The Once Upon a Time Virtual Series
Virtual Season 3
“The Lost Kingdom”
Executive Producer: Silverbluemoon
Story By: RebelByrdie and Silverbluemoon
Written By: HighHeelsAndChocolate
Guest Illustrator: Fox
Edited By: Silverbluemoon
Advisors and Consultants
Continuity and Consistency: Asaraiyah
Research and Development Assistant: Archaeomedic
This series is Rated M for language, violence, drug references, and adult situations.
It is not intended for all audiences. Please use discretion.
Please Note: This episode is still actively being edited, so please keep that in mind. This message will disappear when the edits have been completed.
Publication Date: 10/23/2015
Aurora awoke with a gasp so loud it rang in her ears for a full three seconds after bolting upright on her bedroll. Her heart pounded in her chest like a thing possessed as she tried to get her breathing back under control. Sliding her hand into her loose linen nightshirt, she felt it thud heavily against her fingertips.
A door burst open and there was a blast of heat. Fireballs. A candle. A malicious spell. There had been a heart in a box and an overwhelming feeling of guilt. And Cora, terrifying Cora, had been lying on the ground while her companion (was that really her daughter?), had held her, cradled her in trembling arms.
The nightmare had been horrifying, and she knew it wasn’t her own.
Recent memories of Snow White tramping through the forest with her and Mulan swam to the front of her mind. Snow had oft spoken of Cora’s daughter—the Evil Queen that Regina had become—and how she had forced her into hiding for years after escaping the castle she had grown up in. Regina was supposedly a terrible woman, capable of murder and terror unimaginable to most, and having met Cora herself, the princess could only assume how the apple might not have fallen far from the tree. And yet . . .
Aurora’s heart slowed beneath her fingertips, the calming chill of morning whispering over her skin.
Regina had looked so forlorn. So utterly heartbroken. So unexpectedly helpless, as she’d held her dying mother in her arms. Aurora wasn’t sure how she knew, but she was positive Snow White had killed Cora.
Aurora shivered. She should have felt relieved such an evil woman had departed these realms but . . . the look on Queen Regina’s face had just made her feel so very, very sad.
The princess let her head fall into her hands, and she rubbed her temples. She wished the night visions or dreamwalking as she’d begun to call it, would stop. She had her own demons to deal with. Like Maleficent. She didn’t need Snow White’s too.
“Are you okay?”
Aurora lifted her gaze to the warrior woman crouched at her side. Mulan was dressed only in the soft, thin pants she wore to sleep and her breast wraps, her skin glistening with a fine layer of sweat. Aurora realized she must have already begun her morning tai chi.
She watched as a single droplet of moisture rolled down Mulan’s temple and clung to the edge of her chin.
“I’m fine,” Aurora croaked. “Just dreams.”
Mulan’s hand came to rest gently on her back in concern. She didn’t look like she believed her.
So Aurora plastered on a smile she didn’t feel and pushed her tangled hair out of her eyes. And since when had her heart started fluttering again?
“Go back to your practice. I’ll get breakfast ready,” she said simply.
Mulan opened her mouth like she was about to protest, but Aurora brushed away her concern with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Really, I’m fine,” she insisted.
The warrior raised a brow in disbelief and Aurora tried to put more oomph into her weary smile, hastily changing subjects. “No matter how much cinnamon you put on it, you always scorch the porridge.”
It was a poor excuse at best, and though Mulan clearly detected the brush off, she responded warmly, “As you wish, princess,” and returned to her exercises.
Aurora quickly built the morning fire (with the wood that Mulan had already gathered), started their breakfast (with the water that Mulan had already fetched), and began to stir idly at the porridge while Mulan’s kata resumed.
Aurora had never seen anything quite like these movements until she met Mulan, the epitome of strength and grace. Aurora was fascinated by the way she could see the warrior’s hardened muscles stretch and tighten underneath her supple skin every time she leaned into a pose. The warrior held each position for what seemed like an eternity; Aurora traced each shift with her eyes, each curve the movement created, and by that nature, Mulan’s body. Mulan was beautiful. It sort of reminded her of a treasure map, the scars rising along her flesh in odd places. She wondered about each of them in turn, each a private story she yearned to discover . . . like the one branded along Mulan’s side that dipped into the valley of her hipbone.
The princess wondered what it would feel like to trace its outline with her finger. Was it smooth like the rest of her seemed to be or was it jagged to the touch? Where did she get it? When did she get it? How did she get it? And how far down did it extend exactly?
Aurora realized that she hadn’t stirred the porridge for quite some time and it was starting to clump together. She refocused her attention to it, and soon enough, Mulan was returning from the small creek nearby, toweling off with a rough blanket, and joining her at the fire to eat.
This had become their routine; every day for the past two weeks had started the same. The pair of them would sit and eat in the quiet of their own thoughts as the sun crested over the tops of the trees. Mulan would pour over the tattered map that they’d constructed themselves, using bits of old charts of the Enchanted Forest and its neighboring kingdoms cobbled together with the stories that Aurora could remember, and Aurora would methodically braid her hair back up into her godmothers’ design while she waited for Mulan to figure out where in the forest they actually were.
“We passed a new bandit marking last night,” Mulan stated blandly to the map in her hands. She marked the spot with a chunk of charcoal from their fire.
Aurora groaned exasperatedly from across the pit, and when Mulan raised her eyes in question, Aurora stuck out her lower lip to gain sympathy.
Mulan sighed. “Better bandits than ogres.”
“Yes, well, they smell about the same,” Aurora grumbled back.
And to Aurora’s surprise, she actually caught Mulan smirking at her joke.
She’d never thought of herself as particularly funny before, but Mulan had this lightning smile that she longed to see, and it was beginning to make her say things that she usually kept to herself. The coveted smile was small and fast and deadly, and it would flash across the warrior’s face so quickly that, if you weren’t specifically looking for it, you’d miss its light entirely.
But Aurora was looking for it, and upon spotting it, she felt her own smile broaden in equal measure; genuine for the first time all morning.
She’d have to be obstinate more often if this was the result.
Aurora packed up their camp onto Seraph’s back as Mulan went about saddling their horses. She watched out of the corner of her eye as Mulan put on her armor piece by piece with fluid precision before she went to strap her sword to the side of Khan’s saddle, allowing her to draw it easily without dismounting. She also strapped a small dagger, Aurora’s dagger now that Mulan refused to let her give it back, to Sampson’s saddle right under the gullet in case of emergency. Not that Aurora was very adept at handling the knife in any way, shape or form… but still. Having it near was a bit comforting.
Aurora had enviously watched Mulan practice on many a morning with her various blades and weaponry and she ached to know how Mulan had learned to be so heroic, to be the fearsome warrior that she was today. But the woman could only field so many questions at a time and Aurora worried that she would fast become a nuisance if she gave in to her nosy desires.
Finally mounted on their horses, Aurora cast a glance behind her to the little black unicorn munching in the grass. He looked adorable loaded up with their tent and extra supplies. “Come along, Seraph,” she called. “Let’s go.”
he pair of them always rode side by side down the twisting path through the forest, no matter how sprawling or close the trail became. Mulan said that it was safer that way.
However, Sampson was unused to the monotony of the never-ending trees and had taken a liking to nuzzling at Khan’s withers whenever he was bored. He’d snuffle at the dirt around his fellow’s hooves and periodically bump at his flank to try and gain a reaction. Playfully, of course. But Khan, a stoic war horse like his master, never looked very amused.
Aurora strongly empathized with Sampson’s plight.
She was trying to be helpful. Really, she was. Mulan was always on the lookout for oncoming trouble on the road, constantly vigilant in her search for bandits or ogres or worse, and Aurora didn’t want her to feel like she was the only one contributing to the quest. She wanted to be of assistance, too.
And so slowly, oh so slowly over time, Mulan had begun teaching Aurora about the woods and how to survive them.
Apparently, tracking was important. Mulan was always staring at things that Aurora deemed innocuous, and on one especially boring afternoon, she had finally broken down and asked the warrior what on earth she was looking at.
It had turned out that Mulan had literally been gawking at the dirt.
But now Aurora knew to pay attention to things like that. Mulan had explained that these were the easiest places to find tracks and anticipate what kind of danger might lie ahead. Boot prints, paw prints and hoof prints alike where much simpler to spot when found in soil like mud, or snow, or wet sand. And in a forest like this one, there was plenty of that to go around, and so Aurora had been granted plenty of practice.
Aurora looked down at the dirt beneath Sampson’s feet. He huffed and turned a baleful eye back in her direction. She shared his lack of enthusiasm and tried to think of another way to pass the time.
She had also learned that the sun was vital to following a trail; that to have the best chance at identifying the owner of the track, she had to view it between herself and the sun so that the shadow her body created would allow her to see the print better.
But, on the other hand, when one was following a trail of tracks, like in the evenings when Mulan would go out hunting for their dinner, the sun needed to be on the opposite side of the tracker to avoid losing said trail.
At least, that’s what she’d thought Mulan had told her. She often forgot about the sun all-together unless it was beating down on her hair and making her dress uncomfortable to ride in. Aurora shook her head as she tried to concentrate on the facts. If she remembered correctly, the sun always rose in the east and set in the west, so maybe her instincts would kick in if she could only find a shadow to investigate.
Aurora squinted up at the sky through the sparse canopy of branches overhead and frowned. It was overcast today, which meant that there were absolutely, one hundred percent, no shadows at all. Like anywhere.
What was she supposed to do with that?! Hmm?!
She let out an aggravated sigh and pursed her lips together. She was horrendous at this. These were not the things that a proper princess was taught. Princesses rode in carriages. Princesses had footmen to light lanterns for them so that they didn’t have to worry about the position of the sun in the sky. Princesses never found themselves near the mud or the track of any potentially dangerous animal. Princesses didn’t get dirty or sweaty. Princesses didn’t go on adventures. It just wasn’t done.
A princess, Aurora decided, was useless outside of a palace.
She was useless, but she was trying. Trying and failing miserably. If she had been navigating the way, they would have probably ended up dead. Or at least half-way to Agrabah before someone resolved to put them out of their misery and kill them there instead.
Mulan was patient with her, though. She never laughed. Not even a little. Instead, she would explain, in her own calm and soothing way, what Aurora had done wrong and suggest how to improve upon it. Sometimes that calm infuriated Aurora.
“Can you tell me anything about the plant to my left?” Mulan asked, pulling Khan to a stop to give her a casual look, but Aurora knew that she’d probably heard her mumbling about the sun under her breath and was now just giving her a chance to feel needed. She hated being so easy to read.
The princess leaned as far over towards her companion as her saddle would allow to peer intently at the aforementioned plant. It just looked like a brown vine hugging a tree.
Mulan could tell how fresh a trail was just by looking at plants. If the plant was alive and fresh, the trail was recent. If the plant was dead, the trail was cold. If the plant was mutilated, something gross had probably done that to it.
But to Aurora, plants were just plants. That’s it. Grass, twigs, trees, shrubs. They were there. Good for them.
