Mulan took another bite of her pastry and turned the page. The Castle’s computers automatically monitored all news outlets and pulled together every piece on the Princess Superheroines. Most of those who actually looked at the digest did so on their computers, but Mulan liked the feeling of paper beneath her fingertips. Even if it was only generic printer paper.
Mulan looked up to see Ariel standing beside her, tray of food in hand.
“No, nothing new,” Mulan said as Ariel slid into the seat across the table from her. “It’s mostly just celebrity gossip. There’s another round of debate starting in Japan about whether they should modify the Imperial Household Law to allow their princesses to go into the superheroine business. And the American conservatives still can’t decide whether to embrace me because my uniform is modest, or be suspicious of me because I’m Chinese.”
Ariel took a big bite of … whatever it was she was eating. “And I bet they had an unhealthy helping of hate for me because I’m both foreign and show the most skin. I keep trying to tell them, I wear more here than I do at home—they should be glad I’m bowing to their clothing customs even this much.”
“Yes, but Ariel—at home your bottom half is a fish,” Mulan pointed out. “Fish don’t need clothes. Humans do. That’s why you always wear clothes on your human half, even when you’re in the water.”
Ariel waved a green hand. “Details, details. Anyway, Sleeping Beauty gets less BS than anybody, even with the shortest skirt and her midriff showing, because she’s the only human white blue-eyed blonde on the team. Neither of us will ever be any of those things—well, you’re 100% human all the time—so there’s no point bowing to their pressure.”
Before Mulan could answer, their communicators clicked on, as did the screens around the Castle’s dining hall. Beauty’s face appeared. “Code purple, I repeat, code purple. We have an evil witch attempting to enslave the Grand Duchess of Marshovia. Team two, go. Team one, you’re on reserve. Further details as they come in.”
“So much for the meeting,” Mulan said, grabbing her mask.
“Bad timing on the witch’s part,” Ariel agreed, putting on her gloves as she headed to the door. “Everyone’s up here already—our reaction time will be a lot shorter than usual.” They separated, Ariel running to the launch bay, Mulan heading for the ready room.
The ready room was lined with monitors, four office chairs in the center, designed so that the reserve team could know exactly what was going on should they be called in. The chairs were comfortable enough to allow them to rest and conserve their strength should they need it, but not comfortable enough to be a distraction.
Mulan hated it. To see and hear everything that was going on and not be able to do anything—that was the hardest part of the job. She understood the logic of rotation and having a reserve, but that didn’t mean she had to like it when her team was the reserve.
She nodded greetings to her teammates—Cinderella, Snow White, and Tianna—and took her seat, tucking her hands beneath her legs to keep from clenching them.
It wasn’t so bad, at first; mostly, it was just the briefing and further reports coming in while Team One sped down on the modified flying carpets that served as their transportation, courtesy of Jasmine’s friend the Genie. But soon enough, they had reached the fray and the transmissions coming in were those of her comrades in battle.
“Watch your back, Belle!”
“They’re trying to flank us to the east!”
“What … that’s not a standard shield spell.”
“Got the main talisman holding her wards—they’re down. Move in!”
Mulan was relieved to note that the witch in question seemed only of average skill and cunning. Her array of skills and spells were fairly standard, as were her henchpeople. No one had identified her yet, so she couldn’t have that much experience, unless she were strong enough magically to use a glamour in battle, in which case her spells and henchpeople should have been much better.
But her grandmother would have said it was bad luck to be too overconfident, and so it proved, for not long after she thought it, Aurora’s voice came over the coms.
“Sleeping Beauty to Snow White, the witch’s got the Grand Duchess under a spell. It’s a bad one—mind sleeping, body possessed and already beginning to turn. She’s already happily married, so the cure can’t be true love’s first kiss, and the witch doesn’t seem to be using a wand, staff, crystal ball, or other talisman that we can find and destroy. I’m coming up blank, we need your experience.”
Mulan reached out to Snow White and took one of her hands. On Snow White’s other side, Cinderella placed a hand on her back. The corruption of the innocent and good was powerful magic; a witch who could force such a transition was someone to be reckoned with, and the resulting ghoul was a powerful henchperson for the witch. (Also, such a spell was unlikely to be broken, as very few people could be attracted to and fall in love with such a ghoul, and most of them weren’t innocent and good enough to break the spell, even if they wanted to.) Sleeping Beauty and Snow White had both been under such an enchantment once, but Sleeping Beauty’s christening gifts from her fairy godmothers had preserved her such that once the spell was broken she had reverted back to her original form, retaining only the haziest memories of her time as Maleficent’s right hand. Snow White … hadn’t been so lucky. Nor had the friends who had been turned with her.
“Look for diagrams on the floor around where the witch or the Grand Duchess was when the spell began—they may be subtle, if the witch has been planning this for a while they could even be inlaid into the floor or installed under the floor. If that’s her method, and the transformation is still in process, interrupting the design will neutralize the spell. Also, the witch probably needed something of hers to focus the spell, something really personal, like hair or fingernails or something she wears all the time that no one else touches. If you can find the focus, you can stop the spell.” As always, Snow White’s skin was white as snow—you couldn’t judge her emotion by her color, because she didn’t have any blood to flush and give her away. And her voice was as professional as always. But her hand, lying in Mulan’s, was trembling.
