Category Archives: Fairytale Hit Squad

Fairytale Hit Squad 1.11 – My, Grandma…

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At least the schmuck was true to his word. Once we’d parted with our cash in return for some of the “bestest souvenirs this side of Clapham, innit”, the great big mockney gimp shrank back down to his normal size and sloped back into his hut.

I’m clutching a pair of pink furry trolls locked together in a way I previously hadn’t thought anatomically possible, whilst Prince Charming looks a right royal plank with his plastic minotaur horns balancing on his bonce. Goldie’s nicely filling a “Big & Bad” t-shirt, in a way which looks like she’s given the two most interesting parts of her body names.

Jack holds the foldout map in front of him, upside down. ‘There are no hills,’ he says, his voice flat with disappointment. ‘I like hills.’

‘Give me that.’ I swipe it out his hands, handing the trolls to Goldie with a wink. I turn the map the right way round and try to get our bearings. I can see Maleficent’s castle slap bang in the middle, a whole host of smaller lairs clustered round it like boiling black blisters. There’s grandma’s cottage; further in lies the woodcutter’s hut, and a thick grey line marks out the Porky McQuiff Memorial Bypass they built over the remains of the Three Little Pigs’ houses. And there, beyond that, the Gingerbread House. If there’s one place Gretyl’s likely to have made a beeline for, it’s there. Chances are she’s chomping her way through the chimney as we speak.

‘Let’s try grandma’s,’ I say. ‘The wizened old bat’s so nosy she’ll have seen anyone passing this way.’

We walk on, treading carefully through Darkwood, trying to avoid the bulging eyes set into the trunks of the trees. They’re not alive, of course: they’re just big dumb planks, really. But everything they see is transmitted straight to Maleficent’s control room, where a stinking legion of noxious little elves with personal hygiene issues pore over every detail, looking for intruders. This wouldn’t be the first time she’s unleashed her squadron of airborne gibbons, raining down terror (and monkey poop – lots of monkey poop) on an intrepid band of unsuspecting interlopers.

‘What’s that?’ Prince Charming leans forward, cupping his ear in an exaggerated heroic pose. I resist the temptation to push him in front of the nearest goggle-eyed tree and wait for the monkeys to do their stuff.

I strain to listen. I hear it. Music. Deep thumping bass notes, with what sounds like trumpets and trombones sleazing over a big fat pumping rhythm.

‘Not the sort of music I’d expect grandma to be into,’ says Goldie, looking puzzled.

‘Yeah,’ I say, sharpening my sarcasm. ‘I hear she’s more into German death metal.’

‘Quiet, both of you.’ Prince Charming creeps forward, then beckons us to follow.

We peek over the thorn bush we’re hiding behind. ‘It’s not quite the same as I remember it,’ gasps Goldie.

The cottage is dwarfed by a neon sign proclaiming Grandma’s is now the “number one place in Darkwood for cold beer, hot women and fast living”. There’s a row of motorbikes parked outside; another one roars up as we watch, the driver pulling off his helmet to reveal a pair of twisted horns and a face like a burst bag of boiled frogs. A pack of slinky forest nymphs sidle over to him, strategically-placed leaves only just managing to cover their modesty. They fawn over the chump, then lose interest as he gives a shrug to indicate he’s not got any money.

‘What on earth do we do now?’ Goldie wails. ‘The place looks like it’s turned into a house of ill repute!’

‘Fear not,’ I say, standing up from behind the bush and jutting myself forward manfully. ‘If ever there was a job for me, then this is it…’

Fairytale Hit Squad 1.12 – Nymphs & Maniacs

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I WALK OUT into the open. The nymphs are rustling back to the side of the joint, now they’ve realised the chump with the horns doesn’t have any readies.

I sidle up, one hand in my pocket, jangling my locker keys. ‘Evening ladies,’ I say. ‘How’s business?’

They eye me suspiciously. Hardly surprising when their usual clients have eyes like boiled eggs and teeth growing out their foreheads. I saunter up to a particularly perky-looking nymph with sleek dark green hair.

‘Hey sweetheart, what’s your name?’

‘Lulu.’ She’s chewing with her mouth open. ‘What do you want me to call you, sugar?’

‘Whatever you like, doll-face.’ I look down at the cluster of fresh spring leaves covering her body. ‘Now, what say you we go somewhere more private and wait for autumn?’

She giggles, turning a not entirely unattractive shade of pistachio. The other nymphs slink off, sensing a deal about to be closed.

‘Listen,’ I say, feeling my sap beginning to rise. ‘I’m not that different from you.’ I tap the side of my head. It makes a noise like a coconut. ‘In fact, I think one of my legs started life in the same grove as you. Shall we?’

I haven’t got enough money, of course. I only want to drill her for information, nothing else. She leads me round the back and points to a pile of hay.

‘Lulu,’ I say. ‘I don’t want you getting the wrong idea, but I’m hoping you’re able to help me and my three friends.’

She looks nonplussed. ‘Sure, sugar,’ she says, starting to sway her hips like a sapling in a breeze. ‘Whatever you want, as long as you’ve got the cash.’

I wish I’d fleeced Baby for a few notes before I left. The big lunk owes me a ten-spot for paying his fine for him when he was caught with his pants down, doing what bears do in SB’s ornamental rose garden.

‘Now that’s the thing,’ I say, holding up my empty palms. ‘I’ve not got any dough.’

‘Oh, please. You already owe me for walking with you this far.’ Her eyes bore into me like woodworm.

‘I just want to ask you a couple of questions, that’s all. Then you can get back to business. Do me a favour, sister. From one woodentop to another?’

