Oh hey, look - I'M FINALLY POSTING SOMETHING. Thank you to everyone who has been super patient and supportive as I fell into one of the worst writing funks I've ever been in. After weeks of barely writing anything I banged out over 4K on this chapter over the weekend, so hopefully that means the muse is back to her fighting spirit! Many thank yous to sparantguard and always-been-a-pirate for beta reading this beast for me!

As always, enjoy, and reviews not only feed the muse but help a writer out when she's feeling down!

Chapter 3: Best Laid Plans

Twisting the ruby ring on his right hand that had once belonged to his father, Liam Jones stared at the royal coat of arms that marked his seat at the War Table, his eyes not really taking in the image of the anchor and seven buttercups permanently etched into the wooden surface of the table before him.

He was worried about his sister. Erin had been gone a week on what should have been a two-day retrieval, and the last contact they had from her or Eric was a messenger bird letting them know they had arrived safely in Narnia. It took two days of fair weather and calm seas to travel from Misthaven to the northern kingdom, so he hadn't thought much of it when they hadn't returned by nightfall on Friday. Worry had begun to set in, however, when Eric's ship still remained absent from the royal docks by the next night, and when he had gone out that morning to still find no sign of the Mermaid's Mist,dread had filled his stomach like a weighted ball. Even with taking into account rough winds and Narnia's well-known glacier-infested waters, they should have been home by yesterday at the latest.

No one else in the family aside from his mother seemed concerned with his twin sister having not returned yet, and he knew that was because there wasn't anything really out of the ordinary with it. Erin frequently took side trips when she went on a retrieval, taking the opportunity to spread her wings and prolong her days outside the confinement of the castle's walls. His own parents did it from time to time when they visited neighboring kingdoms or other realms in his grandparent's place. This felt different though. There was no way his sister would willingly miss the ball designed to celebrate his upcoming wedding—despite her fervent hatred for such events—and with the nature of the man she had been sent to steal from, he had been unable to shake the feeling that something had happened to her...

"If you brood any louder they're going to hear your thoughts all the way in Agrabah."

Pulled from his internal deprecation, Liam turned his head to find the hazel eyes of his older brother watching him intently.

Henry sat directly to his left, the early afternoon sun streaming in from the windows of the War Room highlighting the auburn tint to his dark hair along with the slight stubble he had maintained since returning to Misthaven a fortnight ago. A large, leather bound book lay open on the table before him and the magical quill Henry used to record stories was poised over an unfinished page, the text ending abruptly from where he had stopped writing to address Liam. Normally, he would have met his brother's remark with a quip of his own but with dread still churning his stomach and thoughts of their sister in trouble, Liam simply huffed in annoyance.

"I'm not brooding."

Setting his magical quill down next to the book, Henry hummed in disagreement. "I've witnessed the Jones brooding look long before you were ever born, Liam. I know it when I see it. What's got you vexed?"

"Nothing," he murmured, knowing the second the word slipped past his lips that his brother wouldn't believe him.

"Well that's a lie, and I don't even need mom's superpower to know that," Henry replied on cue, his own brow furrowing as he studied his brother. "Does it have to do with grandma's over enthusiastic nature in regards to your wedding? I know from experience she can drive a man insane with all the details but—"

"No, it's not about the wedding," Liam interrupted, thankful nonetheless that his brother had kept his voice low enough so that the other occupants currently at the War Table didn't hear him. "I was just thinking about Erin."

Henry's gaze shifted from one of confusion to understanding at his words. "Ah. You're worried about her."

"Yeah, I take it you still aren't."

"No more than normal," Henry agreed with a shrug. "You know Erin likes to take her time with retrievals, especially if she can get a few extra days of sailing out of it."

He knew his brother had meant for his words to be calming but they had the opposite effect, and Liam ran a hand through his already disheveled hair in agitation. "You didn't see the report on this wizard, though. He's bad, Henry, probably one of the worst people we've dealt with in this regard. It was a two day retrieval—even with bad weather and Narnia's sea conditions, Erin should have been home yesterday."

"Retrievals don't always happen in the timeframe you allow for them to, you of all people know that. If this wizard is as bad as you say—"

"He is."

"—then Erin would have taken extra precautions," Henry finished, clearly ignoring his younger brother's insistent interrupting. "Even if she didn't, Eric would. It could be something as simple as it took them longer than planned to locate the scepter or they had to do extra recon to even get in the castle."

They were plausible reasons, ones Elizabeth had whispered to him as they laid in bed not two nights before when he first voiced his concern. He knew there was a whole host of them, but rationally thinking of why his sister still wasn't home was impossible when every worse case scenario was playing in his head on repeat. Swallowing against the tendrils of dread that were still trying to suffocate him, Liam spoke the one thought he had yet to even reveal to his fiancee or parents.

"What if Maleficent is involved?"

Henry leaned back in his chair at the question, a frown pulling at his lips as he clearly weighed the possibility of what Liam had just suggested.

"I'd never rule out Maleficent being involved with anything having to do with Erin—or you, for that matter—but we know for a fact she isn't, if something has happened to Erin. She hasn't left her castle since regaining her strength back."

"She doesn't have to leave her castle to hurt us," Liam pointed out. "She masterminded the entire Ingrid debacle without physically getting involved until the very end."

Henry shook his head. "I'm not saying she wouldn't, but Blue has been monitoring the entire Dark Forest for months now. We'd know if people were entering or exiting it, including her henchmen. You're just coming up with worse case scenarios to explain why she isn't home yet because you'd feel responsible if anything did happen to her."

Before he could respond Henry shot him a knowing look and continued, his voice still low enough not to attract the attention of the rest of their family.

