Virtual Season 3, Episode 20

The Once Upon a Time Virtual Series
presents
Virtual Season 3
Episode 20
“The Descent”

Executive Producer: Silverbluemoon
Story By: RebelByrdie and Silverbluemoon
Written By: Rebelbyrdie
Illustrators: TheCecilz and Fox
Edited By: Silverbluemoon

Advisors and Consultants
Characterization: Rushemiiaah
Continuity and Consistency: Asraiaysoph
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.

Publication Date: July 4, 2016

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KI-Aurora walked through the mirrors feeling an ominous weight upon her. It was quiet—even her footsteps flagstones seemed muted. The flickering light provided by waist-high oil aquifers made everything seem otherworldly. The entire room was warm and she could smell sandalwood, clove and lavender—faint smells  smeared over the dry and dusty scent of death and bone.

Each mirror gleamed as if it had been freshly cleaned by industrious servants. She saw herself reflected over and over again. It was her own personal hell, and brought back horrifying memories of her time under the sleeping curse. The mirrors, the fire room, and now the dream walking—that thrice damned curse had all but ruined her life.

She look round at the mirrors again. No, she realized, they were not all images of herself—or at least not the her that she was. Not at all. They were her, sure, but different. Some, like the slightly-younger girl watching out of a tower window, did not look different at all. Others were very, very different.

She stopped at one, amazed at what she saw, what she heard—all but feeling the scene transpiring before her. She was looking through a large plate glass window with The Briar & Rose painted across the top in gold leaf. Inside was a room she had trouble understanding, it was so unusual. There were pictures, drawings, mirrors and odd chairs, and then there was her—or a woman whose face greatly resembled her own.

The mirror-woman’s body was the same, albeit scantily clothed. She wore a small shirt with only half-sleeves; it was more than Emma Swan’s “tank top” but less than the clothing Aurora was used to seeing on herself. She was also wearing blue trousers, much like Emma Swan’s. “Jeans”, Emma had called them. So, in this scene, this other Aurora was wearing jeans and a small white shirt with a small pink horse painted on it. Her hair was light blonde—many shades lighter than she’d ever been. There were also purple streaks in it. There was some sort of device in her hand that drew lines on the skin of a long-legged lanky brunette draped across one of the chairs.

“Seriously, Dawnie,” The woman crooned, looking over her shoulder at Mirror-Aurora and grinning, “You are the best!”

The other her lightly smacked the brunette’s shoulder and matched the brunette’s grin, “Flattery will not get you a discount, Ruby. Now stop moving and let me finish.”

The other her drew—tattooed, Aurora realized—a pastry on the woman’s rear and then wrote “Eat Me” over it in script.

It was at this point that Aurora sort of woke herself, as if from a daydream, and realized she had been taking in this scene for much too long. Suddenly it hit her, though: Storybrooke. That had to have been Storybrooke, the realm where the Dark Curse had taken so many for so long! Would her name have been Dawnie? Dawn? It was close enough in meaning to her name to be likely. Cursed or not, it hadn’t looked so bad. Strange, yes, but her Storybrooke-self had seemed happy.

She moved on from this mirror, remembering her quest. She had to find the cord, she had to save Philip. The crypt’s magic, however—for it had to be magic—seemed to have stolen her thoughts from her, though, because in the next mirror, she saw not her own image, but a full-size image of Philip. He was just as she remembered him: smiling and sweet and dressed in shining armor. The image pulled back and more of the scene came into focus. Philip raised his arm, held out a hand out to his side, and then another her came into view, effortlessly flowing towards him, as all princesses are taught to do. This Mirror-Aurora wore a heavy white cloak meant for luxury, not traveling, and laid her hand, ever-so-elegantly, across his, as she practically floated into his arms. He wrapped himself around her pregnant belly.

Aurora turned away—not only because there was pain there (because there was), but also because she realized that, once again, the mirror was trying to distract her from actually finding the cord to save him.

Laughter—her own—echoed through the maze and she turned around and around looking for the source, disoriented. Had the mirrors shifted?

She turned to her left to continue but another mirror and the image upon in were thrust at her from nowhere. This time, she most definitely recognized the room her other-self was in. It was Maleficent’s sitting room. There was only one large luxurious chair in front of a roaring fire place. Mirror-Aurora was draped across it, dressed in a delicate lilac night dress, gauzy and see-through. It was the sort of thing that a good girl wouldn’t ever wear. More importantly, she was not the only one in the chair. She was cuddled on a lap. Gold curls and a smirk that she had known and feared for far too long held the other Aurora close. Maleficent. The dragon-sorceress caressed her other self’s face, and then Mirror-Aurora leaned forward and met her lips—

Aurora turned away abruptly from the image, inexplicably filled with shame and embarrassment, clutching uncomfortably at her dress, horrified. That was not her. She could never—would never! Not with that vile evil woman—never with Maleficent. She couldn’t take it, she was scared and overwrought. So she ran—arms out in front of her, all but hysterical, trying to block the echoing sound of her name pouring from the sorceress’s mouth so delectably.

She ran until a welcome visage met her from the ethereal darkness and twinkling firelight: dark hair over flashing dark eyes, a jaw set and firm, the form strong and valiant. Waves of relief crashed over her.

“Mulan!” she cried out and reached for the warrior as her fingers brushed glass. It was just another mirror.

After a moment, it also became obvious that this was not her Mulan. The woman before her wore fine plate armor that glinted and gleaned in the daylight and carried a shield Aurora had never seen before—a very regal looking shield—with the symbol of the sun on it—her symbol. Mulan’s cloak glittered and waved around her form in multiple colors—shimmering in metallic flare like her armor. The scene pulled away and Aurora saw her mirror-self approach—dressed in a gown that matched the cloak of shiny metallic thread, looking like an actual sunrise. They were in a courtyard—the one she had spent so many hours playing, reading and dreaming in throughout her lifetime.

“My Queen,” Mulan breathed out in that full, sure voice that always made Aurora feel safe, protected, and a little weak in the knees. As the warrior turned to face Mirror-Her, Aurora could see her right cheek was deeply scarred. It did nothing to mar her beauty, Aurora thought, instead believing it poignantly accentuated Mulan’s experience and strength.

Queen Aurora in the mirror smiled at the warrior’s greeting. Aurora noted that this mirror version of herself was older than she was currently, the youthful chub gone from her cheeks.

 “My Champion,” Mirror-Aurora replied, beaming as she looked adoringly into the warrior’s eyes.

Aurora’s breath caught in her chest. Champion? A Queen’s Champion was one of the most powerful people in the Kingdom, as powerful as the Queen, second only to the King! The position was rare, and for a woman to fulfill it, practically unheard of.

In the mirror world, Mulan and Aurora seemed close. Mulan took the queen’s hand and kissed it and the real Aurora felt a longing tug in her stomach. She had been thinking she could stay and watch these two forever, just as the image abruptly cut out and the mirrors all around her exploded into a cacophony of images and sound.

More of herself everywhere, in every direction: all sorts of possible pasts, presents, and futures—alternative worlds, realms, perhaps. She was overwhelmed and thrust her hands over her ears and closed her eyes, and ran for all she was worth, desperately seeking an exit, an escape from this madness.

There were mirrors everywhere, though, and each held its own unique scene, many of which she couldn’t avoid seeing:

A thin Aurora, dressed in all black, screaming and swearing vengeance at some unseen person, locked in a cage that looked far too much like the cave prison that had once held the Dark One.

A happy version of Aurora eating in a place that she knew belonged in Storybrooke, Philip at her side, spooning food to a chubby baby boy.

A leather-clad Aurora with a large bow in her hands and a quiver on her back. Her hair was cut boy-short and her face was dirty. She was in the trees of some forest waiting to ambush somebodyor something.

A wedding-day Aurora, dressed in all white-standing across from a man old enough to be her grandfather, saying her vows as tears fell fell over her cheeks.

A battlefield strewn with bodies (like one of Mulan’s nightmares) and a ragged Aurora glaring up at an armor clad and victorious Queen Regina.

“Your parent’s kingdom is mine now, Aurora. The only reason you’re still alive is because my dear Maleficent favored you, Princess. Lucky You.”

Beside Regina, on the makeshift dais on a hill that overlooked the battlefield, Cora stood smiling at her.

“Don’t let your past with that dragon sway you, Regina. Love is weakness. This Princess’s head will look nice beside Snow’s on the castle wall.”

Aurora choked back a scream and turned away, running again. This was too much. This was not happening. None of these magic mirrors held anything true. They were taunting her.

The mirrors blurred as she ran, her tears and the firelight making it all clash and ebb together. She heard laughter, screams, moans, commands, begging, whispers—all her own. Not her, though. They weren’t her. They weren’t!

She tripped—over her own feet, or her cloak or a crack in the endless crypt’s floor—she wasn’t sure which. She only knew that she was running and then she was falling fast. She landed hard, her knees cracking and palms scraping against the rough, cold stone. Her teeth slammed together with a hard click over her bottom lip, bringing blood, as she hit the floor. Tears sprang to her eyes, and for a moment she stayed on the ground. Her chest was heaving and she hurt and everything was just wrong. She wanted Mulan to come find her and make it better. Her tears fell harder as she felt disgust with herself, feeling like she should have known she couldn’t handle this alone. Then something hardened in her, and her fingers scraped the stone as she pulled them into fists. Mulan was busy! Aurora had abandoned her warrior to fight Mordred all on her own. So thiswhatever this waswas Aurora’s quest, her part to deal with. She couldn’t wait for a knight in shining armor to rescue her this time. They couldn’t wait. People were counting on her. People she loved! She looked up from the floor and saw flickering firelight reflected off of a single, floor-length gilded mirror in the middle of the chamber. All the other mirrors, and the images that they held, had silenced, disappearing into blackness. There was now only the one, and an otherworldly light was focused there.

She pushed herself to her feet, and told herself she was ready for anything.

The large rectangular mirror floated upright, slightly above the ground, hovering. The framing was ornate, and the reflective surface swirled and shimmered as if the glass had liquefied. Was she supposed to reach into it? She began to stretch out her arm, but hesitated. The mirror was obviously magical, and maybe touching it wasn’t the best idea she’d ever had. She lowered her arm and waited, warily observing, as she had been taught; she didn’t have to wait long.

The mirror smoothed out and a new scene unfurled itself, like the printed pages of a storybook coming to life. There was a room—no, a castle chamber, she was sure. There was a large balcony off to the side and she could see the night sky. There was a large fireplace, too. As the scene came into focus, the chamber became more and more vivid, full of belongings and décor. A plume of violet smoke appeared in the middle of the room. When it cleared, Aurora lost her breath. It was yet another her, only this one was dark, as dark as dark could be. She was evil, and from the crown on her head, also the Queen. This mirror showed Aurora something she had never ever imagined—Aurora, the Evil Queen.

This other her was beautiful in a dark and savage way that Aurora had never imagined possible for herself. Her hair was tangled in wild curls that gleamed red in the light. She wore makeup with heavy coal around her eyes, and a slash of blood red on her lips. Maybe it was actually blood, Aurora thought with a shiver. The other woman’s gown was sleek and tight, the neckline scandalously low. Aurora could see generously boosted cleavage and a small waistline that swept into curved hips that Aurora knew she possessed but had never flaunted in such a way. This “other her” had a large, sharply cut crown upon her head—a symbol of tyranny more than reign. This villain’s true power obviously lay in the staff she grasped in her right hand. It was Maleficent’s staff, Aurora realized with a gasp—complete with ornamental dragon atop it. Aurora’s hand clasped over her mouth, unbelieving. To have that staff would mean that. . . Aurora trembled, still unable to look away. The cloak that draped over the queen’s shoulders was dark purple, and not cloth—not silk or fur. It was scale. Dragon scale, in fact; a hide taken from—

Bile rose in Aurora’s throat. Aurora had always feared Maleficent, but this? This vengeful trophy-taking murderess was beyond her comprehension. She couldn’t believe that she—any version of herself—could do something so truly evil.

“You’re not real,” she stated bravely, hoping the bravado she put forth masked her fear inside.

The wicked doppelganger twisted her head to the side, as if she’d just noticed the mirror between them. Her blue eyes were the same shape as Aurora’s own, but cold, like ice filled her entire being.