She softens a little, adjusting one of her leaves. ‘Make it quick,’ she says. ‘There’s a hobgoblin bachelor party due at seven. Nasty little freaks, but they always pay well.’

‘Do you know this girl?’ I get out a woodcut illustration of Gretyl. It shows her with a guilty scowl on her face, like she’s just been caught taking a bite out of someone’s windowsill.

‘Sure,’ says Lulu. ‘Stuck up little rich girl.’

‘Have you seen her recently?’

‘She was here yesterday. Poking her nose in where it wasn’t wanted.’

‘What was she after?’

Lulu shrugs. A leaf twirls off her hips. I swallow, trying to keep my hinges from creaking.

‘No idea. She wanted to speak to the boss. The guy she was with was a lot friendlier though, if you get my meaning.’

‘What guy? What did he look like?’

She’s about to answer when there’s a shout from round front. ‘Lulu! Get your no-good thorny ass here, right now!’

She looks like someone’s just poured weed killer on her toes. She glances at me, then hurries off to the front of the cottage. I follow, a bad feeling grinding in my gut.

‘I might have known!’ Grandma spits out a mouthful of tobacco and raises her shotgun. ‘Pinocchio. I thought I told you never to come back here again, you scrawny little toothpick.’

‘Hey,’ I say. ‘Just passing through. I don’t want any trouble.’

‘Too late.’ Grandma snaps the sawn-off closed with one hand. ‘I’ll give you til a count of three.’

‘Wait. Gretyl. She was here yesterday.’

‘That no-good sweet-toothed traitor?’ Grandma sneers, pointing both barrels at me. ‘One.’

‘I just want to know what she wanted to talk to you about.’

‘Two.’

I take a step back. Then turn and high-tail it back to where the others are hiding.

‘Three.’

The blast is deafening. Pellets zing past me like supersonic fairies.

I feel behind me, assessing the damage. I groan.

My backside’s got more holes in it than that time I contracted a particularly virulent dose of the Bangkok Weevils…

Fairytale Hit Squad 1.13 – Old Scores

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‘HOLD STILL.’

I’m glad I had the foresight to pack my tweezers. I grind my teeth as Goldie bends back down, dealing with my knotty and rather delicate problem.

‘There,’ she says, dropping the pellet onto the ground with a plink. ‘I think that was the last of them.’

I reassert my trousers. ‘Thanks, doll-face,’ I say. ‘Your delicate touch was most appreciated, trust me.’

Her face flashes scarlet. ‘I hope it wasn’t too sore,’ she says.

‘It takes more than a few holes to stop me,’ I say, flexing my chest. ‘Even if you can now use my butt as a bowling ball.’

Goldie giggles; Prince Charming sighs, shaking his head. Jack stands staring intently at a particularly unremarkable tree.

‘So,’ says Prince Charming. ‘What have we learned here?’

‘Never to leave Grandma’s without paying,’ I quip, winking at Goldie.

Today,’ he says, his patience wearing thinner than Lulu’s foliage. ‘Grandma referred to Gretyl as a traitor.’

‘That’s what SB called her too,’ says Goldie. ‘But Grandma defected to the Wickeds years ago. Gretyl can’t be a traitor to both sides, can she?’

‘Maybe she’s gone rogue,’ I offer, tentatively poking at one of the larger holes in my backside to see how deep the damage goes. ‘Though Lulu said Gretyl was spotted with a someone else, a man. Maybe she was being led here against her will.’

‘Or maybe it was the other way round.’ Prince Charming sticks a finger up in the air like he’s spinning an invisible basketball. ‘I’m sure that must be it. Have any of the other leads been reported missing recently?’

‘Only him.’ I jerk my thumb towards our bandaged comrade-in-arms. ‘Though that was a false alarm. You got yourself locked in the lavatory, didn’t you, Jack?’

‘Safe and warm,’ he says, rocking back and forth on his heels. ‘Safe and warm.’

‘So no, nobody else has gone missing,’ I say. ‘I guess we need to track down Gretyl to get to the bottom of this little mystery. Though this time, I doubt she’s left a trail of breadcrumbs for us to follow.’

‘I have a contact here,’ says Prince Charming. ‘An informant.’

I wince. I know only too well who he’s referring to.

‘The woodcutter,’ continues Prince Pompous. ‘His cottage isn’t far from here.’

‘Are you sure we can trust him?’ Goldie gnaws on a fingernail. ‘He can’t be that nice a man if he lives in Darkwood.’

‘Fear not, sweet lady,’ he says. Goldie’s eyelashes flutter like a pair of epileptic caterpillars. ‘The woodcutter is a double agent. He is an honourable fellow.’

‘I’ve heard his chopper’s a bit blunt these days,’ I mutter. ‘Not the man he used to be.’

Prince Charming chooses to ignore me. ‘Let’s go,’ he says, breaking into an exaggerated jog. ‘Last one there’s a one-legged goblin!’

Goldie giggles, trotting after the prancing prig. I stifle a laugh as Jack runs head first into the nearest tree, then walk – deliberately slowly – behind the three of them.

I take the opportunity to raise the bottom of my shirt, looking at the old scar chiseled into my abdomen. At least I gave as good as I got. The woodcutter was picking splinters out his nose for months, as far as I heard. Him and me have history, you see. We had what you might call a gentleman’s disagreement.

He claimed he was a gentleman – I disagreed.

He started it: flinging insults about, claiming Gepetto must have been the world’s worst carver if I was the pinnacle of his life’s work. I whacked him with my noggin, telling preposterous stories until my beak nearly poked his eyes out. He swung at me with his hatchet, but luckily the blade was dull, only giving me that unsightly score across my midriff. Little Red herself had to pull us apart, telling us we were both as bad as each other. I remember how he looked at me then, like he wanted nothing more than to cut me down to size and turn me into a pair of chopsticks.

