From his shadows, Pitch scowled as he watched Jack turn down another tunnel. "He shouldn't have gotten this far," he muttered to himself. "No human has ever managed to go half the distance he's done."
This was a great concern for Pitch. The boy had an actual chance of beating the pooka's challenge and if that happened, there was also a high chance of the giant rabbit becoming a Guardian.
Pitch had his hands full with the current three; the last thing he needed was for a pooka to be added to their ranks. He had gone to great effort to erase the irritating furballs, they were stubborn creatures with more protective ferocity than any other. If the last pooka became a Guardian, it would be quite the advantage the moon would have over Pitch. He snapped his fingers and summoned a fearling.
"Stay ahead of the boy," Pitch ordered. "And increase the darkness around him. If he can't see where he's going, he can't find his way."
The fearling gave a nod as it dove into the shadows. Pitch narrowed his eyes. The fearling would only provide a temporary solution. Jack was smarter than Pitch had previously expected. It would only be a matter of time before Jack discovered a way to rid himself of the added darkness the fearling brought.
He frowned and slipped back into his shadows. What the fearling would provide was the time Pitch needed to set his true plan into action. He grinned at the thought. The boy would fail and Pitch would watch it happen.
"Hello, mates," Bunny called as he entered.
Sandy looked up and placed a finger to his lips, pointing to the sleeping Mary in his lap. Bunny couldn't fight the small smile from his face. "Wore herself out did she?"
Sandy gave a nod as he stroked her head. "But I do have one question for ya," Bunny said as he adjusted his cape and looked around. "How come ya the only one here? Where are North and Tooth?"
Sandy briefly looked uncomfortable and Bunny felt he was onto something, but suddenly North flung a hand around Bunny's shoulders.
"I am here!" North declared as he held out a bouquet of flowers. "Mary was giving me hand in picking flowers," he sniffed them with a sigh. "Think reindeer will like them for stable."
Bunny arched an eyebrow as he looked at the bouquet. Roots and dirt were still clinging to it, which gravely hinted the man had plucked them in a hurry. "I see," Bunny said. "And Tooth?"
Sandy raised his hand and created a sand image of teeth.
"Had to go and get teeth!" North translated. "She is busy woman."
Bunny folded his arms over his chest. "So, none of you have left the Warren, eh?" He frowned. "Because accordin' to Jack, he encountered a friend of mine and we all know I don't have many of those."
"Really?" North said as he stroked his beard. "That is very strange, since we have been here whole time. Right, Sandy?"
Sandy nodded as he created a pillow from his dream sand to use while leaning his head against the rock.
"Ya better be," said Bunny. "Because I made it perfectly clear that ya all shouldn't be interferin', right?"
"Would not dream of it," North replied and frowned. "And how is Jack doing?"
Bunny sighed. "Got to admit, he's gotten farther than any other human has so far, but Pitch is rearin' his ugly head."
Sandy looked up in alarm and North narrowed his eyes. "What does he want?" North asked.
"For Jack to lose I wager," Bunny replied, refusing to elaborate any further. It was hard enough to hear Pitch's taunts in his head, he would rather not have to say them aloud. "So, I want ya help ta strengthen the wards around the Warren."
"Of course, Bunny," North said as he followed Bunny. "Do you want me to go with you?"
Bunny shook his head. "No, all I'll need is your opinion on which spells ta use and then I'll cast them myself." He opened the door to a wood shed where Bunny kept his spell ingredients. "After that, I plan ta ask some of the tunnel critters to see if Pitch has been doin' anythin' else."
North nodded and attempted a smile. "Still, it is good that Jack has made it this far, da? He might win."
Bunny shook his head. "Don't get ya hopes high North, he still has a long way to go."
"Bunny," North said, sternly wagging a finger. "You need to learn to be more hopeful."
Bunny rolled his eyes. "Tell ya what, if by some miracle Jack wins the challenge, I'll be the most hopeful guy on the planet."
North gave a smirk as he shook a finger. "I will be holding you to bet."
Bunny looked away as he lifted the lids off of his clay pots. If Jack did somehow win the challenge, maybe he would have a reason to be hopeful again.
