Well, thought Dexter, it was far from the first time his intuition had led him wrong. A Charming sort of year it was not, and every catastrophic event seemed to remind him of that.
As he and Daring finished up the last of several calls to the many, many, many branches of their family tree, Dexter sighed and rubbed his face. After an all-nighter and an exhausting morning, Dexter could really use a serious pick-me-up. Was there still coffee in the school cafeteria?
"Not looking so hot there, little bro," Daring cuffed his shoulder. "Long morning?"
"Long night," Dexter corrected, "With an even longer morning. I should've asked for triple espresso at Hocus Latte."
"Ohoho... sneaking off of school grounds after curfew?" Daring's eyebrows rose. "I didn't think you had it in you."
"I didn't think I had it in me, either, until today," Dexter admitted. "Speaking of which... you're handling the end of the world pretty well. I mean, I was almost expecting you to go running through the halls proclaiming that the end is nigh."
"The end of the world? Hah!" Daring scoffed, full of bravado. "Let me tell you something, Dexter... after the third or fourth existential crisis, the end of the world doesn't seem like the worst thing that could happen. I mean, certainly, there's the matter of disappearing forever... losing our entire history... being unremembered save for a hollow echo in the... void..."
He seemed to visibly deflate, and then collapse and curl in on himself.
"It really doesn't get easier, does it?" Dexter sighed, and attempted to comfort Daring by patting his shoulder. "Did... did you call dad?"
"He agreed to get out on the streets and head a task force," Daring sighed, inconsolable. "I said I would be out there, too. I don't know what to say to him."
"Well, can you still... you know," Dexter mimed a set of claws and bared his teeth.
"I haven't really tried... but I can feel the beast within me," Daring admitted. "Sometimes, if I spend too much time in front of a mirror, I get a little... furry."
"You mentioned that you're stronger and faster as a beast," Dexter ventured. "Maybe, if you show dad how that can help you as a hero..."
"But I won't be handsome," Daring's lower lip quivered.
"But you'll be selfless, noble, strong... and, most importantly, daring." Dexter smiled. "You don't have to be king of all the realms to be a great hero. Even when you were ten and broke your sword trying to battle a boulder, I still thought you were a better hero than I'd ever be."
"Yes, well," Daring managed a shaky (though still charming) smile. "If you'll recall, it was Darling who eventually defeated the boulder. And I seem to remember that you attempted to parley with it."
"Um, anyways," Dexter flushed, embarrassed. "Let's go meet with Hunter and the others at the Track and Shield field! I managed to find some students to scout the school perimeter."
"You aren't coming?" Daring questioned
"I'll be mission control at EAH," Dexter reminded. "Besides, I'm running the emergency hext alert system with Raven. I have to stay."
"Speaking of Raven," Daring wiggled his eyebrows. "I had no idea your type was tall, dark, and villain-y."
Dexter reddened further. "Raven's not a villain. She's not even close to a villain!"
"That doesn't change the fact you were spotted getting a Hocus Latte with her this morning," Daring elbowed him.
"... she likes hers the same way I do," Dexter smiled. "Double-shot espresso and extra mocha."
"Sounds like someone's fallen hard," Daring chuckled, fondly exasperated. "If we all survive this, dad is going to kill you."
"You know what? It's kind of... no, it's definitely, totally worth it," Dexter grinned and rubbed the back of his neck. "Dad can disapprove as much as he wants."
Daring's expression dropped to solemnity, "Mom is going to kill her."
Ouch. Their mother, just as much as their father, could be a force to be reckoned with. Dexter winced, "I'll, um, make sure to warn her before she meets the rest of our family. Or maybe she never has to meet the rest of our family..."
"I suppose Darling's lucky in that Mother already gave Apple her seal of approval," Daring agreed, "I'm almost jealous."
As Daring began gearing up in anticipation for the scheduled patrol, Hunter Huntsman swung by, grabbing his bow and arrows and preparing to join him.