“Oh, I’m as real as you are, Princess,” The Evil Queen replied, her husky voice acidic. Her tone was derisive, dismissive, and hateful. More unsettling, however, was that it was definitely Aurora’s own voice: simultaneously familiar yet unfathomably foreign. The glacier-blue eyes flicked over Aurora’s body and the evil woman smirked, obviously unimpressed by what she saw.

Aurora knew she could not let this imaginary queen hold her back, confuse her, or bewitch her. “You’re trying to keep me from the cord, from Philip!” Aurora shouted angrily.

“Philip?” The icy tone, edged with disgust, echoed through the chamber. The evil woman sneered, “Why on earth would you need him?” She rolled her eyes and patted her thigh. Heavy, excited movement sounded from down the hallway beyond Aurora’s view. A large creature, a beast with a flaming mane, came and sat at the Queen’s feet. “He’s much more useful in this form, in my opinion.”

No! Philip and Mulan had told her of his time as a yaoguai, of course, but he had been saved, turned back into a human.

“That’s not right. It can’t be!” The words spilled from of her mouth before she could stop them, ” Mulan and her friend saved him from staying a beast!”

The Evil Queen’s eyes widened, a crazed and delirious sheen within them, and Aurora immediately regretted her words. Something was not right. She watched as the ice melted from the woman’s face and shoulders, and for some reason Aurora felt more unnerved than ever.

“Mulan?” The way the crazed Queen said the name made it seem like, for a moment, she was a different person, a little more like Aurora and a little less like a mad woman.

You’re with Mulan?”

Again something about how the words were delivered struck Aurora: all but spitting the “you’re” at her then practically whispering Mulan’s name in what seemed like . . . reverence? It made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, all previous aches and pains forgotten. Something, a voice that sounded suspiciously like Emma Swan’s, screamed at her to fight, to make sure that this demon, this magical maven, could not get to Mulan. The cord be damned! So help her, this Evil Queen would not get her claws into Mulan. No matter how much she wanted her!

The Queen shook her head slightly as if bringing herself back from a daydream, smoothing over her dress absently, as if collecting herself. That wistful, crazy look remained strictly in place, however. “Well then, she must have thought this would be the easy part if she sent you down here alone. What is she doing, slaying dragons while you play peek-a-boo with yourself in a mirror? Looking for some cord?” The Evil Queen teased, smirking at her, “You pathetic little princess.”

“I’m here to save Philip.” Aurora declared, forcing her voice to remain steady and low. All she wanted to do was scream at this woman, but that would get her nowhere. She needed to regain some footing here. “Not to talk with-with—shadows in a mirror!”

“A shadow?” The Evil Queen’s voice was sharp and indignant. Her scowl evolved into a wicked snarl, teeth bared, sharp and so very white against impossibly red lips. She looked furious. Purple magic crackled around her like a demonic halo. “You should wish I was just a shadow. I am more powerful than a simple shadow. I am The Slayer of Dragons and the Woe of Kings. I am The Queen!”

Aurora swallowed her fear and added derisively, “A queen. . . in a mirror.” And before she could rethink the plan, she turned her back on the evil reflection, intending to continue her quest. This was yet another distraction and she didn’t have to talk to magical mirror queens. She would find the cord and—

Aurora stopped abruptly. She was not able to move. It was as though she had been wrapped in chains. Her heart started to thud against her breastbone. Magic. Always more magic.

She turned slowly around, not of her own volition. She tried to fight the movement, but her concentration was split between fighting the magic and fighting to keep herself from screaming. Real, fake, magic or mystery she would not give this Evil Queen the pleasure of hearing her scream. The magic grip turned her back to the mirror. The Evil Queen grinned at her, and there was an unfamiliar gleam in hauntingly familiar blue eyes. This Queen was insane, utterly mad. Aurora wanted to scream for Mulan but grit her teeth and clenched her jaw. She would not scream.

An arm, tipped with sharp nails painted blacker than night, came out of the mirror and grabbed her. The touch was electric and made Aurora sick to her stomach. The other Aurora, the Evil version, pulled herself out of the mirror. She came slowly, as though the process was difficult and draining. The glass rippled like water as the Sorceress-Queen-Demon stepped out of her reflected castle and into the crypt.

HelloFromTheOtherSide_fox

The evil woman grabbed Aurora’s face with sharp nails and brought their faces close together. Sparks of madness glinted wildly in her eyes and her mouth twitched and smirked in a way that made Aurora shiver. She couldn’t help it. She screamed.

Red curls spilled across the Queen’s face as she laughed, “Silly little princess. So much potential, utterly wasted on you. I should put you out of your own misery as a charity.”

Though she could not move, Aurora felt her temper rise. “You don’t know anything about me!”

Arctic blue eyes held her own in an almost hypnotic intensity, as if the Evil Queen was reading her mind. She listed off Aurora’s failings easily, as if reading off an amusing list. “I know that you needed rescue, and that you needed help and protection, and every time you stumble someone has always been there to pick you up and coddle you. Pathetic.”

Arctic cold eyes held her own in an almost hypnotic intensity, as if the Evil Queen was reading her mind.

“That’s not true!” Aurora cried out, even though she knew it was.

“You let a filthy pirate take out your heart.”

Aurora shuddered and tried to reach her hand to her heart to reassure herself, but could not.

“You let a lowly charlatan control you. And what of Cora? The so-called Queen of Hearts, of all of Wonderland?”

Aurora could feel the other woman’s hot breath against her ear. The cloying scents of lily, frankincense and sulfur clogged her senses and wrapped around her—a thick, suffocating cloud of incense. She felt nausea building in her middle, the smell relentless and overpowering. The Queen moved impossibly closer, as if to whisper in her ear, and then dragged her sharp cheekbones back across Aurora’s soft, smooth cheeks towards her mouth. It was too close, intimate, and wrong in a way that made Aurora desperately want to flee. This Evil Queen—her own Dark image—held her there, their faces in the same space, their lips barely an inch apart.

“She wasn’t even a challenge, though I suppose not much is after destroying a dragon. Neither were her daughters, for that matter. Who has the time for dueling witches, though, when there are so many kingdoms to conquer? I had armies to destroy and crowns to collect!”

She paused for a moment and looked into Aurora’s eyes. Her gaze was intense and Aurora was forced to stare right back, physically unable to look away. She could taste the toxic and venom in the words dripping from the other woman’s lips. It was a cruel almost-kiss.

“Ah, you like that idea don’t you, my pet. All the power, all the glory,” the dark Queen grinned, the words spinning seductively. Aurora felt dizzy.

With the fingernails on her left hand still firmly embedded in Aurora’s cheeks, the Queen held up her right hand and tilted her face away from Aurora’s own just enough to look at it. With a quick flick of her wrist, a fireball appeared in her palm, crackling with purple magic and orange flame. Aurora could feel the evil smile in the jaw pressed against her cheek.

“Magic, respect, the world at my feet. You want that too. I can all but—” She extinguished the fire ball and brought her hot fingertips to brush through Aurora’s hair, her lips brushing seductively along Aurora’s jawline, “—taste it on you.”

“No!” Aurora yelled back, desperately trying to shake her head, to jerk away, because this vile woman disgusted her. They were nothing alike, nothing at all. She was good! “You’re nothing like me! I don’t want any of that. I want my Happy Ending!”

The Dark Queen’s face stiffened, and she pulled away abruptly as if slapped; what little color there was in her face drained away. The sparks in her eyes turned into a blue blaze. Her faux smile twisted into the snarl again. “There is no such thing as Happily Ever After, no True Love’s kiss to fix everything! Life is not a fairytale, Princess!”

She threw Aurora down hard, and it took everything Aurora had to avoid both vomiting and crying out in pain as she hit the cold, stone floor.

The Evil Queen stalked around her, every movement fast, fluid and furious, like a shark circling its prey.

She created another fireball—this one bigger and hotter.

“I’ve already conquered my world. Now I shall have yours too. Your kingdom, your power, the cord, Mulan—everything! Mine!”

“No!” Aurora cried out, horrified.

And that’s when she felt the magic bonds holding her in place break; during her self-aggrandizing monologue, the Evil Queen must have forgotten to maintain them. Aurora stood up. She had faced down evil before, and was not afraid of this woman. Well, not much.

Though she had never thrown a punch in her life, she remembered watching Mulan, and Emma Swan, and the kitchen boys rough-housing. She flexed her fingers and balled them into a fist. She lashed out, throwing her entire body into the blow. The impact hurt like hell! Aurora bit back a curse that she’d heard Emma utter more than once and pulled her now injured, possibly broken, thumb against her body. The horrible throbbing pain was overridden, though, by the satisfaction of seeing her evil self’s face jerk back from the impact.

The victory only lasted a moment, though.

The evil woman touched her fingers to the blood drizzling from the corner of her mouth, seemingly surprised at first, but then threw back her head and laughed. Like really laughed, from deep within her belly. It was horrifying.

The laughter ended abruptly and those evil eyes were on Aurora once again. “That’s all you have? One pathetic punch? This will be easier than I thought.” She grinned at Aurora, the madness in her eyes strikingly more visible and terrifying.

Aurora thought about all she had seen over the past few months—all she had done, all she had learned—just how far she had come. Perhaps it hadn’t all been princess-like, as she had been taught was proper behavior for a regal woman, but she had done it and had been successful and she was proud of herself. She had come this far, all the way to Camelot. She refused to let this monster stop her now. “You are a beast! All the magic and power in all the realms means nothing if you don’t have love!” Aurora shouted at her.

“And what do you know about—” The Queen’s voice dropped to a deadly whisper “—love?” Her eyes flashed again and the magic around her crackled, lighting up the scales of the cloak. “Or, for that matter, anything else, you useless Pillow Princess?”

Aurora stood to her full height and pushed her chin up bravely.

“I am not useless. I have learned and grown, and I am not the same little princess who was under the sleeping curse.”

The Queen smiled, “I will enjoy crushing you.”

Though Aurora had been watching the mad woman play with fire almost the entire time, the first fire ball still surprised her. She twisted hard to the right and felt the shot blaze past her into the darkness. Aurora had no weapons, nothing to use to defend herself or to attack. She thought about Mulan and all the things she had told her, and again about all the things she had seen and experienced during their adventures. Aurora took a breath and forced herself to calm down; she could not panic now. She looked around. The aquifer. The oil and fire was the only thing she had. There was probably something poetic about fighting fire with fire. It was lost on her. She ran to the waist high aquifer and pushed on it with her hand, the one that did not ache, and because she ran at it full speed, the section crumbled and fell. Oil spilled onto the floor and flame followed it, like a fountain of fire. The carvings on the aquifer burnt into her wrist when she pressed against it. She ignored the pain. The heat and smoke of the now out of control fire filled the room. It was chaotic and despite of, or perhaps because of her time in the fiery room she finally had the advantage.

Aurora moved quickly, on her balls of her feet. She thought of all the dance lessons she’d been forced to take over the years and Mulan’s tai chi. She also thought about ogres. She pivoted and kept her elbows up; she grabbed the Queen’s cloak. The scales were cool in her fist. She yanked hard and jerked her Evil self around. They grappled, both of them pulling at clothes and hair, scrapping like little girls over a doll. Only Aurora had a plan. She was slowly moving the other woman back towards the mirror.

“You can’t defeat me! You’re a damsel! A princess! This isn’t your story! It’s mine!” the Queen roared.

Suddenly they were in position and Aurora gave a hard twist and a shove. The Queen stumbled back and into the mirror that had liquefied once more. The evil woman caught herself on the edges, though, her black nails digging ferociously into the gilded frame.

The mirror had liquefied once more, and tendrils appeared from somewhere beyond to curl around the Queen’s middle, pulling her back to her own world.

Aurora leaned in close, her brow furrowed and her will iron-hard, “I am not a damsel. I do not need saving. This may not be a fairytale, but it is my story and I alone will decide how it unfolds. Not you. Not Maleficent. Not my parents. Me!” She was so angry she was trembling. And without another thought, reared back and punched the woman in the face again. The Queen, suddenly fearful and confused how the tables had turned, scrambled to keep herself in place but lost her grip and suddenly it was all over. The Evil Queen was gone. The mirror froze, then cracked and broke apart at Aurora’s feet. The frame dulled and then the entire thing faded into nonexistence. The smoke cleared, and in the blink of an eye, Aurora found herself in a dusty tomb. All the mirrors and the entire maze were gone.

