Eep. So when I say "expect something within a week" that's procrastinator talk for "within a month if you're lucky". Well at least it's here. Not that much happens in this chapter, but oh well. Enjoy ZE SEQUEL!
The sun had already set, casting a creeping shadow upon the world. A lone figure sat upon the sand, gazing dreamily out toward the distant horizon. Their mind was abuzz with a tempest of possibilities; of unexplored boundaries, of incomparable adventure.
Growing anxious, they splashed their turquoise-colored tail in the ocean's shallows, mostly for a distraction. They could sense the enormity of the upcoming meeting, of its potential to shape their destiny.
Swallowing in anticipation, the being turned their head, casting their gaze toward the blurred outline of the nearest town, several miles along the shore. It was an elevated settlement, upon solid cliffs that overlooked the vast and timeless sea. Very faint smudges of light could only just be seen as the village welcomed the evening by lighting numerous outdoor lanterns.
What mysteries awaited there, in that humble town? Would they be welcoming? Curious? Friendly? How often did they dance? Was it fun? What lessons could the people there-the humans-teach?
And how much longer am I going to have to wait?
Ariel sighed, excitement bubbling within her stomach. The young mermaid had agreed to meet the great Witch of the Northern Seas here, just after sunset. After a particularly harsh argument with her over-protective father, the noble King of the Sea, Triton, the youngest mermaid princess was desperate for help. Help to prove her father wrong, to prove there was a potential for benevolence in all living creatures. To prove that humans were not mindless and barbaric fish-eating monsters.
Just how did she intend to prove this? By becoming a human herself, to mingle with them, talk to them. Reach out to the goodness in their souls. It was a drastic plan of action, she knew, but her father was so hopelessly stubborn. He never listened to Ariel's arguments, to her ideas about the world above the waves. To King Triton, there was only one explanation, only one answer: humans were evil. Plain and simple. But Ariel was of the age now, having recently turned sixteen, to realize that not all was plain and simple. Not anymore.
So, she had met with the mysterious Sea Witch in secret. Rumor had led her to believe that the witch's powers were the only magic strong enough to transform a mermaid into a human. Apart from the sacred Trident of the Royal Family of course, which belonged to her father. Not that Triton would ever commit such blasphemy with the treasure of his ancestors, said to possess the power of Poseidon himself…
At last, Ariel spotted a break in the water, as the large figure of the Sea Witch emerged. Head first, the creature rose out of the sea slowly, ominously, as if enjoying the dramatic entrance.
This overweight semi-squid of ill repute, the Witch of the Northern Seas, grew an unnerving smile when she locked eyes with the mermaid princess.
Ariel felt a hint of revulsion whenever Ursula was in close proximity. Those creepy tentacles, that smarmy grin… Still, she had to make herself believe that not all the horror stories she had heard regarding the Sea Witch were true. Surely Ursula had helped numerous sea folk in need of magical intervention to their problems before, and even after, her banishment from the kingdom? Ariel guessed that she hoped to see the compassionate side of the sorceress too, just as she hoped to witness it amongst humans.
Upon the shore now, Ursula sauntered over, somehow managing to 'walk' on her tentacles. Slow and shuffling, she approached Ariel in silence. The mermaid suddenly wished to already have her human legs, if only to greet the Sea Witch at eye level. Sitting upon the sand, she was helplessly immobile out of the water.
Graciously, Ursula lowered herself to a seated position when close, sinking into the sand. Her tentacles twitched and moved every which way, almost as if they each had an individual life of their own. One even slithered around the narrowest point of Ariel's tail, as if predicting that the mermaid may attempt to escape.
Ariel met the witch's gaze evenly and tried not to flinch too obviously as the cool tentacle ensnared her.
"Good evening, princess," Ursula finally spoke, lazily, in her low husky voice. "I was afraid you'd change your mind and not show up."
Ariel carefully and slowly attempted to retract her tail from Ursula's slimy grasp. "I'm the one who's been waiting for you, Ursula."
Ursula threw her head back and cackled. "Impatient, aren't we?"
Ariel shrugged, still trying to appear as calm and unnerved as possible. "Maybe you're just late? You did say just after sunset, and I've been waiting for you since then."
