The Beauty of Being a Beast by Jennifer Estep

I held my arms out to my sides, letting them all get a good, long look at me, especially my teeth and talons. “You’re right. I am a beast. I am also the protector of this village. Leave now, and I will not harm you. Attack me or anyone else here, and I will slaughter you all.”

Nigella let out a light, pealing laugh. “You might look like a beast, but from what I’ve heard, you’re just a soft lady underneath. Why, I doubt you’ve ever killed anything larger than a fly, even in your beastly form.”

She was right about that, although I would never admit it. Doubt filled me, but I bared my teeth at her anyway. I might be a soft lady on the inside, but even soft ladies could be vicious creatures when backed into a corner. I had already faced down Eifert, and I would put this bandit in her place too.

“I gave you a warning,” I growled. “I will not give you another one.”

Nigella smiled again and drew her sword. The rest of the Razors perked up at the soft hiss of her blade sliding free of its scabbard, and several of them started twirling their own weapons around in their hands. I also drew my sword, my fur-covered fingers feeling clumsy, awkward, and sweaty against the cold silver hilt.

“Storm the castle!” she screamed. “The Beast is mine!”

Nigella raised her sword and charged at me. I snarled, lifted my own sword, and stepped up to meet her.

* * *

The Razors rushed past me, but I kept my gaze focused on Nigella. Good thing, since she almost took my head off with her first blow.

Not only did Nigella look like a warrior princess, but she was far more skilled with her sword than I was with mine, despite all the tutors and lessons I’d had over the years. Even if I’d still been in my human form, I doubted that I could have bested her. It was all I could do to dodge her blows and hang on to my own weapon.

“What’s the matter, Beast?” Nigella hissed. “Having trouble pretending you’re still a real girl instead of a monstrosity with teeth and talons?”

I jerked back, her words wounding me far more than Eifert’s insults ever had. Still, as the Razor queen whirled around for another strike, I considered her point. Nigella was right. I was a beast now, so I should fight like one.

I dropped my sword, which tumbled end over end along the bridge. Each ding-ding-ding of the metal hitting the flagstones rang out like a bell.

“Giving up already?” Nigella smiled at me again. “Don’t worry, Beast. Soon you’ll be too dead to care how hideous you look. Although I’ll do you one last favor—I’ll mount your head above one of the fireplaces so you can still look out and pretend this is your castle instead of mine.”

Anger sliced through me. I opened my mouth to respond to her taunt, but screams and shouts rose up behind me, and I glanced back over my shoulder instead. The Razors were right outside the open castle gates, along with the villagers, who were attacking the invaders with pitchforks, hammers, and other tools. Drury was at the front of the pack, still clutching his kitchen knife, which he stabbed into every Razor who came near him.

Seeing my friend in danger further enraged me, and I whirled back around to Nigella. “You will never take my head, my castle, or anything else from me!”

I launched myself at her. This time, I went on the offensive, swiping out with my talons and snapping out with my teeth. Nigella scrambled away, but she wasn’t quite quick enough to avoid all my strikes, and my talons ripped across her left shoulder. She screamed and staggered back, staring down at the blood soaking into her fuchsia jacket.

“What’s the matter?” I hissed. “Having trouble pretending you’re still a real girl instead of a murdering bully with a sword?”

Nigella screamed again and charged me, slashing her blade through the air. I dodged her blows and lashed out with my own.

The fight was more or less even, until I foolishly turned to the side, trying to see what was happening behind me and if Drury and the villagers were beating back the Razors. Nigella used my distraction to slip past my defenses and bury her blade in my left shoulder.

I howled like, well, like a wounded animal.

Nigella grinned and twisted the blade in even deeper before viciously yanking it out. “Your head, your castle, and your village will never be safe as long as I am alive.”

I could tell she meant every word, and I knew I couldn’t beat her. Not like this. Not with weapons, teeth, or talons. But my beastly form had always been tougher and stronger than my human one, and I knew it was stronger than Nigella’s body too.