The sarcophagi were positioned in a circle, like the table at which they had once sat. Gawain’s was decorated with his family crest of a two-headed eagle. The glowing green cord of his most famous adventure was coiled on top of two folded stone hands. It was right there; no more monsters or mirrors or trials. Aurora reached out for it and paused, her fingers hovering just above the magical cord. She looked around, ready for anything. Nothing came. The cord was hers. She grabbed it and turned around to leave.

She paused before the stairs, though, and looked back, directly at Sir Gawain; she curtsied low. “Thank you, Sir Knight.”

Then she was off, hurrying up the stairs, two at a time. She burst into the throne room to see Mulan on one knee, leaning against the wall, watching for her return. Mulan was bleeding, but Aurora also saw that Mordred was on the floor, missing his head. They had won.

Mulan struggled to stand.

“Princess—”

Victorious or not, Mulan was hurt. Aurora went to her and helped her. Her poor brutalized warrior. Her Mulan.

“You are injured.” Mulan stated, worry in her tone.

Aurora blinked, “Just a bruise or two.” How Mulan had already seen her hand was beyond her, but the injury was the last thing on her mind.

“Not close to as badly beaten as you are. Let’s get out of here and into the sun so I can look at you.”

She pulled the taciturn warrior into a hug and drew in the scent of her. The phantom odors she’d been surrounded by during her fight with the Evil Queen was quickly erased by leather, sandalwood and sweat. Mulan. Aurora felt happy and lightheaded; she wiped at the blood spatter on her face with the corner of her white cloak.

“Come on,” she said, tugging at Mulan, “we have what we came for.”

She supported Mulan as they ascended the steps. They left, and winced at the weak sunlight outside. They had only been inside a few hours. To Aurora it felt like it had been a lifetime. The crypt sealed behind them with a groan of stone against stone.

Mulan had insisted on bringing along a rucksack with a few supplies, including their medical supplies. She carefully tended to Mulan’s wounds, and worried over the deep shoulder wound.

Only after Mulan was bandaged, did she allow the warrior see to her hand.

“You dislocated your thumb and broke your finger. Did you punch someone?”

Aurora told Mulan about the mirrors and between her words she let out a yelp when Mulan put her thumb to rights.

Aurora grit her teeth and hollered in shock and pain, “Ow!! That hurt!”

Mulan looked up from her hand, her face full of worry, “I am sorry, I wouldn’t hurt you if I had the choice.”

They locked eyes. Aurora knew, from the bottom of her heart, that Mulan spoke the truth.

“Don’t worry about it, Mulan. All-in-all, I think that right now I am better than I have ever been.”

She looked to the horizon. “We’re almost there.”

There being the end of their quest.

“Not quite yet.” Mulan finished bandaging her finger and the burn on her wrist, “We have to get back to the mainland.” She stood with only a small wobble, and walked across the pebbled beach to the rowboat. She would have to push it back into the water and—

Aurora walked right past her. “Let me.”

It was heavier than she thought, but after a big shove, she rode the momentum and pushed the boat until it slid into the surf. Mulan watched with a dropped jaw.

Aurora boosted herself into the boat and grabbed the oars, “Come on, Mulan, we still have a quest to finish.” Mulan smiled and stumbled toward the boat, obviously proud. Aurora’s heart swelled in her chest.

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KI-T_crophe power was different. The wand felt different. Of course, it had been years since she’d held a fairy wand. Still, though, Maleficent knew magic well and this felt dark. Really dark. This wand had done dark things. Deeply evil things. Things that one would usually attribute to the Dark One or the Evil Queen, rather than a fairy. Then again, most people didn’t know the Blue Fairy as well as she did. An unreachable itch—more mental than physical—ran up her back in two tingling bolts.

Maleficent sat with her back to the padded wall of her cell. It was early, too early for breakfast. She twirled the wand between her fingers. She needed her staff to help her tame the wand. Though she was touted as the Mistress of All Evil, she knew better than to try to bend such a dark implement to her will without care. More than likely, in her pitiful state, it would bend her. That would not do.

No, as she had always tried to teach Regina, what was paramount right now was patience.

She had a plan, had all the pieces in place, she just had to wait for an opportunity, and she doubted she would have to wait long.

The unnamed head nurse came to her to let her out of her cell for the morning, the rose on her scrubs fresh and fragrant as always. She said nothing, but her gaze was ice cold and calculating. If Maleficent didn’t know better, she would think the woman knew something. She let herself sit with that for a moment before looking away.

Maleficent skipped breakfast. She was not particularly hungry, and even if she had been, she refused to eat anything she could not discern as actual food.

She went to the recreation room, to the television. It had become her main source of information. It was time for Good Morning Storybrooke. Her morning routine was interrupted, however, by none other than Belle French and a basket of muffins that had come from Granny’s, that “inn and diner” from the TV. Belle moved through the people in the room in her graceful and carefree way, obviously having no clue about the people whom she walked amongst, the people she’d been locked up with. The Asylum, in addition to those who needed help and care (such as it was), was populated predominantly by the non-magic criminals and magic-less evil beings from the old world. Not the common riff-raff nor civilized villains. No, these were the truly mad and sick mixed with the depraved and twisted. The worst ones, the ones who had murdered and raped and tortured in the old world, were the most medicated. Regina had obviously thought this part though. The walking dead-eyed shells were those that even cursed memories could not change. How she desperately wanted to leave this place.

She smirked. The citizens of Storybrooke had no idea how bad their lot could have been if Regina had truly wanted to punish them. They could have been trapped with this horrid lot wild and free, for instance, or even. . . as a dragon for twenty-eight years. She watched Belle and realized, with no small amount of glee that her opportunity to finally get out of this dismal sanitarium had shown up just as she needed her—and dressed in a tartan pencil skirt and handing out baked goods, no less.

Beggars could not be choosers, she supposed. The stakes were too high to worry about hurt feelings, old loyalties or even new ones. Maleficent was not a fairy who had to be perfect and pure; she was, afterall, a dragon at heart.

“Belle.” She pasted a smile on her lips and waved the brunette over. Too late, Maleficent saw that Belle had brought Nova along with her. She steeled herself against the wounded doe eyes that met her own. The girl’s dwarf, Dreamy, stood at her side. He seemed more interested in her safety than handing out pastries. Smart man.

“I thought we could have a word,” she beckoned to Belle.

Belle handed Dreamy, or whatever his name was now, the treats and came over. She was smiling at her, completely oblivious to what was about to happen. It was enough to make Maleficent think twice, but not very hard. The means would justify the endshe had to believe this or everything else she had ever done—her entire life’s work—would mean nothing. And that just was not something she was willing to let happen.

Belief so strong that it could be delusion, or so the esteemed Doctor Hopper would probably say.

She walked close, as if to embrace Belle, and pressed the tip of the wand into the mayor’s her side. It was a smooth, easy movement. The sort of thing that came easily to a villain, perhaps.

Belle stiffened but didn’t betray the situation. Of course as one of the Dark One’s playthings, Maleficent was sure this was not the first time Belle had found herself in this sort of peril. She should really re-think the company she kept.

“Walk with me?” Maleficent asked sweetly, as if Belle had a choice.

Belle smiled, “Of course.” She moved with an easy grace despite the danger she knew she was facing. Maleficent respected that; Belle moved carefully with her.

Away from her small group, Belle let her façade fall. “How long?”

Maleficent chuckled, “Do you really want to know the answer to that?”

“The whole time,” Belle realized, the knowledge suddenly obvious, anger in her voice.

It wasn’t a question, but Maleficent answered anyway. “Yes.”

They were on a path that would lead them out of the asylum, Mal knew. She also knew that she would never get out without a hostage because Regina had warded the entire asylum against magic-use. Clever little witch, she thought before remembering she had only herself to blame; Regina had learned from the best, after all.

“What’s your game?” Belle spat out in a huff interrupted her musings, “Revenge? Regina isn’t even in town right now. Neither is the Princess you targeted. Aurora. She wasn’t a part of the curse.”

“Believe it or not, this is not about revenge.” Maleficent smiled faintly. Not directly at least.

“Oh I’ve heard that one before. Funny, but I don’t believe it this time either.” Prickly little librarian.

They arrived at the desk right before the code-locked door. The Blue Fairy, dressed in a nun’s habit, was waiting there.

Maleficent was not even surprised.

Nova and her dwarf had, apparently, followed them down the hallway. Caught on both sides, it seemed. She angled Belle around so everyone could see exactly what was going on. She hoped that they wouldn’t call her bluff.

“Mal, don’t.” Nova cried out, bringing her hands to her face in alarm. She knew what was at stake.

“Aw, shit.” Her dwarf had very eloquently summarized the situation upon seeing the wand at Belle’s side.

“What are you doing, Miss French?” Blue asked.

After all the years, she still sounded the same. Soft spoken, condescending, and in love with her own perceived power.

“Just step aside, Reul Ghorm,” Maleficent commanded. Anger, hot, potent and familiar—like dragon fire—burned in her chest, “This does not concern you.”

Though she lacked the taffeta and glitter, Reul Ghorm’s eyes were the same fathomless umber; both judgmental and merciless.

“Maleficent.” Blue purposely over-annunciated her name, putting special emphasis on the first syllable. “I knew your good behavior wouldn’t last. It never does.”

“And I still see that you still have people convinced you are a pillar of righteousness. Fools!” Maleficent grit her teeth and fumed.

“Could you not upset her, Blue? She has a wand, and it’s currently pointed at me,” Belle chided, holding herself as still as a statue. Maleficent wrapped her arm around Belle’s neck, and lifted the wand to trace the tip across her cheek for show. . . mostly.

“Yes, Blue, let’s not upset anyone. You wouldn’t want an innocent to be hurt, would you?” Maleficent sneered.

Blue saw the device in her hand finally.

“A w-wand?” Reul Ghorm sputtered Maleficent enjoyed watching the realization and horror play across her face. “Nova!” Blue shouted.

Nova flinched and looked away.

“Do not blame her!” Maleficent reacted so hot and furious that Belle flinched in her grasp.

“Listen here, you scaly bitch!” The dwarf with a tin star pinned to his chest grumbled, trying to diffuse the situation, “Don’t you hurt Belle! Or Nova!”

Maleficent chuckled again, “I don’t want to hurt anyone.” She moved the wand back down to Belle’s side. “With some blue exceptions, of course,” she stated, the full meaning lost on the rest of them. She let it hang in the air for a moment as Blue glowered at her, blood boiling. “It’s simple, really. Put the code into the door, release me, and everyone goes about their day.”

“Yeah, or I could text the Sheriff.” The Dwarf said, planting his ham hock fists on his hips, “Guess which one I just did?”

“You didn’t!” Belle yelled at him, and he looked at her, confused. Maleficent felt the other woman’s whole body stiffen, and she noted the reaction. Interesting. Another tactic, then.

“Give them the code, Madam Mayor, and I won’t lay a claw on the wolf,” she whispered into Belle’s ear. “Fight me or try something smart and I make no such guarantee. Tell Nova the code and it’s all over—no bloodshed or surprises.”

“And you won’t hurt Rub—anyone?” Belle whispered back; Maleficent smiled inwardly, pleased that she had interpreted things correctly.

“I’ll walk right past your wolf, I give my word,” she whispered in reply.

She could feel Belle breathing, could all but hear the gears in her mind turning.

“Henry’s birthday. The code is Henry’s birthday.”

Maleficent cocked a brow, “Regina’s father?”

Belle shook her head, slowly, carefully. “Her son.”

Maleficent smiled, “Nova, if you please.”

“I’ll do it.” The Dwarf said, stepping forward. “I know the Kid’s birthday as good as my own.” And then with a quick glance around the room mumbled, “Hell, maybe we all do.”

He reached the control panel and punched in the digits with single finger, mashing them much harder than necessary, but the alarm stopped and the door lock clicked open.

“Come now, Belle, let’s take in some fresh air.”

She stepped out of the Asylum and into the hospital proper, dragging Belle with her.

“Well that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

She took in a deep breath and for just a moment there was peace. Then she heard a growl, “Let. Her. Go.”

Well, maybe this wasn’t going to be as easy as she had expected. She mentally shook her head, wondering why she ever believed things would go differently for her.