The witch's violet-covered eyes trailed down to the small bag that rested at the mermaid's side. "Oooooh, what have you brought me? You'd better hope it's enough to pay for my… services."
"Oh?" Ariel blinked before realizing what Ursula was referring to. She plucked her bag from upon the sand before reaching inside and retrieving a stunning jeweled necklace from within. "This… this is from the royal treasury," an intense wave of guilt washed over the mermaid princess as she handed the item to Ursula.
"Oooh, shiny," Ursula cooed, holding the necklace aloft.
"And this," Ariel continued as she reached for another item within her satchel, "is from my own personal collection. Although… I don't know what it is…"
Ursula eyed the offering with contempt. It was one of Ariel's 'human' treasures that she had collected from her many explorations under the sea. This particular item was a goblet encrusted with rare jewels, possibly once belonging to human royalty.
"Bah! What do I want human junk for?"
Ariel lowered her gaze. "Well, it… it looks valuable."
Snatching the goblet roughly from the mermaid's grasp, Ursula sighed: "Well, I suppose… I could remove the gems. They are rather pretty."
Breathing a sigh of relief, Ariel quickly added: "There's also one hundred sand dollars in there," the bag was thrusted toward Ursula, "I'm sorry, but it's all I have… I feel bad enough about taking the necklace from the palace…"
Ursula eyed the first item again. "This… was this your mother's?" The Sea Witch grew a smirk.
"Of course not!" Ariel snapped, frowning suddenly. "I would never give away anything belonging to her."
The sorceress held the mermaid's glare for a long moment. Then she let out an exaggerated sigh. "I suppose it will have to do."
Ariel's expression softened, as she let out another breath of relief.
"But, dear princess, are you sure you want to go through with this? I don't offer refunds, y'know."
Almost immediately, Ariel nodded with conviction. Ursula tutted, feigning concern. Princess Ariel of Atlantica, youngest daughter of King Triton himself, was either the bravest mermaid the witch had ever met, or the craziest.
The precious thing wants to be human. How utterly ridiculous! Oh I'll make your wish come true, sweetie, I can guarantee you that…
Ariel's excitement was reaching bubbling point again. "So how long can you make me a human for?" She suddenly asked.
Ursula appeared to think for a long moment, contemplating the possibilities. Finally she answered: "One year."
Ariel's sapphire-blue eyes grew large with shock. "Wait… what? A year? A whole… year? Isn't that…"
"One year, precisely. Take it or leave sweet cakes." The Sea Witch sneered.
"But…" Ariel trailed off, her gaze drifting to the distant human town far along the shore. A year was far too long! She had wished for several days, maybe a week… But a year? She could not tell her father where she was going… or why… Ariel did not wish to be separated from her family and friends for twelve long months.
The mermaid's shoulders slumped, and Ursula sensed she may reject the deal. Time to sweeten it up a bit…
"Come now, it won't be so bad," Ursula began in a dismissive tone, and Ariel's gaze returned to hers. "I'll even throw in some bonus gifts! Like… this!" The Sea Witch snapped her fingers, and practically out of thin air, conjured a shining hand mirror, encrusted with gold-colored seashells.
Ariel gasped in awe, reaching out to claim the mirror, which had instantly enamored the mermaid with its beauty and magical properties.
"No ordinary mirror, I assure you," Ursula began to explain. "It can show you anything you want to see… you need only ask it."
"Really? Anything?" Ariel stared at her reflection in the mirror's polished glass. "So… I can check on my father, and my sisters? To see if they're alright?"
"Precisely," the Sea Witch nodded. Noticing Ariel's enchantment with the gift, Ursula allowed herself to grow a smug grin.
"And this," the powerful sorceress clicked her fingers once more, magically conjuring another item, this one a shimmering purple flower. Plucking the stem out of midair as it somehow hovered there, Ursula began to explain its use. "This is going to bloom for one year from today, exactly. The petals will fall off as your time as a human comes closer to its end."
"So…" Ariel gently retrieved the mystical glowing flower with a trembling hand, "so, I'll know how much time I have? Before I can come home?"
Ursula nodded once more. "Mmm hmm. Bright girl, aren't you?"