"Hey, guys," he sighed, looking less-than-content. "Let's get this over with quick."
"You have somewhere else to be...?" Dexter ventured the guess.
"I'd just rather be spending what's possibly our last days alive with the love of my life," Hunter shook his head. "I promised Ashlynn that I'd send all of the woodland creatures we rescue in her direction, though, and I can't let the little guys down. I swear I'll focus."
"Hexcellent-- we'll need it," Daring cracked his knuckles. "Where's our third man, Dexter?"
"Running late, I think," Dexter answered. "Now that I think of it, it might not have been the smartest thing to let Sparrow sign on for border patrol."
"Need an extra hero?" called a voice from the doorway. Cerise Hood inspected her nails. "I wouldn't wait for Sparrow if I were you. He's the... slower between us Hoods."
"Cerise! Perfect timing, as usual," Daring gave her two thumbs up. "You'll have to know that this won't be Bookball, exactly..."
"I know what I'm getting into," Cerise barked out a laugh. "Your sister isn't the only damsel to switch to heroics. You've got a front-liner and a ranger already; I'll be scout. We can take Alpha form."
"The strategy seems sound," Hunter acknowledged. "And honestly? Waiting for Sparrow is like, the last thing I want to do. All right, Cerise, welcome to the team."
"I'm going back to the school building for third period, but I'll keep the headset on," Dexter distributed some similar communications devices among the hero guards. "And if you could just mention any 'Unusual Sightings' you see along the way...?"
"Will do, little bro," Daring ruffled his hair as they departed, much to Dexter's chagrin.
And thus, with a sigh, Dexter began the trek back to the school building. If he hurried, he'd make it back just in time for AP Fairy-Physics, if indeed classes were moving as scheduled following the events of that morning. He had no idea whether to be relieved or upset that they were still going on.
On the plus side, he thought, all of the quizzes that had been scheduled for today had been cancelled. Thank goodness for small miracles.
The ground seemed to fall beneath Cerise's feet as she hastened around the school, making a full circuit before meeting up with Daring and Hunter once more.
"Enchanted forest walkway. Felled tree," she reported. "Road to Book End... pothole that looks like it leads to outer space. Seriously creepy. You can smell the fear coming from the animals."
"Felled tree first," Daring ordered, "It's closer and we know how to deal with it. Hunter, ready your axe; Cerise, make sure no innocent passerby stumbles into that pothole. We'll meet you there when we're done in the Enchanted Forest."
"I'll be there," Cerise nodded once, solemn.
"I'll evacuate the animals from both locations," Hunter volunteered.
"Little bro," Daring tapped the microphone of his headpiece. "Can you hear me?"
"Oh! Yeah, loud and clear," a muffled noise from Dexter's end, then a brief pause before he continued. "What's the report?"
"Felled tree in Enchanted Forest," Daring ducked around branches, lifted them, began to search. "Nobody seems to have been injured. Cerise reported an 'unusual' pothole on the road to Book End; she's guarding it now."
"Understood," Dexter answered, "Cerise, can you hear me?"
Static for a moment, and then: "I can hear you, Dex. What do you need?"
"Don't touch the pothole, and don't let anyone else touch it," he reminded her. "I need you to describe it. Maybe, um, start with size or color...?"
"About the size of a giant's big toe," Cerise replied. "Middle of the road. It's kind of crumbling a little around the edges; might be getting bigger. When you look into it, I swear to godmother, it's like staring into outer space."
"Can you describe the area where you're standing?" There were more muffled sounds for a few seconds. "We've got a map pulled up here."
"I'm way, way closer to school than Book End. You know those blackberry bushes after crossing the bridge? I'm about ten feet North of there," Cerise described. "I think there's a carriage coming up the road. Where do I detour it?"
"Have the riders dismount and circle the pothole... maybe give it a berth of about three feet?" Dexter suggested. "They'll have to leave the carriage in the middle of the road, though, and take any belongings with them. It's too risky to try driving around it-- and they definitely don't want to drive over it."
