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"Please proceed in an orderly fashi-- ow!" Hunter Huntsman winced as he heralded students out of the observatory. "That was my foot!"

"You're sure about this, Raven?" Farrah Goodfairy, having forewent her afternoon nap, squinted faintly at the re-pieced spell. "I've never seen that combination of runes before..."

"I mean, I see them all the time in dark magic... they're all over the General Villany hextbooks," Raven assured her. "They're pronounced a little like 'deathly doom,' which... should be used for the opposite effect because of this rune here, in the next line?"

"Should be?" Farrah's brow creased. "I don't like the sound of should be."

"There's no time to argue about it," Apple decided, glasses perched upon her nose as she worked busily at drawing a spell circle upon the floor. "If the rest of Raven's runework is as well-written as the kind that I'm drawing right now, I'm sure the spell is as perfect as it can be."

Cedar finished outlining the last of the circles according to the specs on the spell-sheet, dusting bits of chalk from her wooden joints. "Don't worry, Raven... I trust and believe that you'll find a way to make this work, and I'm sure the rest of the school feels the same way... except Faybelle, maybe."

Raven sighed a little, "I'm glad you have faith in me, Cedar... I just hope I don't prove that your trust is misplaced."

"I heard that someone needed this book," the old professor toddled up the last of the stairs, grinning.

"Why, Giles Grimm!" Maddie lit up, waving at him. "You're just in time!"

"Yes, well," he cracked his back, "I couldn't very well miss my students' crowning achievement."

"All right, it looks like everything's set," Dexter adjusted his own spectacles, comparing the sight before him with the digital model on his MirrorPad. "Everyone, make sure not to smudge anything! Raven... are you ready?"

"Yeah," Raven nodded, and gingerly stepped into the circle carrying only the prism collector and the newly-created storybook. It shone with a faint shimmer of radiance as it crossed the boundary of the innermost line of runes, curling around Raven's feet like a drowsing cat. She straightened her back, she narrowed her eyes-- and with the voice of a Queen who commanded magic itself, Raven spoke:

From here to there, from there to gone,
The memory Ever After ever did once-upon
Forswore to fade in black of night,
But here I set this wrong to right!
Of deathly doom the realm be ware;
Come back from gone to there to here!

The tales of old no more give voice,
Claim each person their own choice
Destinies no more to dread,
Nor anymore to bind like thread.
But stories told through flesh and blood
Hold the way pre-destined should!
As the pages ever shift,
Let the skies above us lift
As missing words shall become found,
Hold us all on solid ground
As quill and pen and ink doth tie,
The worlds that be shall never die
No artifice this realm shall make;
The future be our own to take!
Bind the books and bind the stage
Forthward spare the world this rage!

Obey my voice, this spell I cast;
Let Ever After always last!
As long as tales evermore are told,
Weave forth the bonds of time and hold
With pixie dust and hydrogen,
Put our whole realm back together again!

The room crackled in prismatic energy, Raven's fingers seeming to burn in the radiance of that light. She screeched with a birdlike pitch, the effects of the spell hurting her eyes as she shut them, tight, against the outburst of energy.

Glass shattered. The observatory's roof fell away as yet another chunk of sky collided with the barrier, breaking it once and for all. It was all the students could do to shield themselves from the onslaught of broken glass and sky-debris, shock and terror crossing each face in turn.

"What's happening? Why isn't the world coming back together?" Cupid managed to whisper, covering her mouth as she realized, with abject horror, just how quickly Nonbeing was closing in on them.

"No," Raven sucked in a breath, her voice hoarse with the finality of the spell. The empty prism collector clattered against the floor. "I... it didn't..."

"But it did," Giles Grimm put a wise hand upon her shoulder. "Things will happen as they must happen... but merely look within the storybook."

The students hurriedly gathered around the tome, wind whipping the pages as reality began to swoosh into the vacuum of nonexistence. Raven gasped, "The runes! They're gone!"

"No," Apple realized, running her fingertips over a story-- her story, she knew instinctively, the second version of Snow White. "They're waiting... just waiting to be re-written."

A drop of blood from where a windowpane had sliced her finger fell upon the page, as white as snow. It formed beautifully into an elegant rune beneath, dyed the scarlet-red of blood, and within the black binding of the book cover, that page looked simply enchanting... and it was, for in that moment, the tiniest piece of the sky put itself back into place.

