Alaia Skyhawk:

Disclaimer: I don't own Rise of the Guardians, the Guardians of Childhood, or any related characters etc. This story is written purely for entertainment purposes.

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Chapter 124: Understanding Fear

"Are you sure about these candidates? Do you think they have it in them, to learn to understand the truth of Fear?"

"As sure as I can be. They're the best out of the bunch I had to pick from."

Jack and Kosmotis stood either side of the doorway, looking through it into the room on the Moon Clipper where the six Steward candidates were sat entertaining themselves with various quiet tasks. Yeress and Rheen. Orund and Wover. Therime and Toris. Two women and four men, all of which held an ingrained terror of Fearlings. Kosmotis could sense it in them, and it would be a barrier they'd have to overcome. At the very least certain precautions would have to be taken.

Kosmotis glanced at Jack.

"Their understandable issue with Fearlings will need to be dealt with first. At present they will be an irresistible magnet for them."

Jack clicked his fingers, a handful of circular bands of frostdust materialising to hang from them. Just large enough to be worn on the wrist.

"Same thing that worked for you, should do it. Strong enough to ward them against any chance of possession, but weak enough to have no effect on their fear levels. I thought things over a lot while I was on Lumeris, and I decided that another thing that worked for you would be the best place to take them for their first test and outing." He grinned. "'Thrill seeking' isn't in their vocabulary. They've no idea of what it's like to have Natural Fear and Fun mix."

Kosmotis raised his eyebrows, but was also wearing a slight smile of humour.

"And which amusement park did you have in mind? Remember, the six of them will be visible. Which means the need to pay for entry."

Jack reached into his hoodie's pocket with his other hand, and pulled out a wedge of tickets.

"What do you take me for? It's not like the great sculptor, Jackson Overland, is short of cash. Last time I checked, I was a multi-millionaire and pushing towards being a billionaire thanks to some companies I bought-out. I need to set up some more charitable projects to spend my profits on. Six tickets is nothing; I could buy that amusement park if I wanted to."

Kosmotis had the grace not to look put-out by that remark, but then it was no secret that the Guardian of Fun was more wealthy from his art and recent investments, than the Guardian of Wonder was from his long-established timber business. Even if both also spent all their profits on others. It was an undeniable advantage when your work involved inspiring millions of children. Of course not all immortals were impressed, but then the ones who looked down on it didn't understand the costs involved.

Jack and Sandy were the only Guardians whose work could be done entirely for free. Tooth, North, and Bunny all distributed gifts, which required sourcing and finance of supplies. Especially since Tooth had now moved permanently away from giving dropped coins collected from around the world. Her little trinkets were far more popular than money, with famine now a dimming memory in formerly-deprived regions. One of the companies Jack had bought, now had an entire production-line dedicated to manufacturing the basic components of those trinkets. Although naturally it was a team of North's highly-experienced yetis who did the final assembly and quality checks.

Shaking that thought aside, Kosmotis set off into the room.

"Then I guess we should get started."

The six candidates heard the sound of the two immortals' entrance, all of them rising to their feet. All of them had been given new clothing so they would fit in with Earth's population.

They recognised Kosmotis from Jack's frostdust conjuration back on Lumeris, but that model fell far short of portraying the true presence of the man. He permeated the air around him with a sense of steady patience, underlined by the feeling of an immense strength of will. This was an immortal who would take no nonsense when it came to his duties.

Jack noted the obvious tension, and moved forward to start putting a frostdust band onto a wrist of each candidate.

"Everyone, this is Kosmotis Pitchner, our Steward of Natural Fear. You can relax, he doesn't bite. The two of us are just going to take you on an outing for your first test and lesson with him."

As he finished with each one, Kosmotis came forward to shake hands with them in greeting. Once that was done, he watched as Jack conjured an ice mirror to their destination. Speaking as he did so.

"Jack has informed me, that he told you of the concept of mixing of Natural Fear and Fun. Being from the Old Golden Age, I know how strange the idea will be to you. Indeed, it was impossible for me to fathom it myself, until Jack took me to the same sort of place he's taking us now. But once I'd experienced it, I understood."

He gestured for them to follow, the two immortals and six candidates passing through the mirror. They arrived among some trees, just off the side of a footpath, and the sounds of happy people, laughter, and amusement rides could be heard close by.

