A/N: First things first: To all TMOK/WSLS fans who follow me and are reading this, neither of those fics are dead - see end A/N for full details.
This fic came about when, whilst watching RofG I got into a bit of a debate with Paul, a friend of mine, and his son; the conversation meandered a bit but ended with me being asked two questions by Paul and one by his son. It's these three questions that have driven me to write this story as my personal answer to them all; I'll tell you what they are in the A/N at the end, but see if you can guess what they are as the story progresses.
Speaking of which, we're starting right now; though I'll warn you this show's rated T for a reason...
Guardian of Heroes
They realised it must have been serious when without warning a portal opened at the very foot of the globe in Norths' workshop.
It was one of the Guardian of Wonder's better ideas following the aftermath of the war with the Nightmare King and subsequent permanent recruitment of the Guardian of Fun; each Guardian now held one of Norths' customised snow globes as an emergency to either summon help or, worst case, make a break for it should Pitch Black return and strike at the children of the world and their protectors. As the tunnel of light shone the Cossack held his blades tightly in his fists, normally big eyes narrowed as he tried to think of what would have made either of the two Guardians absent from the monthly meeting resort to such measures; of all of us Pitch has the most to fear from Jack, and Bunny would use his own tunnels unless he had no other choice...;
"Be ready", he commanded gruffly, getting nods from both the Guardians of Dreams and Memories as they hovered at his side, whip and rapier ready for use as an indistinct shape became visible at the base of the wormhole. The yetis of the north were grunting in their own gruff tongue, the elves running for various nooks and crannies as they tried to stifle the bells on their hats that might give their positions away before, with a pop, the tunnel vanished, the figure snapped into plain, horrible focus and a familiar voice gave rise to a bark of command that nevertheless carried a great undercurrent of worry,
"Get some help down 'ere mates", the other three Guardians raced to the edge of the viewing platform in time to see the Easter Bunny and, more importantly, the shivering cargo he was half-carrying, half-dragging in his wake, "something's shaken 'im up bad".
"Jack!" Tooth was first to respond, a blur of colour as she and her handful of attendant fairies dived over the railing, helping the Australian lay the winter sprite down on a bench a nearby yeti cleared with one swipe of its brawny arms, the half-assembled toys atop it clattering to the floor as the two Guardians lay their charge and their friend atop it. Seeing the prostrate form of the winter spirit before her almost ripped Tooth's heart in half and she rounded on Bunny even as her hand sought Jacks, the one he didn't have clamped around his staff in a death-grip, and gave a reassuring squeeze,
"What the hell happened Bunny?"
"Nuthin' good", the rabbit replied, a frown heavy on his pensive face, "frostbite were where we thought 'e'd be all right but, but somethin' bad's happened there. I arrived to pick 'im up; you know 'e never remembers these meetin's when there's snow-days to be had; but when I got there I could tell somethin' was up. There were ambulances there, no kids on the street and it took me a while to scout out where Jack was; I found him like this and, well", the pooka shrugged helplessly, "I couldn't take 'im through the tunnels, not like he is".
A Russian curse was the answer to the bunny's quick explanation, North seeing the ashen face and trembling figure of the newest Guardian and motioning to the oldest; the Sandman stepped forwards, dream-dust ready but paused, scrutinising Jack's pallid face; after a second he stepped back, shaking his head, symbols already flying over his head to offer an explanation,
"Sleep's not what he needs, might easily become a nightmare", Tooth translated, brow furrowed, "what do you mean Sandy; was Pitch behind this? If it's him", there was a hellish light in her lilac eyes as she slammed a fist into her opened palm, Baby Tooth at her shoulder also looking fierce as the other Guardians winced; sweetness and light she might have been most times but threaten something or someone the Tooth Fairy loved and not even the Man in the Moon would be able to save you from her wrath, "it won't just be a tooth I knock loose this time!" There was some more signing above the Sandman's head before, taking charge, North reached forwards and casually scooped Jack up in his arms, looking to the other three Guardians around him,
"We not know standing here; Sandy says Jack needs time and not sleep so I believe him. We go", he gestured with his head towards his main office in the workshop, away from the bustle of the toy making and the curious stares of the yetis and elves, "and we let Jack recover in own time".
He turned on his heel and stepped forwards, taking care not to tread on an incautious elf with the other Guardians sharing glances with each other before, together, they followed in their leaders' wake.
Whatever had happened to Jack was something traumatic, that much they'd known from their first glimpses of him; this was the boy who Baby Tooth had said had been able to overcome the breaking of his staff and subsequent assault by Pitch Black the Nightmare Lord, so to see him shivering and paler than usual, almost unable to talk from his trauma, was something that wrenched their hearts cruelly. It took almost an hour for his hands to both let go of his staff and stop shaking enough to even hold a cup of some medicine Bunny and the Sandman had made together, though as he took his first sip Tooth took a glance around the room and flitted close enough to place a hand on his shoulder, smiling gently as the Guardian of Fun glanced up at the contact,
"Jack", she said gently, hiding the hurt in her breast at the sight of him so wretched with the experience of four-hundred years or so of practice, "what on earth happened to you..."
"Not", she was cut off as for the first time since Bunny had dragged him into the workshop Jack was able to force a word past his lips, "not me; oh Sophie, oh dear God Sophie..."
"What happened?" Bunny's ears were upright, straight in the air as dread seized him in a monstrous grip; the ambulances, they weren't for her, they couldn't be...; concern for the first human to have ever entered his warren made him neglect his respect for Jacks' shock as he stormed forwards, seized hold of the hand-rests of the chair the winter sprite was slumped in and leant towards him, desperate to know, "Is Sophie alright?" Jack's eyes, normally so brilliantly blue, were dull and lifeless as they found the rabbits' own and, to a relief Bunny would deny to his last breath, nodded,
"Yes, she was missed but, but not Monty", tears immediately froze the second they came into contact with his whitened skin, flaking away as Jack's head dropped and he openly sobbed, "Monty, he, he's... and I couldn't do anything..."
Bunny stepped back, ignoring the glare Toothiana sent him as a hard, cold ball of something dropped into his stomach; now he knew, or at least suspected what the ambulances had been called for. He was about to ask another question, albeit in a much gentler tone when he felt something poke him in the hip and glanced over to see Sandman shake his head. Falling into line with the older guardians' thinking the Easter Bunny remained quiet as North, normally booming voice subdued, stepped behind the chair Jack was crying in and placed a huge, meaty hand on his shoulder,
"Jack", he waited for the boy to look over his shoulder at him, "I know is painful but we must know, what happened to you? We were expecting lateness and for one of us to fetch you, but this", the Cossack shook his head, "no, not in hundred years. Bunny says he saw things in Burgess; what happened to the children?"
At the last word Jack shuddered so violently Tooth had to dart in to make sure he wouldn't fall off his seat; she continued to hold on to his hand for a long minute as he remained silent before, in a flat, cold voice that none present would have ever thought to have heard from the Guardian of Fun, Jack Frost began to tell his story...
...fun! It was all for fun!
His first believers, the children of Burgess; even without the fact his mortal body lay below the pond of the suburbs nearby Jack would always have deep roots here, least of all because it always snowed in winter due to its position on the earth. Now he was believed in, now he was truly a Guardian he would never miss a winter here; the fun was infectious and he was its catalyst; his staff trailed behind him to create snowballs in their dozens, fresh ammunition for the children who first believed in him and had saved the Guardians of Childhood from the nightmares of Pitch Black. His first believer, Jamie, was laughing with all his friends as even if they were approaching their teenage years now there was no denying their continued belief in the innocence of their childhood. He ducked a whizzing projectile, retaliated with one of his own and ignored the aggrieved shouts that he was a cheater, already had a second ball in his hand and taking aim,
The scream snatched his attention, his eyes shot from the whitened face of Caleb to the girl he was pointing at and all the fun drained away from the day.
A terrible, freezing numbness, a thousand times more piercing and paralysing than even the bitterest wind he could call upon, sank its fangs into his body and rendered it immobile; it couldn't blind his vision though, couldn't stop his mind from racing as he saw what had happened, what must have happened. The little girl who had melted Bunny's hardened heart was older now, better able to talk but still only a child of eight years old and now she lay in mortal peril; he could see the slightly raised corner of the paving slab she must have bumped into, the tumbled form of her little push scooter that had clattered to the floor after catapulting its priceless cargo into the middle of the road where she now lay, crying and holding one of her hands.
'Move...' he demanded of his body, he screamed inside his head, trying to aim his staff and direct a blast of wind that would blow her to safety but his hand remained locked around the wood of his staff so tightly he could feel the grain imprinting itself into his palm, '...Move, you're a Guardian, you have to...' there was a screech of rubber, the tortured shriek of car brakes being slammed on but not sticking enough, the driver down the suburban road caught by surprise at the sudden obstacle appearing in front of his vehicle. Sophie was still dizzy, still numb with shock and unaware of her peril as she tried to come to her feet '...you guard the children of the world; that is your purpose, so you have to save her!' But he didn't, he couldn't – something held him locked in place, unable to do anything save witness the tragedy that was about to unfold...
...and would have unfolded, had someone else not found the strength to break the shackles that held all the others in place.
There was a flash of reddish-ginger, his view was obscured for an instant as a body interposed itself between his tear-clouded eyes and where Sophie, now stood, had turned and screamed at the oncoming vehicle, the car skidding on the icy road and unable to halt its momentum. He would have yelled, should have bellowed aloud the denial that was hammering in his head but nothing came out, nothing save the merest croak of air as Monty, glasses askew and running as though his lungs would explode, burst through the row of cars parked neatly on the side of the road and flung himself headlong towards the paralysed younger girl in a flat-out dive. He took her in the shoulder, Sophie sent spinning and sprawling towards the side of the road and safety, but there was nothing between the airborne form of Monty and the oncoming car, nothing to stop the inevitable.
Nothing, until He appeared...
As the youngest Guardian broke off, shaking so badly he had to put his cup down and fighting back another paroxysm of sobs the other four all wiped tears from their eyes; none of them had been as close to the Burgess children as Jack was but for such a light to go out in the world, especially under such tragic circumstances, was a bitter blow for them all. Each was silent with his own thoughts for a long, long moment until, as Jack's tears began to flake away once more Tooth, having to wipe her own cheeks dry even if she never relinquished her hold on the Guardian of Funs' hand, wrapped her arms around him for a long minute before speaking again,
"Poor Jack", she murmured, feeling his shivering and doing her best not to shiver herself as, even now, hugging the embodiment of winters' chill wasn't a pleasant experience, "you had to see that..."
"Poor mite", Bunny had turned away to gaze out of the window, not wanting the others to see the tears clustered at the corner of his eyes, "it was him they called the services for, an' he did all that to save ma little ankle-bitah. He's a..."
