Crowns of the Kingdom

Chapter 1: Best-Laid Plans

There are some cases where no amount of preparation seems quite enough. All the planning, all the precautions, all the checklists and troubleshooting and second-guessing…something might still go wrong. It tends to induce a sort of low-grade neurosis.

It was a state of mind that Mickey Mouse was growing quite accustomed to as the launching of Disneyland's 50th anniversary celebration, the Happiest Homecoming on Earth, drew near. This was the most important event the park had seen since…well, since Opening Day; everything had to be perfect. And there was so much to do, so many opportunities to invoke Murphy's Law!

Fortunately, all his friends were pitching in to make the celebration a success. Whatever their failings might be, people like Donald and Goofy were reliable in a pinch. So with less than an hour to go, as item after item on the final checklist came up ready, Mickey actually felt more-or-less on top of things.

But just to make sure

"Mickey, you worry too much!" Minnie giggled at him, radiant in her princess gown. "Everything's going to be fine."

"I'm not taking any chances," he piped, taking the opportunity to buff some of the brass buttons of his bandleader uniform. "Everything has to be just right! I want to make this something Walt would be proud of!"

"No problem there. No matter what happens, it couldn't possibly be any worse than Opening Day," Minnie pointed out. "Remember how much went wrong then? But we made it."

"I guess you're right," Mickey sighed with a fond smile. "But we've come a long way since then. I'd hate to think we didn't learn anything in fifty years."

"We've learned plenty. And Walt would be proud." She leaned over and gave Mickey a peck on the cheek, a gesture that never failed to thrill him. "Now, I've got to go prep the opening shift, per your last-minute instructions…boss. I'll see you again soon."

Minnie set off at a gentle jog toward the Main Gate. Mickey watched her, almost overcome with appreciation and affection for his long-suffering lady. As sensible as she was pretty…he'd never have made it this far without her. He could say the same for any of his closest companions.

One of whom was currently tumbling into Central Plaza from Tomorrowland, tangled in about sixty yards of used packing tape and yelping with every bounce. Knowing Goofy, that meant he had succeeded admirably at his assigned task.

As Goofy thudded to a halt against a bench, Mickey stooped over him. "Hi there, Goofy. Did you finish stocking all the golden mouse ears hats?"

"Ee-yup!" Goofy grinned, none the worse for being wrapped in sticky plastic. "First I packed the racks of the Mad Hatter on Main Street, and then I stuffed the shelves of the Mad Hatter in Fantasyland, and then I crammed the cupboards of the Hatmosphere!"

"Great job, old buddy!" Mickey said with an encouraging thumbs-up.

"Oh, I almost forgot!" Goofy added. "I ordered a thousand extra spools of white thread for the stitchin' machines, too!"

"Stitching," Mickey mused. "That reminds me…" He whipped out his cell phone and punched the number for Donald Duck, who was putting the final touches to the decorations elsewhere in the park. At the duck's raspy greeting, he said "Donald, did we ever manage to get it across to Stitch that he absolutely, positively should not be destructive for a change?"

An undecipherable burst of noise crackled out of the receiver. "Donald? Donald, you're breaking up. I can't make out…wait, is that static or is it your voice?"

"It's my voice, you impossible little…" Donald trailed off into unintelligibility again, which was probably just as well. Steam began trickling out of the receiver end of the phone.

"I'm sorry, Donald," Mickey apologized. "I didn't mean to upset you. Wanna try again? I'll listen more carefully this time."

That seemed to mollify Mickey's quick-tempered co-star. "Not to worry, Mickey-ol'-pal. Lilo said she'd keep a close watch on him. And just in case, I scheduled an extra maintenance team to follow him around, and I requisitioned spare parts for everything!"

"Gosh, Donald, you're the best!" Mickey replied. "Keep up the great work! See you soon!" He ended the call and heaved a huge sigh of relief. They were actually going to pull this off! Next to him, Goofy managed to wriggle out of the tape and get to his feet. "Looks like everything's going to be all right after all, Goofy,"

The lanky dog gave Mickey a friendly clout on the head. "See? Didn't we keep tellin' ya everything would work out okay? You worry too much, Mickey."

"So I've heard," Mickey replied, rubbing his head. Goofy's friendly clouts were often harder than he meant them to be. "I just can't shake the feeling that I've overlooked something. It's probably just nerves. Oh, and Goofy?"