She turned and smiled her sweetest smile at the furious newcomer. “And you must be the Sheriff.”

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KI-M_cropulan ached all over. Even riding in the boat was a pain. If she’d had to row them, they would have never made it back to the mainland. The horses were happy to see them; even Seraph nuzzled against her.

Aurora had assured her repeatedly that she was okay, but she had also been uncharacteristically quiet. This worried Mulan more than any physical injury. As a rule, Aurora did not handle silence well, usually filling the silence with chatter. Mulan admitted she enjoyed it, as it was a pleasant distraction from all her aches and pains. Aurora had shared her story of mirrors and magic, but Mulan suspected that there was more to the tale than what Aurora was saying.

They did not return to Camelot, by unspoken agreement, but rode on. Mulan held herself on the horse with gritted teeth and reminded herself that it was not the first time she’d been on the march while injured, and that this quest was just as important as any military expedition, at least to them.

“So the cave. . . ” Aurora began, and Mulan felt relief.

She knew very well what Aurora was about to ask. Some stories, some legends, transcended time and cultures. Mulan knew of the entity they had to summon, had to bargain with. She hadn’t needed Aurora’s Fairy Aunts to tell her that story. Such ancient magics were known in every realm and every culture, known and feared.

“Yes,” she replied, encouraging Aurora to continue. She did not want to talk about it, but knew it was necessary. The ancient ones instilled respect, but also fear.

“So my aunts said it can be any cave. We just need a deep cave, big and dark-really dark.” Mulan noticed Aurora’s shiver as she’d landed on the last word. Mulan knew that after time in the crypt, darkness would be less than appealing to the princess.

“Perfect darkness is required,” Mulan stated, scowling. “No natural light must reach where we must go. I am not sure that—”

“We have to.” Aurora interrupted, knowing exactly what Mulan had been thinking. “We have come too far to stop now.”

The cord—the actual magical green cord from the legendary tales—was still in her hands, wrapped around her wrist. Magic beyond imagination, beyond the laws of nature, and it was theirs. Theirs to use to bring Philip back. Back to life. Back to Aurora. Because that was their quest, her quest. She straightened up in the saddle. This was not—nor had it ever been—about her. Or them. Mulan was a soldier: a sword, a shield, and nothing more, he reminded herself. A heart wrapped in armor could not break.

“We will head towards the mountains,” Mulan said stoically, trying to show no weakness. “There will be caves.”

But inside, her heart hurt more than her injuries. She repositioned herself on Khan, stiff as a board and willed herself to focus on the task at hand. Khan blew out a breath, scoffing at her stiffness, knowing her movements as well as she knew his. Her horse was far too smart for his own good.

Seraph let out a small whinny beside them. It would seem even the damn unicorn knew she was already too far gone. She groaned internally.

Aurora reached out to rest her bandaged hand on Mulan’s thigh and smiled at her, “Do we need to slow down? Or stop? I don’t want to aggravate your injuries. I’m worried about your shoulder.”

Mulan let out a breath, gave her princess a small smile and felt her traitorous heart flutter.

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KI-T_crophe former District Attorney’s home was large, but not as large as the former Mayor’s. Michael supposed that was a sticking point for the man. As a former King he probably thought he deserved the biggest castle. Wars had been fought over less.

Wars were messy, though, and he preferred to avoid them.

King George was very much as Regina had described him in her diaries: conservatively dressed, sour-faced and cagey. His sparsely present hair was cropped closely to his head and his creased slacks, Oxfords and silk tie spoke of money and quality.

He regarded them with a cold and condescending air, “And just who are you two?”

John gave an easy smile and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, “Just an interested third party, really. We are, what you might call, witch hunters. Did you have those in your realm?”

They had been called many, many things over the years. Michael did not prefer the term “witch hunter”. It sounded archaic—there was no place for torches and pitchforks in the twenty-first century. Well, outside of Storybrooke, at least. He chuckled to himself. Such a backwards little place; it would be an easy bounty this time.

“Of course we did.” There was a gleam in George’s eyes, “Damn good ones. Magic is an abomination.”

Ah, something they could agree upon. George opened his door wider and motioned for them to come inside. He led them through an immaculate house that had, obviously, not been renovated or altered in any way since the eighties. Everything was neat and well kept, but dated. The eighties were one of Michael’s least favorite decades: tacky, decadent and loud.

George brought them to a stereotypically male study consisting of dark oak paneling, too much leather, and a large Chippendale desk. There was a small wet bar off to the side of the desk near the curtains hanging along the large windows that faced his yard, and George went right to it, unceremoniously pouring himself a drink. He didn’t care that it was 10 am, nor did he offer them anything. Instead, the King huffed and sank down into the oversized throne—ahem—plush chair—leather, of course, Michael scoffed, practically groaning out loud—behind the desk. George was obviously upset; he motioned for them to sit. John did; Michael did not. He preferred to stand. He didn’t sit with hypocrites and was glad John, who had a far better poker face than he, that handled these sorts of things. From his research prior to arriving in Storybrooke and reading the Queen’s diaries, Michael knew that the former King/former DA—the same man who preferred the name “George” over his cursed name—had made plenty of magical deals. It had obviously not been an abomination, of course, when magic had worked in his favor. George was a hypocrite.

Michael and his brother had used magic, too—possibly more often, honestly, than anyone in Storybrooke combined, what with the Evil Queen and Dark One away anyway—but they did not excuse it. Magic was evil, unnatural and wrong. It stained them. Still, you couldn’t always fight fire with water. Sometimes—and frequently where magic was concerned—you had to fight fire with fire. Sometimes you even had to dump petrol on it and give bigger and better than you received. So that was what they did.

“Magic,” John nodded, “is an abomination indeed, and your little town is rife with it. Which is why we are here.”

Michael had heard this little stint a thousand times, perhaps more.

“Too little, too late,” George snapped back. “That damned Queen and the Imp ran off to Neverland. They won’t be back.”

That was a certainty, Michael conceded. No adults survived Neverland. Not for long, at least. Not without Pan’s blessing at any rate—and he rarely gave his blessing.

“And so you’ve decided that now that Regina Mills and Snow White are both gone, it is time for you to reign again.” John crossed one leg over another and tilted his head, maintaining his gaze directly into the other man’s eyes. Michael was immediately reminded of their father sitting in his study when they were very young; he felt a wave of affection for his brother.

“I am a King,” George declared with the special sort of arrogance that only the rich and powerful, and those who thought they deserved to be rich and powerful, possessed. “Besides, I’m not the only royal in this town, and all of us are tired of breaking our knees on the sidewalk. I kneel to no one. Especially a faux-queen!”

“You don’t care for Regina Mills?” John queried, trying to kept his voice neutral, acting for all the world as if he did not already know the answer.  The Evil Queen was, after all, easy to demonize, and even her name irritated George. John knew all the right ways to play the game.

“Neverland is too good for her.” George muttered, his hatred palpable.

Michael schooled his countenance—not as well as John, of course, but he was reasonably sure that George hadn’t noticed his tightly clenched jaw upon mention of that Hell hole. Michael didn’t wish Neverland on anyone—no matter how “evil” they were.

John stood and leaned against the desk. He was far more eloquent, better spoken, and more convincing than Michael. Not that Michael minded; he had his own talents. For today’s dog and pony show, for instance, he had done the lion’s share. Not that hacking Storybrooke’s very own little mail server had been difficult: Regina Mills’ password had been her son’s birthday and George’s had been “Power”. It was child’s play. Banks, or Midas as he was also known, had been a little harder, until Michael had tried the daughter’s old world name. Then he’d had everything he’d needed.

“So now you will be in charge,” John stated; it was not a question.

“What are you getting at, young man? I can spot a horse dealer a mile away.” George looked between John and himself, suddenly wary. “And I also know a spy-master when I see him. So out with it.”

Interesting. Perhaps Regina had underestimated this man to some degree.

“We just want to help, “John continued, unfazed. “We personally loathe magic; I won’t lie about that. A strong leader doesn’t need it. Magic is not necessary to rule. It takes divine breeding, rigid training, wisdom, power—and the courage to lead the masses where they cannot lead themselves, am I right?”

He was laying it on a bit thick.

George scowled, ” I don’t need outsiders kissing my ass, either.” He drank from the whiskey he’d been nursing since their arrival, leveling a glare at them, feeling back in charge. “I already have plenty of allies. I don’t need you two—whoever you are.”

Michael controlled his smirk. John had him right where they wanted him.

“And enemies. Don’t forget your enemies. Some people are still upset about the man you killed.” John dropped the murder issue lightly, the same way others would discuss a football match.

“Mouse,” George corrected with a sour grimace. His bald head flushed red. “And allegedly.” The lawyer he’d been during the Curse shone through, despite his self-proclaimed allegiance to their old world. The mechanics of the Queen’s Curse were intriguing, Michael mused. Even she hadn’t quite understood every facet it seemed. From what he’d pieced together from her diaries, she had been quite intrigued and amused by her handiwork—or she had been, in any case, until monotony and boredom had set in.

“But when you’re King again, that little indiscretion will be forgotten, right?”

John was right, of course. Enough power made anything, or anyone, disappear.

Michael opened the laptop and pulled up the emails. He knew his cues.

“Regina may have been an evil witch, but she was a jolly good record keeper,” John continued. “My dear brother went through her diaries. Enlightening, he told me, but I was personally bored by her drivel about her dead boyfriend and snotty son. You see, she kept up with everyone’s business. Including yours. Who you slept with, what deals you made, what others said about you. Her Majesty was very thorough, and my brother has a talent with hacking email.”

Michael stood and placed the laptop on George’s desk; He particularly enjoyed watching the man’s face blanch.

John turned the laptop round to face the man at the desk, and sat back in his chair leisurely. “It was easy to find everything. Regina had this town wired to give her everything she could ever use. Smart woman. It looks like your allies are planning to use you as a bargaining chip in the little civil war that you’ve been stirring up.”

They did not have to read the email again; Michael had created it, after all.


From: BBanks@Storybrooke.net

To: SeannyXtreme@Storybrooke.net

CC: GameofThorns-Owner@Storybrooke.net

George is too tied to the last regime. He has blood on his hands from the boy. His spat with the Wolf works against him. People like that girl, despite her affliction. The new council will turn him over to justice as a show to the people. We can’t leave the waitress in charge of the Sheriff’s Office, of course. Thomas, you had some ideas about that, did you not?


Michael hadn’t bothered to include a signature. After all, Midas never had. The man sent and received emails like any other businessman, and so there had been hundreds of unsigned emails in his sent box to review. The King with the Golden Touch had adapted well to the present day. And truthfully, after having skimmed the email in Banks’ IN and OUT boxes, Michael knew the little charade he’d written wasn’t a total fabrication. Midas and the other two men were cutting George out of much of the planning of their little coup.

“Why, with allies like that, who needs an Evil Queen?” John stated, hands clasped gently over his crossed knee. George looked at him over the monitor, expecting to find pleasure in the other man’s face. But he found none, only seriousness. Michael had known he wouldn’t; he and John had been doing this too damn long.

As predicted, after taking in the words on the screen, George stood so quickly his chair fell over backwards with a loud BANG! “Those bastards! I am King!” He emerged from behind the desk and began to pace the room, his face red with frustration. They had him. Hook, line, and sinker.

After having let the message sink in for a few moments, John spoke, “They underestimate you. We do not.”

Michael smiled inwardly. John just had to reel him in.

“And how, exactly, do you propose to help me?” George inquired, the gleam back in his eye. The anger had passed and now his brain was working overtime—thinking exactly the way John had planned. “And what, pray tell, do you expect in return?” He narrowed his eyes at the outsiders, every bit the shrewd businessman.

“Lots of ways,” John answered enigmatically, his smile terse and in place. “And as for us, for now, we just want protection. When you take over, we don’t want to be run out of this fine town. We have many talents, as you’ve seen. We also know how to properly honor a monarch.”

Michael wanted to roll his eyes; John was playing on stereotypes now? Ah well, whatever worked.

On cue, Michael picked up and opened the carpet bag and held it out to John. John reached in and brought out the gleaming silver spear. They had weighed their options carefully and had decided that the spear would clinch this deal.