Tiana was watching the whole thing with alarm. She was new to the team, and this was probably the first time she’d seen Snow White anything less than perfectly composed. When you were no longer alive in the strictest sense of the term, you no longer had to worry about adrenaline affecting you, and when you’d been through what Snow White had, what was there left to fear?
“EEH!” yelled Ariel, that high-pitched whine that was closer to the voice she used under the sea. “Too late, I think the transformation’s complete. And the witch must have spent serious energy on this, either that or the Grand Duchess was incredibly quick to begin with!”
“That speed’s not natural,” Belle said. “Snow White, I think we need you down here.”
“I’ll take her,” Cinderella said. She grabbed Snow White and darted out the door into the launch bay too quickly to be seen. Cinderella was the last survivor of her planet, destroyed by an evil witch and proof that despite their many physical differences (such as the ability to fly at supersonic speeds without any kind of wings or flying carpet, and invulnerable skin when exposed to a regular dose of radiation and light from Earth’s yellow sun), their peoples were more alike than different. Cinderella could get her down there faster than a flying carpet, and with a sleep-possession transformation, every second counted.
Mulan tried to give Tiana an encouraging smile. “This doesn’t happen that often,” she said. “The teams are pretty well balanced with skills and abilities. Usually, there’s no need to split up a team like this to pull in an expert. It’s very unlikely that we’ll get a second call while they’re down there, and almost as unlikely that they’ll need further backup. And most witches can’t manage this kind of transformation—frogs and the like are much more common.”
Tiana nodded. “Yes. Frogs, I know how to deal with.” It was surprising, all things considered, that she was the only one on the main team who had direct experience with being turned into a frog.
Mulan cursed herself for mentioning the possibility of another attack while their attentions were so focused on the Marshovian situation, but for once her ancestors were protecting her, and things elsewhere in the world stayed quiet.
“We haven’t found any diagrams,” Jasmine said over the coms, drawing Mulan’s attention back to the action.
“Probably too late for that, anyway,” Snow White said. “I need to do some diagnostic spells—I can’t be disturbed.” Although she couldn’t see the action, Mulan could imagine it, having fought beside Snow White before. Her teammate would go into a light trance, eyes lidded, aloof from the chaos of battle, studying the aura and magical signature of their opponents. Sometimes magical devices would be involved. Then, once done, she would burst into action, yelling instructions on how to defeat their enemy.
“Ariel, behind you!”
“Cinderella, guard Snow White,” Belle said.
“On three. One, two, THREE!”
“The monkey-things are vulnerable in the knees!”
“You okay there, Belle?”
The sounds of battle continued. Even with long practice, Mulan couldn’t put together a coherent picture of the battle from sounds alone. After a few minutes, Snow White spoke again. “I need some of the Duchesses’ blood.”
“That’s a problem,” Jasmine said. “We need to get close enough to touch her first.”
“Would hair do?” Ariel asked.
“No, it has to be something alive when she changed.”
“Jasmine, protect Snow White,” Belle said. “Cinderella, get the blood sample.”
“I’ve got her.”
Mulan couldn’t guess what Snow White might want with the blood—she wouldn’t eat it, surely? She didn’t drink from humans any more.
“The witch has hidden her own soul,” Snow White said. “Find it, we’ll find the Duchess’, too. Sleeping Beauty, you’re better at tracking and tracing charms.”
“Now I need breathing room,” Sleeping Beauty said.
“I’ll cover you,” Ariel said.
For the next several minutes, Sleeping Beauty’s murmured incantations provided the backdrop for the sounds of battle. Mulan glanced at Tiana. “You’ve got more experience with magic,” she said. “Any idea what she’s doing?”
Tiana shook her head. “I have a passing acquaintance with New Orleans Voodoo. It’s pretty different from the European fairy-magic that Sleeping Beauty and Snow White use.”
“Oh,” said Mulan, disappointed, turning her attention back to the battle.
“It’s somewhere east-northeast of here, about a hundred and fifty kilometers away,” Sleeping Beauty said. “It’s in a cave at high elevation, lots of rocks. I can’t pinpoint it any further.”
Snow White chimed in. “The two souls will probably be hidden in something. Several somethings, one inside of the other, like those Russian dolls.”
“I’ll search,” Cinderella volunteered. “I’ll use X-Ray vision. It’ll be fastest that way.”
“Bring both souls to me, when you find it,” Sleeping Beauty said.
“Snow White, is there anything else we can do in the meantime?”
“Not much,” Snow White replied. “Nothing’s going to hurt the witch or drain her until we’ve got her soul and the Duchesses. All we can do is keep the civilians safe and the witch occupied while Cinderella searches.”
“A holding action, lovely,” Ariel said sourly. “Great.”
It took Cinderella almost an hour to find the hidden souls. Once that happened, things moved quickly. “I don’t see any defenses on the cave,” Cinderella said. “She must be counting on remoteness to keep it safe. This place is extremely isolated. Any special instructions for carrying them?”