"No!" Jack sprang to his feet, Tooth falling to the floor with a squawk as the Guardian of Fun stood tall, hand clutched around his staff so tightly the bones of his knuckles were visible beneath his alabaster skin, "don't say it! Don't call him anything, that's what He said, what He..." The anger fled from him and he collapsed back into his seat, cradling his staff as though it was all that would ever keep him upright, unable to finish. Bunny, having jumped back with his hands on his boomerangs at the sudden fright, slowly reholstered his weapons as Tooth came to her feet again, Baby Tooth flitting about her to check her mother was unharmed. Calming her progeny with a single finger pat on the head the Guardian of Memories smoothed herself down as, taking his cue from the question marks dotted over Sandy's head, North stepped forwards with his arms folded, a calculating expression fixed on his face,
"Who is He?"
"He", North repeated, pointing at Jack as answer to Bunnymund's quizzical expression, "twice young Jack mentioned Him; who is He Jack, do you know?" The question was asked gently but even so the younger spirit flinched before, with a deep breath, he turned his head back enough to face them all,
"Just before", he began, the words coming as slowly and painfully as though being dragged from him by hooks, "just before the... Monty was... it appeared just behind him, one second it wasn't there the next it was behind Monty and the car. It didn't do anything, I saw..." though he couldn't bring himself to say it, all present virtually relived the moment Jack Frost had seen one of his believers taken from him, snatched in an instant by the cruel hand of Fate, "...the car knocked Monty through it! I couldn't move, I was trying so, so hard but I couldn't move, I couldn't even blink or not look; it moved towards him, where Monty landed, and it stooped down, touched where he was bleeding. I can still see that, still see it stand back up, there was blood on its fingertips but He made it turn black; he flicked it, flicked his fingers and, and..." Jack took a deep breath... "the blood hit the children, and it hit me".
There was a guttural oath that made all present grateful they couldn't speak fluent Russian from the leader of the Guardians, Tooth clapped a hand over her mouth, Sandy had his head bowed and appeared to be thinking hard about something while Bunny's hands were clenched hard around his boomerangs, though the pooka was able to force himself to let go of the weapons enough to turn to his long-time annoyance and speak brusquely,
"Ya don't have a drop o' blood on ya snowflake; the nose", he pointed to his twitching nostrils as everyone else, Jack included, glanced at him agog, "it never lies. I'd'a been able to smell it a mile off; whatever happened it must'a been a spirit or somethin' though I've never 'eard o'one like that – the blood weren't real".
"The voice was though", Jack replied, normally boisterous voice flat and monotone, "it spoke as the blood hit us; remember".
"What do you remember Jack?" Tooth inquired,
"No, that's what it said; remember", Jack answered after a second of appearing confused by the question, "then it walked, or shambled would be a better word, it didn't look like it could walk properly, to where Sophie was and it, it touched her with those bloody fingers, like it was patting her on the head; never forget, it told her. Then it moved away, and I felt, felt like I could move again; I heard the other children screaming and running towards where Monty was, and I went to them".
He wouldn't say more than that on the subject; the raw grief, his own included, had been enough to render him mute even as the other children, Jamie and Sophie included, clustered around their friend before being shepherded away by adults who had appeared on the scene as though by magic. The driver of the car had been first; with tears in his eyes he had forced the children away from the body of their friend, not wanting them to see Monty as he was now even as his cries of help drew others like moths to flame. Jack could only watch, helpless, as in moments he was left alone on the snowy fields of Burgess, his friends and first believers too distraught to even see him as they wailed in the arms of their parents, shattered by the sudden loss of one of their own. They are safe; the word resonated in his numb mind, his shock buried beneath layers of self-preserving disbelief; the children are all safe. And I will make sure; a sudden flame was lit in his chest, an all-consuming heat that quickly mutated into a freezing, terrible coldness as he gripped his staff and called upon the biting wind to fly him towards where the dread spectre had casually befouled the body of one of his friends; they all stay that way.
"But I failed; I should have tried to stop it but I couldn't".
The sudden admission was enough to break the remaining Guardians of their melancholy, North the first to rubbish Jack's suggestion,
"No Jack, no; we are Guardians of children but we cannot stop every tragedy, every accident. Is impossible to try; you did right thing, trying to comfort children..."
"Yes, I comforted them, but I couldn't protect them", a smile, bitter and sad, broke through the winter spirit's formerly expressionless face as he went on, "when they were gone, their parents had them, I went looking for it, the whatever-it-was that had done, things to Monty's body. I was angry, so angry I felt like I could crush anything that stepped in front of me but when it came down to it, there was nothing I could do".
"It was gone?" Tooth translated the images Sandy made above his head and offered them as a suggestion; to her consternation however, this only caused Jack's bleak expression to grow ever more grave,
"Oh no, I found Him without a problem; He was waiting for me..."
"Who are you?!" Jack's furious question was echoed by a bolt of cold from the tip of his staff but his rage destroyed his aim; the evil-looking, stunted figure merely stepped around the blast before turning its blackened, disc-like eyes towards him, the lenses of its awful headgear sending an evil reflection of the winter Guardian back to himself as it appraised him,
"Jack Frost"; it was interrupted by the need to dodge another blast of ravening winter, Jack's staff twirling into a blur as the aggrieved Guardian sought to avenge his friend by smiting the fiend that could have saved him but hadn't. It seemed to disappear before the onslaught but Jack remained vigilant, too used to Pitchs' tricks of hiding in the shadows to let his guard down, until the same terrible sense of dread began to fall over him once more and he felt his muscles locking up, locking him in place even as he tried to resist and aim his staff at the squat figure who appeared from nowhere at his side,
"What", he managed to grate through clenched teeth, "why didn't, you...?"
"Salvation is not my duty", the voice was a razor-edged rasp, grating as it glared up at the Guardian it seemed to have paralysed, though as Jack continued to struggle it cocked its head, "you have met a fear before?"
Jack said nothing, as much to deny this thing any sense of victory as hide his confusion; before he could even think to ask the creature went on, apparently talking to itself,
"You have, and it has forgotten again", there might have been a trace of annoyance in its tone before it turned away, business apparently done as far as it was concerned until a reedy shout, all that Jack could produce at the moment, brought it to heel,
"What are you? How do you know my name?" it paused, shifting in its reeking clothes before there was a shuffle of leather and with a stink of ash and mildew, it looked over its shoulder at him, Jack having to fight not to shudder at the expressionless vulcanised face that scrutinised him,
"You were so nearly one of mine Jack Frost", it said, words that cut the winter sprite to the quick and left him rooted to the spot even as the unearthly terror began to ebb from him and he collapsed to his knees, helpless as the last words to the departing monster filled the air around him as it suddenly went, blinking out of existence as though it had never been,
"You were so nearly a hero..."
Jack remained where he was, the horror and delayed shock combining to keep him on his knees, shaking and shivering as tears formed and were frosted on his cheeks, hands clutched tight about his staff as he remained staring forwards at the spot the dread thing had last stood upon. How long he remained there he would never know, would never be able to recalled until the spell was broken by an Australian curse, the feeling of rough paws picking him up and the tinkling sound of broken glass from somewhere nearby...
"The hell did it mean by that?"
"Don't know", a laugh broke wetly from between Jack's lips, "don't want to know".
"Don't blame you snowflake; now I know why you were in such a bad way when I got there", Bunny said aloud, shooting looks left and right as he took charge of the situation, "this, uh, this thing; what d'it look like?"
"Something from a nightmare", all the other Guardians shared alarmed expressions, each suspecting their oldest adversary, before Jack spoke again, "it was small, really, not much bigger than you Sandy, but it was horrible, stunted and, and ugly, stank like an old fire and its face, the mask – I really don't..."
"Then you don't", North said with authority, nodding his head, "you have said enough Jack; you rest now, rest here, at North Pole. I have yetis prepare you a room; Tooth, would you show him way?"
"Sure; come on Jack", the female Guardian said with her sweetest smile, Baby Tooth likewise flitting around the frost lords' head as her mother helped heave the younger Guardian upright, "you look like you could use a nice, long rest and a plate of the elves' famous cookies; Baby, could you sort that? Afterwards, get some rest and we'll all deal with this in the morning..." The sound of her voice drifted away as Jack allowed himself to be led away, not seeing the small, golden something passed between the Sandman and his escort as the door swung slowly shut behind the departing trio.
It was about half an hour later when Tooth returned, the part-hummingbird looking as haggard as any of the others had ever seen her as she passed a few strands of dream sand back to their master and addressed the rest of her family,
"He's resting, out cold; I couldn't see any nightmares forming but I've got Baby Tooth watching over him just in case", she managed before her head sank into her hands, muffling her voice, "that poor child, both of them; what in the name of anything holy or sacred could do something like that?"
"I dunno, but it's something we need to watch out for", Bunny said gravely, idly flipping his boomerangs around in his hands, "you heard th' walkin' snow cone, whatever it was left some kinda mark on 'im an' the Burgess kids. It might come back again for 'em". There was a ring of steel being drawn, North glaring out the window with his fearless face on,
"And we will be waiting if it is; death of a child is tragedy, to bait one of us with it", he clashed his swords together threateningly, "there is no excuse. If Pitch did this, he pays".
"That he does mate", Bunny agreed, eyes hard and glittering with restrained malice as both Tooth and the Sandman nodded, faces determined and set, "that he does. 'Til he makes a move though all we can do is keep an eye on Jack, make sure whatever this new thing is it didn't have too bad an effect on 'im".
"It won't", Tooth said aloud, something more than determination in her voice as she fluttered upwards in a brilliant sheen of colour, "if Pitch has hurt our little Jack I'll find a way to undo it even if I have to march into that shadows' lair and rip the truth from his forked tongue". Bunny gave a laugh as Sandman gave his thumbs-up and an exclamation mark in agreement,
"Well said Sheila, an' we'll be right behind you on the charge; keep an eye on the globe North, second a light starts flickerin' we're going in".
Even as he made such a boast however the pooka knew, just as all the others knew, that facing the globe would be painful for a little while as, in a little corner of the world, one light had been snuffed out forever.
The next month or so was painful for all the Guardians, though they never said anything for fear of upsetting their newest recruit; Jack was not quite himself, not the spirit of fun that all remembered even if he completed his duties as before. The world was awash with whiteness as North made his deliveries for the year, the Guardian of Wonder able to lose his apprehension for one night as he made his famous run before returning to the North Pole and replenishing his energy with a plate of cookies and a good, long sleep. Even when he awoke though his thoughts, along with those of the other Guardians, were clouded by worry for Jack – he appeared, if anything, unchanged by his experience but sometimes, just sometimes when he thought he was alone there was something missing, or perhaps something that hadn't been there before; a sigh where before he would have laughed, a slow swirl through the breezes he conjured where before he would have been somersaulting and cart-wheeling, each a tiny crack in his otherwise youthful exterior.