"Liam, please, don't even try to deny it. I've known you since you were five minutes old and can read you as easily as Killian can read mom. The retrieval or journey home is taking Erin longer than expected and because it was suppose to be you and not her, you're jumping to conclusions about what happened and taking it far more personally than you ever have before. Remember when you and Erin were eighteen and she retrieved that key that could turn any door into a portal to that untold story realm? She was gone an entire month when getting the damn thing only took two days and you never once worried about her like you are now."

Looking back down to his engraved coat of arms, Liam's jaw clenched at just how accurate his brother's words were. It was supposed to be himretrieving the dangerous artifact from the mad wizard, but he'd pleaded with her to go in his stead when it became apparent he couldn't undertake it without the possibility of missing the ball that was to be thrown in his and Elizabeth's honor. "You know Narnia better than me," he had said to her, had even brought up the fact that she had knowledge of the layout of the castle from her previous retrieval there. He'd promised to get her out of wearing a fancy ball gown to his wedding and for what—all so he wouldn't miss a stupid ball where he was just going to shake hundreds of people's hands that he didn't even know?

"And what if it's not that the retrieval took longer or weather slowing them down? What if Maleficent found a way around Blue's detection or the psychotic wizard learned about their presence? What if she's been kidnapped, or worse, hurt somehow?"

From the corner of his eye Liam could see Henry's back straightening and his hands gripping the armrests of his chair tightly. A heavy second of silence fell between them before his brother spoke with an authoritative finality.

"Then Erin knows the proper action to take to notify us."

Glancing at the ruby ring on his right hand, Liam found that was one rational thought he couldn't argue with. The very scenarios he had presented to Henry and been worried about was the entire reason he had their father's ring and Erin the old pirate charms that once hung around his father's neck. Alone in another kingdom and at the mercy of a potential enemy, if Erin really had fallen into danger he knew with an unbreakable confidence that they would have received her necklace by now. She would have found a way to get it to them, just as she had six months ago when Diablo kidnapped her and their mother's past self in the middle of the night.

"I hadn't thought of that," he conceded before returning his gaze to his older sibling.

"I didn't think you had. I know you won't completely let go of being worried until she walks through the door, but at least you don't look like you're about to punch someone."

Grimacing at just how much of his emotions had obviously been playing over his face while he thought of their sister, Liam reached for his goblet and took a large gulp, the rum-laced hot cocoa sliding smoothly down his throat.

"I'm still half tempted to say to hell with the ball and go find her myself."

Henry chuckled and gave him a knowing look. "You could. I'd be failing you as a brother, however, if I didn't remind you it wouldn't just be grandma's wrath you faced upon returning."

Another fine point made, Liam thought as he set his goblet back down. Erin would give him the verbal lashing of the century for skipping out on the ball that marked his upcoming wedding, particularly since the only reason she had gone to Narnia was to ensure he didn't miss it. She'd also take offense to the idea that she needed rescuing when she hadn't given them any indication she was in trouble—no matter how well intentioned his actions might be. And Elizabeth… he didn't even want to think about what his future wife would do to him if he left her to socialize with foreign dignitaries by herself.

"Duly noted."

"I'm sure she's fine, Liam. Just Erin being Erin," Henry assured him as he leaned forward to pick up his magical quill. "I'll even make you a deal. If Erin and Eric aren't back by midnight, I'll personally get the Jolly Roger ready and we'll set out to find her before the witching hour is over. Just… try not to worry unless we get a reason to. It makes this rare quiet moment we have a not-so quiet one, and we deserve the few we get."

He nodded. "I'll try, and Henry… thank you, for everything."

"Of course. What are big brothers for if not to keep you from jumping off a ledge?"

Liam smiled as Henry went back to writing, leaving him alone once again with his thoughts. He really didn't know what he would do without his older brother. Almost erasing the dread that had been eating at him for the past few days aside, Henry had been an invaluable help when it came to dealing with their overtly enthusiastic grandmother and her attempts to create the wedding of the century. He didn't care what flowers decorated the cathedral ceiling or about the lanterns Regina was gonna enchant to span the entire length of the aisle—all that mattered to him was saying his vows to Elizabeth in front of their friends and family.

He loved that his grandmother was embracing their long quiet moment, and Elizabeth certainly deserved all the pomp that came with a royal wedding, but there was only so much detail planning Liam himself could handle. Henry understood how he could feel both thankful and frustrated since he was the only other member of the family to have a wedding on this scale. His parents had married in the Land Without Magic, a world where most people weren't royalty of some kind and even within the magical confines of Storybrooke, their wedding had been a small affair. Erin had refused their grandmother's attempt at throwing her a royal wedding by springing a surprise ceremony on the family when they went to visit Matthew's parents.

Since Henry had taken a long leave from Camelot's court for the wedding and returned home a fortnight ago, Liam finally had someone he could talk to about the matter. His brother had given him a shoulder to vent his frustrations on and reminded Liam—countless times, at that—why they were all putting up with the Queen of Misthaven's excitement. Thankfully, it was almost over. They would have have the ball tonight and in eighteen days, after a few small celebrations and a stag night he was very much looking forward to, he and Elizabeth would be married and he'd never have to hear wedding talk again.


Reaching for his goblet of rum laced hot cocoa again, Liam's eyes flickered to the other occupants currently sitting around the War Table who had thankfully remained oblivious to his and Henry's conversation.

His grandparents, who sat to his right, were quietly conversing between themselves as his grandmother held up a piece of semi-rolled up parchment that looked like it could span the length of the Jolly Roger's deck. Liam instantly recognized it as the guest list for his wedding and internally groaned—they couldn't possibly be adding another head of state to the list, not after he'd spent four hours the other day with his father, Elizabeth, and Uncle Neal putting together the final seating arrangements for the reception ball. His father and Uncle Will were currently in a private conversation of their own as they sat counterclockwise from his grandparents, the two friends obviously catching up. With the Snow Queen gone and Maleficent not an active threat, his uncle had returned to ruling Wonderland full-time alongside Ana, and it unfortunately left little time for his father and godfather to simply share a glass—or bottle—of rum together.