"Yes, Mickey?"

"Throw that away!" the mouse exploded, pointing emphatically at Goofy's discarded cocoon of packing tape. "Any minute now, guests are going to start pouring through that gate, and the first thing they'll see is a huge sticky mess! Have you lost your mind?" He stood snorting for a moment while Goofy cringed.

"Gawrsh, Mickey, I'm awful sorry!" Goofy drawled, near tears.

Mickey instantly regretted his outburst. He shouldn't have blown up like that—especially not at Goofy, who was the most sensitive and impressionable person he knew and who always tried his very best, no matter what. And he had done well. And it was only a lump of packing tape that would take mere seconds to clean up. Mickey softened and let his ramrod posture sag. "Sorry, Goofy, I didn't mean to be so hard on you. I guess I just cracked for a second. Don't worry about the tape; I'll clean it up. You go clean yourself up." He winked and added, for good measure, "See ya real soon!"

Guilt assuaged, Goofy put on the most serious face he knew how and snapped a salute before loping away under Sleeping Beauty's Castle, headed for his own home in Mickey's Toontown.

Ah…the Castle. Even wrestling with a wad of packing tape almost as large as the trash can he was trying to stuff it in, Mickey couldn't help but beam with satisfaction at what had been done to Disneyland's most famous landmark. First it had been repainted, with colors just slightly brighter than tradition and enough fine glitter mixed in to make the building's surface sparkle in even the faintest light. Then the walls and turrets had been embellished with banners and draperies in gold and royal blue, and with dozens of giant jewels, fist-sized and larger, in deep rainbow hues. A blue and gold mouse-eared Anniversary Plaque, one of fifty throughout the park, had been placed of the center of the archway. And finally, best of all, the towers had been crowned. Five giant golden crowns, each a unique design representing a decade of Disneyland history and evolution from its humble but ambitious beginnings to the spectacular showpiece it was today.

"Take a look, Walt," Mickey whispered as though the long-departed creator of the Magic Kingdom could hear, and see. (But then again, if the old boy's shade had taken up residence anywhere on Earth, it was on the premises of his magnificent labor of love. And if not, well, Mickey had long been of the opinion that the park itself had developed or acquired a spirit, a consciousness-of-place, like a hamadryad in an oak forest.) "Your legacy…I hope you like what we've done with it."

"Mickey!" came Minnie's shout down Main Street. "Five minutes till showtime!"

"Great!" he called back. "Get everyone together in Central Plaza!"

By then, dozens of animated characters were beginning to gather of their own accord. Half a dozen Princesses, escorted by their respective Princes, strolled down the path encircling the Castle moat, chattering about whether they should stand in chronological order of their movies' release, or alphabetically by first name, or so that their gowns made a nicely graded spectrum of color. Dumbo and Peter Pan swooped over the Castle's turrets playing a game of aerial tag, the former sporting a new gold-sequined collar that caught the early morning sunlight to blinding effect…and in the upturned rim of his hat, a slightly airsick Timothy Mouse. Through the Adventureland gates padded Simba and Nala, side-by-side, followed by an unusually relaxed-looking Tantor and his passengers Tarzan and Jane. Sheriff Woody, on the other hand, preferred to walk alongside his horse Bullseye as they and his sidekick Jessie passed through from Frontierland. His "best rival" Buzz Lightyear was not so humble, soaring from Tomorrowland with his rocket boosters on full blast.

Despite himself, Mickey gulped with apprehension. So many eyes would be on him as they kicked off the Happiest Homecoming! Eyes, no less, belonging to people whose opinions he greatly valued.

Raucous staccato barking caught his attention, and he turned toward it just in time to be bowled over by a battering ram in the form of a tawny dog that immediately covered him in slobbery canine kisses.

"Pluto!" he greeted his beloved pet, breaking into a fit of chuckling at the tickling sensation of the dog's over-zealous slurps. "Okay, pal, okay, I'm glad to see you too. Down, boy! Sit!" Pluto, as obliging as he was enthusiastic, left off his affectionate assault. He even straightened his coonskin cap with a clumsy paw.

Mickey righted himself, turned to further check the progress of the arrivals, and found himself face-to-face with an enormous red-and-black skirt. This was topped by an ample bosom over which glowered the homely face of the Queen of Hearts.