Princesses had gardeners and groundskeepers so that they didn’t have to worry themselves with plants. Her lack of knowledge in that category had come at the price of a severe rash on her legs and hands when she had run into some poisonous leaves, and Aurora inwardly coiled at the memory.
Her brow scrunched a little as she noticed a few strands of dark red hair snagged against the bark the vine was clinging to. “That looks like human hair,” she pointed out, suddenly nervous. “Does that mean there are bandits about?”
“Good eye, but not what I was referring to. We’ve moved out of bandit territory.” Mulan looked back at the vine with interest and held out her palm towards Aurora. “I need to borrow your dagger.”
Handing it over, Mulan twirled the blade in her fingers once, before she nimbly sliced off a chuck of the vine only about three fingers wide. When she handed the hilt back to Aurora, she turned to show off her prize.
The inside of the unremarkable vine was filled with bright, iridescent purple bead-like nodules and shimmered almost like pixie dust.
“What is it?”
“Night root,” Mulan explained. “People claim that it’s a hallucinogen that can aid one in overcoming their fears. It’s been used in coming of age ceremonies throughout the kingdoms for centuries.”
Aurora felt her face pale a little as flashes of a candle a spell and a heart assaulted her mind’s eye for a moment. She blinked back the crazy and Mulan’s eyebrows creased slightly in the middle.
“Did I say something wrong?” the warrior asked. Because this was what they did. Mulan showed her new things and Aurora was in awe of them. The princess attempted to pull herself together.
“No, nothing at all,” Aurora postured, and she looked behind her to see their little equine companion trotting to catch up. “I only worry that Seraph will decide to nibble on the wrong thing if we don’t stay alert.” She held the reins just a little tighter in her grasp. “Hurry up, Seraph! We don’t want to leave you behind!”
Mulan nodded as she tossed the night root far into the brush and nudged Khan back into motion.
hey had been riding in near silence for what seemed like hours to Aurora. Hours upon hours where the sun never moved (stuck behind clouds), the trees stayed the same (who really could tell the difference anyway), and the silence continued to be broken only by the monotonous clip-clop of horses hooves. And the very irritating chirping of this one particular bird. She didn’t know what kind of bird it was, nor did she care to ask, she only knew that it seemed to be following them, and it would not keep quiet.
If she had possessed any kind of skill with a bow and arrow at all, she would have been tempted to start firing blindly into the woods with the hope of maiming it.
Which was truly a testament to how far done with the forest Aurora was. She loved animals, any and all of them, and to be honest she was actually still having a hard time reconciling the idea of just how many rabbits she had eaten lately. Unless she wanted to scavenge for the dropped fruit and nuts of the various tiny creatures about, she and Mulan had taken to consuming the tiny creatures themselves, and the unfortunate memories of her childhood pet, Mr. Flopsy, were becoming increasingly difficult to deal with.
Once upon a time, Aurora could have had any food she wanted, perfectly prepared and available on a careless flimsy whim, and it would have been brought to her anywhere in the castle, day or night. Now, she was smack dab in the middle of the circle of life, eating adorable animals that could’ve passed for pets and praying that she didn’t become the snack of a random chimera wandering by.
Or even worse, a dragon.
A Few Weeks Prior. . .
Mulan and Aurora had happened across a large turkey, burnt to a crisp, torn open, and left out to decompose in the middle of a small clearing in the wood. The warrior was insistent that the princess dismount so that she could take a closer look at the blackened carcass. Aurora really didn’t want to but she did anyway.
She told herself it was for the sake of learning.
As Aurora encroached on the decaying bird, the smell of rotting flesh assaulted her nostrils. She covered her nose with a dainty hand and tried to make her eyes look intrigued. But in reality, they probably just looked watery.
But Mulan didn’t seem to notice. She was too busy pulling and stretching the ligaments of the poultry apart to show her where the turkey had been punctured by talons at least a half-foot long. She explained it patiently, but Aurora could see the odd excitement shining in her eyes, as she clarified DRAGON.
A baby dragon had done this. A baby dragon that was learning to hunt and feed.
The very idea of it made Aurora shudder as goosebumps broke out all over her body. She had never thought about baby dragons before, even though, now that she was thinking about them, they had to exist. They probably looked like little overgrown lizards with wings, she mused. They might even be cute at that age, though she wasn’t sure she could ever imagine a dragon being cute when they could easily tear her limb from limb.
Like that poor turkey.
Frankly, if Aurora never saw another dragon in her life, she would be perfectly happy.
She glanced around the clearing to see that Mulan had moved to a nearby pile; to what she assumed must have been another victim of the miniature dragon’s destructive play.
But when Aurora got closer, she found the warrior almost elbow deep in dragon dung.
“You can tell how big a creature is by the size of its waste and what it’s made of. It was a dragon, just like I expected.”
Aurora held back a gag as Mulan dropped her hand even deeper into the muck.
“If you can break open the animal droppings to examine what they’ve digested, sometimes you can use the leftover bits as bait for—”
And that was when Aurora heaved, an unmistakable noise in the back of her throat that she couldn’t disguise, as she tried to endure through Mulan’s obvious enthusiasm over poop.
Mulan looked up aghast at her pale and ill-looking friend and realized her mistake.
“Oh,” was all she said before the warrior hastily got off the ground, went to take Aurora’s hand, thought better of it, and ended the lesson for the day.
They had not revisited it since.
Heat flooded Aurora’s cheeks as she remembered the embarrassing day, but she was not nearly embarrassed enough by it to ever try it again. There were some things that, princess or pauper, she could not do… and excrement was definitely in that category. Even thinking about it made her stomach sour.
But she didn’t want to think about that. Or her night visions. Or her severe lack of tracking skills. Or even that dastardly bird that would. not. stop. chirping. Aurora was tired of traveling and so was Sampson and that was saying a lot. Sampson loved new places and even he had stopped bothering to pester Khan and begun shuffling his feet when he walked.
She needed a distraction. Even Mulan’s never-ending supply of lessons weren’t enough to quench the ceaseless boredom of trees, trees, and more trees. Aurora wanted more— more than lessons on wildlife and bushes she didn’t give a damn about.
She wanted to know more about Mulan. Everything about her, really.
Aurora snuck a quick glance at her silent companion’s stiff shoulders, before suddenly rallying her own bravado, and reached over to pull a single arrow out of the quiver strapped to Khan’s side.
And if her fingers happened to ghost over the leather of Mulan’s riding breeches for a little longer than was strictly proprietary, well, then, it was surely an accident.
Aurora smoothed over her face into a wide-eyed mask of innocence with the practiced ease of castle royalty as Mulan whipped her head towards her in confusion at the move. Sampson kept up his steady plod through the woods and Aurora pretended to be completely captivated by her own fingers diligently tracing the feathers on the arrow’s fletching. She also pretended not to notice how she could feel those dark eyes flicking over her fingers as she began to skirt them dangerously close to its obsidian point.
She continued to study the sharpened tip with care. “How did you learn all of this?”
“All of what?” was the cautious reply.
Aurora allowed herself a small shrug. “Swords and archery and just all of it.”
“That is a long story, Princess.”
And said princess was trying very, very hard not to be exasperated with her purposely mysterious friend. But she was just so desperately curious. And in all honesty… she was just so, so bored.
“But I want to hear it,” she nearly whined. “You know everything about me, but I know absolutely nothing about your past. I just want to know you Mulan.”
And then Aurora brought out her most powerful weapon, as every princess was taught to use to her advantage, (and to which she’d discovered to be exceedingly effective with Mulan): she turned on the full power of her baby blues as she looked her companion dead in the eye and demurely batted her eyelashes. She even added a little lilt to her voice for effect.
“Please,” she pouted.
And wouldn’t you know it, a slight tinge of pink immediately rose to Mulan’s cheeks. The shade looked lovely on her.
Then after a moment’s hesitation, as if finally deciding something she long had struggled with, she spoke.
“Very well,” the warrior conceded.
Mulan cleared her throat and turned her face back to the path ahead, and Aurora watched her jaw set and then reset as she attempted to steel herself against whatever it was that she was about to say. Aurora resettled herself astride her saddle as her curiosity piqued ever higher.
Mulan cleared her throat once more, and then began her tale in her customary, careful tone. “I was born in a kingdom far to the East of here, named China. My family was not noble, but my father’s service to the Emperor had given us status, lands, money, and most of all, great honor.”
And for the first time since she’d met her, Aurora could have sworn that she saw Mulan’s chest swell a little with pride.
“All of China knew my father’s name.”
China, Mulan’s Childhood
The first beams of the rising sun met an eleven-year-old Mulan’s eyes as she finished up the last of the tai-chi katas that her father had taught her. Fully awakened and now in tune with herself and the world around her, she squinted back at the mounting day and considered returning to her room before getting ready for breakfast.
She disregarded the idea almost as quickly as it entered her brain and instead went to fetch her sword from where she’d kept it hidden it against the base of the Great Stone Dragon. The sculpture represented her family’s sacred guardian and over the years the honored statue had become a sort of treasure trove for the little girl; where various secret books and other ‘borrowed’ training tools were collecting in the company of her prized possession.
Because Mulan knew that she should love this sword, should love this sword with all her heart even though it was blunt and made of lead (it was only a practice sword after all) and was probably improperly balanced. Because it was better than nothing. After all, she had traded a silk gown and all of her New Year’s lucky money for it, and that sacrifice alone should have made it worth its roughened edges.
But today she was frustrated, knowing that it was supposed to be used like an extension of her own arm— but as she moved all it felt like was what it actually was: a stick of lead. She was too small and the sword was too heavy and she had wasted all of her money on a bad purchase and she was mad. The girl let out an anguished growl in the early morning light and threw the blade down against the cobblestones of the courtyard.
“That is no way to treat your sword, Mulan.”
The girl immediately turned and dropped into a deep bow at the sound of the gravelly voice.
Mulan’s father, Fa Zhao, moved slowly, leaning on a cane, but it no way lessened his ferocity. He was a stern man, built like a boxer with no grays in his hair or beard, and he carried his pride like a medal to be won. “Your sword must be an extension of yourself,” he chastised. “An ally and a friend.” He tapped lightly at her knees with the tip of his cane. “You are too stiff. Your annoyance has blocked the flow of your movements.”
Mulan hung her head in shame, both at being caught with a sword and being ineffectual with it. “I am clumsy and slow,” she mumbled. “A pathetic girl.”
Her father cupped her by the chin to lift her face to meet his gaze, but his eyes weren’t upset like she’d assumed they’d be. His voice remained calm. “You are a good girl, Mulan,” he told her gingerly. “Girls aren’t meant to be warriors. Only daughters, wives, and mothers.”
Mulan scowled but did not pull her face away from her father’s touch. “I don’t want to be a wife or a mother,” she insisted. “I want to be a warrior.”
Her father’s hand left her jaw. She could feel her eyes beginning to plead as she tried to make him see how serious she was. “I feel it. Here.”
Mulan put a fist to her heart and pressed it in until she could feel its steady beat against her hand as if her fingers were actually wrapped around the organ itself.
“I want to be a protector. Like you.”