"Sorry I'm late!"

Looking towards the doorway, Liam saw his mother entering the War Room at a dead run with a stack of kingdom reports and Hope's favorite stuffed animal clutched to her chest.

"You're not, actually," his grandfather said from his place at the table with a smile. "We're still waiting for Belle and Regina to arrive."

Reaching her designated seat between his grandmother and father, the Savior deposited the items in her arms onto the wooden surface with a sigh of relief. "Good! I thought for sure I was going to be."

"Why do you have Crocky?" he asked out of curiosity, knowing from experience that his niece almost never parted with the brightly colored animal.

"Oh, Hope gave him to me because she thought, and I quote, 'You may need his assistance when dealing with the mean men who wear horns, grandma.' Although, to be fair, it did throw them off when I marched into the tavern with him in one hand and a sword in another."

Sitting, his mother picked up said stuffed animal from the table and unceremoniously dropped it in his father's lap before smiling sweetly. "He's missed you."

Liam had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at the way his father's nose wrinkled while the pirate stared at the crocodile. It was a well-known fact amongst the family that his father detested Hope's favorite toy, and they took every opportunity they could to remind him of its existence—none more so than his mother and Uncle Will.

Ignoring her son-in-law's discomfort, Snow asked, "How did the meeting with the Vikings go?"

"As well as you would imagine. I'm still going to talk to Elsa once she gets here about them causing havoc whenever they decide to make port in Misthaven."

"Wait, Vikings?" Will asked incredulously as he leaned his forearms on the table. "I didn't think those were Elsa's people."

"They weren't, but when Maleficent overtook their kingdom ten years ago, they sought refuge in Arendelle." Pausing in straightening the reports in front of her, Emma frowned as she looked at the White King of Wonderland. "I didn't think you and Ana were arriving until later today."

Shrugging, Will picked up his goblet. "Thought my godson could use all the support he could get with the torture fest that is happening tonight."

Snow scoffed at the former Knave. "A ball is not torture, Will Scarlet."

"That depends on your definition of torture, Grandma," Henry quipped without looking up from his writing.

Liam wisely hid his smile behind his hand as his grandmother narrowed her eyes at her oldest grandchild, though he noted his father and Uncle Will unabashedly clicked their goblets together in silent agreement at Henry's remark. It was all in good fun, of course. Just as the family playfully ribbed his father for Crocky's existence, they took every chance to do the same with his grandmother's penchant for throwing elaborate celebrations.

Before Snow could address her grandson's playful retort, the clicking of a cane along the stone floor drew their attention to the doorway just as Rumple entered the War Room with Belle on his free arm.

"Aunt Belle!" Liam exclaimed in greeting, almost overturning his chair in his haste to stand so he could round the circular table and reach his godmother. Without hesitation the petite librarian let go of her husband's arm and rushed to meet him, her joyous laughter filling the cavernous room as they embraced in a tight hug.

Belle had spent most of her time since the defeat of the Snow Queen in Camelot, pouring through Arthur's extensive literature collection in the hopes of finding any additional information on the prophecy that spoke of him and Erin defeating Maleficent. He knew the research she was doing was vital for the inevitable battle, but it was strange not seeing her around the castle every day when she had been such a constant presence inside its walls his entire life. She had come home periodically, of course, to help Elizabeth with certain details concerning the wedding, but for a large chunk of the last six months she had been holed up in Camelot doing what she did best. Having her home, especially for such an important event, settled something within Liam that he hadn't even known was out of place until he saw her.

"I missed you," he murmured into her brunette locks, not caring how gruff his voice sounded or if anyone else heard it. He had always been close to his godmother, and the fact that she was becoming his mother-in-law in a little over a fortnight's time had only strengthened their bond. Belle's hold on him tightened briefly before she pulled away just enough to look up at him with a dazzling smile.

"I missed you too, and our afternoon chats over tea. The members of Arthur's court are delightful people, but most of their topics of conversation run rather dull."

Liam returned her smile with a small chuckle. For as long as he could remember, they would sit in the sunroom on the west side of the castle twice a week and discuss a litany of subjects that ranged from kingdom law to philosophy, all while drinking his aunt's favorite hot beverage. He couldn't remember why it had started, or precisely when it had, but it was a custom that had become ingrained in him as much as weekly sailing trips with his father had.

"As did I," he replied fondly, the sound of Regina translocating into the War Room reminding him this wasn't the time to catch up. They needed to discuss what, if anything, his aunt had found in her six month perusal of Camelot's library. Giving her a knowing look that said they would talk later, Liam leaned forward to place an affectionate kiss on his godmother's cheek and headed back to his seat.

"We seem to be missing people," Rumple observed with his normal snark while leading Belle toward her designated place at the table. "I hope we aren't waiting on them to begin."

Will huffed in annoyance around the rim of his goblet. "Why not? We waited on you to limp here."

Rumple stared at Liam's godfather with a murderous glare while Belle sighed in exasperation at her ex-husband's remark.

"They won't be attending," David quickly intervened, knowing as well as everyone else at the table that the former Dark One and the White King would bicker back and forth all afternoon if left unchecked. "Neal is overseeing the resigning of a trade agreement with Queen Tiana."

"Robin and Oliver have gone to Nottingham in David and Snow's stead for the crowning of its new king," Regina supplied as she took her seat with a flourish of her black dress. "I'll be joining them after we adjourn here."

Indicating the Queen of Arendellle's empty chair that sat between Belle and Regina with a nod of her head, Snow added, "Elsa would be here, but she had a meeting with her own council about preparations for when Maleficent strikes again."

"What about Erin and Eric?"

"They're still on a retrieval."

Liam's nails dug into the palm of his hand at his father's calm reply, but otherwise remained silent with his feelings on the matter. He also didn't miss the look Henry gave him as his older brother closed his book, reminding Liam without words of the deal they had struck and his promise to try not to worry.