I walk on, praying to the good Grimms above that he’s not spent the last few months sharpening his axe…

Fairytale Hit Squad 1.14 – Not The Man He Used To Be

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THE FIRST THING I notice is the dress.

Bright pink, trimmed with white lace, it stops a few inches above his knees. At first I think he’s wearing black woolly tights, then I realise he’s not bothered shaving his legs.

‘Er, hello Nigel,’ I say, taking a few tentative steps towards the woodcutter. ‘You’re looking … different.’

‘Shuddup, you wooden freak.’ Despite the ribbons in his hair and make-up which looks like he’s applied it with his axe, he still speaks as though he’s swallowed a fistful of splinters. ‘I warned you never to come back here.’

‘Is there anyone in Darkwood you haven’t had a run in with?’ Prince Charming sounds scornful, but I can tell from the way he looks at the woodcutter he’s as surprised as any of us.

‘Is he undercover, do you think?’ Goldie speaks quietly behind her hand.

‘What are you whispering about, you little tramp?’ Nigel the woodcutter puts his hands on his hips, his ruby red lips pouting unconvincingly amidst his voluminous black beard.

‘Let’s keep calm,’ I say, trying to ignore the pair of grapefruits he’s rather too obviously pushed down the front of his dress. ‘We’re just passing through, Nigel.’

‘It’s Penelope,’ he flounces. ‘If you don’t mind.’

I hold up my hands. ‘What happens in Darkwood stays in Darkwood. We’re just after some information, that’s all.’

He eyes me suspiciously. ‘What sort of information?’

‘We’re looking for Gretel. And possibly someone else who may have been with her, a man.’

‘I would have noticed a strange man passing through here.’ The way he says it makes me believe him. And also want to wipe myself down. ‘But I did see Gretel.’

‘When?’ Prince Charming strides forward, all heroic angles and rippling bulges.

‘Yesterday. She knocked on the door, right when I was in the middle of washing my hair!’

From the state of his lank locks, I’m guessing he must have washed it in troll snot. I almost snap my tongue off with the effort of trying not to say so.

‘What did she want?’ asks Prince Charming.

‘She was looking for directions. To Maleficent’s.’

It sounds like SB’s suspicions were correct. No-one would be heading towards the head of the Wickeds’ castle unless they’d been invited. Gretel must have defected.

‘And did you tell her?’ I ask, feeling the whorls knot in my gut.

‘Of course I did,’ says the woodcutter. ‘I wanted rid of her as soon as possible.’

He points off towards a narrow opening leading through the trees. ‘I told her to follow that path and keep going until she got to Hangman’s Rock. From there, not even a blind mouse could miss Maleficent’s. You just need to follow your nose.’ He makes a face that’s probably supposed to be a grimace but ends up looking like he’s suffering from trapped wind.

‘Did she have anything with her?’ I ask, remembering SB telling us Gretel had disappeared with the Story Book. The one containing all our secrets. The one with the blank pages at the back, waiting for our endings to be written.

‘A basket.’ He sniffs. ‘And terrible shoes.’

‘And you’re sure she was alone?’ I ask. ‘She was definitely seen with someone.’

‘I never said she was alone,’ he snaps. ‘I said she wasn’t with a man.’

I sigh, remembering why I never got on with this chump in the first place. ‘So who was she with?’

‘A boy.’

‘A boy? Can you describe him?’

‘About so high.’ He touches his body just below his grapefruits. ‘Skinny.’

‘That could be half the leads in the Kingdom,’ I say. ‘Any distinguishing features? What colour was his hair, for instance?’

‘I’ve no idea.’ He pouts petulantly. ‘How could I see his hair beneath the big bandage wound round his head?’

The next question I was going to ask grinds to a stop in my throat. I turn round, looking at Prince Charming and Goldie.

And at the empty space where Jack was standing, only a few minutes ago.

Fairytale Hit Squad 1.15 – Under My Umbrella

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‘BUT HE’S BEEN with us all this time!’ Goldie shakes her head, her hair tumbling like gilded candyfloss.

‘Has he?’ I drum my fingers on my chin, making a noise like a drunk woodpecker. ‘Do you know what he was up to before SB called the conference?’

‘I .. I don’t know. I’ve never really paid him much attention before.’

‘Exactly. No-one has. Everyone thought his head was emptier than Pandora’s Box. When all this time he’s been listening to us, learning our secrets – planning this all along.’

‘You think he kidnapped her? Gretel?’

‘I think he’s a lot smarter than we’ve given him credit for. Which wouldn’t be hard, considering we all thought he was as thick as Porky McQuiff’s hair gel.’

‘And when he was knocked off the flying carpet,’ she says. ‘That must have been a trick to fool us! Who knows where he went to!’

‘He’s still a lead, even if he’s a minor one,’ says Prince Charming, eyeing his profile in a pocket mirror he’s yanked out the back of his shorts. ‘If he’s turned to the Wickeds, that makes him a very dangerous foe indeed.’

‘What are we going to do?’ Goldie moans like something’s plopped in her porridge.

‘We find Jack and give him something to really wrap a bandage around.’ I crack my knuckles, almost snapping my fingers off. ‘No-one makes a fool of me and gets away with it.’

Au contraire,’ says Prince Charming. ‘I’ve heard half the female leads in the Kingdom have left you sanding your splinters.’

I ignore the sanctimonious chump, making a mental note to pass his name on to a certain witch in a slinky red dress I know when I get back home. ‘We should press on,’ I say. ‘If Maleficent gets her hands on the Story Book, it’s unhappy endings for the lot of us.’

