance — to slavering fools. Lustrous black hair so thick it practically swallows the light. Smooth, flawless skin as appealing as fresh milk; big dark eyes like invitingly cool pools on a sweltering summer’s day. And a voice that purrs like a bagful of contented kittens.

‘Lancelot!’ She clutches her hands in front of her chest as though trying to keep her heart from flying out of her ribcage. ‘How simply divine to see you again! Are you dressed as some kind of tree?’

Lance shuffles awkwardly, as though ashamed. ‘Morgana,’ he says. ‘My companions and I are in disguise, on a covert mission of the utmost importance. I take it that you managed to escape the confines of the dread House of Glass?’

She waves her hand as if swatting a troublesome fly. ‘Oh that old place? Actually, I found it to be rather charming.’ She inspects a long blood-red fingernail. ‘And rather fragile, despite Merlin’s best efforts to seal me inside for all eternity. But tell me, dearest Lancelot — how are you faring with the gift I bestowed upon you when last we met?’

‘The sight?’ His lips are pursed. ‘I have learned to live with it, thank you.’

‘Splendid!’ She claps her hands. ‘How simply delicious! And speaking of which,’ she says, turning her gaze towards Cecil, ‘who is this rather impressive specimen you are travelling with?’

It sickens me to see the Minotaur stand with his hands clasped behind his back, his head bowed sheepishly. ‘I am known as Cecil, my lady,’ he says. ‘It is an honour and a pleasure to meet you.’

‘Yes, indeed it is.’ She stares at his skimpy loincloth, one perfectly-shaped eyebrow raised. ‘My, my…’

I wait for her to turn her attention to me, trying to stand in such a way that my tail isn’t blatantly obvious.

‘Dearest Lance,’ she says, steadfastly ignoring me, ‘I heard you discussing a mission of some sort. One which apparently involved you having to face Merlin?’

‘We are on a quest of the most noble undertaking. I am not sure if I am willing to discuss it with one such as you, Morgana.’

‘One such as me?’ She flattens her hand across her chest, taking the opportunity to pull down her corset an inch or two. ‘Whatever do you mean?’

‘The fate of the Kingdom depends upon our success,’ says Lance. ‘And our success depends upon our discretion. Young Princess Scarlett here —‘

He is interrupted by Morgana’s peals of laughter. I glare at her as she wipes tears of mirth from her eyes, her ample chest heaving. ‘Princess?’ she says. ‘Her? I thought she was your pet!’

She descends into fits of laughter again. I feel my tail bristle; a low growl burrs in the back of my throat.

‘Princess Scarlett,’ says Lance, ‘has a power greater than you could ever hope to achieve, Le Fay.’

‘Oh come, come,’ says Morgana. ‘Last names now, is it? Don’t be so stuffy!’

‘Yes,’ says Cecil, obviously transfixed by her womanly wiles, ‘loosen up, Lanceypops.’

‘Lanceypops!’ Morgana doubles up in merriment once more. ‘Oh, I like that.’

Cecil’s ears stand up tall with pride. I shake my head, remembering now why I prefer being a loner.

‘Actually,’ I say, ‘I never asked for any of this. All I wanted was to be left to my own devices, hunting werewolves in the woods.’

‘Ah, a lycan hunter! How fascinating!’ Morgana couldn’t look more bored if she tried. ‘Yet it seems the hunter has become the prey, does it not?’

‘Scarlett’s affliction is a result of Merlin’s magics,’ says Lance. I’m grateful to him for sticking up for me — and for concealing the truth of my heritage from this scheming witch before us. ‘Another of the reasons we are on our noble quest — to defeat the wizard of Camelot once and for all.’

‘And that is where our motives coincide, dear Lancelot.’ Morgana walks around us slowly.  ‘I too have cause to bring about the demise of that wizened old pointy-hatted charlatan.’

‘Old pointy-hat,’ says Cecil, gazing at her like a helpless mooncalf. ‘Oh, I like that.’

Morgana ignores him, directing her words to Lance. ‘You need my assistance to defeat him, like it or not.’

’It is undeniable your magics are a match for his,’ says my knightly chum. ‘Yet I am curious, Morgana — why would you need us? Surely you could face him on your own?’

‘Normally, that would be the case, my adulterous old comrade. Yet the days and nights I spent alone in his prison took their toll upon me.’ She puts her hand to her forehead and sways, in a blatantly obvious attempt to look vulnerable. Cecil rushes to her side, arms outstretched ready to catch her should she fall. Morgana snorts, glancing once more at his leather-clad loins.

