Author's Note: For newcomers to the "Guardian of Screwing Up" series, it's best read the following way:
2. The Frost Spirit and the Honey Tree
3. The King of Cold Mountain
4. The Boy Who Found Fear At Last
There might be a oneshot we toss in taking place between TKoCM and TBWFFAL, but it's not written yet and is just a bit of funny fluff. For those that want to skip previous stories, all you really need to know is that Anansi the Spider has joined the Guardians after a long time of working for Manny behind the scenes, Jack and Bunny have cemented their friendship, Jack and Tooth possibly have flirty feelings for each other, and Jack has definitely developed as a Guardian to be a bit more level-headed, responsible, and wise.
Trigger Warnings: While there will be some dark moments in later fics, this fic is undoubtedly the darkest in the series. It will contain quite a few dark themes, involving physical/psychological abuse and Stockholm's syndrome, isolation/loneliness, mental illness, and psychological mind-borkery. It's definitely not for the faint of heart, so if you find those things to be triggering, it may not be the story for you. However, we're big fans of showing how people overcome horrible things, so it won't be all darkness, all the time. This isn't a character torture fic, it's a fic about someone fighting their way free from the dark.
Basically, this is our version of the Dark!Jack concept and we plan to make it a bit different than some might expect. For those that don't think they'll have problems with it, we hope you enjoy the ride.
The Boy Who Found Fear At Last
by Kira, Kate, and Kaylin
"Is it scary?"
"It's not scary."
"It looks scary."
"It's not scary."
"I'm not watching it if it's scary."
Jamie, eleven-years-old and as normal a child as any - aside from his choice in best friends - aimed his most deadpan stare at the centuries-old eternally teenage frost spirit who regularly charged into battle against the stuff of literal nightmares, but was presently balking at the prospect of watching a movie with the word "skeleton" in the title.
"It's not scary," Jamie insisted. "It's really, really hokey, I promise. It doesn't look realistic at all."
Jack pressed his lips together, hmm-ing in deep thought. "Okay," he relented. "Only if it's fake-scary rather than real scary."
"How is it you can face down the King of Nightmares and scary gribblies in the dark but you can't stomach a scary movie?"
"Pitch is nowhere near as scary as some of these movies. I tried to watch that clay-ey one, Coraline?" Jack shook his head, eyes wide with terror. "Too scary."
"That's not even really a horror movie. I mean, it is a horror movie, but it's stop-motion animated, it's not meant to be really scary like The Exorcist."
"She wanted to replace her eyes with buttons. Buttons, Jamie."
"Okay, well, this one isn't really scary. It's funny. It's making fun of old sci fi and rubber monster horror movies."
Jack looked at the promo image on the screen of the laptop. "It says there's a skeleton in it."
"It's a really stupid-looking prop skeleton."
"It's got the word cadaver in the title."
"Cadavra. It's a made up name."
"This movie doesn't have color."
"Now you're just messing with me. There's no way you have problems with black and white movies when you've been around longer than movies have even existed."
Jack's resulting grin made Jamie bean him in the face with a pillow before returning to his laptop to start the movie.
"So it..." Jack scratched his head, looking at the apparatus. "You play it on your computer and it plays it on the TV the same time?"
"Mm hmm. Through that cord there. HDMI."
Jack whistled low as Jamie finished setting the movie up. "I remember back when I thought internal combustion engines were as good as it was gonna get. Now it's all computers and cellphones and the talkies are mostly in color."
Jamie scooted back from hanging half off the bed to lie on it fully. "Move over, gramps, so we can start watching our talky."
Jamie had gotten taller in the last few years, so they had to sprawl across his bed diagonally to both had room to stretch their legs. Getting taller came with things like being eleven.
"Jamie, who are you talking to?" Mrs. Bennett called from downstairs.
"Jack Frost, Mom," Jamie called back, eyes fixed on the screen as the movie began. Jack thought he heard a slight sigh through the floorboards. The mortal boy and the frost spirit looked at each other, snickered, and returned their attention to the movie.
"That's a lot of skulls."
"That is a whole lot of skulls."
"Each of those skulls had a tongue in it. And could sing once."
"What kind of songs do you hear rubber tongues singing? Because those skulls are rubber."
Something buzzed. Jack looked up, confused, but Jamie just reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. The movie played on as he flipped the phone's keyboard open, tapped in a quick response, then flipped it shut and slipped it back into his pocket.
Jack hadn't had a moment to concentrate on the movie before Jamie's phone buzzed again. In an instant it was out, Jamie tapping away on it. Jack leaned over his shoulder to get a look at the phone, and Jamie looked at him with a slight frown.
"Do you mind?"
"Then maybe you could stop trying to read my messages?"
"Why, what's so private about 'hey' from Cupcake?"
"Argh!" Jamie hunched around his phone, hiding it from Jack's view. Jack just laughed and played at trying to sneak another peek at the phone.
"Come on, what's to be embarrassed about? It's just Cupcake. It's not like she's asking you out to the Sadie Hawkins or anything."
The expression on Jamie's face right then, his lips puckered together and his expression awkward, was more telling than words could be.
"Or is she asking you out to the Sadie Hawkins?"
Jamie shook his head.
"Or maybe you're hoping she'll ask you out to the Sadie Hawkins."
"Look, I don't even know what a Sadie Hawkins is, but I'm guessing you're talking about a dance."
"It's a dance where the girls ask the boys."
"That's...just a dance. Nobody cares who asks who anymore." Jamie rolled his eyes at Jack's antiquated view of courtship. "And yes, there's a dance coming up and yes, I'm maybe, possibly hoping Cupcake asks me."
"So why don't you just ask her?"
"I don't know," Jamie said ruefully. "I mean, she's just...so cool. We hang out, but like...she's a grade above me and she totally kills the ropes in gym class. And one time, I saw her knock a kid out with one punch when he was beating up another kid." Jamie's eyes were wide and impressed. "She made him eat dirt. He was so embarrassed he got beat up by a girl he didn't even tell on her. She got there before even I could try to help."
"Yes, she's a very cool girl," Jack agreed, grinning his amusement. "And?"
"What if she doesn't think I'm cool enough?"
"Oh yeah, because standing up to the Bogeyman multiple times isn't cool at all," Jack deadpanned.
"But she only saw the once and we were both little kids then."
"Little kids!" Jack laughed. "So what are you now?"
"Uh, preteens? Duh?"
Jack started to laugh - but the laugh fell quiet as he realized Jamie was right.
Jamie rolled his eyes. "We can't all be 300 years old, but that doesn't mean I'm going to be a kid forever."
He was flippant, but the observation cut deep into Jack's brain. Just three years ago, Jamie had been eight. In less time than that, he'd be thirteen.
Jamie's childhood was slipping away.
"Don't you have anything better to do than spy on my messages anyway?" Jamie asked, only mildly cagey, pushing Jack with a brotherly nudge. "Seriously, there's no Guardian business more pressing now than watching bad movies and reading my texts?"
Jack pulled himself back to the moment. "Actually, North, Bunny, Sandy, and Anansi are fighting something right now. It feeds on the life force of children, though, so they thought it was safe if I sat this one out, just in case. Tooth, too. She started doing what she does when she was a teenager, so we're both out for the count." Jack shrugged. "But her work is a lot more...worky than mine." He grinned, ruffling Jamie's hair. "A Guardian of Fun's work is much less taxing. And sometimes it's fun to tease your friends about their extremely obvious crushes. So are you gonna ask her out, or would you rather go another round against the Boogeyman first?"