Prince Charming consults the map. ‘It’s this way,’ he says, pointing to a space between two gigantic trees. ‘Follow me.’

The sky darkens. The trees thin out, like even they’re too scared to go further. The land ahead of us stretches out in a featureless rocky expanse; storm clouds boil above a dark tower rising in the distance, a glowing red fire burning at its tip.

‘That’s Maleficent’s,’ says Prince Charming unnecessarily. ‘About an hour’s march away.’

‘We need a plan,’ I say. ‘You can’t just stroll in there, grab the Book and strut straight out again.’

‘I agree.’ He drops his voice, the smile the same one plastered on the face of the action figure that comes with the happy meal they sell in the staff canteen. ‘That’s why you’re going to do it.’

I glance behind me, just to make certain. But no, he is talking to me. ‘I beg your pardon?’ I say, drawing myself up to my full height.

‘You’re made of wood.’ I duck out his way before he can tap me on the top of my head. ‘And you have no magic. You’ll be able to slip through Maleficent’s intruder detection systems before she even realises anything’s wrong.’

‘What about the monkeys?’ I shudder, imagining myself neck deep in simian dung.

‘I thought of that! Here.’ He reaches down the back of his shorts again and pulls out a stubby little pink travel umbrella. He stares it at like it’s the Holy Grail. ‘This is imbued with mystical powers,’ he says. ‘It protects the bearer from all manner of malodorous things.’

‘It must, to still be in one piece after being down there.’ I cross my arms in defiance, but I sense I’m fighting a losing battle. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve got a bazooka and a couple of hand grenades in there as well?’

Goldie titters, which makes me feel a bit better. And I suppose, if I do go along with this, it’ll be me who comes out the hero, not Captain Fancypants here. Pretty soon it’ll be my photo on the inside of lockers, not his.

‘Okay, okay,’ I say, brushing a small curled shaving from my shoulder. ‘I’ll do it.’

‘Top hole!’ The way Prince Charming says it rubs my grain the wrong way. ‘So, Goldie my dear, let me think how we should amuse ourselves whilst brave Mr Collodi is off on his perilous mission…’

The sound of Goldie’s breathless sigh echoes in my ears as I walk towards Maleficent’s, holding the umbrella before me. I shake my head. Prince Charming may be a grade A chump, but it’s me that’s wandering alone into the heart of darkness now, not him.

I swear if I make it back in one piece, I’m shoving that umbrella right back where it came from.

After I’ve opened it.

Fairytale Hit Squad 1.16 – Riddle Me This

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THE STINK OF sulphur blisters my nostrils. How anyone can live here is beyond me. Maleficent either has a very strong stomach, or a very poor sense of smell.

Talking of which, I can see the monkeys up ahead. Swarming above the turrets and spires of the castle like a stinking cloud of flies. I can hear them whooping and shrieking to each other, even from this distance. I remember speaking to Jack B Nimble a while back. He might have been quick enough to leap over a candlestick, but he certainly wasn’t speedy enough to avoid the full onslaught of Maleficent’s flying monkeys. When he got back from his ill-advised scouting trip to Darkwood, he had to be hosed down for days.

I snap back to alertness. The flying furry fiends have spotted me. They swarm towards me, wings flapping in unison, little red fez hats bobbling up and down as they scream their unintelligible gibberish at each other.

I fumble for the umbrella, pressing the button on the handle that I’m assuming opens it. I almost drop it when it shoots out a mighty white bolt of lightning which streaks up into the clouds. It’s not a shield – it’s a weapon. I just hope for Prince Charming’s sake that it’s never inadvertently gone off in his shorts.

I steady myself, taking aim at the advance group of monkeys. I can see their teeth, bared and sharp. They’re summoning their special attack: I can tell by the noxious green cloud billowing out their backsides. I breathe through my mouth and press the button.

The first of the monkeys goes up like a torch. The next few are flying too fast: they swoop into the firestorm before they can swerve out the way. It’s like some kind of freakish monkey firework display. I press the button again, letting loose another ray of umbrella death at the advancing horde. Some of them explode: I duck as I hear the plopping of their remains patter down around me.

I laugh like a little boy watching a cow jumping over the moon, spreading fiery simian death across the darkened sky. One of the apes makes a break for it: I aim at his curled up tail but fire wide. He escapes.

No matter. He was the only one that made it.

I spin the umbrella in my hand and slot it into the waistband of my trousers, whistling a Spaghetti Western soundtrack to myself through gritted tombstone teeth.

No steenkin’ monkey better mess with ol’ Pinocchio, I think, swaggering on towards the castle.

When I get to the gate, the whistle pops to a peep in the back of my throat. It’s at least a hundred feet high, and looks like it’s been made from bones. But it’s not the ghastly door which causes my mouth to go dry as sandpaper.

It’s the huge beast sitting in front of it. It has the body of a lion, its fur greasy and matted and moving like it’s infested with fleas the size of hamsters. Its head is even worse: long green hair hanging down lank like the tentacles of a flaccid octopus. A face resembling a wizened old woman’s, apart from the fact it has three eyes set in the middle of its bulbous forehead.

The sphinx raises its head as I approach. It lets out a piercing cackle, like a tin can full of nails clattering down a metal staircase.

‘Hello, sonny,’ she says, revealing rotten black teeth, a couple of which look like they have a small piglet stuck between them. ‘Welcome to Maleficent’s!’

‘Er, would you mind stepping aside?’ I ask, chancing my luck. ‘I’m just paying a quick visit. Be in and out before you know it.’

‘Typical man.’ The sphinx laughs, then wheezes, then coughs, then descends into a series of wet gurgling gasps which threaten to reunite me with my breakfast. ‘It’s not that easy to gain entrance.’