Jack now handed out the tickets, explaining.

"Just join the queue at the entrance, hand over your ticket to the attendant when it's your turn, and they'll let you through. Stay together and follow us. If you do talk to us, keep your voices down. A lot of the children will be able to see me, but most adults won't. For Kosmotis, few if any will see him, since his job doesn't involve a lot of direct interaction. This world hasn't reached the same levels of overall belief, as the worlds of the Allegiance have."

All six candidates frowned at that, with Rheen the one to comment.

"They don't all believe? But then how do you fulfil your duties to them?"

Jack now wore a self-depreciating smile.

"We make do with what we have, and get on with it. The levels of Belief and power we have these days, are actually much better than what we used to have. Go back twenty years, and the Immortals weren't public knowledge. Most people thought we were just myths and legends." He shrugged. "Besides, even now you can't expect every person to believe in every single immortal. To counter the Fearlings, this world was given way over the normal number of immortals. There's about three thousand of us. That's a lot of names to remember."

To forestall further questions, Jack now flew over to the amusement park entrance. Once there he landed atop the ticket booth, where he proceeded to mime silliness and pull faces for the entertainment of the children in the queue. Kosmotis also moved ahead, passing from one shadow to another one inside the gates. The candidates now had no choice but to join the queue and enter the park, if they didn't want to be left behind.

It was a full fifteen minutes before all six were inside the amusement park, and by now the flashing lights, music, and strange mechanical contraptions had them both awestruck and confused. The Allegiance worlds could match the park for general appearances, the rides were simpler than many everyday vehicles, but the atmosphere couldn't be compared to. Places like this didn't exist in the Allegiance.

Jack and Kosmotis led the candidates through the crowds, ignoring all the tamer rides and heading straight for the biggest ride in the park. Once there beneath the towering structure of soaring and looping track, Kosmotis faced the six once more.

He gestured to the ride, choosing his words deliberately.

"This is a rollercoaster. As you may note, the cars on it travel very fast. Should you fall out of one during the ride, injury is a certainty. If you fall out at one of the highest or fastest points, it is very likely any injuries would be fatal." The candidates began to look visibly nervous, unknowingly helped along by his nudge to their long-misused survival instincts. "Now join the queue, and make sure you all sit on the ride together."

Kosmotis now clasped his hands behind his back, the image of a patiently-waiting immortal. Jack was similarly composed, leaning on his staff. He also wasn't wearing any trace of his usual smile. The point at this part was not to reassure the candidates that the ride had a range of safety measures that made falling out of the cars impossible unless you were too short for the ride or there was a serious mechanical failure. He and Kosmotis wanted them to be scared when the ride set off.

The ten-minute wait gave the candidates plenty of time to dwell on the 'dangers' of the ride, and it was with considerable reluctance that they clambered into one of the rearward cars when their turn came. It was only then that the two immortals moved. To perch on the back of that car in a position the six couldn't see them unless they turned and looked. Not that they would. Their gazes were fixed forward in apprehension as the cars set off and began the climb to the top of the first big drop.

Kosmotis could sense the pounding of their hearts and their fearful gulps as the cars rolled along the short flat section at the top. Their fright peaking at the moment the front car tipped over the edge of the slope and proceeded to drag the rest of the train behind it in rapid acceleration.

That was when Jack stepped in, dousing the candidates with frostdust during that first downward rush. The train then swooped up the next section of track and over the arch, to thunder down the next gut-wrenching plunge. That was when the first of the six let out compulsive shriek of laughter, as the excitement of danger-without-real-danger sank in. By the time the ride was half-way, all six were gasping, shrieking, and laughing like the rest of the people on the rollercoaster.

That was when Kosmotis and Jack leapt off and returned to ground level to wait. The both of them observing with pleased smiles when the six candidates finally got off.

All six were overcome with the trill, laughing helplessly despite their pounding hearts. In the end the two of them had to walk over, because if they waited for the candidates to come to them, they'd be waiting a while.

Jack grinned once he reached them, and chuckled.

"So, was that fun?"

All six nodded, and it was Therime who managed to gasp out a few words.

"That was amazing. What was that?"

Kosmotis was the one to explain. He was still smiling.