Jamie blushed fiercely. "Jeeze! Let's just watch the movie, okay?"
Jack tried to watch and even made himself laugh at the parts that seemed appropriate but his mind was elsewhere.
Jamie was growing up. Right now, he was like a little brother to Jack, but it couldn't stay that way forever. He couldn't still be a little brother when he was a father or a grandfather, could he? As far as family went, he still had the memories of his little sister and for a while they'd had a chance to grow up together, but now she was gone, and he never got to see what she'd grown up into.
It was a question that had niggled at him for quite some time now, the question of what had happened to his sister after he died, but he'd always had things - and people - to distract him from the past by making him focus on the present.
But Jamie was growing up and that meant someday he'd be gone, too.
The thought of that made him focus on what was already gone.
Which was why, when the movie was over, Jack Frost could be found in the Burgess Public Library, attempting to use a microfiche.
It was difficult. For one, he didn't really know what he was even looking for and two, he'd had enough trouble figuring out how to turn it on let alone work the little knobs, and thirdly, it was very easy to overshoot and fly past what he was trying to read.
It was a fairly useless endeavor. Very little had survived from the time his family had been alive and what little there was had no mention of them. Nobody had thought enough of a widowed midwife survived by only one of her two children to record much about either.
An hour of fumbling with the library equipment got him birth dates, death dates, and grave sites. Each life summed up by a couple dates and a headstone. Those little numbers meant nothing.
It wasn't enough to know them. It wasn't enough for anything.
Nobody had known they'd be important to someone, three hundred years after he'd lost his chance to ever know them again.
Staring into the pond didn't produce any new answers for Jack. He sighed as he stared at the moon's reflection, mirror-perfect in the still water.
"I guess you're probably watching the others fighting the whatsit right now, huh?" he asked. His voice sounded very loud in the stillness, but probably not loud enough to reach all the way to the moon. Manny, as usual, said nothing.
"Or maybe you're staring straight at me and still not saying anything," he went on, bitterness creeping into his voice.
He fell silent for a while, sitting at the edge of the pond where he'd died, where his sister had lived - a whole life he could have seen, could have kept alive in his memories, but hadn't known to.
Would it have hurt more to have watched her live without him than it did to know that he'd missed the chance to? Jack's grip tightened on his staff, growing angry as he realized it didn't matter. Manny had decided which experience he was going to have.
"And you still won't even tell me why."
The staff's rough wood bit into his palms.
"I could keep on asking, but at this point, that would be crazy, wouldn't it? I know what you'll say." He exhaled sharply, his lip quivering as he frowned up at the moon. "Nothing."
He waited a moment longer, hoping against hope that Manny would say something, anything - but the moon shone silently on.
"You made me," said Jack, feeling eerie echoing himself. "Maybe not from scratch, but you made me what I am now - it took you three hundred years to tell me why. Do I have to wait three hundred more years for you to tell me why it took you so long?"
Silence. Jack sighed, and his head sagged.
His eyelids were heavy. Possibly all the studying he'd done had wearied him, or maybe it was the emotional backlash of addressing the family he'd never fully know again, but he felt drained.
Maybe it was just that he was in Pennsylvania and it was the dead of summer. Summer in the northern hemisphere always made him sleepy, even when it cooled down at night.
With a sigh, he rose, pushing himself by tiptoe into the air, to rest on a tree branch overhanging the water. He was asleep in a minute, as seamlessly as if Sandy had come by to pay him a visit.
But it wasn't a golden stream of dreamsand that left a gift for him, precariously balanced in the tree branches above his head in the pre-dawn light.
The clouds covering the moon broke, and a single moonbeam stretched out from the horizon toward the sleeping frost spirit, like an apologetic hand. An early-awakening sparrow took flight, it's wings briefly tossing the moon's fading light away from Jack's face and up onto the gift in the branches. The light flickered, like someone doing a double-take before a candle, and refocused itself on the gift.
Just as the moon had nearly set, the light suddenly became very bright, spilling over Jack as if Manny was about to speak, about to wake Jack up.
But before the words could be completed, the Moon dropped below the horizon and the sun's rays scoured the land of its paler cousin's light. The birds began to sing their morning greetings, as Jack was left to discover his new gift on his own.
Jack opened his eyes and looked around blearily in the morning light. That was the other thing he tended to forget about summers: while there were more than a few birds around when Jack brought the snow to town, there were so many more when it was warm, and they were so very noisy.
He sat up slowly, covering a yawn with his hand and then stretching both upward over his head until it felt like his bones would crack. Well, it'd been a good nap, at least. He got a whiff of a strange smell - something like licorice, but the wind carried it away.
Something brushed against his knuckles, something too smooth to be part of the tree. He looked up just in time to take the edge of something to the face.
The Whatever bounced off of Jack's head and fell into the grass below.
Eyebrows furrowed, Jack plucked his staff out of the branches near his hand and leaped out of the tree, landing lightly on the ground below.
Something glittered bright and silver in the grass.
Jack looked around to see who might have left it there before he touched it. Whoever it was had to have been able to fly, because it hadn't been there when he went to sleep. He would've been woken by anyone climbing up the tree. He saw neither hair nor hide of who it could have been.
Slowly, Jack reached down into the grass and picked up the object.
It was a cylindrical box, edged with silver. On its round surface, little silver panels were set in odd shapes that looked like phases of the moon. He fiddled with them for a moment, and found that they pressed into the box under his fingers - once he pulled back, though, each face had changed to a different moonphase.
There were very faint seams on the box, but when Jack pried at them, they didn't open - stuck in place by the various phases of the moon.
A puzzle box! Jack laughed out loud. Not only had Manny sent him a gift, he'd made it a fun one. Sure it meant a little longer to wait for answers, but Jack could wait indefinitely if he was having fun doing it. Especially when it meant that Manny wanted to have fun with him.
He hung from the branch upside down, fiddling with the box, his staff hung from the branch by its crook next to him. For a while nothing happened, but eventually, when he thought to alternate waxing crescents with full moons, the lines on the box deepened and it opened with a noise like frost settling. Jack only had time to grab his staff before the world blurred around him.
The box was closed in his hands again when everything stopped.
The puzzle box had brought him to someone's living room.
Jack landed on the couch in front of a coffee table strewn with magazines and actual coffee stains. The TV in front of him was muted. Oprah's audience was awfully (and silently) excited about something on it.
The book lying on the table caught Jack's eye. The title proclaimed in bold blue print "When Life Hands you Lessons: Getting Past your Past" superimposed over a pitcher of lemonade.
Jack picked up the book and flipped it open to a dog-eared page. A line mid-page caught his eye: "Don't be afraid of your emotional journey - embrace it! Throw yourself into the experience without fear of the end result. Feel your feelings without fear of feeling them. Let the journey be your destination, and you will arrive at a truer awareness of yourself."
"Wow," said Jack, genuinely impressed, having never read a self-help book before, or even watched many shows that weren't cartoons. "That's pretty deep."
A child's voice called from down the hall - "Did you say something, Dad?"