None of the others knew exactly what to do though each had their theories; Tooth was always grateful of another pair of hands to help with the collection and Jack seemed to appreciate the work when there was no new snowfall due, North often had need of him to freeze big blocks of ice for him latest creation idea and the Sandman was careful to craft extra dreams for the young Guardian of Fun. Even Bunnymund, once Jack's fiercest critic in the Guardians, invited the winter sprite into his warren to help to help get the eggs ready, though he claimed it was just to make sure there wouldn't be another blizzard that might ruin one of his egg hunts. Still, despite their care and perseverance there was still unease around the entire extended family that something was wrong, something was still eating away at not just Jack but themselves as well, and the most galling thing of all was knowing exactly what it was. As Bunny put it during their January meeting, once Jack had gone following his stay needing to be brief due to a exceptional cold snap in Norway demanding his attention and personal touch, the problem wasn't the knowing, it was the not knowing that was the killer,
"Never heard o' anything like it", he confided in the others, each staying behind once Jack had blown himself out of the nearest window of the workshop, "talked to the other spirits I know but no, all of 'em blank about this kind of ghoulie".
"Same for me", North agreed, brows knitted with frustration, "I would say we ask Manny but, without Jack, will be hard to do so – only he know exactly what he saw".
"And he might not want to live through it again", Tooth finished for the big-bellied Russian, chin on one fist as she hovered in the air, "least of all to the big man himself".
"But we can't keep on like this", Bunnymund argued, throwing his hands up, "we're all ragging ourselves over somethin' we can't help with, and' worst of all is Jack's sufferin' worst. All that time in me warren, barely any pranks and all the eggs done, well ahead o' time – that's not the Guardian of Fun I know. And yeah, Sandy's right", he nodded at the little golden figure who had been making images above his head, "his dreams are fine but we can't do much about when he's awake; what happens when we're not there? I know he's not gonna go off the deep end but he's been alone a lot before an' he just lost a friend, one of his first friends – closest I can come to that was when Pitch did you in Sandy, an' even than it were only temporary".
The golden man nodded; one of the perks of immortality was that, beat each other down as they usually did, neither Pitch nor the Guardians could actually kill each other – temporarily banish or stall belief in yes, permanently end no. What Jack was suffering was a malady none of the Guardians knew or had suffered since their appointment as guardians, so each was at a loss to determine what to truly do next or even if there was a permanent cure; in the end it was decided that, should Jack still be in his slight funk come Easter, where he'd be helping Bunnymund round up the eggs, they would brooch the subject of consulting the Man in the Moon with the youngest Guardian.
Fortunately, as fate would spin her tapestry, in the end there was no need for such an august council to be called; the Guardians, all of them, would have their answers, answers that would change them all ever so slightly and, ironically enough, leave them with a greater understanding of their most implacable enemy.
It began with Sandman realising a small amount of his dream-sand was missing; since the debacle that had resulted in Jack Frost joining the Guardians and almost ended with the bogeyman victorious and the world cast into shadow for all time, the Guardian of Dreams had kept a much closer eye on his supplies of dream dust and was therefore quickly able to indicate something might have been amiss. Following such a warning St North was able to keep a closer eye on his globe and, following a warning barked by a yeti, the warning lights had flared in the sky, the Guardians had mobilised their forces and now, because of such preparation, they stood facing down the Lord of Nightmares himself, Pitch Black glaring down at them imperiously from atop a tall building, a cloud of nightmare sand above his head and several coal-black horses nearby, eye glowing down at the guardians who had assembled before him,
"Give it up Pitch", Bunnymund demanded, twirling his boomerangs around and daring the nightmares nearby to try his range, "you've nowhere near the forces you had, go back under the bed where you belong". The sallow man gave a humourless chuckle as he stared the pooka down,
"I've been under the bed and forgotten for far too long rabbit; besides it's not what you have that matters, it's what you do with it that counts. I'm surprised you cottoned on so quickly this time Sandman", the small man glowered at his adversary, Tooth nearby scowling as she speared her thin rapier towards him, "tell me, can you stop all of this? A single grain of my nightmares in your sand, just a hint of fear in a dream; you know how fear grows and spreads don't you? I made the mistake of facing you in force Guardians; I won't make that mistake again".
"No, you make mistake of facing us at all", North bellowed, swiping his swords forwards, "we banished you once Pitch, we do so again". The nightmare lord smiled cruelly,
"So you say; why Jack, my dear Jack Frost; finally believed in I see?" The Guardian of Fun scowled at his former tormentor as Pitch laughed aloud, "Surely the Man in the Moon has lowered his sights to allow things like you into his select company; still, I haven't forgotten", his eyes suddenly narrowed in on brilliant blue of the frost spirits' and drank joyfully of what they registered there, a raucous laugh penetrating the night, "haha, but you have! You've forgotten your courage, your bravery; you're all but shaking before me!"
"Jack", Tooth's voice was low as she was closest to him, her fellow guardian having been helping out at the Tooth Palace just before North had sent the signal to prepare for a fight, "its okay, we're all..."
"It's him", the winter spirit hissed back, apparently not having heard her at all and looking around wildly, staff extended outwards like a spear as he crouched, ready to spring like a feral, cornered beast, "he's here, can't you feel it?"
Tooth would have asked him what he meant had it not been for two things happening almost simultaneously; first was the realisation of the chill that crept over her, something she had originally thought was to do with Pitch's presence but now recognised as something else, something wholly alien; before she could question this or even speak it aloud to any of the others Guardians nearby, someone else saw his chance and grasped at it with both hands and an evil intent.
Pitch had not, in honesty, expected to best the Guardians here, or even at any time in the future; following his loss to them and their insufferable helpers he was still weak and recovering his strength; this was a probing attack, an idea to see if any new holes in their defences he could exploit had opened. Obviously the Sandman's dream-sand was better accounted for so going by that route was going to be more difficult but the sight of Jack Frost, the one who'd reduced him to his current condition of weakness, turning his back on him as he sought out some invisible threat was not one he was ever going to let up. With a thought his scythe had shifted into bow form and the nightmares at his side were let loose in a tide of blackness, each of them expendable to ensure the shot Pitch loosed at the youngest Guardian went home. It was almost too perfect; the stupid boy seemed not to hear Tooth's shout of alarm, the boomerangs and dream-whips of the other pests were unable to penetrate the nightmare screen around his bow-shot; Pitch leaned forwards, expectant of the kill, before the nightmare sand obscured his vision and he let out a cackling, triumphant laugh. Well, not all went as planned but to rid myself of an annoyance is certainly... what?
The cloud of darkness obscuring his vision wasn't diminishing, in fact it was actively getting larger as, to his horror, the other nightmares outside the original torrent were disintegrating, their dark dream-sand drawn into the swirling maelstrom sweeping over the road where the youngest Guardian was still hidden. With a snarl Pitch yanked on his servants' mind only to find they would not obey him, they were torn from his grasp by another, older voice with more command in it than his own, one the nightmares would not dare to disobey; but, I am the Lord of Nightmares, the Bogeyman? Who has more command over fear than I?
The question was answered mere seconds later; the cloud of nightmare sand seemed to suddenly collapse, sinking in on itself until all that remained were two figures; one was Jack Frost, the child leaping backward from the form of something else, one that set off a vague hint of recollection in the back of the Bogeyman's mind.
A hint that, to his great regret, he would ignore in favour of his anger.
The other Guardians had been distracted slightly by the coldness of the night that, like Tooth, they had originally ascribed to Pitch's doing, but as the Bogeyman had made his sudden strike all had been caught flat-footed. Bunny and the Sandman had done their best to blunt the attack but they couldn't know if it had been enough; all were rushing towards where Jack had been, hearts in mouths as they each prayed they weren't too late, before a sudden blast of frigid feeling held them in place, all but making them fall over each other as the dust cloud congealed into another form, Jack jumping away from it as the last of the dust was seemingly absorbed by the creature that revealed itself from the cloud of blackness Pitch had created.
Jack had been right; whatever it was it was something birthed from a nightmare - from its position most of the Guardians were behind it, only Tooth could see its front and as she almost fell from the air with her face bleached in shock all of them considered what she was being forced to see was worse than their view. It seemed to wear some kind of great cloak, a heavy, smothering garment that somehow stank of ash and water at the same time, the edges frayed and singed as though by fire. Worse that its appearance though was the cold it radiated; all the Guardians were used to cold (hanging around with Jack Frost or living at the North Pole, how could they not be?) but this thing was producing something beyond mere chill. While Jack's winds would chafe skin and redden cheeks and noses this unearthly aura seemed to ignore the skin, bypass the muscles and squeeze an iron fist around the heart and the soul; it was the chill of nothingness, the breath of nihilism and, as the fiend turned ponderously and held something up to the moonlight, all of the protectors of children felt something at their centre recoil at the face of the monster.
"Fear", the voice was gurgled, distorted through what looked like some kind of gas-mask, the shout dislodging a puff of nightmare sand from the heavy cylinder at the front of the breathing apparatus as the shorter of the two nightmares held something forwards towards the distant figure of Pitch Black, "you have forgotten".
That's...; and it was – upon a short, curved blade that seemed to swallow all light that touched it and yet still gleamed dully below the light of the moon, the arrow the Bogeyman had launched towards Jack Frosts' defenceless back was impaled and rendered harmless; ...but, why would he save Jack? The question echoed around the minds of the assembled Guardians, least of all Jack himself, but before they could regather their courage enough to ask the question aloud a shout came down from the only one present who seemed at least somewhat immune to the appearance of this new horror,
"And who are you to interrupt my work?" Pitch shouted down, angry that his revenge had been thwarted by a stranger even if he couldn't entire quash the sense of familiarity that nagged the back of his mind, "I am Pitch Black, the Lord of Nightmares, the Bogeyman – who are you to try and stand before me?"
The figure was silent for a moment before, with a shiver of its blade, it made the arrow of dark sand disperse, the nightmare sand seemingly swallowed by the thick coat the monster wore to no obvious effect. Moonlight glinted off the two disc-like plastic viewing panels that were set into the mask, a mask that more than one of the Guardians could now see was partially melted, almost to the point where in places it wasn't obvious where face ended and rubber began,
"You have forgotten even me", was there a trace of melancholy in its voice? If there was no-one, not even Pitch had time to call the monster on it as it stepped forwards, mind apparently made up as it stalked towards the building Pitch still stood atop. For his part the Bogeyman snarled, creating a scythe of pure shadow and jumping down to engage this new enemy, swinging for the shorter figure even as his feet touched the floor. If he had been expecting the figure to parry or dodge the blow, however, he was to be sorely disappointed; the blade of his weapon sank without noise or trace into the chest of his adversary, the suddenness of the contact almost making Pitch stagger as, unbeknownst to him, the impromptu audience of five were held spellbound, still not entirely free of the numbing aura of the unknown stranger. The Nightmare Prince smirked wolfishly as he realised his success, only for the expression to drop clear off his face as his opponent, apparently unharmed by what should have been a crippling, if not lethal strike, grabbed the haft of his weapon and heaved it upwards. Pitch tried to sink his feet into the shadow of the street to anchor himself but, to his horror, was uprooted anyway, his feet torn free as his opponent hefted him off the floor and then slammed him back down onto it, his scythe dispersing to nothingness as he lost focus on it. He snarled up at his aggressor, seeking to rise to his feet only to freeze in place at the sudden terror that swept over him.