Ariel was not aware of the note of underlying malice in Ursula's deep voice, as the mermaid was now transfixed on the silky purple rose-like flower. She had seen them before, during her many explorations for human treasures, growing in dark crevices upon the ocean's floor. They were known as the sea-rose, and usually glowed dully, as this one did, although Ariel was not sure if they were normally capable of being suspended in midair as she had witnessed of hers.
With magical mirror in one hand and enchanted sea-rose in the other, Ariel glanced back up at Ursula, reluctance still evident in her eyes.
A year… it's such a long time…
Ursula could sense the deal eluding her again. She had to think quickly. Raising a tentacle to Ariel's left shoulder, the Sea Witch offered: "How about this? If you can find a human to love, one that truly loves you too, you can remain human—permanently."
The mermaid's eyes grew wide again. Ursula bit her bottom lip, hoping to convince Ariel that this was a wonderful bargain. She's a teenager, don't they all want adventure and romance? C'mon, girl.
"I… why would I…" Ariel stammered, not knowing how to reply.
"Oh come on," Ursula encouraged in a light-hearted tone. "Doesn't Daddy think humans aren't even capable of feeling? Wouldn't that be a great way to prove him wrong?"
"I… maybe," Ariel shrugged. Could it be possible? Finding a human that might… love her?
"Besides, everyone knows that the only thing stronger than my magic is Daddy's Trident," the magical manipulator continued. "If you DO want to visit your old home and family and all, I'm sure he can change you back!"
"Yeah… he could…" Ariel's answer was barely audible. Her head suddenly swam with notions of exotic romance, of learning the ways of the human world, of venturing where no mermaid had ever before…
Wanting to press the matter, Ursula leaned forward. Her face was only inches from the mermaid's. "So... do we have a deal?"
Her face suddenly a mask of seriousness, Ariel straightened her posture, looked directly into Ursula's eyes, and sharply nodded once.
Ursula was livid. How in all of the deep, blue sea had that mermaid princess returned, after all this time, alive and unharmed?
Her pet eels, Flotsam and Jetsam, were often sent to gather information regarding the state of affairs in Atlantica in Ursula's stead, and had recently returned with the impossible news.
Apparently Atlantica was now in a collective mood of joy, hope and celebration, for after an unexplained absence of several months over a year, the youngest daughter of King Triton was soon to return home. Sebastian, the composer crab of King Triton's court, had re-appeared after the same lengthy absence to inform his King that Ariel was safe, happy and well.
Ursula had enjoyed King Triton's misery and heartbreak over his precious youngest daughter's mysterious disappearance. Her sisters too, as well as the general population of Atlantica, had all been in an unofficial state of mourning up until the missing crustacean had returned. At first, Triton had ordered that every inch of the massive ocean be searched for any clues of Ariel's whereabouts, but as time drifted mercilessly onward, he had lost hope of ever seeing her again. He believed that, for her to be gone so long, could only mean one thing: Ariel was dead. Never coming back. Triton never expressed this conclusion aloud, fearing any hope Ariel's sisters or the denizens of his Kingdom had of seeing the mermaid princess ever again would be crushed, as his own hopes had.
But now, hope and happiness had returned to the Kingdom. Flotsam had mentioned something about a royal wedding too, but Ursula was too shocked and furious to hear any more. She could have spit up sea slugs!
What in the…? How is that foolish girl even ALIVE? She should be dead, either at the hands of those disgusting humans, or from lack of seawater once she became a mermaid again… depending on where she went…
Ursula slammed both of her fists down. She assumed Ariel would have not lasted long as a human, since the naive mermaid had known very little about the world above the sea. And of course, those humans…
Ironically the Sea Witch agreed with Triton's sentiments regarding human beings. On a rare journey to the surface to collect particular items to power her magical spells, Ursula had witnessed a human ship fire large, heavy balls at another nearby ship, before sailing close enough to board the target of their attack. These aggressive humans then slaughtered the inhabitants of the wrecked ship; men, women, even the children. They had shown no mercy. And for what? A few human trinkets? Disgusted but hardly surprised, Ursula had then silently retreated below the waves, not wishing to remain above sea level any longer.
Yes, humans were monsters, heartless killing machines… she had witnessed that herself. So how did the foolish princess survive a whole year among them? And where had she been for the last couple of months, after the spell had been due to end? If she was already a mermaid again, why not return earlier?