Jack hastily tucked the book into the pocket of his hoodie, picked up his staff from the floor, and went back to work on the puzzle box.
This time, a straight line of half-moons widened another crack in the box, and it opened with a snap like icicles cracking off and falling. The living room blurred around Jack.
This time, instead of being greeted by something indoors, he was treated to the sound of bright, joyful laughter. It was rhythmic like the pitter-patter of rain - which was falling all around him. It was pleasant, that mild temperature between cool and lukewarm, and the air smelled clean and green. Even though the sky here was gray, the rain somehow made all the other colors around him brighter by contrast. The green of the grass and the leaves and the yellows, reds, and blues of the flowers might as well have been inked, rather than grown.
Jack took to the air, flying in between the trees until the laughter grew louder.
Pushing aside some leafy branches, Jack saw movement - mainly splashing.
The splashers were women the color of rain clouds. Their skin ranged from pearly silver to the near-black of thunderclouds, and it was quite easy for Jack to see a lot of skin, what with the transparency of their rain-soaked togas. They were playing in the rain like children, splashing in puddles, spinning and dancing, laughing in voices that echoed through the mountains. A bottle was being passed between them. Jack had an instant to observe their joy - and a lot of barely-concealed body parts - before the nearest noticed him and screamed.
"Whoa! Sorry!" Jack yelled, slapping a hand over his eyes as a few of the others screeched. "Didn't mean to interrupt. Sorry, ladies, I'm on a spiritual journey. You guys look like you're having fun, though, don't let me get in the way of your good time."
Putting his hand over his eyes was entirely for their benefit. In general, he'd never really gotten the big deal with nudity. Whether it was buried under ten layers of clothing or emblazoned on billboards to sell things, it had always seemed to him that people had never really gotten their attitude towards it right in the last three hundred years. It wasn't a commodity, but it wasn't shameful, either.
Besides, he appreciated the fun they were having more than anything else. Because they were having fun. They were simply existing, enjoying themselves in their element, and there was nothing about them for Jack to assume was meant for anyone else, not even for each other.
Still, they hadn't expected his arrival and it was only polite he avert his eyes.
The Nysiads had stopped screaming as he covered his eyes, and none of them had run. One of them was even laughing, and her laughter broke the ice on her sisters' laughter as well.
"Well well, the Guardian of Fun drops in on our fun!" said the one nearest to him, her voice only slightly slurred. Jack heard footsteps coming closer, and peeked through his fingers to see a pale grey face with eyes the blue-black of stormclouds low on the horizon. "You can open your eyes, Jack Frost. We've heard a lot about you."
Enough that they were all relaxed when Jack opened his eyes. The one nearest to him held the bottle.
Jack grinned, dropping his hand. They were all beautiful, but there was much more he found to appreciate in their joyful smiles, the glint of mischief in their eyes, than in staring at their bodies.
"So, I'm not sure why I'm here, but I'm on a spiritual journey and my magic puzzle-box thingy brought me here."
"Spiritual journey in what?" called another of the Nysiads. "You're already a pro at water-based fun."
"Maybe he has to learn to branch out into other states of being?" suggested another one. The Nysiads exchanged glances that, while still underscored by a current of joyful laughter, were surprisingly thoughtful. "Snow and rain are made of the same substance, but one plays very differently in each."
A slate-grey Nysiad with pearly-sheened hair jumped from a tree branch into a puddle, showering her sisters with another splash of fallen rain. "We need more clues!" she called, as if Jack's spiritual journey was a delightful game. "What have you learned so far?"
"Uh -" Jack reached into the pocket of his hoodie, touching the book that was there. "Well, I kinda just started, but so far, I learned that this is an emotional journey, and I shouldn't be afraid of it. So is there maybe a book or a, uh, I don't know, significant carving out here I should try to read from?"
The Nysiads all burst out laughing.
"No books out here!" one squealed, whipping her hair so that her sisters were splashed with water.
"Obviously part of your emotional journey is to learn to bring us more fun," said the nearby Nysiad, taking a swig from the bottle in her hands. She giggled again and swayed in place when she'd finished drinking. "I have deduced it. From facts."
"Share enough that we can deduce like that," one of her sisters laughed, taking the bottle from her. "Jack, come and play with us until we figure out what lesson you're supposed to learn."
Well, the book had said to throw himself into the journey. The book hadn't said the journey had to be all fear and anguish, though.
"Don't mind if I do," said Jack, jumping into the nearest puddle.
They splashed and shrieked and passed the bottle around. When it reached Jack, he shrugged, and joined them. Hey, the puzzle box brought him here for a reason, right? Holding back probably wasn't the point of the whole thing.
Their play took them over and around the mountains, the rain following the Nysiads wherever they went, so that Jack took off his hoodie and wrapped it around his book to leave under a thick tree when he realized it was getting damp. They carried on, bringing the rain across the mountains. There didn't seem to be purpose in the direction the Nysiads played, but most of the mountains got watered in the process.
After enough from the bottle, Jack could barely control his laughter. He was outright giggling as he and the Nysiads collapsed beneath the trees, letting the rain drip down on their faces through the branches.
He hadn't had this much fun in ages. That wasn't from a dearth of fun, either, but the Nysiads had hearts as light as the clouds that followed them around. They knew how to live completely in each moment, letting their joy drive them forward. As much as he loved the Guardians, as much as he cared about Jamie, it was rare he met others that could manage to do that as well as he could. They were also incredibly kind, in a way that seemed to come to them easily.
"Man," he said, then stopped to giggle as the trees seemed to spin above him - maybe because of the drink, maybe because of all the spinning he'd been doing. It had been good spinning - arm-in-arm with the Nysiad who was now petting his hair, as he rested his head against her stomach. "I never knew I could have so much fun above freezing."
"Lesson: learned!" one of the Nysiads - Eriphia, he thought her name was - crowed.
Jack giggled. The others giggled too, but less because they were inebriated, and more possibly because Jack's laughter was infectious.
He wiped a tear of laughter from his eye, flicking it away with the rain. "Why didn't I stop by and visit you ladies sooner?" he wondered, as the rain dripped on his face. He wiped it away, clearing space for new drops to fall. I'm never going to associate rain on my face with anything but this again, he thought, and considered that before, he'd never been comfortable with the feeling of being wet, and for a very good reason.
"Well, we're glad you did," said Cisseis, who was delicately running her fingers through his hair. "You're a sweet little soul, Jack Frost."
"You can come play with us in the rain anytime," added Ambrosia.
"Thanks," said Jack, warmth filling his heart at having made new friends. "You guys are the best. I mean, that, the best. You're the first friends I've made since...since the Guardians, I guess! And they were my first friends!" He laughed again, as some of the Nysiads cooed in sympathy. "It's like, I went so long without making any friends, and now they're just falling into my lap - or, uh, I'm falling into theirs, I guess."
They all laughed at that.
"Maybe that's your lesson," Polymno suggested. "To make friends on your journey."
"Maybe," agreed Jack. But that still didn't seem to apply to his original reason for wanting answers in the first place. "Maybe Manny wants me to know that if I keep moving forward, there will be new friends in the future! New people I can care about." He cleared more rain from his face again. "Or maybe he just wanted me to be able to enjoy the rain on my face, without thinking of...of other stuff."