He was not the only one; even if the unearthly fear wasn't directed at them directly all the Guardians fell prey to the backlash of it; each of them froze though each was fighting it, Jack in particular giving his all to try and get his staff in position to deliver a shot of ice into his opponents' turned back. All tried to raise their weapons, even to save their most hated enemy from this nameless horror that stalked towards his downed form, but none could overcome the shackles that had been clamped onto them by its malign dread and therefore all were forced to watch on helplessly as Pitch was grabbed by the neck and thrown to the floor, unable to even scream his last as his enemy's curved blade shone in the moonlight for an instant before it plunged downwards. There was a terrible screeching, scraping noise as the tip of the knife hit the tarmac next to the Bogeyman's left ear, though before any present could draw a breath of relief Pitch had been dragged upwards, face to mask with his opponent, and the same terrible gurgle filled their ears as the viewing panels of the gas mask seemed to glow with a hellish, chilling light,
Pitch didn't scream, didn't pass out; in fact, as the Guardians' all watched on he seemed to actually relax a little as he held the sightless gaze of the dreadful thing; the punishing aura of frost seemed to recede a little until, in a heartbeat, it was gone, left as though it had never been and each of the Guardians was suddenly able to breathe again, shaking the last of the cold from their beings as the aggressor let Pitch go and stepped away,
"Wait", a call from the Nightmare Lord gave the departing figure pause, "forgive me, I forgot myself..."
"Know your role fear", the answer was colourless, as much advice as it was an order, "the more you play your part the less I will be forced to act mine".
With that and with no other warning the other figure simply ceased to exist; each of the Guardians unconsciously moved closer to the others, breathing raggedly and trying to come to terms with what they had just witnessed, as Pitch clambered slowly to his feet, shaking as old memories resurfaced once more and he realised with throbbing head that he'd gone wrong once more. Urgh, that must be the sixth time now – even if I'm one of the closest fears to humans that's no excuse for forgetting myself so easily, oh, wait; belatedly recalling the witnesses to his latest misdemeanours the he span around; Guardians and Bogeyman regarded each other for a long moment before, with a slight cough, Pitch was the first to break the ice,
"Eh, sorry you had to see that", he offered with a weak smile, "family matters, you know how it is?"
Surreality; that was the only thing Nicholas St North could possibly consider what was happening to him and the other Guardians as they walked through the underground tunnels that led the centre of the web of nightmares Pitch Black had weaved around the world itself. Never had any of them ever imagined a day when they would be invited, invited into the lair of their enemy and yet here it was, happening even now. Following the result of the scuffle on the surface of the world and the revelation of the face of the mysterious being that had first stalk Jack Frost in Burgess and then saved him from Pitchs' arrow some six weeks later, the Bogeyman had cordially invited all five of the Guardians to his tunnels with the promise to answer any questions they might have had once they got there; it was not, he had assured them, something to be discussed in the open, where other ears both mortal and immortal might hear them. Strangely there had been very little argument from the others when Jack had stated he was going; he needed answers regardless of the cost and even Bunnymund, the one who trusted Pitch the least following his ruination of the previous Easter and the pooka's devolution into his weaker (but infinitely cuter, not that any of the Guardians would ever admit such a thing out loud as a boomerang to the face often both hurt and offended) form seemed cowed into obedience by the memory of what they had just witnessed. Therefore, with his five guests, Pitch had summoned a portal to his home tunnels and invited the protectors of children inside.
It was a journey that was coming to an end and for that North was grateful; though Sandy was doing his best with some conjured illuminations there was no denying the interior of Pitch's home was a dingy, cheerless place, though thankfully the Bogeyman still retained or had recaptured enough dignity from his subjects that little more than a scowl from him was enough to send curious fearlings and nightmares scurrying from their path. Eventually the tunnel they were walking through opened out into a kind of open-plan throne room, Pitch himself stretching off slightly and turning to them all as he summoned an attendant fearling,
"Drink anyone?" The Guardian's all swapped incredulous looks before Bunnymund took matters into his own paws,
"Drink", Pitch repeated, the barest hint of a teasing smile on his face, "I have some very nice Australian red in the cellars somewhere, the quality has truly improved since the turn of the millennium. One of the plus sides of global warming I suppose; I can assure you it's not poisoned", he sighed, waving a hand idly and sending the fearling scuttling off, "I'm a connoisseur not a desecrator of wine, and believe me when I say that after tonight I'll be needing more than just a single bottle to relax myself".
The reminder seemed to be enough to spur at least one of the Guardians to actions; stepping forwards with his staff lowered aggressively Jack Frost glared up at the Bogeyman, eyes as hard as the ice he could create as his question grated from between his lips,
"What was that thing we all saw, and how do you know him? He told you to remember the same as he told me, and the others; what does he mean?" Pitch took a breath and released it in a long, slow sigh,
"The first question you ask me and it's the one with...wait", he cut himself off, suddenly looking at the youngest Guardian as though seeing him for the first time, "you've seen him before? Yes, of course you have", to his credit and the shock of the Guardians Pitch appeared genuinely remorseful as he dropped his gaze slightly from Jacks, his voice and tone respectful as he finished, "I see his mark upon you now; my condolences". Tooth, alarmed at this unfamiliar side of the Nightmare Prince, flitted to Jack's side and scrutinised him closely, turning to the Nightmare Prince with a bite of impatience in her tone,
"There's no mark on him you dried-up old ink-blot..."
"There is but you and those of your ilk can't see it - to me however it is as clear as day, a weight of grief, loss and guilt, especially guilt, pressing down upon the heart of those who receive it; listen to me", Pitch's voice rose in volume if not ire as he held up a hand, hoping to head the questions off before they became overwhelming, "I will explain everything but everything you've seen and, in your case Jack, experienced, is not something that can be easily explained. It will take my time and your patience for you to have the answers you seek, or need in some cases, and I'll have to start at the very beginning for it to make any sense; until then Sandy would you mind shedding some light on this place; I don't like it much but I do try to be good host when I have company; and Tooth if I could borrow your rapier to cork the wine when it comes..."
In all it was fifteen minutes before Pitch, now sitting comfortably in a chair he'd had one of his fearlings filch from the surface world some centuries before, addressed his guests once more, a goblet of dark red wine swirling idly in one hand as he spoke,
"I must start at the beginning", he stated blankly, eyes almost misting over as he recalled the distant past, "but first, a question for you al for a change; you all know who I am don't you?"
"That a trick question?" North spoke suspiciously even as he took another sip of the drink he'd been offered; very nice, a change from the tots of whisky and vodka most leave out for when I visit. Must speak to Bunny about this, Australian red; "you are Pitch Black". The dark spirit nodded,
"I am indeed; Pitch Black, the Lord of Nightmares, the Bogeyman, the thing under the bed, that's who I am, but", he added damningly, regarding the wine in his hand, "who I am is not quite the same question as what I am. I am old", he carried on before any could interrupt, "far older than any of you sat here, even you Sandman, perhaps even than the Man in the Moon himself". The golden man seemed to take issue with this is the symbols above his head meant anything; deciphering them, Pitch merely nodded,
"You are right of course; Pitch Black, or as most people call me, the Bogeyman, is a relatively recent term – however what I am, what I represent, has been around since almost of the dawn of time itself. Indeed, what I represent might just be the oldest thing in existence save old Father Time himself; you may have heard the term fear wears a thousand faces? It's true, fear has been around for as long as there have creatures with the capacity to feel emotions; I am one such incarnation of fear, merely one of its thousand faces, the one that is presented to children to scare them into good behaviour and the one that your five", he gestured to the Guardians, each of them mulling over this new information in their own manner, "continually struggle against".
"We do and we will, forever", Tooth pointed out thought with a lack of venom in her voice as she was intelligent enough to realise Pitch wasn't being boastful or threatening; as North had said before, as long as there was fear there would always be those who fought against fear, "but what does have to do with happened to Jack and his friends, what happened tonight?"
"Everything", Pitch answered smoothly, discreetly nudging one of the small, luminous balls of dream-sand the Sandman had spread throughout his lair to illuminate the place until it was before him, lighting up the wall behind in preparation for the first of the truths he would impart, chastened as he had been by the actions of one of his more tragic peers, "what you must understand is that fear, all fear, including me, has a single root; every worry, every glance over the shoulder comes from and is directed at the same thing, the same spectre that has haunted all beings since time itself began".
As he spoke he felt his shadow working, the blackness spreading over the wall at his back into a pattern he knew, had always known but had recently forgotten until his jarring reminder scant hours ago, the shape of his progenitor. He said no more for now, allowing instead the guardians to see the truth for themselves and, as he heard a startled gasp from Tooth, a Russian exclamation from North and saw Sandy shake his head as thought trying to convince himself he was having a bad dream, he smiled sadly and glanced over his shoulder,
"Yes", he answered their denunciations before they could even voice them, gazing up at his shadow portrait of a large, cowled figure bearing an hourglass in one hand and the unmistakeable, menacing silhouette of a sharp-bladed scythe across its shoulder, "fear wears a thousand faces but all of those faces fall were and are formed from the shadow of Death itself".
"But, but", North was the first to recover himself even if his face seemed as white as his beard, "you are part of Death?" Pitch shook his head,
"No, no you must understand I'm not some sort of miniature Grim Reaper; what I'm saying is that every fear people have ever had is, at its absolute basest level, a fear of death. Take me for example; you wouldn't want children to grow up hearing about the risks of Death every time they go for a walk outside; if parents told their children the dangers they could be in none of them would ever leave their houses. Instead they created me, the Bogeyman, as a substitute for children to fear; 'stay close to me at the shopping centre or the Bogeyman might come and get you' – much more palatable than saying stay close or you might be kidnapped and killed isn't it, which is what the parents are truly afraid might happen if their children wander off".
"Surely though, not all fear..."
"Every one", Pitch scythed down the argument before North could truly get it off the ground, "you fear losing your job because, without money, you can't by food and you starve – death. You fear bad grades at school because you won't get a job, won't get money and are therefore more likely to fall into crime or something else more likely to see you dead. Even we, the immortals, aren't immune; why else would we fear not being believed in if we didn't fear not existing at all?"
It was a valid question, one that brought them all up short; after much swapping of glances the Guardians were forced to silently conclude that, even if he wasn't exactly right, Pitch at least was making a lot of sense. Eventually though it was the one who'd had the closest brush with the Grim Reaper's scythe who stood from his seat and spoke again, fingers tight around the haft of his stave,
"So what", Jack began before taking a breath and starting once more, "what does that have to do with the other one, the one who... didn't save Monty but stepped in to save me from you? Is he another one like you", a sudden breath caught in the winter spirits' throat as another truly dreadful thought occurred to him and he swallowed hard, forcing himself to speak through the pounding of blood in his temples, "is he...?"