Jack didn't think it was possible for the tunnels to get any darker, but he was regretfully proven wrong. For the last couple of paths, Jack found it harder and harder to see. The weird thing was that he would see the egg shaped lanterns on the wall, but as soon as Jack got close to one it would suddenly go out.
Jack couldn't fight the nagging notion that Pitch was messing with his challenge again. He cursed as he placed a hand against the wall to steady himself. His pace was getting slower now that he literally couldn't see where he was stepping. He was ready to pound his hand against the wall in frustration, but then a miracle happened.
In a narrow tunnel to his left, he caught the blinking of a light. It wasn't the same as the egg lanterns that seemed to glow like fireflies. This light looked much more like it was a flame.
"Hurry up boys!" a voice called. "My enchanted candle can't keep those shadow things off our backs forever!"
Jack had no clue who had spoken, but like a moth to a flame, he was drawn into the tunnel and towards the light. If there was light, then he could gather his bearings and continue. According to the clock Bunny had given him it was close to noon on the surface and he didn't have time to waste.
Jack shivered as he felt faint fingers trying to grip his heels and steer him away, but they grew weaker as Jack got closer to the flickering flame. Jack wondered what could have been touching him, but then recalled Pitch's control over the shadows and decided he really didn't want to know.
Jack wasn't sure what he expected to see as he got closer to the light. He heard shovels and picks striking rock as the light got brighter. He had imagined many things as he got to the end of the tunnel.
Jack had to admit, he was not expecting to find a group of tiny bearded men wearing tall red pointy hats staring back at him.
The little men froze in mid shove, and one who was holding a candle stared wide-eyed at Jack as he clicked his tongue. "Oh….um….hi. This is awkward." He exchanged a look with the other men as he tugged his beard. "Who are you?"
"Um...Jack," he replied. "And what are you guys?"
"Well," the gnome holding the candle replied. "We're gnomes. I'm Jeff, that's Carson, Steve, Jason and…." Jeff frowned. "Aw, dang it, what's your name, I always forget it."
"Schmebulock," the gnome replied.
Jeff snapped his fingers. "Right! Schmebulock! I really need to write that down."
"Um...anyway," Jack asked as he knelt to their level. "Are you friends of Bunny's?"
"What! You mean that giant sized furball!" Jeff exclaimed as he threw his arms up. "He thinks he can boss us around just because he made these stupid tunnels. Nevermind, that we gnomes-"
"I'll take as a 'No' then," Jack replied as he stood up. So, these aren't the friends North told me to watch for.
"And that's not bad enough!" Jeff continued, not clueing in that Jack hadn't been listening. "There's that creepy guy running around and making it hard to see in here."
Jeff pointed to the large chest that was poking out of the dirt. "We're trying to bury this treasure which has been kind of tricky with these pesky shadows popping in and out, what's a gnome to do?!" Jeff pointed to his candle. "Lucky for us, I had my enchanted candle on me that repels all shadows."
Jack nodded. So, it was Pitch's shadows making it too dark for Jack to see. Fantastic.
"With that said," Jeff chewed his bottom lip. "I'm afraid we're kind of going to have to gouge your eyes out."
Jack froze. "W-what did you say?"
"It's nothing personal, but you did see where we buried our treasure and it will be a pain in the butt to have to bury it again." The other gnomes raised their shovels as their eyes narrowed and gradually approached Jack.
"So," Jeff continued. "If you could remain still, that would be appreciated- Hey! Wait, come back!"
Jack nearly stumbled, but kept his balance as he took off running. He could hear the gnomes calling his name as they gave chase.
Jack cursed abruptly, it was so dark away from the gnomes, he could barely see where he was going. Going into the light would bring him closer to them, so how was he suppose to-
Jack froze. A little hummingbird creature that held a tiny lantern waved at him from the opening of a small tunnel. The tiny creature flapped her wings and frantically gestured for Jack to follow her.
Jack paused unsure if he should go, but hearing Jeff's shout made the decision for him.
"Get back here! We'll let you keep your eyelids!"