"Your Majesty," Mickey greeted her with a perfunctory bow and a sheepish grin. "Uh…glad you could make it!"

"But of course," she cooed, batting her eyelashes. "I wouldn't dream of missing a gala occasion such as this! Never you fear, my dear Mr. Mouse—you'll be seeing my face at all the important events!" She patted her bun of unruly black hair coquettishly and sauntered off to join the rest of the Alice in Wonderland party at their appointed spot in front of the Castle drawbridge.

"Mickey!" gasped Minnie, who had just arrived after notifying everyone of the short time. "You invited her?"

"Of course not," Mickey said in a low voice. "I knew better than to invite any…" He dropped his voice even further. "…villains. But you know them—some of them just love to turn up anyway." A quick glance around revealed that of that unsavory crowd, only the Wonderland Queen had crashed the gathering. "It looks like she's the only one, at least. It could be a lot worse—we can probably convince her to behave herself. She's really more of a blowhard than a blackguard, you know what I mean?"

"I do," Minnie agreed, peeking at her watch. "Oh, my—less than two minutes to go! Everyone, take your places! And step on it!"

The latest arrivals, including a spacesuit-clad Donald and a freshly scrubbed Goofy dressed to the nines in his Indiana Jones-style leather jacket and fedora, scrambled to get to their assigned spots while Minnie counted down the seconds remaining to them before the opening of the Main Gate, checking off the roll list at the same time. Mickey wiped beads of sweat from his brow. The tension in the air was palpable, like a strong electromagnetic field. The Southern California breeze felt surprisingly cold.

"Twenty!" Minnie chirped. "Nineteen…eighteen…seventeen…" She broke off suddenly, looking up at the sky. Mickey realized it at the same moment—the clear field of blue was darkening as the wind picked up. The crowd of characters was suddenly abuzz with murmurs of "What's going on?" and "Is this part of the show?"

A frigid gust blasted Central Plaza, sending characters ducking for the cover of larger or furrier characters. The sky had turned a deep black-indigo color, giving the daylight a lurid, unnatural-looking quality. Forks of lightning the sickly color of marsh gas danced about the cloudless heights; a few dove down to strike the Castle moat, sending up plumes of steam and spray.

"Mickey!" Donald shouted over the growing noise of the wind. "It's a freak storm! We have to get everyone to safety!"

Before Mickey could reply, a huge bolt of lightning struck the Castle itself! The resultant thunderclap threw everyone to the ground, and sparks rained upon the moat and drawbridge. As the stunned, confused characters dared to open their eyes, a shocking sight met them. A woman—of sorts—stood on the Castle's main parapet, directly over the Anniversary Plaque. Skirts as black as a raven's underwing flowed over the bricks like poisoned water. Twisted horns rose above a stern, coldly attractive face that was the same color as the lightning. Long fingers gripped a tall staff topped by an evilly glowing orb.

Recognition swept across the assemblage like a rustling wave of the sea, leaving gasps and cries of outrage and horror in its wake. Mickey's gloved hands flew to his mouth as his eyes bulged. But he bit back his shock and fright in favor of righteous indignation. "Maleficent! What are you doing here!"

The Wicked Fairy looked down her nose at him—an easy thing to do, from her elevated location—and feigned ignorance. "Why, whatever do you mean? I am merely attending the Happiest Homecoming on Earth," she replied coolly. "Such is my right as a member of the 'Disney Family,' is it not?"

"No, it is not!" Minnie barked. "You weren't invited!"

"Oh, dear," Maleficent said with a dreadful calm. "And I was so hoping that my invitation simply…went astray, as these things so often do. But if I am being shunned after all, then I simply don't know what I'll do."

The total lack of emotion in her voice was much more unsettling than any amount of rage or spite. Her opposite numbers from the cast of Sleeping Beauty, the Good Fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, looked particularly distressed. They knew better than anyone—even Princess Aurora herself—what sort of mayhem Maleficent was capable of when she felt slighted.

"One would think," she continued, sweeping her gaze over the huddled crowd, "that those responsible for organizing these events would learn from the mistakes of the past, and not commit such thoughtlessness, such callous disregard for the feelings of those of us who happen not to measure up to some pretty little ideal. Petty discrimination of that nature practically begs reprisal, wouldn't you agree…Mickey Mouse?"