"No", Pitch stepped in before the dreaded word was forced from between his lips, "he's a lot more complicated than I am but he's most certainly not Death himself. As to why he stood in to save you, that was because he needed to remind me of my purpose; I am a fear", Pitch explained, seeing quizzical glances being turned his way, "but I am a fear that's closely tied to human nature. Ever heard the old adage that when you look into the abyss it looks back into you; well the same is true in reverse – fear seeps into humanity but, at the same time, humanity seeps back into fear. We, all fear as a whole that is, are associated with negative human emotions; greed, anger, lust and the like, and therefore what feeds back into us is the darkness of humanity, much darker than the emotions tied to you lot with your hope, wonder, fun and light. Sometimes we all need a reminder of what our original purpose is; not to spread fear but to be fear – I should not be trying to smother the world under a tide of terror as I have in the past but, due to human nature affecting me, I have been; I should be more passive, a glimpse from the corner of the eye rather than a monster that lurks in plain sight, just like Death himself – never thought of but always there. And when it comes to delivering those reminders", Pitch gave a small, chagrined smile, "it's usually him that delivers them".
"But who is he?" Jack demanded, not so much anger as a vehement need to know clouding his tone even as the air around him chilled and his untouched goblet of wine began to freeze, "Does he have a name, do you even know?" Pitch glanced up at him sharply, a note of warning in his voice as he considered his answer to these new questions,
"His real name, or if he even has one, I don't know; for my part I and most other fears I've ever spoken to call him Abel, and if there was ever one to be pitied for his role in the world it is him. He is not a fear but he's tied to Death's shadow as closely as any of us, perhaps even closer, because wherever there is Death there is often also him. You've seen it yourself Jack", the Bogeymans' eyes were locked onto those of the Guardian of Fun, not wavering as Pitch spoke once more, "I see his mark upon you, invisible though it is to your friends; I know all you guardians have at one point in your lives seen death happen as have I; but what have you seen, what did you see that was unique, that drew the attention of Abel to you?"
Jack sat back down with a thump, a glazed look in his eyes that had Tooth out of her seat and at his shoulder in an instant; the guardian of Memories could do no more than place a hand on his shoulder as Jack ground the heels of his hands into his eyes, doing his best to fight back the tears as once more he saw the body of his friend hurled through the air, a living, breathing person snuffed out as carelessly as a candle in high wind.
"Stop it", Bunny demanded, shooting to his feet and glaring at Pitch, "you wanna make 'im rememba somethin' as sore as that, an' for what?"
"Because he needs to know", Pitch shot back, glaring at the pooka, "he must understand what he's seen and why he has changed because of it; if all of you know then perhaps you can help him understand as well. I've said that all fear springs from Death so answer me this; what happens when you go beyond fear? That is what Jack has seen, where Abel steps in".
"Heroes", the voice was such a pallid whisper of the voice he was used to that Bunnymund had to double-take to make certain it was Jack who had spoken; the Guardian of Fun looked truly awful, skin around his face shrivelled to goose-flesh as his now-sunken eyes stared unblinkingly at Pitch, "he, Abel, he deals with heroes? He said, I was nearly one of his..."
"And you were, by a matter of seconds you avoided meeting him while you lived and died", Pitch said solemnly before raising his voice and addressing the Guardians as a whole, "what Jack saw, even if I don't know the specifics, was a human being who went beyond the ultimate fear, the fear of Death itself, and in doing so made the ultimate sacrifice to try and save the life of another. I know this because that is Abel's role; he ensures those who make such a sacrifice are never forgotten. He remembers them all, and he marks those who are unfortunate enough to see such a thing to ensure they never forget either".
Silence greeted the pronouncement from the Nightmare lord, each of the Guardians thunderstruck by this revelation; Pitch merely waited, not wanting to say more until they were ready to hear it, speaking only when he caught sight of dancing figures around the head of the one Guardian he had already banished, at least temporarily,
"Yes Sandman, that's why we named him Abel; the first and most famous victim of Death", he said solemnly, "through the Bible's words the sacrifice of Abel enshrined the most important law into the humanity of billions; 'thou shalt not kill'. Abel, as we fears know him, ensures that those who give up everything for someone else, and only someone else; there is no religion, creed, colour or belief that can be compared in value to a single human life; are remembered. He has marked Jack Frost, an immortal, in this manner – Jack", Pitch's voice was soft as he glanced across at the weeping boy, a humility that was usually absent from the Bogeyman's eyes glowing in his mournful expression as he spoke, "I am sorry to say this but the mark will remain forever; you have witnessed one of if not the most powerful expression of love a human being can make; it s painful but never forget it, never forget the strength even an ordinary person can have when they go beyond all fear for the sake of someone else".
The silence was broken only by the sound of Jack Frost's continued weeping, the mark that only Pitch as a fear could see weighing down heavily on his heart as he continued to cry; more to distract himself from the sight of his friend in such acute agony than anything else North, having dried his tears discreetly on his sleeve, turned to Pitch and asked,
"But why not Jack? He died saving his sister, how is he not a hero?"
"His sister was already safe when he died", the answer came unexpectedly from Tooth, the Guardian of Memories glancing across from where she was embracing her fellow Guardian, shoring up his weakness when he needed most support, "Jack went through the ice after seeing she was safe, he died knowing she was alright".
"And that is the difference, that is why Abel wasn't needed those three centuries and some ago", Pitch took over, facing North down, "his most important duty, apart from the memories that never fade, is to grant peace to the dead".
"How? I thought that was, y'know", Bunnymund pointed at the wall behind Pitch, not wanting to say the dreaded name itself, "his job".
"Not in this case", Pitch assured the pooka, shaking his head dolefully, "the sad fact is that not all those who try can succeed. You can go above and beyond anything you ever dreamed you could do and, despite that, sometimes you can still not make it; when this happens to one of Abel's, ah, chosen, his heroes if you like", the Nightmare went on delicately, aware of the looks of horror dawning on the faces of the guardians as the realised what he was driving at, what must happen if one who died trying to save someone failed to save them and Death claimed two victims rather than one, "it is he who grants them rest, he who ensures they know they didn't die in vain and can pass onto the next life free of regret, knowing they gave their all for something that no-one, not a single person on earth, could have hoped to succeed in. No", he shook his head, regarding Jack with a firm but not unkind eye, "despite what you have seen Jack Frost, how painful it must have been to see a friend die, between you and him I still reserve my pity for him. You saw and must deal with the aftermath of such a sacrifice once; he will have that task until the day Death itself is removed from existence".
With that Pitch fell quiet; it was a harsh tack to take but he was being honest; having come face to face with his much older, more tormented brother for the first time in centuries reminded him not just of his own role but also of that of those less fortunate than himself. He was a reflection of humanity's fears, Abel was the embodiment of humanity's sacrifice for itself, the keeper of the members of each generation who had hurled themselves at the edge of the reapers' scythe in the hope that the next wouldn't be forced to make such a sacrifice, that one day there would be no need for such a thing to happen. Whether that would ever be Pitch didn't know and in honesty didn't want to think about – because of such things it was perhaps for the best that he was roused from his musings by a voice that, though still weak and shivering from the emotional turmoil of the evening, was nevertheless gaining quite remarkably in strength as it went on,
"Can you take me to him?"
Whatever question he'd been expecting it wasn't that; only just keeping hold of his wine glass the Nightmare Lord whipped his head around to regard Jack wide-eyed, spluttering as the Guardian of Fun somehow found the strength to heave himself to his feet, pausing only to send a grateful smile towards Tooth who, still embracing him, had been dragged along for the ride. The part-hummingbird quickly let go as her face caught fire at the sight of both the smile and the perfect teeth it contained even as Pitch spluttered for an answer,
"Can you take me to him", Jack repeated, "you say he remembers them all, if so he'll remember Monty. I just need to, to know if he..."
"Jack", Pitch cut him off with a raised hand, tone gentle but firm, "I'd be first to admit I'm not what you'd call a friend but even I would say don't do this to yourself. Abel has passed a burden onto you just as he would any other; don't be broken by such a burden and live your life in memory of your friend – you must live for yourself and others. Your friends", he spread his arms as though embracing the whole of the Guardians together, Jack glancing around as each other four smiled at him through reddened eyes, "they need you alive and whole, not miserable; whoever it was that died is already at rest, Abel will have seen to that".
"I know, and, I'm grateful", Jack made that point clear, smiling back at his friend and giving Tooth's hand a squeeze, the fairy having slipped it into his own as she stepped closer to him for comfort, "but I'm a Guardian. Monty, he went beyond fear, as you call it, made the sacrifice – why couldn't I do the same? Why was I frozen by fear; I'm immortal, a spirit, I can't die, so why didn't I take his place and get Sophie safe? Can you answer me that Pitch", it was obvious from the Bogeyman's face that he couldn't and Jack nodded, "so I need to speak to someone who can. Without that, I'll forever be asking myself why and I've already had three-hundred years of that; I can't face it again, not with everything, everyone I've got around me now".
Pitch was silent for a long, long moment before, ever so slowly, he turned to face the leader of the Guardians; North was likewise quiet, saying nothing before, slowly, giving a tiny nod. Never before had Jack felt more grateful to the big Russian, never before had he felt such a weight slide from his shoulders as Pitch sighed, shaking his head but looking resolute nevertheless as he glanced back at the Guardian of Fun,
"I do this against my better judgement, but, come with me", he said ill-temperedly, stalking towards the darkest part of the room. Jack tried to keep the smile from his face as he followed after him only to realise after a few paces that he still held something other than his staff, glancing down, he saw Tooth's hand still clasped around his. Following the iridescent feathers of her arm, he found himself staring into her face as the Guardian of Memories gave a quiet chuckle,
"Oh come on, you didn't think we were going to let you go on your own did you?"
"Sheila's right mate", Bunnymund chipped in casually, falling in on Jack's other side though without taking his hand, "you've got everyone 'round you like you said, not throwin' us away are ya?"
"Then is no problem", North's voice smothered all opposition by dint of volume, Sandy just behind him nodding vigorously as he gathered in his balls of dream-sand to darken Pitch's cavern once more, "we go, find this Abel and learn. Is strange that none have ever seen him before no; well now we know and we see him".
"You may very soon be regretting your curiosity", the voice of the Lord of Nightmares cut across North's own like a whip dipped in acid, "he's not exactly social and there's only one way into his domain. We'll have to walk the shadowed paths to get there, there's no tunnels that lead that way and your globes will never find it; everyone take my hand", Pitch threw his arms behind him, gripping onto the two hands he felt with the strength of fear itself; Jacks and North, if the size and feeling of cold are anything to go by; "and hold tight; if you let go in the shadows you'll never be free until I can find you again. Close your eyes, it helps the first time".
With that and a deep breath the Bogeyman plunged forwards into the darkness, his passengers clinging on for their lives and his destination foremost in his mind.
"Gahahhh", the air of quiet mourning was promptly broken as the party arrived, Pitch stepping out of the shadows, letting go of his passengers' hands and promptly stepping to the side as the Guardians all piled in on top of each other, Bunny being the most vocal of the complainants as the pooka hugged himself hard, "I'd rather lap the pole three times than do that again".