Flotsam and Jetsam had not heard the entire details of Ariel's situation, and Ursula knew she must gather more information as quickly as possible.
So where the heck are you, princess?
It did not make any sense. The Sea Witch could not fathom how this scenario had come to be.
Suddenly, her heavily made-up eyes widened in realization. Unless…
No. That was ridiculous! Could Ariel still be human, waiting somewhere up above the sea to be reunited with her father? His Trident could return her to her mermaid form, after all. How else was she going to return home to Atlantica?
But that would mean… Ursula shook her head, scowling. Had Ariel somehow managed to find a human who loved her? What an insane prospect! Humans were not capable of 'love', or any similar feelings… were they? Those monsters?
Why did I have to add that last part to the spell? It was never supposed to actually happen! Ariel was supposed to be gone forever, Triton a miserable shell of his former self, and I… I would bide my time until he was at his weakest, for the right moment to seize the throne!
And now some human, not to mention that trampy little mermaid princess too, had ruined Ursula's dream. Soon Atlantica would be a happy, carefree place again, and the mere thought of that made the sinister sorceress utterly nauseous.
"Flotsam! Jetsam!" Ursula suddenly exploded, snapping the underling eels to attention as they floated nearby. "Go back to Atlantica this instant! I want to know every detail about Ariel's miraculous return! Where she has been, when exactly she will come home… everything!"
Nodding in unison, the twin eels hastily swam out of their master's lair, not wishing to incur her volatile wrath.
The snow was falling gently now, the wind had softened to but a whisper. Just a little while ago, a vicious blizzard had raged, covering land and building in a fresh blanket of white.
Several tiny snowflakes drifted to peaceful rest upon the bowed head of a broken young woman. Slumping over the railing of the balcony adjoined to Ariel's bedroom, Belle stared, unblinking, at nothing in particular. Her eyes were bloodshot, her cheeks tear-stained. She tried desperately to keep her mind vacant of meaningful thoughts, for reality was too crushing to contemplate. Entertaining its existence could only lead her into oblivion, unable to cope.
But it was all too fresh, too raw, to avoid. Soon the memories of horrified screams ambushed her. Tightly shutting her eyes, Belle helplessly placed her hands over her ears.
First, it was Ariel, screeching in agony as a knife pierced her side. Then Gaston, bellowing in terror as he plummeted to his doom.
And it had all been her fault. She had inadvertently caused Gaston to trek here, hoping to catch Ariel, the rumored mermaid, and her talking sea creature friends. The mirror Ariel had entrusted to her had been the only way to prove her father's story true, so he would escape incarceration at the insane asylum. Or so Belle had thought.
Instead, Gaston seized the mirror and ordered for Maurice and Belle to be locked up regardless. Fortunately, it did not take them long to escape. There was no way she would allow anything bad to happen to Ariel and her friends, and Belle did manage to reach the castle in time to halt Gaston's plan.
Relieved that Ariel was safe, and perhaps after spending so much time alone together, Belle had allowed her emotions to overcome her, and welcomed Ariel's kiss with uninhibited passion.
And Gaston had seen them. In a manner of seconds, he had ruthlessly stabbed Ariel, before falling off the balcony to his own death.
No. He didn't fall. I pushed him. I killed him. I'm… a murderer…
Belle was too frightened to open her eyes now. Hunched over the same balcony Gaston had plunged from, she feared she would glimpse his broken, bloodied body far below, now that the weather had cleared considerably.
Nor could she turn around; an even worse vision awaited her there. Belle had, as carefully as possible, carried Ariel inside to the familiar comfort of her bed. And there, Ariel had spoken her last words and taken her last breath, dying only moments after Gaston inflicted the knife injury. She lay there still, pale, motionless, her blood soaking the silken bed sheets beneath her cooling body.
Her mermaids' tail had returned upon her death, not that it mattered. Belle had only gazed in surprise at the dull scales for a brief moment before succumbing to her intense grief once more. At some point, Sebastian and the others had left Belle alone with the body of their princess in peace, probably unable to witness the deceased mermaids' form any longer.
Eventually, too, Belle could no longer fathom being with the one she loved in this state, and had mindlessly trudged back outside and over to the fateful balcony.