"I'm on it," Cerise replied, and cut her mic. She raced ahead the road, whistling shrilly to call the horses to a stop. "There's danger ahead; I'm going to need you to get out of the vehicle and walk your horses around!"
"My apologies, but who might you be?" the lady inside the coach looked towards her curiously. Her husband patted her hand.
"I'm Cerise, part of Ever After High's hero patrol," she replied, "And I'm here to tell you that there's a very large, very dangerous hole in the universe just up ahead. You'll have to get out of the carriage and go around it."
"Cerise," the man suddenly turned to her. "I'm sorry, I know there are a lot of students... but you wouldn't happen to know an Ashlynn Ella, would you? You see, she's our daughter, and after the announcement this morning..."
"Ashlynn's parents? Queen Cinderella and King Charming?" Cerise's brows rose in recognition. "Don't worry; she's safe. I think she's taking care of scared animals in the Beast Training & Care classroom."
"Oh, thank Fairy Godmother," Cinderella seemed to exhale in relief. "We'll be glad to leave the carriage here... it's pumpkin. Biodegradable, you know."
"Glad to hear it," Cerise nodded, and quickly, their coachman was able to undo the the horses' harnesses. Luckily, the entire group made it past the pothole unharmed, and Cerise bade them farewell at the bridge, warning them to keep an eye out for any further disruptions that might have sprung up.
Only a few minutes passed before Daring and Hunter made it to where she was stationed.
"We spoke to Queen Cinderella on our way here," Daring acknowledged. "Nice work, Cerise."
"I'm just glad that Ashlynn's parents made it here all right," Hunter agreed. "She's been worried sick about them. I'm going to get the animals in this area; gotta let them know it's safe at EAH."
"I'll move the carriage from the main road," Daring nodded, rubbing his shoulders in anticipation. Then, after a moment of hesitation, he flexed his hands and willed them into becoming claws.
"I'm gonna make another run around the school to make sure we got everything," Cerise answered, briefly cracking her knuckles before starting off at a sprint. Mere minutes passed before she made her reappearance, hands on her knees and breathing hard. "Nothing else. I'll make another round in fifteen minutes. Hunter, do you want to make sure those animals make it to EAH all right?"
"You mean escort them?" Hunter turned his head to the side. A family of frightened chipmunks poked their heads out of his jacket, a trembling doe brought to peace only by his comforting pat on its muzzle. A duck sat curled up under his arm, hiding its face beneath its wing.
"They're visibly terrified," Daring agreed, impressively shoving the carriage aside. "Hero Training, my man-- terrified animals and moving traffic do not mix. And these animals, my friend, need the soothing presence of Ashlynn Ella to return to their regular, non-terrified selves."
"Understood," determination crossed Hunter's face, and he hurried in the direction of the school, careful to lead the scared critters far around the disruption in the road.
Cerise chuckled at him and shook her head. "You know he's not gonna come back for a while, right?"
"We'll be no less heroic for him having left to ensure the safety of his girlfriend," Daring replied. "If you need to check on your father, you can take ten minutes to do so now."
Cerise froze. Felt for her hood and ensured that it still covered her ears, that the family secret hadn't been blown to pieces.
"M-my father...?" she laughed nervously. "You're confused, Daring. My mom is still back home in the woods."
Daring blinked hard. He seemed to scrutinize her for a moment before shaking his head, as if trying to remove a thought from his mind. "My apologies-- you smelled like Ramona Badwolf for a second."
"Smelled?" Cerise looked at him skeptically.
Flexing his hands, willing them to return from claws to human fingers, Daring answered. "It's this... accursed beast thing. Better strength, better sense of smell... well. She's obviously been tampering with your clothing. That's the only explanation."
"I'll, um, have to get her back for that," Cerise answered, relieved that he'd offered a viable excuse. "I mean, that's gross, who even puts their smell on other peoples' clothes? Anyways, I'm going for that next patrol now. Don't let anyone fall into that pothole."