“Don’t break them,” said Snow White. “I’m going to try to force the soul back into the witch. It will make her vulnerable, and distract her, though probably not for long. Then I’ll release the Grand Duchess. You need to keep the two apart, so the Grand Duchess can’t defend the witch and the witch can’t take the Grand Duchess hostage when she realizes what’s happening. Ah. Thank you, Cinderella, I have the souls and can start any time.”
“Give us a minute to get them apart,” Belle said.
Mulan listened to her give instructions. Sleeping Beauty and Belle drew the Grand Duchess away with a faked injury on Belle’s part, Sleeping Beauty covering her “retreat” with magic. Ariel and Jasmine maneuvered around the witch, setting up a pincer movement. Cinderella kept Snow White free from the henchpeople.
“We’re in place,” Belle said.
“On my mark,” Snow White said. “Three, two, one, MARK!”
It took less than thirty seconds to capture the witch and restore the Grand Duchess. It was sort of anticlimactic, after all that. Mulan sat back in her chair and sighed with relief as Sleeping Beauty escorted the Grand Duchess inside her castle, to her private rooms.
Once that was done, Belle and Jasmine stayed behind to answer questions from the press while the rest flew back to the castle for medical and magical attention and debriefing. Mulan left the news feed from the press conference in Marshovia on while she and Tiana prepared to receive their sisters-in-arms.
“We have yet to identify the witch who attacked today, but she has been turned over to the United Council of Magic-Users for trial. They have her under containment, and will make an announcement once they’ve identified her,” Belle said. “It was not Vilya. The fact that Vilya is the most well-known witch in Marshovia does not make her evil, and I assure you that despite Vilya’s fame there are a great many other witches in the region.”
“Whether or not the Grand Duchess of Marshovia has any abilities, skills, or other changes resulting from today’s attack is a question better saved for her. You may ask her when she is fully recovered,” Jasmine said.
“I don’t know whether the Grand Duchess plans to petition the Princess Superheroines for membership,” Belle said. “If she makes such a request, we will of course take it under advisement and evaluate her potential with our organization. It’s too early to speculate at this time.”
“No, this was not a standard sleeping enchantment,” Jasmine said. “We did not call on the Grand Duke to break it with true love’s first kiss because they had their first kiss many years ago—as is proved by their three children.”
“In fact, I believe their wedding was televised, including the traditional kiss at the end,” Belle said.
“No, the resolution of today’s attack on the Grand Duchess is not a stance against men,” Jasmine said. “We love men. In fact, almost all members of the Princess Superheroines are happily married. This was strictly a practical response to the specific nature of the enchantment used by the witch in today’s attack.”
“No, the Princess Superheroines are not out to put the Prince Charming Hero League out of a job,” Belle said. “We have the utmost respect for the skills and professionalism of the Hero League, and indeed most of us owe our lives to them in one way or another. Nor do we believe there is any shame in needing to be rescued. But it’s better to never need rescuing, which is what our society aims to do. In addition, we bring unique experiences and gifts to the table. We’ve done joint missions with the Hero League on several occasions, and look forward to doing so in the future.”
“I’m glad I’m not the one having to field some of those questions,” Tiana said, drawing Mulan’s attention away from the news feed as they waited for their teammates to return. In deference to possible injuries, the return journey was much slower.
“I know,” Mulan said. “I don’t think they’d like my answers. I much prefer doing business in countries which our members are from—they treat us a whole lot differently than the rest of the world.”
“America’s still pretty hard on us,” Tiana pointed out.
Mulan shrugged. “But Maldonia loves you. America’s the exception that proves the rule. Besides, you’re new; give them a few years to get used to the idea, and things may change. Wait till the first movie about you comes out—though you’ve got to make sure you keep an eye on who’s doing it and how they’re portraying you.”
Tiana grinned. “I know about advertising and branding, thanks, from the restaurant. Though that’s a bit smaller scale. I’m glad Naveen’s family has people more experienced in such things.”
“Yeah,” Mulan said. “I’d be completely out of my depth, myself. Without a free press, there’s not as much need for expert PR people.” Just then, the door opened. Mulan picked up one of the spell detectors, Tiana a beat behind her.
Snow White and Ariel were the first through the doors. Snow White came to stand before Mulan, while Ariel did the same with Tiana. Mulan calibrated the detector and ran it up and down her friend. “Turn around, please,” she said, and did her back. Chances were, if the witch had managed to cast a spell on one of the team, it would be gone by now, and if it wasn’t one of the team would have noticed it. But better safe than sorry, as they had learned the hard way a few years earlier. Snow White was clean, no spells other than the ones lingering from her original transformation. “Everything looks fine,” Mulan said, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“Thank you.” Snow White smiled. “I’m just about ready for a long, hot soak.”
“Have fun,” Mulan said. “Are we still on for Go next week?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Snow White said. “I’ll beat you one of these days. See you then.”
She left, and her place was taken by Sleeping Beauty. Mulan recalibrated the detector for normal human, and began the scan, thinking about what she’d do when she got home. All in all, it had been a good day so far.