Category Archives: Fairytale Hit Squad 3

Fairytale Hit Squad 3.11 – Do You Believe In Magic?

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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 3.12 – Roll Up, Roll Up

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‘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 3.13 – 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 …

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 3.15 – 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 3.16 – Dangerous Liaisons

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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 3.17 – All The World’s A Stage

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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 …’