Chapter Twenty-One: Before the Dawn
The Arctic landscape lay disturbingly still, as though the wind had fled with its escaping storm. Such lifeless air in such a lifeless place set Bunnymund's nerves on edge. His whiskers trembled as he stretched to his full height, balanced on a rocky outcrop with a view of the surrounding valleys. Darkness surrounded him in all directions, broken only by the distant glimmer of torch-light carried by the yetis scouring the hills.
It wouldn't be so bad, he thought, if only the clouds would let up. But without wind, the blasted things lingered on, covering moon and star alike. There would be no guidance with those in the way. By Pitch's design, the Guardians were on their own.
From her place at the base of the rock, Tooth's voice sounded strained. Not for the first time, Bunnymund fought down the fear that her fur coat and perch on a yeti's arm wouldn't be enough to protect her from the cold. He sank onto his haunches and sighed. "Nah. There ain't nothing around here fer…wait a second."
His whiskers twitched. In the still air, he scented something…warm. Like molten gold or white flame. It was stardust.
The stupid, futile hope that shot through him felt like a knife to the heart. He knew in the next thought that it couldn't be the Sandman, though it was similar in its own way. Ahead in the night, over the next ridge, he spotted a single glimmer of starlight. It was a flickering ember of the Golden Age.
The Easter Bunny bounded down, willing the hope within him not to rage out of control. Behind him, the yeti roared to signal their fellow searched and ran after him with torch lifted to guide their way. Toothiana clung to his fur and called after Bunny, but the pooka didn't pause to respond. He dropped to all fours, doubling his speed. The next word out of his mouth was a strangled curse. "Stewth. North!"
The old Cossack lay on his back in a pool of holy red, limbs splayed and head lolling. In his right hand, the golden sword of Tsar Lunar XI glowed with all its royal might. A sheen of frost covered North's skin and clothes. His cheeks seemed blue. His chest did not rise.
Behind him, Bunny heard Toothiana gasp. The pooka raced to his old friend's side, shouting his name and cursing each time he received no response. It was only when he reached the toymaker's side that Bunnymund saw the glittering spear-point of pure ice. It stuck up from the man's stomach like a triumphant flag. The murder weapon.
No. Not murder.
He is not dead.
Anger rooted in their bickering centuries bubbled around Bunnymund's heart. There was no way in all the planets and stars that he would lose Sanderson Mansnoozie and Nicholas St. North in the same day. If the fat idiot thought he could by the farm now, after all they'd lost, he had another thing coming.
Aster scrambled for his bandolier, twisting it until his claws found the back pocket and its hidden clasp. From it, he pulled a bite-sized egg wrapped in pink foil, the color of the pooka medical corps. The chocolate inside smelled of ginseng, eucalyptus, and a secret mix of herbs not known to planet Earth.
As Tooth and the yeti finally caught up, Bunny forced open North's jaw and shoved the chocolate inside. "C'mon you stubborn coot," he muttered, tilting back the toymaker's head. "Swallow. Get it down. You're not copping out on us now, you hear me?"
Toothiana dropped out of the yeti's grasp and rushed over, kneeling on North's opposite side. "What do we need to do?"
In answer, Bunnymund's paw closed around the icy blade. "We to get this loose. Slow and steady, yeah?" With no dull edge, the weapon opened a long cut in the pad of his paw. He ignored it. "If it splits we might never get the shards out. So don't let it break."
Toothiana nodded and offered her strength with both hands. Together, they urged the weapon out of their comrade, their blood mixing with his as it ran down the blade. It was not the first time the Guardians had shared their pain. Fate willing, it would not be the last.
Finally, the tip emerged, leaving the wound completely cleared. Once they were certain, Bunnymund flung the weapon away and let it shatter against a distant stone. Evil thing. Just looking at it brought doubt to his mind. They'd seen Pitch throw winter magic around, sure, but not with that kind of skill. Only the kid could do that, and that wasn't something Bunny wanted to believe.
Besides, there was no time to dwell on such things. Even with the weapon removed, North did not respond. Tooth lowered her blood-stained hands to hold one of their fallen friend's, clutching it close to her breast as though she could offer extra warmth. Their yeti guide, who stood over them with torch held high, let out a mournful wail. The rest were coming. Bunny could hear their feet on the snow.
North did not move.