"Hah!" Daring barked. "Never fear-- no pothole is a match for Daring Charming!"
"Just don't get distracted and tumble into it, or something," Cerise elbowed him lightly before taking off.
It was dangerous, she thought, to spend further time around him-- especially if he were capable of eventually discerning that the scent did not emanate from her clothing, but she herself. In the past year, however much Cerise had grown to respect her friend and Bookball captain, that was still a far cry from trusting him with a secret of this magnitude. Maybe it was smart to make her rounds a little bit slower this time, she decided, and set on a quick detour just to make sure Ramona and their father were faring all right.
Daring had been correct about one thing, at least-- she was worried about her family. Phone calls were one thing, but they did little to assuage one's anxieties. She wondered about Dexter and Darling, too, and made up her mind to take watch next so the third member of the guard squad could check in on his own siblings.
That was until she made her pass by Mirror Lake. Cerise couldn't help but gape at the sight before her, for a moment, stunned into silence. The water seemed to drain away by the inch, and when the shock wore off, Cerise carefully tapped her microphone into activation.
"Dexter, can you hear me?" she choked out.
Fritz and static, briefly, and some background noise, but then: "I hear you, Cerise. What's up?"
"Mirror Lake," she said, taking several steps backwards. "It's gone."
When Raven Queen heard that report, she could little believe it. Slowly, she set down her papers, and looked towards Dexter, far from calm himself.
"What do you mean... Mirror Lake is gone?" she managed to say.
"Cerise, can you explain it?" Dexter forwarded the question. "Wait-- let me put you on speaker..."
"I meant what I said," Cerise's voice crackled out into the classroom. "One moment, Mirror Lake was there. The water started draining away, so I thought it'd be like the pothole out front. But not... this. The whole lake and most of the shore started falling away in huge chunks, and it's not like the other one. You could see stars in the other one, but this time, when you look down... it's just black, empty darkness. I can't even tell if there's a bottom or not..."
"Mirror Lake is pretty big. It's almost three acres' groundspace," Alistair began to mark it out on their map. "That might be the biggest one yet..."
"You can still see the other shore," Cerise shuddered. "It's just hanging in midair... it's maybe ten feet deep at its thickest point. You can see tree roots everywhere. Seriously eerie."
"Did anything... you know... alive fall in?" Cupid hesitated.
"Hunter evacuated the Enchanted Forest earlier today," Cerise replied, unsure if she were only reassuring herself. "I didn't see anything... but I guess the fish wouldn't have had anywhere else to go."
"Meeshell Mermaid!" Farrah exclaimed suddenly. "Isn't she rooming in Mirror Lake this year??"
"Does anyone have her contact information?" Ginger worried her lower lip.
"Well, she is hextremely shy," Maddie rummaged through her hat for her own MirrorPhone. "Do I have it...? Oh. No, I don't."
"All right everyone, let's split up and search the school grounds," Raven clapped her hands together. "Professor Giles... Dex..."
"I will be most willing to remain and continue our study," Giles Grimm nodded, approving.
"And I'll keep you updated on news from Cerise and Daring," Dexter directed a thumbs-up at her.
West pursed his lips and furrowed his brow. He seemed as if he were about to say something, and then thought better of it as he hastened to join his comrades-- but not before Dexter managed to spot that strange hesitation.
Suspicion immediately rose in his mind, but Dexter shook his head and quashed that thought. He wouldn't have even entertained a second thought if it had been one of his friends, he reasoned, and maybe he was being unduly discriminatory just because West was the son of a villain. I should know better than to judge, Dexter told himself, and turned to giving Cerise directions for roping off the giant gaping hole where Mirror Lake used to be, ensuring that Daring was still where he'd been stationed on the road to Book End.
And thus, none paid attention when Celadon West, son of the Wicked Witch of the West, slipped from the search parties and carefully, invisibly vanished into the Enchanted Forest.
A pair of stolen books sat beneath his cloak.