A ghost of a smile lit up the corners of her father’s eyes even as he tried to scowl back at her. “Don’t let your mother hear that,” he said as he arched a brow in her direction. “She wants you to be a proper lady.”
“Can’t I be both a lady and a warrior?”
Zhao sighed as he made his way over to the bench beneath their cherry blossom tree. The Summer was beginning to wane and the blossoms had begun to fall back to the earth, littering the ground in a soft pink layer of petals.
“I have thought about this,” he mentioned as he sat. “I watch you every morning.”
Mulan was shocked; she had thought she’d been so sneaky. But then again, Father could do anything he set his mind to. In the end, she realized that she probably shouldn’t have been surprised.
She turned to retrieve her sword from where she’d tossed it earlier as he continued.
“If you were born a boy, I would have started your training much sooner than this. Then I thought of one thing. When I was a boy, before the war took me far away, the village was ravaged by a wild tiger.”
Mulan plopped herself down next to her father and landed her sword heavily across her lap. “I have heard this story,” she boasted. “All the men gathered and hunted it down.”
“Ahhh,” her father replied, and nudged her knowingly in the side. “That is our story, but what about the Tiger’s story?”
“The tiger has a story?”
Father took the sword from off of her lap and held it up for inspection. He harrumphed mightily at it before pointing it across the yard. He stared down its length and Mulan swore that she could actually see the tiger he was envisioning as he spoke. “I was a boy at my father’s side and watched them kill the tiger. But then,” he glanced down at her wide eyes, “the mewling came. Three cubs came from the shadows of the tiger’s den. The tigress had been hunting livestock to feed her young and defending herself when the farmers tried to kill her. She was defending her cubs at the end.”
He let the tip of the sword fall until it was resting against the ground and then turned as much as he could to face his daughter head on. “Five men died that day and two were disfigured. All that death brought down by a female protecting her family.”
Mulan had to resist the urge to bounce up and down on the bench in her excitement. “So a woman can be a warrior?”
“To protect her family. To guard those she loves. A last resort, Mulan.” Father accented the point with a touch of his index finger atop her nose. “Girls are meant to stay home and become wives and mothers, and when the men go to war, then they become warriors. Not the sword of the Empire that brings blood, but the shield that protects the innocent. The ones that cannot fight. Do you understand?”
Mulan nodded vigorously. “Does this mean I can keep training?”
And at that her father actually threw his head back and laughed. And it was such a joyous sound to hear that it even shook some of the stray blossoms from their branches and caused a little flurry of petals to come cascading down out of the tree to greet them.
“Yes, my little one, yes. But with a better sword.” He flipped it up again to scowl at the unpolished metal. “This piece of lead is not worth the dress you traded it for.”
Zhao ignored the very obvious blush adorning his little girl’s cheeks and held out his hand to her instead, standing from the bench with some effort. “Come, Mulan. Let’s go get you something worthy of you.”
Father’s hands were warm and safe. And through them, she was going to learn to be a warrior.
Mulan smiled as his words wafted lovingly into her ears.
“My Little Tigress and Good Girl.”
Aurora smiled at the way Mulan’s face softened as she spoke of her family; a deep love radiating from her skin in a way that almost made her light up like a sunrise. It was a pleasant change from the somber storm cloud she usually emulated.
“So we practiced in secret.” Mulan lowered her voice to almost a whisper for this, as if she was still expecting to be chastised for bending the rules of her house all those years ago. “My mother didn’t know. At least, I don’t think she did. I have two older sisters, Lian and Ju. They were everything a daughter was supposed to be. Then when I was fourteen, my brother was born. My parents were so happy. So proud. Only…”
Mulan’s voice trailed off into a sigh and it was like the light behind her eyes had dissolved right along with it; a damp sky rolling back in to cover up the sun.
“My father was sick.” Her tongue caught a little on the word and she had to swallow around the sound. “He’d been wounded in battle and it never quite healed. He never got back to his full strength.” Her mouth tipped down at the corners, “He kept getting worse.”
China, Mulan’s Childhood
The cold rain was beating against the window pane like a stranger without remorse. It blurred the courtyard from view and tracked tear-like stains down the glass in rivers sure to linger long after the sun came out to play. Mulan frowned. She hated the damp; it was the hardest on her father. She looked up from her lessons to try and peer through the deluge and force it away by will.
But the rain just kept pounding down, endless and angry against the ever-darkening sky. By the time the rain finally came to cease, the dirty veins of dried up canals would be sprawled all over the glass and she was positive that Mother would ask her to be the one to clean it up.
The girl was in her fifteenth year; dressed primly in a dress of her mother’s choosing and her hair was pinned up like the lady she should have been. The combs keeping it aloft were scraping against her scalp.
“Yes, Father?” she answered dutifully.
His voice didn’t carry the same vigor it used to. She kept her eyes gazing out of the window.
“You must take care of our family until your little brother is ready.”
Mulan nearly lost her grip on the book in her hands. “Don’t say that, Father,” she insisted. She twisted on the couch they were both sharing and scooted nearer to him. “You’ve just got a winter chill. You’ll be better in no time.” He watched her pensively as she placed the now trembling text carefully on her lap.
But when he just continued to look at her, deep and soulful, Mulan started to waver. Her eyes darted to the steaming cup atop the side table and grasped at the hope, “The doctor said the tea will help you regain your strength.”
His smile was sad. “This time.”
Mulan tilted her chin up in defiance even as the weight of inevitability started to begin its viscous descent through her abdomen like a slow-moving brick. But ever his rebellious daughter, she fought the foreboding feeling and disagreed with him stubbornly anyway. “You are strong, Father.”
“As are you, Little Tigress,” came his counter. He sounded more tired than she remembered. “I need your strength. Our family needs your strength. You are the shield that protects us now, Mulan.”
Her father’s two palms took her quivering one from the top of her book. She sat stunned as he held her steadfast, even if he was a little frailer than he had been before and his hands did not still radiate the comforting warmth that they used to. But instead of the safety they once promised, his fingers wrapped around her own felt heavy and calloused. Like they couldn’t protect her anymore. Like that responsibility was now hers and hers alone.
The brick settled fully into her gut and refused to move.
“You must be a good girl. A good girl for your mother and siblings.”
Mulan tore her eyes away from their melded hands to stare up into her father’s withering face, only to find his eyes desperately searching her own, the question of whether he’d just handed his salvation to the wrong person entirely as clear as the love caught in the crinkles at the corner of his mouth.
“My Good Girl,” he cooed.
She refused to let him down.
Mulan’s whole face had gone rigid. She looked hard and mean and fierce, and suddenly her whole demeanor seemed a shell: her resolve somehow molding itself to become even more frightening than the armor she wore.
But then there were her eyes. In this statue of a woman those dark, dark eyes were glistening so violently that Aurora’s overwhelming instinct was to reach out and touch her, if only to create a little comfort to help chase some of those heart-crushing demons away.
But she didn’t.
Aurora’s fingers hovered over the horn of Sampson’s saddle for a moment too long in their indecisiveness and she lost her opportunity as Mulan blinked hard.
“So I stopped my training.” The warrior pushed onward; her voice scratchy around the edges and stained with a bitter taste. “I became a good daughter. Obedient, mild, everything that my sisters were. Everything that I was supposed to be.” She blinked hard again. “A Good Girl.”
Mulan took a wary glance up at the overcast sky like she was searching the clouds for signs of rain, but Aurora wasn’t fooled. The space between the princess’s eyebrows creased in sympathy as the threatening tears absorbed slyly back into her friend’s irises.
Neck still craned toward the sky, Mulan’s eyelids fell closed for a moment and she took a deep breath.
“Then the Huns arrived.”
China, Mulan’s Childhood
Spring came sooner than Mulan had planned… considering the circumstances. Somehow she found herself missing the rain she so used to despise.
She watched as her brother learned to walk and talk by himself. He had discovered the joys of opening cabinets without assistance and had taken to daily terrorizing Mother in the kitchen.
She watched as her sisters began to talk of the matchmaker and future husbands. They giggled often and could frequently be found practicing with their parasols in the garden.
She watched as the world woke up and learned to breathe again. It brought the cherry blossoms into bloom and the sun was once more free to warm the cobblestones with its happiness.
Spring brought new beginnings to everything. Especially her.
Her sword remained untouched. Her training staff remained untouched. Her weights and her katas remained untouched.
Mulan was being a Good Girl.
But it quickly became evident that the Spring that year had brought more with it than just warmth and new life when the messengers started pouring in. Like an infestation, they crawled throughout the city; scattering into every home and nook and cranny throughout the empire to proclaim their bad news to anyone that would listen to their cries. That Spring had brought an attack. That the Huns had invaded. That they had breached the Great Wall.
A sniveling, skinny man shouted at her family from behind his scroll emblazoned with a seal, “By Order of the Emperor, a male from each family will report to the Army Training Ground to defend China.”
And Mulan watched in horror as her father shed his cane and limped forward to accept the summons. Past his baby boy toddling near his crying mother. Past his whimpering daughters with parasols clutched in their hands. Past the cherry blossom tree that he would never, ever see bloom again.
His son was far, far too young to serve in the army.
The tears stung at her eyes as her father passed her by, the girl he had asked to become a shield, and she ached to scream out “No! Not him! Anyone but him! It isn’t fair! Can’t you see he’ll die?!”
If only she could go in his place.
It was only Aurora’s desperate need to swallow that brought her consciousness rushing back into the present and away from the fateful day in her mind. Apparently, she had been listening to Mulan’s story with her mouth agape in admiration and she quickly shut it again to regather her saliva.
“You took his place,” she spoke breathlessly when she had come back to herself. “You went to protect your father. To protect your family.”
Mulan tugged distractedly at the tips of Khan’s forelock, seeming not to want to meet Aurora’s gaze. “I knew that my father would die if I did not go,” she admitted. “My brother was too young, and to not give a soldier to the Emperor’s Army would bring shame to our family. I prayed to my ancestors, and then went to my father’s armory. I took the sword he’d helped me learn to use.”
Her fingers fell to the sword at her side to brush against its hilt with reverence. And it was there that those dark eyes of hers eyes caught Aurora’s again, but this time from under thick eyelashes that the princess had never noticed before. “This sword,” she said softly.
And Aurora just stared at her. Which she was positive made Mulan extremely uncomfortable but she was still just so taken by the sacrifice the woman had made that she really couldn’t get her mind to do much of anything else.
The air around them seemed to stifle a bit in Aurora’s awestruck silence and Mulan’s hand did start to clench around her sword in unease. The warrior averted her gaze again as she tried to regain her stoic countenance from before.
“I took his summons and cut my hair short,” Mulan stated firmly, like she was trying to distance herself from her own harrowing personal details. “I wrapped my chest, and Khan and I rode out that very night.”
Her face was turning cross, but for what reason, Aurora wasn’t sure. If she was worried that the princess would mock her or judge her for the methods she had used to succeed in her heroic deeds from the past, it was the farthest thing from Aurora’s mind.