‘You are without your battle magics?’ asks Lance.

‘I am but a poor abused innocent in need of healing,’ says Morgana, fluttering her thick eyelashes in Cecil’s direction. ’The remedy of which I know I can only gain from one source.’

‘The death of Merlin.’ Lance taps his chin, as though pondering our options. ‘It does indeed seem that our quests have something in common.’

‘You’re considering letting her join us?’ I can’t keep the disappointment from my voice. ‘Are you sure we can trust her?’

‘Of course you can’t trust me, Princess,’ says Morgana. ‘But if you assist me in exacting my vengeance on my nemesis, then I pledge to help you on the remainder of your quest. Which, as I understand it, involves gaining a personal audience with SB.’

‘You know her?’ I ask. It wouldn’t surprise me. Women like them tend to band together like packs of she-wolves.

‘I do indeed,’ says Morgana. ‘Rather well, in fact.’

The silence between us is broken only by the faint croaking coming from Cecil’s toads. I watch as the air swirls in front of Morgana, as though a mist has descended between us, obscuring her from view. Then, as quickly as it appeared, the strange fog is gone.

And there, standing before us, is the unmistakably smug and arrogant figure of SB herself.

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.15 – Whistle Whilst You Work

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The lights may be on in his eyes, but there’s nobody home.

Gone is Cecil’s cheery optimistic manner, replaced instead by a pixie-fuelled inferno of rage. Steam bellows from his nostrils; his muscles bulge beneath his taut brown skin; his loincloth flaps with an air of abject fury.

‘Cecil!’ I know before the cry leaves my lips that there’s no point: the Minotaur has been possessed by the pixie swarm, who will be controlling his every thought and action. ‘Cecil, it’s me! Scarletto Scaramouch Fandango!’

‘It is of no use,’ says Lance, limping to my side. ‘The creature we knew as Cecil is gone, his life-force suffocated by the parasitic cloud of pixies.’

The Minotaur is charging towards us, spiked club swinging above its head. He’ll be on us in a few moments. Apart from a flimsy branch of leaves, I’m completely naked. My weapons are in a pile where I left them when I transformed into a wolf. My energy is depleted: there’s no chance of me transforming back into a beast until I’ve had a chance to rest. I need to think — and act — quick. Which I would possibly be able to do if it wasn’t for this blasted tune running through my mind and distracting me …

Despite the actuality of Cecil’s musical talents being the tiniest bit lower than what he believed them to be, every now and again he did manage to come up with a catchy tune. And it’s one of those which is buzzing round my head right now, no doubt brought to mind by the sight of him crashing towards me with the intent of beating out a rather more unpleasant refrain with his club.

There’s a chance. A tiny, desperate one, admittedly, but it’s all I can think of.

I put my lips together and blow. As a stealthy hunter of forest-foraging fauna, my ability to whistle is well-honed. And whilst I’m more used to using it to mimic the calls of the creatures I’m hunting, I’m also pleasingly able to replicate Cecil’s tune.

A few notes in, and nothing happens. The Minotaur is nearly upon me. I brace myself, hoping to be able to withstand the first of his blows then somehow manoeuvre myself into an advantageous position and bring him down. I continue to whistle, though it’s looking like it’s not going to have any affect on the pixie-inhabited monster. I change key, moving on to the chorus segment.

And that’s when it happens.

The Minotaur’s ears twitch, tuning into the sound of my whistle like a pair of leathery antennae. I continue to whistle, blowing harder and increasing the volume of the tune.

Cecil blinks, then judders to a halt. His eyes are crossed, his widening mouth opening and closing like he’s eating an invisible pizza. The club crashes to the forest floor as he starts to click his fingers in time with my whistling melody.

And then two concentrated blue streams of pixies shoot out of his nostrils.

‘Get them!’ I leap forward, swinging my branch at the little blue bugbears, swatting dozens of them aside with each swipe.

Cecil shakes his head and widens his eyes. ‘Scarletto Cornetto!’ he cries. ‘You’re not wearing a stitch!’

I laugh, flattening a few score more pixies with my branch. ‘Never mind that,’ I cry, ‘help me get rid of this pest problem!’

‘Gladly, my little whistling dixie!’ Cecil grabs handfuls of the swarming mites, crushing them in his gigantic fists. Beside me, Lance is joining in as well, flailing at the blue cloud with his stick and swatting groups of them from the air.

After a chaotic few seconds of flurried activity, it’s all over. The ground is stained blue with the squished remnants of the malevolent sprites. I’m out of breath and sweating, but filled with the intoxicating power of victory. And — less familiarly — relief: that Cecil appears to be safe.