"Apple..." Raven's voice bore a cautionary note.

"You had the right spell, Raven," Apple's voice came soothing-- but sad, deeply sad. "You had the right spell, but you were missing something fairy, fairy important. You needed three things... the storybook. The stories' energy. And... me."

"There has to be something else we can do," Raven insisted. "Something we haven't tried yet!"

"Listen to your heart, Raven," Apple lifted her chin with all the imperiousness of her royal blood, the blood she would soon have to spill. "Listen to the part of you that knows magic best! You know what the answer is, just as surely as I do!"

"I..." Raven hesitated, and removed the back-up spell from her pocket. She stared at it, her heart heavy with dread, and in that moment, she knew. "Apple... forgive me."

"No," Apple swallowed. "Forgive me."

"Wait!" cried Darling, pushing her way into the center of the knot. "If it's royal blood the book wants, then take mine."

"You can't do that," Dexter argued, attempting to restrain his sister to no avail.

"Do you expect me to just sit here when someone I care for is in danger?" Darling jammed her elbow into his ribs until he let go. "Sorry, Dexter, but that chapter of my life is over."

"No," something like regret worked its way into Apple's voice. "He's right."

"You can't just die, Apple... Ever After needs their Queen!" Darling attempted to protest. I need you, she thought but could not bring herself to say.

"There's no other choice. The book doesn't want just any royal's blood," Apple, lowered her eyes, accepting her defeat beautifully, graciously. "The world refuses to be fixed until the original mistake has been undone... until we go back to the place where we diverged from the destiny that was laid out for this world. Snow White was never supposed to happen, was never supposed to exist... It has to be me, Darling. I have to do it so everyone can have a chance at happily ever after."

"You were my new happily ever after," Darling's eyes lowered and a lump rose in her throat unbidden. Be a hero for just one more minute, she told herself, I can't cry yet.

"And you were mine, from the moment I woke up," Apple whispered and squeezed her hand. "But happily-ever-afters were meant for princesses... and I can't be a princess anymore. For everyone in Ever After, I've got to be a queen. And just like the queens of old... I'll fulfill our royal destiny of walking voluntarily into death. And it'll be the last time anyone ever has to."

Apple let go, a smudge of her blood lingering on Darling's white, white glove. She stepped into the ruined circle beside Raven, laying her cut hand upon the open storybook as it floated between them, opened directly to her page. She tried desperately not to seem ruffled by the world as it fell apart around them, knowing that Raven would need her absolute confidence and assurances.

This is okay, she attempted to communicate with her eyes. Apple attempted to smile, I will give anything for my people. Even my life.

All Raven could see was the sheer terror Apple had attempted to hide.

"Apple..." A maelstrom of emotion flickered in Raven's eyes before at last settling upon a grim determination. "I'm so, so sorry."

It was said, then, that the sound of Apple's heart breaking could be heard across Ever After, echoing in that vast expanse of nothing in mourning of friends and loves she'd leave behind. Red, red lips formed those final words: "I'm sorrier."

She bled.

-----

And, perhaps not so very far away from the broken-roofed observatory, there sat a student, seeming wholly at peace with the end impending. Slim, verdant fingers carefully turned the pages of a stolen book, broken from its disguise as a treatise on Wonderlandian physics-- and half a tale, made whole once more.

Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the snowflakes drifted from the sky like angels' feathers, a queen sat sewing before her window, cast open wide unto the untainted snow. But as she leaned over its frame of ebony wood, she pricked her finger upon her needle, spilling three drops of her royal blood onto the canvas of winter. Struck with the beauty of such a scene, the queen thought to herself: "O! if only I had a child with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as the wood in this frame."

Queen White led her people with an unforeseen grace and good-will. 'Twas in her warm-hearted nature to offer mercy before punishment, and forgiveness before mercy. Her reign was an era of peace, a Golden Age among the realms of Ever After. Rulers of faraway realms sought out that queen for advice, for it was said that she was the Fairest in all the land, her heart set upon what was most just for her citizens. So great was her reign that her citizens feared for its end-- for the only concern about her reign was that she had no child to inherit the crown.

But the queen, as barren as winter itself, did not bear forth a child that year, nor the year before that, nor three years prior still. Her people among themselves whispered with worry as years passed ever-further into her reign, growing anxious with unease, as she had no heir to continue her rule. And though her king loved her dearly, he too grieved for the child that would never come to be, the child that he would never cradle within his arms. Her heart grew sick with want for the child of her dreams, a child who would someday grow to rule over all.

