“Mulan, come and look at this,” Belle calls from the library, suddenly realizing how uncomfortable her chair has become after hours of research.
The Chinese princess leaves her post at the window and leans over Belle’s shoulder, mouth moving silently as she reads the section pointed out to her. “It sounds possible.”
“What sounds possible?” Four other princesses crowd around them, and Mulan pulls back to return to the window. Belle silently points at the same passage before joining Mulan in the much more comfortable window seat.
“Any sign of Tinkerbell?”
Belle sighs. “She’s so small. I know that makes her fast and she can fly high, but she also glows in the dark. Beast can climb trees if he wants to, if he remembers that. I’m just glad you slashed up Aladdin’s carpet already.”
“They remember all of their skills.” Mulan’s fingers brush against the recently-scabbed slice that starts on her cheek and disappears into her father’s warrior outfit. Belle frowns at the reminder. “Wait. Is that—“
They sit in silence for a moment, then Belle grins and flips open the door they installed on a single pane of the window. “Tinkerbell! Did you find them?”
“They’re eating a pack of wolves,” she says shortly, flitting between them. “We’re safe for the night, at least.”
“Any chance we can sneak around them in the morning and get the meat they leave behind?” Mulan asks, and Tinkerbell looks almost sick at the inquiry. None of them are exactly comfortable with eating the brainless remains of wild animals, but the stores from the kitchen were depleted rather quickly.
“Depends on which way they go. I’ll check again in the morning.” She flies away from them without further exchange, settling into the mane of the horse sleeping fitfully in front of the library door.
Belle looks back at the table she abandoned to the other princesses. She’s not surprised in the slightest to see Rapunzel with a stack of similar books, clearly cross-referencing the information Belle found, while the other four squabble about … she isn’t sure she wants to even know. The younger princess looks up and catches her eye at that moment. “It’s the only explanation we have that makes any sense.”
Mulan rolls her eyes. “Please explain how I got sucked into a world where magic spells are considered reasonable answers.”
“Magic is the only reasonable answer!” Jasmine insists, pulling away from the argument to insult Mulan yet again. “How else would a prince have fallen for someone like you in the first place?”
Belle sets a hand on Mulan’s before she can reach for her sword. “More importantly, how else could all of our princes have turned into these zombies at the same time?”
“And how else did we all end up in your castle?” Cinderella asks, looking around. “My castle would have been much more comfortable and better defended.”
“Defended by people loyal to your prince,” Rapunzel counters. “My castle could have provided defenders loyal to me, but we’re lucky to be here. Without this knowledge—“ She gestures meaningfully at the walls of books and flashes a little smile at Belle.
Ariel flips her hair over one shoulder in a well-practiced flash of red. “You two and your precious books. True love will win out over books any day.”
“Go seduce Prince Eric’s rotting corpse, then,” Rapunzel practically spits, gathering up the books and marching to a different table. “The book-lovers will find a way to win while you’re busy having your brains eaten. But don’t worry. We’ll make sure to drop your body back in the sea where you came from.”
“Pun,” Belle says quietly, and the younger woman blushes slightly.
“Sorry.” It’s not the most sincere apology any of them have ever heard, but it’s not outright sarcastic, so Belle lets it go.
“Apology not accepted.” Ariel’s glare extends to include Belle, and the bookworm sighs heavily before turning her attention back to the woman at the window.
“Mulan, they’re occupied for now. Get some rest. It’s past time for Jasmine to take her turn on watch anyway.” Belle points at the side of the library where they’d dragged in mattresses from the bedrooms. If the princes manage to break through the blockades the princesses have set up at the main castle doors, it’ll be easier to defend a single room. “In the morning, if Tinkerbell thinks it’s possible, you’ll take Cinderella, Ariel, and Rapunzel to collect meat for us and wood for the fire. Maximus will guard the door you use until your return. Rest up.”
Mulan nods shortly, waits for Jasmine to flounce to the window, and then retires to a mattress. Cinderella and Rapunzel follow shortly, changing into their pajamas with any vestiges of modesty long gone. Ariel joins them after Belle glares her away from trying to gossip with Jasmine and distract her from her job of keeping watch for their zombie princes.