"So there's been no change with Maleficent?" Belle asked as she sat in her designated seat to Henry's left. Rumple took his place behind his wife's chair, both hands resting atop the wooden cane in front of him.

Liam's mother shook her head. "Not since Blue reported that she's regained her strength."

"That was almost two months ago though—surely she would have made her move by now."

"She doesn't have to leave her castle to hurt us," Will reminded his ex-wife, perfectly echoing Liam's own words to Henry during their private conversation.

"No, she doesn't," the petite librarian conceded with a nod of her head, "But the protection spell on the children is expiring in a little over a month, and I don't see Maleficent not being prepared for that."

His aunt had a point, Liam thought with a frown. They were indeed nearing the end of Regina's protection spell, and in fact that was one of the main reasons she had practically sequestered herself in Camelot for so long. In exactly thirty-seven days at the stroke of midnight on their twenty-eighth birthday, they would no longer be protected from Maleficent's magic. It wasn't like the former Evil Queen could recast the spell either. A protection spell against a specific person's magic, like any type of magic, had its limitations. It could only be done by a person once in their lifetime and no one else, including his mother or Rumple, could cast the same spell on someone who had already received protection.

They could give him and Erin protection spells against a variety of other villain's magic, but once Regina's ran out—the twenty-eight year expiration being another limitation of the spell—they could never again be protected against Maleficent's magic.

"I'm inclined to agree with both of you," Killian remarked, his fingers twirling around the tail of the stuffed crocodile that still lay in his lap. "It's actually something Swan and I were discussing a few nights ago. Maleficent knows the children will be vulnerable soon and on top of that, her need for revenge against Emma and I is still driving her. Make no mistake—she's planning something; her tactics have just changed."

"Whereas before she attacked us head on, she's now scheming for a way to hurt Liam and Erin indirectly," Snow discerned.

Killian nodded at his mother-in-law's assessment. "Precisely."

"But what could she be planning?" Liam asked, leaning forward to rest his forearms on the wooden table. "She's already done the puppet master routine."

Regina shook her head before he had even finished his sentence. "Maleficent is smart enough not to employ the same tactic twice."

"Except she has, dearie. If my memory serves me correctly, Ingrid wasn't the first time she had someone else do her dirty work."

"Ursula kidnapping the kids and taking them to Neverland was different," Emma interjected before taking a sip from her goblet. "We knew she was behind that and she even gloated about it. Her masterminding Ingrid's release was done in the dark, and we never thought to suspect Maleficent being behind Ingrid's motives."

Nodding, Regina added, "Exactly. She knows we'd question her being involved if another villain attacked us right now."

"So I echo Liam's question—what could she be planning?" Will asked, his fingers tapping the side of his goblet.

"The fact is there are a vast amount of scenarios she could have up her sleeve," Henry said. "We have no idea what journals or artifacts she took from Morgana's library before we got there."

David sighed and rubbed at his temple in frustration. "And we can't attack her because we still have no way of defeating her ifwe were to reach her castle in one piece. I can't sacrifice my men to a lost cause like that."

What his grandfather didn't say was they had a way to defeat her, they just didn't know what it meant. Maleficent's version of the prophecy had foretold that he and Erin would be her undoing. How they were suppose to do that, though, was a mystery to everyone sitting at the table, including the more knowledgeable magic users, Regina and Rumple. The prophecy itself certainly made no mention of how or when they were to defeat her, and they'd never found the Seer that delivered their version only weeks before his and Erin's birth. Even his Aunt Belle, who had scoured countless libraries across kingdoms and realms over the last twenty-seven years, had been unable to find references to the prophecy in any other text.

It was maddening sometimes knowing they were suppose to do something someday—that all their troubles with the Dark Fairy could finally come to an end if they only knew what to do. It wasn't like Liam had any skills to do so anyway—Erin was the one with magic, not him. As was always the case when a War Council meeting took this turn, Liam swallowed against the bitter feeling that he was letting everyone down by not knowing how he and Erin were suppose to be responsible for Maleficent's demise.

"There has to be something we can safely do before she tries to hurt the children again," Snow interjected, pulling Liam from another round of self-deprecation.

Regina's long ponytail swayed as she shook her head. "Short of finding out how Erin and Liam are supposed to defeat her, there's nothing we can do that would be permanent. We know she can't be killed, and she's too powerful for an entrapment spell of any kind. Not that we've ever gotten close enough to her to attempt it."

"My research didn't yield any new information either," Belle said with an apologetic glance around the table. "I combed through every book Arthur had and unfortunately, Blue was right. A fairy can't be killed, and the only way they can die is to extinguish the magical light within their heart themselves, like Morgana did."

"Which Maleficent isn't going to do as long as me, Erin, Mom, and Dad are still breathing," Liam muttered, scratching at the scruff that covered his jaw in agitation.

"So our only option now is to find Avalon," David stated with a resignated sigh.

"Because that's gone so well for us up to this point," Killian quipped with a raised eyebrow towards his father-in-law.

Perhaps even more frustrating to Liam than not knowing how they were supposed to defeat Maleficent was the fact that Avalon's location was unknown to everyone. Merlin and Rumple, the most powerful sorcerer of their time and a former Dark One who had both lived for centuries, didn't know where the mystical isle was. Blue and Tink had been born there along with every other fairy in existence and yet, they couldn't tell them where it was. They could remember growing up there and had described the landscape in explicit detail, but had no memory of what realm it resided in. Even Morgana, who had recorded everything she had ever learned or experienced, never once mentioned her homeland in any of her journals.