"Come on." Even to his own ears, Bunnymund sounded desperate. His voice trembled. The flame of hope within him threatened to die. If it did, he knew he'd go with it. "You idiot. Don't do this."
"North, please." Toothiana's eyes shown with unshed tears. If they fell, they would freeze. "Please wake up. Please, please."
Their words hung dead in the still, frozen air. And then, finally…
Nicholas St. North took a shuddering breath.
Bunnymund nearly collapsed in relief, his limbs turned to pudding as he sank onto the frozen ground. Tooth gave a happy cry and flung her arms around the toymaker's neck. Their yeti friend sobbed with joy, yowling in Abominable that the boss-man was alive. Alive!
Aster ran a paw across his ears. A broken laugh burst out of him for lack of any better way to respond. "You lucky bastard. All that extra weight kept the blade out of your organs. It couldn't get through the fat. Guess that jelly-gut's good for something after all."
North snorted, his wound already closing thanks to the magical healing chocolate. A single wonder-filled blue eye cracked half-open. "Is muscle," he mumbled. "Not fat. Muscle."
"Whatever yeh say, mate."
Toothiana shook her head at the pair of them, but didn't move to untangle herself from around North's neck. Soon enough, they would have to move, and then they would face the truth of their predicament. The workshop lay in shambles. Christmas was ruined for sure. Without its magic, they barely had to belief to move.
But for this brief moment, they also had a glimmer of hope. And that was enough for now.
As Pitch Black stepped from the darkness, the shadows of his Realm rallied to welcome their master home. Black sand came to life and cleared his path of obstructions. Nightmares pounded their hooves on the eaves and rattled the Tooth Fairy cages, making their prisoners squeal. The combined chorus echoed like thunder through the sunken tower, as though night itself celebrated their divisive win. Surely, their victory was assured.
Pitch basked in their fervor, lowering Jack to the floor so his arms were free to spread wide. He oozed with primal magic. Close as he stood, Jack could practically taste its power. It grew stronger with each second as the loss of Christmas Spirit rippled through the world. Instinctive fears, long held dormant by the holiday light, rose again in children's minds. Their belief wavered. They began to doubt. And Pitch's power grew.
"Look here, Jack." Pitch bore the words on a happy sigh, sweeping through the Nightmare crowd to a platform that Jack did not remember. There, the burnt-out remnant of a globe stood proud, its iron continents holding their shape with no ocean in-between. Tiny lights flickered on the surface but, as Jack watched, darkness spread across land like candles snuffed out in a breeze. Only a handful of believers remained, few enough to be counted with the naked eye.
"Isn't it the most wonderful thing?" Almost dizzy with joy, Pitch danced around the globe in long strides. "So many precious children at last recall the meaning of fear. It's beautiful."
Jack's agreement came out hollow. He swallowed in a failed attempt to clear his throat. The great globe that watched over the Workshop had gone dark with the rest of the Pole, but maybe the Guardians had gotten it back on-line. Were they watching now, the few who remained? Did they mourn the loss of children's faith?
Dammit. He shouldn't even care.
Unbidden, the image of Sandy's last smile flicked before Jack's eyes. His clean hands felt slick and warm, as though once more stained with North's blood. He held tight to his staff in an attempt to will the memories away, only to have them replaced by the sound of fairy wings and the rich smell of living earth…
A hand cupped his face, long fingers stroking the length of his jaw. From its touch, Jack realized that he was trembling. He looked up. Pitch's eyes glowed gold with new, raw power.
"Poor Jack," cooed the Nightmare King. "You must be exhausted. You haven't heard a word I'm saying."
"No, I…" Jack shook himself. Stupid. Get it together. "I have. It's really great. I'm…I just…"
"Hush now." Pitch shushed him, laying one finger against the boy's lips. He tapped it twice, then wrapped his arm around the boy's shoulders and turned him away from the globe. The Nightmares glared, but cleared a path. "You've been through so much these last few days. Such a dreadful ordeal. Of course you need to rest now. Come along."
He swept Jack into the hallways of the Realm, passing through the depths like water through a pipe. They'd changed again. Jack no longer knew the way. Somehow, the passages seemed thinner and more twisted than ever. Still, eventually, they reached Jack's frozen room.
"Here we are," said Pitch as he opened the door. "Just as you left it."