"Don't…you…dare," Mickey hissed, every syllable measured for maximum defiance. "I won't let you do anything to ruin this! We have all worked too hard for it!"

Maleficent's eyebrows shot up, allowing the light from her staff to glint ominously off her widened eyes. A smile quirked the corners of her painted mouth. "So," she said eagerly, almost hungrily. "The little Sorcerer's Apprentice wishes to take on the Mistress of Evil? How delightful."

Mickey's hands balled into fists. "You may be powerful, Maleficent, but I—"

"You!" the Wicked Fairy spat, suddenly irate. "You are nothing compared to me! You've been spoiled, Mickey—spoiled by your scripted shows with their contrived happy endings! It has made you arrogant, blind to your own true weakness! And I…I am weary of being portrayed as the impotent stooge doomed to defeat at the hands of Good!" Abruptly, she was calm again. "There is no script here, little mouse, and this is not taking place in your imagination. Your personal Utopia, your 'Magic Kingdom,' comes to an end here and now."

As if on cue, several of the assembled heroes, through with cowering, charged the mocking figure on the Castle balcony. Mulan, her restricting dress notwithstanding, pulled her sword and began scaling the wall in a series of nimble martial arts maneuvers; Aladdin and Quasimodo, though unarmed and untrained, did much the same. Peter Pan and the Genie took a more direct route. Robin Hood nocked an arrow and carefully aimed.

None of them got very far. "FOOLS!" Maleficent bellowed, stabbing the stones with her staff in one hard, sharp movement. A shockwave flung outward from the point of impact, shaking the climbers loose into the moat and sending the flyers tumbling backward. Robin's arrow wobbled uselessly away into the nearby trees as he lost his footing and his grip on the longbow. All those still on the ground were freshly rattled. Maleficent's fury was an enormous hand pressing them to the pavement.

"As if any of you is fit to stand in my presence!" Maleficent ranted on. "Watch well, Mickey Mouse, and despair! For your 'happy homecoming' shall never come to pass!" She began to chant, a simple quatrain in iambic tetrameter that was the Fairies' preferred pattern of magical recitation:

"Long years of insult I redress

Excising years of his success

Awake, o Sky, my loyal pawn—

Let night consume his golden dawn!"

With that, the evil sorceress flung her arms upward, gripping her staff in both hands. As slowly and inexorably as the march of Time itself, she began moving it in broad circles, as though the shadowed sky were an immense, topsy-turvy cauldron that she was stirring. And perhaps that was indeed the case, for her motion was echoed above. A swirling phenomenon, neither clouds nor wind, opened over the Castle like an evil eye, casting harsh ultraviolet light onto the horrorstruck characters below. Wider and wider the vortex yawned, though its true size was impossible to judge as there was no way to gauge its distance…not that space and dimension had any meaning in connection with that aberrant thing. And, with a screeching as of tearing metal, the hole in the sky began to draw things toward it.

The gold and blue draperies flew off the Castle and disappeared into the blacklit void, eliciting screams from the onlookers. The Anniversary Plaque swiftly followed, ripping loose from its fastenings. Though it missed her by mere inches, Maleficent didn't even seem to notice. Her face was twisted in triumphant glee at the nightmarish thing she had manifested, which was now plucking the sparkling gems from the Castle.

And then, as everyone had known they would since the hellish whirlpool began stripping the Castle of its adornments (though that made it no easier to watch), the crowns, the magnificent crowns began creeping upward along the turrets where they were anchored. The knowledge suddenly burst upon Mickey's mind that the rest had been only prelude, that this was the main event on Maleficent's program, and above all, that he must not let this happen. As if it were a dream-Mickey acting, and not really him, he sprang to his feet and sprinted up the drawbridge, arms outspread, ludicrously wanting to take the Castle into his embrace, to protect it, though it was a thousand times his size.

It was futile. Even as Mickey reached the foot of the beautiful edifice, the crowns wrenched free and tumbled upward into Maleficent's howling vortex. Screaming in anguish, Mickey kept his eyes pinned to them, as though his gaze were a tether that could save them from oblivion. But they were lost to sight in an instant.

And even that was only the beginning.

To Be Continued…