"You just experienced Natural Fear mixed with Fun. Truth be told the ride was entirely safe, although I spoke truly of what would happen were it possible for you to fall out of it. Thus Natural Fear, to make you cautious about and aware of the potential dangers, rose up within you. But then came the moment when you faced the fall and no harm came of it, and with that comes a rush of relief and excitement. A rush of elation that kindles the sense of fun within you. That is, the thrill of a seeming close call with danger."

Jack now began to nudge the six into two groups of three, and then handed a small roll of paper tickets to each.

"You can trade these for food and drinks at any of the stalls. Go off, have some fun, and go on as many of the other rides as you want to. Kosmotis and I will come find you when it's time to head back."

The Guardian of Fun watched as the two groups set off in opposite directions, waiting until they were out of earshot before remarking to his fellow immortal.

"That went well. So, do they pass the first test?"

Kosmotis regarded him blandly.

"You know as well as I, that this was just a lesson and no test. No matter what we said to them before. The real test is to see how they interpret and learn from this. If they can't transfer the lesson and apply it to the real test, then they will be rejected as Stewards and sent home. Either they have the innate instinct for this, or they don't. There can be no half-measures, not for such a difficult role."

Jack slung his staff across his shoulders, nonchalant.

"Soooo, when do you want me to bring Sandy over?"

Kosmotis remained thoughtful.

"The day after tomorrow. They need to have time to discuss today's experience with each other."

~(-)~

The talk among the six of them had never been so enthusiastic, or indeed so loud, as it had upon their return from the amusement park. Jack had been right, back on Lumeris, when he'd declined to try explain the mixing of Natural Fear and Fun. No words could come close to the overwhelming first impression of experiencing it for themselves. It put Fear in a new perspective. Instead of something to be rid of, no matter the effort it took, it was something to value. The challenge would be understanding the fine line between Natural Fear, and the point at which it would tip over to Unnatural if left unbalanced.

She couldn't help but muse over that, quiet and contemplative while Toris and Wover still animatedly chattered about the amusement park over today's breakfast. They'd talked about it all of yesterday as well. She would have thought they'd have thought more on the point of the lesson, instead of the delivery. Then again, she couldn't blame them. Not after an experience like that.

Rheen sighed to herself and settled down with a sketchbook. Drawing a picture of a Ten-legged Lantern Bug from her homeworld. They were odd little creatures, and yet highly charming as they flittered through long grasses on warm summer evenings. Clinging to the stems with feet that glowed in an array of colours.

She was still sketching when Orund entered the room. He looked a bit puzzled.

"Have you seen Yeress? She was supposed to meet me to try out that Earth game, Chess."

Toris and Wover paused in their discussion, the latter shaking his head.

"I've not seen her since she went for a walk after breakfast."

Orund's frown deepened as he nodded his thanks and left again. The other three candidates resumed what they were doing, unconcerned. The Moon Clipper was vast, after all. Going for a walk and ending up further than you intended wouldn't be hard to do. The moonbots or moonmice would guide her back to the guest accommodation if she'd gotten lost.

Rheen continued with her sketch and resumed mulling over the matter of Natural and Unnatural Fear. Mentally debating with herself about what circumstances would be which kind. Yet soon the chatter of Toris and Wover began to intrude on her musings, to the point they became a real distraction.

She got up and left the room, deciding that her sleeping quarters would be a better place to go think. It was as she was on her way there that she noticed the uncharacteristic quiet of the passageways. The rooms of Orund, Yeress, and Therime were all open, with no sign of the three anywhere. Had all of them now gotten lost on a walk about the Moon Clipper?

A gut feeling of uneasiness began to edge at her, and her confident stride shortened to a cautious pace. Her gaze searching warily ahead of her as instincts told her something wasn't quite right.

Then came a quiet shuffle of sound behind her, and Rheen spun to face it. But before she could see who or what it was, she instead felt the soft thud of something in her face, followed by a disorientating lurch.

Her eyes snapped open and she looked around sharply, suddenly unnerved to find herself in the middle of a series of shadowed caverns. Ruined stairways and arches could be seen among the gloom, and black cages hung amid the darkness overhead.

There was another scuttle of sound and she spun round again, eyes wide and heart starting to pound. That was when Kosmotis' voice echoed around her, at the same moment a strange cloak dusted with white powder and golden sand, materialised and dropped to the rocky floor beside her.