She didn’t have the words to express how proud she was of her friend in that moment, for it felt as if her heart was nearly bursting with the feeling and her current vocabulary just wouldn’t do it justice. So Aurora took it upon herself to enunciate each unimpressive syllable with as much sincerity as a royal like her could possibly muster, and hoped that Mulan would take her sentiment to heart.
“You are very brave.”
The warrior rolled her shoulder as if she was literally trying to shrug off the compliment, obviously not accustomed or comfortable with receiving honest praise. But her eyebrows did unfurrow from their angry set across her brow, so in Aurora’s book, that was at least progress in the right direction.
Mulan nodded towards the trees in front of them. “According to your stories and my maps, we should be there soon.”
Aurora scoffed loudly at that as she followed Mulan’s gaze. All of these trees looked exactly the same as the ones they’d be riding through hours ago… unless… maybe there was some secret tracking thing she was missing.
Was the mud different around here?
She quickly squinted at the surrounding dirt around her to look for abnormalities.
…she was hopeless.
Aurora raised an eyebrow at her companion with an aristocratic haughtiness that was beginning to feel less and less genuine by the day. “Maps you found in an old library,” she tutted, turning her nose up in the air. “How did you even think to stop at that old scribe’s training school anyway?”
But Mulan’s shared story must have made the warrior feel a bit bolder than usual for she suddenly nudged her mount closer to Aurora’s. Aurora sat stunned atop Sampson, not quite knowing what to do with the shortened distance her companion had put between them.
She might have stopped breathing. Just for a second there.
Mulan looked at her meaningfully. “On old friend once showed me that a book can be as useful…” the warrior’s hand brushed over the tops of Aurora’s knuckles and Aurora started at the contact, just enough for Mulan to pluck her arrow back from the grip of loosened fingers, “…as a sword.”
With Mulan holding the arrow up between them at this close a proximity, and with her gaze being so intense, Aurora suddenly felt a little giddy. And when she tried to smile in response, a laugh that sounded like a mix between a short little cough and a sigh of relief escaped her lips in a confusing barklike exhale.
“I think I like this old friend of yours,” Aurora stuttered, and soon found herself covering her mouth with the back of her hand in an attempt to stave off a ludicrous set of semi-nervous giggles.
She felt her cheeks start to burn at her unprompted display, but then that coveted lightning smile was back and everything was worth it.
Mulan failed to hide her fledging grin as she answered, “And I think they would very much like you.”
heir landscape was definitely changing. Something about the Enchanted Forest had always been… brighter, Aurora supposed. The air was always a little more humid, the trees a bit more grandiose, a bit more sprawling, and the weather there was always in extremes— the sun in sharp beams that leapt across the flowering fields or a snow-covered dune whose blanket could quiet even the loudest of sounds.
And although Camelot’s forest was arguably just as beautiful as the princess’s homeland, there was something about the air here that just made it seem the slightest bit duller than expected. The ground beneath their feet had begun to pebble and pale, and the overcast sky persisted in a dreary sort of way that kept the world chilly and grey and sapped of all extraneous color, even as the sun continued to rage behind the clouds in its attempt to break free and warm the land again.
Maybe it was because they were getting closer to the coast. Mulan said that bite in the wind was due to the salt combing off of the ocean and Aurora held her cream-colored cloak tighter against her skin.
But soon enough, the forest sought to spill them out into the last spot of light before the storm; the clearing they landed in was spectacular. A great lake lay in the middle, limpid and mesmerizingly blue, nestled in a bed of brilliant, flowing green grass that reached towards where the wood of deciduous trees continued off to their right.
To their left however, the lake brushed up against a white, pebble-strewn beach; their footing suddenly unbalanced in the mixture of sand and rock. Boulders bleached by age and the elements lay scattered like pillars of salt in their wake to mingle with the scattering of oak trees that blocked their view from the coastline. If Aurora concentrated, she could almost make out the rhythmic beating of the waves against the far off shore.
However, the sound was overborne by the peaceful gurgling of the waterfall in front of them. The land behind the lake rose quickly in cragged spikes of rock and although the waterfall was calm, hopping from ledge to ledge to cascade its contents into the glimmering pool, the terrain appeared rather unforgiving.
Aurora glanced at her companion only to find her staring unblinkingly at the shrines.
There were two small shrines erected on the beach: one for the Lady of the Lake and the other for Arthur, the fallen king who had once sought her out. Aurora reached out and cautiously laid a hand on Mulan’s elbow. The warrior didn’t startle, but something in the gentle touch shook her out of her reverie.
Mulan lent a nod in Aurora’s direction as they both dismounted from their steeds. Their horses trotted greedily into the waving blades of greenery and the princess and the warrior, together, moved across the sand.
Aurora felt strangely drawn towards the Lady’s shrine. It was simple; a small, round altar laid flat as a stone table as if ready to hold a vase of flowers, but instead of flowers there was a hand— molded out of the rock like it was rising from a mighty mortar sea. Little offerings had been left around the sculpture; small jewels, bottles of mead, and stalks of daffodils were strewn about its top like coins dropped into a wishing well. Some of them were even actual coins, but from which region they hailed the princess could not tell. Aurora traced the pad of her index finger over the faded symbols engraved into its edge. She couldn’t tell where these runes had hailed from either.
Mulan, on the other hand, stood ruminating at Arthur’s shrine. Situated directly next to the Lady’s, it was a single large boulder thrust in the sand with nothing but a perfect circle carved into the stone. Hundreds of swords littered the ground around it in various states of disuse; some were still gleaming silver while others had rusted so completely that they were barely still standing upright. Aurora watched as Mulan’s fingers danced lightly over the hilt of her own.
They would have to leave an offering to receive audience.
Mulan’s jaw ticked for a moment before she reached into her sash to pull out a token that Aurora had never seen before. It was small and round like a coin, but it looked heavy in her hand, and upon further snooping Aurora could see that it was actually an elegant dragon etched out of jade. It looked expensive.
Mulan ran her thumb over the carving once before she laid it reverently at the Lady’s hand.
Aurora shifted anxiously from foot to foot at her companion’s solemnity, feeling like she was missing something important. “So now what?” she blurted, and her eyes danced between the brooding warrior and the symbolic serpent now sitting with the other offerings. She bit at her lip. “I’ve never requested an audience with a Lake Guardian before.”
Mulan allowed her eyes to soften for a moment as she took in the princess. “No summoning comes without an appropriate sacrifice,” was her answer. She then pulled a knife from her belt and slid it smoothly across her palm, and although Aurora gasped, she did not hesitate as she held her bleeding hand over the stone replica of the Lady’s.
Mulan’s blood dripped over the Lady’s fingers and suddenly all of the carvings around the altar were glowing with a ghostly blue-green glow. The clouds overhead rumbled and rolled. The stones began to shake. The air became electric and all of Aurora’s hair stood on end. The wind picked up, the horses whinnied, and Seraph ducked to hide himself behind the larger forms of his brothers.
Aurora and Mulan locked eyes but dared not move as the earth quaked around them.
And then just as abruptly as it had all started, it stopped. A single stream of sunlight shone down on the exact center of the lake.
It was there that The Lady of Lake appeared.
At first, it was just a finger, and then a single hand, followed by a slender arm, and then slowly, magnificently, the rest of her body ascended from the depths of the glistening lake. She was a goddess, ethereal and shimmering in the light and her gown rippled as if it was made of the water from which she came; a beautiful shifting indigo-turquoise-cobalt that positively danced in the sunlight streaming down on her. Curling dark red hair fell across her shoulders to frame striking eyes that reeked of power; eyes that mirrored the deceptive calm of the pool that she was now standing on as if it was the simplest feat in her repertoire.
Those eyes narrowed when she saw them.
“The Sleeping Princess and the Warrior.” Her voice was an arrogant rumble that left a faint echo against the rocky shore.
Aurora regained her tongue first, “You know who we are?”
The Lady hummed and the lake swelled beneath her feet. “I know all,” she replied.
Aurora brightened. “Then you know why we’ve come here.”
“Then you will help us?”
“Help?” the Lady scoffed, and Aurora’s stomach dropped a little at the condescending tone. “I do not give help.”
“But…” The princess’s words cracked in spite of herself. They’d come all this way… “We need Excalibur to—”
“Need?!” The Lady’s voice thundered in the air and dark teal magic crackled around her fingertips. “Excalibur is a tool of magic. Of might and destiny. It doesn’t lend itself out to hapless travelers.” She took a menacing step forward and Mulan moved in sync to place herself in front of the princess. The Lady grinned like she was looking for prey. “Only those who are truly worthy of its power.”
Aurora could feel Mulan’s protective hand against her stomach, holding her back, and so she continued to argue with the sorcerer from behind Mulan’s shoulder. She put on her fiercest face.
“Our hearts are pure and just,” Aurora declared boldly. “We are worthy.”
And the Lady of the Lake actually had the audacity to laugh at her. Aurora felt the insult deep within her bones as she fumed behind her friend-turned-shield.
“A little princess,” The Lady mocked, “with a head full of fairy tales on a grand quest. You are but a child…” She swept the long bell sleeves of her gown through the water to cause little whirlpools in their wake. “But you…”
The Lady paused in her taunting to study Mulan, who had not moved a muscle since taking her post in front of Aurora. The temptress cocked her head quizzically to the side. “And what say you, Warrior?” she crooned.
Mulan, ever polite to those she deemed deserved her respect, answered rather graciously given the circumstances. “I humbly request your assistance in this matter, My Lady.”
The lady’s eyebrow rose. “And do you think you are worthy?”
“I know my own worth.”
The clouds above the lake rumbled ominously and the Lady’s cruel smile crept across her lips once more. “But I do not,” she sneered back.
The Lady waved her hands in front of her chest in one fluid movement before quickly splaying her palms on either side of her body, and Aurora watched in horror as they instantly sprang to life, blazing with intensely teal fumes that popped and crackled in time with her excited breathing. In, out. In, out. The magic glowed brighter and the false flames danced in the shadows of her eyes. “I suppose we shall find out.”
The glittering water tossed and swirled and bubbled and frothed, and a crack of lightning shot across the sky just as the woman threw her hands into the air to be enveloped by a voluminous cloud of hurricane smoke.
And suddenly Aurora was forced to wonder whether or not she had actually eaten that hallucinogenic root that Mulan had shown her earlier and if this entire adventure was just a dream because when the smoke cleared, it was not the Lady of the Lake that was standing there.
It was a giant turquoise dragon.
Aurora screamed, long and loud and high, and the hand that had been keeping her safe pushed her back so hard that she stumbled a bit when her spine landed against a stray stone.
In response, the dragon let out a deafening roar that shook a flock of sparrows from the trees and blew Mulan’s hair back like a windstorm. Mulan pulled her sword out of her scabbard.
“Stay there!” Mulan shouted over her shoulder, never tearing her eyes away from the beast. It was crawling out of the lake.
“You can’t fight her!” Aurora shrieked. “She’s a dragon!”
At that, Mulan looked back at her, frustrated. “Is this not what the knights in your tales do?”
But “Dragon!” was all Aurora could squeal in return.