He veered away from mention of his drowning, feeling even as he did that it was a little too late. But Cisseis sighed thoughtfully beneath him, and when Erato spoke, her voice was reminiscent, but not sad.
"That's important," she said, taking a swig from the bottle before dropping her hand to the damp grass again. "Moving on - that's a lesson we learned once, a long time before we heard of you."
"Before you were a mortal boy who could only dream of dancing half-naked in the rain with beautiful nymphs," said Eriphia, and for the first time in his whole day of doing just that, Jack blushed.
"Did you know, we used to go by another name?" said Erato, clearly not finished with her reminiscing. "We used to be the Hyades, when we didn't dance in the rain - we wept it."
Jack's drunken heart clenched at the thought of the playful Nysiads weeping a rainstorm. "That's so sad," he said. "That's the saddest thing I've heard in years."
"I know!" called Pedile, throwing her hands in the air. "It was so sad."
"The saddest," echoed Nysa.
"We were sad for so long," said Cisseis, holding her hands out as if to illustrate the age of time of their sadness. "Our brother Hyas was killed in a hunting accident, and we felt like we'd never be happy again."
"When we were mortal, our tears fell like rain, and so we became nymphs of the rain, and it fell as our tears," said Bromia, picking up the tale. "So we went on as we had done in mortal life, weeping over the mountains of Nysa. For years, and years, and years -"
"And you know, Jack, how difficult it is for things of our kind to change," said Erato. "But even we couldn't go on weeping forever."
"Yes, grieving is hard work," agreed Ambrosia, "and sorrow is so hard to maintain when the world just keeps spinning on, the grass keeps growing, children keep laughing far away -"
"So in time, we came to want more from our eternity than to always be in sorrow," said Coronis. "But at the same time, we wanted to remember our brother. And we wanted the world to remember him."
"So what did you do?" Jack asked thoughtfully, letting their words wash over him like the rain that was falling down on them all.
As one, the Nysiads lifted their hands, and parted the rain clouds.
The stars shone down from the deep blue sky, evening sliding over them unseen beyond the rain clouds.
"You see, there?" said Cisseis, pointing to a cluster of stars above them. "That is what we did."
"You...uh..." Jack squinted, trying to figure out what they meant by pointing. "...help me out here?"
"We gave our grief to the staaaaars," said Eriphia, wiggling her fingers at the clouds. She burst into laughter, as if relieved all over again to be able to laugh once more. Moonlight started to peek around the edges of the hole in the clouds but then the Nysiads closed it up again.
"Those stars had no name, so we gave them ours," said Pedile. "We had been the Hyades, weeping over Hyas, but we let something else be monument to our brother, something other than our lives."
"He wouldn't have wanted us to live our lives mourning him," said Bromia. "He would have wanted us to have lives. Like, who spends their entire lives in mourning, anyway? If all you do is relive death, can it be called a life?"
"Deep," said Polymno. Bromia passed her the bottle.
"Now we are the Nysiads," said Cisseis, "and sometimes, we look to the Hyades, and remember. Once in a while, we are sad a little. But we can remember, now, without being sad all the time."
"So...you let go of the past," said Jack slowly. "Without forgetting someone you cared about. You were able to do both."
Sobriety was starting to come back in full force and with it came a new clarity. Was that what Manny was trying to tell him? Honor his family but move on? Maybe someday he'd have to do that with Jamie, too.
Excitement started to rise up in his gut over possibly having learned the lesson.
"I think that's it. I think that's what Manny was trying to help me understand! The book said something about how how yesterday is the past and that's why it doesn't last, and something about how our eyes are in the front of our heads because you're supposed to move forward."
With that, he sat and scrambled for his staff, picking it up from where he'd left it lying in the grass. Bouncing excitedly in place, he said. "I need to go back to the puzzle box!"
"Yay," Coronis cheered. "Puzzle box!"
"What puzzle box?" whispered Pedile. Arsinoe shrugged.
Jack bounced in place. "I left it with my hoodie. C'mon!"
He bounded off on a breeze and the Nysiads rose to follow him. They ran over the mountains, back to where they'd begun their play several hours ago, where Jack's hoodie and the book inside it still waited. The puzzle box still sat next to them, speckled with rainwater.
The Nysiads "ooh'd" as Jack picked it up. He held it out to them eagerly, as they gathered around to look at the ornately carved toy.
"The Man in the Moon left it for me," he said. "It brought me to this house, where I got this book -" he pulled the book out of his hoodie, and the Nysiads all politely held out their hands to cover it from the rain. "It has all this stuff in it about going on an emotional journey. Listen to this -"
He cleared his throat before he began reading. "Yesterday is the past, and as any child will tell you, the past doesn't last." That part sounded a little suspect - what kid ever said that? Jack shrugged it off and moved on. "You can keep your mind on the past all you want, but you'll never live in it. You'll never even see it. Our eyes are in the front of our heads because we're meant to move forward."
The Nysiads glanced at each other, lips pressed together in the polite not-smiles of people who'd read more than a few books and were trying not to tear down the enthusiasm of someone who was still a little green on reading for self-improvement. They chorused a few halfhearted variations on "Lovely," and "Deep."
"Yeah," said Jack, his enthusiasm undeterred. He pulled his hoodie back on, and tucked the book back in the pocket. "I think that might be the biggest part of it, but there still might be more I need to do."
He held out his arms.
"Ladies, this is goodbye. Once I figure out the next combination, this thing will magic me away to the next place I need to be. Thank you for the lesson - and for the great day. I'm really glad I met you guys."
All of them "awwwed" and swarmed in to hug him and kiss him all over his face.
Jack was still grinning as he leaned his staff against his shoulder and started fiddling with the puzzle box again.
The Nysiads started calling out helpful suggestions.
"Try twisting that one sideways."
"Slide to the left."
"Slide to the right."
Snickers all around.
"Nope, still not working," said Jack as he fussed with the puzzle box.
"Do a barrel roll!"
"Ooh ooh, build a little fence around it!"
"Now you're just being silly," Jack chuckled.
He did try tilting it slightly, though, and that meant one of the tiles slid into what was apparently the perfect configuration.
The last thing he heard before being whisked away was the Nysiads cheering at his success.
The last thing the Nysiads heard as Jack disappeared was a sound less like the whirling of a magic portal, and more like something tearing apart from the fabric of the universe and fluttering away.
Their cheers died away into sudden silence. The sisters glanced at each other, mouths open in surprise as the sound died away.
Bromia broke the silence - "Was it supposed to sound like that?"
The journey went on, more quickly this time, as Jack read more of the book and fell into the rhythm of journey and lesson.
There was Kyöpelinvuori, where he had some long riddle games with the witches there, and Jack learned it was okay to have mixed feelings on the important things, that nothing was ever truly black and white when it came to the past. ("The feelings you feel are real, no matter how complicated they are," the book said.)
A two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, where he played an overlong game of monopoly with the kids who lived there. The eight year old boy turned out to be quite the budding young capitalist, and at the end of the hour, his older sister flipped the board in frustration. ("Personal gain should never be prioritized at the expense of one's relationship with loved ones in the search for true success.")
An Auto Shop. ("Nothing ever stays perfect. Everything breaks sometime, what matters is that you fix it!") The peak of Mount Fuji. ("Solitude doesn't always have to mean loneliness. Sometimes the best you you can be is the you that's you when you're just alone with you." ). Buckingham Palace. (Jack had no clue on this one but as always, he enjoyed the guys in the funny hats.)