"The cloak will stop them touching you, but it is up to you to make them leave. You have an hour to prove if or not you have what is needed to be a Steward of Natural Fear."

Eerie voices filled the silence after his words faded away. Wraith-like screeches and hair-raising hisses. From the darkness and shadows of the cavern, they came. Fearlings, ragged and desperate for the power of Fear. They clawed, glided, and slithered towards her.

Rheen snatched up the cloak and flung it around her shoulders, pulling the folds tightly around her as the Fearlings gathered close. They stopped just six feet away from her, circling her like scavengers.

Every time she flinched away from them, those she moved towards would back off, and those she moved away from would move in. Some of them grew bold, closing the distance to five feet with the occasional lunge. Herding her back and forth across the small area in which she stood trapped. Her mind was running in circles with terror, being so close to the things that had destroyed the Old Golden Age. And yet after a while a part of her started to wonder just why the cloak was keeping them at bay.

She turned her attention to it, grabbing a fold of the fabric and inspecting it with what little light there was. Most of what covered the cloth was frostdust, which she'd seen enough of now to recognise. The golden sand she wasn't sure of, other than that its power mixed seamlessly with that of the dust. When her fingers touched them, a faint tingle of comfort ran up her arm. At that same second the Fearlings around her stilled in a momentary pause.

She looked at them in surprise, wondering what had caused it. Her fear giving way slightly to curiosity.

They paused again, a couple seeming to lose interest in her, and Rheen held a hand to her heart in realisation. When puzzling over the cloak, she'd stopped dwelling on her fear of them. When she'd done that, they'd paused.

She started to smile, emboldened by their reaction, and took a deliberate step towards them. the Fearlings scattered backwards, shrieking in protest, and she darted forwards again. Every step she took, leaving behind her part of her fear of them.

More and more began to lose interest, slinking away into the shadows. The handful that remained appeared to be at a loss as to what to do, and Rheen at last understood.

"Fear and Fearlings only have power over me if I let them control me." She regarded the Fearlings, disdain now lacing her tone. "You may have been dangerous once, but now you'd just pitiful wraiths. You're nothing to be scared of."

She darted forwards again, going so far as to chase one of the Fearlings for several strides until suddenly she stumbled and her whole world flipped around her.

Rheen sat upright with a gasp, stunned to find herself on a bed in a brightly-lit room. Beside her sat a little golden man, an obvious immortal, who smiled and gave her a small wave of greeting. Beyond him sat Kosmotis, who nodded to him in thanks as the fellow floated towards the door.

"I'll be with you at the next candidate in a moment."

The little man smiled and nodded in silent reply, exiting the room before Kosmotis at last returned his attention to the confused candidate.

"That was Sanderson, Planet Earth's Guardian of Dream. For obvious reasons, I could not risk exposing you and your peers to real Fearlings, so I asked him to put you all to sleep and allow me to alter the dreams into a specifically-structured nightmare."

Rheen stared at him.

"That was a dream?"

Kosmotis nodded.

"Indeed, although no less important a test for being that. Therime, Yeress, and Orund all cowered for the entire hour, and so their nightmare was adjusted back into a dream and I left them to continue sleeping. They will have no memory of the test, and will be sent home on the first available ship. Toris and Wover are presently asleep in the adjacent rooms, and it remains to be seen how they will fare."

Rheen frowned, sliding her feet from under the thin blanket that covered her so she could set them on the floor.

"Then why am I awake? Why let me remember? ...Did I pass?"

Kosmotis smiled, moving to pick up a bundle of silver and grey cloth. When he unfolded the bundle, it was revealed to be a set of robes similar to his own, but far too small for his height.

"To acknowledge when danger is real, and caution needed, but also to set aside all fear that is unnecessary. That is what you will help those under your protection, learn. Well done, Rheen, Steward of Natural Fear. You've successfully learnt the single most important lesson your new role will require. Your ascension as an Immortal will take place this evening, after the remaining candidates have been tested."

Rheen tentatively accepted the robes, her expression scarcely believing. Yet then she broke out into a determined smile and held her head up with pride.

"I'll do my homeworld proud, when I return there to teach them the true value of Natural Fear."

~(-)~

Alaia Skyhawk: There we go, chapter done ^_^