Said dragon whipped her tail across the pond and Mulan ducked just in time.
“Stay here, Princess.”
“Mulan!” Aurora cried.
But it was too late. Mulan was already running headfirst into heroics as she sprinted away from the shrine in order to draw the daunting dragon’s gaze away from where the princess was cowering.
A plume of fire lit up after her fleeing heels.
The dragon was the biggest one Aurora had ever witnessed, to be honest. She could see its muscles bunching and rolling beneath its blue-green scales as it made another lunge at the warrior trying to avoid its reach.
Mulan deflected yet another burst of dragon fire with her sword and sent it careening back at its face. The dragon avoided the ricocheted blast easily enough and blew two streams of smoke out of its nostrils towards the lake. The water boiled in its wake.
Mulan was doing a pretty good job of not becoming a meal, but she was stuck on the defensive, dodging talons the length of her arm and twisting out of the way of that thrashing tail. She was too exposed out here on the beach and the random boulders were more of a hindrance than a help when it came to the circling movement she was trying to implement. Attacking was only a second thought at the moment, and it needed to be moved into first.
Aurora winced as Mulan dove into the long grass only to have the dragon light it aflame behind her as she clamored toward the woods. Their horses had long since bolted along with the birds and any other animals that didn’t wish to die this day.
She would make it. She had to. Mulan never failed.
But then suddenly the dragon had whipped her tail around with alarming speed and knocked three trees down hard. Right where Mulan had been heading. They groaned and splintered with a reverberating crack as they tumbled to the ground and Aurora’s fingers began to bleed as she clung ever harder to the lichen-encrusted rock she was hiding behind.
The sudden silence was too much.
The dragon shot another blast of fire into the trees and Mulan was nowhere to be seen.
The waterfall was too loud. The trees were too loud. Her heartbeat was too loud.
The dragon clawed briefly at a log and flipped it in annoyance. Still nothing.
WHERE WAS SHE?
And then Aurora spotted her and her heartbeat jumped into her throat to stay. Mulan was clinging desperately onto the dragon’s tail… and was attempting to climb her way up its terrifying body.
Aurora suddenly wished that they had never come to Camelot.
The lady-dragon had realized that Mulan had grabbed ahold of her tail and she was not happy about it. She spun around quickly and thrashed her backside into yet another section of the forest, and Mulan grunted painfully at the collision of the tree trucks against her body again. But still, she held tight. If anything the warrior just dug her fingers harder into the scales under her hands.
It was funny, Mulan mused as the world whipped by again, shutting her eyes as she thudded against the ground this time (at least she missed the rock), that as a child, she’d made it a habit of hers to climb the family’s statue of their guardian dragon as often as possible. And now here she was fighting a real one.
But hope was never lost. After all, it was not as if she had never been in tough places before.
China, Mulan’s Past
The military camp was huge— bigger than her village even if it quadrupled in size. The tents seemed to be endless in amount, creating a vast white sea over the earth that wanted to swallow her whole. The strung-up tarps rippled like waves and as she made her way through the impromptu city, posturing and strutting like she belonged with these men, she had never felt more out of place, so small and insignificant, in all her life.
Doubt flooded her mind. They would know she was not one of them, she worried. They would know!
But her worries were quickly thrust onto the backburner as soon as she found the other new recruits. They were, well, less than kind.
They immediately recognized her father’s name as the much respected general that he was, and there Mulan stood, in a full set of armor with a horse and a sword. It was no wonder they hated her. Many of them were the sons of poor farmers and had come with nothing of the sort. They expected her to look down on them and they openly disparaged her wealth.
All it had taken was single shove and a brawl had broken out.
Mulan grabbed a nearby staff and swung it lithely around her body, using the long pole-arm to buy herself some space in the crowd and knock her combatants away. She swept at legs and struck at collar bones— trying to stun, not injure— but there were too many of them. She could feel herself losing ground, sinking less and less hits as she backed up in the encroaching horde when suddenly; the fight came to an abrupt end as she was pushed into a water trough.
The crowd roared with laughter as she gasped in a mouth of dirty animal water.
She was mortified.
An angry voice rose over the din of the brawl, “Soldiers! Fall in!”
But Mulan seemed to have been the only one to hear it for no one responded. She started to panic as the mob continued to move ever closer to her trough and she scrambled for something to protect herself with. Her hand formed a fist under the water.
Then suddenly a shrill whistle sliced through the air with the edge of a knife and several of the men in her vicinity winced at the sound.
“I SAID FALL IN!”
The men clamored to follow orders and quickly fell into line… and left a huge gap in the middle of themselves so that the commander could clearly see Mulan, in all of her armor, soaking in the trough.
Honor her foot. They were all ingrates in Mulan’s book. She’d thought that the men would have had each other’s back in a pinch. After all, weren’t they about to go to war together?
Shang frowned mightily at all of them. “Who started this?” he asked.
All fingers pointed to her.
The commander’s frown only etched deeper into his brow as he approached.
Mulan made to remove her helmet in respect, but her elbow caught roughly on the side of the trough and jammed into her funny bone. She grimaced for a moment at how Mother would have chastised her for her gracelessness, but then hoped that maybe that would swing something in her favor… here in the company of men. On her second try she succeeded in plucking the helmet from her head, and her short, wet hair fell to her shoulders in sodden chunks.
“Fa Ping, sir.”
Shang’s eyes betrayed nothing as he turned back to his men standing at attention.
“Well, soldiers. Can you tell me what Fa Ping did wrong?”
There were many answers, shouted grunts of breaking regulations and fighting and rudeness, but their commander only shook his head in dismay. “In the fight,” Shang clarified. “What did he do wrong in this… spat,” he looked severely unimpressed, “… you all just participated in?”
One man, squat and round and still far too close to Mulan’s trough for her liking, cleared his throat self-importantly. “He used a big stick instead of his sword.”
A few chuckles sputtered throughout the line. Shang was not amused.
“Yes. He used a staff,” the commander reiterated. “Was that the wrong decision though? He hopefully didn’t want to kill anyone and in a big crowd he used it to buy some space.”
He eyed a few of them meaningfully but when no other answers came, he sighed and rubbed his hand across his face. “The water trough, men. He failed to be aware of his surroundings. So he fell into it. A warrior must always be aware of his surroundings. It is a tactical and strategic consideration that can save your life or end it.” Shang twisted to watch Ping climb out of the water and drip onto the ground. “And in this case, it cost him the fight. Now, who can tell me what Ping did right?”
A bald headed man with smiling eyes and a large belly chuckled, “He certainly knew how to handle the staff properly.”
And the demeaning chuckles were back.
But Shang merely raised an eyebrow. “As will you all,” he replied. He began to pace in front of them. “The staff is the first weapon you will master. You can’t be trusted with a sword until you understand the basics of how to use a staff.”
He looked Ping up and down. “I suppose your father trained you?”
“Some , sir.”
“Well then.” Shang threw the staff that she’d dropped when she’d taken her plunge into the trough. She caught it smoothly. “You can start the day’s training by showing the men the correct stance and grip.”
It was the most Mulan had wanted to smile all day. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t thank me, Fa Ping. You are part of the Imperial Army now, and are expected to teach and learn— just like everyone else.” The man stomped up right in front of Mulan so that he could stare down his nose at her. “You are young, scrawny, and you have no discipline. Learning to swing a weapon is the easy part. You are not here to learn to swing a weapon. You are —” He stopped himself to turn back to the rest of the group. “You are all here to become weapons. To be the Emperor’s sword and China’s shield.”
Mulan beamed with pride and determination as the words resonated with her Father’s voice from a memory long past. And for the first time in her entire life, she felt like she was exactly where she was supposed to be and doing exactly what she had always been intended to do.
Mulan was nothing if not persistent and even with the lady-dragon throwing a righteous fit at being climbed, Mulan quickly made her way onto the creature’s back. Then straddling the place between the beast’s shoulder blades, she plunged her sword deep into the dragon’s flank.
Immediately dark red blood welled in the wound and seeped out between the scales and the dragon roared in pain. And anger. Renewed in fury, the creature beat her wings hard and bucked in the water, and Mulan lost her grip on the flailing monstrosity and was thrown, once again, onto the shore.
Thankfully, she rolled into the landing to protect herself and alighted lithely on her feet. And knowing that that probably bothered the dragon quite a bit bolstered some of her courage.
The armor the fairies had given her was holding up well, Mulan realized. She had barely felt the impact and with the amount of trees she had been run into lately, she was immensely relieved for the extraneous damage it had saved her from.
Mulan twirled her sword warningly in her hand. The dragon glared at her from the lake.
And then it was as if the beast had truly been unleashed.
The dragon released stream after stream of fire at her in a seeming endless torrent of rage. Mulan deflected and dodged, deflected and dodged, hovered, ran, spun behind a boulder, and then ran again. The air became thick with smoke and ash as their fight stretched on and Mulan squinted into the fog as she realized her impending demise.
A burst of flame appeared to her right and she refracted it off of her sword. But then claw tore through the smoke screen from her left and nicked the shoulder of her armor. The flash of a tail. A stray plume of fire. Mulan couldn’t tell where the dragon was coming from. But then the claw tried to strike again and Mulan made a guess and dove to the side to escape… only to find herself wrapped tightly in the tail of her enemy.
Mulan’s feet left the ground as the tail constricted around her abdomen and squeezed hard, sending her rising through the air above the lake until two glowing, bulbous eyes met her through the fog.
She could have sworn the dragon was smiling.
And then she was airborne, rocketing through the air without the luxury of wings until she met the earth again, but this time with a rather distressing crunch. Mulan smacked hard into the rock behind the waterfall and tumbled like a rag doll from the top tier of the cataract into the mess of boulders that made up the second level. She landed on her stomach and did not move.
Water was beating down on her back but Mulan could tell that she was wet for another reason. Her head, which was uncovered, had taken most of the damage. She could feel the blood dripping down her cheek as the gongs rang out in her skull.
Somewhere, in the distance, she could hear someone calling her name. She had to get up. Someone was counting on her.
Mulan rose shakily to her knees and looked around. The dragon was fast approaching and she had no time to decide what it was that she wanted to do. And it was in that moment Mulan knew that she wouldn’t win this battle because of the sword she used or her skill with it. She had to utilize her environment.
She was not a lone warrior, she reminded herself: she was a weapon.
Aurora watched as the dragon flung Mulan through the air as if she was nothing more than fly to be swatted at and she felt herself start to scream again. It was like she couldn’t control it as the agonizing sound ripped itself from her lungs and all at once, Aurora hated herself for doing nothing.
Mulan was fighting a dragon of all things, all by herself, and what was she doing? Screaming. They were supposed to be in this quest together.
But what could she do?
Her furtive gaze landed on Arthur’s shrine. Well, it’s not like she didn’t have access to any weapons. There were countless swords just stuck there in the ground, waiting to be used. She raced towards the shrine and, although it took her several hard jerks using her whole body, within no time at all Aurora had managed to free two of the shinier swords from the ground around the stone.