“Werewolves and silver do not mix well,” John stated coolly, watching George’s eyes widen hungrily as he’d hefted the item from his brother in a reverent manner. “I believe this came from your realm. The weapon of a long-lost King. It belongs in royal hands.”

Now that, Michael decided, was completely over the top. But, it also seemed that George was falling for it. In any case, there was just enough truth in the mix to make it sound right. The spear was, as far as he had been able to find out, from the Fairytale realm—but not from George’s kingdom. From what he had gathered from the Queen’s records, he was quite sure that it had belonged to one of her ancestors, but George needn’t know that.

George was lapping up everything John was feeding him, but Michael could also see his wheelhouse working over the situation. The King was forming his own plan, just as they had known he would. The spear was a calculated risk. It was useful, but far from irreplaceable. Besides they hadn’t run into a werewolf since 1981. If George wanted to slaughter the waitress/Sheriff/she-wolf, well then they sure as hell weren’t going to stop him. Though if he had thought the small pistol he had in an ornate cigar box behind his desk was going to do the job, he was gravely mistaken. And they would have their take, of course, leaving no one the wiser.

“Who else are you dealing with?” George asked suspiciously.

No one, Michael thought. Yet.

“No one,” John responded assuredly. ” Though if you think Lord French would be more amenable—”

“French? That jumped up merchant? If not for his damnable wife he’d still be counting coppers in the dirt.”

Michael nodded sagely; he had read about the Frenches. The Queen had thought little of the Lord, and much of his wife.

“Then we have an understanding,” John concluded. He offered the bald man his hand—a Gentleman’s Shake like Father had taught them, and a smile.

Above all, John often said, they were “businessmen”, and their venture was “ridding the worlds—all of them—of magic”. That was what he always told people like George at least. And George, like so many before him, had taken advantage of their offer. As a rule, men feared what they did not understand, and very few understood magic. Fewer still offered to destroy it for them. Men like George, men who feared magic, also hated it. And luckily for them, hatred lead to rash decisions and few questions. Their road had been paved and paid by men just like George. They were very good at extracting and destroying magic, whichever was required. So good, in fact, that they always had plenty left over after the Shadow took its share. They would have enough, after reaping Storybrooke, to save Wendy, once and for all. Then they, as a family, would finally go home.

In the meantime, Michael knew, they would have to wait.

They were very good at waiting.

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KI-Aurora had had no dreams the night before. None at all—for the first time since the Sleeping Curse. Perhaps she had finally defeated them.

They pair rode towards the mountains and for once, Mulan did not know their name, did not know where they were. They had no map, just hope, some vague advice and instructions from Aurora’s fairy godmothers, and some of the most powerful magical artifacts ever created. They were on their way to save Philip, Aurora’s True Love. Her heart twitched a little at that pronouncement, that title, and she pushed it away immediately, instinctively.

Her hand moved of its own accord to rub at her heart. Annoyed with the discomfort she felt, and how that gesture no longer seemed to soother her, she instead grabbed Mulan’s amulet. She wore it on a strip of cloth she’d cut from one of their spare blankets. It rode underneath her corset, and she pulled it out to worry at it. She traced the carved dragon with her thumb, memorizing it by touch alone and found solace.

She looked around them. The mountains loomed close, high and gray above them. They had found some caves, but none deep enough. Aurora shifted in her saddle, anxious, unable to sit still. The waterfall split the peak in two and spilled straight down into the stream they had been following Behind the water was the mouth of a cave. Aurora shivered. It seemed, ominous.

“There,” Aurora pointed. Mulan had seen the cave too, of course. She was always three steps ahead on this sort of thing.

They picketed the horses and started in.

They walked into the cave. The outer area of the cavern was large and had obviously been used as shelter before. There was an old fire ring and scorch marks from camp sites of travelers long since passed. Deeper, though, it started to become dark and cool. Shadows played on the walls. It was eerie. Mulan lit a torch and held it above and in front of them to light the way. The usually cheerful warm light seemed dim as they went deeper.

“How much further?” Aurora asked, inching closer to the warrior.

Mulan paused and looked around, and in the flickering light she seemed to glow-with power and confidence. They were surrounded by a deep darkness. Darker than Aurora had ever experienced—even during her cursed sleep. Only the torch separated them for whatever lurked in the cave.

“Here.” Mulan’s voice was low and purposeful, but Aurora swore she heard a slice of finality within that brief utterance. Aurora felt a stab of uncertainty and concern at hearing it. This was the end of the road.

She handed Aurora the torch (heavier than it looked!) and took out her dagger. She moved to cut her palm again, just as she had done at the Lake.

“No,” Aurora stated firmly, staying Mulan’s hand and meeting her warrior’s eyes, “No.”

Mulan was surprised, her dark eyes warm and intense in the flickering light. “No?”

Aurora had thought about it, long and hard. She was not a damsel in distress any longer and Mulan was not the hero always meant to save her. She needed to contribute, to work, to sacrifice. “It has to be me, this time. My blood. My pain. My sacrifice.”

She knew Mulan wanted to protest, could see her lips forming the words, but Aurora placed a finger at her mouth.

“Please, Mulan. Let me do this,” Aurora beseeched.

The warrior sighed and nodded, sensing as much as seeing Aurora’s determination. They traded the torch for the dagger. Aurora winced and yelped as she ran the razor sharp steel across her palm. Blood welled up from the cut.

“You ready?” Aurora asked, speaking to herself as much as anyone. She looked from her palm up at Mulan and was struck momentarily speechless by the intensity in the other woman’s eyes.

“Are you?” Mulan countered.

Mulan dropped the torch and stomped the small flame out. When the last embers died, darkness took over.

As Aurora’s eyes attempted to compensate for the dark, she could swear there were smears of color mixing in the black.

Aurora made a tight fist and winced because her hand hurt—a lot. She felt the hot, sticky blood trickle between her clenched fingers. She closed her eyes and gathered all her courage to do what came next.

“I summon the All Powerful Keeper of Death,” Aurora commanded loudly into the blackness, her bravado only wavering upon the word, “death”.

At first there was nothing. Then there was an almighty boom.

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KI-F_croporty-six.”

Ruby crumpled another page of doodles into a ball and tossed it at the trashcan with a lazy flick of her wrist.

“Forty-seven.”

Emma’s record was fifty-three straight baskets and today Ruby was going to beat it. Because Storybrooke was boring some days, really boring. The Sheriff’s Office was boom or bust, either you were saving the entire town or bored out of your mind with very little in between. Well paperwork, there was a lot of paperwork. Also a lot of thinking. The time to think was, Ruby decided, the worst part. When Grumpy got back she was going to go on patrol. Storybrooke was a powder keg so a little visual reminder of a (mostly) functioning Sheriff’s Office was probably a good thing.

She wadded up another piece of paper—this one with a crude cartoon of a stick figure Evil Queen breathing fire on a crowd of pitchfork and torch carrying stick figures. Ruby was no artist but she found it funny. Especially the part where stick-figure Emma stood off to the side and watched while making big heart eyes at the stick-figure Regina. Nope, Not an artist, but also not blind. Ruby chuckled as she threw the paper ball into the trash can.

“Forty-Eight.” Maybe along with finding Henry in Neverland, they would also find a clue. She had a running bet with Ashley about Emma, Regina, and their crazy wild chemistry. Had, Ruby sighed. She’d had a bet with Ashley, she thought sadly. Princesses probably didn’t make bets with monsters.

The next page had muffins on it, like the ones Belle was taking to the Asylum, and cupcakes, which she personally preferred, dancing around in a circle. Everyone who knew Ruby knew about her obsession with cupcakes. She felt a little unhealthy sweetness in life made things interesting. Nobody knew about her doodles, though. Well Henry did, and he thought they were hilarious.

She was jolted out of her thoughts by her cellphone’s text-tone.” Sweet. Maybe I’ll finally get to pull one of those Siamese cats out of a tree.” One glance at the message, though, and her face blanched, her good mood vanished. The text was from Grumpy and it was not about a cat. She dropped her phone on the desk before grabbing her jacket and picking it up again on her way out. Grumpy’s text had been very clear:

911 at the Nuthouse.

Her heart rate tripled, adrenaline poured into her system and her inner wolf snapped to attention. She did not pause, she did not hesitate, and honestly, she did not even realize she had made a decision until she was already moving. She didn’t bother with the cruiser; she just ran—ran like the wolf she was.

It was a blur, something Ruby couldn’t exactly explain. Moving with wolf-speed in human form was both disconcerting and yet, as natural as breathing. She hadn’t even known she do this. It was strength that flowed through her, was a part of her. She had denied this part of herself for a very long time but now, with Belle in possible danger, she wholeheartedly embraced it.

She ran to the hospital and headed towards the ambulance bay. The only door to the Asylum that she knew of was within the hospital and unmarked except for a pin pad that required a code for access. She didn’t know what Regina would have picked, probably something she could remember easily like Henry’s birthday. She wasn’t going to bother with it. She would kick the damn door in if she needed to, subtlety be damned. She slowed down as she entered the hospital, and when she saw the already-open door and the scene therein, she came to an abrupt stop.

Maleficent didn’t seem surprised to see her. Ruby did some quick mental math and realized that she had been duped. The dragon had remembered everything—probably had been fooling them all, all along—and worse, she had a fairy wand jammed into Belle’s side. Ruby had seen what Blue could do with a wand and could only imagine what a wicked fairy. This was no joke. The wolf couldn’t muscle this situation around. The woman within her was going to have to step up and do her job.

Maleficent had a long, pale arm around Belle’s neck, and in her free hand, a long black wand was pressed into Belle’s side. A magic wand. A black one.

Ruby raised her arms above her head in what she hoped was a pacifying gesture, “Hey now. Let’s all calm down here.”

Maleficent smirked and wiggled her fingers; Ruby watched in horror as they shifted and changed into scaly dragon claws: sharp, deadly and pressed against Belle’s neck.

“So nice of you to join us, Sheriff,” Maleficent smirked. “I do hope you’re a little less trigger-happy than the last Sheriff. Or less sword-happy, as it were.”

Ruby read the room quickly. Nervous—scared—protective—the room was awash in scents and emotions. She picked out Belle’s scent easily. There was no fear there. She wasn’t afraid of Maleficent; she should be terrified. Ruby was a little confused by this, but decided that Belle just didn’t spook easily. Maleficent didn’t smell scared either; Ruby just picked up antiseptic, magic and a small touch of what had to be . . . brimstone? Now that was odd. Ruby could hear Belle’s heartbeat, slow steady and regular, and her eyes were clear, serious and locked on her own.

“Let her go, Maleficent.” Ruby commanded.

Maleficent raised a thin pale brow, and tapped her claws against Belle’s throat as if thinking.

Ruby tried again, “Belle has only tried to help you. She had nothing to do with anything that happened to you. If you’re looking for Regina—”

Without removing her claw from Belle’s jugular or the wand from her side, Maleficent threw her head back and laughed—a full, hearty laugh. Maleficent beseeched the room, “Why does everyone think that I want revenge on Regina? She is my only friend. Honestly, you peasants wouldn’t know real evil if it fluttered right in front of your faces.”

Ruby very slowly drew her gun, and felt ridiculous doing so. A gun against a dragon? Seriously? Then again, any port in a storm. If Maleficent would let Belle go, then that was all that mattered. The pistol was heavy in her hands.

“What do you want?” Ruby asked, trying to keep her voice level.

“Many things,” Maleficent responded in her usual cryptic manner, not making a move to release Belle.

Ruby licked her lips and tried to think, to plan, to figure out what to do next.

She could see Belle’s pulse fluttering underneath Maleficent’s claws. Claws that were harder than diamonds and sharper than razors. Claws that could easily tear through Belle’s throat like tissue paper.

“And I can help you get a lot of things. Like we can all relax, put our weapons down and head down to Granny’s. Pancakes make everything better, that’s a Granny’s Guarantee.” Ruby, trying to diffuse the situation, stretched out the last word to sound like gar-en-teee.

Maleficent smirked, “Ah yes, I believe I have seen that dining hall in the advertisements between TV shows. Am I supposed to ask about the avocado now?”

The Blue Fairy, one of Snow’s most trusted allies, looked at Ruby, dark eyes narrowed and visibly furious, “Ruby, for goodness sake, do something!”

