Arthur felt strangely detached as he watched this. His first thought was one of pity for the knight; he imagined she would quickly despatch him, which would at least resolve the situation. But this thought was quickly overtaken by a new, surging sensation, one he hadn’t felt before – and as a strange warmth coursed through his veins from the wound in his leg upwards, his thoughts flashed from his pity for the knight to a sudden burning hatred towards him, then as swiftly as that came on, his pity returned. His mind was confused, tugging in two directions, but the hatred was winning. Then, in an instant, he felt nothing. His mind was immediately clear, rational, cold. He no longer felt the pain in his leg and glancing down noticed with a distant interest that although there was blood all down his leg, the wound had diminished and seemed to have small scales over it. He looked straight at the knight without emotion. He no longer saw a fellow man, but instead he began to see a creature to be hunted: he saw prey.
The knight stepped back into a corner, trembling, terror in his eyes, sweat dripping cold down the back of his neck. He likewise began to see the man on the floor as something other than a man – something about him had subtly changed, and he seemed to be straightening out and growing before his eyes.
Keeping both the grim lady and the man-creature within his field of view, he edged back crouching, unsure who to fear more. On his way up to the castle, he had prepared his heart before God and prayed that God would grant him favour against the evil of the woman in the castle. Maybe his prayers should have been broader. He flicked his eyes from one person to the other, and to his shock the man-creature was no longer lying on the floor, injured, but stood, impossibly tall. His skin seemed shiny and his eyes burned – not with vengeance, or anger or hatred, but were simply staring straight at him as a wildcat might transfix its prey. There was no thought there, no doubt – just a clear intention of death towards him. The man he had been fighting was gone. The creature in front of him was something out of nightmares.
The knight became aware that the Countess was no longer paying him any attention. Her eyes were instead fixed on the man-creature with a strange expression on her face – could that be fear? Her lips were pursed, and it seemed to him as though she was considering her next move. She looked down at the ground where the metal girdle lay in a pool of blood, pushing it gently with her foot.
The creature formerly known as Arthur strode rapidly forwards towards the knight, unheeding of the Countess, who watched as he walked past. He lifted his huge arm to strike the knight down, but his hand was caught mid-arc as the Countess suddenly stood next to him, holding his arm effortlessly in an iron grip. A struggle ensued, as the knight watched on with morbid fascination: the man and woman seemed to have equal strength. The Countess pushed the man who was thrown back hard into the wall, but quickly recovered as though he felt nothing. He stood taller than ever and seemed to be growing in strength and ferociousness. Then the Countess spoke.
“Arthur?” she questioned. The creature looked at her but made no sound apart from the sound of steady, powerful breathing. “My husband knew who you were.” A thought seemed to cross her mind. “Do you know who I am? Do you remember me?”
The person stood still, a puzzled expression flashing across his face. It looked strange, and then he looked like Arthur again for a moment, “You are the Countess,” and his face changed again, now resembling a grim statue of an animal, “You are the one who bound me,” he said in stern tones. The voice had changed to a sinister whisper, and the human element in it was becoming less and less obvious.
“We found you. We brought you in, and watched over you.”
“You trapped me in this wretched body. You couldn’t kill me, so you enslaved me.”
“You were a threat to everything around you. You were a threat to your own existence,” said the Countess, facing him. “We found you in the wild: you had destroyed everything – everyone – around you. Your appetite had no end – my husband wanted to keep you close, and I wanted to protect our lands from your ravaging hands. So we kept you close, and we changed your nature,” she nodded at the girdle on the floor, “a primitive thing, but it has proved effective in keeping us safe against your kind before. So… unfortunate that it should come to this.” She looked at the knight as she said this, but returned her gaze to the creature as he retorted,
“My kind?” He walked towards the girdle, lifted it, and after inspecting it for a moment ripped it in half as though it was made of paper. “And what is ‘my kind’?”
“You don’t know what you are?”
“I am… I was… before you,” the voice sounded both ancient and dark, “The memory is growing within me. I have no name for myself. I stood alone. I remember a time before you, before the Lamia came to try and tame me. I remember ruling these lands and many others besides. I remember a trap. I remember fighting, plunging into the deep, and then… I slept.”
The knight realised he was in the presence of two terrible inhuman creatures, and felt paralysed, but somehow whilst watching this conversation unfold he willed his legs of lead to move slowly backwards, taking advantage of the fact that his two foes were too preoccupied with each other to take much notice of his presence.
The Countess spoke, standing erect and proud, “You must leave my lands. I have cultivated its people and harvested responsibly: we have asked much of them, but they — ”
“You are weak. You have shown them what you truly are: a pathetic creature.” Contempt dripped off every word. “You think you have power, but it is only the power to turn your cattle this way and that, to control and tame with fear. Your tricks and games have come to an end. I have returned. My time has come.”
“What would you do?”
“You asked of them. I will not ask. I will take what is rightfully mine.” The creature’s eyes lit as though by an internal fire, ”I will show them my true glory. And they will fear me as they once did. And they will bow, and I will have no mercy. And you,” he looked straight at her, “Countess Sabra, have no power to stop me.”
The Countess recoiled as it spoke her name. In revealing it, he was showing his power and knowledge, and diminishing hers in an instant – to call up the names of those who should be nameless. She knew what he – what it – was, and knew there was little chance that she could defeat it now it was returning to its true state.
The fight – if it could be called that – lasted only a few moments, but to the knight it seemed as though the world was exploding around his ears. Smoke, ash, fire and wood splinters flew in every direction. Tiles cracked and beams fell from the ceiling. As he tried to make a run towards an open door he found himself in between them, and then he felt an impact and everything went black.
The Countess lay on the ground, mortally wounded, the creature standing over her, triumphant. As he watched her it seemed as though her pale skin turned to stone, and then at once crumbled into dust onto the ground. The creature looked down, and took up a pan and brush that was lying there. Sweeping the ashes away unceremoniously, he spoke in an otherworldly voice, “Goodnight Countess. Goodnight, last of the Lamia. Goodnight… Sabra.” He lifted his head and walked towards the castle gate.
The knight lay on his front in the wild grass outside the castle walls, having been flung clear from the castle in the explosion. His head was screaming as he watched the creature stride powerfully out of the castle doors. The soft dusk light reflected pale on skin which seemed like that of a reptile now, reflecting scaly metallic hues of silver, purple and blue. It paused, looking back at the castle for a brief moment, before leaping forwards in huge steps, one, two, and with a cracking sound and a roaring it leapt into the air, and a shadow as of huge wings covered ‘Arthur’ as he disappeared into the clouds. Lightning crackled around, and a glowing as of fire in the sky revealed the monstrous shape in its true form to the knight.
As he lay there for a while, watching as the shape moved rapidly through the sky towards the horizon, the dull thudding of enormous wings echoed across the valley. A distant screech as of some creature in pain sent a shudder down his spine. He smelt smoke, and looking back at the castle, he saw flames licking the window frames out of a couple of the rooms. With a grunt he pushed himself upright and ran as best he could back into the main doorway, disappearing inside. The smoke began to billow out of the windows, and several shattered as the fire began to blaze throughout. Still the knight didn’t emerge.
Finally, he burst out of a far window from the first floor, landing hard on the grass but still intact. As he lay there, he opened his arms to reveal a large, crusty, ancient book. He wasn’t able to read the strange runes inside, apart from one word, emblazoned down the spine in thick, metallic lettering.