By the time Jack had cycled through two days' worth of travel (strangely, for a puzzle from the Man in the Moon, the box always teleported him to somewhere with daylight), the lessons he was learning were starting to become more facetious.
"Okay, I've learned I don't want to be alone on a creepy, windswept rock island with a single leafless tree bearing a lone ripe plum," said Jack, eyeing the obviously cursed fruit and fiddling with his puzzle box on the alarmingly silent island. He was relieved first when that lesson seemed to suffice, and second when the box brought him somewhere populated.
He landed on a subway platform strewn with midday travellers. The signs were in English, and the murmur of accents around him suggested he was in London again. A small girl with her hand in her mother's spotted him, and her face burst into a gaping smile of wonder. Jack grinned at her and waved, but before he could do anything else, heard something that drew his attention far away from the little girl - a distant, but loud, roar emanating from deep within the subway.
He glanced around at the adults, but none of them appeared to have heard anything. The little girl looked scared, though, and Jack gave her a reassuring smile. Her mother squeezed the girl's' hand back, but didn't look away from her phone, her brow furrowed in deep thought. Jack glanced into the darkness of the subway tunnel, then back to the little girl, who didn't look entirely reassured. He blew up a snowflake, and with a puff of breath, sent it spinning over to land on the mother's nose. Instantly she blinked, looked up from her phone with a smile just touched with wonder, and smiled down at her daughter. They were playing patty-cake as Jack took off down the subway tunnel, towards the source of the roar.
The tubes were dangerous, even for a spirit. He listened intently for the sounds of oncoming cars, and more importantly, for the strange sound he'd heard before. It wasn't quite like a lion, but it was wild and furious. It wasn't close to the roar of oncoming cars - such as the one coming just then, as Jack flattened himself to the wall and waited for the train to streak by.
In the taillight of the departing train, he saw a hole in the ground beneath the tracks. He quickly blew out a stream of snowflakes over the hole, and they danced upwards on a draft. The train departed, taking the last of the light with it, and Jack felt his way blindly to the hole, feeling the very slight draft coming from it.
An itch at the back of his brain stopped him from jumping in. He'd been down this road before - this road of hasty, impetuous jaunts after underestimated enemies into places unknown. His quest might be taking him somewhere dangerous - and it might be time to get the others to come and help him face it. The book hadn't said anything about having to go alone when that wasn't your only option.
The puzzle box shook softly in his pocket, as if encouraging him of his safety. Well, perhaps not his safety. "Safe" wasn't a state the Guardians sought for themselves very much. Perhaps the box was reassuring him more of his competence.
He couldn't let fear stop him from getting the truth. Jack jumped through the hole without further hesitation.
He landed on the floor of a dark tunnel, the only light dimly filtering in through the hole above, and started to feel his way along. The wall was slimy, but the only guide he had to move forward by. He iced up the tips of his fingers so he didn't have to feel the slime whenever he pressed them against it.
He ducked around a corner and saw light ahead.
It was not the kind of light one wanted to see at the end of a dark tunnel. Two beady eyes glowed in the dark like blue flames and a low growl reverberated through the tunnel.
"Whatever or whoever you are," Jack said quietly, in case the creature in the dark was sentient. "I just need to get through here. I won't hurt you if you don't hurt me."
It lunged at him in the dark. Claws scratched at his hoodie and teeth snapped right in front of his face, as the weight of the beast behind them knocked him backward. Jack used the momentum of the lunging creature as to kick it off of him and scrambled to his feet. He blasted in the direction he thought it was, but must have missed. Another roar blared from his left and he was bowled over yet again. This time the teeth managed to get a mouthful of his hood. The creature ripped through his hoodie, scraping the skin underneath. It shook its head furiously, knocking Jack's head back and forth.
Jack pointed his staff at the beast's glowing eyes and blasted them with ice. It yelped and let go, backing off into the dark, but now its eyes were closed against the ice and as it fell silent, Jack had no way of knowing where it was.
In the meantime, he had no doubts it could sense where he was by smell.
Still, smell could tell it where Jack was but not where the wall of the tunnel was.
Jack positioned himself just slightly in front of the wall, waiting for it to lunge at him again.
It growled, and its claws scrabbled against the stone. A heavy body thudded towards him. Jack waited until he didn't dare wait any longer, hands gripping fitfully at his staff, and felt the creature lunge at him again. Once again he rolled back, using his legs to kick the beast off of him, but this time, he brought his staff up and blasted at the monster, slamming it into the tunnel wall hard.
The hideous crunch that followed made Jack cringe, and the pitiful whine that followed after made him feel sick to his stomach.
Then there was silence.
Jack stood completely still in the dark, waiting and listening, his heart thudding in his chest, but no new attack was forthcoming. Rather than stick around, he slowly moved forward in the dark, until he reached the end of the tunnel nearby. He touched the wall there and a massive round door slid away, letting in dim light from beyond.
Jack looked back to see what he'd fought. A massive black dog lay dead on the ground. It's fur was an inky black that seemed to suck in the light, and the sight of it made Jack suck in an inadvertent gasp of air.
Even Jack knew the significance of what he was looking at. Myths weren't immune to the dread the creature caused, and creatures like it were an omen to them as well as to humans, an omen so dire it chilled even Jack to the bone, when his body was chilled already.
It was a black dog.
A death omen.
Jack looked beyond the tunnel door into the strange twilight that came from nowhere, and saw that it fell on a crossroads. A place where several dirt paths met.
It made sense, given that black dogs often hung around crossroads, though what said roads were doing underground was beyond him.
Jack walked down the dirt path, to where the four roads met.
He'd seen a black dog. He'd killed a black dog. What did that even mean? It was bad enough that a death omen had been waiting for him, but did it mean something even worse to have killed one?
Jack was, metaphorically - and literally - at a crossroads and he had no idea if this meant he should turn back.
But what if this was a test? What if he was meant to overcome fear and move forward? Manny had set these tasks before him, as a way of figuring himself out, of trusting himself enough to discover what he needed to discover about himself and his past.
And he trusted Manny. Despite leaving him alone for all that time, the Man in the Moon had saved his life. He'd made it so Jack had been able to experience a myriad of joys he hadn't in a mortal life cut short. He'd chosen him as a Guardian, given him a cause he believed in, and a group of friends - new family - that loved him.
He trusted Manny as much as he often resented him. That was why he took that first step down the dirt road in front of him. Somehow, it just felt right to choose that road. Jack deemed his decision reinforced as the other two roads melted away.
He felt compelled to keep walking forward, one foot after another, in a way that was similar to Bunny's tunnels propelling people along. Jack couldn't have turned back if he wanted to and it seemed to him that he was somehow moving along at a great distance with comparatively few steps.
His walk finally brought him to a huge doorway. Statues of two knights stood at each side of it, their hands resting on the pommels of their swords. Jack had an intense feeling of foreboding as he stood before them, and knew somehow this was some sort of test. He eyed the swords with apprehension.
His fear was justified as he stepped forward. The knights lifted their swords up and crossed them overhead with a clang. The slits in their helmets suddenly lit up and their deep voices reverberated through Jack's very being.