‘How do I get in then? It’s important.’

She sits back on her haunches, looking pleased. ‘You must answer my three riddles,’ she says.

I’m not trying to sound big-headed, but I’m one of the smartest leads in the Kingdom. I cough out a laugh of my own, my hands on my hips.

‘Do your best, questing beast!’ I exclaim, already hating myself for sounding like a cliché. ‘I am ready!’

‘Excellent.’ The sphinx lies down, each of its eyes staring off in a different direction. ‘Here is your first riddle. Consider it a practice run.’

‘Go on.’

‘What has four legs in the morning,’ she says, her voice a wheezing drone, ‘two legs in the afternoon …’

I grin. I know this one. I wait for her to continue, feeling smooth as a polished walnut.

‘… three arms before teatime, a woolly hat and a lobster …’

I tense. This isn’t quite what I was expecting. ‘Er –‘

‘I’ve not finished!’ She glares at me with cross-eyed fury. ‘Let me finish!’

‘Sorry.’ I have a bad feeling about this.

‘…a lobster for supper, and seventeen bags of turnips before bedtime?’

‘Um … man?’

She makes a noise like a gameshow klaxon. ‘Wrong! It’s a strawberry blancmange called Jemima!’

Just my luck. A barking mad sphinx.

‘Nothing in this game for two in a bed!’ she adds, inexplicably. ‘Things are looking bad for you, little wooden man!’

I stiffen at the insult, but wait for her to continue.

‘Here is the first real riddle,’ she says, scratching her side with one of her back legs. She clears her throat, a noise which sounds like a drain blocked with spaghetti.

‘My first is in mountain, but not in mountain,’ she says.

‘Oh, enough,’ I say, whipping out the umbrella and pressing the button.

A flash, a bang, a sound like a hundred boiling kettles.

When I open my eyes, there’s just a pile of smouldering ash where the sphinx used to be. And a lingering smell of cabbage.

And there, lying in the middle of the smoking pile of remains, a key made of bone.

I dust it off and insert it into the door. It clicks, then gives.

I’m in.

I sigh. I can’t shake the feeling that now the madness really begins…

Fairytale Hit Squad 1.17 – Ahead By A Nose

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THE PLACE IS just as grim as I’d imagined it to be. And I’d already imagined something grimmer than Baby after he’s eaten a chickpea curry.

The corridor walls are made from giant rough blocks of stone, torches spaced at irregular intervals along its length. Naturally, the flames are bright green and the walls are covered in some kind of slick slime, creating the unsettling illusion that I’m walking through a giant’s nostril.

Hideous faces leer down from the ceiling: carved gargoyles, eyes bulging like pickled onions, mouths agape, coiled tongues like snakes. They’ll be alive, of course. Watching me, sending what they see back to Maleficent and her cackling band of elves. Meaning she’ll be ready for me.

Meaning I really should have thought of a plan.

All I have is this laser-emitting umbrella, and a nose that can spear an apple at a hundred paces. But it would be madness to go in brolly blazing, swinging my nose like a pole vault – Maleficent could simply click her fingers and I’d be a pile of woodchips. I need a smarter plan than that.

Deep rumbling organ music is coming from somewhere. I glance up at the gargoyles, seeing the speakers of a public address system mounted on the wall between every second ugly little stone critter. Maleficent’s a megalomaniac: she obviously wants her dulcet tones to be heard by everyone in the castle whenever she has an order to bark.

If I could somehow hack into that, broadcast my own commands … Half of Maleficent’s servants are lucky if they have a brain cell to pass around between them. I’m pretty sure I could convince them I’m the voice of their leader, telling them the castle’s under siege. Leaving me alone to track down that bandage-headed traitor and kick him up and down the nearest hill until it’s more than his crown he’ll be nursing.

I get the tiniest little twig of an idea.

‘I’m not at all intimidated by any of this,’ I say aloud, glaring at a gargoyle which looks like some ungodly cross between a donkey and an octopus.

Bingo. I feel my nose start to twitch.

‘And I’m so grateful to Prince Charming for insisting I come here whilst he shows Goldie what else he’s got hidden down his shorts.’

My beak sprouts at least three feet at that one. Almost enough. If I stand on tiptoe, the end of it scrapes the bottom of the speaker.

The organ music changes key, increasing tempo until it sounds like a thrash metal death march for the world’s angriest funeral. The elves will have spotted what I’m up to. They’re not stupid. More noxious than a barrel full of basilisk eggs, but they’re not idiots. I picture them, gibbering and squealing at each other as they try and cut off the power to the PA system.

I make one last ditch effort. I’m thankful for once my heart is nothing more than a chunk of mahogany.

‘I never sold Baby’s parents to the circus,’ I say, blinking the sap away from my eyes.

It was a mistake. Sure, I needed the money fast, but I was conned. I thought it was the zoo I was selling them to, not a travelling show which meant Baby hasn’t seen Papa or Mamma Bear for over a decade. I keep meaning to track them down, undo the damage I’ve done. I might still do it, one day.

But now, I need to snap back to the present. My shameful lie has worked: the tip of my nose has sprouted a sad little pointy branch no thicker than my pinkie.

But it’s enough. I use it to slice through the wiring at the side of the speaker. The ends spark like petrol-covered pixies flying too close to a bonfire. I nudge the severed wire with my conk until it works loose, the ends hanging down like electrified vines. I grab them, absorbing the shock easily enough, though it does make my root tingle. Separate out the thin wires inside, twist them together in a different configuration, the same way I managed to do with SB’s loudspeakers once when Baby dared me to jack her system into a looped recording of Old Mother Hubbard Sings The Blues.