"My feathers are burning up but I'm freezing inside", Tooth likewise complained, smoothing herself down as she helped pull Sandy to his feet; Pitch chuckled for a moment before shrugging as several sets of eyes snapped towards him,
"You eventually get used to it", he snickered dryly before turning more serious, "this is Abels' residence; much like him if it has a true name we fears don't know it so to us it is called the Necropolis. Tread carefully and be respectful; this is a place of remembrance, not frivolity".
"It's huge", Bunny pointed out, looking across at the sight that stretched before them from the small, bare plateau of rock Pitch had landed them all on, "how're we supposed to find anyone in that place".
"We won't", the Bogeyman assured the Guardian of Hope as he stepped forwards down the barren path towards the first of the forests they could see beneath them, "he knows we're here; when he wants to, he'll find us".
The trek was one of little conversation but much observation; the Necropolis was a kind of hybrid between a mausoleum and a garden of rest; as soon as they'd descended the plateau that marked the edge of Abel's home the sextet had found themselves at the edges of a well-kept and ordered forest, though as they began to walk between the eves it quickly became obvious this was not a place of natural origins. No birds sang, no squirrels raced up trees and the trees were each laid out with a precision that was at once mathematical and unsettling; each was just far enough apart to hold a single memorial, a few flowers and perhaps a teddy bear laid at its base, but close enough together to be considered economical. Pitch led them on, not pausing to read the inscriptions on the offerings and seemingly sure of where he was going, the spires of one of the buildings dotted about the place looming up larger and larger until, at last, North was the one who broke the silence and spoke quietly,
"What are we going towards Pitch?"
"One of Abel's chapels", the Bogeyman replied, not taking his eyes off the path before him as he took a right fork, "if he's not in his gardens he's usually there and if we are to speak to him I don't intend to do so on these paths, I'm always nervous I'll knock one of the displays over".
"Ha, so there is something you fear then Pitch", Bunnymund spoke slightly aloud though, as virtually all the others rounded on him with irritated eyes the pooka lowered his ears slightly and coughed in embarrassment, "glad t'know it's not just me lookin' where I'm puttin' me feet".
"It isn't", the Bogeyman answered caustically, an evil-humoured smile hovering about his lips, "and should you do something he finds disagreeable in his realm, accident or not, I'd wager you'd quickly learn to why I fear Abel as much as I respect him for the job he does".
With that said and even the stalwart Bunny temporarily cowed into silence, the journey continued.
The chapel, as Pitch had called it, turned out to be anything but, a fact North was quick to point out as they rounded one final bend in the woods and the stone structure reared up at them as though erupting from the earth itself,
"Is no chapel", the Guardian of Wonder explained, eyes wider than ever at the sight he was beholding, "is the Taj Mahal!"
"A copy of it, as everything here is a replica of something tangible in the real world", Pitch agreed, treading carefully up the stone steps towards where the entrance to the structure gaped like the gullet of Leviathan, "one of the wonders of the world, built as a burial place".
"Not just a burial place", Tooth said, darting lightly up the stairs past the Bogeyman to peer at something on the walls of the fake wonder of the world, "this is a memorial, a place of memories. Look", she pointed at the wall, waving the others to get closer and see the side of the building itself, "these carving, they're names, the names of the dead".
"A whole wall full", Bunny said quietly, a little overawed at the sight of so many of the humans Abel called heroes; so many died so others might live – the power of humanity to go beyond their fear for the sake of others; "but, why are some of the names faded?"
"Because men forget", the voice, the gurgling voice made them all jump and spin around to see the master of this desolate domain step forth from the shadows, gazing up at the same wall they were with his expression hidden behind his burnt gas-mask, "they always forget".
There was silence for a long minute, each of the Guardians and Pitch stunned by Abels' sudden appearance and Abel himself seemingly lost in the wall of names before him; the quiet dragged on until, at length, the shorter of the two dark spirits turned away from his wall and addressed the taller,
"Why are you here fear?"
"Closure on their behalf, curiosity on my own", Pitch answered delicately, explaining as he did so, "you look different from the last time I saw you".
"The heroes change, the heroism is unchanging".
"I know it does; dare I ask how you came by your new body? Oh come now Abel", Pitch coaxed, the figure before him falling silent once more beneath its thick, hooded coat, "these others, the Guardians of Childhood, you marked one of them and I've done my best to explain why but they have questions only you can answer. The first one is the same as mine; what made you what you are now?" Abel was silent for a long, long moment before, just as Jack was gathering the courage to speak and assume Pitch had been ignored, the mask swung towards them all, an eerie light falling over them all and subsuming their being as a voice spoke a single command,
...I knew it was a good idea to bring these gloves. It's cold for October, the rain's making my coat heavy, but at least the moon's in, they won't know where we are to hit us; as long as my family don't move out of the East end I'm staying there too, I don't care about this evacuation lark. I'll be...wait, what's... oh no, the sirens, they're overhead already. Okay, remember what mam told you, into the stations and underground, the bombs won't hit that deep – where's the nearest station, is it the Park or the Green? Don't panic, don't run, just walk carefully, you'll be fine; everyone knows the Jerries couldn't hit the sea if they were standing on the shore.
Dear God what was that, must have been close, I can see the fire! Better get closer, it's raining but that might get more dangerous if someone doesn't put it out; if nothing else the ARP will know the closest shelter. It's noisy too, the barrage is like thunder, must be luck any are getting through that much mess; stick to the shelter, no shell fragments will get you there. Now, left here, oh that's a mess, the thing's barely standing but it looks like everyone got out; there's the, why's he holding her back from going in, hey you ARP ghoul, let her grieve in peace, she just lost her house. Wait, what's he saying; it's about to come down, thanks for stating the blooming obvious, but what, her what...
There's a nipper in there? Oh God, what do I do, what do I do? I can't just, wait, me mask! Mam always made me keep me mask in this damned wooden box, most of me mates have sandwiches in it. I can breathe in there, and I'm small and quick, in and out in a jiffy. I'm wet though too, no fire can catch on me; okay, get it on, and get close enough without the ARP seeing me; now, over the fence; glad young Jimmy Bonds made me go fence-hopping with me that one time, and in. Damn, can't see, it's a mess, and it's hot, stay calm, stay calm, where would little Daisy be in your house? The cellar, da always said is the sirens went off get in there, so here's the kitchen door, ah, damn, won't move, kick it, keep kicking it, there, it's open enough, I'll just have to wiggle. Damn it, hard to breathe in this thing, and it keeps fogging up; can you hear me kid, I'm yelling as loud as I can! I can hear something creaking, we've got to get out of here soon, hang on, is that, I'm in, and I can see something; okay, got you, under the table were you, just as well it's a big old thing. Come on, no, don't shy away, we've got to get ou..., what was that, something just collapsed upstairs, the whole place is coming apart. Think, think, what can you, there, window by the kitchen, all blown out. Come on, stop bawling, sorry if I hurt you but there's no time, get onto the board there, and out the window, jump damn it! I don't care if it's high or a long way down, better you break your leg than get squashed in here!
It fell in.
The whole kitchen wall fell in, whoosh, like one of da's house of cards, big rush of hot air and fire, I'm sure I'm roasting alive in this heavy coat. The ceiling's cracking too, everything's falling down, it's so slow, so delicate; jump, jump now; he needs a push, maybe if I... there, got you; sorry little one, hope you don't land on your head. Looking up now, the ceilings' caving in, sorry mam, looks like I won't make it back for Aunt Agnes's win-the-war soup. Who's that, looks strange, he's swinging something at me, hope it won't hurt. No, it doesn't; funny, feels like... floating...
He was suspended, weightless, in the black void. He looked forwards and saw his creator staring back at him, the scythe clutched in one bony hand embedded horizontally through his chest. He spared it a glance, no more than that, before he brought up one hand and then brought it down, shattering the blade off at the haft. If Death took offence at this it gave no sign, a new blade blossoming from the sundered edge as though it had always been there; both beings regarded each other for a second longer before, in silence, both moved away, their own duties to fulfil and new memories to scribe.
Jack gasped, hearing the others around him do the same as the last moments of a life that weren't his rushed through their minds, the death of a hero and the knowledge that Abel had taken his form as his own lingering in their minds as he heard someone retch dryly, the memories overwhelming even as the light from the ghostly mask faded and Abel stepped forwards, gloved hands reaching for the buttons of the heavy coat his current appearance had been wearing in the moment Death had claimed him,
"There were many heroes in the blitz", there was no inflection, nothing at all in the voice, just a bland statement of facts, "just as there were in the wars before, and the wars after and the accidents that happen all the time. Death reaps, I follow in his shadow", the coat fell open slightly, the sight of the dull blade, the shattered blade of the Grim Reapers' scythe still swept horizontally through the pallid flesh of the heroes' guide enough to make the retching start again, even Jack turning away as he saw the gloved hand close around the edge of the metal and start to pull it loose from its resting place, "he takes all men but I remember those who deserve it".
"And you mark others to make sure they remember as well", the Guardian of Fun said, risking a glance and grateful when he saw the coat fall closed again, the metal blade now in Abels' hand, "that was what you did with the blood wasn't it?"
"A burden all witnesses must bear", the darker being agreed before stepping forwards, eye-ports of his gas-mask not leaving Jacks' face, "you come to ask why him, why not you?"
"Uh", the pre-emption left the normally effervescent frost spirit tongue-tied, "how did you...?"
"Everyone asks that question", Abel shot his query down, "you are immortal, Death has no place for you yet. He takes all when their time has come, you cannot interfere with that; none can".
"That's why I froze?" Jack's voice was thick with disbelief, "Because Death thought it was Monty's time he stopped me from interfering, from saving one of my friends?"
"It is always the way; Death has no conscience, no mercy and no sadism – he merely takes what is his when the time is right, no more and no less. Anger is wasted on him; he has his purpose just as all present here have their own", the recorder of heroism pointed out, "you have your burden, the mark of blood spilt by a hero in their time of dying. I cannot remove it; you must learn to live with it".
It sounded harsh and heartless but, considering what they'd heard, it was also undeniably true; Jack had his answers it seemed, it truly was not his fault Monty had jumped in to save Sophie when he had not; however, it seemed one present was not quite willing to let the matter lie just yet,
"Ah, Abel", the lord of this garden of the dead glanced up as Pitch leant over, "I know it's irregular but isn't there something you can..."
"Normally I'd agree but even you must see this is an unusual case", Pitch argued back, each of the Guardians swapping bemused glances with each other, mystified as to what the Nightmare Prince was up to, "Jack Frost is the Guardian of Fun, until he has closure he's unlikely to be able to do his job properly. And he's immortal, as humans understand things – he can't wait until his own death to gain it as by then he'll have been failing in his purpose for centuries, possibly even millennia. That could throw the whole balance of childhood out of kilter for who knows how long; I know it's not what you'd usually do but, this is important, to death as well as life – kids who know what fun is are less likely to take risks that may result in our progenitor shriving them early".