ONLY THE WORTHY MAY ENTER HERE. STEP FORWARD AND BE JUDGED.
FEAR NOTHING IF YOU ARE VIRTUOUS. FEAR EVERYTHING IF YOU ARE NOT.
Jack hope he counted as virtuous. He did brave things, didn't he? He protected kids, tried his best to be there for his friends, tried his best to be kind. He could only hope that was enough and trust that Manny wouldn't put him into danger.
Sucking in a deep breath, Jack took a cautious step forward, eying the swords over his head with trepidation. Nothing happened. Taking another step, he felt a strange tingle go through him, but it quickly passed and then he was on the other side of the archway. The knights dropped their swords back to rest in front of them and light in the visors of the knight's helmets went out.
What lay before him beyond the doorway inspired only awe. It was the ruins of a massive castle that had somehow sunk underground. The same dim light that came from nowhere cast shadows over ever edifice, but Jack could tell that in the light of day, this place had been beautiful once. It's grey, dingy walls had clearly once been a bright white, and crumbled carvings adorned the walls - what was left of them was lovely. Jack made his way in through the open doors, taking to the air as he looked around. Tattered tapestries adorned the walls, their colors dim and dingy, depicting knights fighting valiant battles and mystical creatures like unicorns and dragons.
Jack passed by a massive throne room with a white throne stained grey with time, and beyond that was a room that made him gasp aloud.
In it was a table, a massive round table. Twelve seats sat around it, the wooden chairs now mostly rotten. Names had been etched in them in gold once, but that had mostly worn away. At one end of the table was a massive stone seat, carved with intricate designs. Carved on the wall behind it were words:
THE ANSWERS YOU SEEK LIE HERE. WHOSOEVER SITS IN THIS SEAT WILL BE GIFTED WITH THE SIGHT OR INSIGHT THEY SEEK.
Jack took a step towards the chair, then stopped.
It was a little too straightforward.
The last time he'd been handed something that was supposed to solve all his problems, it had come at a great cost. Yes, the puzzle box from Tooth's palace had given him his memories and helped him figure out who he was, but gaining it from Pitch had made the Guardians lose trust in him. It had come closer to killing Bunny than any amount of dangerous other creatures had ever managed. Obsessing over it - and gunning for Pitch - had made him leave Baby Tooth behind to be captured as a hostage. This sort of ease had once very nearly ruined everything - not just for him, but for all of his strange new family, and for the children of the world.
It was never that easy. Life didn't just magically hand out answers and every action had consequences. That was a lesson that he'd come by the hard way. Sometimes he was rash and still slipped up, but it was still a lesson he'd taken to heart.
He stepped forward and examined the chair more closely, rather than just plopping his butt into the seat.
The puzzle box rattled in the pocket of his hoodie, as if urging him to sit, but he ignored it and pulled aside the rotting cloth that covered the chair. Other words were carved there in a version of English even older than what was carved on the wall.
It took a moment for the translation magic that came with being a Guardian to kick in since the language was so old, but Jack sucked in a deep, horrified breath when they translated.
WHOSOEVER TAKES THIS SEAT, BE HE STRONG OR BE HE FRAIL,
MUST ONLY BE THE ONE WHO IS WORTHY TO SEEK OUT THE HOLY GRAIL.
ALL OTHERS WHO DARE TO TAKE THIS SEAT SHALL FIND TO THEIR DISMAY,
THAT THEY SHALL BE CAST INTO THE DARK, NEVER AGAIN TO SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY.
The puzzle box rattled even more in his pocket and Jack took it out. The little moons on the top moved around to form jagged words.
Take the seat and you'll see into the past. You are worthy, Jack.
A message from Manny.
A message that couldn't be true, couldn't be real.
There were a few things Jack was now sure of about himself. He was a good person, certainly, maybe even a hero sometimes. And maybe, despite all of that silence, Manny cared. That didn't mean that he was good enough to be worthy of surviving a cursed object like this. Jack didn't know a lot of mythical history like Bunny or the others but he did know one thing about Arthur's knights - there was a lot of emphasis on purity, on being virtuous to the point of ludicrousness.
Jack was honest enough with himself to know he was good, but flawed, like many people were. Manny had to know that, too, because one thing Jack knew for sure was that even if the Man in the Moon had said nothing, he had most likely been watching over him for most of his life, and that meant he'd seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Manny probably had a clear picture of who he was even if he'd left him alone during all the time he'd grown into who he was.
This was a trap. This entire thing had to be a trap.
"Oh nonono," he said to the puzzle box, with it's possibly-deadly suggestion. "Time to get my butt away from that chair and get it the heck out of here."
For once, just for once, he'd been wise enough to figure the trap out before he'd tripped it. Carefully, he set the moon puzzle box - something he now knew was quite possibly dangerous - on the round table.
He turned and made a beeline for the door out of the the room. It was probably almost time for him to meet up with Bunny like he'd promised he would a few days ago, before the other Guardian mission. They had an arrangement to play some pranks on a film set.
That was when he heard the clicking. It was the single most ominous sound he'd ever heard in his life. Jack turned back, eyes wide, and saw the puzzle box's moving parts unfolding to the clicking of the clockwork inside it.
Shadow shapes exploded out of the puzzle box and surged towards him in an overwhelming wave. His staff was ripped from his hand and he was slammed against the floor, the blow knocking the wind out of him. The shadows dragged him violently across the stone, drawing him inexorably towards the foreboding chair. Amidst the shadows dragging him he saw glowing yellow eyes and manes and knew in an instant exactly who was behind all this.
The deafening whinnies of the nightmares sounded in his ears as he was slammed into the chair, into what could only be the Siege Perilous, and restrained there by nightmare sand. There was no need for them to hold him down, though - the minute he touched the seat, nearly every muscle in his body was paralyzed.
The room blurred as a terrifying shape materialized in front of him, a flaming creature in a shape that was just not quite enough like a dragon to calm down his terrified and overactive imagination.
"Please, I didn't mean to," Jack wheezed, still breathless from being slammed into the floor. He was only able to move his mouth, nothing else . "They made me sit here, I'm not trying to -"
The creature interrupted him. In a voice more ancient than even some of his friends, the creature said in tones that sounded like metal scraping against granite:
YOU. ARE. NOT. WORTHY.
"I know I'm not, I'm sorry, but I wasn't trying to sit here, they made me, they made me -" Jack cried out, but the seat of the chair fell out from under him, as a great and terrible wind sucked him into the black void below. Jack clung to the edges of the Siege as hard as he could, but between the nightmares forcing him down and the suction of the void, he knew he wasn't going to be able to hang on for long.
Jack had the strangest sense that the dark was waiting for him - just for him - and it filled him with more horror than he'd ever felt in his long life.
"I swear, I didn't mean to sit here, just let me go and I'll leave!" Jack said, struggling furiously against the nightmares as they plucked at his fingers and lunged into the hole to pull him harder into the swirling dark. "I promise I'll lea -"
His fingers ffinally slipped and he spun off into the dark.
The last thing he saw was the light in the eyes of the triumphant night-mares before he was lost to the dark, and lost to a cold greater than any he'd ever felt. For a moment, all he knew was fear and then he knew no more.