And thus, that fateful midwinter, the queen hastened to the door of her dearest friend, the wisest most foolish sorceress there ever was. She spoke to her of these such troubles, and begged of her a boon.

But the foolish sorceress felt ill at ease with such a request... for though she had granted potions of conception to many ere that moment, an odd feeling struck her. 'Twas a most peculiar feeling that settled in her gut, and thus, no matter how pitifully her dear friend begged, the sorceress refused to grant her this boon. The queen, reasonably upset by this betrayal, departed her friend's home in tears, leaving only the sorceress' guilty heart.

And when the queen's pleas did not work, she had shouted, and stormed away from her friend's home weeping furious tears with betrayal in her heart. In that bitter, bitter moment, she would have given anything, she thought, to have a child to call her own-- and it was that folly which ultimately drove her kingdom into ruin.

And perhaps, in some world, the queen listened to the sorceress' word.

Some world, but not this one.

The desperate queen of this true realm became convinced that the sorceress withheld a secret cure for her ails, for she had heard-- she had been told of the dozens of women who, each day, visited the sorceress, unable to conceive a babe, each stranger receiving the potion that her friend had refused her. Was it a wonder that she felt betrayed, a wonder that she'd sought out another way?

The foolish queen set forth a reward of obscene proportions for anyone who could come to her aid, nearly driving her kingdom's treasury to nothing in her search. So too did she receive an answer-- a reply which came from the darkest of witches, her soul so unclean that pure water could melt her. The queen made a poisonous pact with the witch, selling all but her soul to bear her child.

She drank of that dark potion, and bore a child the next year. The babe was named Snow White, after the midwinter's day the queen had first seen of her. But then, the realm itself began to shudder into catastrophe after unforeseen catastrophe.

The ground crumbled away, first, in inches and then in miles. The sky fell away in pieces, and the world threatened to come to an end.

The queen knew, in that moment, that the realms suffered because she had brought a child to bear, a child who should not have existed. She knew, then, of the ill omen her sorceress friend had attempted to warn her of. She wept, and begged, and prayed that this wisest sorceress would forgive her for her foolish plight.

The sorceress knew, in that moment, that the realms suffered because she had refused to bring her friend's child to bear, that she had forced the queen to turn to a witch of ill omens to achieve her goals. She had foolishly misinterpreted the dread within her gut, and she wept and prayed that this wisest queen would forgive her plight.

And so the queen and the sorceress wove together a plan, a way to undo this mistake.

The queen knew that it would be a fool's errand to attempt to return to all as it was, however much she yearned for the traditions of old.

The sorceress believed that if they could but weave a Legend from the blood of generations, they might yet have a chance to save this realm.

"I would give anything," the piteous queen pleaded, and offered up her own foolish life first to rectify the mistake that her own doing had wrought.

"I would give anything," the bravehearted queen proclaimed, and offered up her own noble life first to rectify the mistake that her friend's doing had wrought. 

Thus, with a heavy heart, the wise pitiful sorceress slew her dearest friend, and writ the tale of Snow White with her blood.

The wise sorceress despaired to sacrifice even the life of a fool, and I write this now, dear reader, in the hopes that she shall read my tale and someday forgive herself-- for she is a good woman at heart, a better woman than so piteous a queen could ever be.

To punish herself evermore for her foolishness, the sorceress cast herself as the cruel villain of the tale, lest her descendants ever forget that it was she who was the traitor, she who had nearly ruined the realms, and she, who even had the capability within her heart to slay the friend she held most dear. I write this now, dear reader, lest I ever forget-- my hands have slain a woman who was good at heart, a better woman than so Evil a Queen could ever be.

Forgive me, friend, my foolishness.

The end of his lip twitched upwards into a smirk as he shut the book with naught but a gentle thud. How strangely, thought he, that the realms worked still in circles even long after they'd been abandoned by the powers that be. Long after the multiverse-tree decided that their branch was no longer worth the keeping. How strange that these events should come to pass once more, how strange for the spill of blood to once more bind the worlds together.

Well, he decided-- that was reason enough to intervene, to disrupt the ritual taking place upstairs. And so, with a twist of his wide-rimmed hat, Celadon West, son of the Wicked Witch of the West, cast his spell, soft.

Green butterfly scales flickered away from his fingertips.

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