The princess hastily spared a glance to her comrade who was ducking and weaving woozily around slippery boulders ten feet in the air. The dragon had begun to climb the waterfall to get closer to her prize… which was bad for Mulan… but it also left the dragon’s tail frightfully unattended while it twitched across the sand.
Which was perfect.
Aurora gulped once, gathered her courage from the depths of her toes, and then with a sword clasped in each hand, sprinted like a mad woman across the beach and stabbed the dragon’s tail clear through to the ground.
Blood spurted everywhere as the dragon roared in pain and twisted to try and free herself from where she was now pinioned in the sand. But as she struggled to find liberation, she ended up raking her talons down the side of the ledge and dislodging several of the cliffs’ supporting stones on the way. The waterfall hill trembled and started to collapse as boulders began to tumble from above and one hit her in the head. And then the neck. And then the head again. Down, down, down they came to bury the dragon beneath the rock.
And Mulan, who was suddenly even more unstable atop the crumbling stone, lost her footing and fell to the ground right along with the rubble.
But the warrior wrenched her head up covered in blood and clawed her way through the sand, scrambling to her feet just as another boulder crashed off of the rocky slope behind her.
She half-ran half-hobbled to Aurora and nearly fell upon reaching her. Aurora caught her stumble by grabbing her underneath her arms, but Mulan could only focus on the blood smeared across the princess’s face.
“You… are you…?” Mulan choked and her hands pressed frantically at Aurora’s blood-soaked dress. Her palms skated over her ribcage and down her hips to clutch desperately at the fabric. Her fingers were shaking. “You’re not…?”
Aurora was still practically holding the woman upright and she had to lean back a little to look up into Mulan’s eyes. “No,” she assured her urgently. “It’s not mine.”
Mulan’s fingers tightened in her dress but did not let go. She was breathing heavily and her eyes were wild with fright as they scoured every inch of the princess’s face for a lie.
Aurora caught her panic and shook her head in answer. She slipped her hands from around Mulan’s back to cradle her face and still her madness. “I’m fine,” Aurora whispered, and her eyes were soulful and wide as they locked onto the warrior’s before her. “I’m fine, Mulan. I promise.”
But Aurora might have been lying because she didn’t actually feel fine. Her blood was still singing in her veins and her heart was still pounding in her chest and her head had this swishy-airy feeling and her breathing was ragged and Mulan’s cheeks just felt so soft in her hands and Mulan’s eyes were so bright and Mulan had just battled a dragon for her and Mulan, Mulan, Mulan was all she could think about and she suddenly had the urge to push up onto her toes and—
Aurora looked away.
It was the adrenaline; that’s all this feeling was. A warrior’s high. Yes, that’s what it was. Adrenaline.
She cleared her throat awkwardly and fumbled for her satchel.
“But you on the other hand…” the princess chastised, brandishing a rose-colored kerchief that matched her dress. “You are not fine.” Her left hand stilled the warrior’s chin as she peered closer to the gash across Mulan’s temple. Mulan seemed mesmerized by the attention and Aurora took full advantage by letting her initial worry take back over. She dabbed tensely at the oozing wound, “You’re the one that just killed a—”
The pile of rubble that had once been a dragon moved, a formidable shifting noise that had both women turning warily toward the sound before, suddenly, the dragon erupted back out of the rock to land ferocious and furious in front of them. The beast hunkered down as if ready to pounce and Mulan managed to raise her sword again as she returned to her place in front of Aurora. If the dragon still wanted to fight, then Mulan would give it to her, no matter how exhausted she was.
The dragon’s nostrils flared and a tendril of smoke escaped up into the dingy air as her golden eyes regarded the pair of them thoughtfully. Then without warning, there was a giant poof of magic, and it was the Lady of the Lake standing before them once more.
The woman stood tall but her expression was tight. “Together, you are worthy,” she proclaimed, and with a flick of her wrist, she held a gleaming sword presented in her hands.
“Excalibur is yours.”
Mulan let her sword fall from attention almost immediately and bowed at the waist to show her appreciation. She moved towards the deity and Aurora was right there by her side as the warrior reverently took Excalibur out of the Lady’s unwavering hands and held it in her own.
The sword was resplendent, and with Aurora’s help, Mulan strapped it safely to her back.
“Thank you,” Aurora offered politely, and she curtsied at the Lady.
And then with nary a nod in their direction, the Lady of the Lake disappeared into thin air as if she’d never been there at all, and the lake became calm and peaceful without even a ripple to be seen.
Aurora let out an undignified scoff at the display. “Wait, that’s it?!” she fumed. She twisted with her hands on her hips to stare unbelievingly at Mulan. “She almost killed you and now she’s just gone? The nerve of her.”
And with that the princess stomped across the beach and grabbed Mulan’s small jade dragon off of the Lady’s shrine. She scowled at the altar as if it was actually the Lady herself and she was there to see.
“I hate dragons.”
Then with a haughty sniff, she turned on her heel and marched back to Mulan. “Let’s get you away from here. You need rest,” Aurora commanded, and the warrior followed her blindly as the princess rested a helpful hand on the small of her back in reassurance.
From her hiding spot amongst the splattering spray of the waterfall, the Lady of the Lake shrank back further into the rubble and away from the rock still stained with the rusty color of the warrior’s blood. She carefully, but swiftly, picked her a way around the stony hill and retreated into the safety of a makeshift cave that, after all this time, she had finally begun to think of as home. It was still fairly high up on the incline and it was far enough around the side of the knoll that the ocean raced right up to greet her and skipped the beach entirely. From here, the sprawling water was the only thing between her and the glorious sun. From here, she could even pretend that the forest, and the lake, and the shrines behind her didn’t exist at all.
The saltwater air stung at her nose and she tried to take a deep breath to recapture its freshness. But as her ribs expanded, a sharp pain stole through her side and the once-dragon had to bend sharply at the waist to clutch at it. Blood was seeping through her gown where the warrior had impaled her and she winced as she thought of how much magic it would take to heal her this time. This one was sure to scar at least a little.
It would match the ones she had raked down her back.
The briny breeze caught in the Lady’s long, billowing sleeves and the fabric whispered around her arms as her beautiful wings had once done. Her beautiful, delicate, sea-foam colored wings.
It had been such a cruel thing and not worth the trade. To still be able to fly but only when covered in scales and fear— it was not the same at all.
A world-weary sigh sent her dress brushing against the twin gouges now punctured into her lower back and the Lady had to sit down heavily on the nearest boulder. The princess had also struck her well.
A worthy pair indeed.
She let out a breathless chuckle at the irony. “All these years… maybe you were right, my dragonling. My sweet, sweet Maleficent.”
The banished fairy ran the tips of her fingers over the staff she had propped against the rock face; traced gingerly over the curves and ridges of the ornamental dragon topping the instrument before she gripped the wood firmly in her hand. The gem nestled inside began to pulse with a shimmering, turquoise glow.
The magic sizzled through her veins as her skin itched to try and sow itself back together once more.
“Maybe you were right,” the Lady murmured again, and a wistful little smile tugged at the corner of her mouth as she gazed out on the sun that was glistening off of the waves of the sea. “This princess of yours could save us all.”
urora was at her wit’s end and Mulan was just going to have to deal with it. She stood behind the warrior and pressed her shoulders down as she once again, tried to downplay her injuries and stand up to help.
Mulan huffed as her bottom hit the ground for the fourth time that evening.
“No. No,” Aurora chastised. “Absolutely not. You fought a dragon. A DRAGON. Just… just sit.”
Aurora struggled with the shelter, but she did it: it only collapsed on her once. She fetched the water even though she slopped some on herself and she successfully started a fire after only a couple of tries. She even managed to find some plants she knew weren’t poisonous that she could use to start a stew.
Mulan watched with a small smirk on her face but she remained seated and said nothing. As ordered.
It was only after dinner was halfway cooked that Aurora sat down in front of the proud warrior to inspect her wounds. The rose-colored kerchief was back as she began to dab gently at Mulan’s battered face.
The kerchief bunched in her fingers as she slowly worked the cloth over Mulan’s skin: over the ridge of her nose and under her eye. Across her forehead and up against her temples. Around her ears and down her neck and then down… down…
Aurora motioned for Mulan to raise her arms and she did. The princess removed her armor and her tunic from her without a word until Mulan was just sitting in her breast wraps from the waist up.
Aurora frowned deeply and re-wet her cloth.
Over abused shoulders the kerchief swept. Skirted over a protruding clavicle that dipped a little too close to the fabric that kept her protected. A curious prod to her sternum to prove it wasn’t broken.
Mulan tried to hide her wince as Aurora brushed soft fingers unencumbered by material against the deep purple bruise painted around her ribcage. There were even a few places along her torso where the scraping scales had broken the skin. “It’s not so bad,” she attempted to placate. “I’ve had worse.”
“You shush,” was Aurora’s only reply before she pressed the damp cloth back to Mulan’s forehead. Her eyes shifted subtly to over Mulan’s shoulder. “It’s about time you three showed up.”
Mulan followed her gaze and found three very sorry looking steeds lurking near the glow of the fire. They must’ve smelled the food and thought it best to reintroduce themselves.
Mulan would have smiled if Aurora hadn’t picked that exact moment to try and clean one of her open sores. She hissed through her teeth in its place.
“So this green charm,” the princess asked instead of apologizing. It was as good a distraction as any. “It’s a dragon?”
Mulan nodded as she leaned back a bit on her elbows to give the princess more room to work. “My family’s guardian. The great dragon protects us from birth to death. Other than my sword, it is all I have left of my family.”
Aurora hummed in acknowledgement and finished her work on Mulan’s side in silence. Then after she was done, and the warrior’s wounds had been properly dressed, she fished the charm out of the pocket of her gown and held it out to her, palm open.
Mulan reached out and closed Aurora’s fingers back around it.
“You keep it.”
“I couldn’t possibly—”
Aurora took one look at those eyes and knew she wouldn’t say no. She squeezed the fingers in her own before she pulled away and held the little jade dragon in a fist against her chest. “Thank you.”
ater that evening, they were both reclining on the ground underneath the shelter that Aurora had built. The princess smiled up at the tarp. She was rather impressed with herself that it was still standing.
“So, according to our map, we should be in the main part of Camelot by tomorrow.”
But apparently, Mulan did not know what the word ‘relax’ meant.
Aurora rolled her eyes and plucked the offending map out of the warrior’s hands. “That’s tomorrow. Right now, you need rest.” She looked intently at her friend, who sighed heavily.
“I am f—”
“You’re not.” Aurora insisted as she folded the map in her grasp. She then placed it along with her belongings as far out of Mulan’s reach as it could go.
“Will you please rest?” The warrior didn’t look like she was about to listen to her advice and Aurora couldn’t help but whine. “For me?”
And there was her victory. Something in Mulan’s eyes flashed for a second before she slowly eased herself onto her back. She shut her eyes purposefully. “Very well,” Mulan conceded.
Aurora could feel the self-satisfied smile she had creeping across her face even as she settled in beside her companion. They laid there in the quiet and Aurora watched Mulan’s breathing stutter a little a first, and then slowly begin to even out. In and out, in and out; her clasped hands rose and fell atop her bruised abdomen along with her steady breaths. The hand she’d sliced open earlier in sacrifice had been wrapped, and it was no longer in danger of becoming infected.