Most references to Avalon were steeped in false myths and fantastical stories about a woman in a lake, making it exceptionally hard to weed out any true facts concerning its location. They knew it wasn't hidden away somewhere in the depths of Misthaven or any of the other surrounding kingdoms. An extensive search of islands by the Royal Navy had also shown Avalon wasn't sitting in plain sight out on the open ocean. The only explanation was that the mystical isle was in another realm, and a few months ago they had attempted to find it by the simplest of realm traveling methods—a magic bean.

Only, it hadn't worked.

Instead of finding the lost island they had ended up in the great hall of Arthur's castle. It had been a bit of a shock—both to them and the people of Arthur's court who happened to be there at the time—and it wasn't something they could easily explain. By definition a magic bean should have taken them to another realm, not a kingdom that was only a few days ride from their own and that still resided within the same realm. They attempted it a few more times but each time they ended up in the same spot—in Arthur's great hall, right in front of the statue that commemorated Camelot's first king who held a sheathed replica of Excalibur, the sword that had always denoted who ruled the shining kingdom.

"I take it the magic beans never worked?"

Will scoffed at his ex-wife's question. "Oh, the beans worked just fine when we weren't trying to get to Avalon. Killian and Liam nearly gave me a heart attack when they opened a portal in the middle of my Wonderland bedchamber."

Liam and his father shared an identical smirk across the table at the memory of his uncle's high pitched shouts as they appeared while the White King was having a bath. At Belle's confused look his mother explained, "Since we kept getting sent to Camelot we tested a few from the batch Anton gave us to make sure they hadn't been tampered with."

"David and Killian even took the Jolly Roger back to Neverland as one of the tests," Snow added. "Every time we used one to reach another realm we were successful, except when we were attempting to find Avalon. Those beans kept taking us to Camelot."

"That's to be expected."

Regina's head whipped towards Rumple so fast that Liam was surprised a resounding crack didn't echo in the War Room. "Is it? Last time I checked magic beans take you to other realms, not another spot in the same one. You of all people should know that," she all but snapped.

"They do," the former Dark One replied calmly, "Unless the realm you are trying to travel to is under a barrier spell."

The entire table stilled at Rumple's words. They were all aware of what a barrier spell was—Liam's mother and Regina had enacted that very thing over the entirety of Misthaven to keep Maleficent from physically getting close to him and Erin. The implications of one being on on the mystical island, however, sent a chill down Liam's spine. If Avalon was under a barrier spell they'd never find it, and getting there to ask the Sisters of Avalon how to kill Maleficent was the only solid plan they had.

"I've never heard of a barrier spell being used on an entire realm," Emma stated and Regina nodded her head in agreement.

"Neither have I, dearie, but it perfectly explains why you were unable to reach Avalon with a magic bean."

Killian frowned. "I thought barrier spells only kept everyone whose magic wasn't part of the spell out but still let non-magical users through."

"That's the most commonly used form," Regina answered as she leaned back in her chair. "But there are barrier spells that work against even those without magic. They're rare, however, because the ingredients list for that type is almost impossible to complete and it takes a very powerful person to cast it, let alone maintain it."

"Well, if we work under Rumple's theory someone very powerful managed it," Will muttered.

David shook his head. "Who could that be though, and why would they do it?"

"For the same reason we did—to protect something," Rumple stated, his cane tapping along the stone floor as he slowly made his way around the table. "What little we do know of Avalon's history states that it disappeared from the world of men centuries ago at the same time the first king of Camelot ascended to the throne. Coincidentally, that was also when the Darkness began to manifest into a physical form which prompted Merlin to tether it to a human, thus creating the Dark One. Avalon was not only a great source of light magic but it was were all magic originated from. If a Dark One had obtained access to the island they would have become unstoppable, and might have even found a way to reverse the tethering spell Merlin placed upon the dagger."

"So someone cast a barrier spell to keep a long line of Dark Ones, yourself included, from stealing Avalon's magic," Will summarized with a raised eyebrow.

Coming to a stop between Snow and David's chairs, Rumple sighed. "In simplistic terms, yes."

"It would have to be the Sisters of Avalon who cast it," Regina mused as she twirled the end of her ponytail around her right index finger. "You have to be inside the barrier when it's enacted, and on top of that they are the only ones powerful enough to maintain the complicated version of that spell for so long."

Henry shook his head. "That still doesn't explain why every time you used a bean in an attempt to find Avalon it took you to Camelot."

"That I may have an answer for," Belle said, reaching into her dress pocket and pulling out the little book she kept research notes in. "There was a book in Camelot on its history, and the historian who wrote it recounted the period of when Uther I became King of Camelot. He also happened to mention the fact that shortly before the Darkness manifested physically, a large landmass that had always been off Camelot's Western coast mysteriously vanished overnight."

That got the attention of everyone at the table.

"Wait, are you saying Avalon once resided within Camelot's borders?"

Looking up from her research notes Belle nodded at the Savior. "It would seem so. No location was given, not that it would help us if Avalon is protected by a barrier spell."

"Well that's one mystery solved. The magical beans couldn't take us to Avalon because the barrier spell prevented it, so they routed us to a place previously linked with it, right?" Liam asked, looking between his mother, Regina, and Rumple for confirmation on his rudimentary magical knowledge. All three nodded their heads.

Snow sighed in frustration, her ever present optimistim clearly taking a battering from all the dead ends they were running into. "How are we supposed to find Avalon, let alone get there, if there is a barrier blocking our way?"

It was a valid question. There was a reason his mother and Regina had enacted one of their own over the kingdom, albeit of the less complicated variety. It automatically ensured that Maleficent couldn't step foot on Misthaven soil and if Rumple was right, the Sisters of Avalon had had a damn good reason to cast one over Avalon. The problem was there was no way around a barrier spell. It was so intricate that any magic user they wanted to be able enter the barrier—like his Aunt Elsa, Erin, Merlin, and even the fairies—had to be present at the time of its casting. Ingrid had managed to bypass that clause because she and Elsa shared the same kind of magic and were related by blood. The only reason Maleficent had been able to break through the barrier six months ago was because...