Belle looks at the titles of the books Rapunzel pulled from the shelves. They’re all the ones Belle had intended to reference, so she settles down to do that. If she can send out the food party armed with any information about the zombie curse, it’s worth a night without sleep. She may even be able to keep Jasmine on task and then rest with her as the others venture out.
Five hours later, she’s only had to wake Jasmine once and redirect her attention from her nails to the window four times. It’s been a rough adjustment from a pampered life as the sultan’s daughter. Even their weakest links have gotten better at handling this life, though Belle’s not sure they’ll accept what her research has told her. There’s no way to counter the spell other than the original caster lifting it, and they don’t even know who that is, much less how to convince them to reverse the condition. There’s no way to disable the zombies without killing them, and even that has to be done by directly damaging both the brain and the stomach.
Belle never considered herself an expert on curses, despite her intense research after learning of her beloved Beast’s condition, but this one seems both extremely complicated and extremely weird. Brain and stomach? But the books all agree that the two organs have become irrevocably linked through the magic of the curse, and both have to both suffer deadly damage to kill the zombies. To injure only one is to slow the zombie down, but it will heal far faster than any normal human or Beast.
Ariel’s already pretty much said she won’t kill her prince, since she still refuses to even acknowledge that he’s a zombie now, not her precious love Eric. Jasmine is still angry at Mulan for ‘ruining a priceless and useful artifact’ in slicing up Aladdin’s magic carpet, even though it saved both of them from death. Cinderella’s only gift is in summoning animals, but she’s given that up now that the princes just eat the brains of anything she summons. Belle can’t help but think it’s the smartest decision Cinderella’s ever made, considering that the princes followed the animals during their eating spree and nearly got Cinderella and Rapunzel killed.
So that leaves them with Tinkerbell, who isn’t going to be any help in a fight but can scope out the zombies’ location from a safe height; Mulan, who is deadly with her sword and has already committed herself to putting down the creature her husband has become; and Rapunzel, who is surprisingly talented with a frying pan in both cooking and fighting. (They did have a conversation, just two days ago, about not using the same pan for both tasks, but Pun’s reliable.) Belle is heartbroken to think of her Beast being killed, but she knows the Beast in his right mind would rather die than hurt her. She also knows that she’s not much of a fighter. “All I’m good for is depressing research,” she whispers, forcing back the tears that threaten. Somehow, she’s ended up the leader of this band of princesses, and even if none of them are awake, much less watching her, she feels like she has to stay strong for them.
Maximus nudges her shoulder with his nose, and she reaches up absently to pat his face. “Thanks,” she murmurs softly. “Is Tink up for another flight?”
The horse puffs warm air in her ear quietly and then walks across the library. He pulls a sword off the wall with his teeth, carefully readjusts it in his mouth, and returns to her.
“I know you’ll fight, too, but that’s still one frying pan and two swords, one wielded by a horse - I don’t mean offense; it’s just that swords aren’t really made for horses, though you are very good with it - against seven mindless brain-eating creatures, one of whom is also incredibly good with a sword and one of whom has claws as a built-in weapon.”
“I can try to draw one or two away from the main group for a strike force.” A quiet voice comes from the top of Maximus’s head, and Belle watches Tinkerbell rub the sleep from her eyes with a little shower of fairy dust.
“Or we can send Ariel in to try to seduce the humanity back into them and kill them while they’re eating her,” Belle replies, trying very hard to remember that it’s a joke.
“Does Shang have a sword?” Mulan had won their first fight and barely managed to take his original sword from him, but there’s honestly no telling what the princes might find in these woods.
Tink and Belle turn to Mulan, neither having heard her get up and come over. “No.”
“Then he’s still dangerous, but not on par with Beast. However we decide to draw them apart, we need to target Beast first, then Shang. I think the rest of them are about equally dangerous, though.”
“And how do we draw them apart? Tinkerbell might be able to lead one or two, but to do it without the others following….”
Mulan shrugs. “Let’s worry about breakfast and then make that plan. Tinkerbell, can you scout the wolves while I wake the others?”