Aurora’s gaze traveled down to where Mulan’s swords lay between them. Excalibur seemed colossal in comparison to the warrior’s original weapon resting beside it. She thoughtfully ran her finger down its blade.
“I had no idea swords could reflect dragon fire,” she mused out loud. “Did they teach you that in your Emperor’s Army?”
Mulan stirred a little as if the princess’s voice was bringing her back from the edge of sleep. Her eyes fluttered slightly. “No. It is enchanted,” she mumbled, and then suddenly flinched as a pain stole through her stomach again.
Aurora placed a cool hand to her hot forehead. Mulan’s cheeks might have been a little flushed with fever.
Mulan turned into the soothing palm but did not open her eyes. “Queen Regina enchanted it when I volunteered to slay the yaugwai.”
The yaugwai, meaning Philip. Regina, meaning the Evil Queen. But that couldn’t be.
Aurora stared down at her friend who had fallen asleep against her hand. The fever had to be far worse than she had realized if Mulan was talking like this because there was no way that could have been true. Mulan was brave, strong, and righteous. She would have never worked for the Evil Queen.
The princess regretfully extracted her palm from Mulan’s cheek and helped her to settle more comfortably along her bedroll before she moved to do the same herself. She laid along the warrior’s side and gazed up into her sleeping, peaceful face. She longed to reach over and hold her hand, if only to offer comfort in what was sure to be a fitful night.
Aurora fell asleep with her fingers inches from the warrior’s own. So close… but still not touching.
he Dark Curse hadn’t come to Camelot; there had been no need. After all, it was called the Lost Kingdom for a reason.
As they reached the edge of the cities, Mulan and Aurora could see that the entire realm had been all but completely abandoned. The land was fertile and the resources were plentiful, but not even the peasants had stayed when King Arthur fell.
But looking up at the legendary castle, Aurora could understand why. The lonely ruin stood high upon the cliffs overlooking the sea, crumbling into the abyss below, while faded flags of former glory hung limp and dirty against their posts. Fragmented stones from the palace, once a part of a tall and stalwart wall now burnt and blackened from cannon fire, littered the encroaching hills and bits of fallen soldiers— armor, swords, and splintered pieces of broken shields— stood stuck in the earth as ghosts of the past. And even though the long, waving grass had long since grown over the bloodstained ground, the crisp ocean breeze couldn’t fully mask the lingering sour-sweet stench of decay that seeped throughout the land like a sickness.
This battleground was a graveyard.
Aurora pulled her cloak tighter about her neck as she and Mulan rode up the pitted cobblestone path to the castle. Both the gate and the drawbridge had been left down and open and as disconcerting as that felt, they continued their journey on into the deserted courtyard.
The pair dismounted to an odd crunching noise and when Aurora looked harder at the ground she realized that the once-radiant fortress’s stained glass windows had been shattered in the fight, and now shards of Arthur and his knights’ heroic deeds had been left to crunch under intruding feet. She felt a pull deep in her soul for this sad and humbling place.
Leaving the horses in the square, Aurora and Mulan crept inside the castle. It was eerily quiet; the rooms were dusty and unused and everything seemed to echo too loudly within the forsaken walls. It made Aurora want to hold her breath so as not to make any sound at all.
And then out of nowhere, a door opened.
Mulan whirled at the sudden noise and drew her sword at the same time, her nerves on high alert. “Identify yourself!”
The shadow of a woman glided out to meet them. She was beautiful but solemn, in a manner in which only those of regal birth could hold themselves. Large, dark brown eyes glistened in the pale beams of light slanting through the broken windows and the reflection of the shattered glass silhouettes cast strange patterns over her golden skin.
She swept towards them in nothing but a simple long-sleeved black dress with a tiny golden chain hung about her waist. “I was once this castle’s queen,” she said, and her voice resonated like it should have been speaking to the masses. But here, it was wasted on the dead and empty space. “Now, I am all that is left of the once great Camelot.”
“Queen Guinevere?” Aurora asked in awe.
“Yes, that is I.”
The princess fell into an automatic curtsy. “I’m Princess Aurora and I— we,” she quickly rephrased, “have come here on a quest.”
The woman’s eyes seemed to grow heavier with the news. “Quests only lead to heartache, Princess.” Her doleful gaze fell on the warrior by her side. “And your name, Lady Knight?”
“I am Fa Mulan, Your Majesty.”
As Mulan bowed low, the grip of Excalibur could be seen resting against her spine and Guinevere straightened in surprise. “You have Excalibur.”
“It is a part of our quest, Your Majesty,” Aurora was quick to explain.
“Please,” the woman held up her palm, “just call me Guinevere. There is no reason for a Queen in a Lost Kingdom.”
They followed her into a small, bare sitting room off to the side of the grand entryway. The space must have once been luxurious and full of life, but now it was all but barren.
Guinevere turned to face them; a vision of elegant beauty in a place that had long forgotten how to smile and Aurora was suddenly hit by the juxtaposition of the whole thing. It just made her so inexplicably sad.
She tried to shake off the feeling. This was her moment. She was so close to saving Philip, she could practically taste it.
“What is it you are seeking?”
Aurora gathered her courage. She could do this; they were in her arena now. Discussing negotiations with different kingdoms was definitely something within a princess’s skill set. This was her time to shine. “Gawain’s cord,” she stated brazenly. “To save my true love.”
Guinevere’s eyes flashed curiously towards Mulan for a moment before she scowled and looked away. “True Love,” she murmured. “Of course.” The queen’s hands fell absentmindedly to her stomach as she gathered her thoughts. “Kingdoms have been ravaged by true love.”
The queen drifted to the slender window overlooking the sea; it was broken and shards of glass stuck jaggedly out of the sill. She took a deep breath of the sea breeze and closed her eyes. “The cord is in the Hall of Heroes, along with Gawain himself.”
Aurora’s heart leapt in her chest. “Here in Camelot?”
“No. The Hall of Heroes is the resting place of Arthur,” her tone turned chill and bitter at the sound of his name, “and his courageous men.”
“And how do we get there?” Aurora pushed.
“You already have the key.”
Aurora’s eyebrows pinched together. “We don’t have a key.” She glanced at Mulan to commiserate before curving back to the queen. “Just a sword.”
Guinevere turned from the window to stare at them and her rolling waves of dark brown hair whispered around her in the escaping wind, fluttering delicately around her face and elbows. “Excalibur is more than a sword,” she intoned darkly. “It is Camelot.”
“But if it’s the key, where’s the lock?” the princess questioned, still confused.
Guinevere raised a graceful hand to point out into the endless surf of the sea. Aurora and Mulan moved closer to follow the royal finger’s dictation and there, at the end of it, sat a small island surrounded by rocks only about a league away from where they stood. A crypt sat embedded on its stony peak.
“The tomb leads deep underground into the Hall of Heroes. This is where you will find what you’re looking for.”
Aurora’s smile felt like it was exploding as she looked to the tiny isle. “Thank you so much!” she twittered earnestly. “You don’t know what this means to me!”
But Guinevere did not return her joy. “Do not thank me, Princess. Heed my words, instead.” Her dark eyes glinted in the light. “All the stories of true love that they have filled your head with are just that: stories. All of this,” she swept an elegant palm to the devastation around them, “was destroyed because I followed my heart. I chose love over my duty.” The queen tried to smile but it did not reach her eyes. “This quest of yours could be just as perilous.”
However, Aurora would not be deterred. The answer to saving Philip was only a short boat ride away and no amount of depressing monarchs in sad castles was going to take that away from her.
“I think I’ll take my chances,” the audacious princess sniffed, and without further ado, she twisted to leave the queen who insisted on wearing her sorrow like a shroud.
But Mulan held back for a moment.
“For what it’s worth, Your Majesty, he loved you until his dying breath.”
“The King?” Guinevere spat. Her voice was vicious. “His only love was Camelot.”
The warrior shook her head somberly, “Lancelot.”
And then with a hand to the hilt of her sword, she followed Aurora out of the gates of the castle.
Guinevere stood motionless in the grand foyer until their faded footsteps had become a distant memory and the silence had fallen heavily upon the castle once more… and then she began to change.
Melted chocolate eyes hardened to become like ice and her warm, honeyed skin turned cold and pale. Rounded hips grew sleek and thin and her dark, rich hair grew darker still, until it was almost soot-black and reached down to her waist, lank and straight as steel. And finally, her sweet, full lips pulled into a thin, red smile, and Morgan Le Fey arrived fully in her true form. The enchantress stepped out of the slowly swirling after-glow of light green magic as a hauntingly striking skeleton; she was harsh, jutting features wrapped in an elusive cloak of power. She was threatening and she loved it that way.
She brushed the lingering dust from the gown she now wore with a little chuckle. It was an ornate design of gold and red that showed off her figure well.
“Finally. After all these years,” she cackled.
She waved the fairy wand clasped in her hand in an abrupt circle above her head and the room exploded into color. Tapestries hung from the ceiling, candelabras lit themselves aflame, and the simple walls and bare floors were replaced with only the most extravagant of luxuries.
She sauntered over to the throne and reclined lazily upon it. Her feet dangled over the arm while she tapped her wand carelessly at her forehead in thought. “When those two go into the Hall, they will die and we can finally rebuild Camelot.” She smiled a wicked smile and the light caught against her sharp cheekbones to cast dark shadows into the hollows of her face. “Just you and I—”
The witch’s crystalline eyes sparkled maliciously in the fading day as she gazed out of now much larger and shining window.
“My dear son.”
he row boat was small but sound with no leaks to be seen. Mulan pulled the oars in long, smooth movements and the little boat swelled with the surf ever closer to their destination. The rowing hurt, but not horribly. It was an ache… she was used to that.
“I don’t understand her,” Aurora stated out of the blue. She was gazing down at the water as if all of life’s questions could be answered down there.
Aurora looked up at her. “Guinevere.”
Mulan pulled the oars through the waves twice more before she spoke again; her was mouth set in a firm line. “She is a complicated woman.”
“How so?” Aurora huffed in a way that only royals could really manage. She ticked the items off on her fingers. “She was a queen. She had everything. And then it was all gone.” The princess shot a conspiratorial look in her direction, “That doesn’t sound very complicated to me.”
Mulan shook her head sadly, “She also lost many things.”
“Her kingdom,” Aurora replied flippantly.
“Not hers. She left her kingdom to come here.” Mulan grunted as she tugged the oars with extra force through the water. “Her people.” Tug. “Her culture.” Tug. “Her life.”
“But…” Aurora stuttered, looking a little stricken, “…but she was a queen?”
“And so was the Evil Queen,” the warrior combatted, feeling the blood begin to heat in her veins. “Although people often forget she was not of Snow White’s Kingdom.”
Aurora narrowed her eyes at that. “And how would you know Regina?” she asked suspiciously.