And what was Ruby supposed to do exactly? Even with her heightened senses and years of target practice, she could not curve a bullet’s trajectory or guarantee the Dragon wouldn’t move. She would not risk shooting Belle!

“Mal,” Nova all but whispered from slightly behind Grumpy, “please don’t do this.”

Blue’s head whipped around, outraged, “Quiet!”

Ruby wasn’t sure who reacted first, Grumpy or Maleficent. The dwarf bared his teeth and clenched his fists. Maleficent’s head whipped around, her face awash with anger and something else . . .  was that resentment? “Do not hiss your venomous tongue at her, Reul Ghorm!” she spat at Blue.

There was more hatred in Maleficent’s tone than seemed justified for the current situation. Honestly, Ruby thought, the dragon glared at Blue like they were mortal enemies. Ruby could also sense the acrimony within the response had startled the others a bit, and that no one really knew quite what to do with it. Luckily, with a hostage situation underway, no one had much time to dedicate to thinking about it at the moment, either.

Ruby jumped in and took back focus, “Maleficent, if you let the Mayor go, I will personally bring you every avocado in the state of Maine.”

Belle, however, needed a distraction to carry out her part of the deal. “I can see you two have some issues.” Belle observed, her voice kind and steady, “but I would prefer you didn’t piss off the woman with the wand pointed at me, Blue.”

Ruby couldn’t help but grin at her sass.

“I thought librarians,” Maleficent’s claws tapped on Belle’s throat again, “knew how to be quiet.”

Belle and Ruby locked gazes. Belle’s wide blue eyes were steady and determined.

“I’m not a librarian right now.” And at the word “now”, Belle drove her elbow into Maleficent’s side hard enough to double the blonde over and then stomped her spiked heel into the woman’s bare foot. Maleficent screamed and Ruby saw her eyes flash green, with slits instead of pupils. Belle pushed away from her hard, breaking free of the dragon’s grasp, and ran to Ruby. As soon as Belle was safe and sound behind her, Ruby acted.

She squeezed the trigger once and the smell of cordite and blood immediately assaulted her nose. Her shot went exactly where she had wanted it, striking Maleficent in the shoulder of her wand-arm, effectively disarming her.

Maleficent didn’t drop the wand, roaring instead. It was an inhuman sound. Ruby leveled her gun again, ready to shoot again. Shoot to kill if she had to.

She didn’t have to, it turns out. The dragon woman ran for the door and once past the threshold, disappeared in a cloud of dark purple smoke. The silence that followed was sudden and absolute. Then sound began to come back into existence, and Ruby realized that discharging her weapon in the tiny room had momentarily deafened her. She could hear the hospital: shoes on hard tile, machines beeping, an d the heartbeats all around her. Fast, furious, lub-dub, lub dubs all aroundand then one heartbeat that was slow and steady.

It was the slow heartbeat that unnerved her. She was still in the stance she had been upon firing the pistol; the reverberations, the kick, and the enormity of the situation having frozen her in place. A careful touch to her elbow made her blink and relax. She lowered the gun.

“She’s gone,” Belle stated softly, sounding incredibly relieved.

Ruby nodded and moved robotically to re-holster her weapon. “You okay?”

Belle, no worse for the wear, smiled at her, “I’m fine.” There it was again. The soft, calm lub dub. It confused Ruby, but before she could give voice to it, the Blue Fairy broke the moment wide open.

“Fine?” Blue ground out between her teeth. “This is not fine. None of this is fine. The Mistress of all Evil has a wand. Do you not understand the gravity of the situation? What Nova has done to us all?” Now that Maleficent was gone, the woman was apparently hell-bent on yelling at Nova.

Ruby opened her mouth to say something but her deputy took the lead, stepping right up to the Nun.

“Just try it sister. You think you had a problem before? Just you try something.”

Ruby looped her arm over Belle’s shoulders and pulled her into a half-hug. “You really okay?”

Belle nodded, “Thanks to you.”

Ruby turned her head and caught Belle’s eye. “You rescued yourself. I was just here.”

Belle looked away, color marring her cheeks. Ruby didn’t know what was going on. “Busy morning,” Belle deflected.

Ruby decided to table her concern for now because all that truly mattered was that Belle was okay. So she offered an award-winning grin instead, “That just means we got the hardest part over. It should be smooth sailing for the rest of the day.” Belle grinned back at her and she felt like a million bucks.

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KI-T_crophe earth trembled around them. It shook. It was not like the lolling motion of a ship or even really like an earthquake. It was a bone-deep disturbance. Even the air seemed to vibrate and hum. It jangled Aurora’s teeth, even her hair, and everything seemed overwhelmingly alive with energy and the darkness rippled and ripped around them, temperature varying wildly between hot and cold—all of this happening in the matter of seconds. Aurora reached out blindly and immediately found Mulan’s hand. She held onto it like it was the only thing that could keep her safe. It was. The familiar calluses and the now-healing cut across Mulan’s palm fit against her own softer hand perfectly. Her new cut bled onto Mulan’s skin, though neither seemed to mind. Mulan squeezed her fingers tight and there was a promise to protect her. There always was.

He appeared out of darkness, like he had been carved from the blackness itself. Perhaps he had. He was huge. As big as the cave, perhaps bigger. The cave seemed to have grown over and around him—or maybe from him, or into him—it was unclear. Though “him” was perhaps a misnomer. It was a monster; the sort Aurora had heard about in tales told to young children to keep them from misbehaving. It was OLD, this much she knew. Like really, really OLD, truly ancient, the energy surrounding it was dark and treacherous, terrifying in a primal way that adults forget is possible. It was black, like the permanent night around them and yet it glowed. It glowed like it had absorbed the moon. It glowed from its milk white, scarred-over eyes. The captive Titan was hunkered down, bent over, captured by its own enormity and the cave surrounding it. It was both there and not there, as if they had fallen into that realm between dreams she knew so well. It was timeless, this place, this giant, this moment, and they were miniscule in comparison.

Phillip-Cave0002_fox

It had no name, she knew without question or fail. It was the Keeper of Death, Captor of Souls. It was hideous and yet handsome. She was unable to look away. She was frozen stiff, in awe and fear of the Keeper. Still, she-they-had not come so far to let anything, even a very big and powerful thing, stop her.

“I am Aurora, Princ—”

“I know of you and your companion and of your quest.”

His voice boomed but Aurora didn’t know if the sound resonated and echoed in the cave or only in her skull. It was as deep and dark as the cave and carried power and dread.

Lights, red-eyed wraiths floated around him, eerie and ghost-like, glowing a different shade of black. Looking at them made her skin prickle into gooseflesh and bile climb up her throat.

“Please” she tried again, “we have come—”

“Silence. Mortal. I will repeat myself no more. I know of why you come. The boon you seek is not without sacrifice. No one enters my presence without a sacrifice. No soul escapes my presence without a sacrifice.”

He slowly let go of the stalagmite and his massive hand seemed to shake with effort and weight. He held out his stable-sized hand.

A body, limp and pale in the shadows, appeared in his hand. Like a little girl holding a small doll. A doll with immediately recognizable armor. Philip was insignificant in this entity’s grasp, they all were.

He turned his head and chunks of polished and jagged obsidian broke from his neck and rained down as he moved, disturbing the stones that connected him to the cave—or the cave to him. His unseeing eyes found a wraith and it flittered away and brought back a tiny ball of light to him, dull, barely flickering, like a lantern about to burn out.”

“The choice has been made, a sacrifice willingly given and received.”

Wait—what?? Nothing had been said, no choice had been made!! Aurora barely understood what was happening. She turned her head to look at Mulan, and the woman’s face was set: determined, dogged, decided.

“What? Wait! I don’t understand!” she proclaimed to the being and Mulan simultaneously, alarmed.

The blackness gave way to rolling waves of color and heat, like a cyclone. There was magic here: strong, ancient, undeniable. Unstoppable.

“Mulan!” she cried, suddenly wrought with fear. What was happening?

She looked again at her warrior, stalwart and strong and always at her side, never far from her. Mulan reached out and touched her cheek.

“For you, I would give everything.”

Aurora wanted to scream. What had Mulan done? And then, without warning, she felt something: something ancient, something like love, something like hope and victory, all welling deep inside her. She reached for Mulan and touched her cheek, too, feeling the silkiness of her hair and the fine bones of her face.

“I don’t need everything. Just you,” she responded, now overwhelmed by warmth and contentedness. She felt more full of life than she had in all her years.

She didn’t know where the words had come from, or if Mulan had even heard them. They were the truest words she had ever spoken. And while they focused only on each other, the world around them was absolute chaos: sound warbled and swam and became more color. It was overwhelming but gorgeous, a pretty sort of almost-pain and confusion that was oddly pleasurable.

Then Mulan kissed her and time itself stopped, nothing mattering anymore but that moment. The world, the darkness, the quest—it was all eclipsed by this. This meeting of energies, or souls, of destinies. She suddenly felt full. Full to bursting with life and health and light, as though someone had poured everything sweet and potent in all the world into her.

Then it was over, as quickly as it had begun. The colors all faded away but one. A rich emerald green that swirled tightly around them. It was the cord! It wrapped and swirled around itself, growing until the entire cave was green. It was a vivid, pulsing, beautiful emerald, full of power and life, full of magic, full of energy.

“The sacrifice is made. A soul is returned.” The Keeper paused, as if amused, “But remember, mortals. All magic comes with a price.”

Then he was gone, without a shriek or a boom, without a shake. The cave was suddenly cool and pitch black and though still eerie, otherwise normal. The cave was back, or they were back, or it was gone. It was hard to tell.

A small spark flared and the torch, previously abandoned, was lit once more and Aurora realized that she and Mulan were not alone.

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KI-B_cropelle knew she should have headed to the Mayor’s office. Only she didn’t feel like “The Mayor” right now. She had handled herself, once again, sure, but she wasn’t a hero. She had been terrified. Scared for herself, scared for Ruby. So she had made a deal. She hadn’t saved the day no matter the show they had put on there at the end; she had let Maleficent escape. She had stopped the battle, but lost the war.

Her mother would have been ashamed of her.

Her memories of her mother were few. She had died when Belle was very young. In a realm of ogres, poxes and thirty-year-old grandparents, it was not odd to lose a parent. Still, she had missed her mother all these years. Once, and only once that she could recall, she had asked her mother what war was like. Her mother’s eyes, blue like her own, had clouded over before responding; her mother’s words still haunted her”

I hope you never know, my sweet princess. War is a nightmare that never ends. It rips the world open and leaves festering wounds that never heal. It is humanity at its worst. Blood and screams. You will not find the truth of war in books or bard’s tales or songs. You must see it to understand, and even then you will realize that you do not understand it at all.

Belle had been locked away—first by Rumpel, then by Regina during the war that the Evil Queen had fought against Snow and David, and a third time by Regina during the Dark Curse. She had adventured a bit in between, before she had been captured, been held hostage once again, and though Ruby said she had saved herself, it certainly didn’t feel like she had at all. And had she really considered any consequences but saving Ruby? She shook her head in self-admonishment.

So she walked—not to Town Hall, and not to the Library—but to Rumpel’s shop. His shop was full of things that had been in his castle. Things that she had spent time dusting, polishing and arranging. It was a familiar place in a world that still didn’t make sense to her.

So Belle went to the shop and let herself in. When she shut the door behind her, she could breathe for a moment. Only a moment though because there, behind the counter, unruffled and smirking, stood Maleficent. She had, in the scant half an hour since she disappeared, cleaned herself up completely. Instead of the drab gray uniform they’d forced upon her at the Asylum, she wore a tailored pencil skirt and matching blazer with a feminine frill. She wore nothing underneath the blazer, though, so smooth, pale breasts more than hinted at their presence. The material clung like silk and was a deep plum color. Her hair, previously limp and stringy, was luscious spun gold that fell in ringlets down one shoulder. She wore onyx black earrings and hanging against her breastbone was a matching pendant depicting a dragon, wings spread wide. The entire ensemble was finished off with a slashes of blood red lipstick and 3″ black heels, making her even more imposing than before; Maleficent was now just shy of six feet of magic, fury and utter chaos.

“What are you doing here? Stealing?” Belle knew that their deal from earlier had guaranteed her safety once, but that deal was done. Now she was toe-to-toe with the Mistress of all Evil with no backup and no plan, no deal, no weapons. Another battle she could not win.