I lift my head up to the speaker. Cough. After a teeth-grinding feedback whine, I hear my voice echo through the corridor. It’s worked.

I cough again, putting on the same kind of camp high-pitched voice Nigel the woodcutter used. Pretending to be her. Maleficent.

‘Attention, minions.’

A deathly hush seeps through the castle. I swallow.

‘Our castle is under attack,’ I continue. ‘Everyone outside. Now!’

A moment’s pause, then a sound like thunder as the inhabitants of the castle scramble into action.

Then a dawning sense of despair as I stare wide-eyed down the corridor. I didn’t exactly think this one through properly.

The stampeding herd of axe-swinging minotaurs are bearing down on me like a hundred very angry bowling bowls all aimed at the same pin …

Fairytale Hit Squad 1.18 – Hopping Mad

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I’VE BEEN BROKEN before, but never quite this bad.

I tried to get out the way, but there were far too many of them, steam boiling out their nostrils and metal-armoured hooves thundering on the stone floor. It was like being run over by a rampaging herd of angry kettles.

I pick myself up. Or rather, I drag myself to a quiet corner and pick my legs up. One is shattered beyond all hope of repair, little more than sawdust. The other is broken too, but only in two places. I attach it back to my hip joint with a twist and a grunt, feeling the splintered edges grating against my ball and socket.

One of my arms is hanging limp by my side, useless. The other is stiff, but otherwise unharmed. The rest of me is intact. I check my nose, giving it a twist. It still feels functional, but it throbs with pain. I suspect it’ll bring tears to my eyes if I even think about lying.

For the first time in a long time, I wish my father was here. Gepetto was insane as a brimming boxful of bipolar bunyips, but he was an artiste with a chisel and a hacksaw. It’s no word of a lie to say he made me the man I am today – give or take the odd enhancement here and there. Particularly replacing some of my more child-like features with bits more … man-sized …

There’s a woodcarver back at base, but he’s blind in one eye and only has nine fingers, so I only use him in extreme carpentry emergencies. Nevertheless, I wish he was here now.

I try to stand. Hop about a bit. It’s hopeless. My smashed leg is no use; the other one’s so twisted every time I try and move I run the risk of kicking myself up the backside. Then I get another of my brainwaves. Muttering dad’s name under my breath, I snap off my useless arm. It’s just long enough to use as a crutch. It takes a bit of getting used to, but after a few faltering steps, I’m steady enough to start moving forward again.

The castle is even scarier now that it’s completely silent. The PA system is broken; there are no sounds at all. Despite the fact I now resemble a handful of broken pencils, my plan seems to have worked. All the monsters guarding the place have left. Now to find Jack and Gretel before they get the Storybook to Maleficent.

The smell of sulphur gets worse the deeper I delve into the dungeons. I use it to guide me towards the throne room where Jack’s likely headed, glad that my old man never quite got round to finishing hollowing out my nostrils. Ahead, there’s a gigantic door, painted blood red and carved with a huge leering grotesque face which makes the gargoyles back in the corridor look like sweet little cherubs. I avoid looking at it as I push open the door, painfully aware the hideous visage will be transmitting everything it sees back to Maleficent’s control room.

It’s still quiet. Ominously so. My mismatched footsteps echo through the vast chamber. It’s empty apart from a huge throne at the far end, carved from what looks like bone and inlaid with hundreds of bulging eyeballs. Every one of them swivels in my direction as I enter, their gaze boring into me like a plague of woodworm.

I get the horrible feeling that I’m too late. That Jack and Gretel beat me to it and that Maleficent’s poring over the book right now, rewriting all our endings. I picture Snow White, asleep forever beneath the seven twitching corpses of the dwarves; of Rapunzel, locked away at the top of her tower, head shorn like a coconut; of Goldie, drowning in a gigantic bowl of porridge …

I hang my head. It’s over. Not even my telescopic nose of untruth is going to get me out of this one.

‘I might have known.’

The voice makes my knots tighten. I hop on the spot, turning round as slowly as I can manage.

‘You’re in quite a state, aren’t you?’ Jack’s sneer is like a scar. Almost as livid as his real one, scarlet on his unbandaged forehead. ‘Fit for the bonfire, and not much else.’

His voice is completely different. Every syllable pronounced perfectly, no vacant pauses between words. He’s been pretending to be as dim as a geriatric will o’the wisp all this time.

‘Come for this, perchance?’ He holds out his hands. The Storybook. Rich leather binding, the edges of the pages gilded. Every tale in the Kingdom between its covers.

A muffled sound behind him. Someone struggling in the shadows. Arms and legs bound, mouth stuffed with a dirty looking rag. No – a dirty looking bandage.

Gretel.

She looks unharmed, but it’s hard to tell. She’s certainly scared, and definitely looking like she’d much rather be back home eating her way through someone’s bay windows.

‘Look, my dear.’ Jack cocks his head in her direction. ‘Look at the state of what’s been sent to rescue you …’

She whimpers, helpless. I begin to feel my sap rising, wanting nothing more than to smash this chump in his smug face, paint another scar on his bonce. I bend, trying to pick up my arm.

‘It appears there’s something wrong with him,’ says Jack, peering through the darkness towards me. ‘Perhaps shedding a little light on things would help ….’

I freeze.

A jet of fire spits out the end of his flamethrower, narrowly missing my foot.

‘Still too dark’ he says, taking a step closer and levelling the weapon at my chest. ‘If only there was something we could use as a torch …’

Fairytale Hit Squad 1.19 – It’s Getting Hot In Here

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‘THERE ARE THREE things you must always remember.’

Blue’s words come back to me now. After she agreed to turn me back into wood, her pale face clouded with melancholy, her glittering wings folded.