Mulan stopped rowing to rest both of her elbows on the oars so that she could look the princess straight in the face when she admitted it; she held no grudge against Regina. “I met her once,” Mulan stated pointedly and Aurora’s eyes widened in shock. But before she could interrupt her, Mulan kept going. “She and I had an understanding. Outsiders often do. Lancelot. Myself. The Evil Queen.” She shrugged. “I am sure there are others.”
“But you’re not like them,” Aurora insisted; as if it was a good thing. “They, even Lancelot, destroyed. Things. People.” She leaned forward to place a gentle hand on Mulan’s knee. “But you saved Philip and me before, and you’re going to do it again.”
The princess smiled sunbeams at her and Mulan sighed internally as she gripped the oars in her hands once more, and began to pull.
t had been a long and treacherous row from the beach beneath the castle to the tomb atop the island. Mulan’s shoulders burned from their excessive exertion but she said nothing; it was the most excited she had seen Aurora in weeks.
The princess was practically vibrating as they tied their boat to the shore and began to climb the rocky path to the top of the isle. They were finally about to get what they needed to save Philip and their quest was, once again, about to come to an end.
That idea alone made Mulan’s heart hurt. She wasn’t ready to be done with this adventure. Not even close.
But they reached the entrance of the tomb none-the-less. The slab-like doors jutted out of the stone terrain as if they didn’t realize that they weren’t supposed to be a part of the scenery; the gray, gray, gray that seemed to permeate all of Camelot disguising them amongst the island’s macabre landscape. Next to the doors and nestled in between its fellow surrounding rocks, was a boulder with a perfect circle etched into it— exactly like the one Mulan had seen engraved on Arthur’s shrine.
This was definitely the place.
But as Mulan ran her hand along the smoothed stone entrance, her brow furrowed. “But how do we use this key to unlock these doors?” she muttered aloud. There were no seals, or knobs, or keyholes to be found.
Aurora’s eyes darted about the landscape before they lit up with an idea. “The sword in the stone.”
Aurora’s eyes were sparkling in that way they were wont to do when she’d remembered something of note. “One of the stories that used to be spread around was that Arthur wasn’t given the sword by the Lady of the Lake.” She smiled brightly at Mulan. “They said he pulled the sword from a stone as a child.”
The princess’s excitement was contagious and Mulan couldn’t help the fluttering it ignited in her chest, even if completing this quest meant that she would no longer get to spend her time with this adorable woman day after day.
The warrior nodded as she walked up to the stone where Arthur’s circle was etched and drew Excalibur from her back. She locked eyes with Aurora as she placed the tip of the sword to the boulder. “Some stories have truth in them,” she agreed, and with complete faith in her companion, she pushed the sword down hard.
The blade sank into the stone as if it was made of butter and immediately started to glow.
Their gazes met in an astounded glance before Mulan reshifted her grip around Excalibur’s hilt and turned. The sword twisted easily inside of the rock and with a large ‘clunk’, the great stone doors opened its gate to its newest visitors.
Mulan strapped Excalibur back against her spine and then they were off once more.
The answering stairs descended into the dark earth with the feeling of death. The place was musty and dank, and when they finally reached the adjoining chamber, a multitude of candles burning along the shelves in the wall were their only source of light. The whole room smelled of beeswax and Mulan’s nose scrunched.
The iconic Round Table sat in the middle of the room surrounded by empty chairs. Each seat held a shield bearing the coat of arms for the knight enshrined in the tomb around them… except for Arthur’s. Oddly enough, Arthur’s chair was missing his shield and the place to its right, where Lancelot would have been seated had his chair not also been missing, was absent its shield as well.
Mulan allowed her hand to graze the aged wood of the historic table before they passed into the next corridor. The hallway boasted murals with the feats of Arthur and the glory days of Camelot before it twisted down further into the bowls of the island and became another flight of plunging stairs.
It was in the next chamber that they found him: the crypt of the ruler they sought, crown and all. The ornate coffin sat atop a great stone block engraved with the words: Arthur Pendragon— The Once and Future King.
The women looked around the perfectly round room, designed to mimic that of the legendary hall above it. It was lit from the ceiling by a chandelier made of candles and the reflective crystals that sat embedded in the framework caused the light to split and bounce all over the gallery. Candle sunspots winked like diamonds against the stone walls and illuminated the wax patches that had melted into the flooring over time. A throne fit for a king sat directly across from the entryway where they stood, and a dark corridor led out of the tomb on either side of its arms.
“It’s empty, you know.”
Both women jerked at the unexpected voice and spun to see a man lurking in the left staircase. He was tall and lean, but not without muscle, and his sallow skin was very, very pale— almost ghost-white. He slunk from the shadows to sit upon a throne that was not his.
Long, bony hands knotted with scars clutched at the arms of the chair as he stared them down from underneath tangled, lank strands of dark hair that had begun to go gray at the roots. A mockery of a crown sat upon his flaking scalp made of fire-blackened iron, and when he cocked his head to the side it slipped to almost completely cover his icy left eye. The eye that was brown continued to rake shiftily over their forms.
“The great and powerful Merlin stole my father’s body.” he claimed, and his voice shook in anger as his bare and bony toes curled awfully to scrape against the foot of the throne.
Mulan’s eyes flickered to the faded tunic the man was wearing: it featured the Pendragon coat of arms. “And who are you?” she questioned.
Mordred’s mismatched eyes flashed to the princess who had whispered his moniker. His eyebrow peaked. ‘You know my name,” he preened. “So you know that I am the heir of Camelot, Arthur’s son.” His chin thrust into the air. “The rightful king.”
Aurora shook her head, “You are a betrayer.”
“No!” he screamed and leapt from the dais. His crown clattered to the floor. “I deserve respect and honor. I am the true King!” His blue eye glittered in the low light of the torches and the mad man smiled widely, baring all of his teeth. “And now with Excalibur at my side, they will have no choice but to bow down to me!”
Mulan and Aurora exchanged sidelong glances, and realized they’d just walked headfirst into a trap.
Mordred loomed in the center of the room like a demon that refused be vanquished. He held out his hand to them, suddenly desperate. “Give me the sword,” he demanded.
Mulan took a step back. “No.”
His face hardened and his palm began to shake, “Give me the sword!” he yelled again.
Mordred threw his hands up in a shriek of fury and Aurora flinched beside her as the man spun on his heel to stalk angrily back to his father’s throne. He stood there rocking for a moment, seemingly just staring at the wall, before he suddenly reach up and ripped one of the decorative shields bearing Arthur’s coat of arms right out of the stone. And when he twisted to point his sword back at the pair of them, his face had fully contorted into a seething mask of insanity.
“If you do not give it to me, then I will take it by force and throw your body into the Hall of So-Called Heroes to rot!” he screamed. He flung his sword out toward the right-hand passageway and sliced it haphazardly through the air a few times before he leveled it back at their faces. His tone dropped into his chest to recount his nasty plan. “Then I will escape this hellish prison and rebuild my Father’s Kingdom. And all shall be mine!”
“No, you will not.” Mulan pulled her own sword from its scabbard and met his gaze, unintimidated.
And at that, the man actually started to cackle. It was a high-pitched, unhinged sound that didn’t fit with his body at all as it reverberated off of the rounded walls of the tomb. “You’re not going to use Excalibur?!” he jeered. “So you are a foreigner and a fool beside.” He stabbed sharply at the air for show and licked his lips obscenely. “Your demise should come swiftly after all.”
Mulan countered his circling presence and set her jaw in a doggedness that would not expire. “My name is Fa Mulan,” she thundered, “and my sword is named Róngyù. It means honor.” She allowed a small smile to tug smugly at the corner of her mouth. “And that is something you know nothing of.”
He was utterly mad. Mordred, the fabled bastard son of Arthur and one of the ruiners of the kingdom was completely insane, and he wanted Excalibur.
Part of her, the scared little princess who knew of nothing other than stories and duties, wanted to throw it at his feet and run screaming back into the safety of Sampson’s saddle, a league of water away. His dead kingdom meant nothing to her— to them. Let the crazy man have it.
Because Mulan wasn’t up to this fight. Aurora could see it in the way she was orbiting with Mordred; her usually fluid movements now stilted and stiff. Mulan was still recovering from her scrape with the dragon, and even though her armor was hiding it well, Aurora knew that under that magic plating her abdomen was still a tender, bruising shade of purple.
Mulan’s sword flashed through the air again to meet Mordred’s inferior block and she forced the man to his knees. But Mordred only smiled as he grabbed onto the blade of his sword with his free hand to throw the warrior back from him. His hand was bleeding but he didn’t seem to notice. And while Mulan was getting in some pretty solid hits, Aurora worried that in a fight of skill versus insanity… that insanity would pull through.
She couldn’t bear to lose Mulan too. Even if she got Philip back, the price would be too high.
Aurora had backed herself up against the stone wall in the hopes that Mordred would forget she was there. She had no way to fight him (the dagger Mulan had given her was unfortunately still strapped to her horse) and even if she did, she would have been more of a liability than anything. Mulan would try to save her, and in turn, leave her vulnerable to Mordred’s attacks. And Aurora refused to be the cause of any more injures to her friend.
Mordred and Mulan had circled each other almost all the way around the cavern, snarling and glaring and stabbing at one another, when Mulan suddenly met Aurora’s eyes over the mad man’s shoulder. Her dark gaze cut to the dim passageway on her right.
It was currently unobstructed.
…surely she didn’t want her to—
But then Mulan’s mouth formed the word ‘go’ and Aurora shook her head violently back and forth. She couldn’t just leave Mulan here.
Mulan’s eyes flicked toward the passageway again, a bit less subtly this time.
The princess pressed her spine further into the wall behind her in the hopes she could just disappear until the fight was over. She shook her head in the negative once more.
It’s like they were arguing without words and in the middle of a battle no less. Aurora was resolved not to leave the warrior in her time of need. No way, no how.
But then Mulan smiled, that small little lightning smile that Aurora had so grown to crave, and she mouthed the word one last time.
And Aurora took off like the shot of a pistol, her white cloak chasing after her like an angry wraith as she raced down the corridor towards the end of their quest— towards the coveted magical cord— towards her beloved Philip.
She ran and ran, down twists and turns in the ever-dimming light, as the candles grew sparser and the shadows and dust cloaked her vision in a waspy haze. Her hands skidded over the walls to keep from toppling over and the air began to blur around her in a muddled gloom so like her dreams of late. Aurora blinked and wondered if she was still awake.
Until she suddenly burst into the light at the end of the tunnel and came face-to-face with… herself.
Mirrors. Thousands upon thousands of mirrors filled the expansive room and reflected her image back against the flaming oil that ignited the waist-high aquifer being used to light the space. The heat was intense as the blaze leapt and reached and flared at her reflections and as she jumped away in fright, Aurora lost sight of the door she had come through.
Panic mounted in her breast as she stared back at her own wide eyes, her own gaping mouth in shock. She struggled not to hyperventilate.
It was like the sleeping curse all over again.
Their quest wasn’t coming to an end at all— it had only just begun.
. . . To Be Continued in Episode 17
Total Word Count: 19321 words