"Right, I'm following the hummingbird," Jack said as he lowered himself to the ground. The tunnel wasn't big enough for Jack to walk into standing up, but he was fine if he crawled on his hands and knees.
Jack just made it inside as he heard the many feet of the gnomes running past the tunnels.
"Come on, boys! He can't have gotten far!"
Jack breathed easier once he could no longer hear the gnomes. The hummingbird tugged on Jack's ear and flew further into the tunnel before stopping and turning back to him.
"Right, I'm coming," Jack said as he crawled forward. He had no clue if this bird creature was the friend North had told him about, but it seemed more promising than the gnomes. Much to Jack's relief the tunnel got wider and taller the further he crawled and finally reached the point where he could stand again.
He dusted his pants as the hummingbird hung the lantern above his face to see. "Thanks," Jack. "Just wish I could see where I'm going."
"Hello! Jack, is that you?"
Jack paused at the sudden calling from some female voice. "Um...yes, but who's asking?"
The hummingbird chirped happily and flew behind Jack to push him further. "I'm a friend of North's," the voice said again. "Keep walking straight."
Jack did as instructed with much coaxing from the hummingbird who made comforting chirps in his ear. Up ahead, Jack could see a bright light.
"That's it!" the voice said again and Jack saw a figure waving at him. "Towards the lantern!"
Jack raced forward and almost stumbled, but the figure caught him. "Are you hurt?" the figure asked as she held up the lantern.
"I'm fine, are you Tooth or Sandy?"
"I'm Tooth," she said as Jack felt her take his hand. "But let's do something about these shadows. I don't suppose Bunny gave you something when you started the challenge?"
Jack fumbled and reached into his pocket. "A watch, but-"
"Perfect," Tooth said as she reached for the clock. "Can you please hold out the hand that has the egg mark?"
Jack blinked, confused, but did as he was told. He then felt Tooth take his hand and press the back of the clock into it. Suddenly, a warmth spread from his palm and out through his fingers.
Jack stared, stunned, as his hand glowed and the light moved up into the clock like it had a mind of its own. All of a sudden, the light burst out of the clock's face and into the air like a sand storm.
A hiss of pain echoed throughout the room as the light took over and chased away the shadows. Jack blinked as he adjusted to the light and spun around. "What happened?"
"That watch contains ancient pooka magic and it chased away Pitch's shadows." Jack turned and paused to stare at Tooth. She was a larger version of the tiny hummingbird, but she had more human like features.
"It's a good thing you have pooka blood," she continued. "Or we wouldn't have been able to tap into it."
"Wait, I have magic powers?" Jack asked as the smaller hummingbird perched on Tooth's shoulder. That would have been useful to know.
"Well yes, but normally it's very hard for a human to access." She offered Jack a gentle smile and pointed to his hand. "That mark Bunny gave you means you're part of his clan, which allows you limited access to it."
Jack stared at the egg shaped mark at his hand. "Funny, Bunny didn't mention that."
Tooth sighed. "He probably didn't think you need it, and it's hard to perform on your own if you don't know what you're doing."
"So, I can't make ahabit of it, eh?" Jack asked.
"I wouldn't recommend it or you could hurt yourself," she took Jack's arm. "But come on, I need to give you a clue and you need to see to understand it."
Jack nodded as he followed. "So, what are you exactly?"
Tooth laughed. "Well, people have been calling me the Tooth Fairy for a while."
Jack blinked. "The Tooth Fairy? You mean the person that takes children's teeth?"
She smiled proudly at him. "That would be me."
Jack opened and shut his mouth. "You know I should be more surprised, but after seeing Bunny, and the actual Boogeyman, I'm really not."
Tooth gave him a sympathetic pat as she led him into a large chamber and Jack stood motionless as he looked around.
The walls, every inch of them, had paintings on them. They were filled with lush green fields and trees with flowers of every colour in full bloom. The rivers looked real enough that Jack expected if he reached out, his hand would get wet. Then there were the pookas, hundreds of them working in the fields, or happily sitting beneath a tree.
Jack had to spin four times to soak in every detail, although he was certain he could be there for a hundred years and still find something new to look at. "What is this?"