Pitch...; each of the Guardians gazed thunderstruck at their bitterest enemy, the Bogeyman for his part not acknowledging their attention as he tried to stare the shorter but, if he were honest with himself, much more powerful spirit down. Abel was as impassive as always but, eventually, his sightless eyes swung from Pitch to Jack Frost and back; finally they lowered altogether and he stepped forwards, tapping the wall of the faux-Taj Mahal with the blade of Death's scythe. As he did so the faded names seemed to be grooved anew, the stone reshaping itself so that all can be read as though they had been cut the previous hour,
"What, but, how?" Bunny spluttered, watching as the names became fresh once more before rounding slightly on the macabre spectre who was making it happen, "You said..."
"Men forget", Abel cut across him, still tapping names into the wall without looking at his questioner, "I do not. Jack Frost", the winter boy stood up, holding his staff in one hand and to his credit not flinching too much as his gaze was bounced off that those soot-blackened plastic lenses, "follow me".
He led them into the false monument itself, all falling into step behind him as he led them on a dank, gloomy pilgrimage. Abel walked in silence and appeared immune to the whispers of the others as they saw his unnatural dagger lick out occasional, each blow restoring rather than cutting something down. Under its caress names were restored, dying flowers regained their life and old, ragged teddy bears were restitched and restored to pristine newness, the sight of renewal jarring one of the Guardians to speak,
"How he do such a thing?" North muttered, mostly to himself as he watched another wilted bouquet of roses perk back up and regain their colour as Abel brushed past them; the big man was only just able to hold in a shout of alarm as the answer was murmured back to him by someone with ears keener than his own,
"Memories", Tooth replied, feeling an unexpected sort of kinship for the dark harbinger of death that Abel was, "I think I understand him, at least some of him; Abel said men forget and it's the same for me. The teeth my fairies collect lose their power over time even if they never truly fade away no matter how old people get but the same can't be true for him; his mark, even if it's made in", the fairy couldn't hold back a shiver, "in blood, even that can only go so deep. It might take generations to happen but, eventually, people forget the names of the heroes; time rusts memorials, stone is worn away – in the end only he remembers them all".
"Damn", the Guardian of Wonder swore softly under his breath, "to carry so much, alone..."
"Bad, I know; are we there?" Tooth's question was slightly louder and he hovered into the air to peer over Pitchs' head, the Bogeyman standing silently as, just ahead, Abel had laid a gloved hand on part of the wall, standing as still as the stone around him. Unsure what was going on, all present held their breath until the spectre took his hand away and turned to address Jack,
"Touch the name, it will be a brief contact", he ordered stiffly before setting his bale gaze on the rest of them, "only he requires closure; the rest must leave".
"But; okay", one freezing blast from the apparition of darkness was enough to quell even Bunny's warrior spirit and with nothing more than a quiet word of reassurance for Jack, the rest allowed themselves to be herded away leaving the Guardian of Fun alone. Once they were gone the pallid boy stepped closer to the stone Abel had pointed out to him, squinting to read in the dim light before recoiling in horror at the name before him.
Him, his name – what kind of closure is this?; had Abel merely meant to prolong his torment by revealing the newest name he had carved on this wall of woe?; no, can't be that – he said I had to touch the name. Mastering his sudden fear the Guardian squatted down and wetted dry lips, stretching forwards a single, trembling digit before, with a coldness that shocked even him, he touched the carved name of the hero of Burgess. There was a jolt of something like electricity up his arm and he glanced to see if anything was happening on the wall itself before a small voice, a very familiar voice, in the back of his mind gave him pause,
"Hello? Someone there?"
"Monty", Jack whispered aloud, his mind whirling as he tried to convince himself he wasn't going mad, "Monty, is that you?"
"Yeah, course it is, who's...", the voice tailed off as thought thinking about something before coming back, excited and bubbling, "...Jack, Jack Frost, is that you? Oh, you're not, uh, dead, are you?"
"No, no Monty I'm okay", there were so many emotions boiling over in his chest he was sure they would erupt from him but somehow he mastered himself enough to keep his hand on the wall and his voice steady, "I'm sorry, I should have been there for you".
"No you shouldn't have", Monty voice came back faintly, a slight crackle like static around it as it went on, "they explained it to me, the others who are here. You couldn't have done anything – how's everyone else, is Sophie okay?"
"Uh, yeah", he hadn't quite expected forgiveness to be that easy to find, "she's okay, I saw her with her mother not so long ago. She misses you though, they all do". There was a giggle from the wall that echoed around in his head,
"Tell her not to, in fact tell them all that – don't feel sad for me, my time was up but everyone else made it awesome for me, especially you and all the snow days we had together. I never had a sister, neither did Cupcake, so we all had Sophie as our baby one; I'm sure the others would have done the same if they'd had the choice".
"I", Jack had to stop to make sure he didn't choke, his throat felt suddenly too tight to admit any words from it, "I'll tell them that; you're a hero Monty, I hope you know that. Are you, okay where you are now?"
"Yeah, everyone else here calls me a hero too. Er, about the okay thing, I can't really say – it's different, that's all I can say for certain. Oh, got to go Jack", the static sound in the spirits' ears grew louder, the voice of his friend more muffled, "tell the others to stay safe for me 'kay?"
"I will Monty", Jack assured him, the tears dripping unashamedly from his eyes and turning to crystals as they came close to his skin, "I'll tell them, you, you enjoy your rest now hero".
The last word was less than a whisper before the voice faded away completely; as it did so Jack Frost, Guardian of Fun and master of winter sank to his knees, rested his head against the silent wall before him and dissolved into sobs.
It was strange, North mused to himself, that one could always tell when Bunny was anxious because he paced; unlike Tooth who stayed perfectly still or Sandy, who moulded dream-sand beneath his fingers ceaselessly, or even himself, tapping his foot in a rhythm most from his home nation would recognise as being in time with a Cossack dance, the most active Guardian was completely incapable of remaining motionless. It was also strange that, regardless of how they all seemed to rub each other up the wrong way at times, when one of their number was down in any way the entirety of the Guardians would always rally around the injured or grieving party; North was under no illusion that, gripe about the 'show-pony' as he might, if Jack's voice was to echo from the dank interior of the mausoleum they'd just vacated, Bunnymund would be the first one to sprint into the darkness to find the winter spirit; though, with luck, it will not get to such a bad state.
And luckily it didn't; some time later Abel, having left them at the door with express instruction not to re-enter until he returned, appeared from the shadows of the Taj Mahal leading a much more familiar, wet-eyed figure behind him,
"Jack", Tooth was at his side in an instant, "are you alright? Did you, did you find your closure?"
"I think so Tooth, I hope so too", he answered the other Guardian, gently prising her arms from around him before she forgot herself and started examining his teeth again, "thanks for, you know", he admitted to the solemn, silent sentinel that stood to the side of his house of mourning. Abel for his part said nothing, instead making a slashing motion with the blade he still held in one hand and watching impassively as a rip was torn in the fabric of his domain, the dark but infinitely more cheerful abode of the Nightmare Prince just visible through the portal,
"Go", the memory of sacrifices grated, gesturing to the way home at the same time as sliding his scythe blade back between his ribs, a gesture that made all present look away and grimace, "this is not your place".
"Ya got that right", Bunnymund was the first to react, striding towards the way towards Pitch's home as though almost grateful to see the subterranean tunnels, "be glad t'see the back o'this cemetery, ya comin'?" Sandy floated up behind but beside him, nodding in his haste to be away from this place of evil memories and lost dreams, the rest of the Guardians swift to follow and waiting only for Pitch, the fear speaking in low tones to his brother before being dismissed with the wave of a gloved hand. As they stepped through the portal, those who looked back had just enough time to see the short figure of Abel fade into the blackness before the wormhole closed and the Necropolis, resting place of those who made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their own lives to protect life itself, was lost from view.
"Pitch, ya damned skulk, neva thought I'd say this but thanks f'rall ya done".
"My my", the Bogeyman quirked an eyebrow at the pooka who regarded him with folded arms and a stern, if not exactly unkind expression, "a compliment from the esteemed E. Astor Bunnymund? Will wonders never cease?"
"He means it, as do we", North assured the Bogeyman as he reached into his robe for something, Sandy likewise making a symbol of gratitude above his head; Pitch, however remained aloof and merely raised one hand in supplication,
"Amusing as it would doubtless be to see you grovelling at my feet in thanks it's not necessary; ironic really isn't it Frost", the youngest Guardian looked up, "you snapped me back to what I should have been and I repaid the favour the same way, by using the services of my estranged brother. Still, I've no need to keep you all; be gone from my domicile", he wafted a hand as though shooing a fly away, "leave me in peace to think of what I must do to remind the world of the Bogeyman".
"Does that mean we're enemies again?" Tooth spoke in a somewhat jovial tone, though her laughter dried up somewhat when Pitch, though he smiled at the comment, shrugged,
"In a way, though I hope you'd agree that, thought children in fear of me might be a sad state of affairs, that is an infinitely less sad path than having them have to learn from a hero's example?"
There was little that could be said to that and so no-one said anything; instead North merely whispered his instructions to the snow globe he held and hurled it away, the Guardians saying their final farewells to the Nightmare Prince as they tumbled through it to the welcoming confines of Nicholas's workshop. Pitch watched them go, saw the temporary gateway close and, as he was left alone in his shadow, quickly located the half-full bottle of wine they'd left behind in their haste to visit Abel and then be away. Swiftly uncorking it and pouring himself another glass, the tall spirit had a moment to recollect himself, wondering exactly how he could tread his fine line between being fear and being feared before taking a sip and deciding that, in the end, it didn't really matter – he was who he was and humanity would either keep him as the Bogeyman or, though their own emotions, turn him into something stronger.
And if he went too far the wrong way, then, at least there were the Guardians of childhood to stop him.
And if they couldn't, the guardian of heroes would.
For a moment they were all silent, drinking in the bustle of the workshop as though they'd thirsted forever; it was only when Baby Tooth, desperate to see her mother, zipped into the party that they all blinked back to themselves and, after locating a quieter area of the workshop, slumped down into whatever seats were available,
"Aya", North began, massaging his temples, "what a day!"
"Day, how 'bout month", Bunnymund countered, stretching off his legs and shaking his head before glaring across at where Jack was leaning across to decipher the symbols Sandy was making over his head, "you sure know how to stir up trouble show-pony".
"I know Bunny..."
"Right, that's enough of that", to general consternation the pooka was on his feet and in Jacks' face before most of the other Guardians could blink, "I've been hearin' this 'Bunny' and 'Bunnymund' frum you fer too long, it don't sound right coming frum you! I'm not gonna ask what you heard in that damned boneyard but you said you got closure on this whole thing and I'll hold you t'that; you snap outta this funk you've been on, got it? Or so help me I, I'll..." Bunny appeared to balloon with ire as he tried to think of a suitably gruesome punishment for such behaviour until, suddenly, the belligerence was gone and he was forced to look down, scuffing his feet as the last of his threat came out a low, half-embarrassed mutter,
"...I'll let you scratch behind me ears".