Liam blinked in surprise as the thought crossed his mind, and he sucked in a surprised breath. "What if we were able to find something from Avalon that could get us through it?"

"You know there is no way—"

"But there is a way," Liam said, cutting Regina off. "Maleficent did it."

Liam watched the former Evil Queen's eyes widened as the meaning behind his words sunk in. Six years ago, Maleficent had murdered Erin's husband, which had prompted his mother and Regina to cast the original barrier spell. Unbeknownst to them, however, after killing Matthew, the Dark Fairy had translocated inside the castle and hidden an enchanted object. It had made her magic part of the barrier spell and the reason she had been able to translocate inside it when she attacked six months prior.

"It could work," Rumple conceded with a nod of his head, "But finding an Avalonian artifact is going to be nearly impossible."

"What about Medusa's Heart?" David asked, turning his head to the right and directing the question at the former Dark One. "She was a Sister of Avalon and we still have possession of that."

"She enchanted it after her exile from Avalon, as well as the one Selfless Devotion Bracelet we have. If I recall Medusa's history correctly, she was forced to leave the island a few centuries before the Darkness appeared, which means her magic wouldn't have been present at the time the barrier spell was cast."

Regina sighed heavily. "The fairies don't have possession of anything from their homeland either."

"Of course, because that would be too easy," Will grumbled before finishing off his wine and setting the goblet onto the table with a little more force than necessary.

"Perhaps there's something in Camelot," Belle suggested, laying down the quill she had borrowed from Henry to make notations in her book. "If we go by the historian's account, Avalon was physically linked to Camelot for centuries before it vanished. There hasto be something there that was originally from the island we could use. I'll go back after the wedding and do some more research, even talk to Merlin once he returns from Atlantica."

"It's as good a plan as any we've had before," Killian said while stroking his slightly silver-tinged scruff. "Now we just need to figure out what Maleficent is planning and stop her."

David nodded. "We'll summon Blue back to the castle at the end of the week and see if she's learned anything new. Rumple—start looking into what we'll have to do for when Belle finds an Avalonian artifact, and help him once you return from Nottingham, Regina. If we have something that will get us through Avalon's barrier spell the last thing I want to do is waste time in figuring out how to do so." Standing, David offered his hand to his wife and added, "If there's nothing more, I'll call the meeting to an end so everyone can start preparing for tonight's festivities."

Liam remained seated as the sound of chairs scraping along the stone floor filled the War Room, his fingers drumming anxiously atop the armrest of his own chair. His aunt mentioning that she would wait until after the wedding had unsettled him, and it had taken a few minutes of internally rolling the feeling around before he realised why. Finding Avalon and a way to defeat Maleficent was far more time sensitive than a wedding, even his own. He wanted to marry Elizabeth, had for a number of years, but he wouldn't be able to live with himself if the Dark Fairy did something before then, leaving them once again a step behind her simply because they waited until after his wedding to start their next plan. It was more than that, though. His father had said something earlier in the meeting that lingered with Liam, pushing to the forefront a scenario he had naively never considered and that was now running non-stop through his mind.

Feeling the anxiety slowly grow the more he thought about it until it was almost choking him, Liam stood and quickly surveyed the room, his eyes almost instantly landing on the two people he had been searching for. His parents were conversing quietly by the War Room's large double doors, the kingdom reports his mother had brought in now in the crook of his father's left arm as Crocky's tail dangled from the Savior's right hand. He hated to interrupt them—particularly since it looked like his father was trying to sway his mother into an afternoon sailing trip before the ball—but he had to talk to them.

They'd understand, out of everyone, why he felt the need to propose what was eating away at him…


The sound of his name had Liam stopping his determined stride towards his parents mid-step, and he turned to find his godmother making her way towards him.

"Yes, Aunt Belle?"

Coming to a stop in front of him, the petite librarian smiled. "I was wondering if you'd partake in a little late afternoon tea with me before we have to get ready. Elizabeth has kept me up to date in her letters, but I feel there's quite a bit I've missed having been in Camelot mostly for the last six months. Particularly when it comes to my goddaughter and the reason for her absence at the meeting today."

Taken aback slightly by the mention of his sister, Liam stared at his aunt like a fish out of water for a long second before the wheels clicked into place. A quick glance to the other side of the War Room showed Henry standing by the large map of Misthaven that took up a single wall, his older brother doing nothing to hide the fact he was carefully watching Liam and Belle's exchange. As the two men's eyes met Henry inclined his head towards Liam and raised an eyebrow.

Apparently in the timeframe it had taken Liam to sort out what was bothering him, his older brother had relayed the basics of their earlier conversation about Erin to Belle, and had enlisted his godmother to further calm his worry about their sister.

Cursing internally at Henry's loving yet underhanded tactic, Liam compartmentalized the anxiety brought on by the War Council meeting and turned his attention back to his aunt. He'd just have to find time tonight at the ball to talk with his parents about the course of action he was going to suggest to the family.

"I'd love to, Aunt Belle."

"Remind me again why we are sneaking into your home like a bunch of common criminals come to rob the place?"

Erin sighed heavily as she paused in climbing the thick piece of rope. "Because I'd rather not run into my grandmother until I'm in the ballroom."

From the rope dangling next to her own she could just make out Eric shaking his head through the darkness of twilight. "Do you really think she hasn't already noticed you still aren't in the ballroom with the rest of the family?"

"There's a method to my madness," Erin panted, using the short break to catch her breath and readjust her hold. "Grandma is going to be too busy playing hostess to visiting kings and queens to notice exactly when I arrive at the ball. If I appear and pretend like I've been dancing or chatting for awhile she won't know that I was really an hour late getting there, which saves me from getting a lecture on being prompt to family functions. Going into the castle the normal way raises the risk of the guards seeing me and informing Grandma of when they did, and that leaves no wiggle room for me to work with."