It was Fall, and that meant the workshop at the North Pole was in full-swing. North hummed his way through a Stravinsky record while chipping quickly away at an ice sculpture. He hadn't left his workshop in the two days since returning from his last mission, working straight away on new wonders for the upcoming Christmas. He was having a good streak, still going strong without even the need for a bracing walk around the arctic tundra to clear his head, so deep in his work that he didn't hear his own name being called until the caller had lost his (admittedly short) patience with North.
"Wouldja drop the chisel and lend me one of those sad excuses for ears, you bloody yobbo? We've got a problem."
North did indeed drop the chisel, in surprise at finding himself not the only non-elf in the room. "Bunny!" He stood up, clapping the pooka on both shoulders, a gesture that froze Bunny completely for a moment as he tensed up against the contact. "Old friend, you are always welcome, but how many times have I told you to knock?"
"You've never had to," said Bunny, grouchily, but then, North was accustomed to "grouchy" as Bunny's default state of being. "North, did you hear a word I said?"
"Ah," North shrugged as he stretched kinks he didn't have out of his back, then bustled over to one of his workshop cabinets for refreshments. "You know how it is, deadlines coming, inspiration, she is striking - I am getting lost in my work. Fruitcake?"
Bunny glanced at the proffered fruitcake, temporarily distracted, then back at North. "Have you seen Jack lately?"
"Jack Frost!" North exclaimed, always happy to have reason to think of the youngest Guardian. "Jack Frost! Hah! Well it seems if he is coming into my workshop, he is not as determined to get my attention as you. You have asked yeti?"
"We were supposed to do something," Bunny went on. "We were gonna do a run on the set of some movie. We were gonna steal everyone's left shoe and put them all on some fruit loop actor's trailer."
"Yes, I know, you are friends now! Hope and Fun, playing jokes on the world - is very good thing," said North, setting down the fruitcake, genuinely pleased but still eager to get back to his deadlines.
Bunny leaped directly over his head, landing on the cabinet before North could set the fruitcake on it. "You're not hearing me, North. Jack didn't show."
The switch flipped in North's brain, and his expression went from jovial to more than concerned in an instant.
"Not a word from him?" he asked.
Bunny shook his head. "Not a one."
North put the fruitcake down and picked up his swords.
Minutes later, North and Bunny were waiting by the globe as the aurora signal put out the call to the other Guardians. It only took a few more minutes for Sandy, Tooth, and Anansi to appear, and Jack was notably not with them.
"But Jack never misses a chance to spend time with any of us," Tooth said, when she'd been brought up to speed.
"Three hundred years of starving for affection will make a boy punctual when it is offered to him," said Anansi, and each Guardian looked at him with slight consternation, as if to say "well you didn't exactly offer him any either" without starting the argument of saying it.
"He's definitely in trouble," Bunny insisted. He was more highly strung than usual, his movements twitchy with worry. "I tracked his scent to his pond at Burgess, but the scent trail there vanishes completely. If he'd flown away on the wind, I'd still have something to follow him by, but there's nothing. I'd say he'd vanished completely, if I hadn't caught a fresher whiff of him in Alberta on the way here."
"But he is still around?" Tooth asked, darting slightly in place from concern.
"Still around, but leaving no trail to follow." North nodded, "hmm-"ing over the problem. "Jack does not have that kind of magic - very suspicious. We must track by witnesses, not scent. Maybe he is appearing in places besides Alberta. Let's go find out."
"Did you smell anything else at the pond?" Tooth asked Bunny, as the Guardians took off to the sleigh launch caverns. "Any trace of someone that might have taken Jack?"
"I smelled something all right," said Bunny, wrinkling his nose. "Enough anise to knock out anyone with a half-decent nose for a mile around. I could barely smell Jack beyond it, and that pond reeks of him. Something was covering their tracks, something that knew I'd come looking."
"Do you think it was Pitch?" Tooth asked, the worry in her voice intensifying as they all fell silent at the question.
Bunny had long since told them all about his concerns over Pitch's obsession with Jack, since he'd observed that such an obsession existed in their last fight with the Boogeyman years ago in a midwestern American steel foundry. He didn't say anything as he looked at Tooth, his expression mirroring her concern, then to Anansi.
The spider couldn't predict the future - not to a science - but he knew and felt the threads of stories in the world in a way that came of expertise as much as of innate ability. He called it "being genre savvy," whatever that meant.
Anansi scratched his chin with one of his spider legs, pushing his green-lensed sunglasses up the bridge of his nose with one of his human hands. "Something might take advantage of Pitch's obvious status as primary antagonist to pit him as a red herring -"
Sandy floated in front of Anansi, a wry expression on his face. A sand cloud above his head formed a book covered with illegible patterns, that reformed to clearly read "Once upon a time -"
"-Sorry," said Anansi, grinning placatingly at the Sandman. "Once again, for the unfamiliar - someone may be framing him, knowing we would suspecting him. If that is the case, then this story should be a minor stitch in our larger tapestry, concluded, oh -" he shrugged. "Quickly."
"And if it is Pitch?" asked Tooth.
"Then this story will not be over quickly," Anansi said, dryly.
"In that case," said North, pulling a snowglobe from his pocket as the reindeer pulled the sleigh into position, and they climbed in - "I say we call in backup now, before Pitch is rearing his head."
An image of Burgess appeared in the snowglobe as he swirled it in his hand. North cracked the reins and sent the reindeer charging down the sleigh launch and into open air.
They'd been reluctant to pull children into danger before - and they were still reluctant.
But Jamie had proven himself time and again as a stronger force against the Boogeyman than anything they had ever seen before - and the boy cared for Jack as much as they did. He deserved the chance to help save his friend, since he was capable of doing it. And their past campaigns against Pitch had given them reason to believe they might need all the help they could get.
The quiet sunday afternoon in Burgess found an Amazon queen and a time-travelling Space Agent locked in a struggle for the fate of time itself.
"Mighty Hippolyta! Sink another basket! The world depends on your jump-shot!"
The sparkly-tutu'd Hippolyta threw another one of her incomparable jump-shots, and the basketball net affixed above the Bennet garage swished the sound of victory.
"We've won!" Hippolyta, as played by Cupcake, cheered. She whirled to the short pyramid of hay bales in the Bennett yard, and the pumpkin-headed Aztec High Priest that sat jauntily atop it. "Now you must honor your oath and free the sacrifices, or face the wrath of the Amazon Queen."
The time-travelling Space Agent covered his mouth, abruptly switching characters as he gave voice to the villainous High Priest. "You're too late, foreign infidels! It has already begun!"
Jamie Bennet uncovered his mouth, once again the noble and ingenious Space Agent from the Time Bureau of 3031. "The rift! It's already opening! We have to free the sacrifices, or the world will end in blood!"
"Never!" howled Hippolyta, as she charged yelling to the straw pyramid, wielding her mighty pool noodle in defense of the innocent beanie babies tied to the grill of the Bennet car.
Jamie laughed as Cupcake beat up an imaginary evil priest with the pool noodle. It wasn't hard to imagine her as an actual Amazon, or maybe a superhero, defending the innocent (another game they often played). Jamie could easily picture her growing up to be someone that helped people like that, like a police officer or a firefighter. That's what he liked about her - what they played might be pretend, but it showed what kind of person Cupcake was for real and he just really liked that person.