‘Thank you so much, my little hooded wonder,’ he says, dropping to one knee. ‘I am forever in your debt — my next song will be a tribute to your bravery and wits!’

‘You did indeed do well, my lady.’ Lance is also kneeling, though facing in completely the wrong direction. ‘It is an honour to have you as our leader.’

‘Oh enough of that,’ I say, though I have a suspicion I’m blushing as crimson as my name. ‘Come on, help me retrieve my clothes and my weapons and we can bring justice to this land once and for all. Together.’

*****

Cecil does another impressive job mending my torn cloak with his surprisingly nimble fingers. After I was reunited with my weapons, I reunited him with the remains of his saxophone. The look on his face as he cradled the flattened instrument was heartbreaking, but after Lance reminded him how musical his bellowing can be, Cecil eventually brightened and before long was composing another ditty which — I have to admit — was rather stirring.

It provides a suitable soundtrack for us as we march northwards, refreshed and revitalised, confident in our collective abilities to defeat SB and reclaim my mother’s throne. Surprisingly, my previous thoughts of gaining access to the Kingdom’s vast amounts of gold have been replaced by a desire for justice. I decide to share this with Lance, despite feeling a bit sheepish doing so.

‘It is the mark of your heritage, my lady,’  he says. ‘I have always seen it within you — and now it gladdens my heart to to see it rise to the surface in such an inspiring manner.’

‘It feels … odd,’ I say, cradling my favourite submachine gun in my arms like a comatose kitten. ‘I’m used to being alone.’ I glance over my shoulder at my tail. ‘And human.’

‘We are all on a journey,’ says Lance. ‘We do not always know what lies ahead.’

‘You do, though.’

‘Only for those whose fate is intertwined with my own. And, as we discussed before, your influence is already making the dread certainties of the future less sure.’

‘So what do you suggest we do now?’ The mantle of leadership is as alien to me as wearing a party dress and a ribbon in my hair.

‘I suggest we continue exactly as we are,’ says Lance, smiling. ‘I have utmost faith in you to choose the right paths on our journey, my lady.’

‘And him?’ I nod across to Cecil, who’s trying to coax a tune out of a couple of toads he picked up from the side of a stream a couple of hours ago. Despite his enthusiastic squeezing, all the poor amphibians manage to do is make rather distressed squeaking noises.

‘He is a valuable member of our party,’ says Lance. ‘Capable of gaining us access to SB’s palace through force if our plan to slip in undetected fails.’

‘We’re still intending to pretend to be performers?’ I look askance at Lance. His previously impressive forest-fashioned outfit has started to wilt a bit.

‘I believe that plan has the best chance of us confronting SB with the minimum of violence,’ he says. ‘Unless you disagree, I advise we continue on that course.’

‘And Merlin? What do we have to fear from him?’

Lance is about to reply when I become aware of someone else on our path, standing a few paces ahead. A woman, slender, with long black hair curling over her shoulders.

‘Morgana!’ Lance sounds as though someone’s stepped on his grave, stopped there, and is now tap-dancing on it.

‘Leave Merlin to me,’ says the woman, coiling a strand of hair around her fingers and smiling bewitchingly at us. ‘He and I have something of an old score to settle…’

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.14 – Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?

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Remember that happiness I mentioned a moment ago?

Well, it was certainly short-lived. Now, it’s been replaced by an all-consuming and white-hot rage.

And, looking down at the gigantic furry paws where my hands used to be, something else has been replaced too…

All my senses are heightened, as sharp as my razor claws and teeth. I snap my head to the left at the fall of a tiny leaf and direct my gaze at an almost-imperceptible rustling in the undergrowth. And there, I smell — no, I see — their trail.

It’s hard to explain. I know, somewhere inside, where my human form is caged, that I have picked up Lance and Cecil’s scent. But through these lupine eyes and nostrils, it is as if I see it. Like a glowing green mist, snaking through the trunks of the trees, wending its way into the darkness of the forest. Darkness which, of course, I can see through as clear as day.

I do whatever the wolfish equivalent of a laugh is and drop to my four feet, throwing back my head and letting out a ululating howl. Instinct has kicked in: I feel driven by a compulsion to rescue the members of my pack, then rip to shreds whoever has threatened them, not resting until my fur is slick with their blood.

For I am wolf.

And, boy, am I mad.