‘First, you must swear to always uphold what is right.’

I remember sighing and nodding at that one. The usual do-good rubbish, but I had to agree otherwise I’d have been cast out with the rest of the Storyless, doomed to forever wander the land in search of a narrative.

‘Second,’ she had said, her eyes misting, ‘your heart will be transformed into a cold hard lump of mahogany. You shall never experience true love.’

I shrugged that one off easy enough. I’ve seen enough supposed happy endings to know that’s the biggest myth of all.

‘And third…’ Blue had bent down towards me, the glowing white tip of her wand reflected in her azure eyes. ‘You must never get too close to a naked flame.’

That’s the one which slams back to me now, with all the grace and subtlety of a fat drunken troll in a pink tutu. Easier said than done, when you’re staring down the business end of a flamethrower.

‘I’ll give you one last chance.’ Jack’s mouth twists into a little spoilt boy sneer. ‘Turn back, and I’ll let you off with little more than your singed pride. Refuse,’ he says, cocking the smoking weapon, ‘and I might draw a nice charcoal portrait of you with whatever’s left of your pointy bits.’

I look down at my ruined leg, at the splintered nub where my arm used to be. I’ll be lucky if the woodcutter back at base has the skill to put me back together properly. I sigh.

I’ve had a good innings. Now’s as good a time as any let the stumps fall.

I catch Gretel’s eye. Wink at her. If I pull this off, she’ll be free. And if she can grab the Storybook, get out to Prince Charming and Goldie before Maleficent makes an appearance … then there’s still a splinter of hope.

‘One last chance?’ I say, raising my undamaged hand. I lift a single finger, trying to ignore the creaking sound it makes. ‘Let me show you where you can stick that.’

And I launch myself at him before I can change my mind.

The heat is unbearable. It blisters my varnish off in an instant, the flames licking over my wooden body, already catching hold. I throw away my smouldering arm, take one mighty hop towards him, hand outstretched.

He wasn’t expecting that. I have the advantage of surprise. I barrel into him, knocking him flat. The back of his head makes a pleasing thwacking noise on the flagstones. It’s going to take more than a bandage to fix that one.

My satisfaction is short-lived however. My remaining leg is already gone, crumbled to ash. My midriff is aflame, my chest is splitting in the white-hot inferno.

This is it then.

‘Fetch a pail of water now, chump.’ I grit my teeth and press myself down, locking my remaining limb around Jack’s throat.

He screams, flinging the Storybook to one side and trying to beat me off. He manages to dislodge me, but it’s too late. For both of us. I’m rewarded at least with the sight of him engulfed in flames, arms and legs thrashing as he burns brighter than a shooting star. I’m tempted to make a wish.

But then I’ve nothing left to wish with. My body’s gone, just Pinocchio-shaped scorch marks on the floor. The fire licks up around my chin, only my head remaining.

But lucky for me, that’s where my brains are.

So I huff, and I puff and I blow the flames out.

I splutter and cough. My wooden body, my mahogany heart – all gone, but none of them vital to my continued existence. I tell myself this is the best day of my life and laugh. Even my nose is still functioning, shooting out like a telescope and almost stabbing Gretel in the ankles.

I roll my eyes up at her. She’s still tied up, Jack’s bandage stuffed in her mouth. She’s staring wide-eyed at the charred remains of her captor – and at the flaking remnants of her saviour.

‘Hold tight, dollface,’ I say, managing to roll my noggin to one side so that I’m facing her. ‘I’ll have you free in a jiffy.’

She raises an eyebrow. Can’t say I blame her, considering I resemble a coconut with a javelin stuck in it. Oh, she of little faith.

‘That was easy,’ I say. My nose sprouts a good few inches. Almost.

‘I’ve had a whale of a time.’ Another foot.

My plan dawns on her. She shuffles forward, rubbing the ends of the rope binding her wrists on the pointy end of my nose. A not altogether unpleasant sensation, I have to admit.

After a bit more vigorous rubbing, her hands are free. She takes the bandage out her mouth and unties her ankles, gasping for breath.

‘You have to believe me!’ she says, her face turning scarlet. ‘I didn’t steal the Storybook! It was all Jack’s idea. I had nothing to do with it, honestly.’ Her words spill out like crumbs. She lowers her gaze, ashamed. ‘He said he was taking me to a multi-storey car park made out of gingerbread.’ She can’t help but lick her lips. ‘All I had to do was bring the book. He said he wanted to read the stories to me. It sounded romantic.’

Devious two-faced chump. If I still had my legs, I’d kick the pile of ash which lies smouldering where he used to be.

‘Relax, dollface. I believe you.’ My nose recedes back into my face. ‘Do me a favour though, will ya?’

‘Anything!’ Few things are as pleasing as a grateful damsel no longer in distress. ‘Name it.’

‘Tuck me under your elbow and let’s get the hell out of here.’

She laughs and bends down, wedging me under her arm. There are worse places to be … and believe me, I’ve been in most of them. ‘Let’s go,’ I say, fantasising about the new body I’ll try and get the woodcutter to make for me. Something nice and sculpted, with more extendable bits …

She stops and gasps, almost dropping me. All I have is a view of her armpit.

‘What’s wrong, dollface?’ I ask in a muffled voice. ‘What is it?’

She turns me round slowly in her hands. If I had shoulders left, I’d be slumping them right about now.

Maleficent.

She’s here.

Fairytale Hit Squad 1.20 – Mirror, mirror

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‘OH, LOOK.’

She’s wearing a gleaming black dress, covered in what looks like crow feathers. I hate to imagine how many she plucked to make that.

‘How adorable.