And now, Belle could not stop herself from feeling the growing desire to throw herself over that same balcony railing. Ariel was gone. The townsfolk would label her a murderer, and want her to be punished accordingly. What did Belle have left to live for?
No energy was forthcoming to aid her leap, however. The young woman felt utterly drained, emotionally and physically. Perhaps, as it was still wintry, especially once the night fell, if she waited here long enough, hypothermia could claim her. She would not have to think about anything anymore, not her lost love whom she failed to protect, nor the fact that she had killed a man.
But as she pondered her fate, a small spark lit within Belle's mind. No… I can't… Papa needs me… and Cheeky…
Mustering all of her effort to sigh, Belle quashed the notion of suicide. It would be selfish; she could not burden her father with such grief. She would have to find a way to cope beyond her own misery and guilt.
Soon, another calming idea dawned upon her; perhaps she could find the strength to return Ariel to her ocean home. Belle felt she owed that much; the creatures, too, would be grateful for the gesture, and for help finding their way back to the sea.
Ariel… I love you… it's the least I could do…
Suddenly, a whisper roused Belle from her bittersweet musings. Her dreary eyes sprang open, as she tried to determine where the voice had come from.
It was a woman's voice, soft, inviting. Somehow, it sounded as if it were emanating from over the balcony's side, just below the puzzled Belle.
'Je vous adore…'
Cautiously, Belle peered over the railing's edge. Instead of seeing the castle's exterior as she believed she would, a mysterious swirling mist greeted her disbelieving eyes.
This mist shimmered, sparkling with an unknown magical quality. It was just below Belle's gaze, seeming to expand now, threatening to engulf her…
'Belle… Je vous adore… ma cherie…'
Belle could not help but grow a weary smile. She knew that voice… it spoke in such a loving tone…
Full of hope, she whispered back: "Ariel…?"
Somehow, she knew that was wrong; her mind and heart desperately wanted Ariel to still be alive, to return to her. The voice was familiar, but… Belle's mind was clouded, her grief so fresh. She tried to recall… upon the edges of her mind…
A slender, feminine hand slowly arose from within the mist, reaching out to tenderly cup Belle's cheek.
'Ma cherie… please don't cry…'
The hand felt so warm, so soothing. Belle closed her eyes tightly, allowing this healing touch to begin calming her shattered soul.
Again, despite her doubts, only because she wished so greatly for it to be so, Belle whispered: "Ariel…"
Without warning, the hand roughly seized her throat, somehow growing thicker, coarser. Belle was too taken by surprise to react, as her eyes opened wide in alarm.
The voice spoke again, but it was louder now, and sounding very different from before. It was deeper, huskier, with snide undertones. "Are you so obsessed with that mermaid that you've forgotten the voice of your own mother?"
Belle gasped, before reaching up with her hands to try and loosen the mysterious assailants' grip. Unexpectedly, and to Belle's horror, several tentacles, black as inky night, swiftly emerged from the mist also. They wrapped around the mortified woman's hands, her torso, her hips, restricting her movement.
The human hand, now pudgy and forceful, continued to squeeze Belle's throat.
"You're a killer, just like the rest of them!" This now sinister-sounding voice snarled. "A monster! You don't deserve to live!"
With a cackle that sent shivers down the struggling Belle's spine, the evil creature hauled the incapacitated woman over the balcony with a mighty tug of their tentacles.
Belle braced herself to fall, still lodged in this beast's appendages.
Perhaps they're right… I do… deserve it…
Instead of heavily crashing onto the bricks and stone of the decrepit castle, Belle was shocked by the sensation of plunging headfirst into deep water.
Unable to move, she still resisted against the creature's binding tentacles. Her eyes wide, Belle searched for the face of her would-be killer in the murky depths, but she could only decipher a large blur of two arms and six visible tentacles.
One hand still clenched her throat, several tentacles squeezed her body. Being underwater, Belle could not even open her mouth to plead for her life. Not that it would have helped.
Drowning, helplessly fighting a losing battle to stay conscious and subsequently alive, Belle felt her mind growing hazy. Soon she stopped fighting against the creature's relentless grip.
In the swirling, salty blackness she thought she heard the tentacled-one's gravelly voice speak one last time:
"Good night, Beautiful Monster…"
Next time: King Triton finally appears.