Why'd I say that, why why why?; even as he was mentally kicking his own tail there was a noise like a strangled hiccup from in front of him, even as he glanced up he heard it again and by the time he was able to look Jack in the face the winter sprite was laughing openly, pointing at the pooka and trying to force words out over his seemingly helpless guffaws. He fell to his knees, only his staff keeping him upright as Bunny, pride already stinging, tried to grab the reins on the whole thing before it started to snowball out of control,
"Okay, show's over, it weren't that..." His words lost impetus as Tooth promptly cracked, dropping out of the sky and shaking with a paroxysm of the dreaded giggles, face reddening as she too indicated the pooka with the hand she didn't have clapped over her mouth and made a scratching motion,
"Oh come on... et tu, North", his last ally had fallen, the Guardian of Wonder erupting and hammering his knees as he hunched forwards in his chair, Sandy already gone and away with dream-sand being shaken all over the workshop floor by his silent hysteria. Bunny could do nothing but stand as the epicentre of such chaos, though such was the intensity of the hilarity and so rampant its infectious nature he couldn't help but crack a smile and give a few chuckles himself. It lasted so long that the pooka was at least partially sure one or more of them was going to end up asphyxiating themselves but, thankfully, nothing worse than aching ribs and faces was the result, each of the Guardians eventually heaving themselves upright and grinning like fools, Jack himself the last to recover,
"D'damn cottontail"; yep, he's back, at least partially; "you should warn people before you come out with something like that, I almost bust a rib! Thanks though", the Guardian of Fun slugged his Hope counterpart on the shoulder, "all of you guys, just for being here".
"Don't sweat it snow-cone", the rabbit returned the punch with his own, noticeably harder one that made Jack wince, "though just fer the record, your hand goes higher than my shoulder-blade I'm rippin' it off and slappin' you 'round the face with it".
"What? Hey, that's no fair", he managed, just about, to shoot a single glance packed with mischief towards his new ally, one who'd seen the mean Bunny lay a hard paw on her friend and was feeling mighty miffed about it, and tell her about the plan, "what're you going to do next, dangle candy under my nose and then snatch it away when I try for a bite?"
"Don't tempt me", Bunny jested warningly, fatally keeping his concentration focussed on Jack and therefore not seeing the true avenue of attack until it landed on forbidden ground and started the assault.
Jack could only watch on fascinated as Baby Tooth disappeared behind Bunny's head and a second later the Easter kangaroo straightened up, rigid as a poker; this lasted for a second, one second that had Jack seriously afraid the taller pooka was going to simply topple backwards and squash his partner in crime like a gnat before, to his relief, the rabbit fell first to his knees and then flopped sideways to the floor, eyes rolling back in his head and kicking his hind feet uncontrollably as the little fairy continued her ministration. Well here's something you don't see every day; the youngest of the Guardians thought to himself, drinking in the sight of the mighty Easter Bunny humbled by one of the sweetest, most inoffensive beings in the world; the great cotton-tail rendered as helpless as a butterfly. Oh I wish I had a camera right now; and he wasn't the only one if the looks of the other Guardians was anything to go by; North in particular was grinning at the pooka's plight, Sandy was peering on with interest and apparently writing notes in his sand, probably notes for future dreams, while Tooth was trying to look disapproving of her helper's actions but, given that her smile was so wide it was peeping out from either side of the hand she had over her mouth, was failing rather miserably. Eventually though all things had to come to an end and Jack carefully stepped over the spasmodically kicking rabbit, squatted down at the back of his head and, biting his lip trying not to laugh at the helpless whimpering issuing from the Easter Bunny's mouth, carefully scooped Baby Tooth into his hand,
"Okay champ, better leave it there before North ends up having to scrape pooka-goo off his workshop floor"; the Guardian of Wonder swiftly hid his laugh behind a sudden cough just as Bunny, having gone still as the scratching stopped, peeked open one eye and focussed it on the assembled, suspiciously innocent-looking crowd,
"What just happened?"
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on who you were at the time, Bunny appeared to recover his memory somewhere between sitting up and coming fully to his feet; Baby Tooth was just quick enough to dart behind her mother and avoid the sudden snatch of the irked pooka as he shook his fist after her,
"You little squirt", he bellowed, doing his utmost to look fierce and regain his lost reputation, "next time I cop hold of you it won't just be teeth I'm stuffing under the pillow!"
"E. Astor Bunnymund you'll do no such thing", Tooth declared, hovering at eye-level with her fellow Guardian and meeting his glare with one of her own, "you know how the girls feel about Jack and you threatened him; what happened next was on your own head".
"Literally", North chipped in, drawing a furious glare from the rabbit before he sighed and shook his head at the lot of them before rounding on Jack,
"So, I trust yer'll be back to your old self in a tick, right?"
"I will cotton-tail, but there's something I've got to do first; won't be long guys, someone I need to see. No need North, thanks", he said, politely declining the offer of a snow globe as he hefted his staff, "I'll do this the old-fashioned way; wind", a sudden breeze picked up in the workshop, bearing its favoured child aloft and causing all sorts of aggravation on the production lines if the sudden growls and bellows of the yetis was anything to go by, "you know where I'm going".
It did and in seconds he was gone, the rest of the Guardians watching him depart and wishing him both speed to his destination and, beyond that, a speedy recovery afterwards.
Jamie Bennett awoke, not for the first time, to the sound of tapping on his window.
He knew who it was, there was no doubt; Jack was back and not before time – since that awful day not many of the children had seen him and, even on the few times he did catch a glimpse of the spirit, even Jamie hadn't had much to say. He could barely remember the events that had led to the tragedy, nor the aftermath; he had shuffled through the memorial assemblies for his classmate and stood with his friends at the funeral, holding onto Sophie's bandaged hand as she cried for something she couldn't really understand but still instinctively knew she was at least partially responsible for. The month had been a blur of adults talking and offering both him and his parents things; counselling, a lawyer, a place on a talk-show; all of which had been turned down in favour of normality. Or at least, normality as far as a boy who could see spirits was concerned,
"Hi Jack", he greeted brightly, pushing his window open; the spirit likewise returned the greeting before speaking once more,
"Hi Jamie; how are you and your sister?"
"Eh, we're both fine; Sophie got her hand taken out of bandages a week ago and she can write as well as she ever could", he told his friend, inwardly grateful that his little sister had walked away from something that could have easily been her end instead of Monty's with little more than two broken fingers and some bruising, "she misses you by the way, you better see her before you go".
"I will", Jack promised before leaning closer to the window, lowering his voice, "listen Jamie, I know I've not been around much recently but some of that, well, it was to do with what happened. Not your fault", he reassured his first believer as Jamie's face fell, "I can't say exactly what happened but, I know Monty's happy where he is and, he doesn't want any of you to feel sad for him; he just wanted me to tell the rest of you to stay safe".
"'Kay", Jamie managed to say through his choked throat, memories of the glasses-wearing boy who had appeared so cowardly but, when it mattered, saved his sister at the cost of his own life beginning to overwhelm him again, "uh, I..."
"I know Jamie, I was the same; I think I'd better see Sophie another day", the Guardian of Fun drifted slightly away from the window, not wanting his younger friend to see how cut up he still was about the whole thing. He paused, however, as Jamie's voice rose to a low shout,
"They said we should decide his memorial at the school", the youngster called to his friend, "said it would be good for the grieving process. You could help with that, if you wanted". Jack floating in the air, turning around slowly and nodding slowly as the idea took in,
"Thanks Jamie, I think I might just take you up on that..."
So it was, a few weeks later, that unseen except by those who believed, Jack Frost was present at an elementary school in the town of Burgess, watching on with the assembled school children as a small bronze plaque was mounted on the wall at the side of the science labs. He wept a little, as did many of the assembled, as the workmen carefully screwed the piece in place and then polished it until it shone in the winter sun, the denotation simple but, somehow, all the more capturing and stark because of such simplicity. Holding onto little Sophie's hand with his own and accompanied by her brother as the assembly was dismissed by the headmaster, the Guardian of Fun stepped closer to the memorial to say goodbye one final time:
Montgomery 'Monty' Whilliams
2002 – 2013
Forever a hero
A/N: Sombre story I know but before anyone asks no, I haven't recently had anyone I know pass away; as I said above this story was written as my answer to three questions asked between my friend, his son and myself following watching Rise of the Guardians. The questions asked by Paul were:
What is fear and where does it come from? In my opinion fear is a perfectly normal reaction to circumstances where your ability to look after your friends, loved one and yourself has or would diminish. I'm going back out on a boat because I don't want to lose my job, I'm worried that without it I wouldn't be able to support myself – hence, I go to work every day partly out of fear (I also like my job, so it's not all bad, though a lot of other people can't say the same).
What happens when you go beyond fear? Only fools and lunatics say they're not afraid of anything; everyone can potentially control their fear but there's no-one alive who doesn't feel it. People who master fear can do incredible things but, at the same time, often take stupid or even suicidal risks; this story tells the fate of one such hero and, more than that, the devastating legacy such a loss leaves behind even if the loss was made for the noblest of reasons. A life, any man's life is a sacred thing; it's my opinion that no-one should do anything that could seriously jeopardise it unless such actions involve saving or trying to save someone else's precious life.
The question asked by Danny (Paul's son) was:
What happens when you scratch the Easter Bunny behind the ears? Asked just after the scene from the film where the Easter Bunny is turned into a chibi and gets frightened when Pitch's shadow offers to scratch him in that spot, I hope you enjoyed my answer to that question!
Right, now the story is told and the questions answered, the explanation as to a. Why haven't I updated any of my other fics and b. Why am I writing a new fic about Rise of the Guardians? To answer the first question, as I said late last year my job had sent me out on a field expedition where I couldn't use a laptop – well the good news for me personally is that our surveys found a lot of anomalous results that were both encouraging and unexpected so the boss managed to secure more funding and we're going back out in a week or so. Great news on the job front; sad thing is though I'm not getting much shore leave before I saddle up and ship back out again – with all the people and paperwork I've been missing over the past five months I simply will not have time to write a chapter of either of my Naruto fics, though I have had several new ideas for both in the time I was away. I'm not sure how long the new surveys will take; a lot of it is dependent on the tides and weather, neither of which are particularly predictable, so I'm hoping I'll be back at the (writing) desk by the end of the year; I'll keep you posted if I can but, beyond that, there's not much more I can do.
So, second question, if I've only got a few weeks holiday, why start a new fic? Bit of a story there as well; as I've been away for a while there were a lot of films I missed at the cinema such as the Hobbit, Dredd and all the rest, so once I got back the family organised a sort of get-together night with a few films involved, one of which was Rise of the Guardians (most were cartoons due to a lot of my friends having children and bringing them over – something tells me a bunch of seven year olds probably wouldn't sleep all that well after watching the Raid or Dredd). This led to the questions, which led to the debate, which led to this quick one-shot - hope you enjoyed it and can wait until I have time to start my other fics again.
So, until some time in the future, I'm out of here; hopefully see you before the end of the year, if not have a happy 2013 and I'll see you in the New Year. Obsidian dreamer, out!