Tooth gave a sigh that sounded of admiration and sadness. "This is Bunny's memorial."
Jack paused. "Memorial? For who?"
"For his people, the pooka," she flew closer confused. "Bunny did tell you he was the last pooka, didn't he?"
Jack's eyes widened and shook his head. Bunny, was the last? How was that...wait, didn't Pitch say something about that? And Bunny had said people didn't believe in pookas any more, was this why?
Jack stared at the painting and reached out to feel the brush strokes of a pooka that was picking flowers. "What happened to them?"
Tooth looked hesitant as she stared at the paintings. "I don't feel right telling you if Bunny didn't...but if Pitch is involved in the challenge, you have the right to know."
Tooth flew up with her wings flapping as fast as a hummingbird's as she traced her fingers over a pooka high up in a tree. "Pitch killed many of them and others who weren't as lucky were turned into fearlings."
"Fearlings?" Jack asked.
"Creatures of shadow, but they're mindless and do whatever Pitch says." Tooth flew back down and looked to Jack. "He used to be far more powerful and turned anyone he could, and he was determined to wipe out every pooka."
"Why?" Jack asked as he stared at the painting. "What did they ever do to him?"
"They were keepers of the first speck of light ever created," Tooth explained as she stood beside Jack. "It was Pitch's greatest threat and he wanted to be rid of it forever, but it was carried away and protected by the last pooka that survived."
Jack blinked as he realized what that meant. "You mean, Bunny?"
Tooth nodded. "He managed to use the first light to gravely weaken Pitch to the state he's in now." She chewed at her bottom lip. "But only after he was unable to save his people."
Jack stared at his hands and then lifted to one of the pooka's hand to compare. Jack and Mary were supposed to carry pooka blood in them, so in a way this was his family too. He frowned as he flexed his fingers against the large painted hand in front of him.
"How long has he been alone?" Jack asked without a second thought.
"Centuries," Tooth replied. "He tries not to show it, but I know he misses them."
Jack pressed his forehead against the painting. After centuries of being isolated and knowing you were the last of your race, getting the call of the pooka and gaining the chance to have potential pooka join him again must have felt like a miracle.
If I was the last human and given the same chance, Jack thought. How could I not be tempted to take it?
Bunny wasn't as heartless a being as Jack kept hoping he would be. Jack couldn't deny this truth any longer. Even when Bunny didn't have to, he had saved Jack from Pitch and they had laughed over that silly wannabe knight. If the circumstances had been different, they could have been friends.
"Please, understand, that Bunny is only doing this because he has no choice," Tooth said. "He honestly does hope you win, Jack."
Jack looked up at the painting. "But if I win, he'll be alone again won't he."
Tooth gave a reassuring smile and patted his shoulder. "Not quite, he does have me, North and Sandy who you haven't met yet."
Jack swallowed, still feeling a lump of guilt in his throat.
"Believe me," Tooth said. "You winning, will be the best thing for Bunny." She glanced at the watch. "And I need to give you your clue so you can go."
Tooth extended her wings and flew straight up in the air. "I told you Bunny painted all of these."
Jack spun as he took in the whole memorial again. "So, Bunny's a painter?"
Tooth nodded. "Have you seen any of his eggs?"
Jack paused in thought. "You mean those googies? The eggs with the legs?"
"Exactly," Tooth said as she flew up to Jack. "Bunny's been also known to paint them as well."
Jack blinked. He recalled seeing painted egg shells when Bunny was stopping Didymus from smashing them. "Why does he paint them?"
Tooth shrugged. "Eggs are an important symbol for pooka, it represents new life." Jack stared at the egg shape watch and mark on his hand. "That does explain these things."
"And no more time to waste," Tooth said as she landed and pointed to the tunnel ahead. "Keep an eye out for Sandy. You should be warned he doesn't talk, but don't worry, he'll give you a clue."
"Thanks," Jack called as he ran, but stole one more glance at the memorial feeling anew the lump of guilt.
Author's Note: For those wondering, yes those are the gnomes from Gravity Falls. I just couldn't resist. ^_^