When they'd saved the day and collapsed at the foot of the straw pyramid, Jamie grinned at her. "I'm really glad you're willing to still play pretend."
Cupcake grinned back. "Yeah, I'm glad you are too. I think the others are a little too eager to grow up to do it anymore." Cupcake rolled her eyes. "I don't think growing up sounds all that great if it means you have to stop having fun or believing in things that are important. I don't know what's up with the others."
They were the only two in the neighborhood who, at ages eleven and twelve, still had the yen to play pretend. It might have been lonely for both of them - if they hadn't already been used to carrying the games of pretend for a few months by that time. Even Claude and Caleb were only up for basketball when it was actually basketball, and not a pretend game of ullamaliztli for their lives.
They were the only two who still admitted to listening for reindeer on the rooftops at Christmas, to waking up early trying to catch a glimpse of eggs running into place on Easter.
Maybe the other preteens of Burgess would have paused, at the sight of a massive sleigh coming in to land with a noise like a spaceship powering down on the street in front of the house, but not Cupcake and Jamie. They only charged over, their faces alight with wonder - and Jamie's mixed with urgency.
"Let me guess," said Jamie, as he came to a stop beside the sleigh, glancing around the sleigh for the missing Guardian. "Jack's in trouble again?"
"We reckon," said Bunny.
Jamie heaved a long-suffering sigh that didn't mask the glee he still felt at being party to Guardian business, and climbed aboard. "What a damsel."
"Hello Cupcake," said Tooth, politely, waving with a smile to the Amazon Queen.
Cupcake was almost too delighted to speak. She hadn't seen the Guardians since she was 8, and aside from a brief visit from Jack at her snowed-in school during the awful blizzard a few years back, it was her first time seeing them all again.
Her spell broke as Jamie climbed aboard the sleigh. "Scoot over," she said, following him on and shoving him into Sandy to clear a space for her. She plunked onto the seat without waiting to be invited.
"Uh -" said Jamie, as she did. "Not that I'm objecting, but - this might be dangerous. Scary and dangerous."
They played at fighting terrible things - but they both knew, Jamie a little more than Cupcake, that actually facing nightmares was a different story.
"Please," said Cupcake, raising her eyebrow at Jamie with a smile. "Jack is the damsel of this group, remember? And who said there was only room for one fearless kid on Santa's sleigh?"
"It...will be dangerous," Bunny said, glancing at Tooth and Sandy as they shared reluctant glances over bringing any more children than they needed to into a fight.
"Like fighting the Boogeyman?" Cupcake sassed. "I've been wanting to give that jerk a face full of my boot ever since Jamie got to. You know I have bigger shoes than Jamie, right?"
The Guardians all glanced between each other, trying to contain their charmed smiles at Cupcake's audacity and daring.
She was at that age when little girls who were audacious and daring often had that beaten out of them by the people around them who wanted to mold all young girls into similarly narrow boxes. If she was holding on to her most heroic self, they weren't going to help get rid of it. They would gladly do the exactly opposite
"I like this one," said Anansi, reaching one of his spiderlegs towards Cupcake. "She is full of fire. Why didn't we bring her along sooner?"
Cupcake slapped the leg away. "Who's the spider guy and why is he touching me?" she demanded.
"I'm not touching you," Anansi said, waving three of his legs an inch around Cupcake's shoulders. "Look! See how I am not touching her!"
"In a minute I'm gonna touch you pretty hard!" Cupcake threatened, rising from her seat with her hand in a fist to wave at the Guardian of Stories.
"Anansi! Cupcake!" North barked. "Separate sides of sleigh! Do not make me hand reins to Jamie!"
Jamie's face lit up in a huge grin at the prospect of being handed the reins. "Guys, don't stop now -"
But North cracked the reins and the entire team was forced back into their seats as the reindeer charged down the road and into the sky, North swirling the snowglobe in his hand to display their next destination.
Jack hurt all over when he woke up. That was the very first thing he was aware of, a strange cold ache from his muscles like he'd been dragged through a massive pane of freezing glass. It was if he'd fallen through a skylight from the light of the waking world into the icy darkness of nightmares.
Abruptly, he opened his eyes and sat up, casting about for his staff.
It was nowhere to be found.
Jack scuttled back against the nearest wall, gritting his teeth in frustration. A sense of vulnerability settled over him without his staff, and he looked around, gasping raggedly at his surroundings. The same dim light illuminated this place that had lit the castle, but in here, it was somehow even bleaker than outside.
Massive stone walls rose up around him, with multiple paths visible at the ends of the pathway he was currently in. It looked like a maze. Jack climbed to his feet, his body still trembling, and took a few tenuous steps to the end of the path. More tunnels led silently away in all directions. It was a maze, one full of silence and dust and dreary gray light that felt like it wasn't even distant cousins with the light of the sun.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" came a voice behind him. Jack jumped, instinctually moving away from the shadows and from the person he knew was hiding in them.
Pitch melted out of the darkness, his hands folded behind his back.
"Darkness and dust and horrors that made those who fell in here wish there was emptiness instead. It's a masterpiece. I wish I could take credit for it, but it's the creation of myths so old that even I would never have heard of them."
"I don't know what your game is this time, Pitch, but the others -"
"The others don't know where you are," said Pitch, much too calm, much too triumphant already for Jack's comfort. "You didn't tell them where you were going and the puzzle box would've made you nearly impossible to track. Wonderful little device, isn't it? I had it specially made by someone who has no love lost for the Guardians. The rest was all me, of course."
Pitch waved his hand with a flourish, clearly proud of himself.
"All it took was some nightmare sand masquerading as clouds too keep off the prying eyes of the Man in the Moon, a handful of stolen dreamsand to put you to sleep, anise oil so the rabbit couldn't track me by scent..."
Pitch did a little dance move that looked like a soft shoe.
"And the self-help book, that was a nice touch, wasn't it? Oooh, if only I'd realized long ago that it could be this easy." His mouth widened into a crooked grin. "They're never going to find this place. After a while, they'll just stop looking. You'll see - they won't care about you enough to keep at it for as long as it would take. That's the point of this, Jack. I'm doing this to help you - to help you see the truth."
"Oh yeah, and what's that? The fact that you're crazier than a bag full of weasels?"
"The truth is that they don't care about you. You may think they do, but there are things they care for more. They'll won't choose you at the expense of their precious missions - their precious belief. You'll be here long enough to see that, long enough for them to give up on you."
Jack lunged forward, but Pitch slipped into the shadows again, and Jack slammed his fists against the wall behind where he'd once stood instead.
He felt a presence behind him. Pitch whispered in his ear, his voice filled with some monstrous mix of longing and hatred.
"You should have accepted my offer in Antarctica, Jack."
Jack turned to throw a punch, but Pitch had already disappeared again.
"Pitch! Get back here and face me!" Jack roared. "Pitch!"
There was no answer, only the echo of his voice through the stone pathways.
Jack looked up at the bleak gray light from nowhere, at walls that were too tall to climb and did the only thing he could do - he started walking. There had to be a way out of here. If he walked long enough and far enough, he'd find it - provided the Guardians didn't find him first and make Pitch eat his words.
How big could this place be, anyway? he thought, not knowing that if he could fly up over the walls, he'd see a labyrinth that went out in every direction as far as the eye could see, filled with things that were never meant to see the light of day.