"So you're going to deliberately deceive your grandmother."

"My parents didn't raise a fool, D'Harper. If I can avoid her wrath I'm going to, even if it means climbing a bloody rope to my own bedchamber."

Chest heaving from his own exertive climb, Eric pointed out, "It's not your fault that we didn't get back before the ball started. No one could have predicted that ice storm we got caught in."

Erin shuddered at the memory. They were a few hours away from the border that divided Narnia and Misthaven when the storm had hit, the overcast clouds hiding what lurked within them even from the two experienced sailors. Hail as large as Eric's fist had assaulted them, forcing them to drop anchor and take shelter below deck to avoid serious injury. After that the freezing rain had come, and along with it a chilling wind that Erin could still feel the remnants of in her bones even as she hung in the cool spring air. Narnia's storms were known to last for days on end so they'd battled the latter weather conditions top side as they attempted to continue sailing. Even with their combined skills the storm had put them half a day behind schedule, leading to them not docking the Mermaid's Mist until the ball had already been under way for nearly an hour.

"Doesn't matter," Erin murmured as she looked up at the night sky, her eyes instantly cataloging more than a dozen constellations. "You know how my grandmother gets with these balls, and she's been particularly tyrannical when it comes to this one because it's for Liam and Elizabeth."

"Point taken," Eric noted, exhaling a heavy breath through his mouth. "I do find it a bit concerning, however, that not one guard is alarmed by two people climbing a rope that leads to a Princess of Misthaven's bedchamber."

"That's because it's dark and the moon isn't on this side of the castle yet to illuminate anything." Wincing at the ache in her muscles she added, "Which is a security concern, now that you mention it. Probably need to broach that subject with Grandpa at some point."

Eric grunted in response as they resumed climbing, a companionable silence descending between them while they concentrated on putting one hand before the other and not losing their grip.

It probably was one of her more crazier ideas, but it wasn't like they had a lot of options to choose from that would get them into the castle without being seen. Translocating them inside had been out of the question—she'd attempted it on one of the barrels from Eric's ship as they docked and had only managed to make half of it disappear. Bribing the guards wouldn't work as Erin had learned when she was a teenager, and she couldn't bring herself to knock them out with poppy powder considering they were guarding her family from harm. Not that they had access to poppy powder. There was also irony in the fact that she could sneak into the heavily fortified castle of a mad wizard yet doing so to her own home was impossible—clearly villains needed to take notes from how the King's Guard protected the Charming-Jones family.

The only covert way into the castle was to throw grappling hooks at the balcony attached to her bedchamber and climb. They'd managed to do it without much hassle at least, though it had required them to skirt the outer perimeter of the castle and pick their way over the rock foundation that the castle sat on to reach the area of the family wing. On top of being slightly crazy, it was exhausting. Every muscle in Erin's body was screaming from the exertive climb, particularly her arms, and sweat poured down her face and back despite the cool temperature. She didn't even need a light source to know Eric was struggling with the physical climb as well, if his grunts and low curses were any indication.

Reaching the balcony, they carefully gripped the stone railing and hoisted themselves up and over the structure, their presence marked by nothing more than the whisper of leather boots hitting stone. Erin let out a relieved sigh as she stood to her full height and stretched her aching muscles. It wasn't the most ideal way to come home, but she'd take the soreness tomorrow over having to endure a lecture from her grandmother any day. Together they yanked the grappling hooks from where they had caught on the bottom lip of the railing and quickly reeled the thick sailing ropes up, leaving no trace of their clandestine route into the palace.

Tossing the rolled up bundle of rope and grappling hook to the side of the balcony to be dealt with in the morning, Erin paused as she noticed Eric smiling at her.

"What?" she asked defensively, hands going to her hips the wider his smile became.

Eric shook his head. "'Tis nothing, Jones. Just thinking about how you're the only person I know who exits a balcony without the use of a rope yet requires it to get on one."

Unable to stop the smile that tugged at her own lips, Erin rolled her eyes as she playfully shoved him towards the door that lead to her bedchamber. "Yes, well, I'm one of a kind."

She told herself it was a figment of the wind that made her hear a murmured, "Don't I know it," while following him. It was the kind of affectionate remark Eric would make—Gods knew he had done it countless times over the years—but the warmth that spread through her chest at the words was a new development she was steadfastly refusing to acknowledge, especially when she had a ball to get ready for.

They had barely taken a few steps into her bedchamber when Eric came to an abrupt stop, causing Erin to slam into the solid mass of his back with an ungraceful oompfh! Instinctively grabbing his waist to steady herself, Erin glared at the back of his dark head.

"Eric! Why did you—"

The soft clearing of a throat had Erin's question dying instantly on her lips and her entire body going still. Hades be damned… this wasn't going to end well for her. Tightening her grip on Eric's waist, Erin peered around his broad form while praying to every deity she knew that she wouldn't find the one woman she had been attempting to avoid.

The gods were clearly not listening tonight, at least to her prayers.

The Queen of Misthaven stood calmly in the middle of Erin's bedchamber, dressed in an off-the-shoulder cream colored gown with long belled sleeves and a full skirt that just barely brushed the stone floor below her. The white gemstones sewn into the lace that trimmed her neckline and the edges of her billowing sleeves sparkled in the firelight from the lit fireplace, reminding Erin of a star as it winked into view in the night sky. Her grandmother's slightly graying hair was pulled into a simple yet elegant bun, and her jewelry simplistic for the station she held—a pair of small, dangling pearl earrings, her peridot wedding ring, and a glittering silver tiara. Snow White held her hands clasped in front of her, looking as unamused as she had when she found a four year old Erin digging for buried treasure in her rose bushes.

"Bloody hell."

"Indeed," Snow dryly replied to her granddaughter's expletive.