And so it was. Even the half-finished sculptures remained on the floor exactly like when they'd left for Burgess. Yet, for Jack, entering here was like stepping into a forgotten fantasy. He felt outside himself, disconnected, as though his body only existed to be pulled around like Pitch's puppet. His mind, meanwhile, remained with the Guardians and all the troubling thoughts that they contained.
Pitch lead him to the bed, where the snowbank cover was brushed aside so they both could sit. There, he tended to the wounds Jack had forgotten, wrapping glass-cut feet and treating the new bruises with a salve. His hand lingered over the nasty blue mark that marred a pale throat. Golden-silver eyes softened with regret.
"You know," he whispered, "when you disappeared that day and I realized you'd been taken, I was so…"
Jack stared at him. Could it be? Had the King of Nightmares truly been afraid?
"I worried for you, truly. You've always been such a precious, delicate boy. I knew the world would try to break you the moment it could. That's why I always kept you here, where you'd be safe."
Safe. Of course. Safe in shadows, away from wars that hurt his body and well-meaning Guardians who twisted his heart. They'd be safe from him this way, too. He'd never kill anyone again.
"I'm sorry that I didn't protect you back then," said Pitch as he fastened the last bandage around Jack's throat. "But you understand now, don't you? This is where you've always belonged."
He was right, of course. Pitch was always right.
The Nightmare King nodded his approval and stood, clearing the bed to lay Jack down and tuck him in with the blanket of snow. For a moment, he lingered by the bedside and pet the boy's hair, like he always had before. Then he leaned down and whispered right into Jack's ear.
"Do you believe in me, Jack?"
He hesitated, but it was so brief that it was barely seen. "Yes."
"Then believe that I will keep you safe. Here. With me. Forever."
Pitch's breath ghosted over the boy's temple. It felt reminiscent of something. Something that nagged at Jack as being important, special, magical...but he couldn't grasp its true form.
With a final pat of snow, Pitch turned to leave. He was at the door when Jack again found his voice. "Pitch?"
"Do you believe in me?"
Pitch paused. Then he laughed. He did not turn around. "What a foolish question. Go to sleep, my boy. You really do need your rest."
With that, he stepped into the hall and closed the door behind him. Jack stared at it for a while, trying to unravel why that answer left him feeling so raw and twisted inside. But the question was lost in the maelstrom of his mind and, finally, he could no longer resist his own exhaustion. As the Realm dragged him into a timeless sea, he fell into a deep and troubled sleep.
The black lock clicked shut, firm in finality. Pitch tucked the key into the folds of his robe and whispered to his waiting Realm. "Seal it."
The creak stubborn metal answered, echoing from deep inside the sunken tower. Pitch scowled and struck the wall with his palm, glaring up into the black stone ceiling. "I don't care what you want. He is never to slip away from me again. Do you hear me? Now seal the door!"
The Realm moaned at him again. Somewhere in the distance, it rattled chains.
"Fine." Pitch huffed and lay his hand flat against the wall. "Just do it."
He opened channels that linked his power with that of his strange home, allowing the Realm to feast on his newly-reclaimed strength. For centuries, this place had slept with his dormant strength, weak and sluggish in its stupor. Now it stirred, gorging itself on children's fear and the delicious sorrow of Jack Frost.
Around him, the hall reshaped to Pitch's will. The wall shifted, slid, and melted until the door to Jack's room vanished, leaving on a few dark dents and an iron knob. From within, the frozen chamber would appear to remain the same. Here, the outside betrayed the truth.
The task complete, Pitch took his hand from the wall. Fresh fear soon replaced what he had lost, his body thrumming with power. He itched to personally exterminate the last weak scraps of belief. They would be savored. And with Jack secure, he had nothing left to fear.
Laughing, Pitch swept his arms and summoned the Nightmares to his side. They galloped to meet him and, together, they became a wave of black sand that surged up from the realm into the cold December air. Soon, he would return triumphant, and all would be as it should: just him and his treasures and a world all his own.
Nothing could stop him now.
Unknowingly trapped, Jack Frost slept beneath his cover of snow. Around him, the icy room lay silent. The distant groaning of the Realm could not reach him here, nor did even the crawling underground beasts dare to enter.
But he was not alone.