*****

The green mist of their trail grows stronger as I crash through the forest. Branches bend and snap in my wake; I leap over felled trunks and jagged boulders with animalistic ease. At a fork in the path however, I pause. Here the trail splits in two, one strand heading to the left, the other — fainter — to the right. I am forced to make a choice.

From the unmistakable whiff of sweaty leather, I can tell the stronger scent comes from Cecil. I turn my head from side to side, contemplating my decision. The Minotaur — though strung as high as a giant’s kite — is more likely to be able to handle whatever situation he’s gotten himself into. Old blind Lance, with his worrisome habit of turning as still as a statue at the imminent threat of violence, is another matter. I growl, then sprint to the right, following the wispy trail of Sir Lancelot.

I don’t have far to go. As the scent solidifies, I am able to see him up ahead. Sure enough, he’s stood stock-still in the middle of a small clearing, his hands clasped above his head. I glance around, looking for a sign of whatever has captured him. At first, I see nothing, then I notice what appears to be a pale blue glow pulsating around the petrified knight’s body. My first thought is of Merlin and his magics, but my keen senses cut through my suspicions and identify the real culprits behind my companions’ disappearance.

Pixies.

Like a swarm of magical fleas, they envelop poor Lance’s immobile body. As I watch, they flit this way and that, up and down, in front and behind. Unpicking every thread of his clothing as they do so.

I know what they’re up to. The little blighters are like parasites: as soon as they’ve got Lance stripped naked, they’ll be able to take control of him and he’ll become nothing more than a mindless automaton, inhabited by a colony of spite-filled sprites. Any vestige of what he used to be will be gone, swallowed up by the ravaging horde of little blue mites and made to carry out their nefarious schemes.

Unless I stop them.

Which, of course, presents me with a bit of a problem. If I was still in my human form and had my weapons with me, I could load up my rocket launcher with tear gas and blast them off him. Sure, Lance would end up with a bit of a sore head — and possibly a violent allergic reaction — but at least he’d still be him.

As it stands, all I have are four paws and a mouthful of giant teeth, none of which are much use against a swarm of foes so small and nimble they could dodge out the way of any attacks with ease. It’s enough to make the fur on the back of my neck stand up.

… the thick, lustrous and tangled fur …

I leap into the clearing, landing with a snarl. The swarm of pixies pulsates, shaping itself into a blue cloud of malevolence. I stand my ground, baring my teeth and puffing out my fur as much as I can manage.

There’s a pause: a long, long moment of silence. Lance is still motionless, three-quarters of his trousers already dismantled. I flex my muscles, ready to leap at a moment’s notice. And the pixie swarm hangs in the air, so close to me now that I can make out their leering little faces.

And then they’re on me.

I’d hoped it would work: that the prospect of controlling a werewolf and having a cosy pelt to nest in would be too tempting for them to be able to resist. As one, they depart from Lance and make a pixie-line straight for me. I tense, but stay motionless, allowing every last one of them to burrow into the furthest recesses of my fur.

I wait for a second or two, until I feel their tiny blue hands begin to try and claw their way in deeper.

Then I howl with triumph, flip onto my back, kick my legs in the air and roll vigorously about in the dirt until every last one of them is little more than a tiny blue stain on my coat.

‘Lance!’ I snap at a straggler with my already-transforming jaws, crunching him like a little pixie-shaped dog treat. ‘Lance, are you okay?’

‘My .. my lady?’ He blinks. Apart from his shredded costume, he appears none the worse for the pixies’ onslaught. I breathe a sigh of relief, one which segues seamlessly into a gasp of embarrassment as I realise I’m now back in human form. And my clothes are in a ripped pile left rather inconveniently about half a mile away. Seldom have I been more glad that poor old Lance is blind.

‘Where’s Cecil?’ I say, instinctively grabbing a leafy branch and covering myself with it as best I can.

‘Alas, my lady. There were two swarms of the accursed creatures. The first led me to this dire place; the larger of the two descended upon our unfortunate horned companion.’

‘We need to try and find him, quickly. This is the last sort of thing we need to be facing right now!’ I try to get myself worked up again, hoping that I’ll feel the tell-tale signs of my transformation. But, though I am still a bit miffed to say the least, I’m not overflowing with the same rage I felt earlier.

‘There is no need, my lady.’

At first I’m puzzled as to what he means. Then, with a mighty crash, two large trees explode into splinters and I see what he’s getting at.

It’s Cecil.

Or rather it’s the creature which used to be Cecil, glaring at us with glowing blue eyes as he stampedes towards us with a gigantic spiked club…

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.13 – Future Imperfect

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‘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…’

‘What’?

‘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 …