I can’t tell what Gretel’s thinking. She’s holding me in front of her like a basketball. I just hope she’s not considering slam-dunking me and making a run for it.

‘A greedy little girl and a wooden-top,’ says Maleficent, her scarlet lips curling into a cruel smile. ‘And what’s that you’ve got with you? The Storybook? How simply super.

She glances down at the pile of ash where Jack used to be and lifts an arched eyebrow. ‘What a pity,’ she says, her lips pursed. ‘I had such high hopes for him.’

I want to say something, to at least tell her to stop talking in italics, but for some reason my mouth feels nailed shut.

‘Now …’ Her voice uncoils like a snake. ‘Gretel, dear – be a darling and bring me the Storybook, would you?’

Everything sways for a few moments, then I’m plonked unceremoniously on the ground. At least I’m still facing the right way. I watch helpless as Gretel bends down, picks up the Storybook and starts walking towards Maleficent, taking stiff robotic steps. Old Witch-face is swirling her arms around in front of her like she’s trying to unravel an invisible jumper.

‘That’s it,’ she says, her eyes glinting. ‘That’s it. Just a little bit closer.’

All her power appears to be spent in bewitching Gretel. I feel my mouth prise itself open. Gretel is only a few feet away from her. It’s now or never.

‘I was just thinking …’

Maleficent stops waving her arms about. Gretel pauses, mid-step.

A smile poisons Maleficent’s bone-white face. ‘Yes? What, pray tell, were you thinking, little head?’

I roll my eyes towards her. ‘How’s the Magic Mirror doing these days?’

A crease of a frown. ‘My mirror?’ says Maleficent. ‘You know him?’

‘Oh yeah. We go waayyyy back, him and me.’ I’ve hooked her. I notice Gretel’s fingers twitching. ‘I was just thinking … is he still as good at it?’

‘At what?’ Her lips are thinner than an anorexic pixie after an ogre’s stepped on it.

‘Telling lies.’ I blink confidently. ‘Whoppers. Porkies. He was an inspiration to me.’

‘What do you mean? He told me he always spoke the truth …’

‘Yeah, well he would say that, wouldn’t he? Being a great big shiny liar.’ I play my trump card. ‘Let me guess … he’s told you that you’re the fairest of them all, hasn’t he?’

‘Why, yes!’ She raises a hand, strokes her own cheek. ‘Of course he has. Every day. Twice at weekends.’

I laugh. ‘That old party trick! What an artiste! A maestro of mistruth! A genius of gibberish! A luminary of lies!’

What. Do. You. Mean?’ I can’t be sure, but I think Maleficent’s growing in size.

Perfect.

‘Have you met Nigel the woodcutter?’ I ask. ‘Rugged type, pretty clothes. You can’t miss him, really.’

She nods, very, very slowly.

‘Well,’ I say, getting as ready as a disembodied wooden head can, ‘even Nigel is fairer than you, you psychotic old nutjob.’

She blows up quicker than a toad with an allergy to bluebottles. Her head brushes the ceiling; massive black wings unfurl from her back; her face twists into a mask of demonic fury.

‘Now!’ I shout, hoping Gretel’s got the feeling in her legs back. ‘Hurry!’

Nothing. Gretel stands still, staring straight ahead at the monstrous form of Maleficent.

‘I’ve just got a message from base!’ I say, my nose twitching a little. ‘Through my earpiece!’ I’m lying of course. There’s nothing stuck in my ear apart from a weevil I really need to get round to having extracted.

Maleficent raises her arms, ready to unleash whatever barrage of terrible powers she’s capable of.

‘The baker’s just made a whole new batch of gingerbread men!’

That does it. It’s like Gretel’s been shot through by a bolt of lightning. Her head whips round, eyes crazed, mouth already drooling like a waterfall. She scoops me up like a rugby ball and sprints towards the doors.

The gigantic doors.

Gigantic, yes. But still far too small for the demonic Maleficent to follow us. I hear her bellow with rage behind us. Gretel’s running so fast I feel like I’m inside a washing machine falling down a staircase.

I see the corridor walls whip past in a blur. The massive gate, the bleached remains of the Sphinx. The stony ground outside the castle, strewn with the slain corpses of minotaurs, giants, golems, goblins, orcs, attack penguins, harpies, gryphons and more.

‘Stop!’

No response. Gretel has only one thing on her mind, and it’s certainly not what’s just slaughtered Maleficent’s entire army.

‘The gingerbread’s burnt!’

A dirty trick, but it works. She skids to a stop, wheezing. Drops me like a stone.

I roll for a bit, then I feel a soft leather-soled boot on my head, stopping me dead.

‘Pinocchio, old chap!’

I raise my eyes to see Prince Charming hefting an unfeasibly large telescopic bazooka which I have an unsettling suspicion was hidden down his shorts. Rather more effective than the umbrella he deigned to give me, that’s for sure.

‘What on earth kept you?’

Gretel gives a yelp and runs into his waiting arms. He lifts her off her feet, clutching her close. If the chump was made of gingerbread, he’d be history…

I rock about forlornly on the ground. A dung beetle trundles past, using my nose as a convenient resting place. I sigh. I almost wish I’d let Jack finish the job.

The ground falls away. I think I’m flying at first, then worry that some scabby winged monster has survived PC’s onslaught and is taking me to its nest to sit on me til my eyeballs pop.

But it’s not a monster. Far from it.

‘Thank you,’ breathes Goldie. ‘I know what you did. You were very brave.’

I breathe out, a bit embarrassed about my lack of dignity. And body.

‘I’m in need of a bit of a repair job,’ I say.

‘Don’t worry.’ She holds me up, her lips close to mine.

‘I think you look just right.’