From under his frozen blanket, a tiny figure stirred. It shifted, struggled, squirmed, and finally popped up like a brilliant blue-green bud in early spring. Babytooth – who'd spent so long in Jack's pocket that she'd nearly forgotten how to move – tumbled down the snowbank of his spine and curled, shivering, against the wall. Disoriented, she rubbed her tiny arms with even smaller hands and peered around the frightening, familiar room. Her wings hurt. Her heart hurt. Everything hurt and she could barely feel her Mother. This was a nightmare. An endless, awful nightmare.
When the feeling came back to her limps, she hopped up and tried to fly, but her wings would only carry her for brief hops before they stopped working. In this way she stumbled awkwardly to Jack, catching herself with palms flat against his jaw. She shook him, slapped him. Squeaked into his ear.
Get up, get up, we have to go. This is a bad place and there are bad things happening and so we have to go. We have to get out so please wake up my Jack Frost boy please.
He didn't so much as stir. Babytooth shrieked in frustration and sat down, fighting to hold in her tears. She couldn't cry. She wouldn't cry. No matter how bad things got, no matter how awful the fighting or how hopeless the trap, she would not disgrace her uniform.
But Jack wouldn't wake up and she didn't know how to help him and her wings weren't working and they were trapped, trapped. The Pole was on fire and the Pitch Black Man won and everything was awful and terrible and…and…
The instant before she covered her eyes, a silver flicker caught her attention.
A single moonbeam shown through an ancient arrowslit in the frozen wall, the same one that Sandman had found during her last infiltration. It beckoned to her with soothing light, promising that all would be well if only she heeded the call.
Babytooth leapt up, arching to the loophole on a burst of her weakened wings. She squeezed through the tiny passage, nearly getting stuck before she emerged in the wide, open chamber of the main tower. High overhead, the windows stood empty – the Man in the Moon had managed only a brief glimpse as Pitch burst into the real world – but his lone moonbeam sentry shown bright over the shadowy floor.
Looking up, Babytooth saw her many sisters, trapped in their awful black cage. Two more had been filled as well, and Babytooth feared that she was now the only free fairy remaining in the world. She called to them, but her voice was too weak and their prisons too far. Not a single one looked her way.
Steeling her courage, Babytooth buzzed down to the wet stone and stumbled after her moonbeam. It flickered at her urgently, leading the way through what seemed, for a creature her size, to be a range of mountains. Up close, they were revealed to be tooth vaults, emptied of their precious treasures. Her heart broke.
But then, as she looked closer, Babytooth realized that not all the boxes had been defiled. Towards the back of the room lay piles and piles that had not been opened or apparently even touched. Perhaps the evil Pitch Black Man wanted a back-up plan, or feared that the Nightmares would become too powerful. Whatever the reason, some of the teeth remained secure.
Welcome news to be sure, but what good did it do now? Babytooth stood at the center of the mounds and watched her guide flicker between them. She wished that she spoke moonbeam, or had inherited her mother's talent for language. She didn't know what it wanted her to do. She couldn't even fly.
As though sensing her confusion, the moonbeam bounced to meet her. Away from the support of its master, it was losing its light; it would not last much longer. Covering her in light, it sparkled with all its enchanted might.
And then Babytooth knew.
Like all Tooth Fairies, she was both an entity unto herself and a tiny fragment of their great Mother-Queen, who brought them all to life with Tsar Lunar's lost teeth. It would be wrong to call them a hive mind, since they all functioned independent of one another, but there were weak bonds between them that connected the entire squad.
With its last flash of strength, the moonbeam had bolstered the link between Babytooth and her mother. It lasted for only a split second, but that was enough to instruct her in what had to be done.
She had to find Jack Frost's lost memories.
Sandy at said as much, during the fight and in the dream he'd given Mother. With Jack's teeth, which had to exist, he'd remember who he really was. He would remember that he was a good boy. And since the moonbeam brought Babytooth here, that meant Jack's vault must be hidden in these tower peaks.
Babytooth turned to her daunting task, her heart pounding. This would be a dangerous mission. She was alone and vulnerable. It would take a long time. At any moment, the Pitch Black Man and his nasty beasties could return. If they found her, they would probably bring her existence to an end. If she failed, it was all over.
But this was for her Jack. So she would not fail.
Rolling up her feathered, imaginary sleeves, Babytooth went to work.