“I cannot steal something that was mine to begin with.” Maleficent held a long wooden staff in her hands. Belle recognized it; it had been in the back of the shop for practically forever. She had never paid it much attention.

Belle watched Maleficent press the wand into the top of the staff. The two magical items, lavender light and black shadow, crackled and sparked and seemed to fight for a moment, then there the very air itself began to hum. Belle found the sensation jarring, as if it were vibrating from within her bones and teeth, from within her deepest recesses. She could feel her hair stand on end. Then suddenly, it was over; the wand had disappeared, joined to the staff. The only sign that the staff had changed at all, though, was that it now had a glimmering jet-black gem at its top.

Maleficent regarded the changes to the staff, “Black never was my color, but—”

“Wait, is that thing yours? Your staff? You did all this for your stupid staff?”

Belle was pissed. The whole showdown at the Asylum, all for a stupid piece of wood? A glorified walking stick?

“I am rather attached to it.” The blonde regarded Belle for a moment. “It wasn’t personal, Madam Mayor. It—this whole situation—was beyond you and me, you know. It so often is.”

There! There she was again! The Maleficent she had been getting to know. Real or a farce? She couldn’t be sure.

“You dress like Regina and talk like Rumpel.” It was true, the dress could have come from Regina’s closet (perhaps it had) and the speech could have easily been something Rumpel could have said to her.

The blonde sorceress scoffed.at her remark, “Who do you think taught a teenager to dress like an Evil Queen?”

She pointedly ignored the other part of the comment and Belle wondered exactly how close Maleficent and Regina had really been.

“What are you up to, Maleficent?” If she needed her staff; she had to be up to something.

The sorceress shook her head, “Nothing at the moment. Not that I need to. This town is falling apart of its own accord.”

Maleficent raised her staff and a bolt of purple magic shot out of it and hit the three curved mirrors that were mounted on a chest against the wall. They were enchanted to display images of Town Hall and a riot outside it.

The citizens (not all, of course, but at least a few hundred), were in front of Town Hall—the place she’d been entrusted to protect—fighting. Screaming, holding up banners and signs. Some had torches, some had words. Worse yet, some had swords and guns. Some were already fighting. Others were just screaming.

Belle suddenly feared war right there in the small town they called home. She saw Ruby and Grumpy trying to keep the peace. She saw the Lords and Kings she’d grown up knowing at each other’s throats. She saw the shop owners and townsfolk she considered friends verbally sparring. Everything was falling apart. Their world, their new one, was falling to war. Only this time, there was no Prince Charming or Savior to stop it. There wasn’t even an Evil Queen; there was only her, Belle French. She hadn’t even really rescued herself from Maleficent; she had made a deal just like Rumpelstiltskin would have. She loved Rumpel, but he was not a hero. Neither was she.

“It looks like a war out there,” Maleficent stated the obvious.

That word again, Belle controlled her shudder, and as she watched the town she loved fall to ruin, Maleficent walked around the shop’s front room touching things until her fingers fell upon a large snow globe. It had a mouse with a tuxedo in it. It was just a trinket, Belle knew; a souvenir from somewhere called Orlando—whether that was Florida or Bloom she did not know. A lot of facts about this world were still rather confusing.

Maleficent turned to look at her again and gestured to the scenes unfolding in the mirrors, “Shouldn’t you be doing something? Are you not the mayor?”

Belle, still stunned, didn’t catch on immediately. Then it came to her in rush, Maleficent was commenting on the riot and the fact that Belle was the Mayor. What a joke that was.

“I am the mayor like you’re an amnesiac,” Belle retorted, bitterly.

Maleficent pursed her lips and raised a brow. Another very Regina-like movement. Belle pocketed those observations for another time.

“Do you really think Regina would leave her precious town your hands if she didn’t think you capable?”

But she hadn’t, not really. “Regina didn’t—”

She was cut off by Mal’s quick burst of laughter. She held the snow globe between her hands, playing with it. She swirled the water inside around and around, as white flakes of faux snow flurried around the mouse.

“The Mouse. This Disney fellow certainly built an empire on twisted versions of our stories, didn’t he?” The question was rhetorical, and Belle watched as Maleficent held the globe up, the sorceress’ steel blue eyes suddenly regarding it with intensity. Mal moved her free hand over it, and magic swirled inside. The swirling became more intense, white, and the globe itself glazed over with white frost and ice. Dark purple magic flowed from Maleficent’s slender fingers, surrounding it. “You really do underestimate yourself and her. Both are mistakes. Much like this mouse behind glass, right now you only see good and evil, black and white, toy and usefulness. Leaders do not have the luxury of seeing the world that way, Belle. Regina doesn’t. She knows what makes a leader. She had to learn herself, didn’t she? She knew very well that you would take her place, and had confidence that you would do well. She sees a leader in you. She will be sorely disappointed if you prove her wrong by letting Storybrooke tear itself apart while she’s gone.” Maleficent smirked again, “Personally I’ll be even more upset if I don’t get to watch Good Morning Storybrooke tomorrow, but I’m far less involved in politics than Regina. It’s a distasteful business, demanding, and I don’t play well with others. Unlike you.”

“You expect me to just go out there and what, tell them to stop? They don’t listen to me!” Belle wanted to scream, no one listened to her. She was nothing to these people.

Maleficent rounded the corner back behind the counter, and held out the frosted-over snow globe for Belle to take.

“You’ve got a level head, Belle, so you’ll just have to find a way to make them listen to you. Find a way to cool all those hot heads off.” She placed the cold snow globe in Belle’s hands, then sauntered back around to the front to the door, her heels clicking on the hardwood floor.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, Miss French, I have to look at the local real estate. Never a good fortress around when you need one.” And then glancing once more at the snow globe, “I’m sure you’ll figure out how to cool everyone off.”

If Belle hadn’t been confused before, she certainly was now.

Mal turned back to the open door, “I’ve got to fly.”

Belle sputtered at her, “So you’re just going to go? What am I supposed to do with this?”

She held the globe out again.

“How do I know this won’t—” She searched for words. “Put me under a sleeping curse or something?”

Maleficent pursed her lips at her, obviously displeased with the question. “I kept our deal, did I not? You got me out of that awful asylum and I, in turn, did not harm a hair on your wolf’s head. Even after she shot me.” She snarled at that last part. “In fact, I did not hurt anyone there. Besides, at this point the sleeping curse has been done to death.”

Belle opened her mouth to ask Maleficent what on earth she meant by that, but large reptilian wings had appeared on Mal’s back and she’d taken off into the sky. Moments later a large violet dragon soared through the clouds.

Belle was alone with her thoughts. “Cool everyone off?” She looked again at the snow globe, ready to smash it to pieces in her frustration, when it hit her. “Cool everyone off!” For whatever reason, Maleficent had given her the ability to do just that.

She darted back to the counter and grabbed Rumpel’s spare keys. He would be very cross at her, but if she saved the town, perhaps he would overlook it . . . perhaps.

She ran to his car; it was big and black, and she sort of understood the theory of driving. Well, Ruby had shown her Cannonball Run and it had seemed more or less realistic.

She started the car’s engine with the key, simple enough. Now she just had to do the rest of it. She saw her own grin in the rear-view mirror. It was wide and a little manic. “Let’s cool everyone off, shall we?” She pressed the gas.

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KI-A princess lived and died for her kingdom, from birth until death. It was only the definition of kingdom that seemed to change, depending on the situation. Sometimes the Kingdom was defined by alliances forged by marriage, other times it was the level of gold in the coffers. Often it was about who was in charge and your relation to them: father, husband, child. Rarely was it the people that made up the Kingdom. At least in Kathryn’s experience. Now, though, it was all about the people, and they were angry. They were done being peasants and serfs. They’d had a taste of power, education, money, and equality and refused to go backwards.

She didn’t blame them, but things were getting ever so slightly out of control. Kathryn Nolan, née Princess Abigail, was in the middle of a sea of screaming people trying to maintain the peace. She was failing, miserably. These were people who had, for 28 years, watched the world outside of Storybrooke via 24-hour network news, and knew the country’s history—the world’s history—as well as their own. And they were done with the lives they had led under another’s thumb. They had pitchforks, guns, knives and swords. They had also come with hand-painted signs and full of hope and ideals.

“Justice! Equality! Freedom!” they shouted in tandem.

The Storybrooke town flag was being waved proudly along with the US flag and she could see shop-owners, teachers and paperboys all screaming for their rights. Then there were the so-called royals, people from the Old World who had been born to riches and rule. People Kathryn knew well, her own father amongst them. They wanted to rule again, to re-establish the hierarchy, the ranks and classes. They wanted to be Kings and Queens again. They had brought their own swords, guards, and loyal knights. They had banners, coats of arms from kingdoms that no longer existed.

They had their demands too, “Tradition! Rules! Royalty!”

Things had, at some point, gotten out of hand. Right about the time swords and guns had been drawn. This was new territory for all of them; Storybrooke had been perpetually peaceful under the Dark Curse, and in The Enchanted Forest this would have been unthinkable.

In theory, Kathryn approved. In practice, she was terrified. It was chaos: wild and uncontrolled. And for this battle, she wasn’t behind castle walls or an invisible army of spies and informants. Quite the contrary, she was in the thick of things, the terrifying battle that was bubbling up in the middle of Storybrooke.

“Please! Please! We have to work together!” she shouted to all of them. They either couldn’t hear her, or weren’t listening, it was hard to tell which.

Jim, bless him, was right beside her. Her Knight in Shining Armor, or more accurately her Gym Coach in Track Pants.

“Everyone,” Jim’s baritone voice boomed carried over the fray thanks to years of coaching soccer and basketball and children’s gym classes. “Calm down!”

Jim may have caught the crowd’s attention, but her father capitalized on it. “Now is the time to listen, to obey! Listen to your leaders, to your King!”

She had watched her father her entire life, and in her opinion, he was no less impressive or charismatic here and now. His suit clashed powerfully with the steel gauntlet he wore over his hand, and his hair was much shorter than she’d ever seen, but Midas was and remained a force to be reckoned with.

Only the people didn’t want a king now. One of the dock workers, still clad in his heavy work clothes, bumped up against him—long johns and overalls versus a three-piece suit.

“You think you’re better than me, Banks?!” the man demanded. He then grabbed her father by the lapels. “No one is bowing to you anymore!”

The crowd went wild at that, screaming and chanting. It wasn’t like the calm meetings they’d had or the plans they’d made. None of it was.

“Dad, please!” She reached out for him. Things were out of control.

Midas did not back down, though.

He fought back with words of his own and Kathryn sighed. Once a king, she supposed.

She looked around and tried to understand how a peaceful protest had become this chaos. Ashley/Ella looked terrified but she stood at Sean’s side as he shouted and waved his father’s banner. Several of his friends, knights and lords of his realm, were at his side. She’d seen his kind before, jousters and festival knights who liked to play at war. It was all fun and games. The difference between now and then, though? Now they were on the brink of civil war, and this child and his bratty friends were not helping matters.

A group of Cannery Workers, men and women alike, were crowded around the flagpole with their signs and cries of equality. These men and women were honest, hard-working people who wanted their children to be more than factory workers. They wanted more education, access to the outside world and a better city council. They didn’t want Happily Ever After anymore; they wanted the American Dream. Which, Kathryn had decided, was the Storybrooke equivalent of the so-sought-after Happy Ending.

George, a king in his own right, shouldered his way through the crowd to her father.

He, too, wore a suit, but his tie was hanging loose and his face was bright red with anger. Why he was shouting and shoving.at her father, she didn’t know. They were on the same side and had been since before they had both tried to force her to marry David (disguised as James).

Now her father, already riled up, had started to shout and shove back. Kathryn couldn’t hear what was being said, but her father had a terrible temper and she knew this wouldn’t end well. She started to work back through the crowd, but it was slow going with all the pushing and shoving from every direction. She squeezed past bodies, resisting the urge to use her elbows to get everyone out of her way. Jim, as always, was at her side, not having any better luck.

And then it happened. It was in slow-motion, like one of the terrible action movies that Jim loved to binge-watch on Netflix. She saw the glint of sun on steel and she felt her mouth open wide. She heard the echo of her own scream over the loud and raucous crowd.