Shaking off the shock of having been caught, Erin quickly dropped her hands from Eric's waist and moved to stand beside him. "I thought you'd be at the ball?"

"Well, I was," her grandmother said, gesturing to the elegant dress she wore, "And was quite enjoying myself when Smee informed me that someone that looked suspiciously like my granddaughter and a certain young pirate had arrived at the royal docks."

Erin groaned—of all the precautions she had taken to ensure no one saw them, she had never once thought to have Eric dock his ship somewhere were it couldn't be seen. Normally it wouldn't have mattered but she should have known that with the ball happening Smee, the Royal Harbormaster, would be keeping an extra eye on who came in to the royal docks.

"Of course, I was expecting you to walk through the door, not scale the castle wall like an invader. Tell me, Captain D'Harper, why the odd route?"

Erin felt Eric stiffen momentarily next to her as the question was directed at him and not her. She wouldn't blame him one bit if he spilled her entire half-brained idea to the woman standing before them. Her grandmother was an imposing figure on a normal day, and was even more so when she looked and sounded like a queen who was interrogating a prisoner. A quick glance out of the corner of her eye told her the former pirate wasn't going to take that route, however.

"We wanted to enjoy the scenery," he remarked with a casual shrug of his shoulders.

Snow gave him a look that clearly said she didn't believe him. "I'm sure it was the scenery that had you climbing hundreds of feet in the air."

Erin didn't miss the subtle way her grandmother's eyes flickered to her as she spoke.

"Can I assume you will be joining us for the ball, Captain?"

Eric nodded. "Of course, Your Majesty."

"Then I suggest you get ready before you miss all the dancing."

Clearly knowing a polite dismissal when he heard one, Eric bowed to her grandmother and turned to Erin. "See you later, Jones," he whispered before making his way across her bedchamber with purposeful but even strides. Erin waited until the door had closed behind him to sigh heavily.

"Is this where I get a lecture?"

"You should," Snow commented as she walked towards Erin's vanity, "But not about being tardy. I'd like to think I know my granddaughter well enough to know that if she had a choice, she wouldn't be late to the ball celebrating her brother's upcoming wedding."

That took Erin by surprise. "No… no, of course I wouldn't be."

Snow nodded, her fingers lightly grazing the handle of Erin's hairbrush and the assorted hair ribbons haphazardly piled on the vanity's tabletop. "I take it the retrieval was a success?"

"It was. It took longer than we were expecting, but we were able to acquire the scepter without much incident." She'd leave the tale of how her and Eric managed to escape the mad sorcerer for a later time. "We left it in the safe aboard Eric's ship."

"Didn't want to risk dropping it on your little expedition up the castle wall?" Snow inquired, looking at her granddaughter with a raised eyebrow. "I mean really, Erin. What in Zeus' realm possessed you to take that route?"

Knowing she wasn't going to be able to get away with a sarcastic quip like Eric had, Erin ran a hand through her wind blown hair. "I was… well, I was hoping to avoid running into you until I was already at the ball."

"Because you were expecting me to lecture you about being prompt to family functions."

At Erin's nod, Snow sighed and pulled the vanity chair out, the gemstones on her dress twinkling even more as she sat down. "I can't say I wouldn't have. I know I've been a little over bearing—" With Erin's raised eyebrow the Queen of Misthaven chuckled. "Fine, majorly over bearing, but I've just wanted this experience for Liam and Elizabeth to be perfect. Despite us preparing for Maleficent's next attack, this has been the longest quiet moment we've had in four years."

Moving so that she was kneeling in front of her grandmother, Erin smiled at the woman who had taught her how to be an independent woman as much as her own mother had.

"We know that, and although none of us say it, we're grateful that you took the reins and have made the most of this quiet moment. Liam and Elizabeth deserve it. You've become a bit of a control freak when it comes to the wedding festivities though, Grandma. I love you, but can you blame me for wanting to avoid a lecture and thinking the best way to do that was to climb a bloody wall?"

"No, I can't," Snow agreed with a shake of her head, "But that also doesn't mean you should have. Not that I'm surprised you did—you do act before thinking sometimes, like your mother."

Warmth spread through Erin's chest as her grandmother reached out and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Does this mean I've avoided a lecture full-stop?"

"Hardly," her grandmother teased as they both stood from their respective positions. "It just means it's going to wait until morning."

"Let it never be said that anything, even disciplining a grandchild for having a crazy idea, gets in the way of a ball Snow White has planned," Erin chuckled.

"Keep it up and I'm going to give you the same punishment I gave Henry for his little remark earlier today."

"What remark?"

Snow waved the question away with a laugh. "I'll tell you later. We have to fill you in on what we discussed at the War Council anyway. Right now, however, we have to get you ready. I presume you're going to need a bath after being on a ship for almost a week and rope climbing?"

"Most definitely," Erin agreed, already working on the buttons of her vest. "I'll draw one magically if you want to get everything ready for me."

With her grandmother's nod Erin flicked her wrist at the open space between her bed and the doorway leading to the balcony, a small part of her sighing in relief when she felt the familiar surge of her magic through her veins. In a swirl of white smoke the large bathtub from her side room appeared, tendrils of steam rising from the hot water that magically filled it almost to the brim. She quickly stripped off her sweat-soaked travel clothes and threw them in a pile next to her vanity, only half paying attention as her grandmother moved towards the wardrobe that sat on the opposite side of the room, the other woman humming an upbeat melody as she went.

Sinking into the hot water with an appreciative sigh, Erin turned her head just in time to see her grandmother pulling a dress from the wardrobe that she was almost positive hadn't been there when she left to go on the retrieval. Eyeing the green fabric in disdain, she reached for the bar of lavender-scented soap.

Liam better be glad she loved him.

Snow's dress was modeled off the one she wore for the Camelot ball, if you needed a visual reference. Next chapter - the ball!