“Daddy!” she called.

She saw her father turn, his blue eyes meeting her own, and the opportunity was taken. She tried to run, tried to stop it. But the gun, a pistol, was too quick, and she was too slow. The gunshots were deafening: like a truck crashing into a rail or exploding dynamite; it was the loudest sound she’d ever heard. Two sharp cracks and everything came crashing down.

There was screaming. More shots were fired, and people trampled each other to get away. Her Daddy fell, collapsing to the sidewalk. She ran towards him and fell to his side, not caring about the crack of her kneecaps on concrete or that her slacks ripped and her skin rasped and scraped where she fell. She looked down at her father and all she could see, all she could smell, all she could feel was the blood gushing coming from his chest and the bubbling flecks of pink and red coming from his mouth.

“Daddy!” she yelled, reaching for his hand but he pulled away, always afraid of his curse.

“Somebody help!” she beseeched the crowd.

No one helped though. There were screams, panic, more gunshots and people trampling, hitting and climbing over each other. Some were fighting, some were trying to escape.

She was crying, screaming and trying to breathe all at once. Her father was fighting for his life, for air, for every moment he had left. His eyes were focusing and then glassing over, as if he was dancing between life and death. He mouthed her mother’s name and hissed and groaned in pain. Blood was flecking out of his mouth and his suit, once light gray, was awash in blood. His lips were blue and his skin cold and clammy.

“Daddy, don’t go,” she begged. “Don’t leave me.”

Beside her a gun dropped from George’s hand to the ground and she watched, completely detached, as Jim tackled him. The pistol was black and small, so small. Never, in their old world, would she have imagined something that small could best her father, the invincible King Midas.

Why, she wondered vaguely, didn’t she hear sirens?

“It’s going to be okay, Dad.” She spoke softly against his cheek, holding him to her, rocking him as if he was the child now. She forced a smile, “I promise. You’re going to be okay.”

No sirens, but blood kept coming from his mouth. Then there was a boom. At first she thought it was in her head, a replay of the shots, but this was loud, metal on metal and suddenly—there was snow??

Everyone fell silent for a moment. Not because of the boom; there had been far too many of those for it to be of much consequence. No, it was the ultra-quiet, crisp white snow falling over the crowd. Snow on a clear fall day.

“Listen up.” The crowd parted and Kathryn thought she saw Belle French standing on the now crushed hood of Mr. Gold’s Cadillac. She’d run it into a fire hydrant. A fire hydrant that was now spraying snow everywhere. “I want everyone to back away. Stay put if you are injured. If not, move the hell away. Make way for first responders.” She dropped something to the ground and stepped over it, “Now.”

It was Belle and her voice was calm, sure and authoritative—and she held a snow globe of all things. People started to move. The snow kept falling. It had to be magic, Kathryn, decided. She didn’t care, as long as it got the medics to her father faster.

“I need a doctor!” She looked up and met Belle’s eyes, “My father! Please!”

Doctor Whale came running surprisingly fast, and upon reaching her father’s side, fell to his knees and felt for a pulse, “Oh shit!” He pulled gloves from his white coat’s pockets and looked around frantically. “Nova!”

One of the nuns looked over. Her face pale and eyes wide. She was with the Blue Fairy and looked like she had just been properly chewed out.

Whale didn’t seem to care, “Nova! I need your hands over here! Now!”

Grumpy, one of the dwarves, glared at the Blue Fairy. “We gonna have a problem?” She only shrugged, and Nova looked at the ground.

Kathryn looked between them, “Please! Help my father!” she shouted, tears pouring down her cheeks. Her voice broke as she screamed, “He’s been shot!! Won’t someone do something?”

There was a sudden light in Nova’s eyes as she looked up and over at the Kathryn. A spark. She left Blue’s side and knelt down beside Whale.

“Careful of his hand, Doctor,” she reminded, ripping Midas’ shirt open and placing her ear to his chest, “Uneven breath sounds; cyanosis. He’s got a collapsed lung.”

Whale nodded, “I concur. We need to stabilize him fast.”

They worked together seamlessly. Kathryn didn’t understand what they were saying or doing, but it had to be helping.

She watched helplessly, Jim arms around her. At some point he had pulled her away from her father’s side to make room for more of medics. The ambulance arrived and took her father away; Kathryn was not allowed to go with him because with Dr Whale and his assistant still trying to save his life, the vehicle had reached maximum occupancy. Ruby had also arrived. Lights from emergency vehicles strobed and turned the snow red, yellow and blue.

Kathryn watched, punch drunk, her world spinning, as Ruby Lucas pushed George’s face into the concrete and handcuffed him.

He screamed about friends in high places while Ruby marched him away, his wrists locked together, face bruised and bleeding. She was, Kathryn vaguely noticed, reciting his Miranda Rights. The situation was so absurd that really that Katheryn wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry or fall apart.

Strong arms embraced her again, “It’s going to be okay, Katie. He’ll pull through. He’s too damn stubborn to die.”

Jim always knew exactly what she needed to hear. She turned to him and started to cry, and he held her tight; a pool of her father’s rapidly cooling blood only a few feet in front of them. As Kathryn wept, a cool and calculated voice in her head reminded her that she was not a princess and not a queen and Storybrooke was not a kingdom or a chessboard. She’d played both sides and lost.

Decorative Line

KI-It had been instantaneous: her protest, her offer, her decision. Mulan would not let Aurora give of herself—not while she was there to be whatever the princess needed.

It had been as though she was pouring herself out, like tea. Everything flooded her senses, an emotional deluge: all of her dreams and memories, the immensity of the things she had experienced and the strength it had taken to survive them, and all of the knowledge and wisdom she had garnered as a result. She flowed through her and then out of her in a never-ending torrent—as if all of it had been bound and gagged all this time and somehow freed in this one moment. Her decision was the outcome, and she gave of it—of herself—willingly.

She had offered up the one other thing, the last thing she’d felt others had defined her with, that she herself did not. The thing that defined all females in the world in which she’d lived. It had been the one thing she’d had left of the life her family had expected her to fulfill. Though she didn’t know how she knew, she did. Her sacrifice, her rapturously given piece of self, had been her innately female ability to create and carry life, to have child. It was something she understood even though no one explained it to her. She accepted it. Accepted it all and regretted nothing. Given a chance she would do it again. Love—even unrequited—was a powerful emotion. It proffered strength, courage and meaning. She loved Aurora deeply, madly, and though it hurt, she could not regret that—or her sacrifice.

And just as fluidly in that moment, in that split second where life and death had somehow become one in the darkness of this cave, and as naturally as she had processed and offered the last piece of herself that had connected her to her old life, she turned to Aurora, closed her eyes, and kissed her—and Aurora kissed her in return. It was divine, spiritually imbued, as though their spirits had touched and wrapped together, as though they had become one soul. In that moment, Mulan had ascended to a place beyond her ancestors and beyond magic. If Happily Ever After was real, then she’d had it—if only for that moment. That alone was worth what she had sacrificed. Her last pieces of who she had once been for this moment with Aurora—everything for Aurora.

Much too soon, the torch lit again and the moment ended, the giant was gone, and both of them were panting and looking at other, tiny rainbow colored sparks falling around them. Mulan was still buzzing, still amazed, still speechless. The momentary madness had abated but the memory of that kiss—that experience—would last her a lifetime. Her entire body still tingled and burned.

Then she felt it, another presence. She turned, slow—far too slow—mind even slower than her traitorous body. Time had ground to a halt. There he sat, in the partial darkness to their left, crumpled on the ground like so much parchment, discarded. They both watched as he raised his head, looked around himself, wondrously, and got to his feet. He dug his sword into the soft earth of the cave and raised himself ever so slowly, the sword taking all of his weight; he groaned with the effort. And then he was standing there; all of them stared at each other in silence and amazement.

Phillip-Cave0001_fox

He was clad in armor much too heavy for his small frail body; he was whiskered, hollow cheeked and seemingly exhausted. They all stood there, mesmerized. How could this be? Had they really done what could not be done? Had they cheated Death itself? But it was true, there was the truth in front of them: Prince Philip breathed and lived once more. The world sped up again.

“Philip!” Aurora’s joyous shout echoed in the cave, as she ran to him, her smile as wide as the sun.

“Aurora.” His voice was low and rough as though forced through lungs that didn’t know how to breath anymore.

Mulan’s smile, the happiness she’d felt just minutes before, was stolen from her in that moment. Her heart broke. Then she steeled herself. This had always been part of the deal, hadn’t it? She was a fool to have let herself feel something for someone who wasn’t hers. The truth was, she had given up everything for Aurora and would do so again and again, a thousand times over. This was the end of her part of Aurora’s quest, that was all. The young lovers had been reunited, and that had always been the goal.

Victory tasted bitter to her now—like ashes and broken dreams. Though it was supposed to be a joyous moment, it rang hollow inside her. Like the wall’s gates shutting behind her, like watching her mother turn her back. Like Cora had taken her heart instead and it had been crushed to dust.

“Mulan!” Aurora looked past Philip, having kissed him soundly and embraced him, now hanging on his shoulder. Her smile made a warm summer day seem like the frozen tundra; Mulan’s heart clenched. Ah, Aurora, don’t you know what you do to me? “We did it!” Aurora exclaimed.

She dug for reserves within herself to push the devastation away. For Aurora, she would do anything. She was a sword and a shield, a warrior. And somehow, like she always did, she found the resources and pushed her pain and jealousy, deep deep down inside herself, and gave them both a small smile. An arrow to the chest would have hurt less but she would not let that show through. Not now, not when Aurora had her Prince.

“Welcome back to the Land of the Living, Your Highness.”

The words were formal, forced, and tore at her soul. It was not completely disingenuous; this was, after all, Aurora’s True Love and the man Mulan had sworn to help.

Philip nodded and then broke gently from Aurora’s embrace, to touch his own face, his body, as if shocked to be alive. Then, very confusingly, the gentleness was gone and he reached out to Aurora and grabbed her arm—roughly. He held her there, much too tightly, and at first, both she and Aurora were stunned, Mulan’s first reaction was to protect her, but upon a moment’s reflection, realized what must be happening. Within an instant, she moved in, speaking softly, loosened his grip on Aurora’s arm and moved his other to her own shoulder so that he did not burden Aurora. He must be very weak, she had realized.

Aurora was beaming, seemingly having already put it behind her, having had also realized he’d just needed assistance, happy also to be helping. It still sat oddly with Mulan, but in light of Aurora’s happiness, Mulan bit her tongue. It was not her place. Besides, she could hardly blame him. Wouldn’t she, if brought back from death, cling to Aurora the same? No, she realized she would not, for Aurora was the epitome of the freedom she had always sought. It was not their way. And besides, that was not what they were to each other. Not anymore.

She had watched as the princess had learned, grown and matured. Mulan had simply helped her with her quest. She had helped Aurora and her Prince find happiness. Now Mulan’s part was done. They walked back through the cave entrance as a single unit, Philip and Aurora, Prince and Princess. She, their warrior, followed them out.

When they stepped into the sun once more, Aurora seemed to glow ethereally and Philip seemed to have shadows and darkness clinging to him—and wasn’t there something odd about his eyes? Mulan told herself it was her own feelings that shaded her view of them both. She looked away, begging her tortured mind not to see such ugliness in something that was obviously beautiful. This must be, Mulan realized, feeling a twist in her gut as they hugged by the waterfall, their Happily Ever After.

It was never meant to be hers. Her selfish thoughts came to an abrupt end when Philip suddenly collapsed to the ground, his new life’s energy already depleted. She was still needed, she realized, and so had purpose, telling herself perhaps she could find relief in that. Fortifying her heart, she moved quickly to help the Princess bring her Prince to his feet. But even in her automatic reaction, her heart sang its lament, sorrowful and forever alone.

 

. . . To Be Continued in Episode 21

Total Word Count: 20681 words

2 thoughts on “Virtual Season 3, Episode 20

  1. This was great especially the parts in Storybrooke, although I wish we could have seen what was happening in Neverland. Can’t wait to read more.

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  2. This was beautiful I just re read everything
    Do you think there will ever be more of it?
    I would be very happy if there would be!
    Anyways thanks for writing even that much! It’s worlds better than the thing that’s been on tv after season season 2! So thank you all that are art of this!

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